Monday, May 8, 2017

On The Maker Movement

Years and years ago, being a mostly unemployed programmer, I was organizing events for my local Linux User Group. When we didn't have guest speakers (my favorite was one where I'd organized a bunch of the younger guys - there were very few women in the group and none of them in their teens - to do short presentations each), we'd go to a pizzaria and just share things in a more 1 on 1 setting.

At one of these meetings, I'd had to cancel a Christmas BBQ due to weather and instead we met at a pub. We're sitting around and someone, once again, talked about how "someone" needed to start a hackerspace in Auckland. We'd laughed about "someone" being in the abstract.

A few weeks after this (after Christmas) a friend contacted me and said "we should be 'someone'". And so, we met, at a pub. There were 4 of us initially. We were meeting to get on the same page. Essentially it was to be non-profit, open ended, flat organisation and absolutely about community.

1 of those 4 was kicked out of the group as our meetings were spent trying to get him on the same page as the rest of us. His interpretations of what was being said were well off base and suddenly he was talking about sponsorship and the like while the rest of us were in a state of disbelief to what he was telling other people.

The result of these meetings was simply to (figure out how) to invite people to discuss and ultimately form a hackerspace (though we were avoiding the term hacker and going with maker).

Long story short, Tangleball was formed.

Now, a few years on, and the maker movement has taken off.

Auckland Libraries have put a couple of 3D printers in a corner and called it a hackerspace. I did attend a meeting with the libraries about what hackerspaces are and we were adamant about their direction having to, by necessity, be driven by the community. I could see a few lights flickering in people's heads as they looked like they were about to get it only to be extinguished by the highly hierarchical nature of Auckland Libraries.

The Auckland Council also have a bunch of spaces around. I even got involved, for a short time, with one. Results vary.

The one I was involved with wanted to engage children. They'd gone to existing groups, brought the equipment they suggested (a vinyl cutter, some sound recording gear, a green screen and of course a 3D printer) and were now struggling to get people in the door. The computers in the space were on the Auckland Council network and were subjected to their filtering. Users of the space couldn't, for example, download FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) or get information on abortion. But more damaging, rather than being a space for creating and making, the employees of the council wanted it to be quantifiable which of course implies a top down relationship rather than collaborative.

Another one that I visited leased out a space to a group and then then leased out the downstairs of the same space to another group. This probably doesn't sound too bad except that it created a really toxic gender divide as well as splitting resources. The upstairs is totally unsuitable for workshop like equipment like drill presses and the like and the downstairs is run by a group who's membership is by and large old white guys.

Don't get me wrong. Tangleball has some really serious problems.

Imagine you have a group who's membership is made up by people able to jump over a particular height. Which means that the control is also in the hands of people who can also jump that height and do so regularly. If the people in control can't understand the problem of having to jump that height, then those who are unable to jump that height are unrepresented. The bar is never lowered.

Tangleball is, first and foremost, about a community. To become a full member, people must attend a certain number of meetings. The people who are comfortable with those meetings are the ones who are in control. Those who are uncomfortable with the meetings either don't become full members OR while they are full members, don't attend those meetings. i.e. do not represent those who find the meetings hostile.

This creates a very particular demographic for those in charge at Tangleball. This isn't to say that the aims behind these decisions aren't valuable.

The whole point of the meeting requirement was so that Tangleball didn't become a service. It doesn't exist on a gym membership like basis. I'm of the opinion that a makerspace of that nature has to be, by necessity, run as a commercial entity i.e. an elected board with a top down provider of a service/equipment/facilities. There has to be more to "membership" than just paying your dues.

So it has got its problems but those problems exist for good reason. Tangleball is still, currently as far as I know, the single community run and focused, not controlled by a hierarchical structure makerspace in Auckland.

I always imagined we'd be sitting around drinking a beer, talking about ideas, offering little tidbits like "have you considered.....?" or meshing skills.
If I had to do it all over again, I think I'd want to move it into a poor neighborhood and focus on empowerment. What can we do to improve a community?

What has the maker movement turned into? The idea of community is seldom seen. There's talk of mobile makerspaces for example. Easy membership/Hackerspace as a service i.e. pay your dues and you're in. A 3D printer in the corner seems to be enough to call a space a makerspace. There are even commercial interests looking at makerspaces to their own end. I don't actually have a problem with this. A makerspace that's also R&D for a company is a grand thing so long as they're up front about it.

The most galling thing for me though is that there's a small body of people who purport to being about all things maker while dismissing the idea of community (unless they're in control). This is far more damaging than Council run spaces just because a community should decide for itself what their makerspace is going to be. These people ARE their own community though tend to instill their will of what a makerspace should be on other communities.

I was at an art installation and the conversations around the installation felt very similar to those early conversations about a makerspace.

"This is a place to relax and make and derive pleasure"

And really, instead of people telling you what a hackerspace (forget about the rubbish that is "State of the Maker Nation") is, think about "What kind of space would your community be able to relax, make and derive pleasure from?".