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Dear makers

A creative fix at Central Saint Martins
A creative fix at Central Saint Martins

We thought we would share some thoughts with you. We’ve spent a year heavily invested in building communities of repairers. During this time we’ve attended a few Makerfaires, admired your work on Instructables, supported your work on Kickstarter. And we look forward to meet many more makers at Makerfaires in Manchester this weekend and in Rome in Europe.

We noticed a couple of articles on fixing and making, and we thought we might just go ahead and start a conversation between makers and fixers.

Making is a primal instinct – in some ways more primordial than fixing. Who doesn’t remember “making” with sticks and mud as a child, or with empty yogurt containers, used toilet paper rolls, shoe boxes, playdoh, rubber bands. We made cities, robots, space ships, animals. We made art and presents for each other. Utility was rarely our motivation. Joy and wonder seemed to drive childhood making.

Perhaps it’s so obvious it doesn’t need stating, but everybody was a maker until our rigid educational systems drubbed it out of some of us.

These systems taught us utility tied to growth – about being successful, being productive and that accumulating ever more and better stuff was the ultimate reflection of one’s worth. Now some of us did not ever really buy into this – some kept on dreaming, making and creating for the sake of it. And some of us were even able to convince others of the indirect “utility” of this, and were able to make a living off of this. Both of these groups might identify as “makers”.

Yet others found ourselves, perhaps in their late 20s, perhaps even later, scratching our heads wondering where our profound alienation with “stuff” came from.

We became fixers at this point, in an attempt to take back control of what we own and break this cycle of consumption and despair.

What we love about fixing is the motivation behind it. Quite different perhaps from that primordial wonder that leads to making, the motivation to fix comes from a profound disquiet with the way things already are, it comes from a critical view of what we are handed, a linear world of extraction, production and disposal where there are no limits. Where everybody is supposedly free but feels trapped.

Still other fixers simply do not like to see things broken, they see the world full of puzzles and problems with solutions that are only waiting to be unlocked. And some of the most inspiring fixers we’ve met routinely save “broken” products that had been discarded and thrown away.

The responsive pragmatism of the fixer is matched by a dose of creativity and improvisation. Finding “hacks” or work-arounds to problems is a large part of fixing. Like this fix to an iPhone, where fixers discovered that merely placing a piece of cardboard cut in the right shape in the right place inside the phone would fix a microphone problem.

Here we have something immediately in common with makers, in the creative moment of lateral thinking, where we no longer look for the service manual (that the companies rarely release anyways), and where we test out new possibilities, and we reimagine our stuff.

There is a long tradition in computing of “modding” – that is, giving computers new skins, new aesthetics or functions and remaking them. Modding is one area where fixers and makers can join forces, a creative reappropriation of what they sell us out of a box, as a sealed “blackbox”. (Perhaps we could provide new alternatives beyond the common glowing PC towers and steampunk mods.)

And now we get to where some of our disquiet with the throw-away culture overlaps with maker culture. Over the past year especially, with budget miniature computers, the price of sensors and wearable technology dropping, and everything getting reduced in size, we see a danger of the multiplication of disposable, use once and throw-away gadgets, treating electronics-intensive projects like sand castles. As one-offs, where everything will end up in the scrap-heap – only the scrap-heap does not wash away. (And yes, scrap can be shredded and melted down and reused, but this is very energy intensive.)

We see disposable electronics celebrated, and 3D printers lauded for churning out the same frivolous crap that was mass-produced last year by invisible workers in China. We’re not the only ones critiquing “crapjects”.

Obviously there are many concerned people in the maker community – we were really encouraged to see so many reuse-related projects at Makerfaire Elephant and Castle.

Our challenge to makers – far from clipping their creative wings – is to remain mindful of the resources they use. Mindfulness does not have to restrict creation, and some constraints can each lead to much more thrilling innovation. (Just one look at Afrigadget is proof enough of that.)

We’d love to see makers creating communities which reuse and upcycle their makerwares, and sharing this as a badge of pride.

We’d love to see more of a focus on materials, with those using biodegradable, less-energy intensive and responsibly-sourced materials also wearing this as a badge of pride. And perhaps the emergence of more cutting-edge projects fully based on reusing existing Arduinos, Raspberry Pis alongside recycled materials, directly connecting fixers and makers.

Now in the spirit of a true conversation, let us know what you think of the fixer community! How can we up our game?

And more importantly, would you be interested in modding with us and reusing some of our end-of-life kit for parts? And are we actually two distinct communities at all?

4 responses

  1. I am totally with you on this. My making is all about upcycling and recycling clothing and fabric. My 19 year old son, loves the challange of fixing ipods and phones. as you say, I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact they are made not to be fixed!

  2. A lot of the ‘fixing’ and ‘modding’ is often around electronic devices and gadgets, which is great. However, there is also a lot of lower tech mechanical stuff that can be fixed or made.

    I work in metal and wood and will happily re-make broken or worn parts, often from recycled scrap to keep a thing working or prevent it from just being discarded.
    I ripped out an old kitchen for a client earlier this year and much of it is now my bathroom.
    An old Ikea cabinet door I saved 4 years ago became a client’s service hatch for some plumbing this week.
    I rebuilt a recumbent trike, that had a broken spine, using a bunk bed leg and some oak and created the Ratrike.
    A pile of scrap from a scrap metal yard, and some used car batteries, became an electric tractor.
    An old rucksack frame and some discarded wheel chair wheels became the folding cargo trailer for my Brompton bicycle.
    I hand cut a gear wheel to repair a window roller shutter gearbox and likewise to repair the drive in my portable mitre saw.
    I also made my fiancée’s engagement ring from a scrap of Yew and some brass screws from an old fuse box. She made mine from platted burglar alarm cable.

    There is little I won’t have a go at making or fixing, barring electronics due to lack of knowledge, and my current projects include a cupboard doors from recycled timber, and a narrow gauge railway turntable from sewage works scrap metal.

    We can all be makers, or fixers, or modders, we just need the opportunity and chance to find our own area of expertise and skill, and then we can share or barter that for the things we can’t do ourselves.

  3. Fixing is the onramp to making. Period. I don’t know a maker that didn’t start as a fixer, and I encourage all makers to design from the get-go with repairability in mind.

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