Review of Makers by Cory Doctorow
by Cory Doctorow
Economics is weird. The economy is a social system. Once upon a time, it was based somewhat in reality, with gold standards and natural resources forming a large part of this anchor. At present, it has transformed into a mostly speculative beast, the taming of which is the goal of any number of hedge fund managers, stock market analysts, and economics professors with cushy degrees from Ivy League or wannabe-Ivy League schools. To make matters worse, the economy is based on the behaviour of people.
And people, as a group, are not only irrational but stupid. So the economy is in for a treat.
Makers is to economics what Little Brother is to national security and civil liberties. Cory Doctorow ventures into that curious nexus of technological innovation, outdated corporate laws, dinosaur business models perpetuated by incumbent players, and strong-willed individuals who want to rock the boat. Although definitely science fiction, like Little Brother this book invokes technology that is available in the present day, focusing on the differences such technology is making rather than speculating upon the differences technology will make.
In some sense we have always lived in an information economy, because ultimately it all comes down to information in one form or another. Yet the information economy has never been more obvious in the present era, because technology has removed the barrier to the exchange of pure information. This so-called digital economy threatens incumbent business models—and the corporations that became successful through such models—because digital often turns scarcity into plenty.
Makers uses 3D printers to represent this transition to plenty. But this is more than just making things; it's about what we choose to make. The point of the DIY ("do it yourself") movement is making objects—designing them, constructing them, watching them succeed or fail or adapt to new purposes—is a rewarding effort. Lester and Perry are innovators, and that's what makes them essential to Kettlewell's New Work vision. In a society that tends toward individualism, corporations like Google are succeeding by embracing that individualism, encouraging the creativity of individuals and small groups, then reaping the ideas that result. New Work is the ultimate corporate takeover, harnessing the very bootstraps-entrepreneurial strategy so praised in the United States to generate huge new profits. It is both terrifying and amazing.
Of course, those corporations entrenched in the old paradigms will resist. This is where the law enters the story. Intellectual property law is a morass of complicated statutes, precedents, and procedures. Unfortunately, sometimes corporations will use these laws to eliminate competition. Those corporations want the law to remain as it is—or favour them even more—even as the government faces pressure to change the law in the face of changing technologies and business models.
Disney (somewhat predictably, knowing Doctorow) plays the role of corporate antagonist in Makers. Everything goes swimmingly with the ride until pieces of Disney rides begin appearing in it; then Disney slaps the ride with an injunction and a trademark infringement lawsuit. Although the conflict presents Disney as the Big Bad Corporation out to get the Little Guy, the resolution is more nuanced and realistic in its views. Lester and Perry compromise, make a deal with a Disney executive, in return for personal creative freedom. Makers is not about revolution but evolution. Its tone may sound anti-corporation at times, but really it is only anti-dinosaur. Those corporations that adapt will survive.
I revel in the way Makers chronicles some of the challenges facing corporations and individuals alike. That is about all it is good at doing, however. The characters are flat, and the story meanders through a flow chart of plot points Doctorow feels are essential to his theme. The jacket copy is somewhat misleading; it implies that Lester's "fatkins" treatment causes his falling out with Perry. While fatkins was a contributing factor, Lester and Perry's relationship deteriorates for several reasons, the main one being time and diverging interests.
I don't blame Doctorow for the jacket copy. I do, however, expect deeper stories than what Makers delivers. Every problem the protagonists face can be conquered by a combination of message board posts, blogging, and passing it off to the legal experts. There is one obnoxious antagonist who is a straw man for anti-innovation bloggers (the kinds of sticks-in-the-mud who are unhappy whenever anyone is successful, and usually when they fail too).
To be fair, the characters do change and learn from their conflicts. Lester and Perry's relationship transforms dramatically; Susan's life changes as she follows her dream; Sammy starts off as a suit and discovers he can have his cake and eat it too. So I'm even more puzzled than I usually am, because for all the dynamics in their relationships, these characters have no chemistry.
For example, consider the scene in which Kettlewell admits to having an affair (we saw this coming). There is no drama, no repercussions. Nothing fundamentally changes after this admission. He could have said, "I am going to paint my white picket fence with a different brand of white paint" and engendered the same reader response. I just do not feel invested in these characters or their plights.
But maybe that's just Kettlewell—after all, he is a minor character. Surely we feel more inclined toward drama over Lester and Perry? Not really. Hilda, whom Lester dubs Yoko, becomes an unwilling wedge between the two DIY-ers (we saw this coming). Hilda and Perry just sort of hook up and have a one night stand, and suddenly it's love. But Hilda never really does anything Yoko-ish. Lester is the one who has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing Perry away in response to a stimulus that isn't there, projecting his own desires for distance. Still, the arguments Lester and Perry have do not feel like arguments. They are dialogues from two slightly different perspectives to communicate a point.
Speaking of Perry and Hilda, let's talk about the sex scenes. Or not. Awkward….
Moving on. Makers starts with a bang but ends with a whimper. The quality of the prose remains consistent—consistently mediocre—but while the story starts strong, it soon becomes streamlined and perfunctory, like it's a Disney ride and we're just sitting there, watching it happen. Despite a Big Bad Corporation coming over for dinner and spats among the protagonists about the best way to run the rides, I never felt like the stakes were very high or that anyone had much to lose.
As much as I love the premise and the execution of its ideas, Makers is much ado about nothing as far as I'm concerned. I thought Little Brother rocked hard enough to make it one of my best 10 books of 2009. With that book, Doctorow offers up a polemic, yes, but one that is truly worth the time, even if one disagrees with his argument. Makers lacks that worthwhile attribute.