Hackers, Makers, and the Next Industrial Revolution

Enthusiasts of the maker movement foresee a third industrial revolution. Illustration by Harry Campbell.

Enthusiasts of the maker movement foresee a third industrial revolution. Illustration by Harry Campbell.

Evgeny Morozov  writes:  In January of 1903, the small Boston magazine Handicraft ran an essay by the Harvard professor Denman W. Ross, who argued that the American Arts and Crafts movement was in deep crisis. The movement was concerned with promoting good taste and self-fulfillment through the creation and the appreciation of beautiful objects; its more radical wing also sought to advance worker autonomy. The problem was that no one in America seemed to need its products. The solution, according to Ross, was to provide technical education to the critics and the consumers of art alike. This would stimulate demand for high-quality objects and encourage more workers to take up craftsmanship. The cause of the Arts and Crafts movement would be achieved, he maintained, only “when the philosopher goes to work and the working man becomes a philosopher.”

In a long rebuttal, Mary Dennett, who later became an important advocate for women’s rights, pointed out that the roots of the problem were economic and moral. Reforming the school curriculum wouldn’t do much to change the structural conditions that made craftsmanship impossible. The Arts and Crafts movement was spending far too much time on “rag-rugs, baskets, and . . . exhibitions of work chiefly by amateurs,” rather than asking the most basic questions about inequality. “The employed craftsman can almost never use in his own home things similar to those he works on every day,” she observed, because those things were simply unaffordable. Economics, not aesthetics, explained the movement’s failures. “The modern man, who should be a craftsman, but who, in most cases, is compelled by force of circumstances to be a mill operative, has no freedom,” she wrote earlier. “He must make what his machine is geared to make.”

Dennett’s tireless social activism bore fruit in other realms, but she lost this fight to aesthetes like Ross. As the historian Jackson Lears describes it in “No Place of Grace” (1981), the Arts and Crafts movement no longer represented a radical alternative to the alienated labor of the factories. Instead, it provided yet another therapeutic escape from it, turning into a “revivifying hobby for the affluent.” Lears concluded, “The craft impulse has become dispersed in millions of do-it-yourself projects and basement workshops, where men and women have sought the wholeness, the autonomy, and the joy they cannot find on the job or in domestic drudgery.”

Although the Arts and Crafts movement was dead by the First World War, the sentiment behind it lingered. It resurfaced in the counterculture of the nineteen-sixties, with its celebration of simplicity, its back-to-the-land sloganeering, and, especially, its endorsement of savvy consumerism as a form of political activism. The publisher and sage Stewart Brand was the chief proponent of such views. “The consumer has more power for good or ill than the voter,” he announced in the pages of his “Whole Earth Catalog,” which débuted in 1968 and was geared to communalists and others who sought to drop out of the mainstream.

Inspired by the technophilia of his intellectual hero Buckminster Fuller, Brand played a key role in celebrating the personal computer as the ultimate tool of emancipation. He convinced the consumers he celebrated that they were actually far more radical than the student rebels who were being beaten up by the police. At a recent conference, Brand drew a contrast between “what happened around Berkeley in the sixties and what happened around Stanford in the sixties,” a contrast that captures the fate of activism in America more broadly:
Around Berkeley, it was Free Speech Movement, “power to the people.” Around Stanford, it was “Whole Earth Catalog,” Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, people like that, and they were just power to people. They just wanted to power anybody who was interested, not “the people.” Well, it turns out there is no, probably, “the people.” So the political blind alley that Berkeley went down was interesting, we were all taking the same drugs, the same length of hair, but the stuff came out of the Stanford area, I think because it took a Buckminster Fuller access-to-tools angle on things.

To convince consumers that they were rebels, Brand first convinced them that they were “hackers,” a slang term that was already in use in places like M.I.T. but that Brand went on to popularize and infuse with much wider meaning. In 1972, he published “Spacewar,” a long and much read article in Rolling Stone about Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He distinguished the hackers from the planners, those rigid and unimaginative technocrats, noting that “when computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over.” For Brand, hackers were “a mobile new-found elite.” He seemed to have had a transcendental experience in that lab: “Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.” Computers were the new drugs—without any of the side effects.

