[Cultural Policy Bulletin Vol.6] Topography Surrounding the Maker Culture

Sooyon Song, Unmake Lab/Artist

Maker: Open, Global Identity

It is very interesting to see terms such as ‘production,’ ‘DIY,’ ‘self-production’ and ‘making’ find their meanings in diverse contexts. Makers have existed anytime, anywhere. Why would then ‘making,’ which is almost an instinctive act, is drawing special attention today? A maker could be defined in many ways: someone who makes something as a hobby, someone asking critical questions about today's society of mass production and consumption and pursuing the spirit of self-sufficiency, amateur creators, craftspeople, artisans belonging to the cluster of traditional industries, metacreators who are expected to make a new mashup, someone from the group of creators who are called leaders of the new economy of 'desktop digital manufacturing' in this era of limited employment and even an innovator who could 'solve social problems' and make a better society. Looking at these numerous interpretations of a maker's identity, it is difficult to prioritize any of these multiple values for many reasons.

Some of such identities of makers may have existed for a long time while others may have been made recently through connection to the culture of network technology. Among them, those who could define themselves as a new type of producers called ‘makers’ would probably have a capacity for up-to-date circuits, codes and the technological culture or have a good understanding of such a technological context. In this way, the gap between a ‘producer’ and ‘maker’ is quite big (at least in the context of the maker culture). Behind such wide use of the term ‘maker’ as a global term or brand lies the success of Make: Magazine, [Make: Magazine’s slogan is “Technology on Your Time.” This could be interpreted as the following: ‘technology we can play with right now,’ ’our era’s technology,‘ ’us living in the era of grassroots technology’, etc.] which was founded by O'Reilly Media in 2005, and Maker Faire, [Maker Faire’s slogan is ”Celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the do-it-yourself mindset.“ As seen in the slogans of Make: Magazine and Make Faire, their starting point was imagination regarding multidisciplinary, grassroots technology. Currently, Make Faire’s resolution differs depending on the characteristics of different regions and organizers. Make Faire was also launched in Korea in 2012.] a cultural platform which was launched the following year and has taken place in cities around the world as big and small events.

Meanwhile, what is notable is the fact that concrete spaces of the maker culture also appeared around this period. An example of such spaces is the Fab Lab network, which was derived from Neil Gershenfeld’s lecture that had started at MIT called “How to Make Almost Everything.” Another example is TechShop where trial goods were made. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that a magazine, cultural fairs and particular spaces gained popularity and led to today’s trend of self-production. Instead, it would be more reasonable to say that the magazine, spaces and fairs adequately embraced activities needed by this era.

It is true that such a culture of self-production has already existed for a long time. Consequently, many people also wonder what differentiates today’s maker culture. In a sense, they are right. However, there is a difference. Unlike in the past, ICT-based open source interacts with the maker culture in a visible way. Under these circumstances, it would be more pertinent to interpret this global identity of ‘makers’ as a metaconcept encompassing this era’s requirements and changes behind the trend, rather than just seeing it as a fad. For example, the open source movement reflects the impact of and reaction to the free software movement led by Richard Stallman. [Richard Stallman is the leader of the free software movement and the founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation. In an attempt to support the movement, he came up with a concept of ‘copyleft.’ Later on, the free software movement had a wide impact on open-source software, creative commons and open-source hardware.] Adopting efficient technological improvement (rather than resistance) as its basic attitude, this movement has also been welcomed by businesses, thus succeeding to be recognized by the public. The movement is now going beyond the context of software (bit) to reach hardware (atom); it is expanding to the attitudes of ‘contribution’ and ‘participation’ to share technology openly.

As specified in the “maker menifesto,” it is very interesting to see the existential declaration by makers who bring changes through sharing, contribution, learning, tools, games, participation and sponsorship. It even seems to describe a maker as a human type that embodies the new philosophy of digitalism in the most ideal way. Makers are also those who are willing to contribute to society by “bringing revolutions to industry, teaching arithmetical thinking and encouraging people to live a more sustainable life.” At the same time, makers have a technological capacity to fully utilize the mashup of the networked information economy in order to blur the boundaries between the network’s hierarchy and autonomy.

Makerspace: A Space for Making, Sharing, (Making Money) and Contributing

Makers Wanting to Make Something and Be Connected - At this workshop-type space, makers can have their creative products recognized by others, enjoy collaborative work and learn from this collaboration. Such a space realizes makers’ romantic imagination regarding a making community. A makerspace is also a concrete place for numerous approaches in today’s technological society. Such approaches concern hardware startups, new education, social innovation, civil technology and lifestyles. These approaches are transformed into different models. A makerspace, where all of this takes place, is a unique venue in modern society. It even seems that makerspaces serve as a buffer zone for today’s social system that fails to catch up with technological society’s diverse economic, cultural and political changes.

