In this post I’m going to examine three possible issues with the Make/DARPA partnership, specifically around openness, military recruitment, and the need for dialogue. Please read part one if you have not done so already.
Impact on Openness
While there are as many types of hackers and makers as there are spaces, what joins them together is their commitment to openness and cooperation, as inspired by the Open Source movement in its various incarnations. The MENTOR program, as it is currently described, would seem to put this approach in jeopardy.
First, according to the MENTOR Broad Agency Announcement, DARPA “desires Unlimited Rights to all deliverables…to enable their industry-wide promulgation in the course of, and subsequent to, this program.” Why this particular approach should be necessary for a program involving children is unclear. Would it not be easier and in the spirit of hackerspaces to allow them or their schools to license the materials they produce as they see fit?
Second, while the MENTOR program involves cooperation, this is done so as part of challenge competitions, in which teams compete against each other for cash prizes. This seems in stark contrast to how maker culture has developed to date. Why is competition necessary? If the goal is truly for education using the hacker/maker model, can learning and exploration not take place merely for pleasure, in a completely open environment, or must it be reduced to yet another lesson in the need to hoard and compete for resources and information?
Third, why has the field of study in these makerspaces narrowed only to STEM topics? What happened to the transdisiplinary focus of hacker/maker communities that make them so innovative? Where are the arts? Where are wearables, knitivism, DIY molecular gastronomy? Why do the challenges involve working on unmanned air vehicles or robots, projects that are of interest to DARPA for their military applications? Shouldn’t we encourage STEAM rather than STEM? Could it be that regardless of their educational potential, these topics have no possible military application? With such a narrow focus, one could ask which culture will win the day, maker or military?
Finally, why are the full details of the Make proposal and specifics of the agreement with DARPA not being made public? Because in dealing with the military, lack of transparency is simply a matter of course. This works well for the military but why is it necessary for a community project involving children? Why was a “Secret” clearance level needed to work on designing modules for the program, according to this job advertisement? This lack of transparency also leaves other questions unanswered. For example, as the program expands to over 1000 schools, will military personnel be brought in to teach? This last question brings me to issues of recruitment, STEM education and the military.
Military recruitment and high schools
The Make/DARPA Makerspaces project is certainly not the first attempt by the US military to bring science education to high schools. As it is currently impossible to define what the specific goals of the MENTOR project are, beyond the few vague details available to the public, I’d like to examine a similar STEM educational program, DoD STARBASE, and look at its role in military recruitment in high schools. I would like to emphasize that the Makerspace project does not currently involve visiting military bases, but from the military perspective, the spirit driving both programs appears to be very similar.
Ultimately what could be at issue is hacker/maker culture’s possible involvement in the militarization of high schools, with makerspaces serving as facilitators of relations between the military and schools.
The US military has never been shy about targeting high schools as it seeks “prospects” for recruitment. The most recent edition of the United States Army Recruiter Handbook (USAREC Manual No. 3-01) contains statements such as [emphasis added];
School Recruiting Program
6-1. The SRP is the cornerstone of Army recruiting. It was designed to create awareness and interest in available Army programs among students, parents, educators, and school officials. Without a strong secondary school program, there cannot be a strong grad recruiting program.
5-17. No other segment of the community network has as much impact on recruiting as schools. The SRP is based on the trust and credibility established with educators, students, and parents. Even a well planned SRP will fall on its face without the support of these key influencers.
5-18. Think of the SRP as a long-term investment. You will find that establishing trust and credibility with students—even seventh- and eighth-graders—can positively impact high school and postsecondary school recruiting efforts….
8-4. The unit’s ROP identifies recruiting high payoff targets and locations, such as highly productive schools, gathering places, or economic trends within the community. The ROP identifies school and seasonal community events, which have positive effects on prospecting…
10-29. All team members should attend high school athletic events; they should visit strip malls, shopping centers, hangouts, and restaurants. One of the most important locations for recruiters is their high schools….
STARBASE is a fine example of some of these recruitment principles in action. Created in 1991, the STARBASE Youth Program is an educational program for students (grades K-12) where they…
…participate in challenging “hands-on, mind-on” activities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). They interact with military personnel to explore careers and observe STEM applications in the “real world.” The program provides students with 20-25 hours of stimulating experiences at National Guard, Navy, Marine, Air Force Reserve and Air Force bases across the nation.
Not only does the program allow students to “explore careers”, but the yearly reports show a high interest in student’s opinions of the military and military careers (see the STARBASE 2009 Report, page 73-74 [PDF]). For example, students attitudes are measured using a questionnaire rating some of the following statements;
There are repeating drivers that have a broader impact on target attitudes. They include:
“You can have fun working in a group” – helping students to build relationships in their work groups can potentially increase their positive attitudes toward learning, STARBASE and the military. The latter are cluster attributes.
