The burgeoning maker culture or maker movement has been heralded as a lot of things, not least a postcapitalist, utopian revolution capable of breathing life back into stagnating First World economies, redistributing wealth opportunities and even rescuing the environment. With some stylistic crossover with hipster culture, the two are often confused, having developed around the same time and with some ideological overlap (prizing the handmade, slow production and connection of maker to product, for example). But maker culture stands for much more than the hipster aesthetic that has been rapidly absorbed into commercial marketing (with chalkboards and baristas at McDonalds and artisan-style objects bulk-shipped from China), its roots stemming from activists, engineers, technicians and designers who have been intent on enabling anyone anywhere to make (almost) anything. This branch of digital libertarianism was originally promoted by perhaps the most significant figures in the movement: physicist and computer scientist Neil Gershenfeld at MIT and mechanical engineer Adrian Bowyer, formerly of the University of Bath, intellectuals whose ideas have been disseminated in the utopian messages of Chris Anderson and Mark Frauenfelder, respectively publishing the highly popular WIRED and Make magazines.
It’s been well noted that new technology is key in all this. The revival of traditional craft has largely relied on the internet to disseminate near-forgotten techniques, tools and materials and create robust, digitally connected communities. But perhaps more interesting are the increasingly available tools like 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC (computerised numerical control) milling and cutting machines that have somewhat democratised manufacturing capabilities and allowed domestic and non-industrial environments to become sites of production. This is especially the case since creative commons sites like Thingiverse and YouMagine provide an ever-increasing number of user-generated artefacts that can be downloaded and made with these machines—anything from drones and jewellery to furniture, homewares and 3D printers themselves. In tandem with this ‘democratisation of technology’ we have seen the rise of the ‘prosumer’ (or ‘Pro-Am’ or professional amateur), the individual who contributes personally to the products they consume and who is usually aided by Web 2.0 and open-source sharing to both perform and publish their activities. Creative self-expression is central in these new endeavours, a factor that has been credited with elevating what was the industrial-era consumer to new heights of empowerment, self-consciousness and satisfaction. As Guy Rundle explored in A Revolution in the Making, the critical politico-economic shift is of the conventional consumer ‘owning’ the goods-making process, drawing formerly mass-produced objects into their own realm of meaning, by personalising, customising, subverting, innovating and bypassing their commodified versions.
This gets to the heart of what seems so significant in the contemporary wave of maker activities, that with the end user’s greater reach there has to be, to varying extents, a renewed engagement with objects and ultimately their human context. As Director of the Museum of Arts and Design Glenn Adamson has described, making and crafting activities are characterised by an ethic of attachment: to processes of making, to history, to materials, to the environment and to the objects themselves. But more importantly, to some degree the attachment that maker activities call for is between people, as end users and prosumers come to more fully understand the human and social component in their consumption. Even when the connection is impersonal and anonymous, which isn’t always the case, participation in user-led, self-organising maker activities brings an immediate awareness of the social nature of production and consumption. It contravenes the state of mind of modern capitalism; as sociologist Colin Campbell says, making humanises what would otherwise be commodified.
‘Attachment’ as a relational concept comes from developmental psychology, as a widely accepted and booming area of research pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. It considers an infant’s access to an attentive, protective and nearby caregiver as fundamental to their development into a healthy adult. For some attachment researchers like psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt, secure early bonds embed in us the lifelong know-how that allows us to fulfil our psychosocial potential as individuals and also as a species. This is our survival edge: we are relational beings, who, in purely anatomical terms, possess brains that are increasingly understood to flourish with warm interpersonal stimulation from our earliest moments. These moments teach us how best to draw on human resources for support, protection and reassurance throughout our lives, rather than developing a default reliance on often more short-term impersonal surrogates.
