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Maker Movement Gaining Recognition

There have been a number of stories in mainstream media recently recognizing the “Maker movement” exemplified by our own magazines Make: and Craft: and online sites like Etsy and Instructables. (Disclosure: O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Instructables.) This past week’s article in Business Week, Arts and Crafts Find New Life Online is a great example. (There was also a great article in the NY Times a few weeks ago, entitled Handymade 2.0.) The Business Week article cites Etsy, Instructables, and Make, as well as fashion design sharing sites BurdaStyle and StyleShake. I particularly liked that the article singled out the ties of the new movement to open source software:

Many of these companies say they trace their lineage to the open-source technology movement formed in the ’90s by computer programmers who wanted to create software anyone could build upon. Rather than one expert teaching people how to do something, the open-source movement underscored how groups of people could share expertise and build on that knowledge. Now this mindset is rapidly spreading. Says Elizabeth Osder, a visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California: “There is this resurgence of interest in DIY and then the desire to bundle up pieces of information and share them in an open-source way.”

One of the things that the article didn’t pick up on, though, was the crossover between technology and craft. I think that Dale Dougherty, the founder of both Make: and Craft: is really onto something in pitching a tent big enough to include both in the resurgence of the do-it-yourself spirit.

swaporamarama - sewerjanome.jpgACCRC cluster
I still remember my surprise and delight at the first Maker Faire. In one pavilion I saw the Swap-o-rama-rama, a fantastic do-it-yourself revisioning of the clothing swap, in which people with sewing machines, silk screening, and other tools help the swappers to re-manufacture the clothes on the spot, and hold a fashion show at the end of the day. In the next pavilion was the ACCRC‘s biodiesel powered Linux supercomputer built out of recycled PCs. The faire included everything from traditional crafts being remade with technology to robotics.

That’s a big tent! Yet it works, as the more than 45,000 people (and most excitingly, families) who came to the last Maker Faire can attest. But in many ways, creating the right big tent is the heart of effective advocacy and “meme making.”

Last year, Dale Dougherty, the founder of Make: Magazine and my chief cohort in crime at O’Reilly for the last twenty odd years, gave a presentation to our management team at O’Reilly in which he focused on the characteristic of what he called “big ideas.” A big idea, he said:

  • Has a significant impact on the market
  • Is not just our idea (i.e. it matters to a lot of people, and helps them to frame what they do)
  • It shapes the opportunity

As I thought on our history at O’Reilly, and our role in helping to shape big ideas like the commercialization of the internet, open source software, and Web 2.0, it struck me that in many ways, the second bullet is the one that drives the other two. Reframing who and what need to be seen in the same story makes all the difference. For example, one of our key breakthroughs in advocacy of open source software was not just the new name but also a new pantheon. Where the free software movement had used a kind of “political” litmus test in the projects they talked about, highlighting GPL’d software such as Linux, gcc, and emacs, and the goal of creating a free operating system, we reframed the dialogue by pointing out that free software like Bind, Apache, sendmail, and Mozilla were already the heart of a new mainstream movement with major impact on business.

I wrote about this idea in detail in 2000 in an article entitled Remaking the Peer to Peer Meme. I continued the effort of reframing how people think about open source and the internet with my advocacy on P2P. As described in that article:

[I'm] trying to reshape the way people think about that “next generation net story” and the role of peer-to-peer in telling that story. The concepts we use are, at bottom, maps of reality. Bad maps lead to bad decisions. If we believe peer-to-peer is about illegal sharing of copyrighted material, we’ll continue to see rhetoric about copyright and censorship at the heart of the debate, and we may push for ill-advised legal restrictions on the use of the technology. If we believe it’s about a wider class of decentralized networking applications, we’ll be focused on understanding what those applications are good for and on advancing the state of the art.

That effort to get people thinking about the next generation of internet applications, and what I came to call “the internet operating system” eventually bore fruit when Dale came up with a new name, Web 2.0.

But to return to the “maker” movement, the big tent includes not just “DIY,” as the mainstream media is thinking of it, but the way in which computing is re-engaging with the physical world. For the last few decades, we have associated technology with a world that is increasingly virtual. What the makers are telling us is that the physical world is the next frontier for technology.

In addition, what today is “do it yourself” is tomorrow’s big business. The hacker building homebrew robots shows us something about the future of robotics. The crafter incorporating technology into traditional crafts shows us something about how computing is becoming pervasive. The folks playing with laser cutters and 3D printers are telling us something about the future of manufacturing. The folks hooking up sensors to tie physical buildings to their analogues in Second Life are telling us that the future may not be in virtual reality but a new kind of augmented reality.

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