Robert L. Read

@RobertLeeRead

How to Graduate from Maker to Public Inventor

The 7-Tet Tetrobot, a Public Invention

Many of us hear the song of the maker. As Dorothy Sayers has pointed out in the “Mind of the Maker”, making is a participation in, or at least a simulation of, the divine.

It has always been so, but it has never been easier. Today, we have maker spaces, Make magazine, and maker culture. We have 3D printers and laser cutters and CNC mills; computer-driven embroidery; a whole universe of open-source software. Even Minecraft is a medium for making. The Emmersonian self-reliant root of country folk and pioneers making almost everything in sight grew into the hobby electronics kits in the 1960s (that was one way to get a stereo back then) and finally flowered into the personal desktop laser cutter.

The modern Maker movement remains immature. The child-like wonder at making something simple, like your first pair of laser-cut pinewood Tardis earrings or your first 3D printed Cthulhu figurine, should be cherished. I still love it. But no parent wants their child to remain a child forever.

Growth as a maker occurs along many dimensions. As Freeman Dyson has pointed out, the universe is infinite in all dimensions. One can make projects more advanced along the dimension of difficulty; one can make more beautiful objects; one can make more useful objects. A major motivation for most makers is the satisfaction of having a friend admire their making. To admire my works, such as this essay, means more to me that that you like my hair or my voice; those things were gifted to me. Perhaps everything is, but the things I make are in a sense more truly mine than even my body. If you like something I make, it makes me feel important and appreciated in a small way.

But the dimension I am most interested in is helping others. This dimension exists in the Maker movement, but I would like to name it and strengthen it and make it more real. I call it Public Invention — invention in the public, for the public.

All Making progresses from scribbling to copying to composing to innovating to inventing. These terms are somewhat arbitrary, but I use the term “inventing” more or less like the US Patent Office does, even though Public Invention specifically eschews monopolies provided by patents. That is, an invention is something truly new that is useful. It is a high bar. You probably do not think you can be an inventor. You can, and I am here to help.

Anyone who can design and make a set of earrings can start to ask themselves: how could I use these skills to make something useful to others? The oceanic scope of the possibilities doesn’t make it seem easier. You could design a garden tool. Solar collector. A composter. A telescope. A model of your water shed. A prosthesis. Using literally just your mind and a laser cutter you could impact humans all over the world by contributing to science, medicine, gastronomy, agriculture, education. The mind boggles. But, the cute Cthulhu is easier; we must admit that. It is easier to make, and easier to appreciate. You are not likely to fail if you make earrings. To make a new kind of microscope, you may have to learn a great deal, and your friends may not appreciate it. The project may flop completely, which is the nature of invention. If success were guaranteed, it would hardly warrant the title “invention”.

Personally, I embrace failure. Without positing a means, I believe the more bad microscopes people attempt to build, the better the chance that someone, even someone else, will build a good one. This is ever more true if you publish your failures, which is one of the principles of Public Invention. To try to invent something in the public good, that can help people all over the world, is a large thing. To quote Pink Floyd, I ask you to ask yourself: would you rather have “a walk-on part in a war, or a lead role in a cage”?

The act of making yourself into a Public Inventor is not easy. “Public Inventing: 101” has not been written yet — perhaps you can help us write it. Fundamentally, you just have to start thinking about how to help other people with your creativity. But you also have to take more risks. You have to dream bigger. You have to try things that probably won’t work. You have to lean what people need. You may have to learn things that frighten you, like math. But imagine the reward: the personal satisfaction of participating in projects that potentially help every single fellow being on the planet.

And you are not alone. The Maker movement has done a great job creating communities. The Free-libre Open Source Software movement has blazed a trail in the realm of how to organize disparate people around creative, sometimes humanitarian, endeavors. Public Invention is tiny and new, but it has two senior invention coaches ready to help.

We have defined about 45 projects, some of which are just sketches of ideas, and some of which are well under way, in the categories of Agriculture, Art, Computation, Energy, Health, Machines, Other, and Science. We have described the skills needed and difficulty of these projects.

But, fundamentally, Public Invention is not about the organization, but the movement. If 1% of the creativity generated by the Maker movement were applied to Public Invention as a movement, the chance that humanity will survive will be much greater. You can be a Public Inventor just be calling yourself one; you don’t have to contact us — but we can help.

For the same reason, Public Invention is not about my inventions, or about your inventions, but about our inventions. Most makers have a dozen ideas for inventions that are just little sparks in the nether recesses of their minds. Fan these sparks and feed them; some of them will become flames. You can “give” these ideas to Public Invention — we would like to have a thousand so that would-be volunteers can more easily find something that resonates with them — so long as you agree to make them freely available to others. Or, create themselves yourself without us.

At least since Benjamin Franklin chose not to seek a patent on the Franklin stove, Public Invention has been a thing. But fifty years from now, there will be people who introduce themselves as Public Inventors at parties. There will be millions of people inventing directly for the free and unencumbered advancement of human wealth and science. You can be one of the first. <read.robert@gmail.com>

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