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Sebastopol's Dale Dougherty out to remake the world

Dale Dougherty is the founder, President & CEO of Maker Media, Inc. in Sebastopol

MARTIN ESPINOZA,

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

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.

"Dale has a knack for naming things," said longtime business partner Tim O'Reilly, adding that it was Dougherty who in 2003 coined the term Web 2.0, which was used to describe advanced websites and Web-based services that feature extensive user interaction, as with Google Docs, Wikipedia and Facebook.

While his company is in the process of moving to the East Bay, Dougherty and his wife of more than 30 years, Nancy, live in custom home they built about 10 years ago on the outskirts of Sebastopol. His three children — Katie, Ben and Glenda — all are grown and out of the house.

Katie, the oldest, lives in Forestville with her husband, Ryan Kunde of the Kunde winemaking family. The couple recently made Dougherty a grandfather.

Dougherty said that what little free time he has he spends cooking, making bread and producing wine in a new Sebastopol winery he started with his wife, Katie and Ryan called DRNK.

When he was young, Dougherty himself wasn't a maker, but he did know early on that he wanted to do something different with his life.

Dougherty was born in Los Angeles in 1955 but moved to Louisville, Ky., at the age of 12 when his father, a paint sales executive, took a job there. His mother was a teacher who later became a homemaker as the family grew.

In California, from about the age of 5 until he was 12, Dougherty suffered from a bone disease called osteomyelitis, which caused him to miss a lot of school.

"I was in the hospital for long periods of time. ... I learned to amuse myself during that period of time," he said.

He disappeared into books, devouring stories about pirates and baseball players, and assembled toy models. He filled his mind with ideas to avoid the boredom, he said.

"When you're by yourself — nothing is there — how do you to some degree turn a little bit inwards and begin thinking about things?" he mused recently.

In Louisville, with his health improving, Dougherty spent a good deal of his youth working at a local country club as a caddy, in the grill and in the bar. After high school, just before entering college, Dougherty spent a summer working on a Ford Motor Co. assembly line.

Dougherty said that as a kid, he didn't have a clear idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up. Though his parents did not have a predetermined track for him and his siblings, his mother and father instilled the importance of education and learning.

"I don't know that they would phrase it this way, but I think in the best sense they wanted whatever made us happy," he said. "I don't think we were pressured to one thing or the other. I think it was more to be productive."

After graduating from the University of Louisville in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in English, Dougherty moved to Boston and soon began writing computer manuals with O'Reilly.

"I really didn't know much about computers, but we were writing for people who didn't necessarily know anything about computers either," Dougherty said. "We had to try and understand it for ourselves and then for them at the same time."

It was the start of a partnership between the two men, who co-founded O'Reilly Media in 1978.

The two soon started publishing technical books, including a popular series of small books called Nutshell Handbooks on subjects such as the Unix operating system, and began selling them at trade shows for cash. It was during the 1980s, and O'Reilly and Dougherty were witnessing the beginnings of the Internet age.

"What happened was that the Unix computing system, which was fairly obscure and industrial at that time, became over a 15-year period the basis for the Internet and the basis for Linux and open source and all those tools that seemed obscure at the time but have a much larger audience than one would ever have imagined," he said.

By 1991, now in Sebastopol, Dougherty and O'Reilly were toying with the early stages of the Web. Two years later, they launched the world's first commercial website, Global Network Navigator. The site, which was an early glossary of links to what could be found on the World Wide Web, was sold to America Online in 1995.

"But in fact, at the time nobody thought this was very important. You know, it was just a group of people," he said. "To some degree it's a little bit of luck but a lot of belief, in a way, when you see what people are doing and say 'That's important, that's significant and it's going somewhere.'"

It foreshadowed Dougherty's ability to catch a glimpse of the future and help it along.

O'Reilly said Dougherty was the first to see the maker movement begin to crystallize in the mid-2000s. In 2003, O'Reilly Media published a book called TiVo Hacks, one of a series of "hacking" books it sold. Dougherty noticed the term "hacking" was moving beyond the realm of manipulating or exploiting computer software.

"I just had this idea that we're going to hack the world around us, the physical world," he said. "We're going to hack cars, we're going to hack environments, lighting systems. That was kind of the initial thread that all of this was sort of tied together with, whether it was robots or physical computing and various things."

Dougherty created Make Magazine in 2005 as a way of documenting and fostering the movement. He pitched the idea to O'Reilly during a cab ride in Portland, Ore., describing it as a publication that would serve as a "Martha Stewart for geeks."

The Maker Faire came the following year. The magazine and the fair, along with Maker Shed, which sells maker kits and other related merchandise, comprise Maker Media's three business units.

The company was spun off from O'Reilly Media in 2013 and continues to gain global recognition through franchised fairs. The first major Maker Faire in China was held last month in Shenzhen, a powerhouse of high-tech manufacturing.

Recapturing the art of making in America has become a central theme for Dougherty, who has been working with educators locally and in the Bay Area to inspire young minds through making.

Karen Wilkinson, director of the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, called Dougherty a "real champion" for kids.

"There aren't words to describe what an amazing person he is," Wilkinson said. "Down to every fiber of his being, he wants every kid to experience making."

Paul Heckman, associate dean of the school of education at UC Davis, said he's worked with Dougherty on strategies for keeping students engaged in school. They both believe that kids would be much more engaged — and more likely to go to college — if they spent more time making and less time studying for tests.

"They'd realize that their education can mean something more than sitting still and listening to somebody," Heckman said.

It's not a new concept, he said. Long ago, education reformer and philosopher John Dewey championed the benefits of progressive learning that focused on doing and hands-on learning. The concept was institutionalized with the founding of the Progressive Education Association and later led to changes in the classroom in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he said.

But over the years, auto shops, kitchens and wood shops have been dumped from U.S. schools.

"We have much more remote, decontextualized and narrow schools that do not predict later success in life but occupy much of a child's life in school," Heckman said.

Making is a powerful tool for learning because it makes use of such things as materials, context, activities and interactions, he said. These elements create enduring patterns of neuronal networks that house memories. It's the reason apprenticeships are so important.

Dougherty said the most exciting recent development in the maker movement is the growing interest among kids, with more and more of them attending the Maker Faire.

"They want to be makers. They want to learn how to do this. They want this in their lives — I didn't get that when I started this," he said. "It's partly because making is fun, it's playful. It encourages them to do stuff. It doesn't tell them what they can't do."

You can reach Staff Writer MartinEspinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.