Putting the critical (back) into makerspaces

May 4, 2015

Illustration by Amy Thompson

Walk into Hackforge at the Windsor Public Library and you’ll find a shared space where people come together and make things. You’ll find various electronic parts, a motion control developer’s kit, soldering irons and a lathe, a milling machine, a dual-trace oscilloscope, a 3D printer, a treadle-powered sewing machine and much more. Anyone can use the community space at no cost—so long as they commit a few hours of their time and knowledge each month. 

Current Hackforge president and founding member Doug Sartori describes the process of bringing the space into being as “making stone soup: we started with walls provided by the Windsor Public Library, then people from the community started bringing stuff in, which made Hackforge grow.” Sartori and other founding members envisioned a community space where people could “do” technology without corporate involvement. They wanted Hackforge to provide tools and human resources to fill gaps in what the local college and university could offer. “It’s about bringing in people without formal education, and empowering them to do something that they want to do.” 

As part of the global “maker movement,” spaces like Windsor’s Hackforge have gained international popularity and attention. Known as makerspaces, though sometimes called digital innovation hubs or hackerspaces, these sites provide community access to equipment that would be unaffordable or impractical to have at home. Equipment varies depending on the makerspace’s size and focus—anything from workstations and other hardware to circuit boards and 3D printers. Other makerspaces focus on tactile media such as woodworking equipment and textile production (looms, knitting or sewing machines). Some include equipment for the creation of print media, such as the Espresso Book Machine’s on-demand paperbacks. 

Usually, makerspaces include learning components in the form of workshops, courses, or peer tutoring and collaboration to help community members use the equipment and media. Ideally, members freely exchange resources and ideas in order to make things by combining artisanal technique and experimental play. The education sector has embraced the trend, with more and more schools creating their own makerspaces or tapping into those already in the community. In Canada, makerspaces have been mainstreamed in the form of school-based and community-based venues housed in universities (like SparqLab at Queen’s University or MLab at the University of Victoria), public and university libraries, for example the Toronto Reference Library’s digital media lab, and independent venues such as Hamilton, Ontario’s Idea|Haus. In 2013, the mobile DHMakerBus was established in London, Ontario, using Indiegogo crowdfunding, to travel southwestern Ontario with the purpose of helping teachers and students engage in digitally focused making.

But as with any promising critical movement, this one has seen its share of co-optation. Grassroots, often anti-consumerist community spaces like Hackforge have spawned corporatized venues designed mainly to increase sales. Despite this almost inevitable turn in the evolution and aims of the makerspace, the potential exists for communities and educators to demand more critical approaches to these spaces of creative growth. 

The Birth of the Maker Movement

Today’s “making” has its roots in the ancient Greek conceptions of human activity and was identified by Aristotle as one of three basic human activities, the others being theōria, or contemplation, and praxis, or doing. The word poïesis, the root of our modern word “poetry,” is derived from the ancient Greek ποιέω, literally “to make.” In this classic sense, making is an action that transforms but also continues the world. Given its central importance to human life, it is hardly surprising the concept of making (against merely consuming) has made a comeback. 

The rise of popular making is evident in O’Reilly Media’s 2005 launch of Make Magazine, a quarterly publication that boasts 7.8 million monthly page views and a readership of about 300,000. The magazine claims to “bring the do-it-yourself mindset to all the technology in your life.” But the maker movement can be traced further back, to the DYI (do-it-yourself) activist movement (or DIY ethic) established with the lofty goal of getting “off the grid,” by recycling, repairing, gardening, sewing, building, making music and preserving food as an act of anti-consumerism. DIY in this form began to emerge in North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, grounded in social and environmental movements of the day. Rather than buying new things, the DIY ethic dictates that individuals should create, repair and fix for sustainability, and to lessen, or even eliminate, their reliance on corporations.

The first incarnations of the maker movement shared the subversive ethos of DIY. For example, its “hacktivism” component arose from concern about labour exploitation and digital monopolies. In this context, “hacking” refers to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) definition—to take an object designed to do one thing and make it do something else. This productive conception of hacking is a far cry from its more ominous definition associated with cybercrime. DIY and makers also share the principle that, according to the Makerspace Playbook, “everyone is a maker…We share what we make, and help each other make what we share.” But there is an important distinction in that while DIY implies independent creation (think of a person noodling around in their garage to create something through trial and error or self study), the maker movement emphasizes collaboration for social learning. Thus the makerspace as a term to describe locations in which individuals come together to create. 

Among educators, “making” has become a vogue term. The recent wave of makerspaces, however, has shifted away from the original maker movement’s roots. Rather than a stance against consumerism, making has emerged with a new purpose articulated by the Maker Education Initiative: “a strategy to engage youth in science, technology, engineering, math, arts, and learning as a whole.” So, instead of making as an interdisciplinary means of personal and community self-reliance, many newer projects see it as a way to engage students in subject-specific learning. This is not necessarily at odds with an anti-consumerist stance. But, as some of the examples to come illustrate, the philosophy of the early makers has been lost or ignored in many emerging makerspaces.

