Hey @pomeranian99, since I'm writing stream-of-consciousness stuff about China and Maker-y things, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? "Appliances."
All new cultures take place in the context of some existing one, and Make-ing culture forms itself in relation to a society's existing practices of making, so another thing you might want to check out when you're here is the comparative difference between the cultural place of appliances between There and Here.
If you want a two-slide comparison, take a look at the shopping possibilities as presented in in-flight magazines. These are pure projection -- you're not going to actually get off the plane with a new set of knitted golfclub covers or whatever, so in-flight shopping is a source of delayed gratification, daydreaming with a fulfillment department.
What do US in-flight catalogs ask people to dream about? A wireless mouse that looks like a racecar. An outdoor chaise lounge, for dogs. A mirrored door-mounted jewelry armoire. A Tikker Happiness Life Countdown watch (which, I don't even.) A spatula with an LED flashlight in the handle. A Tetris lamp. This is shopping for a culture whose middle class thinks "Hmm, I could use a pool decoration in the shape of a frog doing yoga, and maybe some rechargeable heated slippers."
China's daydreams are different. Here's what's on sale in Chinese in-flight shopping magazines: Rice cooker. Baby thermometer. Skillet. Vacuum Cleaner. Iron. Paring knife. Umbrella. It's like Sears and Roebuck with QR codes. This is shopping for a culture whose middle class thinks "Hmm, I think I need a set of spoons, and maybe a toaster oven." (BTW, I totes swiped you an in-flight catalog from China Eastern. I'll give it to you when you get here.)
A lot of coverage of China focusses on the extremes, and god knows the extremes are pretty extreme here. I work at the eastern edge of Lujiazui, home of any Shanghainese skyscraper you've ever seen photographed and ground zero of Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada. New money doesn't begin to describe LJZ; the shoppers here make the denizens of the Short Hills mall look like landed gentry.
At the other extreme, when Kevin Kelly travels inland, he says he orients himself to the degree of technological sophistication for any given place by looking at how much metal is around. There are still places where there are a few metal tools, but the buildings are constructed entirely from either stone or wood. Shanghai is Teh Future, landscape-scale buildings that double as televisions, people commuting to work on motorized unicycles. Meanwhile, Shanxi Province is Appalachia with less meth and more noodles.
So rich and poor are the natural stories for Westerners, but the core story of China since Deng Xiaoping took over (and saved the country, srsly) is really the story of the middle class. When we moved here, we settled in an apartment complex called Greentown, in the newer part of Shanghai east of the river. Many of the young parents we see out in Greentown are the first generation in their families to go to college, but many of them are also the first generation to own a non-stick pan, or buy their kid a bike with training wheels.
It's all happening at once here, is what I'm trying to say. Income and urbanization and professionalization and education and creature comforts and mobile phones and social media, all that stuff that was spread out, in the US (Canada, whatevs), between the mid-1940s and now, are all landing in the big Chinese cities at the same time. It's like Xzibit swung by coastal China to say "Yo dawg, I heard you like the 20th century...," people getting college degrees and washing machines in the same year.
And so anyway where was I, oh yeah, what this means for Maker stuff (longest Ello tangent evar! New record! I win, I win!) here's the thing: Maker-y-ness in the US comes as part of a complex of oppositional attitudes towards mainstream culture that is more about social signaling than unvarnished commitment to DIY.
If I gave you a list of cultural signifiers -- 3D Printer vs. Harley-Davidson motorcycle, painted leather jacket vs. eyebrow-piercing, moonshine vs. rye-based cocktails with toasted rosemary -- you'd have no trouble sorting those into Maker vs. Biker, even though Harleys, painted jackets and moonshine are way more DIY than RepRap, eyebrow piercings and fancy drinks.
Make-ing isn't really about making tout court, in other words. It comes with the frisson of D-ing I. Y. in ways that aren't about necessity. Cocktail culture is hipper than moonshine, because the people who drink corn squeezings are too poor to afford Bulleit by the glass. (By the way, artisanal corn squeezings. I'm calling it.)
