Cory Doctorow should have been an anthropologist; or, rather, he is--a nonce anthropologist of his corner of information society. Doctorow is a veteran activist, best known for his work in electronic media and civil liberties. His technical background, together with his considerable experience in policy and political activism, makes him the ultimate anthropological insider--few writers are as dead-on in their descriptions of geek-dom in general, and his policy writings give his work a level of accessibility that would otherwise be missing.
Makers is in many ways the synthesis of his work in science fiction, activism and what might best be described as self-entrepreneurship. As such it is a profoundly reflexive work: Doctorow blogs on boingboing.net about people who re-combine the dross of consumer society into new forms, clever hacks, ironic parodies. Makers extrapolates on these smaller-scale inventions into a description of a new economic system (the 'new work'), as seen through the eyes of the blogger who loves it (the journalist-cum-blogger Suzanne Church). At the same time, Doctorow is re-cycling and re-using his own materials in Makers, returning to Disney once again (pace Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom), and to 3-D volumetric printing (which appears in at least one of his stories, "After the Siege"). And finally, he's opening his work to re-use and re-mixing through his creative commons licensing, itself an intellectual property hack on par with the inventions of his two protagonists, Lester and Perry.
The "New Work" that Makers introduces expounds on the ethics of re-using and re-mixing, combining technologies, trash, abandoned buildings, polluted factories and everything else in a post-industrial "future" America (that exists in many places right now in the present) and using that to create something else.
It starts with Lester and Perry in their junk-yard laboratory on the borders of an abandoned Wal-Mart in Florida, but then blossoms into rapidly brachiating micro-enterprising fuelling the creative urges of an underemployed and de-skilled lumpenproletariat.
As Lester and Perry later eulogize in a "new work" theme park,
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN AMERICA HELD OUT THE PROMISE OF A NEW WAY OF LIVING AND WORKING. THE NEW WORK BOOM OF THE TEENS WAS A PERIOD OF UNPARALLELED INVENTION, A CAMBRIAN EXPLOSION OF CREATIVITY NOT SEEN SINCE THE TIME OF EDISON—AND UNLIKE EDISON, THE PEOPLE WHO INVENTED THE NEW WORK REVOLUTION WEREN’T RIP-OFF ARTISTS AND FRAUDS.
THEIR MARVELOUS INVENTIONS EMERGED AT THE RATE OF FIVE OR SIX PER WEEK. SOME DANCED, SOME SANG, SOME WERE HELPMEETS AND SOME WERE MERE JESTERS.
TODAY, NEARLY ALL OF THESE WONDERFUL THINGS HAVE VANISHED WITH THE COLLAPSE OF NEW WORK. THEY’VE ENDED UP BACK IN THE TRASH HEAPS THAT INSPIRED THEM
In the end, the company that was bankrolling most of the new work start-ups ("Kodacell") goes bankrupt, throwing everyone out of work again in another paroxysm of “creative destruction,” but the boys trudge on, re-using the wrack of new work in their project. The "new work" may have been beaten by specters of shareholder value, but the entrepreneurial spirit lives on!
Some of the early reviews of this work have applauded the way the entrepreneurial spirit remains unconquered--indeed, the final paragraphs of Makers find Lester and Perry, now at the end of their lives, toiling over their next mash-up invention:
The scene inside the workshop was eerie. Perry and Lester stood next to each other, cheek by jowl, hunched over something on the workbench. Perry had a computer open in front of him, and he was typing, Lester holding something out of sight.
How many times had she seen this tableau? How many afternoons had she spent in the workshop in Florida, watching them hack a robot, build a sculpture, turn out the latest toy for Tjan’s amusement, Kettlewell’s enrichment? The postures were identical—though their bodies had changed, the hair thinner and grayer. Like someone had frozen one of those innocent moments in time for a decade, then retouched it with wizening makeup and hair-dye.
Is this a celebration? Sure, there's something to the idea that human creativity perseveres despite age and economic collapse. But I don't believe Doctorow is so optimistic. The novel, after all, is not just about the "entrepreneurial spirit"--it's about the imagination trammeled under the profit imperatives of a ravenous corporate capitalism that ruins everything it touches, turning the revolutionary hack into the bland recapitulations of the same.
After all, it's the vagaries of the market that sinks the "New Work," Disney lawsuits that ravage the participatory, recombinant "cabinet of wonders", and, finally, the dictees of the market that turn 3D volumetric printing from a tool for hackers and reuse into the catalyst for a renewed era of Disney dominance. It is even the market that turns the "fatkins" treatment--a biological hack applying genetic therapy and pharmaceuticals to speed the metabolism of fat Americans--into a death sentence of organ failure and osteoporosis. At every turn, what begins as potentially liberating--or at least cheeky--techno-tinkering turns into a source of corporate profit, after which Lester and Perry move on.
This is, finally, what drives Perry out of the whole game altogether. Washing his hands of his partnerships, he becomes a bricoleur-drifter, unwilling to stay put long enough to build more tech for the commodity machine.
Lester is less of a cynic, and ends up at what appears to be a kind of Disney think tank. But there, his experiences are little better, and he ends up with the same kind of sad realizations.
“They said that they wanted me to come in and help them turn the place around, help them reinvent themselves. Be nimble. Shake things up. But it’s like wrestling a tar-baby. You push, you get stuck. You argue for something better and they tell you to write a report, then no one reads the report. You try to get an experimental service running and no one will reconfigure the firewall. Turn the place around?” He snorted. “It’s like turning around a battleship by tapping it on the nose with a toothpick.”
That is, rather than the "entrepreneurial spirit," there another spirit altogether haunting this novel: the spirit of money.
As Christopher Bracken writes (only partly in irony) of this omnipotent spirit,
It is the pure potential for appropriation. Hence it is the most powerful kind of spirit there is [ . . .] Although money is a "mere thing," still in some ways it is more human than I am. I possess only some human potentialities. Money possesses them "all." How did it come to have more "human abilities" than humans do? And how did we trade places with a thing?
More than the straw man villains who harry our protagonists (a vengeful journalist and a Disney executive), it is this money spirit that swallows up everything the inventors produce. It is the "third man" in Doctorow's novel--the genius loci that hastens the entropy of ideas. Kettlewell, the venture capitalist, opines in the opening paragraphs of the novel,
“Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything. That’s not to say that there’s no money out there to be had, but the money won’t come from a single, monolithic product line. The days of companies with names like ’General Electric’ and ’General Mills’ and ’General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.
But, in the end, capitalism is still eating itself. And Lester and Perry manage to hold out longer than most (416 pages in the printed edition!), but they succumb to death and the bottom-line in the end, just like everyone else.
So, in a way, this is Doctorow's most bleak novel yet (and he has drawn on the dystopian muse before)--not the triumph of ideas, but the triumph of capitalism and commodification over ideas. And while we’re meant to feel empathy for the two inventors, there’s some finger-pointing here as well. Why can’t Lester and Perry see that their nerdy coke-can computer ultimately strengthens the system it was supposed to poke fun at? Why don’t they ever come up with a really new work, one that doesn’t end up on a balance sheet? And what would that mean? Can we even conceive of intellectual creativity outside of the market?
Bracken, Christopher (2007). Magical Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.