The makers and Italian design tradition

Maker Faire’s second edition, that will be opening tomorrow in Rome, offers a chance to reflect on responsibilities and opportunities of the makers movement grafted onto our Italian tradition.

The way they tell it sometimes goes roughly like this: “Either you’re with us to change the world or you stand still and endure change.” Then, you go and turn the TV on to the Raitre channel any Saturday evening and guesting on the celebrated Che tempo che fa talk show, the queen of mainstream primetime television, is “Italy’s most famous maker” Massimo Banzi explaining how his legendary Arduino processor can be used to make a plant say “Thank you for watering me” after you have done so and to express its gratitude on twitter; or that even your mother could use a 3D printer to create a broken dishwasher part instead of having to seek it out and have it posted to her by the supplier.
Well, when I think of my mother, I know it would be no easy task to explain what a maker is (or even a microprocessor) to her. Can you imagine telling her about a current seismic change in consumptions, the economy and manufacturing, and that this stems – but on a global scale – from the same mechanism that, on a smaller scale, makes a plant say “thank you” or a toaster tell you via your smartphone when your bread is toasted to perfection.  How could someone like my mother react except with scepticism and rejection when seemingly invited to participate in this progress centred on democratized media but actually barred from a redemption  that is in the hands of computer or electronics “geniuses”? Plus: is it just a generational problem?
I don’t think so. The slogan “anyone can” is directly related to Obama’s “Yes, you can” and he,  by the way, just happens to be one of the maker community’s biggest supporters. He sees “making” as a way to kickstart the American economy but equally as the generator of the “everyone is a designer”/”everyone is a manufacturer” mantra that drives to distraction those who believed they had to learn and practise the trade before declaring themselves such. It is precisely this kind of rhetoric that makes those on this side, who lack all that confidence, charm or familiarity with new technologies, feel excluded, obstructed and even a little thick.
Reply: “You’d better wake up or you’ll be left behind”. Reaction: “Yes, but what do I do? To go where?” Meanwhile, you have the impression that the train of progress has passed through and blockhead you have been left standing, widening the gap between one side and the other, and adding fuel to the idea of the old conservatives on this side and, on the other, a niche made of nerdy hackers who previously would have lifted a car bonnet and got their hands dirty. Now, everything is digital and they are doing the same thing but via a computer.
I am not necessarily on the side of those who, to continue with the mechanical metaphor, decide to go on foot but I really don’t believe I will ever see it as a problem if I don’t know how to use an Arduino board to ride an electric bicycle. I do not want to see it as a problem or feel as if I am obstructing a revolution in course. After all, I wouldn’t know how to do open-heart surgery either and this, if anything, will probably have a greater impact on my future.
I do like to think that revolutions – like that of the makers to which part of the world is entrusting the relaunch of the economy and manufacturing sector – help people like me and act in the place of people like me, just as occurs with medicine, which fortunately is not only available to those who can practise it,  and, taking an extremely prosaic attitude to it, just like design, the success and meaning of which are certainly not linked to an exclusive response to “need” (see “my dishwasher has broken down” or “I need a glass” or “I have to heat a slice of bread”…).
Of course, I do think it would be great if I were trained to think I could do something myself with my own hands instead of being on this side and looking on, often wide-eyed and open-jawed in incredulity. Probably, even if I learn to make things myself, I would still want or at least like to find some already made – made as I would like to make them myself (just as I find pleasure in reading novels I would like to have written myself or in discovering a pair of shoes designed exactly as I would have done if I possessed that special 3D imagination).

This is obvious: technological revolutions or progress do not totally oust what was there before. Photography did not do that to painting; films did not do it to the theatre; microwave ovens did not do it to traditional ones. What, among other things, change does entail is that, if the previous solution is to survive, it must find its own specificity, a strong and non-replaceable peculiarity.

So, the maker movement is apparently descending on Italy but because it will be grafted onto our Italian tradition, it will have both a responsibility and excellent opportunities – all on the condition that it knows and appreciates the terrain on which it is growing. Italy has a different history, different inventors, its own peculiar business and growth models, its own creative industry and a tough imagery which will test the resistance of the spontaneous and widespread maker phenomenon. The same, however, applies and will be beneficial to the new artisans (analogical or digital, working on lathes, with their hands or at a computer) who cannot afford to miss or ignore the force of the Internet, whatever their ambitions.

I would like to reassure people like my mother about one thing: makers are bearers of good news. The first piece of news is that, as well as the need for and beauty of a return to “making” (how otherwise would we fill all the leisure-time freed up by unemployment and that was previously the prerogative of pensioners?), makers frequently produce really intelligent, alternative, sustainable, inexpensive and innovative things that keep the flag of Italian production flying. Arduino itself is the most typical example and, all joking apart, so is the hugely significant work being done by Massimo Banzi to export this knowledge all over the world, including securing a slot on Raitre to talk about it, explaining it to people like Obama, but also my mother, and attracting 40,000 people to Rome for a weekend exhibition…
The second piece of good news is directly linked to the previous one and consists in having officially, at last, brought so many curious visitors and enthusiasts to an event in Italy that, although only in its second year, is structured like a superpower with major sponsors and media partners and a name – perhaps still hard for the locals to grasp –  and gathers them under a banner that unites and connects them to what elsewhere has become more familiar and long been a transgenerational phenomenon.
The third piece of news is for anyone slightly suspicious of the techno-elite and abuse of words such as “genius” or sceptical of the conviction that only the geniuses will save us and “things” thereby excluding all those who do not feel like geniuses – so much for the democratic revolution: not only are makers normal people, they have founded their ethical and political model on openness and sharing, on the concept of giving everyone access to their projects and quality, and allowing them to improve them, adjust imperfections etc. etc. Indeed, if there really is a genius, it is a collective genius with repercussions that go far beyond the confines of its brain. If this genius really is steered intelligently, personally, very democratically and also with true meritocracy, it may well be a reaction to the super-monopoly of the new capitalists and the power of the Web.
The fourth and last is this: as always occurs with change, it doesn’t matter if we have noticed, if we have ridden its wave or snubbed it, if we have learnt to directly manage the software or hardware of digital fabrication or if we do not know what Arduino is, this revolution has long been in course and – as well explained by Chris Anderson, author among other things of the successful Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (published by Crown Business, 2012) – is basically the sum of the two previous industrial revolutions: that of machines and that of the Internet, and it applies software knowhow to the whole world of hardware. We are all experiencing the effects and enduring (or, in some cases, benefiting from) the economic changes prompted by the crisis in the historic production and consumption paradigms. It is not true that either we join in or we endure. We might even find a useful and intelligent way to narrate it, trying to understand this change or make it accessible to those who wish to act on it or who only go and see it this weekend.

Long live the Maker faire but, most of all, long live people like Massimo Banzi, co-curator Riccardo Luna (recently named Digital Champion by the Renzi government), Enrico Bassi, founder of the first Fablab in Italy who is helping other labs to open up in various ways to this model (the latest is Opendot, opened on 25 September last in Milan), Zoe Romano and Costantino Bongiorno of Wemake (who recently subtitled previewed in Italy a splendid documentary on the maker movement) and so many more who have, indeed, “opened” their skills up to the rest of us who are loathe to leave and in limbo in our little old worlds.

Great if they really do transfer to our children those tools missed not only by my mother’s generation but also part of my own; if they talk to them and teach them to build their own solutions whenever they don’t want to seek them out, wouldn’t find them as they would like or don’t have the means to purchase them, exploiting their own (mass) difference and even without being a genius or a revolutionary.

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