What happens when you give a fourth grader a power drill? With some wood and a little direction, she’ll create and decorate her own keepsake box. Change the drill out for a soldering iron and she’ll learning first-hand how to direct and manipulate the power of electricity. Children all over the world are learning how to use their hands and participating in the burgeoning Maker revolution.
Maker Culture is reinventing what some might remember as the Do-It-Yourself movement. This movement, coined the third industrial revolution,1 represents a new democratisation of manufacturing as citizens participate in commons-based production. This movement represents a unique opportunity for sustainability research because it disrupts the larger economic system by internalizing production, optimizes materials by recycling as often as possible, and supports free/open source materials for learning and building. Reclaiming production, combined with new patterns of local economic trade and development, have major implications for the dominant regime.
A Brief Maker History
The modern culture of making is backed by a rich history beginning with movements against industrialisation. In the 1880s the Arts and Crafts movement marked the beginning of Maker Culture philosophy. John Ruskin was one of the most prominent scholars promoting the movement:
… if the man’s mind as well as his heart went with his work, all this will be in the right places, and each part will set off the other; and the effect of the whole, as compared with the same design cut by a machine or a lifeless hand, will be like that of poetry well read and deeply felt to that of the same verses jangled by rote.2
William Morris brought Ruskin’s philosophical and architectural ideals to a more general level. He argued for social and economic reform via labour reform and bringing art back into society. He sought to advance ideals in consumption such as simplicity, utility, honesty, and nature. He argued that we should have ‘nothing in [our] houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.3
The Arts and Crafts movement was largely characterized as anti-industrial, or at least as a reaction against the rise of industrial production. Ruskin saw the new technologies of manufacturing as a radically transformative force, for the worse. Machine manufactured goods were missing the imperfection of handiwork that provides warmth of life.
Pre-industrial craft ideals and Arts and Crafts philosophy are now taken up in a late-capitalist context. The resurgence of making comes at the same time as the increasing popularity of online marketplaces, the online sharing economy, innovations in creation such as 3D printers, and a mass movement toward knowledge freedom and sharing with projects like open sourcing, and Massive Open Online Courses. In 2011 nearly 12 000 maker projects raised nearly $100 million and $300 million in 2013. By 2016, roughly half of American adults called themselves Makers as there is ‘an increased awareness of how broad making can be and how inclusive it can be…Makerspaces…have existed for huge amounts of time…woodshops, home-economics centers, model shops, and computer labs’.4
Craft is sometimes framed as an act of resistance as it empowers self-determination, challenges passive consumption, and undermines a highly resilient capitalist system.5–9 Makers want to identify as more than just a consumer within a capitalist state – their vision extends beyond neoliberalism with an underpinning of grassroots uprising or simply undermining the larger processes of production.10 Making can be easily incorporated into early education to begin transforming the way young people innovate, consume, and think about raw materials. Modern technology has made it easier than ever to find plans and tutorials, disseminate and share ideas, distribute items, create trusted transactions, and produce items in local contexts.
The new movement of Makers represents a real challenge to the larger capitalist system, but more specifically it counteracts alienation from the economy, and also from community. Coupled with growing environmental concerns and the rising cost of what were once cheap goods, Makers are filling an economic niche that also positively contributes to individual and collective psychology. Makers are reclaiming production and denying the formal economy their participation.11 By making, repairing, and hacking products, they are interrupting the formal economy, and empowering community members to take control of the process of production and de-alienate the process of production. Some Makers also believe that it is important to understand gadgets and products as a form of power over capitalist systems. This kind of politic resonates with those who resent the restraint and monotony of urban and city life.
Making as a Piece of a Holistic Informal Economy
In the small city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (PEI) on the East Coast of Canada, a group of particularly inspiring Makers are transforming their local economy. While the transformative role of making in cities has been repeatedly questions, PEI demonstrates how making can become central in a struggling economy, highlighted in four take-home messages:
1. Making generates community-owned economic structures, resources, and production
When beginning my research on the rise of Maker Culture across Canada, I wasn’t expecting what I found in Charlottetown. In major urban centres such as Toronto or Vancouver, Makers are meeting in maker spaces, selling their goods on Etsy, and attending large craft fairs – but it wasn’t changing the pattern of life for individuals involved with it. In Charlottetown, making is central to livelihood and lifestyle, not simply a supplementary job or hobby. Making in Charlottetown is central to a holistic alternative economy.
