Recently, I attended MakerCon 2015 at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. It was a packed day and there is a lot to reflect on. Two panels, in particular, stood out for me and I’d like to offer a few comments on one of them today.
The distributed making panel was one of the final sessions for the day but in many ways was an opening for many other conversations that need to unfold around making and its impact in the world. The session focused on the power of networks within the maker movement, and the ability to use these networks for manufacturing at a distance as well as sharing and collaboration. It also emphasized some of the challenges faced by the maker movement if it is hoping to have a real and lasting impact in critical zones.
Critical zones is perhaps a polite way to say disadvantaged, or disaster or war torn communities. But that is one aspect that needs to be addressed head on. Is making a cool hobby, a way for emerging entrepreneurs to prototype new things to manufacture or an emerging alternative to existing structures that can distribute benefits, technologies, etc…(I know it is not an either or but much of what I heard at MakerCon seemed to exclude or, at best, not point towards the potential of maker confederations, cooperatives or any alternative economic system that could arise from a truly democratized technology*). The potential positive impacts of a networked manufacturing process that could create access to cself made and modified tools in the field, on the fly, is (could be) a paradigm shifting innovation. A lot points to that becoming real.
But, even with an optimistic spin, there are major obstacles in the way. Costs, appropriateness of available materials, impacts and consequences of new technologies in the field…there are so many ways new technologies could be used to replicate existing power systems, or increase imbalances, that it is difficult to remain hopeful. And, especially in regards to technology, we have seen the promise of (insert favorite life changing object or device here) to change the world as not much more that clever marketing scheme.
Even so, some of the stories shared by the panelists at MakerCon were hopeful, even if filled with challenges. David Ott (@d_ott), from the ICRC, grounded the discussion in the realities of humanitarian aid and the possibilities of making in disaster and war zones. The harsh realities were impossible to ignore, and some of the rosy hue of making faded. It may be wonderful to have a distributed network of 3d printers at hand, but if there is no electricity, if the printing materials are of poor quality, if roads are devastated and impassable – well, there is still some distance to travel in order to make distributed making of use in (I was tempted to say atypical situations, but really situations of poverty, disaster and war are more realistically typical, as sad as that is) critical zones.
Sort of on-topic and well worth checking out – MakerNurse (and related to the other panel I found very interesting at MakerCon – look for that post soon)
*a long parenthetical deviation that merits its own post- it’s coming…