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Meet Your Makers

From EduPunks to food jewelers, people are using new tools to take learning, art, entertainment, technology, politics, and even science into their own hands. Behold the growing Maker Movement.

By Pia Bahile, Curtis File and Kevin Young 15 Jan 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Curtis File is a MA Journalism student at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Pia Bahile and Kevin Young are third year journalism students at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.

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Hands-on approach: Maker Culture.

[Editor's note: The Tyee is proud to co-publish with Rabble.ca a multi-part, multi-media investigation of Maker Culture -- the do-it-yourself movement fast evolving in North America and beyond. In this first episode, the authors, who are Canadian student journalists, explain what Maker Culture is and look back on their journey as writers and unwitting makers. And they give you a small taste of what you can expect here on The Tyee on Fridays to come.]

What is a Maker?    

In Austin, Texas Cathy Wu is making jewelry out of dried fruit. In London, Ontario Brian Frank is educating himself in digital media. John Hammel, in St. Jacob's, Ontario, owns the last handmade corn broom plant in Canada. In the U.S. Rustbelt ordinary citizens are dropping by a community college to use laser cutters and 3D printers. And in homes all over the world, people are connecting to the Internet to discover galaxies or unfold the secrets of Alzheimer's and Parkison's Disease. What do they all have in common? They're all part of the same movement: Maker Culture.

Maker Culture? It's people taking things -- food, entertainment, technology, politics, and even science -- into their own hands. That's a simple definition and it's exactly where 45 Canadian journalism students began their journey in early September. That's when Wayne MacPhail, the instructor of the online journalism courses at both Ryerson University in Toronto and the University of Western Ontario in London, introduced us, his students, to the idea of Maker Culture. We discovered that a lot lies beneath that simple definition.  

This series is a first for The Tyee and Rabble.ca. They've never collaborated on editorial before. And it's a first for Ryerson and Western, too. The universities have never worked together on a journalistic project before. And for us? It was one first after another.

Some of the things we came across in the first few classes were jawdropping. Like the video MacPhail showed us of a three-dimensional printer that's able to replicate itself (you'll learn read about 3D printers in the Fabricator episode). Even so, we were not quite sure what Maker Culture was and what it had to do with us. "I guess I kind of thought that, you know, people had always been making things," said Geoff Turner, a UWO student in the Masters of Journalism program. He wasn't wrong. There have always been makers: web-hackers, hobbyists and ancient ancestors who created tools of survival. But the modern Maker Culture movement is more involved than that. It's about sharing what you've made, how you've made it, and why. Often, for free.

"Another word for it is the Enlightenment," said Cory Doctorow, a Canadian science fiction writer, activist and the author of the book Makers. "The advent of... public sharing of information and knowledge was the Enlightenment. It was the great leap in human progress that ended the dark ages." It is this sense of sharing and community that binds the self-educator to the broom-smith, and the broom-smith to a food artist who makes necklaces made of dried kiwi. What MacPhail noticed, and challenged us to document, was an over-arching cultural shift -- Maker Culture.

Our journey

It wasn't until four weeks in that we students began to notice, not only were we documenting the movement, we were engaging in it and were helping makers worldwide discover each other. That's because we published an ongoing blog about the project and posted hundreds of Twitter messages (#mcry) about our progress.

The collaboration between the two universities led to an exploration of Maker Culture that went beyond what we expected. Some groups immersed themselves to the point that they furthered the movement.

The food group hosted a latte art party to see what traditional artists would do when they could play with their food. The event was an evening of sticky chocolate drizzles, cinnamon sugar and amazing latte art. There was even a latte dedicated to climate change, which had swirling white cream that looked like a satellite image of a hurricane burrowing through the Atlantic.  

The education group organized an entire conference dedicated to the EduPunk movement. It drew participants and viewers from all over the world and was streamed live on the Web. And the fabricators group took a road trip into the Rustbelt of America looking for the next wave of industrialization, where the means of production is a laser and a printer that can make its own parts.

(Video: James Arlen, a noted proponent of maker culture, on when kids make real stuff in a virtual world.)

What you can expect

The Maker Culture project took us to places far outside of the mainstream to a breadth and depth we never imagined when most of us walked into class on the first day of school. What we once conceived of as background noise has become a series of stories, podcasts and videos that tell the tale of Maker Culture at the micro and macro levels of society. At the heart of all these stories are individuals who are committed to the assertion of self in the face of globalization, commercialization and centralization.

Let's start with food. The food group at Ryerson University encountered individuals who view food as more than a relationship between agribusiness and the consumer.  

