Technology

Why Be a Maker When You Can Be a Re-Maker? (Of Society According to Your Ideological Predilections)

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The New Yorker, after many years of "Makers Faires" and Make magazine and the cultural movement celebrating home-usable technologies of object creation, lets loose the hound of digital grumpus and cultural critic Evgeny Morozov to take a long piss and dump on it. Why, the maker movement is no revolution!

Why doesn't Morozov like makers? He just doesn't, that's all. They have pretensions to revolution, but look around: people still have jobs, mostly, if they need them. What these techniques or ideas might mean to bring joy or fulfillment to those who embrace them on a personal level isn't really worth thinking about; these digital freakazoids with all their talk of hacking and making are just a little bit vulgar, aren't they?

Morozov quotes Stewart Brand, avatar of the '60s generation version of the "makers movement" with his Whole Earth Catalog, disapprovingly: "A hacker takes nothing as given, everything as worth creatively fiddling with, and the variety which proceeds from that enriches the adaptivity, resilience, and delight of us all."

And what's the matter with that? Well, the "brutally honest" part is that, well, it apparently doesn't lead to some apotheosis of a socialist revolution where no one needs to work anymore. (Though the technologies Brand has hyped have done a hell of a lot more to change the quality and physical stress of a great deal of the work people do in modernity than a socialist revolution has ever managed.)

Forget the personal--all that matters is the political. "In the absence of a savvy political strategy, the maker movement could have even weaker political and social impact than [advocate and former Wired editor Chris] Anderson foresees," Morozov writes.

But its impact needn't be "political" or "social"--the very idea behind the movement doesn't require this. It is about expanding choice and power in how people choose to live and relate to the world of objects--it needn't, and probably shouldn't, get any more "political" or "social" than that. Or than the good kind of "social" that comes with working, making, and playing with your fellows in freely and delightfully chosen personal arrangements or events.

Yes, as Morozov points out, governments are out in the market spending massive amounts of money for its goals, and DARPA has found that "makers" can help them, and so they hire them. This need have no impact on how an individual chooses to use and incorporate maker tools or philosophy in his life.

Morozov has the usual problem of the socialist-leaning intellectual complainer of modernity--he doesn't really want to spend a lot of time spelling out what he does want (no one has to work, because, well, the state will take care of it) so he just moonily bitches about the ways other people choose to find fulfillment and joy.

Because, damn it, no matter how cheap and ubiquitious communication and tools become, everyone still isn't equal!

Now that money can be raised on sites such as Kickstarter, even large-scale investors have become unnecessary. But both overlook one key development: in a world where everyone is an entrepreneur, it's hard work getting others excited about funding your project. Money goes to those who know how to attract attention.

Simply put, if you need to raise money on Kickstarter, it helps to have fifty thousand Twitter followers, not fifty. It helps enormously if Google puts your product on the first page of search results, and making sure it stays there might require an investment in search-engine optimization. Some would view this new kind of immaterial labor as "virtual craftsmanship"; others as vulgar hustling. The good news is that now you don't have to worry about getting fired; the bad news is that you have to worry about getting downgraded by Google.

It's ultimately kind of gross (as was this earlier New Republic attack on Kickstarter)--social criticism as "I don't like it and I don't get it." Parts of Morozov's article work as relatively limp and voiceless and thin reporting on a phenomenon that is far too well along in the culture to be receiving this kind of "look at this!" level reporting from a supposedly serious magazine.

But there is a big point--the one atop Morozov's head:

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can't predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.

Don't seek joy, fulfillment, or power in your personal choices, in the day to day moments of your life and your relation to its things, experiences, and economy: work rather toward convincing a small elite above you to institute rules to force other people to do whatever they think is right with those other people's time and resources. Don't just Make--remake society (that is, everyone else)!

And my favorite lefty sneer, of the "if someone is making money off of it, it's bad" variety:

For all her sensitivity to questions of inequality, [old Arts and Crafts advocate Mary Dennett] also believed that, once "cheap electric power" is "at every village door," the "emancipation of the craftsman and the unchaining of art" would naturally follow. What electric company would disagree?

Well, sneers the politico-aesthete Morozov, electric power might be, ahem, useful, but you do realize a corporation is selling it to you? Need I say more?

Apparently not, this is the essay's slambang conclusion.

That Morozov found such a prominent place for this weak tea in the New Yorker is just one more tired and limp volley in an ancient old east coast vs. new west coast cultural wargame of long standing, the old literary staid literary political types vs. the new vibrant frontier markets and "personal liberation" types, but it doesn't make this piece's existence in "America's best magazine" any more defensible.

Morozov doesn't try to prove wrong Brand's judgments of the cultural impact of giving people tools, digital or physical, to make and shape their world--he just points at them and doesn't like them.

It's OK that he doesn't like them. Morozov doesn't have to make anything he doesn't want to make. He can happily not-hack the rest of his livelong days; he needn't make toys for his kids or drones for his entertainment or 3D print anything at all. He can even stop paying his electric bill.

But that tools for personal fulfillment that he doesn't care for exist and flourish makes the world a better place--for everyone but him, apparently. And you know what? That's OK too.

For more insights into Stewart Brand's work as an apostle for the tools of cool, see my 2006 review of a book about himFrom Counterculture to Cyberculture, and my 2010 interview with him.

Reason on Evgeny Morozov.