First came the Great Recession. Then came the Great Automation. Now we have a growing population of underemployed and disempowered, yet curious, capable and conscious people in need of an outlet. What are we going to do with them?
Teach them to make quirky new gadgets out of old and random stuff!
"Because it's fun!" says Charlie Lindahl, a Houston-based systems analyst and super enthusiast of the maker movement, a technology driven sub-culture of the DIY revolution.
Do-It-Yourself isn't just for people with nothing better to do. It's for people of all ages who are intentional about learning, achievement and skills mastery. Makers include coders, knitters, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, masters of the new 3-D printing process, apprentices of digital fabrication and anyone else that wants to use their hands to create.
Charlie's passion for this intriguing, if geeky, movement is infectious. It's not surprising, given that his computer science experience extends back to his childhood. His father's career as an electrical engineer and university professor gave Charlie privileged access to computers during his most formative years.
"I had unlimited computer time since I was 13 years old," he told me. "I learned computer programming in '68 and '69 with a modem using an interactive terminal back when everyone was using batch processing with punched cards. Trying to explain this to people was like being an alien."
I very nearly wrote off Charlie's talk as total weirdness myself, but listening to him speak, I reconsidered. What if he saw something that I couldn't see? As he explained:
Makers is such a strange niche. It brings together a whole lot of stuff that I deeply believe in: education, technology, interdisciplinary teamwork, community and reuse. This is a local and global continuation of thousands of years of craftsmanship. It isn't about tearing things apart. We are putting pieces together to make new things. Think of it as 'disruption for good.'
When you put it like that, the popularity of the maker movement makes perfect sense. See, when a system stops working -- say American manufacturing -- doldrums can drag on for years. As certain careers disappear and new roles emerge, folks in transition are wondering, "Is there something else out there that I can do?"
And then there's me: content with my career path but still wondering what potential lies underneath my very specific, if not very practical, skills. At times I wonder, "Could these hands be made for more than typing?"
Around the world, people are exploring these questions by joining makerspaces and hackerspaces like this one in Houston. Some makers are constructing new careers as they construct new gadgets. Some makers are skilled artisans seeking a supportive or collaborative community. Some makers are hobbyists interested in the robotics wave.
And some savvy startups are creating kits to simplify the process. Little Bits makes prototyping with electronics simple and fun, like putting together a puzzle. Arduino is an inexpensive microcontroller/computer that can be used for many small DIY or "physical and wearable computing" projects. Adafruit is a company that sells the pieces and makes the tutorials. Among other things, you can sew your own owl.
"For about $20, you've got sewing, you've got electronics, you've got soldering, and you end up with a toy that chirps," said Charlie.
Lindahl and his partner, Ron Blake (aka "The Greymaker") plan to introduce these concepts to kids, parents, grandparents and scouting troops through their startup Merrymaker Labs. They are presently rolling out a curriculum called "No Fear Electronics." This is good, because electronics do cause fear.
Most people don't know how electricity is made, let alone have the means to make it ourselves. It is difficult to plug in to a process that you don't understand. Seeking to rectify this, Charlie gave me a challenge: make a squishy circuit with my kids. I can mess up making rice, but in spite of that (or maybe because of it) I decided to try it.
Checking my cabinets, I had all the ingredients for the conductive play-dough except lemon juice, so I picked that up at the store on my way to Radio Shack, where I purchased battery packs and bulbs. It all came together pretty easily for under $20.00.
But could I convince my kids to put down Minecraft to do a real craft with me? I first tried enticing them with some YouTube clips about how batteries work, but a few boos later, I got wiser and stopped calling it an "educational activity." The kids had blast mixing and coloring the conductive and insulating play-dough. And once I relaxed, I realized that I was having fun also.
When it came time to assemble our squishy circuits, somebody decided that constructing a mini Stonehenge would be the best conduit for the electricity that would flow from the battery pack to the bulb. After an hour or so of play, the moment of truth was upon us.
Would the light bulbs on top of our mini Stonehenges light up when we flipped the 'on' switches?
No. The bulbs did not turn on.
This was disappointing, but after some investigation, we realized that our so-called conductive play-dough could be the culprit (probably our own error during the prep process). So we shed the non-performing dough and tinkered with the components, ensuring that the cathode and anode from the LED bulbs where touching the leads from the battery pack. The kids flipped their switches again.
We had illumination.
Yes, yes, yes!
Charlie was right. Making stuff with your hands is joyful, especially if you detach from the outcome. So what if our conductive play-dough didn't work? That was a minor failure. On the massively thrilling discovery end of the spectrum, our light bulbs turned on. Who knew that learning about electronics could be so much fun?
The joy of DIY is being ignited all over the world, and the economic implications of the maker movement are vast. At around 65,000 sq. ft., the Columbus Idea Foundry is the biggest makers space in the Rust Belt. I've written on the renaissance in the Rust Belt before, but this time we're not talking about a corporate behemoth building a new headquarters. Rather, this is the embodiment of the regenerative power of individuals joining forces to repurpose materials and buildings to birth new ideas and companies.
As President Obama told the crowd that gathered at the first White House Maker Faire this summer,
Today's DIY is tomorrow's 'Made in America'... Your projects are examples of a revolution that's taking place in American manufacturing -- a revolution that can help us create new jobs and industries for decades to come.
In the 16th century, the flowering of modern civilization occurred with the rise of artisans, and it looks to be happening again, post-modern style. But lofty ideas aside, my DIY experiment was really just a good excuse to get unplugged and join my kids in playing again.
Because it's fun!