Oxygen Lecture: Maker Culture 1/2

Yesterday and today I’m giving talks about Makers and Maker Culture, one at UEA’s London campus and one at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee.  They are the first of the Oxygen Lecture Series, organised by the University of East Anglia to address subjects – from digital technology to the environment – of critical contemporary relevance to society at venues in London and Scotland.

Commissioned by Creative Scotland, the series has been put together by Ian Chance, director of the MA in Creative Entrepreneurship at UEA London, the university’s London centre.

Here’s the text of the first lecture – it’s long. There will be a video available at some point.

I’ll post the text of today’s lecture soon.

“Don’t touch that or you might fix it”: The Emerging Maker Ethic

Part 1: Oxygenation

[Slide: primordial earth ]

These two lectures will explore Maker culture and its impact on culture and society more generally.

Oxygenation: how maker culture came to be

Respiration: how to work in a world of makers

The titles of the two lectures reflect a major change in the Earth’s biosphere called The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) (also known as the Oxygen Catastrophe or Oxygen Crisis or Great Oxidation),  the biologically induced appearance of free oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, after which living organism could use it to drive respiration, the chemical reactions that are the basis of life[1].

Geological, isotopic, and chemical evidence suggest this major environmental change happened around 2.4 billion years ago. The emergence of free oxygen shaped the consequent evolution of all life and has given us the world we know today, just as the emergence of information and communications technologies based around electronic circuits has shaped the modern world.

[Slide: Arduino ]

The first lecture will consider how we got here, looking at the history of technology, the emergence of hacker culture and open systems, the development of computers and the internet, and the ways culture, society and the economy have adapted to and influenced these developments, ending with the emergence of maker culture as a response to the plethora of electronic devices in daily life.

[Slide: 3D Bill ]

The second will consider where we go from here, and the potential significance of faster, pervasive networks, mobile devices, 3D printing, sensor networks and other new technologies, touching on the movements to teach all children how to code, on issues around copyrights and patents, and on the ways artists and cultural organisations use – or could use -the new tools.


[Slide: Makers cover ]

To Begin at the Beginning

In his remarkable, prescient and thoroughly engaging 2009 novel Makers Cory Doctorow projects us into a future where 3-D printers have passed through the stage of breathless Daily Mail features and into and out of the nexus of consumer technologies that shape our lives here, and what might happen if the capabilities they embody were to be set loose on a failing economy.

[Slide: 3D printer ]

The novel concerns the adventures of Perry and Lester, two young men who can’t help tinkering, fixing, inventing and disrupting, Mostly disrupting, and if you want a good idea of what the world might look if technology actually did fall into the hands of the people rather than remain locked up with large companies and corporate interests then Makers will give you a lot to think about.

[Slide: Raspberry Pi ]

It’s a great book, as much about people as it is about technology. But just as a Dan Brown book relies on an interest in Rosicrucianism and the Apocrypha and the rituals of the Catholic church,  you’ll get more out of Makers if you know a bit about computers and embedded systems and programming, because they are the constituent parts of the machine that moves the plot forward and carries the ideas with it.

[Slide: Maker Faire ]

Makers is dedicated to ‘the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things’, and Perry and Lester are both members of the maker culture, members of what Wikipedia calls  ‘a contemporary culture or subculture representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture’[2].

It is one that stresses new and unique applications of technologies, and encourages invention and prototyping, focused around electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts, and today I want to look at where Maker Culture came from and what it looks like today.

In tomorrow’s talk in Dundee – which you can watch online if you want to – I’ll consider what that means, and where we might go next.

But today I want to explore how we got to a world in which you can easily find out

[Slide: camera ]

how to send a smartphone into space (or near-space),

[Slide: Blinds ]

have your window blinds open and close automatically to keep the temperature in a room constant[3]

[Slide: Makie ears ]

add a microprocessor to your customised 3-D doll and make its ears perk up when you receive and email

[Slide: wheelchair ]

adapt two kitchen scales to let your severely disabled child control their wheelchair


[Slide: MAKE ]

Where you can buy magazines or visit websites to guide you through these projects

[Slide: Steed Puppet ]

[Slide: Makespace ]

Or even visit a Makespace where you’ll find equipment, guidance and a community of like-minded people. Makespaces can be found around the world, including one in Cambridge set up by my good friend Laura James in her plentiful free time.

But before we explore what’s happening today I want to step back, and consider a lecture given over half a century ago that has shaped our thinking about technology and computing.

