Berlin Lab

Making Makers: An Interview with Dale Dougherty

Dale DoughertyDale Dougherty speaking at the Lab on Saturday.

Dale Dougherty is the editor and publisher of Make, co-founder of O’Reilly Media Inc., general manager of O’Reilly’s Maker Media division, and the founder of the now world-renowned Maker Faire. In 2011, he was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

On Saturday night, Dougherty gave the very first lecture at the Lab in Berlin. Lab Team member José Gómez-Márquez tells me that he chose Dougherty as his kick-off speaker because, as one of the first individuals to see the Maker Movement happening and then resurging, and as the creator of a publication that institutionalized it, Dougherty helped bring together an otherwise fragmented group of people who were makers but hadn’t previously belonged under the same large umbrella. “He is a firm believer in having everyone be a maker. That’s exciting, it’s democratizing, and it levels the playing field yet again between the designer and the ‘amateur,’ ” José says. Dougherty’s lecture will be available on the Lab’s website soon for those who couldn’t make it in person. Meanwhile, I sat down with him to have a chat about what it means to be a maker, the politics and practicalities of making, what the maker movement means to cities, and how making makes the world a better place.

You’ve dedicated a lot of your life not only to making things, but to making makers: enabling people to make things. Why does it matter that we’re able to make things ourselves when we can very easily let other people do it for us?

I think what interests me is being active instead of passive and having a sense in our lives that we’re engaged in shaping things like technology. I think it comes from a basic impulse, almost a selfish impulse, that we want to make things do what we want them to do, and I think we don’t want to lose sight of that or lose our connection to that.

Human beings have spent thousands of years making things. That’s how we’ve ended up where we are today. How has that changed? How is the “maker” of today any different than the maker who carved tools out of stone?

I think there are different tools for us to use. I think you can find these threads. I think making is a mindset and a toolset. The mindset is something that I think we might get, but it doesn’t hurt to be more aware of it, and I think we use a lot of the tools today for personal expression and not just for necessity—not just to make something cheaper, but because we want to make it our own way, and because it means something to us to make something. The mindset is a way of looking at the world as something that can be changed. It’s a way of looking at things that can be taken apart and put back together in different ways. I kind of summarize it as, things can be hacked, things can be changed, things can be improved upon, and new things can be built from things that already exist, from their components. Rather than saying that the world consists of things that I can buy, it’s “the world consists of things that I can mix and remix and create new things with, for my own benefit, the benefit of my community, and beyond.”

Is it a way of personalizing our world?

I think so. I think it’s rooted in something that especially starts with the computer being personal technology, and trying to make, personalize, customize, adapt things that that are in our everyday lives. I mean, we do it every day with food, pretty much, if you make your own food. You adjust the seasoning or you adjust the portion, you modify it to your own taste or your own desires, and I think just played out across other areas it’s much the same.

What do you define as a maker? Who is a maker?

I’m not really stuck on the definitions but I think, to use synonyms, it’s someone who is a builder, a creator, a producer, a developer, someone who has an active sense of taking an idea and developing it into something that’s real and tangible and can be shared with other people. It could be as simple as a sketch, but it could be as fully realized as a fully manufactured object. But today, with the advent of things like 3D printers, we can start with a pretty rough idea of something, sketch it out on a computer, press a button and get some version of it, a prototype if you will, that is at least one iteration of what that object wants to be.

But is there a difference between, for instance, handworkers and makers, or between, say, crafters and makers?

I think one of the things with the word “makers” is to be very inclusive of all forms of making, and not be too ideological about it. I think people who use their hands to make things, and people who use machines to make things are both makers. People might make garments or knitted caps; they might also make robots and they might also build things out of metal. I think as an insight it was really an opportunity to brings lots of people together who do different things, or in a sense belong to different communities, but think in much the same way: that they’re doing projects, that they want to share what they’re doing and they’ve learned a certain set of skills and there’s sort of a joint creative and technical enterprise about it.

Are there barriers out there that you see that are stopping people from becoming makers?

The trend I think is more the other side, that the barriers are lowering. In the past if you had an idea for, say, a new product design, getting that made even in small numbers was difficult, without having sufficient capital or access to a lab with tools, so we’re seeing things come across much more cheaply. In other words, you can get access to tools at a hacker space or a tech shop. You can make these things in small numbers fairly cheaply, so I think these barriers are coming down. Again, I mention a 3D printer, it’s another example of something that makes it possible. It doesn’t necessarily make it possible for you to make a lot of money or make it on a large scale and you may have to do different things, but you can at least realize that idea and create something physical, and that I think is something relatively new for us. It’s possible today to be a product designer and an engineer almost on a kind of freelance or independent basis. You may not need the big lab and expensive overhead of a large company to do it.

Moving more to the city—do you see a connection between making and citizenship? Is there a political side to this?

I view making as a form of participation, and what we’re seeing broadly is the democratization of technology. In other words, it’s cheaper. It’s accessible to more people. The difference between the tools that armatures and professionals use are diminishing in cost and in difficulty. And so to me, in particular working with students and other people, I think we’re trying to invite them to participate in a culture that is strongly dominated by technology and science, and that those tools allow them not only to participate, but to effect change. So, if you don’t have this view of technology as something that you are involved with, that you have some level of control over, I think you’re just a passenger. You’re just a passive spectator on the world around you. And I think those of us who see the potential for this technology believe that it has the capacity to make the world better. It doesn’t mean that it will do so without challenges. I think there is going to be a group of people that feels empowered in being enabled by the use of this technology, and there are people who feel that this technology is sort of being forced on them and there’s nothing they can do about it. So, I would rather people see that if the world around them was made by other people, it can be changed, it can be remade, and new things can be created. And I think a lot of times that just sort of goes missing; everything’s already there, everything’s already taken care of, someone will take care of this for you. And I think part of this DIY spirit, in a very democratic sense, is that you’ve got to be part of that process, and if you want something, make it happen.