Similar to the 18th and 19th-century salons and Café culture in Europe, where philosophers, psychologists, artists, writers, and other prevalent thinkers of the day gathered to exchange their ideas, Makerspaces all over the world are creating a new kind of open forum for the exchange of innovations, inventions, and solutions to global problems, and much of that open forum comprises a digital presence, rather than a physical one. However, in contrast with Postindustrial Europe, the internet and the cultural framework of the modern Maker Movement has preserved a somewhat classless feel, which honors and respects knowledge and skills from all sectors of industry, all corners of the globe, and all strata of socioeconomics. That may seem counterintuitive to some outsiders, because technology is conventionally regarded as a somewhat upper-class plaything across the globe. But in this day and age, technology – loosely defined – is nearly free. Rich, poor, young, old, core, periphery; everyone is welcome at the table, to share and partake in the feast. What defines a person’s legacy now is not how much wealth he or she can consume and leave to posterity. Indeed, many philosophers and futurists believe financial wealth is becoming irrelevant as cryptocurrencies challenge traditional currencies.
What matters now is not how much buying power you can accumulate, but how efficiently you can work your way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs while expending the least amount of caloric energy. In fifteen minutes using an Arduino microcontroller, almost anyone can learn the basics of automation and robotics. In another hour, the same person could build a machine that waters and fertilizes crops, and sends the creator an SMS when the food is ready for harvest. The small electronic devices cost about $20. A five-pack of flexible page magnifiers costs around $15. These small, plastic Fresnel lenses concentrate sunlight into a powerful heat source, capable of sanitizing water, generating steam power, or starting a fire in around two seconds. That type of disruption could mean the next big business mogul will come from a low-income migrant farming background, riding on a wave of automated, hydroponic spirulina-chia-strawberry juice. Startup cost: hilariously close to pocket change.
If the goal is to work smarter, as opposed to harder, the Maker Movement is showing just how easy working smarter is these days. The next great technological revolution, which is probably happening now, will not complexity and functionality to systems we already know and use. Already, we see that once-difficult or time-consuming processes are now easy, fast, and user friendly: 3-D design and fabrication, digital animation, electrical circuit design, computer programming, printmaking and sign-making.
At Fab Lab ICC, we struggle to engage with two fundamentally different populations of eager makers. Young makers are eager to learn how to manufacture computer-cut chairs on the CNC router, and they will quickly lose interest if we start off by explaining how dangerous and difficult it is to program the machine to do what they want. In the opposite corner, seasoned veterans of industrial, manufacturing CNC operation, are eager to do those same projects, but they doubt the existence of any improvement upon the line-by-line G-code programming of yester-century. It’s hard to walk the fine line between young and old, and foster mutual respect, when the young don’t appreciate the hard work and dedication of the old, and the old won’t tolerate the impatience and apathy of the youth. The bottom line is this. Using new methods, we can accomplish more, using less, and anyone can do it.
The collective employee mindset has created entire generations of caged animals across the globe, who yearn for freedom to roam and explore space, both physical and mental. The need for survival drives many workers to play a cruel balancing act between pursuing what they want out of life, and putting food on the table. For most, the choice is painfully simple. After decades of the same struggle, employees become institutionalized to believe that they can only ever work for someone else, motivated above all else by earning a paycheck. I’ve seen such people so repulsed by the idea of starting or buying a business, that they try to convince other new entrepreneurs that they will surely fail. If the cage is opened, the animals grow fearful of the unknown and shrink deeper into the cage, fearing the newly acquired freedom and their own unpreparedness to face challenges never before seen. But slowly, the instincts of creativity and applied technical problem solving can return, and the animals creep out of the cage and into a much brighter, vibrant, exciting world. Our members sometimes need a little patience or a push, before they are capable of thriving on their own in the Fab Lab, where there are almost no boundaries. Once they get a taste of true creative confidence, most of them can’t get enough. At that point, it’s way more trouble than it’s worth, to try to get the animal back in the cage. After all, the animals are people, and the space they’re exploring is the vast wilderness of global problems that must be tackled. Makerspaces are democratizing, empowering, and providing enfranchisement across the planet, freeing imaginations from their cages one human animal at a time.