The Military-Maker Complex: DARPA Infiltrates the Hackerspace Movement

In a two part essay Fiacre O’Duinn explains why DARPA’s partnership with MAKE magazine to fund 1,000 makerlabs in U.S high schools is antithetical to the maker movement and wonders whether it’s a line in the sand that will divide the movement:

While the MENTOR program involves cooperation, this is done so as part of challenge competitions, in which teams compete against each other for cash prizes. This seems in stark contrast to how maker culture has developed to date. Why is competition necessary? If the goal is truly for education using the hacker/maker model, can learning and exploration not take place merely for pleasure, in a completely open environment, or must it be reduced to yet another lesson in the need to hoard and compete for resources and information?

Third, why has the field of study in these makerspaces narrowed only to STEM topics? What happened to the transdisiplinary focus of hacker/maker communities that make them so innovative? Where are the arts? Where are wearables, knitivism, DIY molecular gastronomy? Why do the challenges involve working on unmanned air vehicles or robots, projects that are of interest to DARPA for their military applications? Shouldn’t we encourage STEAM rather than STEM? Could it be that regardless of their educational potential, these topics have no possible military application? With such a narrow focus, one could ask which culture will win the day, maker or military?

Finally, why are the full details of the Make proposal and specifics of the agreement with DARPA not being made public? Because in dealing with the military, lack of transparency is simply a matter of course. This works well for the military but why is it necessary for a community project involving children? Why was a “Secret” clearance level needed to work on designing modules for the program, according to this job advertisement? This lack of transparency also leaves other questions unanswered. For example, as the program expands to over 1000 schools, will military personnel be brought in to teach? This last question brings me to issues of recruitment, STEM education and the military.

The biggest issue of all may be the use of the the MENTOR program as a military recruitment vehicle.

Make, DARPA and the line in the sand, #1

Make, DARPA and the line in the sand, #2

I’ve long opposed military recruitment programs in schools, but what might the benefits of such a program be? I’ve been thinking lately that in these times of austerity, and given the general difficulty in getting public funding for education and social programs in the U.S even when we’re not in a recession, tying social programs to hawkish programs like defense and law enforcement may be the only way to go.

In his “State of the World” in 2009, Bruce Sterling suggested taking a national defense position on climate change:

If I wanted to be politically effective, rather than visionary, I’d disguise myself as a right-wing Green, probably some kind of hunting-shooting NASCAR “conservationist,” and I’d infiltrate the Republicans this year. […]

So we publicly recognize the climate crisis: just as if we suddenly discovered it ourselves. And we don’t downplay the climate crisis: we OVERPLAY the crisis.

“Then we blame the crisis on foreigners. We’re not liberal weak sisters ‘negotiating Kyoto agreements.’ We’re assembling a Coalition of the Willing tp threaten polluters.

“We’re certainly not bowing the knee to the damn Chinese — they own our Treasury, unfortunately, but we completely change the terms of that debate. When the Chinese open a coal mine and threaten the world’s children with asthma, we will take out that threat with a cruise missile!

That’s our new negotiating position on the climate crisis: we’re the military, macho hard line.

Would it work? Would it be worth selling out the rest of your values for?

I don’t know, but also consider the sorry state of jobs in the country. On the one hand, Newt Gingrich’s moon base idea was justified as a defense measure, but it was widely seen as a proposal as a jobs program for NASA’s home state. Maybe a moon base was too wild an idea, but could something like sci-fi work? Remember, the interstate highway system in the U.S. was actually called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and was justified as a defense measure. If we want a jobs program to rebuild or crumbling infrastructure, it seems like we could do a lot worse than call it a homeland security program.

So given the sorry state of STEM education, and the expense of setting up hackerspaces and the absolutely dismal state of public libraries (which many suggest turning into hacker spaces), is it time to consider letting DARPA build hackerspaces for the kids, even if it means letting in military recruiters and having the kids focused on making weapons?

I can see the pragmatic benefit, but I still just can’t justify it. As Fiarce points out, the program is just too antithetical to the maker spirit. And although as many have pointed out DARPA has funded all sorts of research over the years, including the creation of the Internet, the MENTOR program will specifically include a competition for designing weaponized vehicles for military use. DARPA may do some good work too, but having kids design weapons for the military crosses a line for me.

So will it split the community? Someone with more knowledge of the history of the computer hacking movement and how the NSA and other defense agencies tried to hijack it might have more insight than me. But it seems that if the maker movement has any momentum of its own, then this shouldn’t be fatal to it. Those who want to collaborate openly and make things other than war planes, and those attracted to the militaristic elements of the DARPA program will go there. Hopefully the maker movement will be able to sustain both strands, much like the computer hacker movement managed to sustain an open source movement.

See also: 3 BIG questions (and lots of smaller ones) about DARPA & Make


  1. An argument against DHARPA projects that occurs on the internet is problematic.

    I can’t open a savings account or buy furniture at a sushi restaurant and that doesn’t mean the restaurant is broken or evil. DHARPA is interested in military things – that’s what it does and there’s no sense in expecting otherwise. MAKE Magazine is (among other things) a for-profit project. Either one being in mandatory public schools can be touchy, but keeping things out of schools is usually worse. I’m glad things I don’t like are in schools for young people to make choices about. Once I was a young person in school, making choices, and I turned out okay. O’Duinn did too. “Learn less” is not a goal I like to hear advocated. Years ago a friend pointed out that the generation that won the civil rights movement in the USA was the generation that (1) included those who were part of an integrated army that (2) learned to handle heavy weaponry and conduct military campaigns. Asking nicely, with both parties understanding that ‘asking nicely’ is one of several options, can sometimes work wonders. It could be remarkable good things will come out of higher tech (including military tech) getting into lower income schools.

    I don’t think there is a movement or community of makers. Having a name for something doesn’t make it real, and having an interest doesn’t put me in touch with or alliance with others who share it. My being left handed doesn’t make me part of the left handed community.

    I’d say O’Duinn’s description of maker excludes Survival Research Laboratories and survivalists because they’re not esty-y enough, but they’re about as DIY as it gets. In the case of survivalists, some have gone as close to 24/7/365 100% DIY as they could for generations. It’s not knit or robot drone, it’s knit and robot drone.

    I regret nearly every time I shut out a person or idea or skill or experience because it didn’t fit in my sense of how things should be. If a person doesn’t want to learn a skill set because that skill set is used in war, then they better keep fingers crossed that they don’t find themselves in a war (or natural disaster) and that the people who already have those skill sets only use them for the nicest of nice, nice purposes, forever. Absence-only education, be it for sex or violence, doesn’t seem to work.

    Does O’Duinn beg the question, equating maker with nice, in the use of over a dozen rhetorical questions in two paragraphs? Each one making a claim but offering no support in evidence or argument? Assuming agreement in the reader instead of working for it? Is this unconvincing writing? Can I point this out because I too have overused rhetorical questions in my writing? Was it possible to stop doing so? Is the answer yes?

  2. We need to:
    Build a high-speed rail system. Our interstate system is almost at capacity, so how will we deliver food & goods into the cities in 10 to 15 years?
    Build dams at the top of the Missippi River to stop flash flooding, similar to the dam on the Thames.
    Rebuild levies in Louisiana & steel mills in Alabama – we rely on foreign subsidized steel.
    Build gins & mills for bamboo textilesow higher-yield bamboo.

    The Defense Production Act of 1950 allows the President and the National Security Council to cut a check through the Department of Commerce for programs that are needed for national security and defense. No other approvals are necessary. It’s been used mostly for military efforts, but the way the act has been amended it can be applied to rebuilding the infrastructure of the US.

    Here’s an excerpt from the GAO publication of June 26, 2008 ‘GAO-08-854 Defense Production Act’ –
    “Congress has expanded DPA’s coverage to include crises resulting from natural disasters or ‘man-caused events’ not amounting to an armed attack on the United States. The definition of ‘national defense’ in the Act has been amended to include emergency preparedness activities conducted pursuant to Title VI of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act)3 and critical infrastructure”

  3. Trevor, there most definitely is a community and movement of hacker /makerspaces. There’s no overarching organization or leader (though Mitch Altman comes close for me), but that doesn’t meanthere’s no cohesive social group.

    We organize conferences together, we share ideas, we learn together, we send cupcakes across the planet to each other. But the most important way in which the community exists is that I can go to any country on earth that has a hackerspace, wnd know where to find my people. It is a subculture. The lack of pope or creed doesn’t diminish that.

    And no, survivalists aren’t part of this. On the one hand, this is because I don’t see any such groups self identifying as hacker/makerspaces, and on the other hand because they won’t get our jokes. They are another separate subculture.

    You know, it used to be that everything was a product of slavery. Doesn’t mean we didn’t work to change that. Just because so many things started in the military doesn’t mean we should let them propagandize to our children.

