It is Maker Day. You catch the ziptrain into the city. As the conburbs flash by, you browse the Maker Day app on your phone. Maker Day has only been around a couple of years. The Democrats got it started in 2020, after they seized the White House back from the Republican Party. The idea was to redress unemployment by cutting the working week to 4 days and making the 5th day Maker Day. This bold initiative has already paid off in a number of ways, not least by giving the unemployed something to do on Fridays.
Maker Day makes social innovation a community exercise. It gives ordinary citizens the power to collaboratively redesign social and political institutions. Some say it has revitalised the nation.
Outside the Maker Day pavilion, crowds of people are testing robots and drones. MAKE HISTORY says the sign above the door. You weave inside, looking for your crew. They are usually in the Library, but a Kidpreneur workshop is in session there and they are not to be seen. You study the grid on the giant whiteboard in the Community Hall, trying to decide what events to attend. For the last couple of Maker Days, you’ve helped a group of lawyers, urban planners, and community activists design a corporate-community partnership framework for organisations working to revitalise urban space. But this project is in prototyping mode, gathering data for a public review. You prefer to work at the coalface. As you MakerID says, you are an Ideator.
Today, you decide, you’ll pitch in with the Home Care Sharing XChange. Unless something else grabs your attention first. Maker Day kicks off Open Space style to ensure that there are always new projects on the table. People propose ideas for hacking institutions, and if an idea is popular, working groups are formed about it. Today’s open space sessions include some totally off-the-wall ideas, including: ‘Virtual Reality Gaming and Palliative Care: The Final Quest’ and ‘F*@k the Police: Urban Crime and Total Surveillance Solutions’. The great thing about Maker Day is that projects are experimental, so the wilder, the better. The aim is to generate institutional alternatives – as many as possible. Only a fraction of the ideas will be implemented. But who cares? The point is to have fun and be creative, and to work with people on disrupting the political imagination.
Maker Day is where the future happens. This is creative democracy in action.
Roberto Unger didn’t coin the idea of Maker Day, but he’d happily endorse it. Unger, who teaches at Harvard Law, is the founder of Critical Legal Studies, which holds that lawyers should seek to challenge and rework legal institutions in order to open up new social possibilities. Unger applies a similar intuition to his work in social and political theory. Progressive politics, in Unger’s view, should be based in a trenchant critique of existing institutions and an ethos of collaborative experimention oriented towards refashioning institutions for the good of all. Unger conceives institutions in a sociological sense to cover everything from customs and rituals to the concerns of public policy, law and economic systems, as well as the institutions of government and democracy.
Unger has a hacker mentality. He thinks about institutions in the same way as hackers think about code: get in there, take it apart, play around with it and make it better.
Unger seized the attention of the US political media in 2012 when he argued, in a video uploaded to YouTube, that progressive Democrats should attempt to unseat Obama at the upcoming election. Only the trauma of defeat, Unger explained, would force the party to rethink its strategies, tap into its progressive roots, and reinvent itself as the progressive party it is supposed to be. Commentators on the left and right were dumbfounded by this argument. Calling on party faithful to participate in their own defeat violates the laws of political logic. It is only when construed alongside Unger’s positive vision of collaborative experimention that the argument makes sense. In an age in which our best institutions are failing us, in which political parties on the left and right seem incapable of taking action to forstall the crises that everyone sees on the horizon, we need new thinking. Enlisting the 99% in collaboratively creating the institutions of the future isn’t a dumb idea, particularly given the popularity of participatory design in fields outside the political sphere.
Here is the thing. Politically, Unger’s vision locates him on the far left. Culturally, Unger’s call for citizen engagement and collaborative experimentation resonates with a broad array of contemporary initiatives, including human centred design, hackathons, and the maker movement. The maker movement, in particular, is going from strength to strength. The 2013 World MakerFaire in NYC drew 75,000 attendees, indicating that maker culture has broken into the mainstream. Maker culture is hacker culture applied to the workshop space. Makers create and share open source licenced designs and gather in makerspaces, containing tools and equipment (including 3D printers), where they prototype these designs, making manufactured works. Chris Anderson, ex-editor of Wired magazine, argues that the maker movement has the potential to catalyse a third industrial revolution. Behind the headlines, the movement reflects the continued evolution of the hacker memes of openness, collaboration, and sharing, now applied to DIY manufacturing and design.
