Unsustainable Edens: A Decade of Maker Faire and the Monetization of “Free”

There is nothing in the world like walking through the old growth redwoods north of Arcata, California. Surrounded by vast, primordial beauty, it’s easy to lose yourself in the wonder of it. Walk far enough and you’ll come across Fern Canyon, a cool breeze gently blowing the ferns clinging tightly to its stone walls, carpeting it in an undulating, shimmering emerald. I could spend all day here. I could set up a tent and never leave.

But, of course, I must leave. I have work to do to pay for my home back in Concord, to pay for medical bills, my car payment, my son’s education, my wife’s college classes, etc. etc. Even if I were to abandon the trappings of society and “live off the grid”, as these trips up north often tempt me to do, I would still need to till my land, scrub my clothing and do the work necessary just to keep us alive. Though I would love to stay there among the ferns and the great wooden sentinels, that is not my land and, even if it were, it is unlikely to keep me fed and healthy.

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You don’t have to be a kid to appreciate pint-sized synchronized dancing robots, but you’ll sure feel like one.

Edens are not sustainable. Even the original Eden was ripped from our grasp, which is the legendary origin of our daily toil. I was reminded of this as I attended the 10th annual Maker Faire in San Mateo this weekend. If you’ve never attended a Maker Faire, it’s more difficult to describe than you’d think. I could talk about the giant steel rhino truck that shoots columns of flames from its horn, or the cadre of pint-sized dancing robots or the fact that you suffer a greater chance of being run down on the sidewalk by someone racing a cupcake then you do anywhere else other than your best peyote-fueled dreams, but none of that does it justice. Because it’s not the mechanical beasts, androids or mobile baked goods that really make it interesting, it’s the constant sense of wonder and joy, the little moments of shocked delight when you turn a corner and see a 15-foot tall war machine firing six-inch paintballs at an art car that make the Faire a worthwhile annual pilgrimage.

Everything I’ve described and so much more was on display this weekend. My son Dustin and I attended on both Saturday and Sunday and, while we participated in quite a bit, I’m positive we still didn’t see everything. That’s a testament to the organizers who consistently put on an amazing show and attract some of the best vendors and artists in the world to show their wares and works. This was actually my sixth time attending and, while I’ve seen much of what was on display during past years, it never fails to amaze and amuse.

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What? You don’t let your six year olds play with fire? Luddite.

But I did notice a significant difference this year. The entire maker movement, largely shepherded by the folks at Make Magazine, is ostensibly dedicated to creating amazing things and freely sharing the process and knowledge with others in order to expand everyone’s knowledge and allow them to express themselves through the technical arts. Thanks to this movement, I feel I finally have a grip on how electronic circuits work, I understand how CNC machines turn code into physical objects, I’ve expanded my knowledge of combustion for rocketry and have a wealth of powerful, tiny, cheap computers at my disposal to make amazing things.

But I feel that the emphasis has shifted a bit this year. I think I felt it most when I walked through the intensely crowded “Hands-On Homegrown Village” – a building dedicated to composting, farming and “primitive skills and arts”. First, there was nothing “hands-on” about it – the building was dominated by local companies hawking their wares – pickles, cheesemaking kits, $5 kombucha drinks, honey and more. It felt more like a farmer’s market than a place where I’d be able to get my hands dirty learning a new skill.

On stage, we watched as a woman taught us to make two kinds of cheeses – ricotta and chèvre. This was fascinating and I learned quite a bit. Making ricotta at home is ridiculously easy – it’s basically milk and lemon juice – and chèvre is almost as easy, but requires special cultures (bacteria) to transform the goat’s milk into cheese. The woman teaching the 30 minute class conveniently sells the cultures, which I could pick up at the booth behind us. In those 30 minutes, I learned to make two cheeses. If I wanted to make something even more amazing – such as a burrata – I’d have to sign up for one of her three hour classes, which she also conveniently sold at her booth.