“I am enjoying coming to a military base” – for these students on a military base, the environment of personnel and resources can affect the students’ curiosity, enjoyment and attitudes about the military.
DRIVER: “Military people do lots of different things.”
The military is a good place to work.
I am enjoying coming to a military base….
While some would argue that the MENTOR program will be merely educational, looking at the examples above, I would suggest there is a danger that the project will instead reflect previous military high school STEM programs, which have as a goal gaining tacit approval for the military from both students and schools and encouraging a military approach to STEM. As can be seen from the descriptions of the FANG and MENTOR programs, the methodology of the MENTOR program directly mirrors that of the overarching military AVM program, for example, the use of competitive challenges, social media, crowd sourcing of designs, etc. Indeed, according to a presentation by Mr. Paul Eremenko and LTC Nathan Wiedenman, program managers of the AVM, the MENTOR program hopes to “inculcate Adaptive Vehicle Make type design methods such that they become pervasive in subsequent generations of engineers” (Slide 10). In other words, the goal of MENTOR is not to have fun, be creative, or make cool stuff, but to “inculcate” children with a military inspired STEM design methodology.
The partnership between Make and and the military may have been in development since 2010 and, perhaps, can be understood as part of the DoD’s STEM Education and Outreach Strategic Plan. As part of Maker Faire Detroit (August 2010) military command RDECOM and sub-unit TARDEC were present, organizing a “Makers and Military Merge” panel before the main event. Most interesting, from a networking prospective, the current deputy program manager of the AVM and MENTOR programs, LTC Nathan Wiedenman, was formally the deputy chief scientist of TARDEC and worked in Afghanistan with RDECOM. A focus of both groups is the creation of military vehicles such as those that will be developed by the AVM program. Since the Detroit Maker Faire, RDECOM has gone on to create the STEM Asset Vehicle, which the military has stated serves as a recruitment tool. Will this vehicle be showing up at future Maker Faires or even high school Makerspaces?
Partnerships between hackers and the military are certainly nothing new. For example, one of the members of L0pht, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, now works for DARPA recruiting hackers for military projects. As adults this is their prerogative and DARPA is entitled to fulfill its mandate of military preparedness. However, shouldn’t we draw the line, and I believe many in the hacker and maker community would, in involving high school children in military projects, no matter how tangential that involvement may be? This is especially of concern as involving children in military projects may contravene the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
With MENTOR, will the full implications of the program be made clear to the children, parents or teachers involved? Or will they be so pleased to have any kind of science education available in their schools that they don’t bother to ask many questions? Or will MENTOR be used as an opportunity to blur the lines between school, work and military?
That eerie silence…
Keeping the historical origins of North American hacker/maker culture in mind, the relative silence among the larger hacker/maker community about this partnership is most surprising. As I already stated, Make does not appear to be interested in engaging with people’s concerns in any meaningful way. The only public statements questioning the partnership so far have come from Mitch Altman, one of the founders of Noisebridge in San Francisco, who has said he will no longer be working with Make on the Maker Faire. Both California Watch and the very vocal DEMILIT have also examined the issues.
However, scratch the surface a little and one begins to see a possible reason for this silence. A number of hackerspaces have already been involved in or have shown interest in obtaining military funding, for example, from DARPA or the Office of Naval Research (the latter another project involving children). It also seems as if other maker supported businesses, such as Makerbot, were interested in working on the MENTOR program.
Makers and Military Merge? Are we going to see the rise of the DIY Military Complex? Or is a line in the sand about to be drawn, with community supported hackerspaces on one side, engaging in digital justice projects or just having fun, versus military/government funded spaces and projects intent on competition, maintaining the status quo and mired in various political agendas?
I don’t know. What I do know is that a few years ago the current editor-in-chief of Make Magazine stated that an appropriate logo for one DARPA project would be a boot stomping on a human face. Now he thinks they are awesome. The reason? Until we engage in an open discussion, we really can’t know.
Hopefully, the concerns I’ve presented here come to nothing and Make goes on to develop a stellar program that brings a lot of enjoyment to children world-wide. However, looking at the goals of the program and examining similar military sponsored STEM programs in the past, too many questions remain unanswered. I hope that Make shows a willingness to enter into a meaningful and informative dialogue with the hacker/maker community about MENTOR, the level of military involvement and the exact goals of the program.
(I’m currently gathering a bibliography on the topic of the DARPA/military/maker connection. If you would like to participate of have something to add, contact me at fiacre [AT] librarycult.com)