What does the word “maker” mean?

February 21, 2016 – 7:18 pm

I wrote a long reply to a facebook thread on Olin colleague Debbie Chachra’s piece, more about “Why I Am Not A Maker.” Reposted here with light editing for context.

First, information pills this response is written by someone who built her early career inside the hacker/maker world, working with self-identified hackers/makers and being seen by them as “one of us.” I still identify as such, and it’s an important community — or rather, loose collective of communities — for me.

It is also written by a postmodernist researcher in engineering education, and the response below is my attempt to bring some of those ideas to bear on “making” in an engineering-accessible way. Specifically, part of the debate in the conversation (that I was responding to) is about what “maker” can or should mean (this is a massive oversimplification and not an accurate summary, but it’s the shortest way to provide context for my two-part response, below).

Point 1: Language matters tremendously. The word “Maker” has a shifting, socially constructed meaning — it’s not that the meaning has changed over time, it’s that the meaning is always changing over time, and that it’s always multiple contradictory meanings at once… because so many people use that word in so many contexts and with so many intents.

So when we argue about what the word “maker” means, or what it “really” is or what it “should” be — we’re clutching at solidity that isn’t there. There’s no Platonic Solid of the Definition of Making. We’ve made it, and we continue to make and unmake it, and there is no firm ground.

Point 2: Action matters tremendously. As others have pointed out, language can be reclaimed both by its usage and by taking actions that can then be pointed to by that language. All of us can do this. Language belongs to anyone who speaks (or signs, or writes) it; action belongs to anyone with a will. (Some actions cost some people more than others; some people can take actions others can’t, but everyone can do something, even if it seems to be trivially small.)

In other words: if you think of words as signs pointing to things/events/actions, you can either write different things on the signs, move the signs to point at different (or more or fewer) things, or make more things/events/actions for the signs to point to. And anyone can do one or more of these things in some way.

I see Debbie working to point out the holes in the Big Grand Ol’ Story of Making — the one that holds it up as shiny and wonderful, without acknowledging how it and its claim of “meritocracy” and “everyone can do it” is also dangerously exclusionary. There are people being made invisible by this narrative. Other narratives of making are possible. Debbie’s piece points towards this.

In my mind, there isn’t a “better” narrative of making. Any single narrative that claims to be the only one is going to have flaws. Multiple narratives, multiple viewpoints, multiple contradictory ways of seeing things — there is no single self-consistent system we can make where all is “equal” and “all voices are heard.” That’s why we see people pushing so hard for multiplicity, for getting voices out there; whether they know it or not, they’re working to unmake “The Story Of Making” into thousands of tiny stories.

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  1. 2 Responses to “What does the word “maker” mean?”

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