Craftsmanship is Dead. Long Live Maker Culture.

Maker Faire 2012

Maker Faire Bay Area 2012 / photo by JD Lasica

7.27.12 | Last weekend, The New York Times published an Education Life supplement that included stories on how college-age students are building everything from social apps to lifesaving technologies—both with and without formal instruction and support.

On the same day, in the business section, Louis Uchitelle described what he sees as “the dilution of American craftsmanship”—an issue fraught with cultural as well as economic implications. Uchitelle not only points to the shrinking presence of U.S.-based factories and lack of manufacturing jobs, but to what he terms the Home Depot approach to craftsmanship—“simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor”—and to the fact that neither presidential candidate “promotes himself as tool-savvy presidential timber.”

Ask the administration or the Republicans or most academics why America needs more manufacturing, and they respond that manufacturing spawns innovation, brings down the trade deficit, strengthens the dollar, generates jobs, arms the military and kindles a recovery from recession. But rarely, if ever, do they publicly take the argument a step further, asserting that a growing manufacturing sector encourages craftsmanship and that craftsmanship is, if not a birthright, then a vital ingredient of the American self-image as a can-do, inventive, we-can-make-anything people.

That self-image is deteriorating.

It might be worthwhile to look at the changing ideas of craftsmanship through racial and gender lenses to ask how much this is a particularly white male fear. Women, of course, have always had to combat stereotypical gender expectations to gain access to craftsmanship trades or manufacturing jobs. And anyone who has ever seen a house go up in a major city would recognize the great diversity of immigrant groups involved in different stages of homebuilding. Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at CUNY Graduate Center and at the Joseph F. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, where she also serves as academic director, confirms as much when she tells Uchitelle, “Pride in craft, it is alive in the immigrant world.”

The essay does not seem to include these skilled immigrants in the calculation of the decline of craftsmanship, however. The limited perspective is apparent in other ways, too. There’s not a single mention, for instance, of digital craftsmanship—like being able to write complex computer code or design multimedia landscapes. Even manufacturing summer camps are offering computer-aided design (CAD) training along with training on using power tools. This 21st-century craftsmanship is not on Uchitelle’s radar.

More surprising is his oversight of the rise of maker culture, which encourages kids (and adults) to engage in hands-on activities—celebrating traditional DIY skills such as woodworking as well as the STEM skills every government and business official says are required to ensure the competitiveness of the United States.

The movement encourages boys and girls to view themselves as creators of the world around them, in every possible sense. It emphasizes collaboration and shared skills and ideas. It makes it possible to envision designing not just objects but systems. This is one of my favorite quotes about makers, from Willow Brugh:

[O]nce you’ve noticed the belts on your local space’s MakerBot work an awful lot like the belts on your sewing machine, and maybe even your car, it’s difficult to not start to see how your other local systems work—your local school, your market—and see how to actively improve them.

Maker culture isn’t exactly a household term, not yet anyway, but Uchitelle wouldn’t have had to look far to see its influence on education and culture. This summer, Make magazine launched a virtual Maker Camp with DIY projects announced each morning on Google+. In Detroit—where makers are credited with setting a new course for the city’s future—25,000 people are expected to attend this weekend’s Maker Faire, where 460 people, 100 more than last year, will demo their crafts and creations.

Count Kathryn DiMaria among them. She bought a cheap, used Pontiac Fiero two years ago, when she was 12, with babysitting money she had saved. She’s now half-way through her goal of restoring the car to pristine condition by the time she can legally drive.

Of course, not all designers and developers appeal so neatly to the essay’s nostalgia, but there are shared beliefs in maker culture around the importance of tinkering, interest-driven learning, and community building that match Uchitelle’s appreciation for the cultural value of craftsmanship.

And remember Caine Monroy, the 9-year-old boy who built an arcade out of cardboard boxes, packaging tape and ingenuity? The foundation inspired by his efforts is hosting a Cardboard Challenge and Global Day of Play this fall to foster the creativity and imagination of kids around the world. Caine’s Arcade also has brought together educators to discuss project-based learning curriculums around STEM subjects, entrepreneurship, and social-impact.

Uchitelle makes important points about the demise of manufacturing as an industry and the dearth of options for high school students seeking training in a craft as an alternative to college. Yet I wish he had dug deeper, beyond the industry reports and economic forecasts. He might then have noticed a resurgence of interest in craftsmanship among young people and other groups. The makers of the future may not all look the same—neither will their crafts—but that’s a good thing, especially if we want meaningful craftsmanship to be as much about the future as an imagined past.

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