Formalizing Makerspaces and Maker Faires

Hackforge is one of many community makerspaces in Canada. Toronto’s Hacklab is another example of a digital makerspace. Unlike Hackforge’s volunteer model, Hacklab members contribute $50 a month in dues for collectively owned 3D printers, laser cutters and hand tools. This makerspace is “motivated by a sense of curiosity and play,” as the Toronto Star suggested in a 2013 profile. For example, one member bought, reverse-engineered and fixed a small computer and discarded, broken TTC LED display, then hung it above the staircase. When Hacklab members swipe their cards on entry, their names flash across the sign. Windsor’s Hackforge features a community-made 3D printer crafted, somewhat ironically, out of parts from a VCR. These examples illustrate the ways in which community members engage in innovative play to repurpose items that might otherwise be discarded. Sartori is working to establish closer ties between the local art and tech communities through projects like these at Hackforge. 

Other maker communities are grounded in a strictly anti-consumerist, pro-environmentalist ethos. An example is Repair Café Toronto, launched in 2013, which organizes monthly gatherings in public spaces where volunteer “fixers” help visitors learn how to repair for free in order to build a more sustainable society and counter the throwaway mindset.

“We throw away vast amounts of stuff. Even things with almost nothing wrong, and which could get a new lease on life after a simple repair. The trouble is, lots of people have forgotten that they can repair things themselves or they no longer know how,” states the café’s website. “Knowing how to make repairs is a skill quickly lost. Society doesn’t always show much appreciation for the people who still have this practical knowledge, and against their will they are often left standing on the sidelines. Their experience is never used, or hardly ever. 

Repair Café Toronto embodies the ethics of a sharing economy where people with repair skills are valued. Various events outside of the makerspace also provide recognition for these skills, to showcase the fruits of makers’ labours. The Maker Faire is perhaps the most well known. Make Magazine, which originated (and heavily brands) the event, describes it this way:

Part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new, Maker Faire is an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors. All of these “makers” come to Maker Faire to show what they have made and to share what they have learned.

The first Maker Faire took place in California in 2006. Make Magazine reports that 98 independently produced mini and featured Maker Faires occurred in 2013, including events in the United States, Canada, Japan (Tokyo), and throughout South America and Europe. As the ultimate sign of how mainstream these events have become, the White House even hosted a Maker Faire in 2014. Organizers, at the smallest scale or presidential, must apply in advance to host an event and, if approved, sign a licensing agreement in exchange for use of the Maker Faire brand. Locally, schools have participated in past Toronto Maker Faires alongside commercial enterprises and entrepreneurs selling their wares. In this way, Maker Faires reflect the shift from making’s grassroots, DIY beginnings to a more corporatized reality. 

While members of community makerspaces can (and often do) participate in Maker Faires, not all makers support them. Hackforge, as Sartori explains, holds its own public events, like December’s Art in Tech / Tech in Art gathering in Windsor, to showcase the achievements and innovations of community members at which “no money needs to change hands.” 

From Anti- to Complicit-Consumerism

The commercial turn of the maker movement in recent years has taken many forms. User fees and membership costs are more common, and some makerspaces advertised online and elsewhere appear to be for-profit businesses. A number of Toronto makerspaces are strictly based on workshops that people must pay to attend, others are run as corporate events billed as “team building” activities. For example, Toronto’s The Shop has provided space to corporate events for Shiseido, Shopify, Grolsch and Capital One, to “promote creative collaboration amongst co-workers.” This seems to be contrary to the original “community learning” model, and it contrasts with Repair Café Toronto and Windsor’s Hackforge, which are both run by volunteers.  

Some emerging makerspace initiatives have nothing to do with “making” in the productive sense implied by poïesis nor do they embrace the original values of the DIY and maker movements. Rather, in these mainstreamed (and arguably superficial) forms, users participate in crafting in order to produce objects such as toys or clothes—things that will ultimately wind up in a landfill. A review of the websites of several Ontario makerspaces reveals that participating children are merely producing objects in tandem using various technologies, but following very prescriptive instructions such that the output by each student was identical. This model falls prey to consumerism, since the crafters use consumer materials—either the sort one procures from a retailer like Michael’s, or printer filaments from an office supply store—rather than repairing and repurposing (upcycling) materials. Unlike making, crafting on spec, while potentially an important learning tool, lacks a sense of innovation and uniqueness achieved by way of ingenuity. Otherwise, the output of crafters would not be identical. 

One of the more popular fixtures of many makerspaces is the now somewhat controversial 3D printer. If the hype is to be believed, 3D printers have the potential to tame consumerism by democratizing manufacturing. The idea is that with a 3D printer, and some open source code, people can manufacture anything they need or want, from almost anywhere, without having to rely on corporations. If a component in your washing machine breaks, for example, rather than having to order the part, you could print it with filament in your own home, and make the repair yourself.

