Mitch Altman sent us this report about his trip to Maker Faire Africa, in Cairo, where he was on a mission to do what he does best — inspire hackerspaces. -Gareth
Three-Day Hackerspace at Maker Faire Africa
I got back from Cairo Friday, Oct 14th. I was exhausted in the aftermath, but am definitely still glowing from the experience. The main purpose for this trip was to set up a three-day hackerspace at Maker Faire Africa, which was held in Cairo this year. As you can imagine, it was an exciting time to be in Egypt! Lots of high hopes in the wake of the “Freedom Revolution.” But, lots of attempts by a still-ruling-military to divide-and-rule, too.
We used our trip as an opportunity to help people set up hackerspaces in Egypt, with the hope of them spreading throughout Africa. The trip was the idea of Bilal Ghalib, who, becoming disheartened after a talk he gave at the Whitehouse earlier this year decided to take matters into his own hands (rather than wait for grant money from the US government) and share his irresistible enthusiasm for hackerspaces and entrepreneurship directly with the people of Egypt. He formed GEMSI (Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative) to make this a reality. He easily recruited me to add my extensive experience of helping hackerspaces around the world.
GEMSI logo (courtesy of Lee Devito)
Maker Faire Africa was kind and eager to give us some seed money to further our project, and we funded the remainder by generous donations through a Kickstarter campaign. One hundred and eighty six people (many of whom we’ve never met!) collectively gave us $8,169 so that we could spread the joys and hopes of the international hackerspace movement! We did a lot with this money.
We were met at the airport by the two main founders of the Cairo Hackerspace, Tarek and Deyaa. They spent the next two days (without much sleep) assembling the brand new Thing-O-Matic 3D printer kit that MakerBot Industries had magnanimously sent over with me.
Tarek and Dayee making their MakerBot
The three-day hackerspace at Maker Faire Africa was incredible. The main idea of setting this up was to show people how cool and rewarding it is to be part of a supportive community where people can explore and do what they love. And the energy was so high. I taught about 300 people how to solder (on my own, without much sleep) at an ongoing, three-day-long workshop, with kits and soldering irons bought with money donated through our Kickstarter campaign.
Manal quit her job as an engineer and is now making and selling her own bags and clothing. And teaching others to do the same. Which is what she did at the three-day hackerspace.
Manal in the middle (with light blue scarf) surrounded by people she taught to paint scarfs
The Cairo Hackerspace finished getting their Thing-O-Matic going on the last day of the Faire, and it was a huge success! Here we see Cairo Hackerspace’s youngest member, Marwan, blowing a whistle he printed.
Marwan printing a whistle on the Thing-O-Matic, donated by MakerBot Industries
Marwan blowing the whistle he printed
Cairo Hackerspace also put together an Egg-Bot, donated by Evil Mad Scientist Labs. Printing eggs was way popular at our hackerspace (the people in our hotel must have wondered why we liked hard boiled eggs so much for breakfast).
Eggs printed with the Egg-Bot printer, donated by Evil Mad Scientist Labs
Manal printed some eggs on the Egg-Bot, and also hand painted them
The three-day hackerspace was all the rage, and fun for all. But there were also plenty of other great exhibits at the Faire, including music by popular local bands, art, lots of LEDs, solar energy exhibits, parking solutions for crowded cities, innovative electronics, and fun ways of teaching science to kids.
As a result of the Faire, Cairo Hackerspace now has a large number of enthusiastic people who will help contribute to Egypt’s first hackerspace. And several people now have keys to Noisebridge for when they visit San Francisco.
Noisebridge keys for everyone
Before Maker Faire Africa, there were many people making things happen in Egypt. There was at least one co-working space in Cairo, at least one startup incubator in Alexandria, and at least one hackerspace starting in Cairo. There was also a Startup Weekend in Alexandria and in Cairo. But people didn’t all know about each other. But they do now!
We organized four Hackerspace Meetups, two in Cairo, one in Alexandria, and one in El Minya. All it took was a spark to get folks together, and they are off and running. People are psyched about starting and joining hackerspaces and finding ways of making a living beyond the predetermined paths that seem to be laid out for them by society. There are now hackerspaces starting in four cities in Egypt, and perhaps more co-working spaces and incubators. And the first Open Source Day was put together during our stay. As people find ways of making a living through these support networks, local economy will continue to grow, and many people will benefit.
