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<nettime> Debbie Chachra: "Why I Am Not a Maker"


Why I Am Not a Maker

   When tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who
   teach, criticize, and take care of others.

   Debbie Chachra Jan 23 2015, 7:25 AM ET
   Every once in a while, I am asked what I "make." A hack day might
   require it, or a conference might ask me to describe "what I make" so
   it can go on my name tag.

   I'm always uncomfortable with it. I'm uncomfortable with any culture
   that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express
   a facet of your own identity ("maker," rather than "someone who makes
   things"). But I have much deeper concerns.

   An identity built around making things--of being "a maker"--pervades
   technology culture. There's a widespread idea that "People who make
   things are simply different [read: better] than those who don't."

   I understand where the motivation for this comes from. Creators,
   rightly, take pride in creation. In her book The Real World of
   Technology, the metallurgist Ursula Franklin contrasts prescriptive
   technologies, where many individuals produce components of the whole
   (think about Adam Smith's pin factory), with holistic
   technologies, where the creator controls and understands the process
   from start to finish. As well as teaching my own engineering courses,
   I'm a studio instructor for a first-year engineering course, in which
   our students do design and fabrication, many of them for the first
   time. Making things is incredibly important, especially for groups that
   previously haven't had access. When I was asked by the Boston-based
   Science Club for Girls to write a letter to my teenaged self (as a
   proxy for young girls everywhere), that's exactly what I wrote

   But there are more significant issues, rooted in the social history of
   who makes things--and who doesn't.

   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 mostly performed 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 only creating new things was a
   worthwhile endeavor. My response to this was to stop making my bed
   every day, to the distress of my mother. (While I admit the possibility
   of a misinterpretation, as I haven't read Rand's writing since I was so
   young that my mother oversaw my housekeeping, I have no plans to
   revisit it anytime soon.) The cultural primacy of making, especially in
   tech culture--that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to
   repair, analysis, and especially caregiving--is informed by the
   gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things
   that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.
   Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by the
   order of men.

   Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against
   the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the
   individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a
   different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in
   slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are

   It's not, of course, that there's anything wrong with making (although
   it's not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). The problem
   is the idea that the alternative to making is usually not doing
   nothing--it's almost always doing things for and with other people,
   from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social
   worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker--regardless of
   what one actually or mostly does--is a way of accruing to oneself the
   gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

   In Silicon Valley, this divide is often explicit: As Kate
   Losse has noted, coders get high salary, prestige, and stock options.
   The people who do community management--on which the success of many
   tech companies is based--get none of those. It's unsurprising that
   coding has been folded into "making." Consider the instant
   gratification of seeing "hello, world" on the screen; it's nearly the
   easiest possible way to "make" things, and certainly one where failure
   has a very low cost. Code is "making" because we've figured out
   how to package it up 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, desired
   set of behaviors from computing devices. It's the Searle's
   "Chinese room" take on the deeper, richer, messier, less reproducible,
   immeasurably more difficult version of this that we do with
   people--change their cognition, abilities, and behaviors. We call the
   latter "education," and it's mostly done by underpaid, undervalued

   When new products are made, we hear about exciting technological
   innovation, which are widely seen as 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 figuring out
   ways to lower the cost. Consider the economics term Baumol's cost
   disease: It suggests that it is somehow pathological that the time and
   energy taken by a string quartet to prepare for a performance--and
   therefore the cost--has not fallen in the same way as goods, as if
   somehow people and what they do should get less valuable with time.
   (Though, to be fair, given the trajectory of wages in the U.S.
   over the last few years in real terms, that seems to be exactly what is

   I am not a maker. In a framing and value system is about creating
   artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human.
   As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year.
   That's because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the
   interface between me as an educator, 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,"
   which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I'm actually trying to
   help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as "making" is to
   mistake the methods--courses, workshops, editorials--for the effects.
   Or, worse, if you say that I "make" other people, you are diminishing
   their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is
   something I do to them.

   In a recent newsletter, Dan Hon, content director for Code for
   America wrote, "But even when there's this shift to Makers (and with
   all due deference to Getting Excited and Making Things), even when
   `making things' includes intangibles now like shipped-code, there's
   still this stigma that feels like it attaches to those-who-don't-make.
   Well, bullshit. I make stuff." I understand this response, but I'm not
   going to ask people--including myself--to deform what they do so they
   can call themselves a "maker." Instead, I call bullshit on the stigma
   and the culture and values behind it that rewards making above
   everything else.

   A quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem says: "We've begun to raise
   daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons
   more like our daughters." Maker culture, with its goal to get everyone
   access to the traditionally male domain of making, has focused on the
   first. But its success means that it further devalues the traditionally
   female domain of caregiving, by continuing to enforce the idea that
   only making things is valuable. Rather, I want to see us recognize the
   work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and
   critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do
   valuable work with and for others--above all, the caregivers--whose
   work isn't about something you can put in a box and sell.

   Copyright  2015 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.
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