In a later edition of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” Brand reminisced about its mid-seventies heyday, when it recommended two products: the Vermont Castings Defiant woodstove and the Apple personal computer. The odd juxtaposition made sense to Brand. “Both cost a few hundred dollars, both were made by and for revolutionaries who wanted to de-institutionalize society and empower the individual.” Yet, while the Defiant woodstove ran into trouble, Apple prospered—because it was in the business of manipulating information, not heat. With information now intruding into every field, Brand held, there was considerably more scope for hacking. And the country was ready for it. His subscribers were more likely to be office workers than factory workers; few were forced to be mill operatives, as in Dennett’s day. But the transition to “cognitive capitalism” (as some labor theorists would put it) didn’t make the workplace less alienating. Brand’s remedy was hacking of a particular kind: “With over half of the American workforce now managing information for a living, any apparent drone drudging away on mainstream information chores might be recruited, via some handy outlaw techniques or tool, into the holy disorder of hackerdom. A hacker takes nothing as given, everything as worth creatively fiddling with, and the variety which proceeds from that enricheth the adaptivity, resilience, and delight of us all.”

For all the talk of the “de-institutionalization of society” enabled by the personal computer, Brand was brutally honest about the kinds of emancipation that he had to offer. The way to join the holy disorder of hackerdom was by, say, playing Tetris—and, on weekends, going home and hacking rubber stamps, postcards, and whatever else one had ordered from the “Whole Earth Catalog.”

Is Brand’s hacking revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary? The plentiful recent books that preach hacking as a way of life—“Reality Hacking,” “Hacking Your Education,” “Hacking Happiness”—express devotion at least to the rhetoric of revolt. “Hacking Work,” a business book published in 2010, announces that “you were born to hack” and suggests ways in which one could “hack” work to achieve “morebetterfaster results.” As in most of these books, our hackers aren’t smashing the system; they’re fiddling with it so that they can get more work done. In this vision, it’s up to individuals to accommodate themselves to the system rather than to try to reform it. The shrinking of political imagination that accompanies such attempts at doing more with less usually goes unremarked.

That hacking has come to mean two very different aspirations became evident when Barack Obama belittled Edward Snowden as “a twenty-nine-year-old hacker” only a few weeks after the White House endorsed the first National Day of Civic Hacking. In Britain, the Metropolitan Police might be busy finding hackers like Snowden, but in April it helped organize “Hack the Police!”—a so-called “hackathon,” where software developers and designers were encouraged to bring their “unique talents to the fight against crime.” In contrast to jabbering, feckless politicians, hackers offer hope for the most hopeless endeavors. “I’d like to see the spirit of hackerdom improve peace in the Middle East,” the influential technology publisher and investor Tim O’Reilly proclaimed a couple of years ago.

Inevitably, hacking itself had to get hacked. When, in November, Brand was asked about who carries the flag of counterculture today, he pointed to the maker movement. The makers, Brand said, “take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off of, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your way.” Makers, in other words, are the new hackers.

There are already plenty of intellectual entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on the new counterculture. Kevin Kelly—who used to work with Brand on his many magazines—has revived the “Whole Earth Catalog” tradition with his new catalogue-like publication, “Cool Tools.” It features product tips for the true reality hacker—from “quick-refreshing underwear for travel” to the “luxurious, squirting WC seat” (thermostatically warmed, and yours for just eight hundred dollars). “A third industrial revolution is stirring—the Maker era,” Kelly writes in the introduction to “Cool Tools.” “The skills for this accelerated era lean toward the agile and decentralized. Therefore tools recommended here are aimed at small groups, decentralized communities, the do-it-yourselfer, and the self-educated. . . . These possibilities cataloged here will help makers become better makers.” In his world, the main thing it takes to be a maker is a credit card.

The maker era might not be upon us yet, but the maker movement has arrived. Just who are these people? Like the Arts and Crafts movement—a mélange of back-to-the-land simplifiers, socialists, anarchists, and tweedy art connoisseurs—the makers are a diverse bunch. They include 3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand…

Read the rest…

The New Yorker


One Comment on “Hackers, Makers, and the Next Industrial Revolution”

  1. Richard M Nixon (Deceased) says:

    Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.


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