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Pandemonium In The Millennium: James Powderly Sits Down With MAKE Magazine's Dale Dougherty

Pandemonium In The Millennium: James Powderly Sits Down With MAKE Magazine's Dale Dougherty

If there was a contest to find a locus on planet Earth that best represents the antithesis of a dirty, DIY, hacker space, the Millennium Seoul Hilton Hotel Executive Lounge would definitely be on the candidate list. Yet, irony in tow, on June 4th, 2012, I set down in a speckless, air-conditioned, floor-to-ceiling-glass terrarium for business execs and K-POP stars, high-up in the rarified, clean air of Namsan Mountain, to have a conversation, mano-a-mano, with the master impresario of hacker spaces, from Cupertino to Cheonggyecheon, Dale Dougherty: founder and publisher of O’Reilly’s MAKE Magazine.

There was a time in the mid-2000’s, in the early days of me and Evan Roth‘s little project, Graffiti Research Lab, when no one would pick-up our collect calls. Back then we had only one fan: Dale and his tribe of Maker Faire nerds and burners. So, six years later, on the other side of the planet, still basking in the afterglow of Seoul’s first annual Maker Faire at Seogyo Seoul Art Space in Hongdae, I quashed my inner Howard Stern, channeled my higher-Oprah, and loaded up a few softballs for Dale, my old friend and a supreme judge of talent.

James Powderly: People think of you these days as a publishing mogul. But I still think of you as the quintessential BIG idea guy. You made Global Network Navigator, right? The first ad-revenue based website? So, can I blame you for all the damn flashing popups and banner ads I have to see while I’m reading the Wall Street Journal every morning?
Dale Dougherty:
Haha. Actually, in 1993 there was an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Internet To Have Ads.” It was when GNN launched. We were the first to announce that was going to happen. We weren’t that successful initially in selling ads. Other people figured that out better than we did. But we went along that line. We sold some ads, but yeah, I don’t know if you can blame me. Probably the blink tag and others caused these things. The interesting thing about GNN is that it relates to the maker thing today. It was a group of people with crazy ideas who just wanted to make stuff. It was new territory with new rules and we got to write them.

Ok, so I’ll keep blaming Lou Montulli [inventor of the html blink tag]. I have been reading a lot lately about your concept of what a “maker” is. Please, tell me if I got it wrong. “Makers” are normal people driven by enthusiasm, curiosity and some sort of desire to control the technology that they have. So they learn to control their tech through play, trial, and error, and tools with a low barrier-to-entry. And they collaborate with others through interconnected networks, sharing code and information. I know you don’t really like the word “inventor.” Could you explain to me the difference in your mind between a “maker” and an “inventor?”
Words like “inventors” and “artist” have baked into them the idea that there’s a few of us that are good at this and the rest of us don’t do it. If I could twist the word inventor around so that everyone thought of themselves as inventors, that would be a good direction to go in. But I like the word “maker” because it doesn’t have that notion to it. Anybody could say that they are a maker: a maker of food, art, crafts or technology. I wanted to increasingly root that the human thing is a part of who we are. We make things for lots of reasons. It’s the commonality there, whether we are making science or making art, the commonality of thinking and sharing around this is what I was really after. “Inventor” also implies secrecy. The default for “inventor” is keep it private and hidden until you have the opportunity to reveal it. Learning from the open source community, I really think that the default for makers is to share and figure out those other things later on.

And, one difference between “makers” and “inventors” is that presumably there is an explicit business model for inventors down the road. Do you think it’s important to also have a low barrier to market in maker technology?
I think we’re seeing that. I think the idea here is that sometimes we look at things like technology and sort of assume everyone must have a business reason for using it. I think what MAKE did is pull back and say people have lots of reasons for making things. One of them might be business. But it can be play. Just like playing a musical instrument. Not all of us turn into superstar musicians. We play for friends. We play privately. We enjoy making music. What the Maker Fair does, I think, is to enable people to gain control of their lives. If you’re gaining control of technology, you’re gaining control of those tools to produce value in your life.

I think some of the magic is that we are taking those ideas and putting them back into the wild. Back into the physical world around us. Like if you think of school. The user interface for school sucks. Students facing chalkboards. But yesterday at the Seoul Maker Faire, children were busy learning—all ages engaged in activities. Noisy. That’s a different kind of user experience than what people usually expect from education.

