Maker Faire mimesis and open speculation

Make magazine
and the
Maker Faire
that we’re hosting today and tomorrow in San Mateo, California have
been described in many ways, ranging from a revival of the
mid-20th-century love for Popular Mechanics magazine to an
exciting new impetus for teaching children about science. During my
six hours there today, I noted its strong connections to powerful and
fundamental human urges toward creation, mastery, and the reproduction
of our own culture.

Some of the Maker Faire centers are devoted to the kind of
do-it-yourself projects shown in our magazine. Anyone from a
four-year-old to a mechanically adept adult can find challenge and
satisfaction at these tables. Projects in another building took a big
step up, showcasing the brain children of engineers who devoted their
spare time to building games and toys or aiding their communities with
research projects. A number of the booths seemed to be run by
Renaissance men and women who were making a living from their creative
combinations of art and technology.

In this regard, I found many science projects at Maker Faire more
aesthetically satisfying than the self-consciously mind-altering
artworks I’ve seem at some contemporary art shows. Many artists seem
to lose their intuition for balance and beauty when trying to make a
point, and their explorations of the promising channels offered by
technology can end up clogged in its pipes. There is some
computer-generated and networked art that is beautiful,
thought-provoking, or both, but I’m been disappointed too often by art
shows. Maker Faire focused on the fun first of all, the achievement
second, and the aesthetics third. Ironically, this worked better.

The difference between the more modest DIY tables and the advanced
displays were like the difference between shooting off a toy rocket
and planning a trip to the moon. Both of the latter activities were
represented at the show, incidentally. I talked to the lunar project,
which had already produced a tiny rover robot and was competing for
Google Lunar X Prize.
They offered attendees the chance to record a message to leave on the
moon, using a solid-state storage chip. I asked what database they
used, expecting something such as BDB or Derby, but found out it was
good old MySQL. So I wrote a message saying that I hoped relational
logic was consistent throughout the universe.

Maker Faire is a string-and-duct-tape combination of O’Reilly’s,
Emerging Technology, Open Source, and Money:Tech conferences. It
features a fair number of expected hacks, such as a 1956 Ford Truck
retrofitted with a Navy boat diesel engine and upgraded to run
biodiesel, or an industrial-sized version of the old Diet Coke and
Mentos fountain. But it’s core commitment to pushing the boundaries of
science and engineering are clear, and many of the satellite booths
cover such topics as organic gardening and solar energy. It also
showcases people reviving obsolete technologies such as
blacksmithing. The very first Make project was there (a camera
suspended from a kite to take aerial photos), right next to a more
formal and sophisticated approach that has been on sale since 1989.

The open source facet of Maker Faire comes in the publishing and
teaching of techniques. It’s a kind of shared speculation about the
future and what we could all do if we tried. The ultimate impact, like
the free software movement, is to enhance everyone’s mastery of their
environments and both the tools and the confidence for solve one’s own

This kind of training is particularly important for children, who get
turned off from science early in conventional schooling and rarely
even encounter the joys of engineering. O’Reilly’s Make division is
involved in many projects, at Maker Faire and elsewhere, to change the
way children learn science. This process–which reflects the way most
of the great scientists became their mature selves–can not only
increase the number of scientists and engineers, but alter the kinds
of scientists and engineers they are.

And as a movement, Maker Faire offers a complete social and business
environment. One building was given over to companies offering DIY
tools such as laser cutters.

As MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld wrote in his book FAB: The
Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–From Personal Computers to Personal
, the spread of DIY knowledge internationally can let
people in communities everywhere create the tools they need to build
their economies and fix their environmental problems. Maker Faire
stands at the center of a movement that can save the world.

If that sounds grandiose, let me argue that there is no shortage of
grand ideas at the show. I was struck by how many Maker Faire
participants loved to create images of people, animals, or (especially
in the case of the fabulous
Flaming Lotus Girls
(who are not all female), plants. Many of them (including again the
Flaming Lotus Girls) also have a fascination for setting their
creations on fire or blowing them up in other ways. Thus do the
intensely inspired tinkerers show their awe toward the universe’s most
intense creative and destructive powers.

Another psychological grounding for many of the projects was
mimesis, a Greek word often used to describe the attempts of
artists to reflect reality. Maker Faire participants loved to use new
and idiosyncratic materials to build familiar objects, or the reverse.

As an illustration, one of the most popular and highly visible
projects was a hundred-foot wide, fifteen-foot tall reproduction of
the old children’s Mousetrap game out of spare parts and discarded
planks. The mad scientist behind the whole thing called it both Weapon
of Mouse Destruction and Life Size Mousetrap. The latter was an
understatement, because the scale was more on the size of humans than
mice. Unlike the original game version, the Life Size Mousetrap almost
always works, presumably because its creators are truly trained
engineers and the larger scale and masses allows them to calculate the
components’ behavior accurately.

As I already explained, many of the Maker Faire exhibits were artistic
as well feats of engineering, so it was fun to see the Life Size
Mousetrap accompanied by Esmerelda Strange, the one-woman band, and a
cat-and-mouse skit.

I can’t hide the pleasure I had today at Maker Faire; it was perhaps
the most effective combination I’ve ever seen of fun, education, and
appreciation for a job well done. It must be thrilling for people who
have spent evenings and weekends for the past fifteen years working on
some project with intense personal meaning to be able to show it off
to thousands.

The 50,000 expected visitors to Maker Faire probably add up to a significant fraction of all the people who ever read all the books I’ve edited for O’Reilly in my
fifteen years here. Of course, several of my books have had ripple
effects through society, as Maker Faire does. But to anyone who’s
attended, seen what it does for children, and felt its effects on
oneself, there’s really nothing more to say.

(Update, May 4: the weekend attendance at the fair is now estimated to be 75,000-80,000.)

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