Makers' Base: A makerspace in Tokyo. This could be called a Japanese-style Techschop (American makerspace where people made trial hardware goods). This space is for woodworking, pottery, 3D printing, silk-screen printing, sewing and laser cutting. It also provides a collaborative zone which looks like a machikouba(a Japanese word combining ‘village’ and ‘workshop.’ It also means a small factory in town) and includes a shared kitchen. 

Beta Haus: Berlin’s collaborative space focused on hardware manufacturing. The space organizes a hardware manufacturing contest called ‘Beta pitch glober.’ It also connects makers to Chinese manufacturers directly.

C-Base: A hackerspace in Berlin. It is close to a traditional hackerspace rather than to a makerspace. It has not only a long history but also an interesting space. Its goal is to leave the earth by repairing a spaceship that fell 450 million years ago. Indeed, every part of the space is focused on this goal to look like the inside of a spaceship. It is also a rare space with politicality.

Amsterdam’s Waag Society: This Fab Lab Amsterdam shows diverse approaches of civil technology. In particular, it runs the Web Lab focused on DIY biotechnology.

Amsterdam's Waag Society

Making Is an Act of Looking into the Existing One Before Making Something New – Making is based on an act of creating something new by disassembling, reassembling and changing. In that sense, the act of making or a makerspace inherits, to a certain degree, subcultures such as geeks’ hacker culture [In the maker culture, ‘hacking’ is interpreted as an ‘act of disassembling a machine (technology), understanding its structure and principle of functioning and finally making something new out of it,’ not as a negative act of ‘digital vandalism.’ In fact, the word ‘hack’ is a jargon that has been used at MIT since the 1950’s and it means ‘purposeless and pure joy coming from the work process itself, which includes constructed goals, and results that follow.’ This definition also applies to how a makerspace works.] , garage culture (origin of the IT culture), otaku and punk. Meanwhile, depending on their nature, makerspaces are esthetically different from each other, stretching from the spaces based on today’s culture of digital collaboration to those in the style of traditional manufacturing industry. Calling themselves “open community labs,” makerspaces share and use diverse resources, knowledge and equipment, which are based on science, computer technology and art, through workshops, collaborative projects and lectures. Depending on who manages them, the spaces also define themselves in a detailed way and have different names: not only ‘hackerspace’ [It is a well-known fact that hackerspaces, which sound very resistant, aren’t very sensitive actually. On a regular basis, hackerspaces continue to send to those on their mailing list emails mentioning their non-political nature. It requires further research to find out if such non-political nature of hackerspaces is related to the sponsorship of DARPA (called by some “Dark side of DIY”) which caused controversy a few years ago. It would take some time to see if this nature implies change in the highly American maker culture or another issue of political and economic winning over.] and ‘makerspace’ but also ‘Hacklab,’ ‘Bricolab’ and ‘civic lab.’ The spaces are also located in diverse places: lifelong education center, cultural center, public school and university campus. Such spatial forms become diversified around the globe, going through transformation into DIY camps, making schools, mobile workshops and temporary labs.

Beta Haus

Moreover, this creative factory called a makerspace intuitively shows current changes we face in manufacturing industry, labor and education. Nevertheless, today’s makerspace seems to be close to an ‘innovative space’ rather than a ‘space of difference’ or ‘alternative space’ of a traditional concept. Motivated by hackers’ ethics (enthusiasm, freedom, social wealth, openness, activeness, care and creativity), the maker culture may end up destroying the old system by means of ‘democratization of innovation’ [Hun-min Ko, 3D Printer: Genie's Lamp or Microwave Oven? Mr. Ko redefined today’s technology-based self-production culture with the expression “democratization of innovation” rather than “democratization of technology” on the occasion of the Unmake Lab 2014 3D Printer Workshop & Seminar.] accelerating changes, rather than by means of clear critical thinking. For me, such a scenario could be both positive and negative. Consequently, it is necessary to observe the maker movement or makerspaces in a more detailed way; rather than vaguely expecting ’new possibilities’ from the movement, it is important to see what contrasting changes such democratization of openness and innovation will bring.

Strategies Made Visible during Society’s Implementation Period

Maker Faire Detroit in the early 2010’s, which is quite different today, was interesting in that it enabled us to understand an aspect of the maker culture. Indeed, Maker Faire Detroit’s sponsors included traditional businesses such as Ford and PepsiCo, IT giants like Microsoft and self-production communities and markets such as Boeing-Boeing and Etsy. Inferred from such diverse sponsors of Maker Faire Detroit, it is not a coincidence that TechShop, where digital manufacturers’ employees were able to make trial goods, was opened for the first time in this city. [After starting as a membership-based, open/franchise space, TechShop went bankrupt in late 2017. Such rapid changes lead us to feel concerned that the maker culture is exaggerated due to hasty expectations, naming and controled support generated by political and economic power, regardless of the culture’s autonomous layers.] Some argue that the maker culture started in Detroit in order to regenerate the city which was undergoing depression after the collapse of its automobile industry. This argument is not something new any more. In fact, Detroit’s slogan for urban regeneration is “Fix the City.” Here, the verb “fix,” which is a keyword of self-production, is used in a bigger context in an interesting way. Korea is also utilizing unused spaces as social capital to form such makerspaces. In this way, the maker culture [Nevertheless, they don’t seem to have potential to revitalize traditional manufacturing industry. Indeed, individual production tools such as CNC and 3D printers aren’t production tools for workers of the industrial era.] is also seen as spearheading ’innovative production’ that will empower declining clusters of traditional industry or unused spaces.

