photos by Bruce Sterling
It was huge, colossal. The first Maker Faire in Rome, October 3-6, was the biggest such festival ever outside the USA. Thirty-five thousand people visited the three story Italian Makers exhibit in Rome, where two hundred Makers showed off their gadgets and products. It was fiesta all’italiana.
Massimo Banzi and Riccardo Luna were organizers of the event along with the Roman Camera di Commercio. Guest speakers arrived from all over the world, but the real star of this faire was a gadget. It’s the Arduino, an open-source electronic device invented in Ivrea nine years ago by an international team of geeks.
Massimo Banzi was one of those inventors, and at Maker Faire his followers, users and fans, called the Banzini, rallied in swarms. Makers use cheap, open-source software/hardware tools to create imaginable/unimaginable objects, tools, utensils, toys… Arduino, which turns software code into machine instructions, is an international star as devices go. This Italian innovation is the pride and joy of new Italians who are coming out of shadow of the Berlusconi dark times, who have few jobs and fewer prospects of finding one, and who have to reinvent their Italian way of life in order to save it.
In its high-tech, Internet-culture way, Maker Faire asserted the tradition of arts and crafts in this country famous for obsession with beauty. The prospect of trying to run a small business in today’s Italy is enough to make a businessman contemplate suicide, but the Italians who came to the faire were hearing a new kind of talk: do it yourself economic models, part hobby, part handicraft, part subsistence and part Internet peripheral. Making is the kind of gray-market, untamable, sociable hustle that Italians have always found intriguing. It’s a thing one learns to do informally, from cronies. Respect counts for a lot.
At Maker Faire, the new arrivals talked to the pioneers in their own language, exchanged experiences, addresses and maybe opportunities. Their puzzlement, joy and dawning hope was a moving sight! And not only for Italians! Arduino, which has sold a million units, has become an international brand to the point of being pirated in China with the declaration “Made in Italy” faked right onto it! The Arduino inventors, who are teachers and academics, don’t want their device to become a commercial closed brand such as Apple or Microsoft. They want Arduino to remain the basis of a social network for small-scale, boutique electronics.
Arduinos can power-up a very wide range of devices: cookie makers, three-dimensional printers, machine tools, household appliances, and so on. They’re cheap to buy and relatively easy to learn to use. This year, Intel, the king of computer chip makers, decided to join Arduino rather than attempt to beat it. Intel created and promoted the Arduino Intel Galileo model, which they are giving away free to schools.
Maker objects are native to the Internet, and free of some normal constraints of finance, manufacturing, sales and distribution. So they often look quite weird, almost childish and fairy-tale like. Plastic trinkets that blink lights in rhythm, printed chocolate cookies squeezed from computer-controlled nozzles, even a primitive car that can be assembled by hand in fifty minutes in front of a bewildered audience. Given its modest price of 2000 euros, users can afford to design and place their own plastic chassis onto the skeletal Tabby car.
Maker Faire featured wing suits for daredevil athletes, zero emission vehicles for the Greens, exercise bikes that drive through the peaceful digital vistas of Google Maps, tabletop experiments with sociable bacteria, music composed and performed by the brain of the users, and pizzas delivered by flying drones which deliver but don’t even land at your doorstep!
There seemed to be no end to them: free software smart phones handmade by their own users, or extremely thin and bendable phones, dolls designed and printed by users, atomic radiation data measured by cheap hand held geiger counters, a digital arts-and-crafts museum of violins, chairs, guitars, dresses, benches, exotic construction materials, even schemes for entire houses and energy plants. So much exotic energy was being thrown at the needy Italian society — for instance, a smart ring with built-in safety alarm which may help reduce the abominable number of women regularly killed in Italy!
And last but not least, was the youth factor: several speakers were underage, CEOs from 12-15 who have started home-made companies. Definitely visionaries, some may even be millionaires. What they had in common was versatile creativity, and homemade labs where they started from scratch, ignoring and defying the sour world economy.
As their parents beamed with pride, these wonder-kids all had stories of how they’d learned to do such things as detect a cancer, without any medical degree. Even though these Maker kids had the otherworldly look of children raised in Montessori schools creativity is something that happens, uncontrollably, unstoppably everywhere: street smart kids in a dire straits society are often the best inventors!
There’s no money, no jobs, and no political path back to prosperity, but there’s so much free or cheap technology around that people are doing new things which make no sense in a consumer society. When the going gets weird, the weird make a flea-market. Hopefully these grand ideas and fresh-faced kids will never become a cheap and open tool of an easy dystopia!