In the course of a year, I met with 152 Makers, 32% of whom are from Charlottetown, PEI, or nearby. The Makers I met in PEI all use making as their primary contribution to the household. The average age of PEI participants was 68 years old – 40 years older than the average age of those practicing Making in Toronto and Vancouver. 97.2% are married or in a long-term domestic partnership, while only 77% of those in Urban settings are in long-term committed partnerships. 97.2% of PEI Makers had children, while only 5% of urban Makers had children. I expected to see Makers in PEI utilizing online platforms such as Etsy, as it was so pervasive in other areas of Canada – yet only 5.5% have an active Etsy shop and an additional 5.5% sell their goods on their personal websites.
It’s not just their demographics that are different. Makers in PEI also have different priorities. They are committed to ethical making practices, dislike multinational corporations and actively avoid them, and sell primarily at local and community events. While there is no bartering or trading among Makers in urban centers, nearly half of all Makers in PEI depended upon various trade relationships in their community to produce their goods or as a means for well-being. Some trade raw materials that they themselves sourced (sheep’s wool) for other necessary materials for their crafting (dyes). Some trade their final products for another person’s final product or for locally produced foods.
I met with the director of Culture PEI, and he suggested that there is a feedback loop between networks of trade among Makers in PEI and the increased importance of relying on community. Eastern Canada has struggled for some time with questions regarding economic security – a reason many Makers turned to an entrepreneurial path – with that growing sense of insecurity came stronger community ties and a greater commitment to local production, trade, and helping one another out. As making became increasingly popular, it strengthened these bonds to include not just emotional ties but material livelihood ties – the kind of economic structures present in pre-industrial societies. PEI Makers rely on one another for success and sometimes see one another as extended members of their own family. In two instances I was inside the homes of two new mothers; their homes had been outfitted with needed infant and toddler goods from others in their community such as toys, blankets, bassinets, cribs, and clothes.
This relationship extends to the land, as well. PEI Makers tend to prefer materials that are locally sourced – they will either forage on their own or trade their goods for more raw materials. This improves the relationship with the land and instills a stronger sense of place. It also strips away the complexity of the global supply chain, eliminating overhead costs such as transportation, packaging, mass advertising, and storage.
In communities facing economic decline, it could be that making empowers a new kind of local economic production that improves emotive community relationships, reties economics to livelihood, and improves human-Earth relationships.
2. Makers create high quality, recycled, and meaningful goods
Although 3D printers are not commonly used in maker spaces (there is often one there, but not utilized), they are likely to become ubiquitous when the technology improves. Right now, the technology is too costly, but as the price comes down Makers will be able to print any simple thing they need in their homes. In the middle of my field research period, a part broke off a fan we have in our home. The broken piece was a 4’ long piece of plastic, with two hooks on either end – one of the hooks had broken. I called the manufacturer to see how much it would cost to fix – unsurprisingly, they said it couldn’t be fixed and we would simply need to buy new. Two weeks later, I attended a maker workshop at the Guelph Public Library, and brought the piece with me, along with a picture of the fan so I could show them how it attached. 40 minutes later, the broken piece had been printed – at no cost to me. This process will be extremely disruptive to existing business models. Not only will companies have to start thinking about how to make their products modular and repairable, but they will also have to provide the files for printing the pieces that people need. This would work against cheap throwaway goods for more expensive and longer lasting goods.
The very idea of repairable home goods is revolutionary enough on its own, but an inexpensive, reusable, and replicable house could change the face of poverty forever. Such ideas introduce an entirely new kind of economy. Rather than a growth economy, a Maker economy would help re-orient individuals away from a culture of work and production, and instead focus on what they need to psychologically thrive. Makers in PEI, and increasingly across the world, demonstrate that this doesn’t need to rely on 3D printing.
For now, the powerful outcomes of Maker Culture are the community, the specialness of products, and the higher quality of build. In Modernity and Self-Identity Giddens argues that a main feature of the modern experience is the construction and maintenance of self-identity as a narrative of the self.12 One of the biggest challenges to individuals in this experience is the great deal of choice people are presented with, accompanied by very little assistance in knowing what is the best choice. This is the reason why marketing and brand relationship building is so vital for companies. Individuals become so obsessed in this process, and so susceptible to advertising, that consumption develops into a substitute for “genuine development of self”.13 In the film Century of the Self Curtis makes very clear the extent to which, from the 1930s, psychological advertising and mass consumption simultaneously solved two problems: the problem of under-demand and the need to constantly create artificial needs and desires so as to sustain high levels of economic activity; and the problem of the political integration of individuals in an unstable mass society.14 With regard to the latter, and working for the American State Department, Freud’s nephew and pioneer of psychological advertising Edward Bernays argued that political consent could be manufactured by transforming rebellious citizens into passive consumers.
By the 1990s, individuals in search of community had integrated themselves into society via consumer behaviour to design and manage social identity. Consumption effectively replaced community as the vehicle of social integration. And thus, these processes discourage community to be included in evaluating the relationship between society and the environment. If a society is deeply embedded in this system of manufacturing self-identity via consumption, ecological political and economic interventions should attempt to break this relationship for the benefit of both the environment and wellbeing of individuals.
The role of ‘thoughtful consumption’ could play a significant role here. I’m referring to consumption that is focused on needs, the purchasing of special products, and buying local as often as possible – as well as a ban on advertising. One participant remarked on this, suggesting that once citizens own the means of production there would be greater likelihood of a reduction in consumption overall because there would be fewer, higher quality, and repairable goods for citizens to consume.
Another argued that this is important because people are beginning to crave “something special and physical, not just virtual and disposable. People want things that have meaning and are special, something that will last. There is a growing desire to have fewer, but more meaningful things”. 14.8% of the participants referenced individuals that bought a piece of their work for something special such as wearing the necklace at birth or commemorating a special moment in their life. I purchased a necklace from one of my participants with the birth gem for my daughter, who was born just a few months before I conducted my interview with this Maker – I understood this desire to purchase something special to commemorate a special event in my life.
One participant suggested that sometimes individuals fall in love with certain pieces because it brings them joy, and that “doesn’t often happen with mass produced materials that you would buy at a chain retailer. Then, the meaning goes even further, it becomes something in the consumer’s life that is a ritualized piece of their day. If it’s a mug, they use that special mug to drink every morning. If it’s a necklace, they remember something specific when they put that necklace on”. One participant argued that therefore crafters thrive better in communities “because people know their story more. That’s the huge strength of selling at a local craft show, you can attach the narrative to your piece and the experience and human connection”. However, consumption is a social structure and shifting one’s intention within that structure is very difficult.
3. Making contributes to an economy that supports community
Making as a central figure to local economic development also helps to garner and strengthen community. Makers rely on the network of other Makers, in their community and online, to learn to perfect their skill and to share resources. There is also a thriving gift and barter economy between Makers. While conducting my research in Prince Edward Island, I found that almost every Maker is willing and interested in bartering with other Makers. During interviews conducted with Etsy shop owners across Canada, they are similarly open to trades and bartering. Some Makers trade for the materials necessary to make their products while others trade their finished products (for example, beer and bread for pottery). Both kinds of trade are common.
Making as a community activity is an outcome that I expected to see in nearly all participants, however only 31.1% comment on the explicit need for community in their craft. This number grows slightly to 49.5% when including participants who comment on the need for community in relation to mentorship, trading, bartering, selling, or simply socializing and friendship.
These networks of trade among rural Makers increase the importance of community. 81.4% of the participants in PEI are members of the Crafter Guild which gets together as a community to socialize and to ensure that all crafters have what they need to be successful. Of this community, one participant said she ‘owed everything’ to them, because they had supported her through difficult times and continue to ensure she is taken care of while helping to get her back on her feet. 66.6% of PEI participants agreed that the community in PEI would certainly be there to catch one of their own if they fell into a state of need. One PEI maker said that their community “is everyone here that I live with, and they will always come first before anyone else who lives off of this farm. This community provides me with sustenance and satisfaction, so I don’t need to go beyond them”.
The community aspects to crafting and making are important to urban Makers as well, but only to the extent that another maker functions as an extended friend network. This could be less of a function of the urban and rural divide, and more of a function of mainland versus East Coast divide. Canadian East Coasters are stereotyped as being ‘friendlier’ and there are far fewer people so they’re more likely to build a community with one another. However, it could also be due to the Makers living closely to one another and relying on one another for goods – while urban Makers consume as regular citizens and buy materials online.
One participant stated that some Makers may be looking to fill a social void. In an open question to those at a Makerspace, 58.3% of the attendees said that they are joining hobby groups to fill a social void in their life. When asked why those chose maker groups one said it is because ‘it is social while learning something’ and another said ‘it isn’t just important to meet new people but meeting those people should also make you feel happier. Being here makes me happier because I’m learning, socializing, being creative…’.
4. Making contributes to an economy that improves mental health
A recent article in the Guardian entitled “Creating is not just a ‘nice’ activity; it transforms, connects and empowers”, argued that making leads to increased feelings of satisfaction, self-esteem, creativity, and joy in those that participate in it.15 My research echoes this argument. Thus, not only does the act of making challenge the dominant capitalist way of thinking, but it also inserts meaning into the process of consumption and production.
