review

Harnessing the Maker Spirit: Dale Dougherty’s New Book, ‘Free to Make’

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Later this week, in the tiny town of Bridgeville, Del., pumpkins will fly. Seriously big pumpkins will soar through the air, launched by a crazy variety of homemade catapults, trebuchets and heavens knows what else. The annual  Punkin Chunkin contest may be one of the more, um, organic expressions of “maker” spirit. But it nonetheless embodies what Dale Dougherty, the “father” of the movement, sees as literally the “moral imperative” of the maker movement: “to use our creative freedom to make the future better, to be hands-on in making change, and to get everyone participating fully in that future.”

Makers are smart, cool and as individualistic as they come—and Dougherty relishes telling their stories in his new book, “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs and Our Minds.” The book is colorful snapshot of the people, projects and spirit of what has become known as the “maker movement.” Dougherty shares their stories—along with his own observations and commentaries on the industry—in thoughtful and at times bemused prose.

Dougherty is, of course, the perfect narrator for the maker movement in no small part because he got it rolling. For years, he served as the business partner and editor for Tim O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Media, which itself has become an intellectual (and publishing) nexus for the technology community. (A line from Publisher’s Weekly in 2000 observed: “The Internet Was Built with O’Reilly Books.”)

O’Reilly himself gained fame as a publisher, conference organizer, leading digerati and leading voice on the power of open source software. But in 2004, Dougherty leaned over during a cab ride and suggested they start a quarterly publication that would be like “Martha Stewart for Geeks,” complete with “recipes” for homemade projects and techie ingredients lists.

“It took me only a moment to say ‘Yes!’” O’Reilly recalls in an introduction to the book.

Dougherty was going to call the magazine “Hack,” but his children didn’t get the name. “I tried to explain that hacking was a clever way to solve a problem, but they weren’t buying it,” he writes. “Instead, I decided to call the magazine Make:, which was a word that could be understood by anyone.”

Understood—and embraced by literally millions. Since the publication of the first Make: magazine in 2005, there have been more than 50 editions, ten years of Maker Faires and a mushrooming of maker activities across the world. (There were 151 Maker Faires—some tiny but still the original event attracting more than 100,000 attendees—in 2015.)

The people and the projects that Dougherty describes are delights: There’s Lisa Marie Wiley, “a woman with a fierce look in her eyes,” who learns how to wield a 3D printer to design and build her own prosthetic leg. There’s 12-year old Quin Etnyre, who starts his own maker-kit business. There’s Pam Moran, Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, who’s organizing school around maker activities. And there’s Nick Pinkston, who is creating the fully automated factory of the future.

These folks work hard—but they have fun. Plenty of it. And Dougherty is all for it. “With Make: magazine, I had an insight that adults needed to play and rediscover hobbies and passion projects,” Dougherty writes. “Some people will argue that they don’t have the time to play or make… Yet, creating time for play is also essential to balance our work lives with our own interests.”

All that’s missing from “Free to Make” are a few stories of making gone awry—which, of course, it must sometimes do. But as the champion of making, Dougherty is a bit protective of his peeps. And given that schools and even parents still sometimes puzzle over the “value” of making in contrast, to, say, SAT prep work, he can be excused for sticking to the tamer maker stories.

Even so, “Free to Make” combines inspiring stories with Dougherty’s thoughts about how to start maker labs in schools and ultimately the implications of the maker world on America itself. “In the future more people will be creating their own jobs instead of finding a job,” Dougherty writes. “The question is not what kind of work you can do but how your work can create the greatest value. We have to be constantly learning new skills and coming up with new ideas, changing as the world changes. How can more and more people have engaging, purposeful, gratifying work, the kind of work that makers do? The maker seems more essential than ever: a sense of agency, self-determination, self-reliance, resourcefulness, collaboration, flexibility, and a can-do attitude.”

No question but that America can use a hefty dose of that maker spirit these days, with a dollop of play mixed in. Which remind me of those Delaware “Punkin chunkers,” who are celebrating the spirit of making and of community by sending squashes flying. Why, they’re even donating the proceeds to charity. Time to get working on that catapult.

Editor’s note: Dale Dougherty is an investor in EdSurge.

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