Life

A Tyee Series

Our Future Remade by 'Maker Culture'

Do-it-yourself robots, weapons, even human organs. Open source tech makes it possible, but do we want this? Last in a series.

By Savithri Sastri, Colin Schultz, Mark Melnychuk and Julianne Hazlewood, 26 Mar 2010, TheTyee.ca

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow: "Open source speeds up capitalism."

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[Editor's note: The Tyee is proud to co-publish with Rabble.ca a multi-part investigation of Maker Culture -- the do-it-yourself movement fast evolving in North America and beyond. This is the last of 11 installments. Find accompanying podcasts, photos, videos and blog here.]

If in the near future individuals or small teams of people, rather than highly organized corporations, can make everything: including children's toys, weapons, cars, or our own organs, then what?

And what are the legal, corporate, cultural and psychological roadblocks Maker Culture needs to break through to become mainstream?

And what makes a maker make, anyway? 

Those are some questions raised in articles running here over the past 11 weeks. As we bring this series to a close today, let's take a curious tour of a future re-made by Maker Culture.

Maker motivation

When you look at maker culture from the outside, you might ask, "Why would anyone want to build something when they could just buy it?"

"The answer is, 'I want it to exist in the world,' that's it," said Alexander Honkala.

At his day job, Honkala works in biotechnology research but he's also the head of All Hands Active. Currently the lab is building a robot that gives hugs and random advice. It's also making a suit that plays electronic drum beats. And like others involved with the Maker Culture, they're not going to make any money doing it.

But the lab isn't just about building machines, it's also about building a culture. Honkala wants to get past the barrier of the techno geek and reach out to people from all walks of life. This includes people who might not be tech enthusiasts, including artists, musicians and anyone else who isn't necessarily a white male. Honkala wants people to experience the same kind of satisfaction he gets from building something from scratch.

"To me it's a natural extension of a creative impulse and I'm happiest when I'm making something," said Honkala.

But the need to create may go even deeper. Dr. Laura Freberg, a professor at California Polytechnic, sees the culture as a way for people to get back to their roots. She believes the fulfillment a person gets out of doing something for themselves can be traced back to the theory of evolutionary psychology. Freberg explains that people once had to produce for themselves and the urge still exists today. Whether it's building a computer or something as simple as fishing, the extra effort carries a sense of fulfillment that could reside in many others. 

"You're tapping into a sort of primeval source of satisfaction people have... and I do think some of those ideas are very contagious."

But the concept of open source labour sounds pretty strange in today's society. Since people are raised within the cult of consumption, getting them to realize the reward that comes from open source creation can be a challenge. Honkala admits there's skepticism towards the movement when people learn there's no attention paid to a bottom line, but thinks naysayers could get pumped for maker culture if they could experience the results. He feels if people took control again they would want to know more about how the world around them works. If people had to make like their ancestors, they also might know more about themselves.

Making a drum suit might still be complicated, but Honkala says the benefit to making rather than consuming is simple: "If people are so far removed from their curiosity, from their imagination... it's like they've lost everything that made childhood special."

Mind your business

What Clive Thompson imagines for the future of business would give most MBAs cold sweats. Thompson's all about giving stuff -- code, goods, ideas -- away for free. For Thompson, a New York-based writer for Wired and the New York Times magazine, it's all about the open source. "Open source will make it easier for people to make lots and lots of money," said Thompson.

In the past, businesses had to spend a lot of money on licensing software.  Now they can use free open source programs like Linux. The cost of starting a company has decreased so more people are doing it, Thompson said. 

"Open source catalyses the free market and speeds up capitalism."

People making things and sharing ideas is the heart of maker culture so if you want to run a successful business, make some friends. In the maker world, social capital can be more valuable than investment capital. Cory Doctorow buys that. He's an activist, a sci-fi author and a maker who's most recent work is called Makers.

"Sharing has a direct benefit to people who are making," said Doctorow. "Other people will help you make stuff better." His book explores what the future might look like if maker culture goes mainstream.

The Maker Culture movement is changing the way traditional businesses operate. The book publishing industry is being revolutionized by print-on-demand from sites like Lulu.com. Forget capital and bulk production orders. All you need to publish a book is an idea and a computer, said Thompson. 

Technology is also enabling people to access a global marketplace.  Online communities like Etsy connect people from around the world to buy, sell and share things made by hand. "We are a platform for people to start and grow their own businesses," said Adam Brown, a spokesperson from Etsy.

Etsy reports it has 3.2 million users worldwide and has grossed over US $133 million by Oct. 2009, which shows the large demand for handcrafted products. This is a long way from their modest earnings of US $166,000 four years ago.