Two Cultures[4]

[Slide: Cambridge ]

In May 1959 ago the novelist and thinker CP Snow stood up in the imposing setting of the Senate House of Cambridge University on King’s Parade to give the Rede lecture on ‘The Two Cultures’, a lecture that has echoed through the years since and been the subject of a great deal of debate ever since.  Snow’s ‘two cultures’ were the scientists and the literary intellectuals, and in his lecture he argued that the lack of scientific understanding on the part of largely classically-trained politicians and civil servants was damaging the whole world.

[Slide: EDSAC]

Snow made his speech while the world was on the verge of a modern revolution. Ten years earlier EDSAC, the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, had run its first programme in the Mathematical Laboratory, just on the other side of Market Square from where Snow was speaking.  During that decade it had been offering data processing services to mathematicians, economists, biologists and any else who could think of use for the radical new technology of the general-purpose stored program computer. EDSAC 2, which was to replace it, had already been running for a year, foreshadowing the Titan, CAP and many other Cambridge computers.

[Slide: LEO]

EDSAC was not alone, with the Mark 1 in Manchester only the most notable of the other computers that were being built around the world.  These early computers were the first signs of a revolution that has proven to be just as significant as the industrial revolution that so preoccupied Snow, a revolution which we are still living through and the outcome of which is far from certain.

[Slide: Electronics Assembly Plant]

Snow, perceptive as ever, glimpsed what was going on.  In The Two Cultures he differentiates between the industrial revolution, which he sees as essentially complete, and a ‘scientific revolution’ which is in its early stages, saying:

I believe the industrial society of electronics, atomic energy, automation, is in cardinal respects different in kind from any that has gone before, and will change the world much more. [5]

He was right. We now live in a world that is shaped by the science-based technologies that he identified.

Snow’s argument in The Two Cultures, and in his later work on the same topic, most notably the 1963 essay on The Two Cultures: A Second Look, has become such a common trope that it is almost impossible to retain the complexity of the original argument. Like a soft-bodied creature flattened and fossilised in the Burgess Shale we find it hard to reconstruct the internal organs of a discourse that was not only of its time but also shaped by the particular history of one man in post-imperial England.

[Slide: 1960’s Britain]

As I read it, his concern about the breakdown of communication between literary intellectuals and scientists was not driven by a general desire to see harmony and shared thinking in the halls of academe but came from his observations as a former practising scientist, as a writer of some note and as technical director of the Ministry of Labour from 1940 to 1944 and a civil service commissioner from 1945 onwards.

[Slide: African agriculture]

Snow believed that science-based technologies could be applied to solve the world’s problems as he saw them, and that industrialisation was capable of removing the division between rich world and poor world.  The scientific ignorance of the chattering classes mattered to Snow because it had real practical consequences, and the denial of culture by scientists was a cause for concern since it limited their imaginative creativity when it came to finding applications for their discoveries.

[Slide: Refugee camp]

He also thought that things would inevitably get better:

Life for the overwhelming majority of mankind has always been nasty, brutish and short. It is so in the poor countries still.

This disparity between the rich and poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on.[6]

This belief was not simple naivety.

[Slide: Kibera]

In 1959 it was difficult to see just how hard the  affluent industrialised countries would fight to preserve their privileges, how the geopolitics of the Cold War required keeping many countries in poverty in order to achieve perceived advantage, and how the realisation that human impact on the biosphere was significant enough to threaten the survival of the species would make rapid and untrammelled carbon-based industrialisation no longer acceptable.

[Slide: modern car]

It was also impossible to predict just how much the electronic technologies to which he referred would change the rules of the game. In 1959 Snow could write:

One truth is straightforward. Industrialisation is the only hope of the poor.[7]

This may have seemed the case at the birth of the digital age, but it is no longer our core belief, partly because we are becoming aware of the negative consequences of the industrial age but also because we see that another way is possible.  We are living through a digital revolution, and the use of computers is having an impact on all aspects of our lives and on the societal structures that are being built in all the countries of the world.

[Slide: mobile phone users]

I have watched the industrial world become the networked world, a world that depends on electronics and digital processing just as that of Snow, like that of Orwell, depended on steam to power the ships, trains and machines in factories.

[Slide: Coal mine]

Of course underneath it all we still depend on coal – and oil and gas – to generate the voltage differences that drive the electrons through our circuits and make the processing possible.

[Slide: Steam engine]

We live in the age of electronics, and it is bit-driven in the way that the nineteenth century was steam-driven. Those with access to digital technology are able to dominate those without, not by creating expansionist empires as in the first industrial revolution, but by creating the structures of the global economy around their perceived interests. The gunships and civil servants may have been replaced with copyright treaties and WTO sanctions, but the effect is much the same.

