Goodbye: An Open Letter to Make Magazine

Dear Make Magazine,

It’s over. I’m done with you.

I like the idea of a magazine dedicated to DIY culture, but (as of late) the “Maker Revolution” is to “the next industrial revolution” as “breast implants” are to “inner beauty”. I’ll admit: you have your moments now and then. But, standards have fallen; currently your magazine is at best a tribute to mediocrity, and at worst it’s a cargo cult.

For me, the last straw was Save My Oceans Upcycle Contest, Win an iPad, reprinted here. To raise awareness of water contaminated by decomposing plastic, you promote it with a DIY project that puts plastic in water. Apparently you’re under the impression that plastic intentionally placed into a body of water is not the same as global pollution. Whether that’s explained by you (and the rest of the community) being evil, ironic, or just plain ignorant of science, I don’t want any part of it.

Also, the fact that the reward in this contest is an iPad — from a company whose policies are 100% at odds with the DIY culture you claim to represent — is really incongruous.

Here are 5 other significant factors that made me lose faith in Make.

LED Throwies
This was really my first indication that I was going to have trouble with Make. According to their creator, “LED Throwies are an inexpensive way to add color to any ferromagnetic surface in your neighborhood.”

According to me, “LED Throwies are an inexpensive way to add lithium compounds to any water source in your neighborhood”.

I don’t want to be part of a community that encourages the worst kind of littering (that is, toxic littering).


“Bot”
Maybe its because I work in the field of robotics, but I die a little inside every time someone slaps the label “bot” on something mechanical. Make didn’t start this trend, but certainly they should know better than to perpetuate it (e.g., they know that “hacker” doesn’t necessarily mean “criminal”, and make an effort to explain that to their audience; why not “robot” too?). Here is a partial list of “bots” that make me grit my teeth when I see them in print:

  • Vibrobots
  • Bristlebots
  • Junkbots
  • Artbots
  • Scribblebots
  • “Robots”, when used to refer to an inanimate piece of sculpture
  • “Robots”, when used to refer to a remote-controlled machine (e.g. Robot Wars, Battlebots, and FIRST robotics)
  • MakerBots (more on these later)

This reminds me more of a cargo cult than a magazine for aspiring robot enthusiasts. Robots are not simply cute piles of spare parts, reminiscent of the mechanoids in 1940s comics. Robots are not electrically-powered wind-up toys. The fact that Make decides to mix actual robotics with the prevailing pop-culture image of robotics (largely superficial — encouraging no mechanical, electrical, nor computational aptitude) is disappointing. It would be like seeing Guitar Hero articles in a magazine for guitarists.

I understand that learning how to build robots has to start somewhere basic, but you don’t have to call it a “bot” until it actually isfunctionally — a robot.

Steampunk
Speaking of cargo cults, probably the biggest offender in that area is steampunk culture. I like your aesthetic a lot — a whole lot — but I haven’t yet met a steampunk enthusiast (and I’ve met quite a few) who was building for any other reason than to create costume accessories for their alter ego that lives in a fantasy novel. No, I don’t want to talk to you in victorian english or play with fake ray guns and imagine that I’m a time traveller. I might sound bitter here, but it’s really no different than expecting that anyone who wants to learn juggling must also want to wear a clown suit.

If you think about it, steampunk is the exact opposite of what Make is about (“technology on your time”). Homemade tech projects are usually ugly in their raw form, but do something really functionally cool. Steampunk projects look really cool, but only in rare cases serve some practical purpose (or, actually use steam). A culture with more emphasis on looking functional than actually being functional is not one I’d like to be part of.

Everything’s a Kit
I understand that not everyone’s an engineer, but the path to learning how to make your own projects is not through assembling kits — especially electronic kits. I don’t know of anyone who achieved a mastery of painting by dedicating their lives to paint-by-number, and I don’t see how cookie-cutter projects are supposed to impart any wisdom of design or the building process.

These kits do help to grow the community, but I thought you started a magazine to serve an existing community — not to build a new one. I feel like you’re using the really interesting and unique projects (created independently) as bait, in order to sell the idea that all “making” involves is “assembling” a kit or two (preferably with a soldering iron). It isn’t. Making is about curiosity: asking practical questions and learning how to answer them — not just buying the answers.

The MakerBot
The MakerBot is made up of 3 things that annoy me: misuse of “Bot”, the fact that it’s a kit, and the fact that it’s basically a tool that keeps you from having to make stuff. Don’t learn to manufacture things on your own, download them and print them! Who needs the fundamentals of design or fabrication? Not you, when you have a MakerBot!

Look, I understand the power that 3D printers give to the design process; we have one at work, and it’s a wonderful asset. I just think that Make focuses exclusively on the power to replicate [a set of objects that are pre-approved by a private group], not the power to create. The attitude of “Buy the MakerBot kit, download a model from thingiverse, and presto! You’re a Maker!” really bothers me. Especially when most of the things you can print are already commerically available, in higher quality, for less money.

In Summary
I guess what it comes down to is that you’ve watered down the tech-awesomeness of your core community into something that resembles the lighter-fare ReadyMade.

I was building stuff before your magazine came out, and I still will — my drive to create doesn’t come from a need to be part of some movement, nor a desire to re-create other people’s projects. I’m in it because I love it, and I thought that Make Magazine would help me do it better. I was wrong.

I wish all the best for Make; clearly there is a big market for kits and costumes, and I think you’ll do fine. I just need to find a community with higher aspirations.

Sincerely Yours,

-Ian