I believe that the recent partnership between Make Magazine and DARPA, to create makerspaces in 1000 high schools as part of the MENTOR program, is the beginning of a division in the hacker and maker communities across North America. This division can be understood to be between a culture built on an ethos of openness and cooperation and that of a secretive, hierarchical military entity.
To fully illustrate my thoughts and research on the issue, I’m going to describe the MENTOR program as it relates to DARPA’s Adaptive Vehicle Make project, and then look at three areas of concern, specifically openness, military recruitment, and engagement with the topic among hackers and makers. Finally I’m going to call for an open discussion of military funding of hacker/maker projects. Before beginning, I would like to make clear that I’m not opposed to DARPA fulfilling its mandate of military preparedness or Make creating school programs. My issue rests solely with the relationship this particular program implies, that is, the military funding of community projects involving children and its potential impact on the ethos of hacker/maker culture.
For the last few years I’ve been participating in various aspects of maker culture, visiting hackerspaces across Ontario and the north-eastern United States, learning how to use 3D printers, solder, and program a laser cutter. My own interest comes from a digital justice/liberation technology perspective and I was excited by the possibilities that these spaces offered us to narrow the digital divide, creating a personal revolution in our relationship with technology and allowing us to question its social and cultural impact.
With this in mind, you can imagine my surprise and confusion when I read the following announcement from O’Reilly Media’s Make Magazine, the driving force behind much of the maker movement in North America.
I’m happy to announce today that O’Reilly’s MAKE division, in partnership with Otherlab of San Francisco, has received an award from The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in support of its Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program. The team will help advance DARPA’s MENTOR program, an initiative aimed at introducing new design tools and collaborative practices of making to high school students.
The new Makerspace program, developed by Dale Dougherty of MAKE and Dr. Saul Griffith of Otherlab, will integrate online tools for design and collaboration with low-cost options for physical workspaces where students may access educational support to gain practical hands-on experience with new technologies and innovative processes to design and build projects. The program has a goal of reaching 1000 high schools over four years, starting with a pilot program of 10 high schools in California during the 2012-2013 school year.
As I understand this announcement, Make will work directly with the US military to bring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education to high schools, focusing on a military design paradigm. Make is part of Tim O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Media empire, was founded by Dale Dougherty, with the magazine being edited by Mark Frauenfelder. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is an agency of the Department of Defense, responsible for the creation of new technology for the military. They are usually involved in projects that are on the extreme edge of technological development and they are perhaps most famous for the development of the precursor to the Internet.
The goal of the MENTOR program is;
…the development of user-friendly, open-source tools to enable the utilization of conventional social network media (e.g., Facebook apps) for the purpose of collaborative distributed design and manufacturing across hundreds of sites and thousands of users. This capability will be accompanied by the deployment of an inexpensive, heterogeneous set of digitally-programmable manufacturing equipment (e.g., 3D printers for various materials) to 1,000 high schools globally. Prize-based design and manufacturing challenges would then enable clusters of schools to team and compete against one another in the development of cyber-electro-mechanical systems of moderate complexity such as go carts, mobile robots, small unmanned aircraft, etc.
The MENTOR project, in order to reach its goal of makerspaces in 1000 high schools world-wide over four years, is to receive $10 million in total funding.
It is important to remember that MENTOR cannot be understood as a stand alone program, but only as part of a much larger, overarching military STEM project. The MENTOR program is a section of a much larger military portfolio, called the Adaptive Vehicle Make program, whose goal is to “address revolutionary approaches to the design, verification and manufacturing of complex defense systems and vehicles” through three steps; “to dramatically compress development times for complex defense systems such as military air and ground vehicles, to shift the product value chain for such systems toward high-value added design activities, and to democratize the innovation process”. The program consists of a number of interrelated elements; META, iFAB, and FANG, with MENTOR being an element of the latter.
The AVM program, unlike many at DARPA, is not theoretical, but has already seen some success. The AVM program aims to crowd-source rapid vehicle design for the military and implement prototyping using small scale production facilities, coordinating designers by using a social media platform called vehicleforge.mil. An early prototype of this approach to military vehicle design was DARPA’s Experimental Crowd-derived Combat-support Vehicle (XC2V) Design Challenge, completed in June 2011 with the winning entry created in just fourteen weeks.
My concerns with the Make/DARPA partnership are threefold: 1) the impact on the openness that defines the ethos of the various hacker/maker communities 2) the historical connections between military recruitment, STEM education and high schools in the United States 3) and the relative silence around this topic, not only from Make, but also the broader hacker/maker community.
These three concerns lead to the question of whether a new relationship is being forged between hackers/makers and the military. I will examine this issue in part two.