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A holiday message
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Making can be cool, but conscious making is cooler
For many of us living in and around Boston in recent years, it has become common to see lots of communications from makerspaces around holiday time. Which is totally understandable. Such creative centers produce neat things year-round, so it’s only natural that their members would turn to producing gifts like busy elves (and holding workshops about how to produce gifts like… um… smart busy elves) as fall turns to winter.
However, if you’re someone who thinks critically about social institutions and their interaction with technology, then you might join me in feeling some concern about the trajectory of these spaces. Which boils down to this: Do makers and the makerspaces they found think about why they make, and for whom they make? Obviously, it varies from maker to maker and space to space, but my observation has been that the maker movement could do much better on that front. So I thought I would run through some of my apprehensions on that theme and make some suggestions for reform. In the spirit of holiday giving and all that.
There’s no question that makerspaces have been a boon to society in many different ways. Described by the Somerville nonprofit makerspace Artisan’s Asylum as “community centers with tools,” these logical outgrowths of the hacker and DIY cultures—and the older crafter culture, amateur radio culture, and cultures around magazines like Popular Electronics and Popular Mechanics—have grown to become a significant social force in the last decade. Particularly in places like the Boston area that have lots of colleges producing lots of engineers, scientists, and artists.
But it’s important to remember that—as with science, technology, and art in general—there is a problem with pushing “making” in the abstract without thinking about its social and political consequences. Because tools and techniques may be inherently neutral, but people and the institutions we create are not.
Including makerspaces. So it’s worth being aware that, according to PandoDaily, in early 2012 O’Reilly Media’s MAKE division —publisher of Make magazine, perhaps the best known popularizer of the maker movement—announced that it had won a grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to participate in the agency’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (or MENTOR) program. The money was to be used to start 1,000 makerspaces in high schools around the country.
Now DARPA may be most famous as the super clever agency that brought us the Internet. But it worked on that project in part—protestations from its fans and allies taken as given—to help solve the insoluble problem of how to keep America’s military, research, and control centers in communication with each other after an all-out nuclear war. And somehow help our government survive the unsurvivable.
It is also the super clever agency that has brought us an array of very nasty war machines in the last six decades. Notably, according to Air & Space magazine, the Predator drones that have killed hundreds of innocent people around the world—including many children—in recent years at the behest of presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump. Because they’re just not as accurate as our military and political leaders would have us believe. And because those leaders don’t really care about what they call “collateral damage” when they’re prosecuting what human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights claim are extralegal assassination campaigns.
As it turned out, the DARPA MENTOR high school program never really got off the ground because it lost its budget in President Obama’s big “Sequestration” budget cut of March 2013. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that the program sparked protests from within the maker community.
But DARPA continues to participate in a variety of science and technology events aimed at high school kids—notably the young robotics crowd that overlaps with makerspaces.
And DARPA is also aiming events squarely at makerspaces… and some makerspaces are definitely participating. For example, according to the DARPA website, this November the agency held the DARPA Bay Area Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest at NASA Ames Conference Center in Moffett Field, California. The relevant webpage explains that “Teams from across the country will come together to explore the cyber-physical interplay of SDR and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, during the Hackfest.”
“Unmanned aerial vehicles” is another term for drones. Two of the eight teams invited to participate along with teams from military contractors like Raytheon were the Fat Cat Flyers from Fat Cat Fab Lab, a volunteer-run makerspace in New York City, and Team Fly-by-SDR from Hacker DoJo, a nonprofit community of hackers and startups in Silicon Valley… which is also a makerspace.
Whatever you in the viewing audience think about the Pentagon in particular and the American military in general, we can all agree that there are moral, ethical, social, and political questions that must be asked in a democratic society about the intersection of maker culture and makerspaces with those institutions.
For that reason, I think it’s critical that makerspaces raise and address such questions on an ongoing basis. That they maintain a scrupulous policy of transparency regarding who they work with and why. And that they hold classes and public forums on the moral, ethical, social and political dimensions of why makers make and for whom they make. Something you really don’t see much of at makerspaces at present. But should.
Anyhow, I’m keen to engage with the maker community on this topic and flesh these ideas out more. Folks interested in discussing the issues I’m raising at more length can drop me a line at [email protected]
A shorter version of this column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show—co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.