Yeah, it was great to see these kids having their first experience with open source technology being about creativity and not just about coding printer driver software. You’ve actually been there since the early days of open source. I’ve heard you say once that open source software allowed organizations or individuals to serve a niche or smaller community. How does open source hardware differ? Does it increase that possibility or go in different directions?
I think it’s exactly analogous. One thing open source software does is begin to provide a stack or a set of software layers you can build upon. You can tweak those top layers but you understand what’s happening below it. It allows you to do something for a small audience that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you had to build that up all the way from the bottom. A good example we’ve covered in our magazine is DIY satellites. I know NASA spends millions of dollars on these, but at the Maker Faire in the Bay Area, these freshmen kids in high school are doing high altitude ballooning. They have a chart of their launches and they map out on Google the heights and where it was physically over the ground, and where the balloon burst. We grew up in a generation where NASA was taking pictures of the earth and this generation is now taking the pictures themselves.

Intellectual property is still a complicated issue in DIY. Take for instance the EyeWriter: a group of media artists got together and created a low-cost, eye-tracking system so our friend with Lou Gehrig’s disease could make art using just his eyes. But it turns out a lot of people with paralysis want a low-cost eye-tracking system. Our project was open source and all the instructions were online, but not everyone wants to make it themselves. Some people just want to buy a finished product, like the kind a commercial company could make. But companies are scared to try to commercialize the EyeWriter, because they can’t license the intellectual property. Do you see a way for individuals and big companies to work together on open source projects like this?
Really good question. I think we are just feeling that out. Just 2 weeks ago I had a hardware innovation workshop. We were just pulling people together who are doing start-up businesses. We didn’t go in depth into that question. But I interpret it as, “What are the business models that can be advanced?” I think even the Arduino team is struggling a bit with this, with people basically just copying their work without modification or attribution. In the past, there was this sort of gentleman’s agreement. It was informal. Essentially, that’s what open source allows. But it’s not so cool now… if we don’t improve it or add to it.

I think there’s going to be an era of experimentation where we’ve got to figure that out. In a similar way to Linux. Linux was a trademark name. In the future, it might be that the name itself is what you protect… you protect the rights around the name. Others may develop similar products, but at least the name is what carves your space out.

Jonah Peretti [the founder of the OpenLab at Eyebeam, where Graffiti Research Lab was born] used to always tell us not to worry about imitation. Just to absorb it and be the nexus for all the communities of imitators, modifiers, and users.
Yeah. Projects like MakerBot are pretty smart because it’s the name plus the community. People want to know how to balance community, the giving back and adding of new layers on a project. I remember Tim O’Reilly once saying, “Five years from now, if we’re still talking about licensing, we’ve lost the war.” Most people don’t care about it, if it’s open source or not. The community does, the core does. But what matters is what you’re enabling people to do by having it be open source.

This weekend was the first Maker Faire in Seoul, South Korea, but how many Maker Faires are there out in the world now?
This year there will be sixty of them around the world. And most of them are like Maker Faire Seoul, mostly of that size. I have to tell you, walking in there, I was so delighted to see it. That could have been just a gallery full of boring stuff. But it’s not. It’s people that are really excited, really welcoming and generous with their time. They are all doing it for their own reasons and somehow it all fits together. Even with like thirty Makers. That’s what I’ve been seeing. That’s what works. They are discovering their own communities. They are relating to each other. After this weekend, other events will happen, other connections will be made. These communities preexist the event, but it gives them a sense of feeling a part of something bigger and helps them to create a culture. That’s important. They’re acting on their own and doing this. A lot of people probably don’t have that sense of empowerment about culture.

John Moore [Director of MAKE in Japan] addressing Powderly: How do you see MAKE moving forward in Korea?
Powderly: Well, this is a rigorous standardized testing country. They have a long history of catering to standardized tests and excelling at them. But also self-demonstrating that those standardized tests don’t lead to well-spoken English, an improved job market or innovative, creative industries. Korean students do really excel in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects that are traditionally difficult for students in the United States. I was reading about the mentor program from DARPA which has funded MAKE Magazine to experiment with putting DIY into lower education curriculums. I read about Saul’s [Saul Griffith, founder of OtherLab and co-project lead on the DARPA grant] idea of STEAM, or injecting the “A” for “Art” into those traditional STEM subjects like the hard sciences and mathematics. I think that could be a very beneficial thing here in Korea. The way Hojun Song is doing with his DIY satellite project [OSSI]. Korea has these fringe, interesting people but could benefit generally from programs that help to inject art and creativity into those subjects that they typically excel at under standardized metrics. It could really help to increase the power and appreciation of design and creativity here.

