The problem with the maker movement

caveman wheelIn an article entitled, Why a DIY Pioneer Dislikes 3D Printing, author Jeremy Hsu reports that Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, says he loves the “maker movement” but has something to say about what’s wrong with it.

First off, who is Mr. Gershenfeld? He is none other than the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (a spinoff of the university’s popular Media Lab). He founded the global Fab Lab network, and he (I assume MIT) owns “just about every known 3D printer.”

What’s his beef? It turns out he doesn’t like the Do-it-Yourself nature of the DIY maker (includes home 3D printing enthusiasts). He believes it is better for people to work together, not each on his own. In fact, he’s come up with a Fab Academy program to teach students around the world in work groups with mentors.

Here he is in his own words, speaking at the World Science Festival:

“What’s wrong with DIY is if you do it by yourself, it’s easy to do dumb things. If you learn with other people, you can do it better. A place like MIT is organized but it doesn’t scale. We want to scale to a few billion people on the planet and harness the enthusiasm of the maker movement, but don’t want to reinvent dumb things.”

It’s one thing to say that people can learn better in groups, which I think is his main point. I agree. However, the first sentence of that quote points to home DIY enthusiasts, and suggests they would do better working in groups rather than alone. But, in the 3D printing world, I already see the everyday pioneers 3D printing doing this. They collaborate with others where they can in person and online. They share their work, they crowdfund their ideas, they help to educate others, they go to meetups; they mostly are all part of large online communities. They make work in DIY mode quite a bit, but they also collaborate and bounce ideas off each other.

And while we are on the subject, I have to take the chance to defend working alone, if your personality type agrees with it. Great inventors and great thinkers have historically worked alone: Steve Wozniak, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, to name a few. Sometimes, an often introverted, brilliant thinker can get dragged down working in a group, having to move toward consensus by more powerful (yet less creative) personalities. (I highly recommend reading, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.) Groupthink does not always produce the most creative solutions, not for the most creative people at least.

In fact, here is Wozniak on the subject, in his own words:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

I see value in both ways of learning and creating. I see groups as more valuable for learning, and working alone better for creating. But each can have value to different personality types and intellects in various situations.

But he’s at MIT and I’m just a no-college blogger. What do I know? I’m curious what you think — let me know in the comments.

Oh, and did I mention Gershenfeld dislikes the 3D printing craze and sees it as just a steppingstone to something greater? Read the article for more on that.

Complete story:

  • Chris Waldo

    I definitely agree with your standpoint Mark. I think it’s very possible for people to get involved with their own DIY printers, while still staying connected. Places like Kraftwurx, Thingiverse, and Tinkercad allow for users to upload models, share ideas, work together, and still get involved with 3D printing at home. This technology isn’t too far away from the every day consumer who like… making stuff! The online presence of 3D printing isn’t huge, but it is gaining popularity by the day. I think it’s a good idea to keep pressing the “home-3d-printer-movement”. I’m just looking forward to the day when my kids can go to the Office Depot or walmart to pick up a 3D printer for school projects. Great article and I agree with your standpoint.


  • Xavier

    Working alone lets you be more specific and allows you to pay attention to details you might just dismiss if your thoughts are distracted by the group. For perfection within a group everyone should work on the end goal individually and collectively bring what you have to the table to get a different point of view on things. Rinse and repeat.

  • Tim Biddulph

    I fail to see why a 3D printer in every home is any different to the idea of having a computer in every home or even a inkjet printer.
    On the other hand, I am an engineer and so anything I make is influenced by my education and experience.