Beneath the zany, fun-filled geekiness of Dale Dougherty's so-called "maker movement" is a plan for global conquest.
No, it doesn't involve remote- controlled nano quadcopters equipped with genetically engineered biological agents. Fear not laser-armed, Arduino-controlled robots.
Far from being diabolical, Dougherty's plan is to wake the world from its consumer-driven sedation and essentially reconnect our minds with our hands — to make things again, repair them when they break down and to tinker just for the hell of it, because it can fuel our passion for real learning.
Think back to the Great Depression in the 1930s. Then, tinkering — now called "making" by its adherents — was an economic necessity that kept sewing machines and farm engines humming for years. Seventy years later, the recent recession had no such impact on American society, Dougherty says. For many, it's still easier to discard and repurchase than to fix.
But to Dougherty, our future hinges on our ability to make things. Do we continue to educate a legion of consumers and test-takers? Or do we empower our young, and even old, with the ability to make?
"I think today we almost have been trained too well to be consumers, and so we just think everything we need can be bought," Dougherty said during a recent interview at his Sebastopol offices.
Dougherty, who turns 59 today, casts the maker movement as civic action. "It's positive to build this capacity in yourself and in your community, and in education and schools and museums and libraries — that kind of says where it's headed."
Dougherty is the founder, president and CEO of Maker Media, a growing Sebastopol company that includes Make Magazine and the Maker Faire, global platforms that are bringing makers together in a growing community. The company, which spun off last year from Sebastopol tech publisher O'Reilly Media, has just 50 employees but occupies an outsized place in the maker movement.
Its biggest showcase, the annual Maker Faire Bay Area, is scheduled for next weekend in San Mateo. More than 120,000 people are expected to attend the two-day event, which organizers describe as "part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new."
The event, which was launched in 2006, and a twin Maker Faire held in New York are directly produced by Maker Media. About 100 other Maker Faires are franchised across the country and beyond.
A key soldier in Dougherty's campaign is Maker Media Vice President Sherry Huss, who is instrumental in organizing next week's Maker Faire extravaganza.
Next month, the White House will host a mini Maker Faire, a milestone that shows Dougherty just how far the movement has spread.
If not the father of the maker movement, Dougherty is its grand curator, bringing age-old DIY compulsions to technology. Maker creations can be tech-ish, such as a system of sensors that detects moisture, light and temperature in potted plants, to novel low-tech devices such as a robotic gripping device made from a balloon, funnel, coffee grounds and a vacuum.
Colleagues and academics say Dougherty has the uncanny ability to spot and explain emerging trends that signal sea changes in technology and popular culture. It is a skill he developed at the birth of the Internet, when he wrote books that translated the complex technology underlying the World Wide Web to a new generation of software developers who wanted to harness its untapped power.