Why has the maker movement become so popular?
As for why the Maker movement has become so popular, there are many possible reasons, but here are the three I think most likely:
Products – from cars to household devices, telephones to televisions – have become impenetrable to the average owner. Thirty or even twenty years ago it was generally practical for people to repair their own car, mend a broken radio, open a washing machine to replace a belt, or – if not – find a local repair shop to do the job for them. Now it’s not just simpler but cheaper to throw a broken device away than repair it. The ways that we store and use information are becoming equally impenetrable as more of it becomes electronic. Records became CDs which are now becoming MP3 files; paper maps have turned into GPS files; movies went from VHS cassette to DVD to MP4s; photos became JPGs, letters emails, and even electronic books, read on Kindles and iPads, are becoming downloadable files. As a result the average person barely writes (in the pen-holding sense), annotates, unfolds, adjusts, fixes, or manipulates anything other than a mouse or a keyboard from one end of the day to the other. But we need to touch and interact with things – tool making is one of our unique abilities as a species. We evolved to make and use tools, and there is a yearning to do so. The Makers movement is one expression of that need.
Open source software has become so widespread, so comprehensive, and so reliable that people can download and use programs that would have cost thousands of dollars even a few years ago. Tutorials and help forums on the Internet help them learn and become creative with those tools very fast. At the same time hardware such as the Arduino board and simple 3D printers such as the Makerbot open up tremendous options for people to actually make things that work without needing a college education or a fully equipped shop. The design, development, and production of simple electronic and mechanical items has become affordable – and fun.
And the third reason, I think, is as an expression of individual freedom. We are losing freedoms. Not just in the political sense but as I wrote above, in our ability to choose, interact with, and control the objects that surround us. To make one’s own clock from laser cut pieces is not just to gain a timepiece but also to understand its mechanism, the materials from which it is made, the machines and technologies used to make it, and to expand one’s reach and confidence as a person. One isn’t just defined by one’s profession or income or qualifications, which it is often impossible to change; one can grow along a second axis, a personal axis, of skills and experience and connection and creativity. Again, I think people intuitively understand this, and are drawn to one or other aspect of the Maker movement as a result.