4S Preview: Digital fabrication. Whose industrial revolution?
Johan Söderberg, Maxigas, Adrian Smith
03 August, 2016
Illustration by Elizabeth Slote
As part of our 4S/EASST Preview series, today Backchannels is featuring Johan Söderberg, Maxigas, and Adrian Smith and their paper on democratizing the tools of scientific-technical expertise, which you can catch in person in Barcelona next month.
The last wave of making, makerspaces and open hardware production have been hailed as a new industrial revolution, promising a democratization of the means of production and to set straight all the wrongs of the previous industrial revolutions. How many times before have we not heard that tune being sung to us? It is familiar to anyone that has been following information technology discourses for a few years, so familiar, in fact, that even the critiques against it are getting tedious. Time to start afresh and ask new questions about the hype surrounding making: in what ways are the maker scene constituted by hype, why do we so badly want to be deceived by it, and what potentialities for emancipation lay hidden in this latest wave of talked-up products, not in spite of the hype, but because of it? The volunteers of "peer production" are swept aside and replaced with the microworkers of the "sharing economy", the second mounting on top of the rubbles of the former. STS scholars are thus invited to reopen almost-forgotten theoretical debates over technology, automation and deskilling. We are compelled to reconnect our empirical findings from the brand new world of digits with the rusty, run-down history of industrial conflicts. Once again, the old mole pops up long after having been declared dead and buried in her own burrows.
The challenge is that it is not only technology's promises of emancipation that have been betrayed, we are being betrayed by those very promises. Recall that, fifty years ago, social ecologist Murray Bookchin welcomed a future in which collectives would own tools and organise production non-hierarchically around 'liberatory technologies'. The maverick priest Ivan Illich defined tools as "convivial" in much the same way. Although they were much too refined thinkers to hinge their hopes on some single tool set, the future they longed for required a wider cultural and social transformation, this transformation was centred on a small-is-beautiful ethos. Meandering through time and institutions, that same dream became part of the normative backdrop of the STS field, as exemplified by our preferential treatment of users (and non-users, misusers....) and lay experts. Grassroots appropriation of digital fabrication in hackerspaces, makerspaces, FabLabs, etc., fit the bill. This sums up the common subject field of the track, but not what is most important about it. Ask not what theory can do for your empirical findings – probably not much more than debunk a few inflated and self-serving promises about the future - but ask what the findings can do for theory development. That is to say, how shall we recalibrate the normative compass of STS in light of the impasse, where the democratization of the tools and scientific-technical expertise have not translated into an equivalent democratization of political influence and economic means?
In this track, we propose a mid-term assessment of STS theory, on basis of case studies of hackers and makers. The question we pose to ourselves is: Are we fighting a foregone war like old generals do when we seek the liberation of our tools, just as if it was our own liberty that we fought for? Liberty to the tools, enslavement of the non-tools (a.k.a. humans). Enter the kingdom of means.