The thought experiment I’d like to propose involves bringing together Unger’s argument concerning how progressives should attempt to revivify democracy with the empirical observation that collaborative experimentation is increasingly shaping the zeitgeist. I suspect that Unger is addressing the wrong community in his call to arms. Perhaps, instead of calling on progressives in the world of party politics (a world that is constitutionally resistant to disruption) to embrace collaborative experimentation, Unger should reach out to progressives in the maker movement to lead the charge. Currently, makerthons focus on enabling people to build technical gadgets and gizmos for personal use. Yet, this merely reflects the passions and interests of the DIY community who gather at these events. A makerthon focused on collaboratively redesigning institutions would presumably attract a much broader and diverse community. The greatest challenge presented to such an initiative would lie in securing the interest of a suitably diverse group of specialists and experts, to ensure that alternatives were based in a realistic understanding of social and political systems.
Imagine a Maker Day, perhaps only a few years in the future, in which citizens are able to collaboratively design the institutions to come. An institution here is any established pattern of behavior of importance to a society or culture. Marriage and the family are institutions. So, unfortunately, are sexism, racism, and nationalism. We might imagine sessions devoted to critically addressing marriage and the nuclear family structure, offering up models that enable us to appreciate alternative ways of living. We might imagine sessions devoted to creating community initiatives aimed to redress the ‘isms’ of the world, trialing them guerilla-style using street theatre and 3D printed props. We might imagine a stream of sessions devoted to rethinking economic institutions, in which participants, including economists and financiers, journalists, academics, and activists, participate in exploring P2P lending systems, gift cultures, and reputation economies. We might imagine lawyers, artists, and policy wonks engaging intellectual property issues, pumping out legal innovations to enable the collaborative economy. We might imagine e-Gov advocates, hackers, and campaigners co-designing tools for participatory democracy, showcasing their potential through short clips on YouTube and pressuring governments to embrace the disruption.
We can do this. The question is – why aren’t we?
Unger signals a significant hurdle: practical knowledge. Collaborative innovation implies a familiarity with ‘advanced collaborative practices’, and these practices are not equally distributed across classes and geographies. Today, these practical lexicons are still largely restricted to a well-educated, tech savvy, urban class, who pay attention to trends coming out of Silicon Valley. As Unger claims:
The most familiar home grounds of this set of practices today are the advanced, knowledge-intensive firms and schools. … Yet such vanguards remain weakly linked to the rest of the economy and society: even in the richest countries, the vast majority of people remain excluded from them and have no prospect of joining them.
It is true that not everyone has the opportunity to attend Stanford d.school or take part in the collaborative service jams run by major corporations. But Unger is wrong to conclude that ordinary people have ‘no prospect of joining’ these kinds of activities, because such events are increasingly part of the social fabric for design oriented digital natives. In the coming fortnight, I will take part in two collaborative design events happening in Sydney: the inaugural Good for Nothing co-design challenge (sold out, at the time of writing), and the Sydney Service Jam, part of the Global Service Jam taking place on March 7, 2014. My design skills are limited. My coding skills are non-existent. Yet, I know from experience that the collaborative environment created at these kinds of events makes room for everyone, irrespective of their skills and knowledge. The main reason why I’m going along is to watch and learn, and to get a sense of how events like these are driving the practices and norms of collaborative innovation into popular consciousness.
In 2010, in Coalition of the Willing, I argued that open source culture will change the world. Today, the process of cultural learning is happening faster, and in a much more concrete way, than I imagined. Open source culture is flowing offline to inform attitudes and practices in hackathons, makerthons, collaboratories, and design jams around the world.
This is an incredible political opportunity. It is time that progressives became makers.