A Maker Faire Post Mortem…

Phew. My legs are sore, and my voice is just returning to normal after a whirlwind two days at the Maker Faire in San Mateo. Thanks to everyone I bumped into and chatted with: I had a very nice time, and the partial solar eclipse was an added bonus (some pictures to come in a different post).

But in spite of all the fun I had, by the middle of Sunday, I had begun to have a bit of a uneasy feeling, a feeling that perhaps the event wasn’t really so much about making, but more about just a slightly different kind of consumption. For every individual who worked on some whacky project that they brought to exhibit, there seemed to be a dozen which were companies (mostly small, but some large) which were identifying “makers” as a new market segment that they wanted to sell products to.

In many ways, that’s not a bad thing: after all, I want companies like Sparkfun and Adafruit to succeed, because they make interesting components and technologies accessible to ordinary people with a desire to build. But I can’t help but wonder where are the consumers of these kinds of technologies? Of all the hundreds of thousands of Arduinos sold, why are there so few examples of cool artistic or technical applications being demonstrated on the tables at Maker Faire?

The reason that I go to the Maker Faire is to celebrate in the joy of craft and tinkering. I want to be inspired to think broadly and creatively, to extend my skills, and to share in the pleasure of making the world a tiny bit more beautiful/amazing/fun.

What seems really odd to me is that I heard more than one person lament the sorry state of science/electronics/shop skills in “kids” today, that it’s just really hard to learn this stuff. I couldn’t help but blink: with the internet, with YouTube, with resources like IRC and mailing lists, with great companies (large ones like Digikey, and smaller ones like Sparkfun and Adafruit) I don’t think it’s ever been easier. One lamented the long ago loss of Don Herbert: TV’s Mr. Wizard. It was a great loss, to be sure, but we don’t need a TV network to promote science to young people. We can blog, podcast, form clubs and hackerspaces, and communicate with people all over the world. We have Khan Academy, Udacity, the Khan Academy, Vi Hart, and dozens of others to help inspire and educate.

In other words, we can all be Mr. Wizard. We are challenged not just to be students, but to also be instructors. To inspire others, as well as to be inspired.

By five, our little group was tired, and we were heading back to the car. At 5:18, the moon started to cover the sun, and by 5:30 we were back to the car, where my little Meade telescope and solar filter was waiting. We watched as the moon slowly ate the sun, and shadows of point sources showed the tell-tale crescent shapes. The sky got oddly dark. The temperature seemed to drop, and the wind picked up.

And then, the sun started to grow again. We packed up, and decided to head to dinner.

And I started to talk this out. And I realized that the feelings that I had were really just feelings of my own failure to live up to the ideas that I set out above. After all, I didn’t bring any cool projects to the Maker Faire. (Okay, I wasn’t a total slouch, I helped some young people who did bring stuff there, but the point remains.) Rather than complain about what needs to be done, I could just do something myself. If the ratio of independent creative projects to others is too low, then there is something I can do: I can bring something next year.

And, of course, over the last month, my blog has gotten a thick patina of dust. I’ve not been doing much with it. I could make excuses, but they don’t even ring true to me. I want to do better. I’ll start with trying to resume some regular posting of my ongoing projects. I’ll endeavor to be more creative, and less of a consumer.

Hmmm. Maybe the Maker Faire really does work fine just the way it is.

4 thoughts on “A Maker Faire Post Mortem…”

  1. Somewhere around a decade ago, Charlene and I looked at going to Burning Man again, sat back, and said “you know, what we really want to do is to bring that sense of building wacky stuff, of spontaneous pot-lucks, of adventures in surrealism, back into our own communities”.

    I went to Maker Faire once, and I may or may not go back if I end up with a project that’d be fun to show off there, but I think the value of it is that it gives us a place to go because “that’s really cool” and helps us to make the transition to “let’s make this really cool”.

    I have three plywood boat hulls in my back yard, left over from helping some high school students learn enough boatbuilding and woodworking hand-tools skills to compete in the Bodega Bay Fish Fest Wooden Boat Challenge, that we’re going to assemble a bunch of kids together and decorate as art boats (and maybe turn two into a pedal powered boat) for the up-coming Rivertown Revival.

    I spent last Friday night with a couple of middle schoolers filling balloons with hydrogen, made by mixing aluminum foil and muriatic acid (HCl), and exploding them.

    I whipped up some cardstock with various size holes in them so that some acquaintances could view the eclipse safely, and this has turned in to a “wow, I need to see a pinhole camera happen!” project on the list.

    I’ve been trying to help a bunch of kids learn fabrication and engineering by leading a 4H “junk drawer robotics” curriculum.

    None of these things are really “Maker Faire worthy”, but they’re all part of what I think the Maker Faire inspires, and if by publicizing it I can get the kids who come to my junk drawer robotics night to start to think a little more scientifically, to graph out their marshmallow trebuchets with different weights and different configurations, and come to me with a plan for a trebuchet large enough to toss a pumpkin, then I think it’s making a positive impact.

    So, yeah: You may not have brought any cool hacks to Maker Faire, but you brought a telescope and the knowledge to project a solar image, and you brought the enthusiasm that helps show some of the younger attendees that “hey, this stuff is really cool!”

    And all of those people turning the movement into a commercial opportunity? In a world where every toy is complete, where kids don’t put their own stories on to corn husk or rag dolls, but are instead given “action figures” with back stories, where cheap plastic “swords” and “guns” replace sticks found in the forest, we need partial solutions to help wean kids back to disassembling those complete toys to see how they work, and building their own alternatives.

    Yeah, it ain’t perfect, but every step towards “how?” and “why?” and, perhaps more importantly, “what if?”, is a step in the right direction.

  2. While we do have a lot more resources available today, can we say that it is very well organized? Mr. Wizard was great, because kids either knew when to tune into it or they were already watching TV when it came on. There’s so much today that I think many are lost for a place to start or an organized manner to take it in. I work for a school district and I’ve seen much B.S. about “If we just give kids access to information they will seek it out and be brilliant!” I don’t see evidence of that. Kids need a structured environment to learn this stuff.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Maker Faire, and congratulations on being able to attend. Here in Chicagoland, we’re much closer to Dayton (and the Hamvention) than your San Mateo event, but even so, we were unable to get away for that type of fun this last weekend. You’re probably right in that the small maker can be overshadowed by the corporate environment. Many tweets from the Maker event revealed people learning and having fun while there. In this case, the technology learning journey is probably more important than the outcome from egg cartons and plastic spoons. (Ever work hard at learning to do or make something, have it turn out “just OK”, but feel that you really did learn a lot? It’s that magic moment that Maker Faire as an event celebrates.) Later, practice makes perfect and the next one turns out even better. The journey has begun.

    You’ve shared many instances of your journey with us via this blog and a few tweets here and there. Others follow their own paths (always to their own ending), but your path is rich and quite fun to those reading from afar. Don’t feel that you need roller skates and a C64 guitar to make your moment shine. Your posts bring technical inspiration to visitors to this site. Maker Faire is just a point in time. Your Maker Faire lasts all year round! (Mine does too! :o)
    Thanks & 73,

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