Dougherty: I think the challenge in some ways is opening up education so that it is student-interest driven. We have the same problem in the United States. I don’t think highly of standardized tests. I don’t think enough people have asked if what is standardized is valuable to kids. What matters to me is project work. Projects, whether from a scientific experiment to more playful, artistic projects. I think the world of work is being much more defined as projects as opposed to careers or jobs. We don’t tend to treat science and technology that way. I think blending that together and getting the kids more engaged as a result is what I’d like to see. Building a portfolio of work and sharing that online… that ought to be a college application.


Photo courtesy of Dale Dougherty.

Powderly: I’ve seen in my history of involvement with Make that you guys like to support the weirdos: The fringe, the rebel nerds… maybe you even court a bit of controversy. In the DIY world, you always have the safe stuff, like the Cupertino high school student who discovered a possible cure for cancer. But, What about David Hahn: the kid who built a partially functioning nuclear reactor in his garage? Some people are really pushing the limits of “Dont-try-this-at-home.” How far along toward an al-Qaeda hacker space should we go before we start to worry about the ethical implications of open source and DIY?
At Maker Faire in the Bay Area, there’s a booth that keeps growing every year. It’s lock picking. It’s jam-packed all the time. It’s kind of on that edge. Are we teaching people to pick locks? They want to know! It’s fascinating. I think it’s good we’re pushing those limits. I think anything that is truly stimulating has to encourage that. DIYbio is a whole area where people are learning… In Brooklyn last summer, I was talking to the Genspace people. Initially when they set up their space, they had FBI people come in. It made the government uncomfortable. But, the outcome was that they taught a class to FBI agents so they could better understand the technology. There was a sort of innate fear of it stemming from not understanding it. This could also be true of some of the terrorist kinds of things. We fear it because we don’t understand it. I have to say that we learn from everybody, even the terrorists, by understanding what they’re doing. Look at their model of warfare: Low technical capabilities but more resourceful and ingenious applications end up competing with the biggest, most resourced army in the world. Part of it is that they are always innovating in their own ways and you kind of have to give them credit for that.

Speaking of being terrorized, I have one final question. LED Throwies are going to terrorize me for the rest of my life. I mean, I’m going to have to live in the shadow of that silly project for the rest of my life. I have a feeling that “Web 2.0” follows you around, too [Dale was the first person to coin the term “Web 2.0”]. You wanna fix that here now? Any predictions on Web 3.0? I mean it’s totally up for grabs. I think John Smart’s idea of the metaverse has some interesting implications to “making." If we try to think of ways to bridge the gap between virtual and physical spaces, one area that comes up is computer generated manufacturing. There’s a lot of this going on at MAKE: MakerBot, RepRap and other low-cost, DIY, 3D printing devices. How do you see this playing out? MakerBots at the gas station? In the convenience store?
Yeah, in Kinkos, various places. We don’t know whether it’ll be a service or other things. I kind of imagine that, in a practical way, there will be large companies with catalogs of things that you can download and print on your 3D printer. So you can upgrade or replace a part in your sewing machine. Modify it. And communities will sort of grow up around that. Things like 3D printers being used in industries, instead of carrying all this inventory, they can create a part on demand. I see it in the Maker community: people using it to create things they couldn’t afford if it were made in a normal manufacturing process. The tools will get better, more automated. That’s where we want to be thinking in terms of competing with China. They use a very industrial or even manual manufacturing process. The more we can automate it, the more there is an advantage. It doesn’t necessarily create jobs if that’s the goal. But it may help establish a creative industry around manufacturing that we haven’t had before. I don’t know if it will all play out. Some people talk about a local factory. Instead of a Target or Walmart, more like a factory that creates the things in the Target or Walmart. Probably not any time soon, but it’s an interesting way of thinking about this. Especially for things that you can’t find easily or are more specialized. It could be a new artisanal world.