Such policymaking based on the maker movement reached its peak at Maker Faire that was held at the White House in 2014. On June 18 of that year, a robotic giraffe was walking around the front yard of the White House while a violinist was performing with a 3D printed violin. Their photos immediately filled social media. President Obama called that day a national “Day of Making,” thus expressing his expectations that this festival of makers’ products could become a platform leading a renaissance of America’s manufacturing industry.

Maker Faire Shenzhen has also clarified a similar vision and strategies in a sustainable way. Its slogan of 2014 was “Innovation with China.” This implies China’s ambition that it won’t be Silicon Valley’s counterpart any more. It also shows Shenzhen’s strategy to grow into a production site of global IT hardware. The city’s Huaqiangbei area, which has an electronics market dozens of times larger than the one in Yongsan, Seoul, Korea, is welcoming global makers, saying, “We can produce anything for you.” Meanwhile, China’s unique culture of copying the existing products rapidly (shānzhài culture) [The word shānzhài seems to be derived from the expression “bandits’ den” from the Chinese novel Water Margin. In China, this word usually referred to the counterfeit culture of copying the existing products such as home appliances. Today, the word is reinterpreted in the context of hackers’ culture to mean “autonomously adding copying and creation to the mainstream culture.”]  used to be understood as making counterfeit goods. Now, this culture meets the maker culture and is reinterpreted as an agile “spirit of open source.”[We can find everywhere such a trend of strategically interpreting a country’s particular culture in the context of the maker culture. For example, Indonesia’s Yogyakarta organizes the annual Transformaking Festival led by local innovators, media artists and engineering colleges. While coming up with strategies for an innovative city, the Festival designates the local area’s large Buddhist temples as makerspaces. The Korean government also announced its urban regeneration policy and as part of this policy, it designated the Seun Sangga shopping area as a strategic point of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, calling the area the “Maker City Seun.”]       

In this way, the maker culture has gone beyond communities, festivals and spaces for makers’ products to serve as a framework of governmental and administrative strategies so that the culture can be used actively as a driving force behind urban regeneration, the new economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Such a phenomenon is expected to continue at least for several additional years. A similar trend is also seen in the policy of numerous countries that are willing to utilize digital manufacturing industry again as their core economic capacity.   

(Unchanged) Questions We Need

The Korean government is maintaining its policy of “promoting the maker movement,” slightly changing the name of the policy every year. Moving from the context of the creative economy to that of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the government is announcing projects to invigorate the movement. In Korea, the maker movement has been supported by numerous policy grounds to be implemented as a medium of solutions and as a top-down policy. The policy is gradually taking a direction of supporting grassroots activities as well. In the era of rapid economic transition and amid intense competition, such a policy direction may be inevitable. This scenario isn’t something unexpected. Instead of criticizing the top-down policy, it would be necessary to closely observe what results such a framework is generating.

Regardless of its different frameworks, the maker culture ends up leading us to have the same expectations for innovation, new economy, social problem solving, new community models and artistic commons. Approaches of making that look different are actually very similar to each other in that they all share the same idea of solving problems. Therefore, it could be difficult for the maker movement to go beyond conservative, controlling hegemony in the context of changes in the society of information technology. What the act of making needs to achieve won’t be achieved by planting a flag of social values and publicness on such a preliminary language setting.

In order to transform the maker movement into a seedbed generating commons that would meet the aforementioned expectations, it is important to observe the status of the soil where such commons will take roots. It is then necessary to make long-term efforts to manage the seedbed in order to make the commons grow. As for policy support, it is essential to check and utilize cultural resources, which can be accumulated and expanded for an extended period of time, rather than carrying out fund-oriented projects and verifying their results.

#Bulletin #Bulletin Vol.6 #Cultural Policy #Gyeongi #Maker Movement #DIY

@Sooyon Song

    • Maker Culture/ The maker culture is a particular trend penetrating today’s era. As the culture goes from autonomous activities to government-led maker movement invigoration plans, it complicates our thinking. However, we haven’t had sufficient time to make any judgment regarding the movement. Considering a series of current phenomena, this paper starts by asking the following questions: on which basis Korea is beginning the maker movement? What motivates the movement? What basic lifestyle could the movement produce? I would thus like to make clear that the paper may focus only on some aspects of the maker culture.

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    Writer/ GyeongGi Cultural Foundation

    About/ Everything about the GyeongGi arts and culture, GGCF

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