Review

Makers

by Cory Doctorow

The lumbering, all-but-antique companies Kodak and Duracell,
made useless through digital film and lithium ion batteries, are
purchased and combined by a young eccentric CEO who wants to
revolutionize capitalism and the meaning of American economic
activity. Suzanne Church, a comfortable tech journalist for a
California paper, is enlisted to chronicle the process while
watching her newspaper collapse beneath her. Two gear-heads in
Florida who spend their days making cars out of discarded dancing
Elmos for collectors become icons for a whole new breed of economic
activity.

MAKERS depicts the economic and social changes Cory Doctorow
believes are imminent. It’s a call to re-imagine the way
we’ve worked for hundreds of years and a piercing analysis of
the problems our new world will have to face. And while it may be
easy to write Doctorow off for what sometimes sounds like
unsustainable enthusiasm, this is as important a commentary on the
American economy as anything you’ll find in The
New York Times or The Economist.

Since MAKERS feels like a treatise in fiction’s clothing,
let’s just go through his argument. Viewing modern American
capitalism as an unsustainable mess of old business models
restraining the new, Doctorow expects that the next great economic
disaster of our time will come from our paradoxical realization
that the old ways of making money are dead while refusing to loosen
their stranglehold on our new activities. The only surety is that
surety is dead: the days of General Mills, General Motors and
Random House are over. America is filled with immense capital
locked behind the walls of corporations too slow and inefficient to
spend it wisely, and hard-working employees who used to think their
livelihoods were secure must be forced to recognize that their
life’s work may in fact never be honored --- their trust,
careers, and 401(k)s destroyed.

Once the walls of the corporate giants come down and all the
high-price, high-tech toys are let loose, American capital will
resemble a junkyard: available for re-use and re-tooling by anyone
smart and crazy enough to do so. Capitalism will exit the mahogany
boardroom of men with suits and enter the basements of nerdy
hackers everywhere. And the only impediment to progress will be the
lingering associations, ideals and laws of what old-form capitalism
should be.

These changes are embodied in Kodacell’s new money-making
venture: the New Work. Small teams of innovative creators around
the country are given an MBA-wielding executive and access to Kodak
and Duracell’s immense stock of capital with almost no
oversight or expense reports, to do with as they wish provided it
makes a profit. The products they produce are designed with the
insatiable American appetite in mind: the entire product line has a
nine-month period of decreasing profitability before competition
sends dozens of competing models into dollar stores. But
that’s okay; the nimble Kodacell teams can change at the drop
of a hat. (All this is made possible thanks to a 3-D printer that
is basically a tool for creatio ex nihilo so these tech
toys can skip the Chinese sweatshops, but let’s look past
that for now.)

But the New Work itself proves an unsustainable enterprise: the
projects change at a blinding pace, and as the entire economic
network moves entirely organically with no oversight, they lose
stability and the support of shareholders that made the whole
enterprise possible. And that’s just Part One. Later on, as
America has sunk into second-world status and the New Work movement
is all but forgotten, squatting is as frequent as renting and
what’s left of the country’s economic giants are being
brought to their knees. But the New Work’s heroes spring back
into action and decide to change the game once again.

Doctorow’s analysis is not without its flaws. It views
American capitalism in a bubble --- nowhere do competing countries
pose any threat to us. It has nothing to say (except, perhaps,
through thickly-veiled metaphor) about the content industries
across the web and traditional media: industries that sell
information rather than products. But this doesn’t make his
trenchant critique any less relevant: just what are we to
do with Kodak, Duracell, and all the other companies that
can’t change fast enough anymore? And when Wikipedia is
begging on every page for our donations and experiencing a crisis
of experienced editors dropping out everywhere, how will these new,
nimble teams that will emerge (and have emerged already --- you may
have heard of the more famous ones such as Google) negotiate the
inherent problems in their designs?

Like LITTLE BROTHER, his last work of fiction, MAKERS has
interesting enough characters and plot design, but they feel
subordinate to his passion to speak for his themes directly. Their
personal dramas either drive the plot forward or are completely
orthogonal to it, as if put there just to make them look human. And
they need to. There’s a bit of an Ayn Rand vein running
through these men and women, and even though they’re backed
up by actual fact and a general lack of infuriating arrogance,
their some-against-the-many individualist economic heroism makes
them just slightly ridiculous. But in the end it doesn’t
matter. MAKERS demands to be read, and its lessons demand to be
learned. And in a media environment where prophesying doom is in
vogue once again, messianic novels like this, with all the
trappings of their messiahs being human after all, look like
shining works of hope.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 6, 2011

Makers
by Cory Doctorow

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • ISBN-10: 0765312816
  • ISBN-13: 9780765312815