Is The Maker Movement Making Souls?

makermovementmanifesto1Have you heard of the Maker Movement?   I recently picked up a book titled The Maker Movement Manifesto (McGraw Hill, 2014).  In this book, Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, argues that a Robin Hood-like revolution is underway in the world of manufacturing.  He lays out a vision for a culture in which making is taken from powerful corporations and placed in the hands of individuals.  Hatch writes:

The real power of this revolution is its democratizing effects.  Now, almost anyone can innovate.  Now, almost anyone can make.  Now, with the tools available at a makerspace, anyone can change the world (10).

In addition to this bold vision, the Maker Movement boasts an online magazine, annual fairs all over the world, and a wikipedia entry on “Maker Culture.”

Much is already written about the social and economic motivations and goals of the Maker Movement.  While these are very interesting, I am more interested in whether there is a significant religious and theological dimension.  Is the Maker Movement simply about making things, or is it also about making souls?

To be honest, I’m still skeptical that it can be classified as a movement. The Maker Movement seems to cover a very diverse conglomeration of groups.  There are those, like Hatch, who are primarily interested in the way that one can turn the spare time of hobbyists into a powerful engine that drives economic growth.  One could also point to growing interests in DIY projects and new online platforms for production and marketing like Etsy and Kickstarter.  If these are all symptoms of a changing workplace and workforce, one could also add a corresponding effort to reshape the domestic sphere along similar lines.  Recent books such as Shannon Hayes’ Radical Homemakers (Left to Write Press, 2010) and Veronica Van Duin’s Homemaking as a Social Art (Sophia Books, 2000) present visions of homemaking for a post-industrial society that make Martha Stewart look like a slacker.  One can also point to popular blogs such as SouleMama and The Pioneer Woman, which project an image of home life that prizes the home grown, home made and well crafted.

In the midst of all this variety, there are some interesting points of departure for religious and theological reflection.  First, joy is found in the activity of making itself.   In a society where so many of the products we use are consumed, the Maker Movement is made up of people who want to create.  Some might see this as a determined effort to do things the hard way.  I think, however, that the process of making can be deeply fulfilling.  One of the reasons that people find fulfillment in making things is that making often engages the whole person.  All of our attention and energy is given to a single task that demands body, mind, emotions and spirit to complete.

Second, the process of making is viewed as fostering and deepening community.  Sharing and collaboration are essential components of the Maker Movement.  Many of the products developed by people involved in the Maker Movement are open source, allowing others to access plans or design specifications free of charge.  The internet, in particular, has proven to be an indispensable means for makers to share knowledge, collaborate, and market their products.

Finally, there is a strong sense among those involved in the Maker Movement that it is pushing society in a more human direction.  In an article on the NEA website, Dale Dougherty, CEO of Maker Media, is quoted saying that the Maker Movment

at its essence calls us to see ourselves as makers — that we are producers, creators, builders of the world we live in. It is about a cultural transformation that asks us to participate in the creation of culture, not just its consumption. Making is what humans do, and we have old notions such as ‘homo faber’.

But this movement is not simply about ensuring that individuals have the time to explore their creative potential.  There is a concerted effort to change the world for the better.  Mark Hatch sounds a makers call to arms:

To use revolutionary language, my objective with this book is to radicalize you and get you to become a soldier in this army.  Not so that we can destroy some nation, political party or social movement, but so that we can collectively use our creativity to attack the world’s greatest problems and meet people’s most urgent needs (10).

The Maker Movement is a fruitful opportunity for religious and theological reflection.  I believe this not simply because it is making headlines, but because much of the rhetoric that frames the movement is already religious and theological.  People are flocking to the Maker Movement because it provides them with fulfilling and meaningful work, a collaborative community, a renewed sense of what it means to be human and a vocation to change the world.  This is something worth thinking about.

Jim Watkins is a regular contributor to Transpositions. In 2012, he completed PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA.  His  forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.

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9 Comments

  • Bruce Herman says:

    Thanks Jim — fascinating. As I’ve indicated in several previous posts (and in an upcoming follow up article) I believe making is fundamental to our humanity and absence of it in our lives can be disastrous.
    Etienne Gilson gives a marvelous theological meditation on this in The Arts of Beautiful — and in that essay offers clarity to allow a distinction between making, knowing, and communicating. Personally, as a painter, I’ve found this distinction liberating. To understand that art making involves but is not the same as knowledge or the speech act is so freeing. More about this another time.

  • David Hooker says:

    Interesting. I have a working theory that the arts are essentially repeating the patterns developed at the turn of the 20th century. The sense of idealism and the desire to be seen as a revolutionary “movement.” I suspect we are responding to the digital age in ways that are similar to how people responded to the industrial revolution. The Maker movement reminds me of the art and crafts movement, in both goals and process.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      David, yes, I too think their may be some interesting parallels with the arts and crafts movement. I wonder, though, if William Morris were presented with the Internet as a means to show and distribute his work, would have have taken it? For some of the folks I have included in this “movement,” its digital dimension stands in tension with some of their explicit and implicit ideals.

  • Wayne Woodward says:

    Perhaps take greater care with language use and the structure of the commentary in this — what is it? Book review; blurb for the book and movement; shorthand, critical-interpretive analysis?

    As one example, in making your first point, about the deepening of community, you mention open access and not charging for design specifications, which appears to provide your partial answer to the immediate reservation one might have about lumping together as ‘spiritual’ instances of doing and making that are not generated through means-ends calculations — i.e., art as exploration — and those that are circumscribed by a commercial ethos. By the end of the next paragraph, your comment in passing that “so many of the products we use are consumed” is ready to slip into approval of product marketing as part of community building and then back again (!), when the quote you affix says that many products are not calculated to promote consumption.

