At the Edge of Commercialization: The Maker Faire
9:27 AM PDT on June 2, 2009
Following the siren song of the Fossil Fool, or expecting to anyway (he was very late!), I joined a surprisingly large contingent of San Francisco cyclists to ride the 20-odd miles to the Maker Faire at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds. Gray foggy skies kept us cool as we headed out, and right away the etiquette of a Critical Mass broke down, as we separated into ever smaller groups of cyclists, broken up by the red lights.
We headed for a bayshore route, and took Bayshore Blvd southward, zigzagging across the freeway before finally getting into the relative open of the toxic landfill that was once San Francisco' garbage dump in Brisbane lagoon. It's a nice place to ride now, presumably relatively safe for passersby, but known to harbor some of the hottest of toxic hot spots that rim the bay. We slipped under the freeway again to regroup under San Bruno Mountain's last spring greenery (we were in a sprawling Marriott parking lot), but a lot of the musical accompaniment was so far behind us that we never saw them until hours later at the Faire.
From the parking lot we meandered through the weird suburbia built on old bay wetlands, through office parks and wide, deserted roadways.
Few of us had ever cycled to the airport and we joked about meeting each other there on bikes next time we travel. After passing the airport entrance, we rode amidst fenced-off runways and wide freeways, truly aliens in that motorized landscape. Coyote Point appeared ahead of us, a green parkland bulging up and into the bay. At last we were on the bayshore, and from there we could stay on well-maintained Bay Trail paths all the way to Foster City, south of the San Mateo Bridge. The views are spectacular back to the north, and at several points there are observation decks and other ways to approach the wild wetlands.
At last we found our way to the Maker Faire. The San Mateo County Fairgrounds is a good place for it. It's a sprawling collection of tinkerers, artists, craftspeople, nerds, scientist gadflys, and more. Thanks to the Faire for encouraging cycling by giving a $10 discount on tickets. As a result, they got quite a lot of bikes!
In some ways, the entire Faire is summarized by this obscure sign on the back of a steampunk laptop user...
The unabashed enthusiasm for technology as an arena of play and innovation, creativity and invention, is the dominating ethic. In several pavilions and over acres of outdoor displays, strange machines, unfamiliar devices, and curiously beautiful artifacts of unnatural origin (depending on how you want to define "nature"!) regaled the attendees, a mishmash of suburbanites, San Francisco bohemians, crazy radicals, nature-loving hippies, and the ever-present throngs of tech workers who coexist in all those subcultures.
A reigning aesthetic subculture there, spawned from Burning Man (like many of the projects at the Fair), was Steampunk. Combining lacey and racy clothing and jewelry, steam-powered vehicles and machinery, and echoes of Victoriana in performance and signage, the Steampunks were a big presence.
Credit to the Maker Faire folks, who are actually a corporate-owned magazine, for giving space to so many worthy projects. Unlike what you might expect, dozens of booths and displays were invited to be at the Fair gratis, highlighting one of the interesting aspects of this moment in history. The new issue of Make magazine is titled "Remake America;" they are a commercial operation seeking to capitalize on the growing phenomenon of DIY tinkering, selling magazines to consumers and advertising to vendors selling tools, kits, videos, and more. But the folks who edit and produce the magazine have a bigger vision of their purpose than simply profit, or so it would seem from their open and accommodating approach to the noncommercial subcultures that flourish among the same people that they see as their market share.
There was a great cluster of bicycling related groups and projects, from Momentum Magazine and BikeMonkey from Sonoma County (great piece in it, not online unfortunately, about the pros and cons of paving a good dirt road along the Santa Rosa Creek), the Woodenbike guy, the Big Kid Bikes, and a bunch of others... a lot of fun was rolling around us as we strolled through that corner of the Faire.
I wrote in my 2004 novel (After the Deluge, set in San Francisco in 2157) about neighborhood workshops, tool libraries, etc. They are not so sci-fi after all. There is already a Santa Rosa Tool Library (and as I just checked, the San Francisco Public Library lists one, though I don't know anyone that's aware of it, and both Berkeley and Oakland have Tool Libraries too), and as demonstrated amply at the Maker Faire, a company has figured out how to turn this into a business, a membership-based series of workshops and classes, TechShop. Once again, a great idea for a Commons, something we all own and share together, is turned into a business niche by our voracious economic system. But like the Faire more broadly, it's the kind of "green business" where you hope the logic of sharing, both skills and equipment, overcomes the pecuniary logic of profit that probably informs the business plan of the TechShop investors.
Dozens of installations were primarily whimsical and funny. The HopeandFear-o-Meter is an original Burning Man project and asks two questions: "What makes you glow?" and "What dangers do you delight in?" and the answers become the raw material for a cacophonous video and sound installation.
"The Revolution Will be Carmelized!" declare the CandyFab geeks, makers of an indecipherable Candyfab 6000 that somehow produces custom designed desserts! (I didn't know I needed a fancy CAD machine to do this!)...
The Piano Liberation Front combines pianos and art for a noisy and entertaining exhibition space. There was even space for my pals Rick and Megan and the Prelinger Library, as well as a booth for the Freelancers Union... Outdoors near the Kineticsteamworks train and its periodic blasts of the steam whistle (harkening back to times none of us can remember), there was a booth for the Greywater Guerrillas, a variety of local beekeepers and other foodies, and even a table dedicated to Primitive Ways, stone and bone tools and more...
I'm glad I made it to the Faire. I saw a lot of familiar things, some rather zany and unfamiliar things too... overall it straddles the area that I've written about in Nowtopia, the way so many people are busy creating real alternatives, seizing their time and technological know-how FROM the market and doing interesting, purposeful, useful things, often beginning to create the technological underpinnings of a re-invented life. There is a transition underway, and you can see it if you look for it, often in your own life. But the seductive power of the market and money is hard to resist, and this Faire is among the most sophisticated efforts to corral all that non-marketized energy back into the logic of buying and selling. Nevertheless, they made space for a lot of people and projects to be there, for free, and the contacts made, and the imaginations fired, are happily not measurable in economic terms.
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