photos by Bruce Sterling
Last year, Maker Faire Roma was a Roman colossus, and this year, the second edition, Maker Faire was American in scale, meaning colossal but normally so. It had the look and feel of SXSW Interactive in Austin, when legions of thousands of geeks invade a city with their gadgets, ideas, energy.
But Austin is smaller than Rome and much, much younger. Rome is a wonder of the world haunted by lost golden ages; a clamorous glamour and a can-do imperial spirit echoes among the old ruins of chipped marble and flat red brick, currently abandoned to cats, rats and tourists.
The crowd of Maker Faire attendees — 90,000 they say, which is enough to populate a “bolgia” of some Dante circle of hell — was loud, demanding and of all ages and nationalities. Security, police, participants and organizers themselves struggled to patch the event when the crowds burst its seams.
This year the Makers were more business oriented and also more politically conscious. The hobbyist tinkers of DIY “do it yourself” are taking on a more Italian and sociable “do it ourselves” DIO solidarity. The first day ten thousand high school students from all over Italy dutifully trampled in to see the show, which was markedly national in character. The “Make in Italy” movement is firmly linking itself to the half-forgotten legacy of Italian electronics, when Ettore Sotsass designed for Olivetti and brainy designers like Munari and Castiglione wrought wonders with their radical re-thinks of simple materials.
Italian Makers are even getting something of an Italian Maker look, of baggy start-up Tshirts, orange pants and spotless well-kept athletic shoes, while solemn purple-haired geek women ponder gleaming and beeping electronic costumes.
As a world export power, the trinity of Italian design is clothing, furniture and food — and that is why Maker Faire is leading the world toward the likes of 3d printed spaghetti. Rather than the standard Milanese design wares created to please wealthy Russians, Japanese and Arabs, Maker innovation is “jugaad Italian style.” It’s open-source Italy as an electronic India — everything is scrounged and make-do, nobody has a budget or a lawyer, and everybody knows everybody. Despite this, or maybe because of it, the Camera del commercio and various ministers for industry were standing by. If the Makers themselves can’t cash in on all this ingenuity, somebody else will.
The Maker world is a seductive world because there is no real barrier to joining in. As a network activist with a fondness for electronic arts I’ve always been an Arduino fan. I was already involved with the Arduinisti working on a project for Arduino home automation, but thrilled at Maker Faire when Massimo Banzi as a true cavaliere suddenly named this project after me: from now on, it’s “Casa Jasmina.” “Casa Jasmina” is not a very high-tech name for an Internet-of-Things experiment, but it is a name for a home and women are still the home queens who often fear technology: plus nobody else seems to be using the #CasaJasmina Twitter hashtag. Sometimes dreams come true, and so do dream houses!
The Italian Maker scene is determined to enter electronic home automation. They can’t sit still while Google Android and Apple HomeKit invade the world of “Domus” and “Casabella,” and the logical response to that challenge, from an Italian point of view, is not just “open source” but “open source luxury.”
“Lusso Open Source” is a strange combination of words for someone who knows Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, but I have met Richard Stallman, and Richard Stallman is from MIT, he is not an Italian guy. It’s also strange and even sad to realize that beautiful Italy, which is wounded and even oppressed with German, British and American ideologies of “crisis,” has to struggle to survive by being “luxurious.” But an advanced and civilized quality of life is what Italy makes and sells. Open Source is one of the most ragged and rugged things happening in the world today.
Something important is happening in the Italian Maker scene that is similar to the Italian response to McDonald’s fast food chains. The industrial logic and intercontinental scale of McDonald’s looked unstoppable, on paper. The same goes for Google, Apple and Facebook now.
The “Slow Food Movement” even took its own English name from the threat of American fast food. Slow Food has never been so widely spread as McDonald’s, but Slow Food looks quite modern and progressive nowadays while McDonald’s seems old-fashioned. Even MacDonald’s nowadays is making “healthy meals”!
The real secret of Slow Foods is not that it’s a grocery but a curated chain of food production — people will pay much more for food in the store because of the Slow Foods “good, clean and fair” political stamp of approval. The Slow Food empire even makes a lot of money selling cookbooks to masses of people who want to be slow cooks. The Maker Movement also has huge crowds of fans who love open technology and sincerely want to understand it, but would pay somebody else to do the actual hard work.
That’s why there will soon be an all-connected bed and breakfast apartment in a a giant half-abandoned FIAT plant in Turin, which is called “Casa Jasmina.” For traditional Italian crafts people, who I respect very much, this may seem like a threatening prospect. With good reason, too, because now in the year 2014, anybody with eyes in their head can see that the Internet does to everybody whatever it does to musicians.However designers will be invited as guests to share their craft and opinion in that free space.
I happen to be a musician myself, and there will be quite a lot of music in “Casa Jasmina.” An electronic home obviously needs an electronic soundtrack, songs produced with Arduino and that is going to be one of my personal problems in future. Obviously I could steal and pirate a torrent of thundering music through a Bluetooth Jambox in “Casa Jasmina,” but would that be “good, clean and fair?” It’s been quite a while — since 1973, actually — since there was a truly new “new Italian domestic landscape.” When a woman moves house she can also change some bad habits.
It is presumptuous to claim to know the future. but also irresponsible to behave as if the future is not already here. Not only are we part of the future — we are excluded from it and forced to turn to “jugaad.” The “Crisis” is not a “crisis” at all, it’s a global fait accompli where the 1 per centers who have seized all the wealth ignore solution to “the crisis” because they themselves are the crisis. A white plague is turning Italy into a museum of unaffordable monuments, where tourists abound, but children can’t be born and raised and the elderly can’t be sheltered.
“Casa Jasmina” will not be “my” home: young Italian people cannot find steady jobs, so banks don’t give them house mortgages. They live in shareable Internet housing. What is a modern home? When we want a roof to protect us, what are the real threats? What is made affordable, and unaffordable, and why, and for whom? What is politically and ecologically proper. Who are our allies and partners, what unseen friends do we have?
In the Maker scene people don’t just debate like us writers do; they really do things. Enough with the talk; I went to Maker Faire Roma 2014, and now, come what may, I want to try things out.