13 Feb

New Work, Old Work, What’s the Difference Once Your Head’s Blown Off

Book review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers book coverEver since I read Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson last year, I’ve been captivated by the maker movement. I was going to link to my awesome review about Anderson’s Makers, but then I remembered I didn’t write it (I always want to review everything, but few reviews make it out of my head). I picked up Makers from the library on a whim and thanks to name recognition of Doctrow whose Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom I’d read some years ago on an Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle.

Anyway.

Makers is a near-future/cyberpunk/science-fiction published in 2009 that strikes me as fairly prescient. I mean, I don’t know what the future holds (I hope it’s monstrous alien creatures), but given the state of things, Doctrow’s vision feels on point. The story takes place approximately 20 years from now (by my reckoning), the characters at the intersection of several groups of people coming together in the brave new economy.

The character who most resonated with me (for perhaps obvious reasons) is Suzanne Church, a journalist. She starts the story as a writer with the San Jose Mercury, an actual newspaper. Her coverage of Silicon Valley events leads her to Florida, where she meets tinkerers extraordinaires Perry and Lester. Perry and Lester live in an abandoned mall in Florida, making interesting junk out of the world’s inexhaustible supply of useless crap, utilizing our surplus of Boogie Woogie Elmos. Suzanne begins documenting Perry and Lester’s inspired madness as it gives way to the New Work movement, a sort of maker revolution that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite last for the long term.

I don’t want to summarize this book because that is boring and pointless. Go read the book. I do really like some of the concepts that percolated in my brain while I read this, so I’ll talk about those instead.

First, I liked Suzanne a lot. She quits her stable, grown-up journalism job to follow what she perceives to be the real news of the day. She reports on stuff that is simply too cool to not write about and her readers clearly respond to it, since she manages to stay in business with her site’s ad revenue. That is something I really admire, especially since, regardless of intent, writing seems to be developing into something of a career for me. I don’t think I have the ovaries to up and move to follow a story (maybe I will eventually), but the idea of just taking off after awesome things to chronicle them is fucking cool to me.

In her own way, Suzanne embodies the story’s New Work movement with what she does. Although she isn’t tinkering and creating things or using 3D printers to improve people’s lives, she is creating based on what’s around her. She still makes an important contribution to the movement, especially since it isn’t logistically feasible for everyone to be an engineer. I think the way of the new economy, as Doctorw foretells it, is that everyone is essentially their own business. And honestly, life already feels that way to me a lot right now. Many jobs I consider treat employees as independent contractors. You are a contractor and you are your own brand. So, seeing Suzanne in the novel is like reading about someone who is doing a great job managing her brand and just making her own way, fuck the rest.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated was the nature of community and how it can be configured using the Web. In the second act of the novel, Perry and Lester’s tinkering results in “the ride.” The ride is a series of scenes composed of bricolage, staged in an abandoned WalMart. Riders upvote or downvote scenes based on whether they like them or think they belong in their personal vision of the ride. Eventually, The Story emerges. Online communities begin discussing and dissecting the story. A segment of the Florida goth community becomes particularly involved after Death Waits (né Darren) gets laid off by Disney World (of course there is Disney, this is a Cory Doctrow novel) and then has the shit kicked out of him. After word of the ride spreads to the Web, rides spring up in other cities, each with its own style and engendering its own community.

Finally, as a novel of things-to-come, I like it. The United States, it is indicated, is essentially a third world country (not hard to predict at this point, to be honest), but people make do. Consider all the empty real estate there will be—it’s put to good use by people creating their own sort of slum towns or filled with things like the ride. 3D printers play a significant role in the economic liberation of these ad hoc communities. By the end of the book, people are even making bicycles with them thanks to tireless tinkering and open-source sharing.

It always feels difficult to review novels because I want to distill my feelings and the new thoughts that I had when my brain interacted with the story. I hope this makes some kind of sense. Doctrow is definitely a prophet of the coming tech age.

What to read next:

  • If you want the non-fiction version, check out Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. It talks about the cool stuff 3D printers are doing now. If you’re a would-be librarian like me, you can read it and think about the cool things you would do with it in a library. There are a few books about the maker movement, maker spaces, etc., but this is one that I have read and enjoyed. At this point, I have to reference my favorite Twitter feed, Fake Library Stats:
  • If you want more Cory Doctorow, I recommend Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Not only because this is the only other Doctrow book I’ve read, but because I like the cyberpunk, techie aspects of the story.
  • My third recommendation is Oryx and Crake byMargaret Atwood because I feel like this is the opposite kind of universe from Makers and because you should read Atwood. Everyone should read Atwood.