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What is a Maker?

They call themselves “Makers.” As far as I can tell, up until a few years ago, the verb “to make” was an everyday garden-variety word used for a million different innocuous things. Like “to get” or “to do.” But somehow the verb – and in particular, those agents of the activity it denotes, got elevated to capitalized status. They’re not “makers”; they’re “Makers.”

What does that mean?

Well, the first thing you notice about it is a certain self-satisfaction. As in, “We aren’t simply sheep that use things; we Make things, and that makes us Superior Beings.” Could that be a response to a world increasingly dominated by huge corporate consumer entities? An attempt to take back control of the items in our lives? Perhaps. Not a bad goal…

But who qualifies as a Maker? If you’ve ever been to the original Maker Faire on the Peninsula in the Bay Area, you’d pretty much decide that Makers create high tech gadgets with sharp teeth or chain saws that can destroy the products of other Makers, or breathe fire, or be all steam punk and cool and sh… stuff. And it has to be brimming, nay, overflowing with giant gobs of Mad Max Burning Man DPW testosterone RAGE.

And it has to be robots.

Or at least that’s the impression I was left with a few years ago. Not that I’m complaining; it was cool stuff. But only a subset of things that could be Made.

This year I became aware of a mini-Maker Faire in Portland. Apparently the Faire has procreated, adding a new “Flagship Faire” in New York and a bevy of mini-faires. So I decided to check out our local mini version and get a sense of what constitutes a “maker.” After all, it’s possible to make all kinds of things, and they don’t all have to be high-tech. Your grandma might make you a sweater; question is, does that make her a Maker?

So I toured around the Portland edition, and the ambience was distinctly more subdued. Specifically missing was anything steam punk or Mad Max. There was only one Fire thing, away from the rest of the booths. In my wanderings, I found booths with:

  • Legos
  • Wire sculpture
  • Leather
  • “Minions” (a toy marketing thing)
  • Making stuff with everyday items (“tinkering”; presumably a subset of “making”)
  • Model trains
  • Sand art
  • Robots (of course)
  • Tech services
  • Using natural materials (but created using CAD/CNC)
  • Metal casting
  • Fencing (I asked where the “making” connection was; apparently they made many of their weapons)
  • Rockets
  • Material re-use
  • Brewing beer (the neighboring both featured the LagerBot, which tracks the status of your keg… that’s so Portland…)
  • Paper lanterns
  • Socks
  • Chocolate
  • Recycled wool stuff
  • Jewelry
  • Cheese
  • Metalwork
  • Moviemaking (diorama setup)
  • Recycled book journals
  • Cards
  • Bicycles
  • Welding
  • Costumes
  • Lights
  • Arduino/Raspberry Pi stuff
  • Soap
  • Recycled skateboards
  • Stuff from bottles
  • Bees
  • High-altitude glider
  • Wilderness survival
  • Steam (not punk)
  • Using DMX-512 (a theater protocol) as a simple bicycle “CANbus”
  • Yard-covered car

Most of these things actually don’t involve high tech at all. It was clear that some of the items were a bit of a stretch, but for the most part, they all involved making something.

It seems to me, however, that at the core of being a Maker is creativity and innovation. My guess would be that crocheting a hat out of a pattern book might not pass muster: you’re executing someone else’s vision.

Maker status appears to be accorded to those that forego the consumer paths being laid down for us and go down other less-traveled roads – or blaze entirely new ones. It might take technology to do that – and often does, since it’s new and opens up whole new possibilities. But it can also mean finding new ways to use old materials or high-tech spins on traditional crafts.

So… are you a Maker?

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