Makers, in my view, offer us an alternative to the hegemony of the IT companies and their ownership of the means of data production, but their ability to deliver real change is far from assured.

This is Not My Beautiful iPhone

[Slide: iPhone]

In the age of electronics control lies with those who can build, program and operate those systems. And increasingly, it isn’t the users.

[Slide: book]

You don’t own your iPhone in the way that you don’t own a book. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is a thing.  Unless you’re the author, what you own when you own a book is generally not that which is valuable about it.  You own the paper and leather and glue, and the ink, but in general you don’t have any rights to the words that are expressed through the pattern of ink stains on the paper and you can’t reproduce them or adapt them into a stage play or even read them on the radio – though you can read them to your young daughter as she drifts off to sleep.

[Slide: app store]

It’s the same with your iPhone, unless it has been jailbroken. You can’t install any apps on it unless they come from Apple, your ability to modify it is limited only to those settings enabled by Apple, and your continuing enjoyment of the phone is enjoined by a complex, rich user agreement that may be modified at any time by Apple but not challenged in any way by you.

[Slide: laptop]

Some people – most notably Jonathan Zittrain in his book The Future of the Internet (and How to Stop It)[8] – consider this to be a bad thing. They see the capabilities of modern computers to generate new ways of working, new forms of software, new means of communication and worry that the locked-down nature of a smartphone compared to that of a desktop computer will inhibit creativity and may even have damaging political implications by encouraging a passive approach to the technologies we all depend on and use.

[Slide: desktop pc]

The desire to know how things work is both a political and a practical one. If you can’t open it then you don’t really control it or own it – but you can’t fix it, tinker with it or use it for things it wasn’t intended for, either. Maker culture is about doing stuff that violates manufacturer warranties in ways that might shock you.

Like building a massive Tesla Coil, getting yourself into a Faraday suit, and playing music with lightning.

[Slide: ArcAttack SXSW]

Free Software

I think it’s sensible to see maker culture as the result of two separate movements that came together about a decade ago when we started putting electronics into almost every consumer durable: the hobbyists and the advocates free software.

[Slide: Model Train]

The desire to look inside and see how things work is as old as the species – if not older, and there have always been hobbyists building model trains that really work, tinkering with cars to make hotrods and generally applying skill, ingenuity and inventiveness to fixing, modding and building.

[Slide: Custom car]

They haven’t stopped, they never went away, it’s just that many of them now express their creativity and tinkering instincts in ways that make use of relatively advanced technologies like lasers, microprocessors and robots, and as a result a facility with software is as important as knowing how to use a lathe or a bandsaw.

[Slide: Robot]

[Slide: Quadcopter]

But the software needs to be open if it is to be tinkered with.

[Slide: Win 8]

Not all software is open. If you use Windows or MacOS then you’ll know that there’s a lot of stuff going on inside your machine to which you have no access – Windows 8 doesn’t come with source code.

[Slide: RMS]

It’s not the same with Debian Linux or Android, and that is because thirty years ago last month a young programmer called Richard Stallman expressed his concern that he could not see the internals of the software that he was expected to use in his academic work by creating the GNU project and outlining the free software philosophy.

Free software means that the software’s users have freedom. (The issue is not about price.) We developed the GNU operating system so that users can have freedom in their computing.

Specifically, free software means users have the four essential freedoms: (0) to run the program, (1) to study and change the program in source code form, (2) to redistribute exact copies, and (3) to distribute modified versions.

Software differs from material objects—such as chairs, sandwiches, and gasoline—in that it can be copied and changed much more easily. These facilities are why software is useful; we believe a program’s users should be free to take advantage of them, not solely its developer[9].

Stallman’s work and that of the Free Software Foudnation continues, and many of the computer systems that we all rely on every day are based around GNU/Linux and other free software.

[Slide: Circuit Board]

Once you get low-cost electronics in almost everything, and a range of general-purpose computers that run open software and so can be programmed to do whatever you want.

[Slide: MakeSpace]

If you bring the two together then the DIY culture that emerges is maker culture and its ethos is about creativity, sharing, community and openness. What’s not to love.

Mindstorms and Pis

In order for Maker Culture to thrive there need to be things to make and things to make them with, and given the importance of computer-control to the sorts of projects most makers undertake, there need to be accessible computers.