Hackerspace Meetup in El Minya
Hackerspace Meetup in Cairo
I’d like to point out that there is a long tradition of hacking in Egypt. People take what is available, and do a lot with it! This manifests itself in the many computer malls and street stalls around town, where people fix old motherboards, sound cards, monitors, printers. And in street stalls there are people with soldering irons and JTAG programmers who can fix any broken cell (or landline) phone.
Motherboard fix-it stall in a computer mall in Cairo
Laptop fix-it stall in a computer mall in Cairo
Landline fix-it stall on the streets of Cairo – they told me they’ve been doing this since 1969
Cell phone fix-it stall on the streets of Cairo
A word about food in Egypt. It’s good! And cheap! Even as a vegetarian, I was able to get a dish I’d never heard of before, but have totally fallen in love with: kashary! It’s a layer of rice, a layer of macaroni noodles, a layer of lentils, and some caramelized onions on top. Then add tomato garlic sauce, hot sauce, and some garlic lemon sauce, and you have a huge, scrumptious meal that you can find everywhere, for only 50¢!
Kashary – it tastes even better than it looks
Our Two-week schedule was quite hectic (and without much sleep), but we did manage to get in one day of site-seeing .
Mitch and Bilal in Giza. Mitch p0wns pyramid.
All of my photos of the Cairo trip on my Flickr feed.
Among MAKE readers, we’re nearly unanimous in agreeing that the rise of digital fabrication is a complete game-changer for crafters, hackers, and tinkerers of all stripes. Laser cutters, CNC mills, and 3D printers have altered the way we think about design, and raised the bar for quality and precision in our work. I’m a passionate adopter of these technologies, but am also wary of the cultural shift they represent as they become more ubiquitous.
I was talking to a friend about this recently, voicing my disappointment in so many talented colleagues of ours who stay strictly within software, afraid to pick up tools with which they could alternatively realize their creations. His response surprised me: “I’m more comfortable with a Wacom and Photoshop. I grew up with computers and I can’t imagine creating with anything else. I think digital fabrication is the future and I want to be a part of it.”
What are the dangers in relying only on digital fabrication? What are its limitations? It’s certainly another powerful tool in the toolbox, but then something that’s laser cut or 3d printed has a certain type of look (industry shorthand to this effect has already developed amongst design firms.) Also, technologies like this are still expensive and can’t be easily used “on the job”. For example, you can make an enclosure for your Arduino project, but I challenge you to rapid prototype an entire house. I’m not a Luddite, but there’s something seemingly dangerous in not learning basic manual craftsmanship. Working with materials physically awakens certain creative techniques that can’t exist with a Wacom and stylus. The comparison is almost one of analog versus digital.
Digital fabrication relies on discrete iterations. It’s made or it’s not made, it’s changed or it’s not changed. Program the machine, wait for the prototype to come out. You don’t like it? Throw it away and start again. Desgning something with digifab from start to finish without touching a standard tool to it is certainly possible but this isn’t true in every case. Part of the danger in this assumption is in the need for further assemblage. My friend may have the CAD skills to design something like Makerbot’s turtle shell racer, but he’d still need the knowledge to put those parts together into a cohesive product once they’re printed.
Compare this to a wood bowl you’re turning on a lathe. You control the exact amount of pressure and time that you press your chisel to it. You even choose the chisel and you sharpen it yourself. How the grain of the wood responds to your touch informs your design decisions in real time. It’s a more intimate interaction, and informs the final product.
On the other hand, being a bit of a wood butcher myself, I know it takes hours and hours, years even, of practice to make products by hand that also look professional. Did I do myself a disservice by spending so much time with drills and saws, and not enough with Rhino and Illustrator? Woodworker and designer Ben Light says, “The old and new can live together quite beautifully. Skill, technique, and craftsmanship will always rise to the top whether it be digital or analog, but a comfort level or proficiency in one area shouldn’t scare you off of the other.”
Should we forge ahead with our Makerbots and Zings, never looking back? Or should we stick with old reliable tools, lest we become too advanced and lose our way in light of some catastrophe, like the ancient Minoans or users of the Template Construct in Warhammer 40000? I’m hedging myself and will remain pleased with a mix of both, but I’m more curious about what you think. Let’s hear it in the comments.