To these makers, food is a means to create art, to share ideas, to protect the environment and even a way to stick it to the man. If the thought of using your chewing gum to make art has never crossed your mind, be prepared to meet 39-year-old gum artist Jamie Marraccini.

If you've ever thought about ditching the LCBO and brewing your own alcohol, make sure you read the food group's piece about a New Zealander who makes his own "kiwi" still. 

These stories about gum art and home-brewed alcohol are two of several that will take you to a place far removed from last night's takeout.      

Along with food, shelter and clothing are vital to our survival, and more often than not, just consumer items we buy, use and leave behind.

The culture group interviewed men and women who work with kangaroo leather lace, seal skin, bowhead whales bones, strawbales and other materials to create extraordinary garments and dwellings with their own hands.

Activist/knitter/academic Betsy Greer reflects the sentiments of many makers the Culture group met on her website. "[Making is] a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite," Greer states.

Greer reflects the sentiments of many makers the culture group met on her website. "[Making is] a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite," Greer states. 

Fruit of the geeks

One of the defining characteristics of the burgeoning Maker Culture movement is the use the technology at hand for unintended purposes. Some of the first people to do this were hackers, who appeared 150 years ago. These pioneers were teenaged boys who acted as the first telephone switchboard operators before they got replaced by young women for causing mischief by hacking the system.  From the Mozilla Foundation to Drumbeat to the creation of Apple Inc, the Hackers group looked beyond the stereotype of the geek behind the computer screen committing cybercrimes to unearth stories about groups of individuals cooperating to reinterpret available software to make it better, faster and more interesting. 

Science has long been a realm that has belonged to, well, scientists. The Science group discovered that today, citizen scientists are making personal advancements while advancing the field of science. The gamut runs from a Dutch teacher discovering galaxies in her spare time to the husband of an ailing wife doing genetic research on his personal computer. The significance of citizen science is likely to be enormous. "The more access more scientists can have to analyzing data, the closer to truth we’re likely to get," said Dr. Micheal Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine.

(Video: Meet the maker of her own kite-cam, filmed at Makerfest in Hamilton, Ontario.)

Makers across the globe are affecting change in institutions like education, media and politics, institutions that are sometimes synonymous with groupthink, conformity and stagnancy. An EduPunk is someone who keenly understands that the Information Age in which we live combined with Web 2.0 is causing a profound shift in how the mind can be cultivated. These contemporary Renaissance men and women are learning to learn outside of the staid and circumscribed traditional educational system through the use of wikis, open-source textbooks and the like.

The Education group at UWO spoke to some of the leading proponents of the EduPunk movement who expressed their thoughts on how the movement started, why the movement is necessary and the challenges of being an Edupunk. Follow the Education group's journey to find out why they boldly declare that, "We may be the last generation to attend traditional schools."

Personal, political mash-ups

In a 1969 essay, feminist Carol Hasnisch coined the now famous phrase, "The personal is political." The politics group at UWO went on a quest to see whether this phrase is true, examining grassroots political action at the local level as well as the international level. From the Toronto Cyclists Union to the ChangeCamp political movement to the Toronto Bolivia Solidarity activist group, makers all over the world are using technology to rattle the status quo, redefine what it means to be a citizen and change the world.

One particularly interesting story covered by the politics group is the tale of Bolivia, where in 2005, Evo Morales became the first indigineous Bolivian to rule the country in almot five centuries. The group found out that the Western media doesn't cover Bolivia because they cannot villanize Morales. This episode is not to be missed. 

The media group investigated the ways in which makers are taking literature, music, zines and brainpower and creating quirky, interesting and collaborative media, with wide-ranging effects. "Having a generation that knows how the media sells them things, attracts their votes, changes their minds is going to be a vital part of 21st century democracy," said Brett Gaylor, who directed a documentary on music mash-ups titled RiP! A Remix Manifesto.

A transforming moment

There is no doubt that the Maker Culture movement will have effects and ramifications beyond our political system. In fact, Maker Culture will do much to change and form human existence in the near and distant future. When Alexander Honkala, the head of All Hands Now, was asked by Mark Melnychuk why he is a maker, he responded, "The answer is I want it to exist in the world, that's it."

Melnychuk is a member of the What's Next group, who will be exploring the implications of being a maker in a world where we will be able to bypass the corporation, circumvent laws and prolong life. How will we navigate and understand our world when we are able to print vital organs from a 3D printer? 

Join us in the coming weeks as we delve into the past, present, and future exploits of those who choose to exist in the world as makers of change and makers of community. As you learn more and more about Maker Culture, we ask you to ponder one question: It's your world, what are you going to make of it?

Are you a member of Maker Culture? Please post a comment below sharing what you do, how you do it, and perhaps even why.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Science + Tech

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