The Maker Culture

London’s newly re-opened Design Museum welcomes visitors with a bold defining statement of intent. According to the curators, there are only designers, makers and users. To me, this speaks volumes about how the “makers” are now at the forefront of economic activity, and how they are challenging key post-industrial notions of mass-production, mass-consumption and even mass-employment. Above all, as users, we are becoming far more engaged with why, how and where something is designed, made and distributed. And as consumers we are being encouraged to think about and take some responsibility for our choices in terms of environmental impact and sustainability.

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

There are several social, economic, technological and environmental movements that have helped to define “maker culture”, so there isn’t really a single, neat theory sitting behind it all. Here is a (highly selective) list of the key elements that have directly or indirectly contributed to this trend:

Hacking – this is not about cracking network security systems, but about learning how to make fixes when things that don’t work the way that we want them to, or for creating new solutions to existing problems – see also “life hacks”, hackathons or something like BBC’s Big Life Fix. Sort of “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Open source – providing easier access to coding tools, software programs, computing components and data sources has helped to reduce setup costs for new businesses and tech startups, and deconstructed/demystified traditional development processes. Encompasses everything from Linux to Arduino; from Github to public APIs; from AI bots to widget libraries; from Touch Board to F.A.T. Lab; from SaaS to small-scale 3-D printers.

Getting Sh*t Done – from the Fitzroy Academy, to Andrea de Chirico’s SUPERLOCAL projects, maker culture can be characterised by those who want: to make things happen; to make a difference; to create (social) impact; to get their hands dirty; to connect with the materials, people, communities and cultures they work with; to disrupt the status quo; to embrace DIY solutions; to learn by doing.

The Etsy Effect – just part of the response to a widespread consumer demand for personalised, customised, hand-made, individual, artisan, crafted, unique and bespoke products. In turn, platforms like the Etsy and Craftsy market places have sparked a whole raft of self-help video guides and online tutorials, where people can not only learn new skills to make things, they can also learn how to patch, repair, re-use, recycle and re-purpose. Also loosely linked to the recent publishing phenomena for new magazines that combine lifestyle, new age culture, philosophy, sustainability, mindfulness, and entrepreneurism with a social conscience.

Startups, Meetups and Co-working Spaces – if the data is to be believed, more and more people want to start their own ventures rather than find employment with an existing organisation. (Under the gig economy, around 40% of the workforce will be self-employed, freelance or contractors within 5 years, so naturally people are having to consider their employment options more carefully.) While starting your own business is not for everyone, the expanding ecosystem of meetups and co-working spaces is enabling would-be entrepreneurs to experiment and explore what’s possible, and to network with like-minded people.

Maker Spaces – also known as fabrication labs (“FabLabs”), they offer direct access to tools and equipment, mostly for things like 3-D printing, laser-cutting and circuit-board assembly, but some commercial facilities have the capacity to support new product prototyping, test manufacturing processes or short-run production lines. (I see this  interface between “cottage industry” digital studios and full-blown production plants as being critical to the development of high-end, niche and specialist engineering and manufacturing services to replace the declining, traditional manufacturing sectors.) Some of the activity is formed around local communities of independent makers, some offer shared workshop spaces and resources. Elsewhere, they are also run as innovation hubs and learning labs.

Analogue Warmth – I’ve written before about my appreciation for all things analogue, and the increased sales of vinyl records and even music cassettes demonstrate that among audiophiles, digital is not always better, that there is something to be said for the tangible format. This preference for analogue, combined with a love of tactile objects and a spirit of DIY has probably reached its apotheosis (in photography at least) through Kelli Anderson’s “This Book Is A Camera”.

Finally, a positive knock-on effect of maker culture is the growing number of educational resources for learning coding, computing, maths and robotics: Raspberry PI, Kano and Tech Will Save Us; KidsLogic, Creative Coding HK and Machinam; Robogals, Techcamp and robokids. We can all understand the importance of learning these skills as part of a well-rounded education, because as Mark Pascall, founder of 3months.com, recently commented:

“I’m not going to advise my kids to embark on careers that have long expensive training programs (e.g. doctors/lawyer etc). AI is already starting to give better results.”

