May 3

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Maker Faire mimesis and open speculation

O'Reilly's 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 the 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 problems.

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 Fabrication, 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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Comments: 2

  moya [05.04.08 05:38 PM]


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.

my three-and-a-half year old daughter had a blast there today, though it was of course a bit overwhelming. the topic especially weighs heavy on my mind since i've heard that girls and boys start life with equal interests in math, sciences, and other technologies, but then a little later we all know what happens.

i hope for her to never lose this enthusiasm.


  Ken Williams [05.05.08 07:31 AM]

IWPTA "Maker Faire emesis" and I was very confused for a while. =)

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