One evening when I was young, my father confiscated my radio because I was playing it too loud (I wasn’t). Fortunately, I had a bunch of broken down receivers in my room, so I built a new one. This was probably the start of my maker’s carreer.
The Maker movement has recently been gaining a lot of momentum, as evidenced by the number of events, Maker Faires, popping up around the world—Sydney is hosting its first Mini Maker Faire this Sunday at the Powerhouse Museum. Yet, in many aspects, makers have been around for a while, from amateur radio operators adjusting their rig to allow clearer communication with more remote contacts to software hackers rewriting their printer’s driver so it works the way they want it to, not forgetting the casual DIYer building a vertical garden out of found material.
All share the common trait that they had a need but, rather than asking somebody else to address it (buying a better radio, printer or, well, bigger house) they took matters into their own hands, and fixed it. As it turns out, it’s not that hard and quite rewarding—a study recently found that people value IKEA furniture more if built by themselves than by anyone else, imagine what it would be without the pre-cut boards, or instructions for that matter!
What recently united these tinkerers, technology enthusiasts and other life hackers under the same name is O’Reilly’s publication, Make. However, perhaps the real reasons that we see more and more makers everywhere is the increasing availability of cheap and easily hackable technology. The designs of the various models of Arduino boards or the Raspberry Pi, and the communities that quickly formed around them to exchange tips and solutions, have tremendously lowered the barrier to entry in terms of technical skills: one no longer needs a degree in computer science to grok how they work.
3D printers also have a large part to play in the shift from user to maker. These devices transform reels of plastic wire into physical items: structural elements, cogs, or silly-looking creatures, you name it. The cost of producing prototypes is greatly reduced, and design by trial-and-error is much more affordable. Granted, these printers are not that cheap yet, but makerspaces are a good way to share the costs; there also are some makeshift printers, cobbled from cheap elements, which can print only one thing: another, fully functional, 3D printer!
Not all makers are driven by a prosaic problem they need to solve. The ability afforded by these technologies to, well, make almost anything one can think of has also been embraced by artists. Added to the usual toolbox, these new media allow the extension of concepts beyond the traditional art forms, and the creation of audience-responsive pieces. Maybe this is leading the way towards realising Tim Minchin’s vision idea of a closer relationship between art and technology.
Arduino and Raspberry Pi-based sculpture simulating a brain that senses and reacts to people using the space.
All things considered, though, I think the most important aspect of the maker movement is its potential to be used for education. When I built my backup radio, I learnt some electronics. When I started brewing beer, I understood understand how yeast breaks maltose into ethanol and carbone dioxyde. When I built the Hammer Button, I reacquainted myself with computer I/O interfaces. Now that I am getting into ham radio, I’ll finally get a chance to understand radio antennas. Whenever I need it, I know I can rely on the maker communities around the Internet for information and advice, but most importantly, I’m having fun! This could be a great opportunity to teach technology—not only how to use it, but also how it works—to the next generation of adults.
Makers know how to bend the world to their needs, and don’t let things dictate their use. In a world increasingly reliant on technology it is important to be able to lift the cover of every-day black boxes, and make them behave. The maker communities offer a great way to learn how to do just that. We should make sure that everybody gets a chance to become a maker, perhaps even from an early age with school projects or weekend clubs.