    Aren’t there some important distinctions to be made here and then followed through on in analysis? Aren’t the landfills testimony to the problem of having our ‘spiritual’ creative needs met by entering so many of them into a calculative, consumption (and inevitably disposal) model of making and doing, where marketing — i.e., raising, ‘growing’ the demand curve — is viewed as key to sustaining community economically? And haven’t you acknowledged at the start of your commentary that the transition (slippage) from hobby to vocation to economic growth engine is what Hatch and his envisioned movement is mainly about?

    Things we might produce in order to sell are different from works hat embody spirit as an animating force; I-it and I-Thou apply to our relations to what we construct and create as well as to the persons with whom we relate through these things and works. You glance at these differences but then look away so quickly that the interrelated nature of the material and the spiritual, thing and work, producer-consumer as opposed to persons in mutual-personal relation get lost in the blur.

    If one would turn to the enlistment of an ‘army’ that Hatch wishes to lead into battle to “change the world for the better’, an entire new area of rhetorical-discursive confusion would open up. Again, you give a glance, but it’s hard to tell whether there is anything disturbing in the corner of your eyes.

    I am a devoted reader of Transpositions, but am sometimes left forlorn by the absence of meaningful distinctions in some of what gets posted.I realize this post is in the category of “Commercial Arts … etc.” but the differences between the commercial and the ‘etc’s’ need to be better indicated, I would suggest.
    Wayne Woodward

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Wayne, thank you for this constructive criticism, and I am forlorn that you are “forlorn by the absence of meaningful distinctions.”

      I appreciate your concerns about the genre (i.e. book review?) that this blog post should fall under. Perhaps I misled you by including an image of the book cover, but I do want to be clear that this is not meant to be a book review. Instead, it was meant to be a conversation starter (is that a genre?) about the theological/religious dimension of the Maker Movement. My goal was simply to offer some brief thoughts on why I think the Maker Movement is an excellent opportunity for religious and theological reflection rather than taking on the task of doing that religious and theological reflection in a more serious way.

      I am not yet aware of anyone who has written on this dimension of the Maker Movement, and I take your criticism about a lack of analysis as a compliment that much more could be said. If you would like to offer your own analysis on the Maker Movement, I would be very interested in reading it. Or, if you can point me in the direction of others writing in this vein, I would be most grateful.

      As for “whether there is anything disturbing in the corner” of my eyes, well, who can say? I plan to continue writing on this topic, and to offer, as you suggest, a more careful analysis. I hope you keep reading and writing.

      • Wayne Woodward says:

        Hi Jim,
        Thanks for the thoughtful, detailed response. I noticed Kyle Baker’s response and he picks up on some of my concerns, though in a more convivial tone than I was able to strike. My apologies. Theological and artistic terms can be appropriated towards quite different world views and agendas than the theological and artistic.A postmodern delight in polysemy is one response, but a critical vigilance may also have its role to play. In fact, my initial response to your post was written after I had spent time reading recent philosophy of technology. A major theme of this literature is not to worry about the concerns of first-generation philosophy of technology, such as Hans Jonas’ concern that mutual-personal responsibility is overwhelmed by a dramatic augmentation of human power that amounts to idolatry, since we have changed the meanings of all these values Jonas hoped to recover. Moreover, public sentiment has accepted the revised meanings: Dialogue is now connectivity, relation is now end-user control of consumption, etc. Don’t want to say I am forlorn again — and risk making you forlorn along with me — but I do worry as a communication professor about these transformations of language that may mask erosion of values.
        Best,
        Wayne

  • Kyle J Baker says:

    As a composer, I tour a sound installation I made to maker faires – and they are fantastic! People have hacked their own cars to make them electric/battery powered, they’ve built robots that serve drinks, gigantic dinosaur puppets.. its a wonderful menagerie of creativity. One thing Dr. Watkins misses in this book review (and maybe this wasn’t apparent in the book) is the Maker Movement’s use of the term Maker to refer to itself has a theological undertone. The movement has a strong core of a certain breed of technology professional, who is commonly a secular humanist, has friends who are hackers, and is most often a proponent of new atheism. I find it wonderfully ironic that this group of humans, so in love with the satisfaction they find in making and shaping their environment do not realize they are joining the divine spark in their activities. Secondly, it’s ironic to me they created the term “maker” to describe their activities rather than using the theologically-weighted “creator.”

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hi Kyle, thanks for commenting, and I’m glad to hear that you have had some experience with the Maker Faires. I have yet to get to one, and I would love to hear any further thoughts or reflections you may have about them.

    I’m surprised that you think I miss the “theological undertone” of the movement. After all, the entire point of this post is to draw attention precisely to the “theological undertone” of the Maker Movement! That is why I say that it is a great opportunity for theological and religious reflection.

    This is, in fact, not a book review. I apologize if I have led some to believe this. Hatch explicitly draws attention to the idea of the imago dei as one explanation for the appeal, and the importance, of the Maker Movement. This was also why I quoted Dale Dougherty who draws attention to the notion of “homo faber,” which is another way of saying that making is a basic or fundamental human activity. At any rate, I think the theological undertone of the movement is significant and multi-dimensional: “because it provides them with fulfilling and meaningful work, a collaborative community, a renewed sense of what it means to be human and a vocation to change the world.”

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