Similarly, anyone who prints, say, a new bathroom wall hanger will print it in day-glo orange or whatever not-found-in-nature color Makerbot is pimping now, because god forbid anyone go into the bathroom and not notice that the people who live there print their own bathroom fixtures, how cool is that? #socool
Meanwhile, back in China, nothing in the Maker movement is taking place against a background of nostalgia, because "The time when this country knew how to make things" is just a synonym for "This morning", and homemade stuff here is generally homemade because #1, its cheaper or #2, because the thing you need doesn't exist. Make-ing is way less Veblenite here than it is back in Merka.
This is a big deal, because this country is cheap, my god is it cheap. Right when I got here I went by my local cybermart to get a Xiaomi 4, then new and the hottest thing going. I'd gone there straight from a meeting so I even looked like a businessman instead of a nerd, and I roll up to a second-floor booth selling Xiaomis and get the attention of the lady behind the counter.
Now I am whiter than anyone I know except you, I speak pidgin Mandarin with a midwestern accent, and I am in a suit -- the only way I'd have looked like an easier mark is if 100¥ notes were spilling out of my pockets like in cartoons. And then I announce that I want to buy the priciest phone any Chinese company has ever produced. And the lady behind the counter looks at me and says, in English, "You don't buy that phone. Too expensive."
It's cheap like that, like even people paid to take your money are offended if they think something costs too much. I had to convince a sales person that I wanted to pay for something that cost more than the thing she thought I should buy. Tell me the next time that happens to you at Best Buy.
So much design here is about cost-saving. Down at Baoshan Lu, our giant electronics market, quadcopters don't come with AA batteries and routers don't come with Cat5 cables, because that would raise the cost by a few yuan, which is exactly what would drive the average shopper to the next booth over. The cheaper a phone is, the likelier it is to be dual-SIM, so you can save money network-hopping. And every type of video and audio and network switcher and splitter and converter is on sale because people are building and modifying and retrofitting as they go. People don't throw the old stuff out, they just find a new place for it to work.
And once you see this pattern, you see it everywhere. Our supermarkets here still mostly sell ingredients, rather than the 'meals ready to eat' US grocery stores have latterly specialized in. (omg Lunchables™, a sign of the End Times, as if more were needed.) Here, if you want spare ribs with black beans, you get the spare ribs first, the butcher hacking off and chopping up a few ribs with a cleaver the size of your laptop screen, and then you go to the aisle where the (dried) black beans are. Time isn't money in ordinary Chinese circumstances; labor is still a highly available substitute for material expense, in the kitchen as everywhere.
The part of shanzai culture that says "Hey, here's a pleather purse branded YSL" is prevalent but boring. But away from the Fauxlex watches and Svmsmvg phones, brand still means something here. Overt signs of quality have been hard to come by until recently (high-end milk advertises its arrival via a 4° cold chain right there on the carton) and the best local appliance company, Haier, gave itself that name so that people would associate it with Germany, even though their HQ is in Qingdao.
So when you are looking at Makers etc, think about Haier, and about a culture where brand still means what it did in the US a century ago; a company can do well by making moderately more expensive but considerably more reliable vacuum cleaners, as long as it can communicate that fact to people who need vacuum cleaners.
The North American Maker movement unfolds in a world that takes it for granted that even cheap appliances will Just Work -- we've enjoyed that assurance since our parent's adulthoods -- and thinks of self-made as a spiritual practice. And there's certainly some of that here, but less, while there's much more looking for places where new skills can fill existing, practical niches. China is a country where enough people who fly may also need a new vacuum cleaner that their SkyMall actually sells useful appliances.
If I had to bet on who was going to make a prototype product that fills some real human need but relies on, say, 3D printing and the Arduino Yun, I'd place my bet on Chengdu over Mountain View, because make-ing here is linked on a spectrum to ordinary dreams, like owning reliable appliances, rather than being separated by an aggressively policed gulf between practical and impractical forms of making, as in the US.