This selling of ideas was on display just about everywhere I went. Want to learn to program? We can give you a taste here at the booth, but you’ll need to sign up and pay for the online class to progress further. Even that hallmark of the modern maker movement – the 3D printer – has evolved from scrappy garage project to full-fledged industry. As recently as last year, the expo hall contained a number of hand-built printers gliding over rising plastic sculptures. I spoke with a number of those builders and learned quite a bit to start gathering pieces to build my own. This year, I saw none of those. There were 3D printers everywhere you looked, many of them displaying the latest in additive printing technology, but each one was professionally built in a factory, branded by companies such as Autodesk, Dremel and Makerbot Industries and each came with a price tag from the hundreds to thousands of dollars. This is an industry built by the very makers attracted to this faire, but no one there seemed interested in helping you build a 3D printer unless you bought one of their kits.

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Dustin proudly displays his $2 cork pirate and boat.

Even many of the activities that allowed you to play and learn and get your hands dirty cost money. In the Make: Activities tent, children were encouraged to build boats and pirates out of scrap cloth, corks, straws, bottle caps and Starbucks coffee sleeves – basically, found objects that can be recycled into cool art projects. My son delighted in this simple activity, but even then the price for admission was $2 per project. And, of course, I paid it because my son’s joy in creating something from nothing is worth that to me.

If the maker aesthetic is all about the free flow of ideas and knowledge, then paying $2 to learn how to make a cork pirate seems rather steep. This annoyed me as I was being asked at every step to pay to participate in these activities at “The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth” (the irony of that P.T. Barnum reference is not lost on me). But, as the weekend went on, I began to realize this monetization of the maker movement is a necessary evolution to keep it alive. Back in the expo hall, there were dozens of vendors and speakers offering to help you turn your ideas and your creations into consumer products. It’s no longer about making something cool to share, it’s about making something marketable.

I’ve given a couple of talks about the importance of customer validation for startups. In those talks, I’ve equated money to the lifeblood of a business – that you shouldn’t be afraid of it because it’s the fuel that powers the engine that allows you continue to create cool things. I am a believer in the idea of the free market and that consumer money should be seen a direct reflection of a thing’s value. I do believe that free market mechanics should drive most industries (two big exceptions being healthcare and politics).

But I’m also a believer in the free and open exchange of ideas and knowledge to create an ecosystem in which innovation can happen and there are fewer barriers to those seeking to participate in capitalism. This seems paradoxical to many – why would I freely share something that gives me a competitive edge? But nothing grows in isolation, so there has to be a balance between sharing knowledge and monetizing it. There’s no way to really tell where that balance is, so we must keep pushing and pulling and figuring it out as we go.

The maker movement began as a pure Eden of open exchange of ideas and knowledge. In some circles, that still exists. At the hallmark event for the movement, however, there’s a greater opportunity to drive sales to ensure those leading the movement can continue to do so without sacrificing their homes, their families or their lifestyle. For many, it’s something that began as a hobby but became a livelihood. If we want to encourage them to continue and enjoy the fruits of their work, we need to accept that they must monetize their work. And we shouldn’t fault them for making a little profit off of it.

I see the same thing happening in the open source community. Linux is still open and free as in beer and freedom, but companies like RedHat and Canonical have arisen to profit from it while furthering it. I doubt Linux would be as powerful – or as ubiquitous – without those companies making a profit from it. Just about every major open source project has one or more companies profiting from it. So long as they pour some of that money back into the project, it’s a positive sign for the health and maturation of open source as a whole. The ideas are still mostly free and open if you know where to look, but you can get them quicker if you’re willing to pay.

This monetization was on display everywhere I turned at Maker Faire this weekend, and it did initially bother me. But I began to realize that, ten years into the Faire, this is not the work of Barnum-style hucksters trying to make a buck from a gullible public. Instead, it’s the inevitable maturation of a community that is rapidly becoming an industry in its own right. If you knew where to look and you had the right set of eyes, you could learn a lot from the vendors and the makers showing their wares and works without spending a dime. But, if I want to see these folks next year and continue to learn, there is a literal price I have to pay. I forked over $2 for my son to learn how to make a cork pirate out of materials I can find around my house for free. The fact that he now wants to make a cork armada from those cast offs around the house is priceless. I’ll bring my son again next year, too, but I’ll bring more money, because all he wants to do is make. That’s worth the price.

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