This early, arguably foundational, capacity for attachment is a key example of something increasingly at odds with the traits of Western post-industrial societies, as with many other later-life enduring emotional bonds. Writers on ‘postmaternalism’ have poignantly sketched the shift over the last fifty years away from the already poor resourcing and valuing of care activities in developed economies, with particular impact on the women who have often, though not exclusively, performed them. Philosopher Alison Stone traces the ‘othering’ of care (and the maternal) to the origins of Judeo-Christian civilisation, where the idea of the autonomous self, leaving a dependent, bodily, intimate relationship behind, was enshrined. This all fits with Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquidity’ of social life that sees the progressive stripping of somewhat secure interpersonal and community bonds as we move along a market trajectory of hyper-individualisation and hyper-autonomy, mobilising us to achieve economic self-capacity. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have similarly noted the reach of alienation into an individual’s very formation of self, such that from the beginning of one’s life, personal character must submit to the needs of this overarching economic system and the individual is shaped to remain estranged from themselves. For Adorno, the coldness required of individualistic class society is embedded from the start, when our shared values are of remaining detached and competitive. Modern human society, he wrote, is a band of lonely people, each of whom ‘without exception, feels too little loved’; and if we are to experience real, enduring warmth, collective values need to change.
As for our relationships with objects, there is debate over the significance of primary attachment and the way we use and consume objects in adult life. We know that Donald Winnicott’s transitional objects are more prevalent in individualistic, ‘colder’ social groupings, and certainly there is a discourse opening up in the field of consumer psychology that recognises attachment insecurity as something that can be utilised to increase product consumption. It is also plain to see that material possessions are a preoccupation of modern life, what the aforementioned Frankfurt theorists attribute to a yearning for more securely attached human relations transferred from significant others and the broader community and reoriented towards the detached commodity. The modern purchase is remarkable in its divestment of personal ties and a real human story. As Marx identified, its market value is determined almost entirely in terms of tradability, flattened to the one dimension of demand price. In the name of a stable economy and stable broader society, hasty separation of the object from those producing it (or rather, parts of it) shields buyer from maker and delivers Bruno Latour’s ‘black box’, whose obscurity is precisely its enticement. We encounter a sleek, unknowable fetish object, a chameleon-like vessel that works by suggesting (more fleeting) reassurances of material abundance or ego, as relationships and communities become increasingly unavailable or non-existent.
In contrast to this, the resource of ‘free labour’ within the economy has taken on increasing importance with the rise of circular, ethical and reputation economies, and underground subcultures like the first open-source sharing and original Maker Faires in the early 2000s. This labour is ‘invisible’ within conventional market logic, seemingly irrational when it comes to profit seeking. In maker culture, we can see free labour along three major lines: first, sharing information about how to make artefacts (instructions, resource directories and equipment suppliers), such as in ReadyMade magazine and Make magazine and on Instructables.com; second, sharing data for open DIY projects (digital models, software and firmware), such as on Thingiverse.com, YouMagine and SourceForge; and third, demonstrations of outcomes and community action, such as Maker Faires. The apparent generosity of those working for free is often attributed to the inclusive ‘anti-credentialism’ of peer-to-peer forums, meaning anyone is theoretically welcome and one’s reputation is tied to one’s ‘informational capital’ as opposed to conventional authority, a potential source of ‘free-range’ validation and sense of impact. Pursuit of the greater good, limit pushing and anarchistic impulses are also recognised motivations. Certainly the proliferation of maker activities represents a demand for a different type of relationship to goods, whether or not they are always intended to be revolutionary, or, as some suggest, they are just a new form of middle-class urge exploited by conventional market mechanisms. But, like the Arts and Crafts movement before it (and more recently the open-source architecture of Ken Isaacs, the autoprogettazione (self-build) furniture of Enzo Mari, and fanzines of the punk movement), maker culture does signify an independence of production unlike Fordist and post-Fordist skills specialisation. Where a few workers would make generalised products for many, maker culture advocates skills appropriation by many. With these skills, tools and social connectedness, the end user of an artefact shifts from being an outsider–spectator to becoming intimately included in the life of the object. It suggests a return to the joy John Ruskin described to be derived from objects produced via the unification of manual and intellectual labour.
