I’m sitting on an old orange seat of a Flushing-Main St 7 train, wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. The young man next to me pulls up the Maker Faire 2013 app— the same one I’ve been excitedly exploring all morning. “Oh cool! You’re going to Maker Faire too?” We strike up a conversation, equally excited for the day to come.
Self-described as “the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth”, Maker Faire NYC brings together engineers, designers, farmers, thinkers, tinkerers, authors, and artists in order to celebrate creativity and invention.
The signs, tents, booths, trucks, and kiosks at Maker Faire stretch as far as I can see. “Learn How To Solder!” “Learn How to 3D Print!” “Learn How To Build Your Own 3D Printer!” The constant whirring of electronic rockets or robots in the “Nerdy Derby” berates my ears, but I don’t mind. This place is enthusiasm on steroids, excitement times geek plus beaucoup caffeine. I want to understand what draws people to this fair and, most of all, what is it that they’re doing here.
There are stands where kids make jewelry with solar panels and conductive inks, tents where people crush berries and plants to make dyes, kiosks where visitors make their own kinetic sugar sculptures and try locally grown foods. But among all the excitement, there is one booth in particular that catches my eye: OpenDesk’s.
OpenDesk, along with two other companies—WikiHouse and SketchUp—has created an innovative DIY initiative that fuses engineering, architecture, and technology. The company uses software to design furniture and houses and then make their creations available online as digital downloads. The files are read by CNC machines, which produce the objects by carving them out of wood. Customers download furniture files from the web, find a place to locally print the pieces, and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. For the less DIY-inclined, the companies also offer the option of delivering furniture fully assembled. The more work customers do themselves, the lower their costs will be. With CNC-print shops quickly growing in number, it seems Ikea may soon see competition from people who feel like they want to build something with their own two hands.
I watch as a member from the SketchUp team, Paul, hammers together two puzzle-like pieces of a desk, labeled C2 and C3. We’re standing under a miniature house made of pieces that have the same type of numbering inscribed on their undersides; it’s house building for dummies. He tells me, laughingly, that he knows of “New York city apartments less stable than this structure.” Together, SketchUp and OpenDesk are democratizing the design process and giving eager customers more creative control over the objects they buy. They’re bringing a touch of artistry and individuality back to our age of mass-production.
Flushing Meadow Park, the site of Maker Faire NYC, has long been a site teeming with creativity and technological advancement. Home of the World’s Fair New York in 1939 and 1964-1965, visitors to Flushing Meadow have invariably been pushing against the status quo to ask not only how can we innovate, but how can we do it better?
“Our cities are canvases to create,” Sillicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Hirshberg says in one of the fair’s thirty-minute lectures, “and 1939 was the birth of modern consumerism.” In 1939, General Motors needed to sell more of their most recent car models and thought the World’s Fair was the perfect place to share their dream of an automobile-filled America. The corporation put together a “Land Of Tomorrow” exhibit; GM’s vision of “The Not So Distant Future,” 1960s New York had elaborate highways and everyone traveled by car. There was no street or city congestion. With “I Can See The Future” pins on their lapels, people everywhere began to push the national government to fund GM’s vision for the vehicular age.
“If the 1939 World’s Fair was a promise, the 1964 one was a boast,” Hirshberg says of the fair that celebrated the culture of excess and exposition. It was a space where each visitor could be their own architect and create their own experience. General Motors enjoyed sole ownership of the 1939 Fair but a mere twenty-five years later, consumerism was a well-established part of American life. This was the time to enjoy what new wonders lay in the world of science and technology—“Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” IBM showcased their giant mainframe, the Space Age was sufficiently represented, Bell Systems traced the history of communications, and of course General Motors, alongside Ford this time, showcased their newest models because what is a celebration of achievement without the ever-immediate presence of consumption?
If the 1939 Fair was a promise and the 1964 a celebration, what can we consider the contemporary Maker Faire? What should we make of the lack of corporations and the diverse mix of innovative, entrepreneurial individuals?
These people are our generation of innovators and game-changers, the instigators of our new Industrial Revolution, the galvanizers of mind expansion and independent design. They create their own goals, outside the realm of monopolizing mega-companies. They focus on individuality and collective contribution and move towards a common goal of positive social impact. These people are excited by the mere thought of solving problems you never knew you had.
From learning how to build homes or furniture, to seeing groups dedicated to getting kids interested in science and engineering, to lying under a twinkling constellation of wires and pre-programmed lights and sound playing Bach’s 9th, I was moved by the ways people are using science not only technically, but artistically as well. They are living at the beautiful intersection of technology and the liberal arts that makes living in our generation so incredibly enticing.
The Faire inspired me. I came back to New Haven and signed up for a laser cut training workshop. I’m waiting to get my 3D-print certification. I go to the art room just to play with things and put them together. I’ve made a couple sketchbooks myself and now can’t imagine buying another store-bought notebook. I want to get a feel for materials and building because I want to embody that spirit. I want to harness that energy. I want to design, and I want to inspire people to design too. Make me a maker? I’ve always been one. We’re all makers, and it’s about time we tap into that spirit.