Etsy's popularity exploded with the growing interest in maker culture. People are beginning to appreciate quality handmade goods. "I think it's a reaction against big box culture that was prevalent in the '80s and '90s," said Brown. People want to express their identity and style with unique, customized goods, he said. 

"Our goal is always to make the best, most vibrant, innovative marketplace... and make it a fun place for people to shop and look at art and design," said Brown. The future isn't going to be more entrepreneurial, said Doctorow. "I think the right word is creative."

Judge me

Devin McPherson got something that costs $20,000 for $400. It wasn't stolen or fake. He just made it himself. He fitted aluminum pipes and cut plexi-glass to create a machine that prints out 3D objects instead of paper. It wasn't his invention. He got the design from someone who shared it for free through open source.

"You have all the power with open source," says McPherson. "I can make a 3D printer... and then use my printer to make parts for other printers."

Although open source isn't a legislated movement, it doesn't violate any laws, says Margaret Ann Wilkinson. She's the director of Intellectual Property, Information and Technology Law at the University of Western Ontario. "It's basically philanthropy by international copyright owners, giving up certain rights, in order to allow the public to do whatever they want with the material."

Cory Doctorow gave up his traditional copyright when he made his book Makers available online for free. He shared his content under the Creative Commons license which allows artists, musicians and educators to share their work. But there are certain conditions that can be attached to this -- like users may have to attribute the work and use it only for noncommercial purposes. Doctorow gets to choose which of these conditions will apply to his material. But he doesn't think open source and Creative Commons prevents all legal barriers within Maker Culture. "In many forms of media, the more expansive copyright is, the harder it is to make new media, because you often take pieces of old media."

He says music sampling, an art form that uses sound recordings from different songs to make a new song, is an example of this. If a sampling artist isn't represented by a major record label, it's nearly impossible to get the licensing they need to make their music, Doctorow said. And if they can get the licensing, it's often unrealistic to pay the millions of dollars required for the rights. If the music falls under the Creative Commons license, a sampling artist would be able to use this music, perhaps with some restrictions.

But, major record labels own the copyright for the majority of musical works. Creative Commons may open the doors for some sampling artists, but the reality is that many artists can't make their music because of copyright barriers.

It's like a "tollbooth between your idea and the world," said Doctorow.

Wilkinson doesn't see the law changing anytime soon to eliminate that toll booth. "When a government tries to get in front of a social change like Maker Culture and legislate advanced solutions, it just doesn't work." 

The heart of the matter

Bad news, you need a kidney transplant from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. Worse still, the waiting list is over five years. As we learned from Matt Lundy in the Fabricators episode of this series, the solution might be available soon, but the costs might be a little high to do-it-yourself.

Matt explained researchers are working on a 3D organ printer, a nifty little gadget that may soon let us print out fully functional organs. He introduced us to Dr. Vladimir Mironov, a propelling force behind the 3D organ printer, and an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, who said that reality isn't so far off.

The simple things, like blood and skin are already on the market, said Mirinov. They took ten years to develop, and $200 million to get cleared by the FDA, he said. This is a paltry sum compared to printing a complex organ like a kidney, he said.

"It'll probably be a nightmare to get FDA permission if you are really talking about creating human organs. FDA approval will cost close to $1 billion and one kidney will cost $250,000 at least," he said.

Printing organs is a realistic, but lofty goal. It's one Mironov doesn't think will happen without a lot of help. Financial help.

"My feeling is that in an academic environment it's just not realistic. You must have a very well-funded start-up company which can raise enough money to bring this to market," said Mironov.

Mironov points out strong benefits to this sort of tech -- replacing a kidney could replace years of costly dialysis treatment, or worse. Quality of life for people would improve. But, which people?

"With regular organ transplants, you don't pay for them, but access is always a huge issue," said Lawrence Burns, a specialist in bioethics with the department of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.

"I think the only really genuine moral issue that springs around access is -- people on waiting lists who can afford it would then go purchase these [printed organs], and that creates a kind of two-tier system," said Burns.

Sure, we could skirt the legalities. But is the production of human organs really something we want to be unregulated? The development of this technology would probably need heavy industry or government backing, said Mironov. But, if that is ever going to happen, backers will need to convince a squeamish government. The debate around stem cell research and cloning is pretty fierce, and it's easy to see how 3D organ printers could tread the same path. Burns doesn't think the public will be so hard to convince.

"You get so many prosthetic parts, people are happy to have metal and plastics and things in their bodies," he said.

"If you make a heart and they don't see process, but if you can point to the box and say, 'There's a heart in there that can work, and all we have to do is put it in your body,'" said Burns, "I think people wouldn't necessarily see that as different from having a donor."

Before maker culture can take on the world it will have to break down barriers and capture the hearts of people, literally in some cases. It's not going to be easy. But then again, nothing worth making ever is.  [Tyee]

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