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


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.

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  1. Huh. A worthless article filled with self-important posturing and unsubstantiated bullshit in the New Yorker? First time for everything, I suppose.

  2. You know that joke about how every New Yorker cartoon could fittingly be captioned with, “Christ, what an asshole!”?

    I’m starting to realize it applies just as well to the articles.

  3. 1) “New Yorker prints typically New Yorker article, film at 11”.

    2) I approve of making things, but I am increasingly annoyed by the idea of “maker” as a label or movement.

    It has a totalizing feel to it, and I expect any day now (or indeed, already, probably), to be find a “Maker Manifesto” demanding that people who make things join the author’s social projects Because That’s What Making Is Really About.

    Movements should be distrusted until they prove otherwise.

    1. Psst….over here!

      Likewise, recall the utter hysteria from many of the “maker movement” when Defense Distributed actually used 3-d printing for something useful, as opposed to “ironically” printing out kitschy garden gnomes or some other bullshit.

    2. Especially since Scott Card has a claim on that particular sobriquet

    3. That sounds about right.

    4. Meh…

      A more likely scenario is that someone makes something cool that runs afoul of some urban planner and the makers revolt at zoning board meetings nation wide.

      I would kind of like that actually.

  4. None of this is surprising. Many on the Left are effetes. The Maker culture is about actually producing useful products. To them that’s just vulgar. Sure they like and support “locally produced hand crafted products” or art, but Makers are using machines to make “consumption” goods. And non-biodegradable, non-recycled, not organic goods at that.

    Essentially the Maker culture (The Ants) is based on crafters making consumption goods for their own consumption. For a good chunk of the Left, the Ants are to be despised, and they believe the Ants Labor should be heavily taxed to support the Grasshoppers.

    1. Yes. Maker culture is about actually getting your hands dirty, by working with, you know TOOLS.

      Power saws and CNC mills and 3D printers and welders, it’s all so blue collar.

      When the left moons over hand-crafted products, they are always assuming that none of those products involved the use of electricity. That sweater has to be from hand-carded wool from an organically raised sheep shorn painstakingly with actual shears.

      I was at a Maker event last week. There were a bunch of people knitting, and then there was one guy repairing an antique KNITTING MACHINE. That’s the guy that Morozov would hate. How dare you one-up the artesianal sock-makers by making a sock-knitting machine?

  5. …”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?”

    This shows why, when you run into an essay that is somewhat confusing, it’s worth it to kinda cheat and check the end.
    Often an imbecilic assertion such as this is the basis and reading the entire thing just means grinding your teeth at the continued stupidity.

  6. Meanwhile, the prospect of being able to print guns, drug paraphernalia, and other regulated objects appeals to libertarians.

    Go fuck yourself, Morozov.

  7. It’s pathetic watching old lefties strapping boosters to their own decline and rocketing further into irrelevence.

  8. Speaking of ignorant assholes writing absurd articles

    I worked to elect this president because I knew he understood, viscerally, how one can do all the right things and still fall through the cracks of the American Dream. With a single mother, a college transfer, and some critical theory at Harvard Law School under his belt, I believe this president knows that greater “access” means not just raising the ceiling for a few kids who deserve it but also raising the floor, no matter whether someone in Washington thinks you deserve it.

    Probably the single best proposal for higher education isn’t a higher-education proposal at all. A federal job guarantee has moved from fringe economic proposal to mainstream consideration. A recent Rolling Stone article may be the general-awareness tipping point, but it isn’t a new idea. For years there has been a steady drumbeat for a wage guarantee that would raise the floor on poverty and economic insecurity…A federal job guarantee would reconfigure the emotional and financial cost of going to college. When living-wage jobs are contracting, people are willing to pay a premium for any leg up in the job market. Choosing college out of desperation justifies rising tuitions and predatory for-profit colleges that market themselves as insurance against job insecurity.

    It gets better.