Here’s one: it’s a Lego Brick.  For me a key moment was when I got my hands on Lego Mindstorms

[Slide: Mindstorms]

Then there’s the Arduino

[Slide: Arduino]

Arduino started in 2005 as a project for students at the Design Institute of Ivrea, Italy. At that time program students used a processor board at a cost of $100, considered expensive for students.

[Slide: mbed]

There is the ARM mbed

[Slide: Raspberry Pi]

And of course the Raspberry Pi,  like the Arduino and mbed a low-cost microprocessor on a circuit board that can be used for many purposes.

[Slide: Quadcopter]

Along with cheap laptops, cameras, controllers, quadcopters and the rest of the panoply of easily available hackable hardware, it would be surprising if maker culture hadn’t emerged.

The Challenge of Making

[Slide: github]

Makers are hackers with hardware, and the hacker mentality infuses the maker world.  There’s a lot more to free and open source software than just playfulness however – free and open source software is developed by groups of people who collaborate over the internet using tools like Github and Sourceforge, with little or nothing in the way of corporate structure yet they have developed tools like GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, Gimp and many more systems that challenge the dominance of major software companies.

[Slide: Benkler]

Their success has been interpreted as a threat to companies like Microsoft or Oracle by observers like Yochai Benkler, the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Benkler is one of the foremost thinkers on the economic issues raised by the growth of the Internet and the emergence of the network society and his research focuses on commons-based approaches to managing resources in networked environments.

[Slide: Linux Penguin]

In 2002 he wrote a paper, ‘Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and The Nature of the Firm’ in which he explored the nature of free and open source software. Tux the penguin is the Linux mascot. Benkler coined the term commons-based peer production to describe collaborative efforts, such as free and open source software and Wikipedia which are based on sharing of information in what he terms a networked information economy and his work has informed many other thinkers.

[Slide: Coase obit]

In Coase’s Penguin Benkler outlined the work of Ronald Coase, who wrote The Nature of the Firm in the late 1930’s. Coase, who died only last month, was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize for his insight that organisations come into existence to solve problems of market inefficiency in the allocation of resources, and that they continue because the transaction costs of creating and running the organisation are less than the cumulative disadvantage to society caused by the poor allocation of resources or the lack of goods that would result without the organisation.

[Slide: Office]

As Benkler put it, Coase

explained why firms emerge, defining firms as clusters of resources and agents that interact through managerial command systems rather than markets. In that paper, Coase introduced the concept of transaction costs, which are costs associated with defining and enforcing property and contract rights and which are a necessary incident of organizing any activity on a market model.

Coase explained the emergence and limits of firms based on the differences in the transaction costs associated with organizing production through markets or through firms. People use markets when the gains from doing so, net of transaction costs, exceed the gains from doing the same thing in a managed firm, net of organization costs. Firms emerge when the opposite is true. Any individual firm will stop growing when its organization costs exceed the organization costs of a smaller firm.

For Benkler, Coase’s model explained why open source software developed by a loosely-coordinated group of people using net-based tools was as good as, if not better than, software written by carefully managed corporations like Microsoft. The network, he argues, had made it unncessary to bear the transaction costs of running a software company, and the success of GNU/Linux was the clearest demonstration of this.

[Slide: Abandoned Factory]

One implication of this is that the maker approach to hardware development, based on the same principles as F/OS software, could be equally disruptive to current models of manufacturing, and I’ll explore this more in my second lecture.

Emerging Maker Culture

[Slide: Makers]

My analysis so far leaves open the question of why people are willing to devote time and effort to the projects they get involved in.

[Slide: Hacker Ethic]

In 2001 the Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen published a book on ‘The Hacker Ethic[10]’, an analysis of principles that underpin free and open source software, that tries to explain it in terms of a new ethic for productive activity that can contrasted with the Protestant work ethic that is seen as underpinning western industrial society.

[Slide: cables]

When Himanen wrote his book the Internet, although important, wasn’t everywhere, cafes weren’t filled with laptops, and mobile phones were still telephones that could text not always-on handheld devices that also made the occasional voice call.

But even back then much of the infrastructure of the internet, from web servers to the computers that decide what route data should move over the network, ran software that had been built by teams of dedicated programmers working outside large companies, like the GNU/Linux operating system.

[Slide: hackers]

Himanen tried to understand what made people give up their time to projects like Apache or Linux and argued that the hacker ethic is about working on things you love, not necessarily for financial reward, and sharing what you produce willingly, so that others may learn and benefit from your creativity. He also noted that for many programmers the real goal is to have respect and admiration from the other members of the community.

The main point of the book, which is well worth reading, is that in a network society the community that is build out of the connections between people matters enormously.

