‘All the major zeitgeist spirits make an appearance’ – Makers by Corey Doctorow

Rather appropriately for a book about the crowdsourced, open source economy, Makers has already been serialised for free on the site Tor.com. Author Cory Doctorow puts his money where his mouth a second time with the plea to contribute towards future versions:

As part of the ongoing project of crafting Tor.com’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.

Thankfully there’s a hard copy format for those of us who can’t quite get used to reading fiction online.

Doctorow is an evangelist for technology and its power to empower the little guy and change society. The hacker is the champion in his world; his last book Little Brother centred on a software hacker and with Makers he turns his attention to hardware hackers. The geek factor is partially tamed by a strong people element, and ultimately the story is held together by the group of friends whose fortunes lead us through the book.

Technically this is science fiction, but it’s rooted firmly in the real world. Sure, the robots make an appearance, but the world they live in is clearly recognisable as a not-too-distant relative of today’s USA. It’s as much social commentary as geek-out, exploring the implications of the post-manufacturing economy emerging as traditional jobs are shipped overseas and an entrepreneurial few turn their hands to other things.

Doctorow is co-editor of the hugely popular BoingBoing.net, which puts his finger firmly on the pulse of the zeitgeist. And as the book progresses, all the major zeitgeist spirits make an appearance. The story opens with the birth of ‘New Work’, a wave of nimble, post-manufacturing start-ups flooding the USA. All good things come to an end, though, and New Work is replaced with a post-post-manufacturing hangover. But the collaborative, crowdsourced New Work nostalgia rides (high-tech, interactive museums) which emerge end up being a nation-wide movement in their own right.

Makers stops short of recreating Little Brother’s out of control police state, but effectively captures the mistrust faced by anyone who doesn’t participate in ‘mainstream’ America.
Motoring on through the death of a newspaper, a biotech cure to the obesity epidemic, a trademark infringement war with Disney and clashes with heavy-handed cops, the story also brushes on the oh-so-topical tensions between ethics and greed; open source and proprietary; following your heart and taking a job that will pay the bills.

Doctorow’s characters tend to be a bit caricatured, and to me this is the main flaw in his writing. He’s made more attempt to flesh them out this time around – the main characters are believable enough, although you never really get inside their heads. But the foul-breathed Brit, the leering Turk and the bored East European left me a bit cold.

If you can get past this, though, it’s an enjoyable read. It’s an inspirational tour of the forces and ideas shaping contemporary business and society. And its picture of tomorrow is both realistic and visionary.

Any Cop? Not a literary masterpiece, but a pacey read with a thought-provoking vision of the future. Especially if you have an inner geek in there.

Lucy Chapman

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