The dominant printer model, the MakerBot, is common in educational makerspaces because of its affordability and availability at big box retailers. Originally developed and sold exclusively as an open source item, MakerBot users could get code online that would print a particular item. In 2013, the MakerBot manufacturers eliminated its open source capabilities, requiring users to purchase code for objects to print. A great many of those objects are toys: monochromatic trinkets of a single colour that strongly resemble the surprise inside a Kinder Egg. There has also been environmental backlash to the inefficiency of 3D printing (it can take hours or days to produce an object), their excessive energy use, and the filament waste created as a byproduct. On top of dwindling open source options and these negative environmental impacts, inexpensive 3D printers do not result in less expensive production. They follow a razors-and-blades business model: you’re not just buying the printer; you’re stuck spending a fortune on the raw material (filament) to keep it going. 

“The ability to give students meaningful agency in a limited time is a problem,” says Sartori, acknowledging the challenges of using 3D printing as a one-time educational opportunity. The Toronto Reference Library (TRL) opened a digital media lab in 2014 at a cost of $44,000. The lab contains 3D scanners, Arduino (circuit board) kits, Raspberry Pi computers, high-definition video cameras, and audio mixers. The Torontoist reported on the lab last winter, describing how elementary students watched a 3D printer layer filament to make a chess piece. Other children used 3D printers to create a fine-tooth comb and key fobs with the library’s logo. There is no making or even learning here. The students do not appear to be engaged in creativity or innovation; they are mere spectators of the production of crafts using state-of-the-art technology. This is obviously a long way from the anti-consumerist or environmentally conscious early days of the maker movement. 

Given the mainstream popularity of makerspaces, it is no surprise that corporate interests would want to co-opt the concept for the purpose of selling goods and making profits. There are GE Garages, to “reinvigorate America’s interest in invention, innovation, and manufacturing.” Women’s clothing and lifestyle retailer Anthropologie hosts pop-up craft nights at its stores. These are sponsored by Free People, a popular (and very expensive) designer clothing company whose denim, purchasable right at the store, provides the crafting material. Big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s and Michaels routinely offer DIY workshops tied to the sale of their merchandise. While not billed as makerspaces, DIY workshops offered by retailers further devalue the cultural currency of the DIY and maker movements because they are part of a broader push to “teach” in order “sell” product. 

Bring Back the Critical Makerspace

Originally developed in the spirit of anti-consumerism, hands-on production and hacktivism, the maker movement has mutated into diverse branches, including the corporatized makerspace. Critical making, on the other hand, can take us back to these roots, concerned as it is with the relationship between technologies and social life, with an emphasis on the emancipatory potential of the making process; of the transformation that occurs between the maker and the making. In this classical sense of poïesis, making is a vehicle for deep learning through digital technology and community interaction.

Among the more vocal proponents of critical making are Matt Ratto of the University of Toronto and Yasmin Kafai of the University of Pennsylania. Both situate critical making with constructionism: the idea that learning is most effective when people are active in making tangible objects in the real world, and through this process construct new relationships. Unlike instructionist learning, where the learners receive pre-packaged knowledge from teachers, constructionist learning encourages the learners to create new knowledge based on active engagement with raw material, including virtual material in the case of digital technologies. These lofty aims and substantive processes are meant to contribute to deeper learning than would be possible with superficial crafting, but also to encourage makers to think about—and do something about—social and environmental problems they may be able to fix. 

To fulfil its collective and democratic ethos, the critical makerspace must engage the learner as a whole person who fully participates, not a passive receiver of official knowledge held by the “teacher.” The complexity of making demands a community of practice in which people develop identity in context. Learning in this way becomes far more than a mere how-to demonstration or passive transmission through a YouTube video produced by an “expert.” Within maker communities, learning must involve a meaningful dialogue and “figuring out,” to arrive at unique and creative solutions to problems identified by individual members of the maker community. If you’re just solving problems from a teacher with ready-made solutions, you’re doing it wrong. 

Critical making brings to mind Neil Postman’s 1996 work, The End of Education, in which he advocated abandoning conservative and conventional canons of education, worried about our reliance on textbook learning. While it was published nearly two decades ago, the central themes resonate with current educational debates. Postman used stories to explore how students might be enriched by real-world experience with authentic projects, tasks and problems within the local community. Critical making is this kind of learning, a transformational education where the teacher is “inventing ways to engage students in the care of their own schools, neighborhoods and towns.” Reflecting on Postman’s work offers a fresh perspective on how educators might put the “critical” back into makerspaces in schools and beyond.

Laura Elizabeth Pinto is an assistant professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). She has been recognized with a Canadian Governor General’s Gold Medal, the University of Windsor Odyssey Award, and the Ontario Business Educators’ Hillmer Award. She has authored and coauthored 11 books, and was shortlisted for a Speaker’s Book Award from the Ontario Legislature for Curriculum Reform in Ontario (University of Toronto Press, 2012).