[Slide: model railway]

This has always been the case, of course. Hacking wasn’t new at the time when Himanen was writing and he was commenting on a tradition that went back many years: the original ‘hackers’ were members of the model railway club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in the 1960’s and the hacker ethic outlined by Pekka Himanen and the ideology of the maker culture have so much in common.

[Slide: Spinning wheel]

It could be argued that large-scale industrial manufacturing is the anomaly, since for most of human existence objects have been made by people using relatively simple machines and techniques, and all that the hacker ethic and maker culture show is that this never went away.  Even when it comes to electronics, ham radios, and radio-controlled cars and planes have been with us for many many years, and there is a long connection between hobbyists and business.

[Slide: Cobbler’s Last]

Maker culture is therefore just the latest manifestation of a set of processes and activities that have been going on forever – it is about making things and showing or telling other people how do do it. What is different is that the artefacts are themselves generally the products of  advanced industrialisation – like microprocessors – and the communities that emerge rely on the Internet as their channel of communication, even if it used to organise real-world events.

Hacking was around before the Internet, but the ease of communication and sharing that the network made possible allowed large-scale innovation to take place. The Internet has allowed people to become aware of each other’s existence and to build a distributed community where once there might have been isolated groups. Maker culture would not have emerged without the growing availability of computers and associated technologies in smaller, faster, cheaper, more flexible forms.

Manifestations of Maker Culture

But today the Makers are everywhere and their influence is growing.

[Slide: MMF]

Last month I attended the Mini Maker Fair in Brighton, the third event of the name and a great example of the current maker culture. It filled Brighton Dome with stalls and workshops and excited voices –some of the from kids, but not all. There was a robot knitting scarves, loads of ways to use Arduinos and Raspberry Pi computers and even a 3D scanning machine set up inside a wicker sculpture representing the torso of a pregnant woman that would scan and print you.

[Slide: scanning]

I got myself done – thanks to @3difiy

[Slide: Babbage]

The month before on Click we reported on a Teddy Bear that replicated Felix Baumgartner’s astonishing space jump

[Slide: MF Rome]

Just last week the Maker Faire Rome took place with over two hundred exhibits including a robot that can carry your shopping and follow you home and a handmade robot hand.

[Slide: Make]

And of course, there’s Make magazine, published quarterly since January 2005 that focuses on do it yourself (DIY) and/or DIWO (Do It With Others) projects,  aimed at people who enjoy making things and featuring simple and complex projects which can often be completed with cheap materials.


There is seemingly no limit to maker culture and its ramifications.

It’s even changing the behaviour of large corporations.

[Slide: Kinect hack]

When Microsoft launched the Kinect in 2010 it was a closed environment and when rumours emerged that it had been ‘hacked’ MS moved to stop anyone circulating information[11]. Then they found out that what was happening was that people were using the Kinect as an input device for a variety of cool applications – just taking the data it sent out down its USB port – and MS saw sense.

[Slide: YRS]

Today maker culture is an established and growing subculture, one that anyone with a modicum of knowledge of how things work can take part in, one that is encouraging a new generation –and some old generations – to feel comfortable taking the lids off the devices that fill our homes and offices, demystifying them, helping us appreciate how they work and how they can be fixed, and releasing an enormous amount of creative energy into the wider society.

[Slide: Street scene]

There are still two cultures – or rather, there’s a division between those who feel happy to engage with making and those for whom it is a strange pasttime, like trainspotting but with soldering irons.

[Slide: Babbage]

But I defy anyone to watch Babbage the teddy bear step from the edge of space and not feel the excitement that comes from thinking ‘I could do that’.

And that, as I will discuss tomorrow, could have some very significant implications for how we adapt in this, the age of electronics.


[If you’ve been affected by the issues in this talk, please visit your nearest Makespace]


[1] And one of the great things about science is that this may not be as simple as we thought – research published this week indicates a far more complex process [ref]

[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maker_culture – this entry retrieved 1/4/13

[3] http://boingboing.net/2013/10/05/make-a-temperature-sensing-min.html and



[4] This is based on a lecture I gave at Cambridge University in 2009, and repurposed for OpenTech that year  – see http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/2009/07/08/bill-thompsons-billt-on-two-cultures-those-literate-in-code-and-everyone-else/

[5] page 30 of the Canto Edition of The Two Cultures.

[6] p42 of the Canto edition

[7] p25, Canto edition

[8] http://futureoftheinternet.org/

[9] http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Protestant_Ethic_and_the_Spirit_of_Capitalism

[11] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/9210071.stm

This entry was posted in billblog, rambler and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *