Empowerment through Making?

This blog post is about empowerment through making and DIY practices – or at least it seeks to critically review such claims which have been often made and published ever since the rise of the so-called maker movement. However, “empowerment” is a strong word which should be used with realist caution and not to make any airy promises of an unreachable ideal. Considering the Digital Civics research agenda as an explicitly transformatory HCI niche with a special interest in civic engagement, it is worth revisiting these big claims around “making” that promise empowerment of the user and democratisation of technology, to check them on their feasibility.

Based on my reading during the course, additional literature and miscellaneous online media, I will structure my argument as follows: I will first clarify, what DIY and maker culture are about and point out why these philosophies are met with so much hope for societal change (both in media and HCI research) and why the maker movement is currently not able to fulfil these. After that I will outline a fundamental issue with empowerment itself and discuss how the transition in HCI discourse from “users” to “makers” provides a new theoretical basis for empowerment through making. Finally, I identify three approaches from the literature how HCI can (help) facilitating real empowerment through making and add my thoughts about a more experience-centred tactic.

DIY, Making, Fab Labs: What is this all about?

Do It Yourself (DIY)

DIY is a term denoting people‘s commitment and activities to create things for themselves instead of consuming products or paying for services of professionals. DIY behaviour is not restricted to any specific domain and can occur in many different variants [37]. Traditionally the term is used to refer to domestic activities such as home-improvement, gardening and knitting or sewing clothes. Until the 1950s it was very common to do certain tasks oneself as they were well-accepted recreational activities which helped to relieve the housekeeping budget (eg. repairing the car). This changed with the rise of the consumer culture. While it became more and more fashionable to buy things and to pay professionals to provide services, the term DIY became increasingly political and associated with alternative counter-culture [12,28]. Since then, DIY-methods have also been deliberately applied in a wide range of other areas such as education (home schooling), music (punk, indie and alternative music), media production (fanzines, community radio, blogs, podcasts, etc.) and science (DIY bio, participatory sensing and citizen science).


The Maker Movement

The Maker Movement can be described as a technological modification of DIY culture. The movement gained momentum in the mid 2000s when the American bimonthly Make magazine was launched and branded the new tech connotation of the word „maker“. The magazine is regarded as the media backbone of the Maker Movement and provides makers with complex DIY and DIWO (Do It With Others) projects involving computers, electronics, robotics, wearables, metalworking, woodworking and other disciplines.

David Lang who wrote a book about his own journey from „Zero to Maker“ explains „making“ as „Creating and exploring new possibilities through building and experimenting with tools, technology, and materials.“ [22:22] Making in this sense refers to independent hands-on exploration of hardware and software often facilitated by the proliferation of growingly less expensive distributed, democratising state-of-the-art tools such as 3D printers and microcontrollers [7].  This playful interaction with technology is accompanied a certain hacker ethos and a „philosophy of sharing, acceptance, and creativity“ [20:ix] which is documented in Mark Hatch’s maker manifesto:


Community Websites, Forums, Fairs, Hackerspaces and Fab Labs

An important part of the DIY and maker movement is the aspect of belonging to a community, which is often facilitated by social media and online platforms [28]. Today’s state-of-the-art functionalities to produce online media (photos, videos, podcasts) make it easy to share knowledge in the form of tutorials or step-to-step instructions [13,33,37]. However, this community aspect does not only exist in mere virtual space. There are so-called hackerspaces and fab labs, where makers meet in real life, work together and crowd-finance shared tools [7,10,23,33]. Specialised conventions such as the annual Maker Faire [5,33,37] provide an additional networking platform.


HCI’s reception of the Maker Movement

DIY and making communities are close to HCI research regarding common objectives, values and events [23]. Makers and interaction designers often use the same kind of tools to produce prototypes. However, the discourse around the trend of users turning into makers already dates back to 1998 when Wrensch and Eisenberg [38] started to use the term “crafter” in the context of embedding computation into the design of craft items. Roedl et al [29] performed a discourse analysis on all publications on the ACM Digital Library that contained the keywords “maker”, “hacker”, “craft”, “DIY”, “appropriation”, “design-in-use”, “repair” and “fabrication” which summed up to a total of 191 papers. They sketch out a genealogy from the 1998 “crafter” [38] and Paul Dourish’s introduction of the term “appropriation” in 2003 [9] over adopting the notion “hackers” [11] in 2004 and those of “expert amateurs” [21] and “makers” [30,14,17] around 2009 before explicitly naming it a “movement” [26] or even “revolution”[33] after 2011.

In their analysis Roedl et al. filtered out two distinct but interrelated definitions of “making”: On one hand, it was presented as a near-universal human activity. It is assumed that it is natural to humans to appropriate the objects they are using and engage in “everyday design” [36]. On the other hand, making is depicted as a passionate endeavour for subcultures and part of identity [37]. And while papers using the word “craft” place emphasis on process-related aspects such as materials, aesthetics and traditions of skilled practice, the discussions using the notions of “DIY” and “hacking” focus more on progress-related social issues (eg. democracy, resistance to authority, community, values, norms).


The recent rise of the maker movement and the DIY-revival in popular culture has often been accompanied with avid claims of democratisation of and empowerment through technology. Enthusiasts regard the emerging availability and distribution of 3D-printers, CNC cutters and electronic toolkits as the first big step towards an emancipated prosumer future [34] in which everybody can make about everything themselves. This euphoria was also evident in HCI. Tanenbaum et al. wrote for example: “We contend that DIY practice is a form of nonviolent resistance: a collection of personal revolts against the hegemonic structures of mass production in the industrialized world. The fact that Makers rely upon these same structures to engage in and disseminate these practices complicates, but does not negate, their revolutionary nature.” [33:2609]

This just one of the rhetoric framings which have been used by HCI research to discuss making in relation to technoscientific progress. Roedl et al. [29] derived six specific ways how the maker has been celebrated as an empowered subject:


…and Critique

But while personal fabrication is already lived reality of few pioneer maker communities
who have the required knowledge and tools, we still need to find ways how to make these resources accessible to other communities who could benefit even more from it [2].

The reality of making seems to be flawed by a low presence of women and minority populations. Studies such as the Maker Market Study from 2012 indicate that maker communities are more exclusive than portrayed in their own vision. The demographic results show that 8 out of 10 makers are male with a median age of 44 years having a college degree and an over-average income.


David Cuartielles, co- founder of Arduino, identified that only one percent of the total users on the Arduino forum were female and reported about the company’s effort to counteract gender gaps [8]. And Tim Bajarin reports similar concerns in his otherwise very enthusiastic comment in TIME Magazine: „I do have one concern, though: As I walked the floors of the Maker Faire during the first day of the event, I did not see one African American family in the crowds while I was there, and I only saw two Hispanic families with kids checking things out. I actually dedicated an hour to walking all over the grounds looking for people of minority descent during the time I was at the show. I would say the majority of the families there were white, although I also saw a lot of Asian and Indian families with their kids roaming the faire.“

Leah Buechley, the developer of the Lilypad Arduino toolkit, gave a critical talk at Eyeo Festival 2014 and seized the opportunity for doing some ad hoc counting based on the Make magazine covers from the past 9 years. She also identified a strong dominance of “rich white guys”.


With the tools still being too expensive for the lower-income population and with funding money going to the “usual suspects” (eg. Google, Make Magazine, etc.), she stated that the maker movement currently doesn’t fulfil the promise to offer new chances for marginalised groups and would even refrain from calling it a social or educational movement if it in fact only reaches out to a small niche population. Buechley criticised flimsy initiatives to set up ever more structures “where we tell young women and young brown and black kids that they should aspire to be like rich white guys” [minute 22:46] The full talk can be seen in this video:







HCI has been recently quite active in exploring the potentials of maker technologies and personal-scale manufacturing for people who are currently not served or even marginalised by the standard mass-market (for example in the field of DIY assistive technology [6,16–18]). However, while understanding itself as an interventionist design field, it still struggles to find practical ways how exactly to move beyond the well-intended identification of possibilities and how to implement theoretical empowerment through design. A possible reason for this could be, as Roedl et al. argue, that “the celebratory rhetoric around the maker obscures the concrete mechanisms through which making operates as a critique of traditional computing and its relationship to consumer culture”. [29:14]

Dis-Empowerment by Design

So what can be done to achieve real empowerment through making? In order to identify different specific approaches, it is important to look first at the paradoxical nature of empowerment itself and at how the “maker” can be understood as the antonym of the “user”.

The Fundamental issue with empowerment

While empowerment is a commonly agreed-on valuable ideal to strive for, it also implies a problematic notion of power imbalance. Agre put this paradox into following words:

“We can articulate precisely the ethical appeal of the word ‘empowerment’. Inasmuch as ‘empower’ is a transitive verb, to ‘empower’ someone is to perform some action upon them. The liberal ideal of individual self-determination would normally object to this kind of operation. People are supposed to be able to define themselves and to choose their own identities and desires and intentions. And this ideal is normally violated when people show up as the objects of transformative verbs. But it is the special claim of empowerment to escape this objection. The person upon whom this action is performed, having been ‘empowered’, is, by definition, in a position to take actions of his or her own. Indeed one might say that empowerment brings a proper, fully drawn human being into existence. Empowerment thus presents itself not as some kind of programming, but precisely as the removal of any susceptibility to programming.” [1:170]

Storni extends this perspective by reflecting on this power imbalance in relation to design: “I argue that there is something intrinsically inadequate in some of the ideas about design (design as performed by professional experts) that makes it difficult to talk about design and empowerment without falling into a contradiction or an impasse.” [31:163] His argument demands to be aware of the political role of the designer (Who is giving power to whom? On whose terms, and under what assumptions?) who has the choice to practice “design as conjuring” or alternatively design with seams to facilitate empowerment-in-use. Empowerment-in-use is a concept that embraces the idea that a design object is not like a black-box but open to autonomous modifications by the user.

From “users” to “makers”

Referring here deliberately to the “user” (bad word in most cases) leads to the second big discourse in the context of empowerment: Seeing the “maker” as the antonym to “user”. Storni [31] argued that hiding the design (as it is the case with “design as conjuring”) implicates a passive consumer role of the person who will use it. The person is therefore reduced to a “user” who has to use the object exactly the way it was determined by the designer. Opening up the design for subsequent modifications (if the “user” wishes to do so) would be one way then to provide the possibility for the “user” having a less passive and dis-empowered role.

Roedl et al. [29] extended this argument by going a step further and declare the “maker” to be a new empowered discursive construct in contrast to the “user” who used to be seen as “a fragile beast under threat from technology and a duty for HCI researchers to help rescue them” [29:2]. The disempowered role of the “user” had helped to legitimize HCI as a specialised discipline within computer science with its researchers being advocates for users. The new HCI rhetoric evolving around the notion of “makers” is framed as a challenge to the passive role of “users” by defining this new subject by its autonomous action, re-appropriation of technology and self-entitled modifications to existing designs. This challenges the role of designers as well, since these have to find new ways how to design for “makers” instead of “users”. In a certain way, the distinction between the construct reflects the paradigm shifts in course of the three waves of HCI [15]. In a previous blogpost I have reflected on the implications of the so-called “practice turn” of HCI. However, the “maker” construct makes it even clearer how HCI’s focus has moved away from the perfect technological solution for a controllable and ex-ante definable problem (first and partly second wave) towards the complex and constantly changing context where technology is situated as just one of many parts of everyday life (third wave).

