Many commentators highlight the Maker movement’s great promise of bringing about a new and fairer economy. They contend that the dominant neo-liberal economic model is reliant on the over-exploitation of natural resources and low wage regions. It leads to the centralization of industrial power, the marginalization of the majority into the role of consumer, and a reduction in the true quality of life for most.
The Maker movement offers a genuine alternative whereby grassroots initiatives gain access to high quality digital fabrication facilities, can share knowledge through online platforms and open source technologies, and they can finance their innovations through mutual crowdfunding campaigns. Futurologist, Jeremy Rifkin, in his 2014 book “The zero marginal cost society”, goes so far as to say that once maker infrastructure is fully developed, it will bring the price of products and services close to zero thereby completely destroying the capitalist stranglehold on the economy.
However, other commentators are less impressed by the Maker movement. The critical analyst, Evgeny Morozov, in his Jan 2014 New Yorker column, draws a parallel with the arts and crafts movement during the industrial revolution. That too held great promise to democratize production technologies at a time when workers suffered exploitation in new textile factories. But access to tools on its own is not enough to bring about political and social change; makers need to change corporate laws and governmental policies too. Otherwise they are doomed to be side-lined as irrelevant hobbyists, like their industrial age counterparts.
So, is there now evidence of the disruptive nature of the Maker movement? Are we about to enter the collaborative commons era, as Rifkin suggests, where everyone is a maker and the peer-to-peer economy becomes dominant? Or, as Morozov implies, are makers too busy with their cool gadgets to realize that they are simply pawns stuck in a corporation-controlled game?
My answer to these questions is built by looking at a number of indicators that provide an indication of future change. Through participating in the MAKE-IT project, I have had the opportunity to learn about many Maker initiatives and understand the makers’ experiences and challenges. Clearly, at the present time most makers remain small-time hobbyists, and there is no major disruptive effect being exerted on the economy. Indeed, a major driving force of many makers is their moral compass guiding them in the direction of the sharing economy, open source principles and a rejection of financial value in favour of social value. This focus in itself is not conducive to developing a competitive drive to scale-up and disrupt existing markets.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that all makers remain economically insignificant or, importantly, that the effect of the whole movement will not be felt on a wider scale. Disruption may take time. The question we can ask ourselves now is: Can we see the first signs of change?
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