Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers is the quintessential Cory Doctorow novel. It’s incredibly long. It’s Doctorow’s manifesto on everything from capitalism to law to America to pop culture to techno innovation. It’s the love story of two or three friends, and the boom-and-bust cycle of whole economies, and the epic story of the do-gooder David taking on Goliath.

Published serially starting in 2009 before being fully novelized (only the first fifty thousand words were serialized), Makers is very much of a time and place. It feels oddly dated almost eight years on, like it foresaw coming changes but didn’t get them quite right. The novel is written in an almost post-apocalyptic America. It makes a few references to bursting bubbles and crashes of one form or another, and while the overall political landscape seems more or less intact, it’s a deeply dysfunctional nation.

It’s hard not to view the novel differently after the 2016 election, too. I first read Makers live as Doctorow published it chapter by chapter. I didn’t make it through the first major narrative turn, and at the time it seemed like an incredibly hopeful tale. Having finished it today, it’s hard not to view the story through the lens of Trump’s kleptocracy, with no small amount of apprehension. The core of the later story is about scrappy makers fighting suits, lawyers, and vested interests willing to do anything for a buck. be spoilers!

Makers begins by introducing us to Suzanne Church, a journalist for traditional print media covering the tech sector, at a press conference for a newly-formed conglomerate called Kodacell (so-called by Rat-Toothed Freddy, Suzanne’s soon-to-be nemesis). Landon Kettlewell, the new CEO, is excited to tell the press that Kodacell, formed from the hulks of Kodak and DuraCell, will be sponsoring small teams of innovators around the country. They will have resources free of corporate cruft and be able to innovate at a pace never seen before. Kettlewell shows off a pocket projector/translator from just such a lab, and Church uses it to humiliate Freddy in short order.

Church gets hand-picked by Kettlewell to cover Kodacell, and meets Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, Kettlewell’s shiniest stars, in a defunct mall in Hollywood, Florida. The duo have created a car driven by a horde of networked Boogie Woogie Elmo toys. The two innovators throw off great ideas frequently, though they’re not really interested in business. Church dubs the movement “New Work”, and it captures the national imagination. Kodacell can’t replicate the innovation sustainably across each lab, though. Another crash ensues, and New Work wraps up.

A few years down the line, Gibbons and Banks have built The Ride in their abandoned mall. The Ride is an homage to New Work and the people that imagined it into existence. Riders become participants, voting on items to include, and The Ride soon grows a protocol that other rides can use to connect to it from around the country, sharing and pruning The Story in real-time. Gibbons and Banks build an entire community of the local homeless, who build a nearby shantytown and low-volume economy all their own.

Of course, rides in Florida are the strict purview of Disney, and before long The Ride runs afoul of Disney’s competitive intelligence guru Sammy Page. Page masterminded a rebranding of Fantasyland as a goth haven, and he takes aim at Gibbons, Banks, and everyone involved with The Ride. The remainder of the novel plays out the conflict between Disney, the corporate conglomerate with every institution on its side, and The Ride, which has few assets in corporate America but plenty of community support.

Of the characters in Makers, I would only qualify two as makers, insofar as the book defines them. Gibbons and Banks are Doctorow’s ideal makers - driven by creativity and not profit, they experience creative differences but ultimately live to make things together. They don’t even really want to build a movement. Their greatest disputes come from feeling tied down to something that’s outlived its moment. At the end, when science and business have failed them, the makers still have each other and their imagination.

The world of Makers is certainly populated with a vigorous community of makers that Gibbons and Banks frequently refer to as doing incredible work. They’re barely visible in the novel, though. A brief foray to Madison, Wisconsin, introduces us to Gibbons’ love interest Hilda and the rest of the Madison ride, but beyond that brief introduction they barely register. For someone intrigued by the movement represented here, they are a tantalizing snippet of a broader narrative.

One figure barely worth mentioning in the plot summary but nonetheless important is Rat-Toothed Freddy. Freddy is Suzanne Church’s nemesis - rebuffed early on, he lives to thwart others. I got the sense that Freddy represents a person or group of people with whom Doctorow has some major beef. Church describes Freddy’s breath as “gargling turds”, and the novel culminates in The Ride and Disney teaming up to embarrass him on live TV. Freddy seems to represent what Doctorow hates most - the anti-maker, someone who cannot create on their own and gains joy from fouling the works of others.

New Work is an intriguing concept. I can’t help but see echoes throughout popular science writing of the last decade or so. It feels reminiscent of Dale Dougherty’s Free to Make - a vision of a brave new manufacturing economy unbounded by corporate inertia, literally free to make whatever it needs. Crucially, though, Doctorow isn’t a cheerleader. Makers plays through several ways such a movement might go sour. Simple economics kill New Work the first time around, and lawyers for vested interests make a serious attempt to kill The Ride.

Ultimately, though, Gibbons and Banks can’t fight the limitations of working for a megacorporation. Banks ends up working for Disney, surrounded by legions of well-meaning innovators who just can’t seem to get anything new and exciting to happen. Gibbons roams the country incognito, helping fix broken manufacturing. Only when working together, just the two of them, are they able to really be makers.