Better to learn how things work, how to design and make them, how to repair them etc., so that we have core skills that can adapt as technology changes.

Next week: Life Lessons from the Techstars founders

 

“Language is a virus” – a look at coding skills

We are fast-approaching the point when a lack of some basic coding skills will be likened to being illiterate. If you are unable to modify a web page or use an HTML text editor, it will be like not knowing how to create a Word document or edit a PDF file. Coding does appear on some school curricula, but it is primarily taught in the context of maths, computer programming or IT skills. Whereas, if we look at coding as a language capability (part of a new literacy), it should be seen as an essential communication tool in itself.

quote-William-S.-Burroughs-language-is-a-virus-from-outer-space-92713First, I am aware that a number of programs for children are trying to teach coding and maths in more relevant ways, and having talked to some of their creators, I admire their ambition to place these skills in a broader context. Coding might be described as the “4th R”: alongside reading, writing, arithmetic we have reasoning”. So a program like Creative Coding HK (as it name implies) focuses on students making things; in the USA, KidsLogic is placing as much emphasis on contextual learning as on robotics; while Australia’s Machinam is re-writing the maths curriculum to teach practical, everyday problem-solving skills.

Second, as we know, learning the foundations of coding is like learning the syntax of a foreign language. However, while Latin and Greek can provide the basis for learning the structure (and many words) of many European languages, it’s not much use when learning character-based languages (Chinese, Japanese) – although there are common grammatical elements. But if we understand that a line of any code has to be structured a certain way, contain essential elements, define key attributes and run in a particular sequence or order, we may come to “read” and interpret what the code is saying or doing.

As an aside, I’m struck by the comments made by the founder of AssignmentHero during a recent pitch night. Although he had studied computer sciences at Uni, he did not use any of the formal computing languages he had learned when building his product. This highlights the downside of learning specific languages, which can become obsolete, unless we have a better grasp of “which languages for which purposes”, or find ways to easily “interpolate” components of one language into another (just as languages themselves borrow from each other). Or do we need an Esperanto for coding?

Third, even if I don’t want or need to learn how to program a computer or configure an operating system, knowing how to define and sequence a set of instructions for running some software or a dedicated program will be essential as more devices become connected in the Internet of Things. For myself, I have dabbled with a simple bluetooth enabled robot (with the original Sphero), acquired a WiFi-enabled light bulb (the programmable LIFX) and experimented with an iOS music app that incorporates wearables (the MIDI-powered Auug motion synth).

Finally, just like a virus, coding is contagious – but in a good way. At a recent event on Code in the Cinema (hosted by General Assembly as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival), there were three demos which captured my attention, and which I will be investigating over the coming months:

I think they show why, where and how many of us “non-computing” types will want to learn the benefits of coding as a new language skill. If nothing else, getting comfortable with coding will help mitigate some of the risks of the “digital divide”.

Next week: The arts for art’s sake….

Whose IP is it anyway?

Why should we claim ownership of our IP? This was the topic up for discussion at the recent Slow School dinner on Collaborative Debating presented by Margaret Hepworth. I won’t reveal how a collaborative debate works (I recommend you sign up the next time Slow School runs this class…), but I do want to share some of the issues and insights that were aired. In particular, the notion that shared knowledge is the basis for greater prosperity.

The use of Creative Commons means knowledge becomes easier to share (Photo by Kristina Alexanderson, image sourced from flickr(

The use of Creative Commons means knowledge becomes easier to share (Photo by
Kristina Alexanderson, image sourced from flickr)

First, the discussion centred on IP issues relating to ideas, content, knowledge, creative concepts and theoretical models. Not surprising, as the participants were all independent professionals, consultants, bloggers, creatives, facilitators, teachers and instructors. So we didn’t address the areas of patents, registered designs or trade marks.

