27 February 2014
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States attempted to close the perceived gap between Soviet and U.S. scientists by establishing the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, which provided $887 million for improvements in education over four years. Among the Act’s areas of focus were science, mathematics, and technical fields. The years that followed saw the expansion of “shop” classes in schools, the institution of classroom labs, the proliferation of science fairs and math clubs, and the creation of award incentives like the Westinghouse Science Honors Institute for high school students. Through the NDEA, hundreds of schools received funding for the construction of planetariums and space science classrooms within their buildings. NDEA was a top-down directive: theidea was to create a new generation of scientists and engineers to help the United States maintain its military status and competitiveness in a global economy.
The type of training that many baby boomers received during this period has faded from the agenda of American public schools today—to say nothing of the fact that creativity receives even less of a focus. As many have pointed out, the U.S. government’s more recent STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) education focus lacks STEAM because of its omission of Art—a key ingredient in the alloy of innovation.
Enter the Maker Movement: a grassroots, peer-to-peer, open source cultural force that embodies a hands-on approach to building, modifying, and repairing things. Popularized by the publication of Make magazine, which appeared on newsstands in 2005 and has since served as a principal organizing voice, the Maker Movement has empowered countless basement tinkerers to seek community and share their projects with one another. Hacker spaces around the world now provide a kind of shared “studio space,” where for a modest membership fee, one can gain access to a basic machine shop, pooled materials, and a diverse knowledge network. International associations like Dorkbot have also created a meeting place for artists, engineers, designers, scientists, and inventors to present their ideas and processes in plain language.
An alternative economy has emerged around maker culture, one positioned outside the mainstream marketplace. Thanks to Kickstarter.com, a site launched in 2009, makers can now raise funds for their projects through “crowd-funding.” Sites like Etsy.com also serve as an alternative marketplace for selling handmade products and inventions.
The maker methodology thus inverts the former NDEA model of top-down education and replaces it with a grassroots network of DIYers (Do It Yourself-ers) and DIWOers (Do It With Others-ers) who revel in complex projects adapting antiquated electronics, household materials, and modified consumer products. A maker slogan says it all: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”
The Maker Movement champions the handmade and the functional, the incorporation of everyday materials, and the inclusion of the untrained and nonprofessionals in the creative process. In general, it exhibits a reluctance to participate in the mainstream culture of mass production and an opposition to proprietary technology—makers share information about hacking and modifying commercially manufactured products. In this way, the Maker Movement has origins all over the creative sphere: in the Arts and Crafts movement, in folk art, in industrial design, and in punk rock.
Artists have long embodied the values of maker culture: to use the materials immediately available, to recycle, to make and grow one’s own, to create new forms from old ones, to customize, and to approach materials with curiosity and a desire to understand the way things work. In a sense, maker culture is the popular adoption of artistic values that have existed at least as far back as the fifteenth century, a time when Renaissance humanism asserted that individuals had the capacity to embrace, understand, and apply all areas of knowledge. The difference is that while artists once made things from nothing, makers and their allies make things from other things. And the end product can have, literally, astronomical implications.
In August 2010, Brooklyn dad Luke Geissbuhler and his son Max managed to send a homemade spacecraft nineteen miles into the sky to record video from the Earth’s stratosphere. The duo took eight months to build their craft, which included an iPhone, GPS equipment, an HD video camera, and some hand-warmers, all housed in an insulated case and pulled by a nineteen-inch weather balloon. A sevenyear- old child sending a homespun craft into space: this is something that if stated in the mission of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, would have seemed spurious and absurd.
And yet it is somehow its consequence.