One of the most dated aspects of Makers is its technology. 3D printers are pretty common in Doctorow’s America, though they don’t reach household ubiquity until the latter third of the novel. Still, they are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. In the real world, though, 3D printers haven’t advanced much farther than 2009. They can be bought for a few hundred dollars, but extruder tips are notoriously finicky and such printers have yet to find a widespread use case.

On the other hand, the Raspberry Pi’s emergence in 2012 was scarcely imagined in Makers but arguably has done more to fulfill Doctorow’s vision than 3D printing. The Raspberry Pi has put the Internet of Things (a phrase that would be very comfortable in Makers) into every home and encouraged people of all ages to learn how to program computers and work with hardware. While it hasn’t exactly played out like in Makers (thank goodness), the maker community’s emotional response to the Raspberry Pi has been very similar to The Ride’s community.

Network connectivity for Doctorow’s makers is virtually ubiquitous. Characters have no trouble video conferencing around the globe. Even the shantytown has no trouble providing wifi, though the details are somewhat sketchy. It’s interesting to note that even with all their attempts to crush The Ride, Disney never actually tries to cut off its network access. Without the Internet, The Ride couldn’t coordinate itself across its sites, and it’s unclear how an abandoned mall has broadband.

The network of Makers is well beyond what was practical at the time of publication (I remember, I was there) but it’s interesting to examine this underlying assumption and requirement of Doctorow’s utopian makerverse - ubiquitous broadband Internet. The UN Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution in 2016 declaring broadband access to be a basic human right, something that remains out of reach in much of America, let alone the rest of the world. Still, as everything from tractors to phones becomes irrevocably network-connected, the Internet truly is a necessity and not a luxury.

Makers remains highly relevant today. Disney’s DiaB (Disney in a Box) is a free 3D printer that Gibbons and Banks end up hacking to print their own, non-proprietary items - even 90% of a new DiaB. Throughout the novel, the makers are hacking things to make them work in new ways they weren’t intended to, a complicated legal grey area that is Doctorow’s personal crusade.

The US is currently working through a related issue, the “right to repair”, at a state level, with some arguing that if you own an electronic device, you should be able to crack it open and change how it works. Others, mostly industry lobbying groups, claim such freedom would undermine the intellectual property licensed (meaning you don’t own it) along with such devices. The issue is very much undecided, and Makers doesn’t offer a utopian point of view here - Doctorow depicts the struggle between such interests continuing throughout the novel.

Finally, Makers touches on another highly relevant issue - healthcare. With the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt, the metabolic modification movement Doctorow dubs “fatkins” is a fascinating glimpse of a possible future. Banks, originally an obese man reliant on a wheelchair (which he ultimately builds into The Ride), becomes one of the first pioneers of the fatkins. Originating in the darkest reaches of eastern Europe, the fatkins modifications change a patient’s metabolism so that they require about ten thousand calories a day but can remain incredibly thin and fit even so.

The fatkins, though, didn’t pursue traditional medicine. Though overwhelmingly popular, it seems the long-term consequences of the metabolic tweaks weren’t considered, or were ignored. Fifteen years later, Banks is dying slowly as his system gives out from the massive stress fatkins has put it through. Though not a primary part of the story, fatkins is a cautionary note in the idealistic world of just making things. Even the hackers cannot beat their biology in the end.

As a novel, Makers has some flaws, particularly with its characters and flow, but they coexist alongside masterful strokes. Each character has a strong sense of self-righteousness that goes beyond irritating very quickly by making them almost too real. Doctorow has seized on something here, consciously or not, that defines many movement founders (including, at times, himself).

The heroes of our story remain pretty consistent, but the villains are much less so. Initially there really is no villain. Freddy is a minor annoyance at best, really just there to harass Church, Gibbons, Banks, and their merry band. Page starts out somewhat ambiguous but his real motivation to be an antagonist remains unclear for quite a while. Perhaps he’s on a cocaine-fueled bender? It really isn’t well-communicated to the reader. Of course, the heroes’ greatest villains are often themselves, which is another element of all-too-real humanity Doctorow inserts.

The plot is particularly odd, and I have to wonder if the serialized publication played a role here. Around the 50,000 word mark (what was serialized on Tor) the plot seems to take a serious dog-leg. What is initially a very movement- and vision-heavy story becomes a love story, marking a sharp departure from what came before. Sure, Gibbons and Banks are still makers at heart, and Church is blogging about the whole thing, but the story’s scope has narrowed dramatically. Personally, I found the latter half of the novel harder to get through than the first bit, and the pacing was certainly slower.

Makers represents a possible future for the maker movement, but not necessarily a pleasant one. It feel very real (too real?) and its characters are hardly larger than life. Rather, they feel just like someone you’d meet on the street, full of flaws and raw humanity. Their adventures may be improbable, and Disney may play a much larger role than expected in their world, but real they remain. Their movement rises and falls, rises and falls, morphing into something altogether new along the way. If I don’t know quite what to make of it (and I don’t), neither do the characters and, I suspect, Doctorow himself. Let’s hope our own maker movement fares better, with fewer beatings and metabolic breakdowns, but with just as much humanity.

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