A potential ‘defetishisation’ of goods is part of this other new value of transparency where a growing number of consumers pursue an awareness of production and supply chains. It is already proving of increasing value within conventional markets, for example as apparel companies are scrutinised and digitally exposed based on the ethics of their choice of suppliers (Victoria’s Secret and Oroton were recently shamed by being given an ‘F’). And instead of the black box, the prosumer can access open information on the intricate detail of an object, such that they can sometimes rapidly produce their own version and modify it; users become ‘adapters’. In this there is a relationship with others involved in making goods, and if it is not a personal one as with close collaborations and maker spaces, there is still a noticeable sense of community membership, or at least a kind of collective project, in the to-ing and fro-ing of information. In some cases, the role, identity and life stories of contributors are available and often these are central to the goods and information exchange. In the online free-share of knitting patterns and original clothes designs on Ravelry.com, the profile of those releasing their work to some extent shapes the image of the product, where stories of arduous labour, frugality and greater ethical purpose add to their desirability. This is also how reputation is built, which makes important not only technical skills but also the longer-term narrative of a maker’s experience.
Making an artefact oneself, as opposed to purchasing an anonymously manufactured shop-bought one, creates obvious potential for an enduring bond by sheer virtue of personal input. Bonds form through labour time, creative investment, and the actual physical and tactile connection with the artefact. This can extend to systems and rituals, where, for example, a high-quality product that may be difficult to learn to use demands an investment of time and thought to create a physical memory of object use. As with Jonathan Chapman’s ‘emotionally durable design’, this can change the way the object ‘lives’ with its owner. In the consumer psychology mentioned earlier, it has been suggested that certain signs of ‘secure’ attachment to goods replicate the primary attachment bond of mother and infant: that of greater faithfulness to a given possession; the desire to remain in close proximity to it; and the willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of preserving it. The relationship with the object is assumed to be more durable, with fewer ‘competing’ objects, and the bearer has more favourable attitudes to the possession, as it is viewed as profound and significant. One example is The People’s Print, which enables users to design and make their own textiles via the internet for the express purpose of ‘slow fashion’ and fostering enduring emotional connections with (fewer) clothes. Another example is designer-maker Dave Hakken’s easily modifiable, open-source, modular Phoneblok, whose slogan (in contrast to the pressure from Apple to continually update one’s iPhone and supporting devices) was: ‘A phone worth keeping’.
A striking aspect of the maker movement is the way it continues to reconfigure use of space and perhaps breathe life back into what the industrial era sectioned off as a private, insignificant domestic realm. In some respects, the internet has meant ‘trans-local’ connectedness for individuals informally accessing a highly distributed, horizontal network of information and cooperation. But the tools mentioned earlier—3D printers, CNC machines and so on—represent a remarkable shift in digital manufacturing technologies toward small-scale, consumer-oriented, digitally enabled ‘micro-factories’. Though not inexpensive, their costs are relatively low and have been falling since the mid-2000s, when a number of landmark initiatives became public. These include Bowyer’s open-source, self-replicating 3D printer and Gershenfeld’s Fab Lab, a low-cost fabrication laboratory comprising digitally enabled manufacturing tools; the Creative Commons licence, enabling the free sharing of source documents, digital models and intellectual property; and Thingiverse, a repository of user-generated digital models that can freely be downloaded, printed and modified by anyone. There is potential for at least some factories of the future to be distributed across many homes and small, collective workspaces in the urban environment, run by third-party manufacturers, by individuals in the community or by the organisation co-ordinating the projects. Maker activities have likewise been seen as somewhat revitalising for whole cities, as in the case of Detroit, though how successfully is a matter of debate.
