Maker Subculture

There is a revolution brewing in dark warehouse spaces, basements, garages, and converted loft apartments. These small industrial spaces are the epicenters of a community-based subculture built around making things. The inhabitants of these dark corners are called ‘makers,’ and they are the driving force behind a new way of looking at technology.

In a practical sense, makers are people who know their way around a 3D printer, a computer-aided lathe, and how to sharpen a set of handmade carpenter’s chisels. Their world is part shop-class, part carpentry, and part cutting-edge electronics. What they are doing is not really new. In the past, makers were solitary creatures building projects in their basements or garages. They were ham radio operators, model rocket enthusiasts, and home inventors. They were people who made things that you couldn’t buy. As the community grew, many realized there was a lot to be gained in pooling resources. Some of the necessary machines, like the laser cutter, or the arc-welding gear, or the milling machine are expensive and need a great deal of expertise to use and maintain.

Perhaps more importantly, they are also important places to gather and compare notes. Spaces like Artisan’s Asylum in Boston, Hacklab in Toronto, Technologia Incognita in Amsterdam, and Hacker Fleet in Berlin, have become the home for the cutting edge of this movement. They bring to mind places like the MIT Media Lab and the workshops of inventors like Edison, Tesla, and the Wright Brothers. What they provide is a new spirit of collaboration and entertainment. The inhabitants of Hacklab, Toronto are technology enthusiasts who gather in their shared second floor walk up apartment to enjoy the exhilaration of exploration and experimentation. What makes the maker culture so refreshing is the sheer joy and sense of community that comes from tinkering and separating technology from specialist knowledge. Spending some time in these communities immediately gives you a sense of the enthusiasm and curiosity that define a maker.

The tour at Hacklab begins with an LED panel that serves as the group’s message board. Not satisfied with just leaving it there, Hacklab members also rigged it to display the name of people who just used their keycard to unlock the front door. While and LED panel like this is not so new, the fact that the Hacklab’s tinkerers made it entirely out of panels they found on the street demonstrates the guiding philosophy of maker culture. That they had to spend several weeks finding out how they worked was just part of the fun.

Hacklab’s president, Eric Boyd, said while specialist knowledge is appreciated but not a necessary part of being a maker. “Most of us here don’t have engineering backgrounds. We just figure things out as we go,” he said. And nothing demonstrates this more than their computer guided laser cutter. It did not work when they bought it and repairing it took the group quite a long time. They had to rebuild its guidance systems and control units almost from scratch, including writing new Linux based firmware to allow them to control the cutting head’s movements. While the repairs took quite a bit of trial and error, the machine is now a centerpiece of the lab because it is both a successful project and an important tool. Sen Nordstrom, one of the lab’s members, pointed out that almost every completed piece in the space was the result of exploration. “The move toward collaboration has led to the rise of the hackerspace or hacklab,” Nordstrom said. “These are shared spaces that house the tools and workbenches people need to do this kind of work. figure out how things work and make them better.” Nordstrom spends her days working as a Systems Administrator for a company in Toronto, but says she has learned more at Hacklab just trying to get things to work properly. She embodies the DIY ethic that defines maker culture. She has expanded herself not through the use of technology, but through learning to make it do what she wants it to do.

Importantly, makers like Boyd and Nordstrom are pushing back against the current notion of ‘gadget’ that dominates. They are providing an alternative to the prevailing notion that a gadget is a consumer oriented electronic device. They do this by connecting older mechanical forms of technology and the latest laser-enabled 21st century technological advances. Their approach to technology can provide alternative views of the purpose of technology and the idea of expertise that keeps a select few in control of the direction of consumer gadgetry. This is important because the very notion of gadget is time and culture specific. It is an arbitrary thing that does not have to be dominated by any one technology. Our computer-enabled glass gadgets don’t change the physical world. They can do things that humans could not do, like send vast packets of data across the globe. As a consequence, they are pushing us further from things in ‘the real world’ than ever before. Our knowledge of the world of technology suffers because these gadgets increasingly work as if by magic.

Makers provide us with an alternative perspective. They demystify the inner workings of this technology. More importantly, they offer a different way of looking at tech-enabled gadgets. They see them as the beginning of a set of possibilities rather than as complete experiences in themselves. This view breaks down the walls of the ‘black box’ empowering us to understand a gadget’s workings and build on the notion of what a 21st century gadget can do. This is a necessary step conceptually because the slick glass-covered gadgets are threatening to alienate us from enjoying the very things that technology can provide. By embodying this view and using it as a way to build a community, makers offer us a different perspective on how technology can bring people together.

the author

Paul Hartley

Paul Hartley is a former resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.