  4. Adina: thank you for your reply.

    I think we agree that a community can exist without a leader. The community that seems the most real and important to me, my neighborhood and friends I can walk to see, has no leader or leaders.

    You say makers have no creed, but survivalists aren’t makers because they wouldn’t understand your jokes. This seems in contradiction. I do have a creed: doing it yourself is more fun, cheaper, more informative, sometimes more safe, sometimes the only option, sometimes necessary. If I see information on making soap in MAKE Magazine or in a Kurt Saxon book, either are valued.

    I encourage you (and everyone) to read Saxon’s books and watch his videos. Ignore the parts you don’t like (predictions of race wars in the USA in the 1990s, perhaps). Then you get to the good stuff. I learned how to grow sprouts from Saxon, and how to cook food in a thermos, and more. Much of what you’ll find at etsy and in MAKE was in his books, decades earlier. Yes, his books have military skills in them, but hey have much more about generally doing things yourself. For me DIY is where I find it. Military manuals included. They know a thing or two about first aid.

    That work to end slavery in the USA you mentioned occurred in the form of a war. I wish it could have been done with debates instead, or that slavery never happened, and I’m sure you agree. War ended slavery in the USA. Civil rights workers with the confidence (and arms and training) of integrated military service made their accomplishments.

    Excluding survivalists from being makers is an example of why the community doesn’t exist. If it did, there would be fertile co-education (and hot debate). Keeping them separate on either side is keeping things pure at the cost of making things. I’d rather have skills I never use than need them once and not have them. Information has no contagion properties: if I learned sprout growing from a former member of the American Nazi Party, those sprouts are still just sprouts.

  5. “I’d say O’Duinn’s description of maker excludes Survival Research Laboratories and survivalists because they’re not esty-y enough.”

    I can’t speak for Fiarce, but my interpretation of what he’s saying is the opposite – the etsy set is being excluded from the concept of maker put forth by the MENTOR program which is STEM-centric. Many survivalist skills would also be excluded. It’s not clear to me whether the makerlabs funded by MENTOR would or could include other types of activities not funded by MENTOR.

    “Excluding survivalists from being makers is an example of why the community doesn’t exist.”

    I don’t understand how this follows. There are maker events both large (maker faires) and small (meetups), makerlabs and hackerspaces, magazines, websites, etc. I won’t say that makers have no creed. I’m not part of the maker community and I’m not sure how much cross-pollination there is with other communities, like survivalists, but even if there is no cross-communication that doesn’t mean that the maker community doesn’t exist.

    “I regret nearly every time I shut out a person or idea or skill or experience because it didn’t fit in my sense of how things should be. If a person doesn’t want to learn a skill set because that skill set is used in war, then they better keep fingers crossed that they don’t find themselves in a war (or natural disaster) and that the people who already have those skill sets only use them for the nicest of nice, nice purposes, forever. Absence-only education, be it for sex or violence, doesn’t seem to work.”

    This is a fair point, but it only extends so far. The generation that fought for civil rights didn’t receive their military training in high school – they received it as adults. Some volunteered for the military, some were conscripted. There seems to be no shortage of opportunities for high school students to learn about the military and even, via the Junior ROTC program, participate in the military at a very young age. Do high schools really need another military program?

    If DARPA just wanted to give money to schools for STEM education. DARPA et al gets a generation of students versed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from which to recruit when they come of age. Schools get funding for more hands on learning. Everyone wins. Students can choose to apply the skills in the way they see fit.

    But the problem, at least as I see it, is that DARPA is asking students to participate in the design of weapons. There’s a big difference between teaching someone a skill and asking them to apply it. Application is of course the best way to learn, which is the whole point of these labs in the first place. But is a graduating population that know the basics of science and engineering (learned through non-military applications) not an adequate return on investment for DARPA?

    Anyway, a big part of what I think bothered Fiarce and other people who have been involved in this community is the secrecy around the program. I suppose much of the details will be public soon enough, but by then it will be too late to object. In the meantime the staff at MAKE is being tight lipped (perhaps they are required to be) and hostile to anyone asking questions about the program (Tim O’Reilly called one critic a “nutjob” –!/timoreilly/status/161531223964000257)

    The good news is, as far as I can tell, no student will be compelled to participate in the MENTOR program any more than they are compelled to participate in the Junior ROTC. I think the greater concern though is that students won’t be able to get an adequate high school level STEM education without participating in MENTOR.

  6. Klint: thank you for your reply.

    “Do high schools really need another military program?” In my six years working in public school I saw only one instance of military presence on school property: a voluntary recruiting table in some high schools after the repeal of DADT. Otherwise there was a consistent anti-military tone in class work, among students and among staff. My experience may not be representational, but ‘one more’ would equal one by what I’ve seen.

    I think they used different vocabulary but after Sputnik the USA supersaturated schools with STEM with no strings attached, as you describe.

    A student who learns weapon design walks out the door with that skill, able to defend their interests from governments grown tyrannical.

    “The good news is, as far as I can tell, no student will be compelled to participate in the MENTOR program any more than they are compelled to participate in the Junior ROTC. I think the greater concern though is that students won’t be able to get an adequate high school level STEM education without participating in MENTOR.”

    The good news is indeed good news. I think ROTC was required of young men only a few generations ago. The concern is valid. The collapse of the education bubble started in colleges and is continuing all the way down. Many concerns. A population that can defend itself isn’t a bad idea in the face of economic troubles.

    • “A student who learns weapon design walks out the door with that skill, able to defend their interests from governments grown tyrannical.”

      Again, learning and applying are two different things. Getting basic military training is different from going to war and fighting and dying. Learning the principles of weapon design is different from designing weapons that may actually be used by the military. My understanding of the Adaptive Vehicle Make program is that students will be doing the latter. It’s not clear whether participation in programs like Adaptive Vehicle Make will be required for the MENTOR program.

  7. I appreciate everyone’s comments on this topic. I see the subcultures we’re creating in our hackerspaces and makerspaces as the ‘primordial soup’ of a new way of learning, educating, building community, and working–we’re only in the beginning steps of an evolution. If we can put more STEM-ed in these spaces, it’s all to the good, as long as we can also help foster some Art and community development learning at the same time.

    The pure STEM emphasis will get us part of the way there, but not all the way. And if DARPA wants to put some gas in the tank (and if MAKE spreads it around) the activities can benefit. Having worked to support the growth of these places for years I can say the thing they need most is no-strings-attached rocket fuel.

    I think no matter what kinds of closed-source things any group might want to do with this nascent movement, the fundamental open-sourceness and subcultural flexibilities will keep them safe from total corruption and harm. We’ll adapt all the ideas we get into more open versions of themselves, because we know that’s the way forward.

  8. I’m very inspired to see this discussion on here, and have already learned much from it. I’ll try not to be redundant, and only to expand a bit on some thoughts. I was the author of the post linked above to the “3 questions about Mentor,” as well as several others on this program, and I’m one third of Demilit, those who Tim O’Reilly labeled “nut jobs.”

    There are larger issues that need to be raised. The program indeed remains shrouded in mystery. But if we knew more about the program, would we start to be okay with it? From my POV, if we’re funding schools in the US with military dollars, that’s money which is connected through several tendrils to the waging of warfare both inside and outside the US.

    Instead of looking for the silver lining, why don’t we try work collaboratively to piece together the ways in which technology is constantly deployed by the military for rooting out whistleblowers, and criminalizing them, to name but one example; the ways in which DARPA’s investments lead to results that I would argue are often antithetical to the hacker and maker ethos… The leveling of entire towns in Afghanistan, for example. Meanwhile, Dale Dougherty is posting about how cities should enable more bottom-up DIY culture…

    Technology, in the context of MENTOR, is not merely a neutral STEM lesson. It is a cultural force that promotes competition, as Fiacre pointed out, as well as repression. As we’ve pointed out before, a similar STEM program in Iran—hypothetical scenario—would raise howls of “indoctrination” in the US MSM. Instead we have the smiling faces of Dale Dougherty and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta talking about DARPA in schools as if it were quite natural.

    I keep reading pragmatic arguments against MENTOR, and there certainly are some good ones… For example, does the maker community feel comfortable with the prying eyes of DARPA at Maker Faire? (Cus that’s also part of this grant…) But beyond the pragmatic, we need to look deeper at issues of technology in our culture—who and what it is for. No matter what Tim O’Reilly says, DARPA is not a “force for good” in the world…

  9. P.S. While we can have an extensive discussion about MENTOR, it’s also worth pointing out that the Simpsons foresaw this program back in 1997. This tells you a lot about the ultimate goals of the Pentagon…

    “The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots. Thank you.”

  10. Hereare some of the discussions that restart periodically on the hackerspaces mailing list over DARPA trying to get a foothold in the community. The hackerspace community is most certainly aware of this, and the arguments are even worse than vi-vs-EMACS.

  11. @The Doctor, EMACS as in “a class of text editors, usually characterized by their extensibility.”

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