The New Yorker recently featured an interesting overview of the Maker movement – a welcome bit of exposure for a subculture that is nearly invisible to the mainsteam. It’s refreshing to see the hacker ethic given some due recognition and reportage – and more, serious political and economic analysis.
Alas, the analysis has its limits because it is served up by the ubiquitous scourge and skeptic of all things digital, Evgeny Morozov. Morozov has carved out a franchise for himself by providing well-written, reflexively negative critiques of the digital world. Morozov excels at penetrating analysis and he deserves credit for original reportage and historical research. But he tends to wallow in the “dark side” of the digital universe, conspicuously avoiding or discounting the positive, practical alternatives.
Almost every piece of his that I’ve read seems to conform to this narrative arc: “You are being so screwed by digital technologies in so many ways that you can’t even imagine. Let me expose your naivete.” Then we are left to splutter and stew in the dismal scenario that is sketched -- and then Morozov exits. He is rarely willing to explore alternative institutions or movement strategies that might overcome the problems that he limns.
Still, I must thank Morozov for pointing out some important truths in his survey of the Maker world. Besides suggesting the wide extent of the movement, he does a nice job exposing the sly propagandizing of Chris Anderson, Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand. These are among the leading tech gurus who rhapsodize about the coming era of individual freedom and progressive social change that 3D printing, fablabs and hackerspaces are ushering in.
Morozov revisits the history of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s, which in its time touted amateur crafting as a force for personal autonomy and liberation. The idea was that do-it-yourself craft projects would help overcome the alienation of industrial production and provide a basis for political transformation. As some critics at the time pointed out, however, the real problems were economic inequality and corporate power – something that the craft ethic and individual projects could never overcome on their own.