It is the realisation by a lot of people that the physical world is a hackable platform in much the same way as computer systems and the internet is a hackable platform. There have always been makers but I think in the early 90s a lot of these creative people’s attention got shunted onto the internet because the world wide web was this very alluring place – It was unchartered territory that was ripe for development. These people applied all their creative energy to creating the world wide web into this complex place and now that it’s been colonized, they hooked up over their laptops and said, ‘wow, I can actually hack the planet and hack the things around me.’ They were the pioneers and they created a bunch of tools that make it possible for anybody to become a maker. Things like 3D printers, laser cutters, really inexpensive 3D design software and electronic prototyping platforms like Arduino have made it possible for anyone to become a maker.
It is the realisation by a lot of people that the physical world is a hackable platform in much the same way as computer systems
I’m using the original definition of the word hacker that was initially coined at the MIT model railroad club. The people there were building really cool model railroad sets and they called themselves hackers. This term then applied to computers for a while and then it got negative connotations but actually a hacker is someone who creates an unintended use for something and makes something better than the original designer, developer or manufacturer of that system intended.
What is your book Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World about?
It is a combination of showing the rewards people get from having a creative voice in the human design world around them and being a participant in that as well as also looking at the maker movement in general – explaining a little bit about the history of how making has been on the rise in recent years.
A hacker is someone who creates an unintended use for something and makes something better than the original designer
Do you think in the future the maker movement will be a lot more mainstream?
I definitely think that is going to happen. Take 3D printers for example: about three or four years ago when they were introduced you could only get them in kit form and they were difficult to put together and very temperamental. Much like the very early computers like the Apple one, it would come in a box and you would have to put it together piece by piece. Now, however 3D printers are becoming very slick and you can buy them off the shelf and they are ready to run. Today people can pay $1,000 for these 3D printers for their home and start making physical things they can use in everyday life. That kind of stuff is going to become more and more accessible to people who will be able to create their own stuff. The bar is getting lower and lower and I think people are going to start making much more stuff themselves.
Do online auction houses like ebay help this movement?
I think that is a really good observation. Ebay is like a junk store or a thrift store except that it has been indexed. If you are looking for a 3-Phase 24V DC motor, instead of driving all around town going to various thrift stores you can type it in and you will find every single one people are offering so it is a great place to pick up stuff and a great place to get rid of stuff. I think that ebay is a huge facilitator for the maker movement. I get stuff from there all the time.
What is the most interesting or strangest hack you have done?
One that I’m working on right now for an art show involves this plastic doll’s foot that is mounted on a stick and it is motorised. There’s a ramp and a little plastic ball rolls down the ramp, which, as soon as it gets close to the foot, a little photo sensor can tell the ball is near and the foot kicks the ball back up the ramp- it just repeats itself endlessly. This is probably the weirdest one I’ve worked on. Another one I’ve made was a toy monkey that has cymbals in its hands which makes a screeching noise when you turn it on. I hooked up a motion sensor to it and I put it on my bed because I don’t like the cats jumping on it and getting their fur all over it. Now when a cat jumps up, the monkey scares it off.
We have 500 different makers who come here and they are showing off these really amazing designs. For example, there is a guy who has built his own scanning electron microscope. It is hard to explain the amazing variety of things that are there. There are people who make these giant 8ft tall robot costumes based on the Warhammer game. It runs the gamut really. It is like a science fair and engineering expo that shows how creative people can be on their kitchen table.