The gender and social inclusiveness of new digital and manufacturing capabilities also suggests that those who are otherwise excluded from public life—particularly those meeting care responsibilities, but also those with physical limitations and geographical remoteness (even suburban remoteness)—can perhaps have a greater sense of engagement and capacity. For women, and mothers in particular, there seems a new potential for spanning the binaries of work and home, attachment and separation, by somewhat reintegrating caring and productive selves. New technologies do not guarantee this, and as mentioned they can be simultaneously de-localising and ‘abstracting’. However, there may yet be cause to observe a type of renewed attachment to place, to one’s home, to one’s family and one’s dependents, as a new avenue and a highly sought-after dimension of contemporary working life. With craft in particular, Adamson has observed a long history of a triangular relationship among amateurism, high art and women throughout patriarchal-capitalist societies. Modern crafting presents a revived opportunity to reclaim ‘pre-capital’ craft and domestic practices—their enmeshment with acts of care and service, their pragmatism and embodied process, as distinct from the values of detachment that, Adamson argues, underpin modern art and perhaps much of modern productivity.
There has been considerable scepticism about the legitimacy of maker activities and their contribution to environmental sustainability; critics say that they individualise a collective issue and are ultimately fuelled by self-interest. Finnish researcher Cindy Kohtala has said of the fab labs she studied that only a handful were genuinely pursuing environmental goals, though certainly the ethic was widespread. And of course there is the issue that making requires resources and therefore is ultimately pro-consumption and materials use. The 3D printer, with its capacity to rapidly produce more ‘stuff’ in unmonitored quantities, carries the obvious risk that it will be used for the unmitigated production of artefacts. The materials used are often plastic, although some are bioplastics made from cornstarch, and the uptake of metal and other conductive materials (for structural electronics, for instance) is increasing. However, as making and maker spaces are often locally embedded, there can been seen specific relationships to place that are more attuned to the local consequences of manufacturing choices and the ripple effect of these. Perhaps as a result of their connectedness, maker communities exhort a far-reaching morality of conscientiousness, notably in upcycling, recycling and clever use of materials.
It is of course important to acknowledge that maker activities aren’t straightforward. Social critiques of the movement include that it has a predominantly middle-class base, can be highly consumerist (as mentioned), and exhibits certain barriers to entry, not least by the long lead-up time and significant resources often required to gain crafting skills. For these reasons and more, it is also questionable as to the manner in which people can engage in these activities viably and equitably, especially if they try to sustain a living from them. Sociologist Nicole Dawkins in particular is very critical of the liberating potential of the maker movement for women, viewing the DIY ethic as decidedly postfeminist—centred on values of pleasure, autonomy and consumer choice, and thus very comfortable within a framework of neoliberal values. There is also the tension surrounding the hierarchy of making over non-making activities. In an essay in The Atlantic, ‘Why I Am Not a Maker’, Debbie Chachra challenged the cultural primacy of making over activities like caregiving and analysis and explored the issue of how well making might interact with other less tangible priorities.
Nonetheless, the robust rise of maker culture points to the currency of attachment and care values, and this is well illustrated by the winning work of the 2015 Turner art prize. Unusually, the prize was given to a London-based collective of architects, artists, designers, artisans and makers called Assemble, for their Granby Four Streets project. The project was essentially the rescuing of a row of terraced houses in Toxteth, Liverpool, that was earmarked for demolition and redevelopment. The houses had been originally constructed by artisan workers around the turn of the twentieth century but had been abandoned and then had fallen into disrepair after the 1981 Toxteth riots. The group enacted maker activities throughout the project, attempting to preserve attachment to history, community, environment and technique. In doing so, it also generated new ways of solving current problems. Assemble collaborated with local groups and reused locally sourced materials from the derelict landscape for contemporary makers to use in first-hand renovation. And they established the remade space to support the building’s earlier guild-like spirit of artisanship by offering it as a place with tools and expert know-how for people to come and experiment with manufacturing processes. Handmade products made and sold on site bear the bespoke style that ‘embraces chance, improvisation and resourcefulness’. In stark contrast to design for mass production, these products are made to be unique and embrace the difference brought by the hands of many craftspeople. For example, the turned legs of the turned & burned timber bench are each unique, emphasising the bespoke handmade qualities of the piece, the freedom for workers to improvise on the design theme and a diminished need for skilled replication of set form. Proceeds from sales feed back into the development of the workshop and fund a creative program for local young people. In its continual effort to emphasise the enduring connections between citizens and space, place, materials and artefacts, the project offers one example of what housing renovation within circular, maker economies might look like.