Approaches for Real Empowerment through Making

In course of the literature review around making and DIY practices, I managed to filter out three specific approaches how to overcome the current state of making as a pioneer practice of a few groups of privileged people:

Critical Intervention in Showcasing

In the previously mentioned talk Leah Buechley suggested that leading maker institutions such as Make Magazine (and accordingly also HCI academia) should actively reach out to showcase a bigger variety of projects beyond the current radar. She mentioned for example low-riders, basket-woven data-visualisations and and analysing the history of hip hop as a maker story (cf. tinkering with sound devices, the invention of scratching, etc.). And indeed I agree that embracing diversity in media and proactively featuring alternative application contexts outside of the “norm” could raise awareness. This approach uses a mechanism similar to critical design [3], which I have discussed in detail in another blogpost. Designed artefacts (just as maker creations) can serve to challenge the putative standard by uncovering implicitly embedded values. This raises awareness and could lead to change in the long run.


Changing Regulative Forces

Another approach can be found in the journal paper by Roedl et al. [29] who suggested to trigger change on academia level by HCI researchers taking a more political position and stand up for operationalizing “hackability” with their collaboration partners in form of standards, governmental policies and educational textbooks. Based on Lawrence Lessig’s model of regulative forces in regard to individual actions their idea is to take initiative impacting the circumstances for making: “[I]f researchers want to support making, in addition to developing more functional, inexpensive, appropriable, hackable, usable (etc.) technologies, they should also support the construction of a legal, aesthetic, and socioeconomically viable infrastructure in which making can more fully flourish.” [29:22] One part of this could involve finding new business models that reward design and marketing of hackable systems.

Lawrence Lessig’s model of regulation

Deliberate Seams

As highlighted before in the discussion of the user and the maker as antonyms, Storni [32] promotes empowerment-in-use on basis of the politics of the seams. This means that the designer has to decide against hiding away hackable components and intentionally introduce access to these. If a device can be opened and taken apart, it is easier to modify. Interestingly, Storni argues for a novel role of participatory design in terms of how to find appropriate kinds of seams for specific target groups and how these should be made available for them. As I discussed in my blogpost on empathic participatory design it is important to bridge the “gulf in life-experience” if the designers don’t want to be trapped in the power imbalance between them and the “users”. And participatory design is definitely a good approach to achieve that – provided that participating is configured appropriately [25,35].

Storni mentioned Botanicalls as one example for design with seams.

Experience-centred DIY Empowerment

These approaches identified in the general discourse all seem promising. However, I personally see another alternative way of how to promote more (diverse) people becoming involved in making and DIY practices. Relating to my learnings on experience-centred design and to research highlighting feelings of self-efficacy being one of the main motivations for makers to engage in their DIY practices [4,12,14,27,33], first-hand experience of successful making could be key to establish long-term attachment to such practices. Marshall et al. [24] highlighted how making processes can provide an individual with experiences of control over the created artefact and increase their sense of competence, achievement and satisfaction. Making implies a lot of explorative learning-by-doing [19] while endurance and original reasoning during problem-solving is often rewarded with an increase in confidence and skills. Wang and Kaye [37] report how this effect can be even boosted when makers showcase, document and share their creations online and receive positive feedback. So I argue that such experiences of self-efficacy could be especially positive and meaningful for people who often feel reduced to passive users. Instead of having someone building something practical for them, they could actively gain new competences themselves and by doing so the view could be shifted away from disempowerment by design towards an experience of a new ability to modify or create things themselves.


In this blogpost I summarized how the discourse around the topic of making and DIY has met both euphoric and critical reception in HCI research. Framing it as a movement emphasises the potential to empower users and to turn them into makers. However, statistics and expert statements contradict the claim of democratisation and report that the reality of making is under control of some privileged pioneer groups. We can only talk of true empowerment if also other less privileged groups get actively involved. So far, HCI research hasn’t found a golden recipe for how to design for empowerment through making and a lot of more critical research will have to be done here. But taking a look on the intrinsic paradox of empowerment which implies a given power imbalance and comparing the discourse constructs of “users” and “makers” can provide hints how to approach the transformatory task. While other authors suggested critical showcasing, campaigning for change in regulative forces and designing with intentional seams, I would personally argue for experience-led DIY empowerment based on feeling of self-efficacy, which has not been explored yet to my knowledge.


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