Opinion
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3-D print your way to freedom and prosperity

The hidden politics of the ‘maker’ movement

The “maker” movement is often lauded as the harbinger of a new industrial revolution. Thanks to 3-D printers and other tools like them, digital bits can be transformed into material atoms on the spot. “Making,” as it is known, essentially comes down to assembling discarded items, repurposing existing ones and, importantly, personal fabrication to create new objects and utensils. And it can all be done on-site, at a small scale, and with inventive tweaks: No need to go to the store or ship goods. Just make what you need, when you need it, for your own unique purposes.

President Barack Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union address, threw his weight behind the maker movement. “Three-D printing [has] the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” he said. And in February, the White House announced that later this year it would be hosting its own Maker Faire as a way “to make the most of this emerging movement.” Add to that the fact that the maker movement is the subject of a new documentary, “Print the Legend” — which premiered in March at the tech conference and festival South by Southwest and will be widely available on Netflix this year — and it’s safe to say makers are quickly heading into mainstream culture.

The appeal of this movement is readily apparent. What’s not to like with a revolution that — according to tech gurus, media and politicians alike — is seemingly so democratizing, empowering and profitable?

But there’s a downside, too. The maker movement is born out of, and contributes to, the individualistic, market-based society that has become dominant in our time. More specifically, the movement fits well into what, nearly 20 years ago, the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron called “the Californian Ideology.” According to this view, new technologies promise to create a class of high-tech entrepreneurs thanks to their ability to “empower the individual, enhance personal freedom and radically reduce the power of the nation-state.” All while allowing them to ignore or simply design their own way around the established political, economic and legal system. And thus clearing the way for the “unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software” that perpetuate, rather than disrupt, that very system. 

Makers and takers

The maker movement doesn’t, on the surface, appear to be particularly ideological. For those who lean to the right, the movement is representative of good old-fashioned economic values and entrepreneurial individualism. “Love the ‘makers,’ deride the ‘takers,’” goes their refrain. For progressives, the maker movement and its “hackerspaces” and “makerspaces” — workshops with tools and space for engaging in making — give an aura of grassroots community building and self-empowerment, from bowling alone (as political scientist Robert D. Putnam characterized our turn-of-the-century decline of social involvement) to making together. For libertarians, the maker movement fits into the common narrative of the “self-made man” who wields market power; only now self-making takes on a more literal meaning.

The maker movement embraces a kind of naively apolitical, techno-economic, capitalist utopia that thrives on individualistic values.

We’re not saying these elements don’t have kernels of truth to them. But this has led the maker movement to embrace a kind of naively apolitical, techno-economic, capitalist utopia that thrives on individualistic values and discounts the very public contributions to science, infrastructure and society that enable them to do what they do. 

It’s not hard to see why so many different ideologies can incorporate the maker movement into their politics: It has one hell of a branding and marketing team. Maker Media — a spinoff company of O’Reilly Media, the technology publishing and conference empire — launched a widely circulated magazine, Make, produces the conference Maker Faire, and “also develops ‘getting started’ kits and books that are sold in its Maker Shed store as well as in retail channels.” All of this is in addition to glowing profiles in major outlets like BBC News.

Micro-factory

The rhetoric surrounding the maker movement is shot through with claims that hold up personal fabrication as an ideal, decentralized, noninstitutional technological system. As Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired, puts it in his cover story cum manifesto on the subject, people “can become a virtual micro-factory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; products can be assembled and drop-shipped by contractors who serve hundreds of such customers simultaneously.” And, in his novel “Makers, Cory Doctorow asserts, “The days of companies with names like ‘General Electric’ and ‘General Mills’ and ‘General Motors’ are over.” A revolution courtesy of 3-D printers and hackerspaces.

These claims are fundamentally flawed, a shallow application of political economy mixed with market-based hype and tech utopianism. It’s foolish to think that turning people into entrepreneurial micro-factories is an indication of some death knell for the corporate monster. Who do you think makes the 3-D printers? Who do you think runs the factories in China where bulk quantities of things are actually made and just shipped to you? Who do you think owns the resources needed to provide the materials you’re feeding into the 3-D printer's maws? As a recent investigative report by journalist Matt Taibbi shows, much of this industrial capital –– resources, manufacturing, storage, distribution –– is owned by corporate conglomerates we know well but associate with Wall Street, not people’s garages: Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, to name a few.