Second, as someone who has worked in the publishing, data and information industries for nearly 30 years, I believe it is essential that authors, artists, academics, musicians, designers, architects, photographers, programmers, etc. should be allowed both to claim copyright in their work, and to derive economic benefit from these assets. However, I also recognize that copyright material may often be created in the course of employment, or under a commercial commission or as part of a collaborative project. In which case, there will be limitations on individual copyright claims.

Third, the increasing use of Open Source and Creative Commons means that developers, authors and end users have more options for how they can share knowledge, access resources and foster collaboration through additive processes and “common good” outcomes. A vital component of these schemes is mutual respect for IP, primarily through acknowledgment and attribution. Equally, an online reputation can be established (or destroyed) according to our own use of others’ material, especially if we are found to be inauthentic.

Leaving aside the legal definitions of IP and how copyright laws work in practice, the discussion explored the purpose and intention of both authors (as “copyright creators”, narrowly defined) and end users (as “licensees”, broadly defined). There was general agreement that sharing our content is a good thing, because we recognise the wider benefits that this is likely to generate.

But there is a risk: merely acknowledging someone else’s authorship or copyright is not the same as accurately representing it. Obviously, plagiarism and passing off someone else’s ideas as your own are both copyright infringements that can give rise to legal action. Even with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, a critic or even an acolyte can mis-interpret the content or attribute a meaning that the author did not intend or even anticipate. As one participant noted, “Copyright is not just concerned with what we claim ownership over, but what others may claim as their own.” Not for nothing have we developed “moral rights” in respect to authorship of copyright material.

Although we did not discuss specific issues of copyright remuneration (e.g., through royalties, licensing fees or financial consideration for copyright assignment), there was a proposition that establishing copyright protection can lead to social, intellectual and even economic limitations. The understandable, but often misguided need to protect our copyright (as a form of security) is driven by fear, underpinned by scarcity models. Whereas, a more generous approach to copyright can actually lead to greater shared prosperity, based on the notion of the abundance of ideas and knowledge. And since, as one speaker put it, “there is no such thing as an original concept because all ideas build on previous knowledge”, the inherent value in IP is in how we contribute to its nurturing and propagation.

At the end of the discussion, and reflecting on my own recent experiences with copyright infringement and geo-blocking, I found I had shifted my position – from one that tends to take a more absolute view on copyright ownership, to one that identifies the need for some further modification to the current copyright regime, along the lines of the following:

  • Copyright ownership should not entitle the owner to abuse those rights – if anything, the copyright holder ought to be placed in a position equivalent to a trustee or custodian, to ensure that they act in the best interests of the IP asset itself, not merely their own interests. That should not preclude the owner from being compensated for their work or being allowed to commercialize it, otherwise, why would anyone bother trying to create new ideas or content?
  • Establishing copyright in ideas and creative concepts needs to be supported by a notion of “intent” or “purpose” (a bit like mens rea in criminal law). For example, if the intent is to merely prevent anyone else using or sharing the idea, then any copyright protection might be limited to a much shorter duration than the usual “life of author plus XX years” model.
  • Equally, under a “use it or lose it” provision, if copyright owners (and/or their publishers, distributors and license holders) elect to take their content out of circulation from a market where it had been widely available, then they would need to establish good cause as to why the copyright should not be open to anyone else to use and even commercialize (subject to reasonable royalty arrangements).
  • If we accept that all knowledge is additive, and that the proliferation of collaboration and co-creation is because of the need to share and build on what we and others have already created, how can we ensure the integrity and mutual benefits of open source and creative commons initiatives? One analogy might be found in the use of blockchain technology to foster contribution (adding to and developing an existing idea, concept, model or platform) and to support authentication (to validate each idea extension).

Perhaps what we need is a better IP model that both incentivizes us to share our ideas (rather than rewards us for restricting access to our content), and encourages us to keep contributing to the furtherance of those ideas (because we generate mutual and ongoing benefits from being part of the collective knowledge). I’ve no idea what that model should look like, but surely we can agree on its desirability?

Next week: Finding purpose through self-reflection