Musings on Makerspaces as Jazz

Musings on Makerspaces as Jazz

These are the people that proudly call themselves ‘Hackers’ not as the term is now abused by journalists to mean a computer criminal, but in its true and original sense of an enthusiast, an artist, a tinkerer, a problem solver, an expert.

Raymond (1999:12)

I am curious about Makerspaces, what they are and why they are. As I understand a Makerspace, it is a physical place where people engage with digital technologies and computing hardware in spontaneous experimentation, tinkering and idea prototyping.

A Makerspace is a place where one couples technology with imagination, doing it yourself (DIY) and learning supposedly free of institutional constraints but still participating and benefiting from a knowledge commons committed to progress (Powell 2016).

What makes Makerspace interesting is not that it is in itself an original concept. There are plenty of historical parallels where hobbyists have gathered and engaged actively with technological designs at different levels (Atkinson 2006). However, a Makerspace is also a dynamic digital space which increases tremendously the range, scope and depth of what takes place there and its potential reach and audience.  

There is often a platitude to what is said and written about the digital space often entrenched in vivid and forceful narrative about how transformative digital is. Of course, the Internet is one manifestation of this digital transformation theatrically described as a ‘magic cauldron of ideas’ (Raymond, 1999) and the ‘fabric of our lives’ (Castells 2001). It is worth considering briefly what it is that makes digital so transformative.

  1. Computing has become cheap, networked and ubiquitous. Individuals probably already own the capital resources needed for production and they can deploy those resources whichever way they want.
  2. Digital (in principle) does not have built in parameters of what is possible. We perceive digital to have infinite potential.
  3. Digital connects people. The giants of digital (Facebook, Google, Twitter) in tangible terms produce hardly anything at all in the sense of manufacturing. They facilitate social interaction and they have created a social and economic system of sentiment, meaning and exchange.
  4. Information and knowledge (through digital means) is more or less open, free and available to anyone (one may however require some skills  and social leverage to unlock a digital knowledge domain)
  5. Information is non-rival and scalable. It means an infinite number of recipients can consume the information without it losing any of its value. Indeed, each recipient may interpret the information differently and therefore even what one might consider straightforward information may have significant value when coupled with human creativity and imagination.
  6. Digital has certain attributes that transcend boundaries of interests in a way that (concrete) artefacts usually do not.

The real transformation (to me) is not the technology but in connectivity and the way social actors pursue (and share) their eclectic interests. Digital pulls the blanket off those interests for better or for worse.  It tolerates tinkering with immediate effect in usually easily retractable steps. The Makerspace (to me) is a space of networked sociality (Wittel 2001) and heterogeneous innovation practices (Guthrie 2014) with a common denominator, computing.

The Makerspace as Jazz

We often think of a Makerspace as a commons where members put the collective interest before their own (Benkler 2006) but it is also possible to think of a Makerspace as a band of eclectic individuals each with creative interests and agendas but which require inputs from others. In other words, the Makerspace is the means by which to test one's ideas, engage in improvisation and to demonstrate one's competence.

Jazz is also about spontaneous improvisation (musical hacking) in a social context. In a Jazz band each member must perform in accordance with a set of rules and practices and a shared awareness of what the band is about (Bastien and Todd 1988)

Seven properties that characterise improvisation in a Jazz band (Barrett 1998:606) could also be said to apply to Makerspace.

  1. Provocative competence as deliberate effort to interrupt habit.
  2. Embracing errors as a source of learning
  3. Shared orientation toward minimum structures that allow maximum flexibility
  4. Distributed task and continual negotiation and dialog toward dynamic synchronisation
  5. Reflective learning
  6. Hanging out with other Jazz musicians
  7. Taking turns soloing and supporting

Jazz musicians look to create new (musical) material without having a clear prescription for what that material will eventually look like. Without the collaboration of other Jazz musicians that material cannot be created (of course these Jazz musicians do not have digital substitutes)! Therefore a Jazz band can be said to constitute the means or test bed for the individual to try out different musical ideas and to demonstrate musical competence. In return the Jazz musician must support other members in their endeavours.

Jazz is flexible and spontaneous but it is subject to complex underlying rules of rhythm and keys.

When errors occur, the entire band learns. The music dissolves and members try to run through the sequences that lead to the error.

Hanging out is an important part of being a Jazz musician. Associating with a certain professional class contributes to ones identity as a legitimate member of that class and unlocks knowledge domains.

The very best Jazz bands are often spontaneous gatherings of talented individuals whose brief collaboration creates outstanding pieces.

A Makerspace might run on very similar lines.

The other thing of course is that Jazz is a form of expression much like what happens in Makerspaces.

Comments welcome!


Atkinson, P., 2006. Do it yourself: Democracy and design. Journal of Design History, 19(1), pp.1–10.

Barrett, F. J., 1998. Coda - Creativity and improvisation in Jazz and organizations: Implications for organizational learning. Organizations Science, 9(5), pp.605–622.

Bastien, D. T., Todd, H.J., 1988. Jass as a process of organisational innovatio. Communicaition Research, 15(5), pp.582–602.

Benkler, Y., 2006. The Wealth of Networks., New Haven: Yale University Press.

Castells, M., 2001. The Internet Galaxy., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guthrie, C., 2014. Empowering the hacker in us: a comparison of fab lab and hackerspace ecosystems. 5th LAEMOS (Latin American and European Meeting on Organization Studies), (April), pp.1–18.

Powell, A., 2016. Hacking in the public interest: Authority, legitimacy, means, and ends. New Media & Society. pp.1-17

Raymond, E. S., 1999. The Cathedral and the Bazaar., Beijing: O´Reilly.

Wittel, A., 2001. Toward a network sociality. Theory, Culture & Society, 18(6), pp.51–76.