Mark Frauenfelder Makes Stuff Happen

July 2, 2013

Mark Frauenfelder, the founding editor-in-chief of Make magazine and founder of Boing Boing, addressed a standing-room-only crowd on Monday at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference that came to hear him talk about makerspaces and maker culture.

He began by looking at the history of making in the United States. In 1900, 80% of Americans worked on farms; today, only 2% do, Frauenfelder said. So if you worked on a farm back then, you likely lived far away from an urban area and therefore had to learn how to make your own farming equipment, modify it, and repair it. But even when people began leaving their farms, “This making idea was still in the atmosphere,” he said.

A sign of the maker times: the bacon alarm clock.
A bacon alarm clock: A wooden box in the shape of a pig’s head, the device uses a light bulb to start cooking bacon once the alarm goes off.

In fact, making has been with us for 100 years or more, according to Frauenfelder. But there had been a clear shift away from making, which is only recently seeing a resurgence.

As an example, he compared Popular Mechanics magazine now versus decades ago. The old iteration, he said, explored what you could do with the human-made world around you. But look at an issue from 2000, for instance, and you’ll see that the magazine now profiles things you “can’t really touch,” he said—the world’s tallest building, brain implants, the fastest PC you can buy. “The old Popular Mechanics was about PCs you could build,” he said.

What changed? According to Frauenfelder, one of the biggest shifts was that people no longer had to be makers. In 1954, a 15-inch color television set cost $1,175. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $10,000, he said. If a TV like that broke, you could figure out how to fix it yourself. In 2013, a 19-inch color TV costs $140. Adjusted for backward inflation, that amounts to just $17 in 1954 dollars. In others words, it would now cost a lot more to take it in for repair than to just buy a new one. “People didn’t have to be makers anymore,” Frauenfelder said. “They could just buy solutions to all their problems rather than create solutions.”

But 2000 was the beginning of phase one of the modern maker movement, he said. During this time, people were making things for fun and sharing them on the internet with other folks. The second phase began in 2008, and this was a time when people were making tools and systems—sometimes very complex ones—for other people to make things (such as Arduino and 3D printing).

Frauenfelder shared many examples of makers and their various projects, including one product that resonated with the crowd: a bacon alarm clock. A wooden box in the shape of a pig’s head, the device uses a light bulb to start cooking bacon once the alarm goes off.

“Makers are killing the advantages that big companies have always held,” Frauenfelder said.