Every once in a while, I am asked to describe what I “make.” The question was part of an application for a technology conference a few years ago; when I saw it, I closed the browser tab, and I only applied later (and eventually attended) because of the enthusiastic encouragement of friends. I am always uncomfortable identifying myself as a maker. I am uncomfortable with any culture that encourages taking on an entire identity rather than expressing a facet of my own identity (“maker” rather than “someone who makes things”). This is not to say that I am opposed to “making” itself. I am a professor at a small engineering college that places a strong emphasis on design and hands-on experiences, and I have been making things my entire life. But, especially in technology culture, there is a pervasive sense that “making” is the most, or indeed the only, worthwhile way to spend one’s time. And this assumption has a long history.
Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor — primarily caregiving, in its various aspects — that is performed mostly by women. As a teenager, I read Ayn Rand on how any work that needed to be done day after day was meaningless, and that the only worthwhile endeavor was creating new things. To the distress of my mother, my response was to stop making my bed every day. (While I admit the possibility of misinterpretation, as I have not read Rand’s writing since I was so young my mother oversaw my housekeeping, I have no plans to revisit Rand anytime soon.) The cultural primacy of making, particularly in tech culture — that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, repair, analysis, and especially caregiving — is informed by the gendered history of who is credited with making things and, in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.
Making is not a rebel movement of scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from corporations to individuals (a shift that is supported by a different set of companies selling things), and from what Ursula Franklin (1999) described as “prescriptive technologies” to ones that are more holistic (10–18), it mostly reinscribes familiar values in a slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.
In light of this history, it is unsurprising that coding has been folded into “making.” Consider the instant gratification of seeing “hello, world” on the screen. Coding is nearly the easiest possible way to “make” things and certainly one where failure has a very low cost (Boyer 2011). Code is “making” because we have figured out how to package it into discrete units and sell it, and because it is widely perceived to be done by men. But you can also think about coding as eliciting a specific set of desired behaviors from computing devices. It is the Searle’s-Chinese-room take on the deeper, richer, messier, less reproducible, immeasurably more difficult version of what we do with people — change their cognition, abilities, and behaviors. We call the latter “education,” and it is mostly done by underpaid, undervalued women.
When new products are introduced, we hear about the exciting technological innovations behind them that are ostensibly worth paying (more) for. In contrast, policy and public discourse around caregiving — besides education, healthcare comes immediately to mind — are rarely about paying more to do better and are instead mostly about how to lower costs. Consider the economics term, “Baumol’s cost disease”: it suggests that it is somehow pathological that the time and energy — and therefore the cost — a string quartet takes to prepare for a performance has not fallen in the same way as goods, as if people and what they do should become less valuable with time. (To be fair, given the trajectory of wages in the United States over the last few years, this decrease seems to be exactly what is happening.)
It is not, of course, that there is anything wrong with making (although it is not all that clear that the world needs more stuff ). It is that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing — it is nearly always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to Facebook community moderators (Chen 2014) to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker — regardless of what one actually or mostly does — is a way to accrue the gendered capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.
I am not a maker. In a value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is, at least superficially, the same year after year. That is because all of the actual change is at the interface between me, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences.” These comments mistake what I do for what I am actually trying to elicit and support from students. The appropriate metaphor for education, as Ursula Franklin has pointed out, is a garden, not the production line (Franklin 22–23).
I educate. I analyze. I characterize. I critique. Almost everything I do these days is about communicating with others. To characterize what I do as “making” is either to mistake the methods — the research, the editorials, the workshops, the courses — for the purpose or, worse, to describe what I do as “making” other people, diminishing their own agency and role in sensemaking, as if their learning is something I impose on them.
Making in education can be tremendously valuable, particularly when it gives students from disadvantaged groups access to the types of hands-on education and opportunities they would not otherwise receive. Because students are frequently allowed to choose or design their own projects, making is a useful proof of concept for how autonomy and meaningful work also foster motivation (Deci and Flaste 1996) and positive learning outcomes. These approaches can and should be extended across the curriculum. But at the same time, as we broaden access to making, we should celebrate and foster education, maintenance, analysis, critique, and, above all, caregiving — all of the undervalued, underappreciated, ongoing work of making other people’s lives better.
This chapter is a revised and edited version of an essay originally published online at https://tinyletter.com/metafoundry/letters/metafoundry-15-scribbled-leatherjackets on November 23, 2014, as “Homo Fabber.”
1. See Gould.
Boyer, Bryan. “Matter Battle!” January 24, 2011. http://matterbattle.com.
Chen, Adrian. “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed.” Wired, October 23, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation.
Deci, Edward, and Richard Flaste. Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. London: Penguin, 1996.
Franklin, Ursula M. The Real World of Technology (CBC Massey Lectures), rev. ed. Toronto, Ont.: House of Anansi Press, 1999.
Gould, Elise. “Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth — and What We Can Do about It.” Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #382, August 27, 2014. http://www.epi.org/files/2014/why-americas-workers-need-faster-wage-growth-final.pdf.
Searle, John R. “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, no. 3 (1980): 417–57.