    1. Which all explains why a job guarantee, which is usually considered a labor policy, could also be an education policy. The majority of incoming college freshmen are going to college because they want a job?not just any job, but a good job. They are not alone. People weigh the emotional and financial cost of college against how badly they want a good job. Everyone deserves to choose college without desperation shaping their choices. A floor beneath wages could give that freedom to more Americans.

      Economists Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton have gone further, arguing that a job guarantee, if carefully designed, could also reduce racial discrimination in the labor market. African-Americans and Hispanics at every level of educational attainment earn less than white workers. Essentially, a job guarantee would subsidize the competitive price for minority labor. It is difficult to imagine that doing anything but improving the educational returns for minority students.

      Imagine the freedom to not have to work hard in college or pick a major program that offers you valuable skills that there is a demand for!

      You could just do party, have lots of sex, eventually graduate, and still get a job!

      Oh, and lest you think the author is disinterested:

      Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Slate writer and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University. Follow her on Twitter.

      1. Imagine the freedom to not have to work hard in college or pick a major program that offers you valuable skills that there is a demand for!

        You could just do party, have lots of sex, eventually graduate, and still get a job!

        So, Europe, then.

        1. Except for the job part. It’s always “except the job part” until the forced conscription starts.

      2. “in sociology”
        Say no more!

    2. Did you follow the link to her Twitter? I actually started leaking cerebrospinal fluid from my nose.

  9. Mr. Doherty, I have enjoyed your writing for years, so I owe you a debt of thanks, long overdue. You’ve an admirably light touch here; should I assume you feel this sadsack nonsense speaks for itself? If so, you are right, it does.

    I stopped reading The New Yorker regularly over 20 years ago, and from the pieces I have read since, any claim it may once have had to being America’s best magazine has long since died. Alas.

    I remember nostalgically when Robert Bork was put forward for the Supreme Court, the New Yorker was the only place I read anything truly cogent – that Bork had written that the notion of rights inhering in the individual was “absurd.” Nothing – NOTHING reported anywhere else was so damning.

    Anyway, thanks for all the pleasure you have given me, and for the pleasure I epect with confidence in the future. Just saying.

    1. Dreiberg and Jupiter should have lived the rest of their days in abject shame for what they allowed Veidt to get away with.

      Especially since Veidt’s scheme was doomed to failure anyway. No way could the tenuous peace his genocide achieved have lasted more than a few years.

      1. Dreiberg and Jupiter should have lived the rest of their days in abject shame for what they allowed Veidt to get away with.

        What I like to think what happened was that the New Statesman did publish ‘Shack’s diary and the whole damn thing collapsed on Veidt’s head.

        Contemporary to this, Frank Miller beats Moore’s face into a mushy, bloody pulp and prevents Grant Morrison from being born.

        1. Moore stopped the story at a point very convenient for his own leftist beliefs. Once establishing the need for secrecy and the.justification of murder to.maintain it, Veidt would never.have been able to stop the.inevitable slide.into dictatorship.

  10. The important thing is that, by the end of the article, everyone had got off his lawn.

  11. D’Sousa, IRS, S&P, James O’Keefe….

    Where does it stop?

    1. In the next thread over?

  12. This is actually comforting.

    It isn’t so much that the left hate libertarians…it is that they hate what people do without permission.

    They just hate us peripherally because we think it is ok for people to do without permission.

  13. I think I finally understand it.

    You know who socialists are?
    Socialists are the modern descendents of the old, idle, and no longer rich, upper class. They are the descendents of people who never had to work for a living and they resent the fact that they are expected to do so now. They are offended that such luminescent intellects as themselves should have to sully themselves with the “stuff” of mere mortals. So they spend their time complaining about how terrible it is to have to work and concoct elaborate schemes that allows them to get paid to complain about it, under the guise of defending the poor man. It’s the same vast class of idle worthless parasites that has always plagued Western Europe, just rebranded.

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