No, the maker movement is not ushering in a decentralized, noncorporate, democratized world. Rather, what it will be adept at doing is serving as a convenient veneer, which hides the gears of corporate capitalism that have been turning all along. Instead of manufacturing jobs, we get manufacturing as a hobby. There’s no financial security and no time for rest when everybody is constantly working the maker hustle — all part of the extreme capitalistic tenet of turning every part of life into an economic activity.

Maker technologies obscure the real labor and costs that are globally embedded in them. Today a small contingent experiences new opportunities to express itself creatively. But what emerges if this becomes the basis for a new economic development program? A society of makers would be one in which each worker internalizes the failings of the economic system by believing he or she is not sufficiently creative and ingenious. Others who fail can be assigned to this new class of noncreatives — again, “takers” instead of “makers.” And this is just for those with the privilege to try and claim a seat at the manufacturing table. What of the service workers today? Can maker ideology help, say, the hotel workers who struggle to keep their jobs? More likely, it becomes further cause for brushing aside labor issues, both domestic and abroad.

Print your own destruction

What the maker movement is inducing, however, is a world where public oversight of technologies and manufacturing becomes much harder. With decentralized makers it’s easy to assume a benign and beneficial set of products. But what guarantees that assumption? Think, for example, of the ongoing debates and concerns surrounding 3-D printing of guns. Cody Wilson, a founder of Defense Distributed, designed, prototyped, and posted plans for a working 3-D-printed plastic handgun he called the Liberator. And what about other types of regulation? If makers are engaging in production and manufacturing, are they responsible for their wastes, like chemicals and materials, which could be classified as harmful pollutants? Do those pollutants then exist outside of formal industrial regulations? It’s easy to imagine small-scale making providing a way for large industrial actors to shift their social impacts onto “decentralized” actors too difficult to manage.

There’s freedom to be gained from the maker movement. But it needs to shake off simplistic economic individualism if makers want to represent a disruption of the existing economy.

What’s more, the maker movement reinforces and strengthens these political-economic ideologies through what can be called “pacification by (personal) fabrication.” (Which is inspired by sociologist Sharon Zukin's idea of “pacification by cappuccino” — the gentrification, regulation and re-engineering of urban spaces to make them playgrounds for passive consumption by the middle and upper classes.) Are you feeling alienated by the economic structures of society? Don’t you worry about silly things like collective politics, socioeconomic transformation and philosophical reflection. Just fire up your 3-D printer, come on down to the hackerspace, and engage yourself in an “authentic” craft. Or even turn it into a lifestyle –– that is, if you have the privilege to access the necessary expensive equipment, space, skills and time.

This brings us back to the myopic individualism that courses through the maker movement. For many people, and more vocally the sages — those who write books and give TED talks, for instance — the movement is also about making freedom. Ingenuity and constant entrepreneurship become qualities that earn a person self-sustaining freedom. Others who fail to achieve that freedom are, naturally, just not clever or hardworking enough. Questions of privilege and access, of systemic structural biases based on class, race and gender, are not common subjects of inquiry. And as the maker movement spreads to the developing world — with Maker Faires springing up in Africa — will these ideologies of self-made freedom and bootstrapping just become another Western capitalistic lens to view other countries?

There’s real collective democratic freedom to be gained from the maker movement. But it needs to shake off simplistic economic individualism and hypercapitalistic politics if makers want to represent a disruption of the existing economy. The interest by the White House illustrates how the maker community is less disruptive and more likely a new vein of social life to be incorporated in existing economic expansion. What the maker movement needs is to embrace more social views of the technologies’ potential — views oriented toward helping people do more than just play with tools and make personalized schlock.

Jathan Sadowski is a freelance writer and Ph.D. student in the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He writes about social justice and political economy of technologies.

Paul Manson is a policy researcher and PhD student in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. His research and writing focuses on the ways people and organizations use technologies to create meaning and understand the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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