Young Americans are much given to the word awesome and correspondingly many young Australians have adopted the expression. It is applied as a general indicator of approval to virtually every conceivable activity. I recently saw a hand painted sign on a Californian street corner saying “Yard Sale – Awesome”
Generally they are not referring to the kind of awe of the “shock and awe” variety that Americans use to describe their colossal military might when it is deployed against some foreign target.
Recently another quite different and perhaps more gentle type of American awe was in evidence at a recent San Francisco Maker Faire – and that is the sense of awe about how the world works.
The Maker Faire is a rapidly expanding phenomena conceived by Dale Dougherty, the editor of Make magazine. Both magazine and event rest on the premise that Americans, and young Americans in particular, are rediscovering the joy of making and tinkering.
The first generation that grew up entirely immersed in the digital online realm are now combining the benefits of the internet’s social and information structure with more traditional pastimes such as knitting, dismantling household appliances and adapting bicycles. But unlike the older generation of makers, there’s a subtle distinction from DIY (Doing It Yourself) to DIT (Doing It Together) – using the net to build communities of shared knowledge, problem solving, invention etc. The net in effect has turbocharged the process of learning and making.
This recombination of tinkering new and old resulted in a 20 acres carnival of techno whizzbangery at the San Mateo County showgrounds near Silicon Valley and a little to the south of San Francisco.
Now in its sixth year, the event has everything from traditional knitters to high-end robotics and everything in between. There’s some of the most imaginative uses of bicycles you’ll see anywhere on the planet and even a functional, backyard built DIY scanning electron microscope.
Attended by around 100,000 people over an early spring weekend, Maker Faire is similar in size and feel to going to an annual agricultural show in a regional city.
There are, however, no displays of farm animals or produce. Instead, ,one finds many stalls giving hands-on demonstrations of soldering up electronic circuitry that can run everything from three dimensional printers to “e-textiles” –clothing with digital circuitry built into it.
The electronics connection, which is a crucial link between the old and new DIY tradition, is driven in part by an Italian invention called Arduino.
Arduino is a basic electronic microprocessor that enables relatively inexperienced people to construct simple interactive devices that can control lights, switches, motors and so on. The system has very simple operating software that can operate alone or in tandem with a computer.
Basic Arduino projects can be anything from a simple robot to a musical tone generator to your own personal LED displays or an electronic gas sensor. In short anything that requires simple electronic instructions to operate (and that includes many of the consumer goods around us) can usually be replicated, altered and tweaked.
Known as “open source hardware”, this technology is publicly and openly available for anyone to study, modify, make and generally explore its possibilities through tinkering. The software that controls it is equally freely available.
This commitment to openness is part of a larger philosophical approach to freely available knowledge that is particularly strong in the SanFrancisco/Bay area, which in many ways is the birthplace of the modern digital world – and a renowned home of radical political movements.
This altruistic streak comes through in many ways that we have rapidly taken for granted as being free or gratis – Wikipedia and Google for instance, or free software such as Linux or Firefox.
Many of these new emerged institutions are represented at Maker Faire, along with many of the corporate citizens of nearby Silicon Valley: Pixar, ASUS, Hewlett Packard to name a few.
Dale Dougherty, Maker Faire’s founder, is encouraging corporate stewardship of the event because he sees the modern maker movement is being very similar in spirit to the early days of desktop publishing computing in the early 1970s. According to Dale, the next generation of imaginative, problem-solving engineers– the Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak of the 2020s – will almost certainly be somewhere in the Maker Faire right now.
Many of those young people include a striking number of young women and girls. The stereotype of the nerdy young computer boy in thick glasses seems to have to have vanished. One of the most obvious examples of this change is Meredith Scheff who has designed and uses soft circuit boards that can be ironed or glued into fabric and sells her own conductive thread that can be used in a conventional sewing machine. People like Meredith, who are driven by a passion and excitement for the possibilities of their unusual combination of skills, are going to be strongly sought after by the corporations designing future technology.
Being self-driven, the Meredith Scheffs of this world, with their mashup of wildly variable influences, are not constrained by conventional design solutions to problems. As such, they are potentially hugely valuable to those corporations looking to make quantum leaps in design.
The Maker Faire event fairly crackles with the huge sense of excitement inherent in this optimistic creativity. It is discussed both in the hundreds of booths, stalls and demonstrations and in the numerous well-attended free talks. Speakers included science fiction writer David Brin, MIT Fab Lab founder Neil Gershenfeld, Frank Wilson, the wonderful mind/hand guru and Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.
With this mixture of the practical and the intellectual, Maker Faire has become the point around which a revitalised sense of American ‘can do’ capability has coalesced. To call it awe may be stretching it a little far but there is a strange and deliberately risky sense of awesome possibility in the air, even if it is just the sheer delight of having fun with raw undomesticated innovation. Perhaps it’s that Americans sense that here is a chance to reinvent themselves once more, returning to an older theme as “makers of things” , an expression used honourably by President Obama in his inauguration address. There’s also a sense that the spirit represented at Maker Faire might just be be the latest instalment in the several century long American experiment of easily available, shared and enlightening knowledge. For a nation rather rattled by a decade of uncertainty and the possible paradigm shift of responding to climate change, it’s a deeply attractive proposition. Watch this space!
Mark Thomson wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Big Picture Education Australia and Intel in making this trip possible