A participant in PEI was an accountant for four years. She hated it and ended up with debilitating depression. She quit and moved to PEI to be a potter where her depression quickly dissipated. Another was a software analyst for 19 years before quitting due to stress and depression. She also moved to PEI to become a potter, and her life drastically improved. One participant reflected on life after she began a new career and stopped making and quickly became depressed. She ‘wasn’t on the mend until [she] started making again’. She continued, saying ‘I tell all these young mom’s – do not under any circumstances stop making. It’s not only good for your life, but for the life of your children’.
Participants who left stressful mainstream jobs to become Makers, saw a significant improvement in their mental health. They all attributed this to becoming a Maker. Some even reflected that when they stopped making, their depression and anxiety would return until they began making again. While my sample size is too small to make a generalized or overarching statement, my findings are backed up by various studies.16–19 Making seems to be a useful tool for improving mental health, especially in women.
Making has been shown to improve self-esteem, confidence, and to provoke feelings of pride in one’s self. 91% of respondents in a pilot study conducted the year before my research noted that making provides them with a sense of accomplishment. Unprovoked, 70.7% of PEI participants said they moved to PEI or participated in craft to have a better quality of life. One specifically said she gave “up income for quality of life” and another phrased it as getting “paid in quality of life” – in both instances this quality of life was significantly enhanced by the act of making. Additionally, maker culture’s encouragement of local economies through sharing, trading, and local buying bolsters the self-esteem of individuals participating in it,20 creating a positive feedback loop for creating alternative local economies.
This links back to Herman Daly’s early arguments that community is the most important determinant of a socially responsible economy.21 If a group of people have a strong community, there may be a greater chance that the local prefigurative politic will take hold because there is critical mass. Therefore, in community settings, self-esteem inducing behaviours such as making can flourish more freely because they feed into the larger project of community success. This explains why Makers in PEI are more likely to share or gift their goods, and commented more regularly on the important and vital role community plays in their lives, hobbies, and livelihoods. Those in stronger and more holistic socio-economic settings are more likely to demonstrate inclinations towards the characteristics of the ecological economic social sphere that I have laid out.
Making As a Prefigurative Politics
Makers offer possibilities that, taken together with other social movements, could tip us toward a new alternative green modernity emerging from existing green radical agendas. This is the basis for ‘prefigurative politics’, which is the development of “shadow networks”22 of alternatives that could rapidly expand their reach in the wake of nonlinear systems change.
Prefigurative politics consist of social movements which create or embody the ontologies and structures they envision for a transformed society “by structuring their own practice according to the principles they want to see govern the whole society”23. For social movements working toward radical change, prefigurative politics is a way to enact new patterns of social relations that can be imagined from within the current system, but that diverge too much from the mainstream to gain widespread traction under existing conditions24. Most social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries such as those for women’s rights, the environment, peace, anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, economic equity, and Indigenous rights have included prefigurative elements.
Breines argues that the crux of prefigurative politics lies in the substantial task for individuals to live the practice of their movement so that relationships and political forms of the desired society are already in action.24 John Holloway argued that for those seeking to fundamentally transformation society the solutions is simple: “Refuse-and-create”!25 The route to overthrowing capitalism, Holloway argues, “lies in the proliferation of small-scale rebellions against capitalist logic”26 envisioned by “a multiplicity of interstitial movements” all with the same unifying thread: to overcome the alienation characteristics of capitalist labour and replace it with work and activities that are fulfilling, voluntary, and socially useful.
While a lot of current literature on prefigurative politics focuses on how activists should build social movements, the “original concept of prefigurative politics involves a politicization of everyday life”,27 so to capture the full spectrum of prefigurative politics we need to see changes in everyday life as radical acts of resistance – such as making, parenting, and being with family.
Makers combine elements from the high-tech world, green communities, and DIY culture – in doing so they implicitly encourage open source technologies, place making, and repairable/modular designs. All of which undermine the process of modern capitalism.
The outcomes of this maker study suggest that a prefigurative politic, such as Maker Culture, can potentially provide a widely appealing alternative to consumer society. This alternative can easily be supported by a municipal government, such as Kitchener’s ‘Make it Kitchener’ economic development strategy, adopted as a hobby for individuals, and bring people together in a community setting. Maker Culture does this in a way that improves individual’s self-esteem, disrupts the production chain in wider society, provides experience-based education opportunities, and is empowering for those who want to make a livelihood outside of mainstream systems. While doing so, it potentially reduces stress on the biosphere by providing meaning outside of consumption, supporting a culture of reduce, reuse, recycle, and encouraging a local economic system with elements of trade, bartering, and sharing.
Reciprocity and redistribution need to be combined in new ways that result in more localized, face-to-face relationships, and a redefining of success while continuing to utilize high-tech gadgetry and maintaining global empathy. Maker culture begins to do this and is therefore a key piece in designing a political-economy for the future.