There is hope for the future. I saw it this weekend at the Maker Faire in San Mateo, California.
The Maker Faire is not all that new. The first one, also in the Bay Area, was eight or nine years ago. This event attracted 130,000 people last year. And I’ve read Make: magazine and Chris Anderson’s book, Makers. But actually being at the Faire is something else.
Start with the crowd. It was big. I’m sure the attendance for the weekend will be well above last year’s. Just walking in around 11 am, it seemed big-football-game sized. I had to park about half a mile away, because everything closer was taken. But the real thing about the crowd was the energy: good cheer, interest, enthusiasm, all day, all the time. Anybody with trend radar must have known immediately that this thing was alive!
What I had expected, I guess, was a lot of high-tech stuff for hobbyists, lots of 3-D printers, electronics and Arduino, soldering irons, educational technology for kids. All that was there, but what I hadn’t expected was all the fun. A tent was dedicated to teaching people how to pick locks. A darkened exhibit hall was full of electronic toys, including a music and lightning exhibit, a translucent piano with a light show hooked to its keyboard, a sort of color-changing Cheshire cat, sculpture made of used incandescent light bulbs, and much more.
There were steampunk dragons, and a huge octopus, and a big replica of Jules Verne’s Nautilus submarine, and kids riding steel bugs. Drummers were there, of course, but they drummed on junk.
The techie stuff was interspersed with kits to make light-up dollhouses, and low-tech crafts projects like building octopi out of pairs of gloves. Art, which some said resembled Burning Man, coexisted with all the tech. For every headset to measure your brainwaves for a smartphone app, there was a t-shirt saying something like “Robots that Suck.”
And the crowd was eating it up. People were asking questions and getting enthusiastic answers. All of the things put out for kids, such as robots that drew squiggles and interactive floors to jump on, were being enthusiastically used by kids.
There was even a section that was pure steampunk fashion: top hats covered with gears, jewelry with old vacuum tubes, Victorian explorer clothing. Why was this low-tech stuff there, among the LEDs and the chips?
My guess is that all of this invention resonates with the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, Around the World in 80 Days, and Jules Verne. Crackpot, tinkering discovery. A world to explore. Adventure and fun.
This is another echo of The Gilded Age. It’s not just a lousy distribution of income. It’s also this art and technology-driven optimism.
It also seemed to be a nation of shopkeepers. While the map you got at the entrance mentioned a health number of corporate sponsors, I saw no big, slick, corporate-looking areas. I saw Intel’s name in chalk on a blackboard. I hear they had a tent, but I didn’t notice it. What I saw instead was a huge number of small booths, presenting everything from stacks of electronics kits to displays by the San Mateo County Beekeepers Association. What it really reminded me of was the bustle of the hundreds of tiny shops in the computer district in Karachi. That entrepreneurial spirit is there, too.
Another thing that wasn’t there: Speakers addressing large audiences. They may have been there somewhere. Some speakers were advertised on the Faire’s website. But I didn’t see them. What I saw were thousands of conversations.
Education was a big part of it. The usual Bay Area suspects were there, The Tech, the Exploratorium, but there were also tech charter schools, and an association of parents of techie kids looking to network with similar parents. There were techie summer camps and programs, and lots and lots of people with ideas on how to engage kids with science. An enthusiastic young teacher from Canada was there to promote kids starting education stands, like lemonade stands, where they would teach passers-by how to build rockets, or something similar.
I don’t know how all this is going to play out, of course, but I’m pretty sure it’s good news. Here are some photos: