014: Final Presentation

For the final combo-project, I created a speculative design project for a talisman kit. The general goal here is to create a product that would encourage artsy feminist types to head into small maker spaces or otherwise meet up with sympathetic crafter-type people.

This approach serves as a bridge between my two previous works in that in the first, I felt empowered by learning how to use a CNC to make my own projects and explore some materials and approaches for my thesis project (see how that went), and in the second I looked at the feminist possibilities of redomesticating fabrication on a larger scale.

The Make Your Own Talisman Buddy kit, then, aims to make it possible for other people (mostly but not exclusively women) to experience that trajectory themselves. 

To that end the kit would come with the instruction zine, Otherplan files, and the necessary ingredients:

  • 1/8" and 1/16" flat head mills
  • 3 millable wax blocks
  • enough plaster for 3–4 talismans
  • enough silicone mixture for 2–3 molds
  • cups and wooden stirrers

The extra quantities of material would serve two purposes: to help users feel free to make a mistake or two and to leave enough over for them to create their own, non-guided project once they fall in love with the desktop mill.

The instruction booklet is written zine-style because zine semiotics — feminine DIY — appeal exactly who this project is for: cool chicks and other feminine folks who are not necessarily into making robots or radios or other traditional projects.

The kit would be rounded out with a web site to help the users customize the engraving on their talisman and to generate the files. It would also host a list of maker spaces and sharing crafters, so kit-owners know where to go to complete the work. 

A final bonus zine would encourage excited owners to write their own instruction zines for the kits or about what they've done to send out as well.

I took inspiration for this project not just from zines but also from crafty guides like Chibitronics.

This project fits squarely into the tradition of many other kits — maker, arts & crafts, casting — but also diverges from them by requiring the owner go into a maker space to complete the project. Unlike projects that come with pre-cut enclosures or otherwise promise the ability to be completed without leaving the house, the Talisman Buddy Kit pushes owners to bring their energy and projects to spaces that might be a little robo-heavy and thereby encourage small steps of cultural change.

It also fills a niche for getting to know a desktop CNC; I couldn't find any other projects that were about letting users get to know how to use the machine, as opposed to build one. It is also more guided than just jumping straight into something like Instructables, with its varying quality and tone.

 

 

 

013: Digitization of Traditional Practices

This week, we are talking about the digitization of traditional practices and in preparation, we watched this video from Vernelle Noel on wire bending and Carnival. I'm very interested in seeing what people have to say in class, since I struggled, based on the talk, to really conceptualize a difference between this and any other switch to digital technology, outside the contention that here it is necessary because otherwise young people are losing the traditional skill. That is, while the framing is slightly different, the iteration on techniques from hand-made to digital does not appear substantially different from the same movement in textiles, as we have previously seen, or even from hand-cut wood to CNC-made products.

The closest example of a move from traditional to digital with which I am familiar is in printing, particularly, in the making of image printing plates: the move from linoblocks or other engraving techniques to photopolymer plates.  Because the latter can be created from drawing programs, they require less baseline skill that more difficult engraving methods, but can result in colder lines than drawings bound to the materiality of their medium. But again, I think I would file this change under the general march of technology rather than the digitization of traditional practices. 

I hope there are more examples today that help me see an aspect in this that I may be missing.

 

012: On Combining Phases 1 & 2

I began by being unsure where my phase 1 talisman project and phase 2 paper overlap, except perhaps in the fact that by creating the talismans I am living the life of a woman creating a product she wants with access to a domesticated machine. And while that is super awesome, I am not sure I can present myself on the last day, saying "Here I am, my very own project!" 

After chatting in class and with friends, however, I have two speculative design projects I could choose from to unite these projects:

  1. To imagine what a full multi-use personal machine, of the type suggested towards the end of the paper might look like, given my experience using the CNC, or
  2. Creating a personal talisman kit, as an example of the type of small-scale object documentation that would be possible in the imagined future of domesticated machines.

Since the latter is something I have also considered as a part of my thesis — the ability to let people create their own investable objects — I think it will be what I pursue for the final phase.

011: Domesticating & Re-Domesticating Fabrication, Or On Autonomy And Industrialism, Final

While I am super-psyched to have learned how to use a desktop CNC, the most exciting thing I have uncovered in this class so far is my ambivalence towards engineering and fabrication, and the historical roots that may explain it. The second most exciting is the discovery that the culture may be chipping out the holes for its own liberation to come pouring through.

I am ambivalent about engineering on a cultural front and fabrication on an economic one, but both boil down to same complaint in the end: each promulgates that idea that humans should be accommodating themselves to machines and to capitalism — instead of the other way around. As a bonus, this interlacing of nineteenth century engineering culture and mass industrial production works to elide and exclude women from scenes of fabrication and to make it seem as though, as Ruth Olendziel puts it, in Making Technology Masculine, that men have a “native” feeling for technology whereas women’s interest is far “more likely an exceptional, strange, and alien event.” (10) Altogether the effect is to reduce autonomy and diminish women.

Fortunately, the maker movement, though infested with the same issues, may also be clearing space for the liberation of technical creation from capitalism by re-domesticating fabrication. If the movement from home to factory has hidden women and constrained us all, can the movement back home free us?

Let us begin with the sickness. I keep returning to the sense of injustice that struck me on our class visit to Makerbot, in particular, that line workers only know their employment situation for at most twelve weeks into the future — and that’s in the first week of a new quarter. There is injustice of course in the fact that they are the only workers subject to this regime, but I would not prefer to resolve the situation so all are equally unsure. For how does any individual build a life away from the shop floor without the foundation of reliable employment? What personal autonomy is possible?

One argument is that the assembly line itself is the source of de-autonomization. As David Nye relates in America’s Assembly Line, “traditional lines from the 1920s to the 1950s forced workers to stretch, crawl, stoop, and otherwise accommodate themselves to the fixed height of the cars passing by.” (246) On an even larger scale, industrialization has been seen as foreclosing the autonomy of an artisan economy, moving workers from their homes to the supervision of factories and demanding accommodation to the new workplace.

This same movement, from home to shop, drove the the re-invention of textile technology from feminine to masculine, as well as the de-technologization of the feminine. Both movements are addressed in Virginia Postrel’s “Losing the Thread,” in which she traces the path of spinning and weaving from home, where the spinster woman gained autonomy in terms of money and working conditions from her skill at creating thread, to factory, where men tended the new patent machines. (These led to riots a generation before the Luddites came on the scene.) Postrel notes that these men were perhaps the first elite industrial workers.

But textile was not moved from technology to fashion in one fell swoop. Postrel reports, “As late as the 1970s, textiles still enjoyed the aura of science,” and dissects the final alienation

This cultural amnesia has multiple causes. The rise of computers and software as the very definition of ‘high technology’ eclipsed other industries. Intense global competition drove down prices of fibres and fabric, making textiles and apparel a less noticeable part of household budgets, and turning textile makers into unglamorous, commodity businesses. Environmental campaigns made synthetic a synonym for toxic. And for the first time in human history, generations of women across the developed world grew up without learning the needle arts.

Yet she cautions,

As understandable as it might be, forgetting about textiles sacrifices an important part of our cultural heritage. It cuts us off from essential aspects of the human past, including the lives and work of women.

Women were separated from the technology of textile creation in the early throes of the industrial revolution and then, once textiles were separated from technology in our minds, they were returned to women only as complete material.

This separation was not only the result of the physical removal of manufacturing from the home, but also of a deliberate narrative around the professionalization of engineering. Olendziel charts this development carefully, showing how the construction of engineering as a fraternal society cum professional organization elided the women who worked as and collaborated with male engineers. Is it therefore possible that a return to the amateur, the re-domestication of fabrication, might also herald an engineering culture that belongs to women as well? Fortunately, the first step towards finding out, the re-domestication of fabrication, looks to be underway.

The FabLab movement provides an alternate vision of the future of fabrication, something a little more than the nicer, more accommodating assembly line touted by Nye and Makerbot.

Creator Neil Gershenfeld tells how the idea came to be, animated by the clamor for autonomy from artists and architects, as well as engineers.

In 1998, we tried teaching “How To Make (almost) Anything” for the first time. The course was aimed at the small group of advanced students who would be using these tools in their research. Imagine our surprise then when hundred or so students showed up for a class that could only hold ten. They weren’t the ones we expected, either; there were as many artists and architects as engineers....

The overwhelming interest ... was only the first surprise. The next was the reason why they wanted to take the class. Virtually no one was doing this for research. Instead they were motivated by the desire to make things they’d always wanted, but that didn’t exist.... [T]heir motivation was their own pleasure in making and using their inventions.

The third surprise was what these students managed to accomplish. Starting out with skills more suited to arts and crafts than advanced engineering, they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and build complete functioning systems. (5–6)

In this, we can see the tension underlying the return of fabrication and engineering to the home. Gershenfeld clearly cares about facilitating autonomy and exploration, but he remains a part of engineering culture. In his last sentence, we see the unsurprising urge to distinction between these artists with with their arts and craft level skills and advanced engineering. I do not think I am projecting when I hear the sneer underneath the surprise. This urge to distinction is the echo of the movement towards professionalization and subsequent distaste for those outside the fraternity noted by Olendziel.

As engineering transformed to a mass profession, students at the leading engineering school MIT proudly, if jokingly, reestablished the male premise or their profession when confronted with a few women on campus. In a boisterous and rowdy mood, the male engineering students joked with their female colleagues in a “co-ed” song entitled A Son (?) of the M.I.T. composed in 1907. They sang, “I would not be a Yale man, Reformers to annoy. Nor yet a Harvard student [sic]: defeat I don’t enjoy...Such models I'd not choose....[but] I'm a son of the M.I.T." Alternatively — and this is the humorous point of the song - the few women who at the time attended the engineering school would interject, “I’m not a son of the M.I.T.” In the narrow space of one eighth note, “I’m not,” they sang, “certainly not, and I'm glad of it!” or, “the idea is preposterous!” That eighth note in the musical phrase represents the narrow space allotted to women entering the engineering profession since as a point of entry it did not allow for passage into the bastion. (13)

Gershenfeld too teaches at MIT.

Likewise, in the rest of the events he reports, the tension between changes that can puncture the facade of engineering and the assumptions that underlie engineering as it is currently constituted are also apparent.

The FabLabs spread from the classroom to cities around the world: to India, Norway, Ghana, and beyond. “The equipment and supplies for each site cost about twenty thousand dollars,” Gershenfeld writes, and the uses were as varied as the location

In the village of Pabal in western India there was interest in using the lab to develop measurement devices for applications ranging from milk safety to agricultural engine efficiency. In Bithoor, on the bank of the Ganges, local women wanted to do three-dimensional scanning and printing of the carved wooden blocks used for chicken, a kind of local embroidery. Sami herders in the Lyngen Alps of northern Norway wanted wireless networks and animal tags so that their data could be as nomadic as their animals. People in Ghana wanted to create machines powered by their abundant sunlight instead of scarce electricity. (13)

And while the description certainly bends towards exoticization and benevolent Western imperialism (oh nineteenth century, what can’t you ruin?), it is hard to escape the idea that perhaps some Sami and some local women now have their tasks made a bit easier, and they prefer this, even if it comes with condescending text wrapped around it. Where the outcome of a process is increased autonomy, there lies a crack in imperialism and demands for accommodation that characterize the current situation — the crack that allows for us to reconstitute technology as more than men in factories.

It’s already working; at least a little. The maker movement as a whole, embodied here in U.S. in the FabLab–like TechShops of Mark Hatch, Make magazine, and ever-popular Maker Faires, as in the FabLabs, all contribute to a culture encouraging small-scale, at-home fabrication. And it appears to help highlight the women as engineers instead of to hide us: hardware startups Little Bits, AdaFruit, and JewelBots are all women-led and unashamedly female companies putting their stamp on small-time, at-home making, for kids and adults.

This movement, too, is not without its downfalls and concerns. Tying the feminine to the domestic, for instance, brings up the old feminist conundrum between demanding access to previously male space versus advocating for the appreciation of all spaces. While the correct answer is, of course, both, over-advocating for the domestic might have the effect of circumscribing other options. A bolder move might be to advocate for the return of the artisanal and the undoing of the factory altogether. This would push further than the current maker movement, which views desktop technologies like 3D printers and small routers as tools for creating prototypes, with “real” manufacturing in real factories taking over when it it time to get building.

This however runs a real risk of replicating the problems of the Arts & Crafts movement as related by Evgeny Morozov in the New Yorker. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the movement advocated for “good taste and self-fulfillment through the creation and the appreciation of beautiful objects; its more radical wing also sought to advance worker autonomy.” It foundered on a lack of demand, explained by Mary Dennett, a women’s and worker’s rights advocate,

“The employed craftsman can almost never use in his own home things similar to those he works on every day,” she observed, because those things were simply unaffordable. Economics, not aesthetics, explained the movement’s failures. “The modern man, who should be a craftsman, but who, in most cases, is compelled by force of circumstances to be a mill operative, has no freedom,” she wrote earlier. “He must make what his machine is geared to make.” (Morozov)

Morozov sees the same danger in the maker movement today:

A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channelling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors.... But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies.

That is to say, the Maker Movement itself, as Morozov details and as is evident in Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, is suffused with the ideology of late capitalism, glorifying “entrepreneurialism” and profit-making, then turning around to suggest that this is “natural” or “the way things are.” It is not simply that Maker Faires have become full of corporate booths instead of strange DIY creations or that the slogans of making have been used to encourage consumption more than the development of know-how (a charge that could easily be leveled at expressive Little Bits, for instance); it is instead the deliberate deployment of a techno-libertarian narrative and consequent undermining of labor-protecting social structures that will doom making, like the Arts & Crafts movement before it, to the status of hobby-for-the-wealthy.

Morozov quotes TechShop owner Hatch as bragging about creating a new entrepreneurial career for someone who was once a labor organizer as the harbinger of the new world to be ushered in by making. I would argue that positive commerce can only be a commerce that takes place within a structure that is not about ruthless capitalism, but where the labor organizer takes the skills and autonomy facilitated by small-scale fabrication and uses it to enrich and support labor.

Nye would likely counter that to level this criticism is to miss the purpose of mass production altogether: that only through mass production can we enjoy the standard of living we have today. In this case, at-home creation should only be a side-line, a hobby.

But perhaps this dialectic is resolvable. If we can unify the regard for autonomy that underlies entrepreneurial fetishization and the regard for autonomy that mourns the loss of a domestic, artisanal concept of manufacture, we can imagine a new desktop fabrication technologies that is in fact radical, and perhaps we can imagine a better implementation of them that honors labor.

The desktop machines of the maker movement could become prototypes themselves — of computer-driven artisanal production machines that would bridge the gap between the mass-produced and the autonomously produced. Allowing for mass transfer of technique via data files but the artisanal creation and customization of a personal device, these new machines could allow for personal creation of production quality goods.

An ideal machine might combine the capabilities of a 3D printer and a desktop CNC, able to fabricate items not just from the plastic common to consumer-level 3D printers today but metal, ceramic, wood, and circuit blanks, using both additive and subtractive methods as appropriate. Not everyone would be able to afford a machine, but like the cottage manufacturers of the past, people would have someone running a machine near them, hopefully at a price affordable by laborers working in a market with real protections. If so, we could reduce the footprint of the factory, bring manufacturing home and heal the rift between male engineer and female artisan, and return a little more autonomy to us all.

It is further possible that a more community-level manufacturing universe would further undermine the male primacy of making identified by Debbie Chachra in “Why I Am Not a Maker,” and reinvest value in repair, care, and sharing information. As she writes,

The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture —that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving — is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home. (Chachra)

When making parts is easier than going out and buying a whole new object, when plans are open, repair becomes more valuable. When hearth and home are themselves the world, the distinction collapses.

Now how do we get all this into the institutional imagination?For that is the challenge of imagining a better way to do this. Without the institutional imagination, without a narrative as compelling as the techno-libertarian and cases where aspects of this story can be seen to flourish, a better future for most people remains purely hypothetical. This is the value of the Fab Lab; no matter how helper-imperialist it can be, putting machines in people’s hands, and creating an environment where they can teach and share skills with one another is a necessary step in imagining a better manufacturing system. Creating many more, so many that they are a feature of any given suburb would render them so everyday, their real radicalism can then shine through.


References

Anderson, Chris. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. New York: Crown. 2014. Print.

Chachra, Debbie. “Why I Am Not a Maker.” The Atlantic. January 23, 2015. Web.

Gershenfeld, Neil. Fab. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.

Morozov, Evgeny. “Making It.” New Yorker. January 13, 2014. Web.

Nye, David. America’s Assembly Line. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015. Print.

Olendziel, Ruth. Making Technology Masculine. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999. Print.

Postrel, Virginia. “Losing the thread”. Aeon. June 5, 2015. Web.

010: Domesticating & Re-domesticating Fabrication, Or On Autonomy and Industrialism, Revised

While I am super-psyched to have learned how to use a desktop CNC, the most exciting thing I have uncovered in this class so far is my ambivalence towards engineering and fabrication, and the historical roots that may explain it. The second most exciting is the discovery that the culture may be chipping out the holes for its own liberation to come pouring through.

I am ambivalent about engineering on a cultural front an fabrication on an economic one, but both boil down to same complaint in the end: each promulgates that idea that humans should be accommodating themselves to machines and to capitalism — instead of the other way around. As a bonus, this interlacing of nineteenth century engineering culture and mass industrial production works to elide and exclude women from scenes of fabrication and to make it seem as though, as Ruth Olendziel puts it, in Making Technology Masculine, that men have a “native” feeling for technology whereas women’s interest is far “more likely an exceptional, strange, and alien event.” (10) Altogether the effect is to reduce autonomy and diminish women.

Fortunately, the maker movement, though infested with the same issues, may also be clearing space for the liberation of technical creation from capitalism by re-domesicating fabrication. If the movement from home to factory has hidden women and constrained us all, can the movement back home free us?

Let us begin with the sickness. I keep returning to the sense of injustice that struck me on our class visit to Makerbot, in particular, that line workers only know their employment situation for at most twelve weeks into the future — and that’s in the first week of a new quarter. There is injustice of course in the fact that they are the only workers subject to this regime, but I would not prefer to resolve the situation so all are equally unsure. For how does any individual build a life away from the shop floor without the foundation of reliable employment? What personal autonomy is possible?

One argument is that the assembly line itself is the source of de-autonomization. As David Nye relates in America’s Assembly Line, “traditional lines from the 1920s to the 1950s forced workers to stretch, crawl, stoop, and otherwise accommodate themselves to the fixed height of the cars passing by.” (246) On an even larger scale, industrialization has been seen as foreclosing the autonomy of an artisan economy, moving workers from their homes to the supervision of factories and demanding accommodation to the new workplace.

This same movement, from home to shop, drove the the re-invention of textile technology from feminine to masculine, as well as the de-technoligization of the feminine. Both movements are addressed in Virginia Postrel’s “Losing the Thread,” in which she traces the path of spinning and weaving from home, where the spinster woman gained autonomy in terms of money and working conditions from her skill at creating thread, to factory, where men tended the new patent machines. (These led to riots a generation before the Luddites came on the scene.) Postrel notes that these men were perhaps the first elite industrial workers.

But textile was not moved from technology to fashion in one fell swoop. Postrel reports, “As late as the 1970s, textiles still enjoyed the aura of science,” and dissects the final alienation

This cultural amnesia has multiple causes. The rise of computers and software as the very definition of ‘high technology’ eclipsed other industries. Intense global competition drove down prices of fibres and fabric, making textiles and apparel a less noticeable part of household budgets, and turning textile makers into unglamorous, commodity businesses. Environmental campaigns made synthetic a synonym for toxic. And for the first time in human history, generations of women across the developed world grew up without learning the needle arts.

Yet she cautions,

As understandable as it might be, forgetting about textiles sacrifices an important part of our cultural heritage. It cuts us off from essential aspects of the human past, including the lives and work of women.

Women were separated from the technology of textile creation in the early throes of the industrial revolution and then, once textiles were separated from technology in our minds, they were returned to women only as complete material.

This separation was not only the result of the physical removal of manufacturing from the home, but also of a deliberate narrative around the professionalization of engineering. Olendziel charts this development carefully, showing how the construction of engineering as a fraternal society cum professional organization elided the women who worked as and collaborated with male engineers. Is it therefore possible that a return to the amateur, the re-domestication of fabrication, might also herald an engineering culture that belongs to women as well? Fortunately, the first step towards finding out, the re-domestication of fabrication, looks to be underway.

The FabLab movement provides an alternate vision of the future of fabrication, something a little more than the nicer, more accommodating assembly line touted by Nye and Makerbot.

Creator Neil Gershenfeld tells how the idea came to be, animated by the clamor for autonomy from artists and architects, as well as engineers.

In 1998, we tried teaching “How To Make (almost) Anything” for the first time. The course was aimed at the small group of advanced students who would be using these tools in their research. Imagine our surprise then when hundred or so students showed up for a class that could only hold ten. They weren’t the ones we expected, either; there were as many artists and architects as engineers....

The overwhelming interest ... was only the first surprise. The next was the reason why they wanted to take the class. Virtually no one was doing this for research. Instead they were motivated by the desire to make things they’d always wanted, but that didn’t exist.... [T]heir motivation was their own pleasure in making and using their inventions.

The third surprise was what these students managed to accomplish. Starting out with skills more suited to arts and crafts than advanced engineering, they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and build complete functioning systems. (5–6)

In this reporting, we can see the tension underlying the return of fabrication and engineering to the home. Gershenfeld clearly cares about facilitating autonomy and exploration, but he remains a part of engineering culture. In his last sentence, we see the unsurprising urge to distinction between these artists with with their arts and craft level skills and advanced engineering. I do not think I am projecting when I hear the sneer underneath the surprise. This urge to distinction is the echo of the movement towards professionalization and subsequent distaste for those outside the fraternity noted by Olendziel.

As engineering transformed to a mass profession, students at the leading engineering school MIT proudly, if jokingly, reestablished the male premise or their profession when confronted with a few women on campus. In a boisterous and rowdy mood, the male engineering students joked with their fe- male colleagues in a “co-ed” song entitled A Son (?) of the M.I.T. composed in 1907. They sang, “I would not be a Yale man, Reformers to annoy. Nor yet a Harvard student [sic]: defeat I don’t enjoy...Such models I'd not choose....[but] I'm a son of the M.I.T." Alternatively — and this is the humorous point of the song - the few women who at the time attended the engineering school would interject, “I’m not a son of the M.I.T.” In the narrow space of one eighth note, “I’m not,” they sang, “certainly not, and I'm glad of it!” or, “the idea is preposterous!” That eighth note in the musical phrase represents the narrow space allotted to women entering the engineering profession since a a point of entry it did not allow for passage into the bastion. (13)

Gershenfeld too teaches at MIT.

In the rest of the events he reports, however, we may see the puncture in the facade of engineering that allows for us to reconstitute technology as more than men in factories. The FabLabs spread from the classroom to cities around the world: to India, Norway, Ghana, and beyond. “The equipment and supplies for each site cost about twenty thousand dollars,” Gershenfeld writes, and the uses were as varied as the location

In the village of Pabal in western India there was interest in using the lab to develop measurement devices for applications ranging from milk safety to agricultural engine efficiency. In Bithoor, on the bank of the Ganges, local women wanted to do three-dimensional scanning and printing of the carved wooden blocks used for chicken, a kind of local embroidery. Sami herders in the Lyngen Alps of northern Norway wanted wireless networks and animal tags so that their data could be as nomadic as their animals. People in Ghana wanted to create machines powered by their abundant sunlight instead of scarce electricity. (13)

The maker movement as a whole, embodied here in U.S. in the FabLab–like TechShops of Mark Hatch, Make magazine, and ever-popular Maker Faires, as in the FabLabs, all contribute to a culture encouraging small-scale, at-home fabrication. And it might be working to help highlight the women as engineers instead of to hide us: hardware startups Little Bits, AdaFruit, and JewelBots are all women-led and unashamedly female companies putting their stamp on small-time, at-home making, for kids and adults.

This movement is not without its downfalls and concerns. Tying the feminine to the domestic, for instance, brings up the old feminist conundrum between demanding access to previously male space versus advocating for the appreciation of all spaces. While the correct answer is, of course, both, over-advocating for the domestic might have the effect of circumscribing other options. A bolder move might be to advocate for the return of the artisanal and the undoing of the factory altogether. This would push further than the current maker movement, which views desktop technologies like 3D printers and small routers as tools for creating prototypes, with “real” manufacturing in real factories taking over when it it time to get building.

This however runs a real risk of replicating the problems of the Arts & Crafts movement as related by Evgeny Morozov in the New Yorker. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the movement advocated for “good taste and self-fulfillment through the creation and the appreciation of beautiful objects; its more radical wing also sought to advance worker autonomy.” It foundered on a lack of demand, explained by Mary Dennett, a women’s and worker’s rights advocate,

“The employed craftsman can almost never use in his own home things similar to those he works on every day,” she observed, because those things were simply unaffordable. Economics, not aesthetics, explained the movement’s failures. “The modern man, who should be a craftsman, but who, in most cases, is compelled by force of circumstances to be a mill operative, has no freedom,” she wrote earlier. “He must make what his machine is geared to make.” (Morozov)

Morozov sees the same danger in the maker movement today:

A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channelling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors.... But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies.

Nye would suggest that this is to miss the purpose of mass production altogether: that only through mass production can we enjoy the standard of living we have today. In this case, at-home creation can only be a side-line, a hobby.

But perhaps new desktop fabrication technologies are in fact radical and perhaps we can imagine a better implementation of them that honors labor. The desktop machines of the maker movement could become prototypes themselves — of computer-driven artisanal production machines that would bridge the gap between the mass-produced and the autonomously produced. Allowing for mass transfer of technique via data files but the artisanal creation and customization of a personal device, these new machines could allow for personal creation of production quality goods.

If so, we could reduce the footprint of the factory, bring manufacturing home and heal the rift between male engineer and female artisan, and return a little more autonomy to us all. Now how do we get it into the institutional imagination?

009: Domesticating & Redomesticating Fabrication, Or On Autonomy and Industrialism

I keep returning to the sense of injustice that struck me on our class visit to Makerbot, trying to suss out whence it arises more precisely. Is it merely that I don’t like capitalism? I certainly do not, but why not? Injustice, inequality, lack of freedom ... As I scroll back mentally through reasons, I finally reach the nut of it all: what bothers me about Makerbot and what bothers me about capitalism is the lack of autonomy. Line workers only know their employment situation for at most twelve weeks into the future — and that’s in the first week of a new quarter. There is injustice of course in the fact that they are the only workers subject to this regime, but I would not prefer to resolve the situation so all are equally unsure. For how does any individual build a life away from the shop floor without the foundation of reliable employment? What personal autonomy is possible?

It is of course arguable that the assembly line itself is the source of de-autonomization. As David Nye relates in America’s Assembly Line, “traditional lines from the 1920s to the 1950s forced workers to stretch, crawl, stoop, and otherwise accommodate themselves to the fixed height of the cars passing by.” (246) On an even larger scale, industrialization has been seen as foreclosing the autonomy of an artisan economy, moving workers from their homes to the supervision of factories and demanding accommodation to the new workplace. The history of the labor movement can likewise be viewed as a response, a demand for at least a little accommodation from the factory for the human. And as we saw at Makerbot and as Nye mentions, the line itself has adapted, creating machines to move the object being worked on instead of asking the works to continue to crawl and stoop.

To return to the initial flow, however: this same movement, from home to shop, matches the re-invention of technology from feminine to masculine, as well as the de-technoligization of the feminine. Both movements are addressed in Virginia Postrel’s “Losing the Thread,” where she traces the path of spinning from home, where the spinster woman gained autonomy in terms of money and working conditions from her skill at creating thread, to factory, where men tended the new patent machines. (These led to riots a generation before the Luddites came on the scene.)

Postrel also shows how increased cultural alienation from needlecraft and textile development has removed textiles from the realm of technology into only that of fashion. She cautions,

As understandable as it might be, forgetting about textiles sacrifices an important part of our cultural heritage. It cuts us off from essential aspects of the human past, including the lives and work of women.

Women were separated from the technology of textile creation in the early throes of the industrial revolution and then, once textiles were separated from technology in our minds, they were handed to women only as complete material.

The separation of women from technology was not only the result of the physical removal of manufacturing from the home, but also of a deliberate narrative around the professionalization of engineering. Ruth Olendziel, in Making Technology Masculine, charts this development carefully, showing how the construction of engineering as a fraternal society cum professional organization elided the women who worked as and collaborated with male engineers. As an example, she cites Emily Roebling, who supervised construction on the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, the bridge’s chief engineer was left bedridden by an accident. (Olendziel 9–10, “Emily Warren Roebling”) Interestingly, this was facilitated by the Roebling’s home overlooking the bridge, giving plausibility to the idea that Washington was “supervising from the window” and she was merely carrying messages.

Is it therefore possible that a return to the amateur, the re-domestication of fabrication, might also herald an engineering culture that belongs to women as well? Fortunately, the first step towards finding out, the redomestication of fabrication, looks to be underway.

For instance, the FabLab movement provides an alternate vision of the future of fabrication, something a little more than a nicer assembly line. Creator Neil Gershenfeld tells how the idea came to be, animated by the clamor for autonomy from artists and architects, as well as engineers.

In 1998, we tried teaching “How To Make (almost) Anything” for the first time. The course was aimed at the small group of advanced students who would be using these tools in their research. Imagine our surprise then when hundred or so students showed up for a class that could only hold ten. They weren’t the ones we expected, either; there were as many artists and architects as engineers....

The overwhelming interest ... was only the first surprise. The next was the reason why they wanted to take the class. Virtually no one was doing this for research. Instead they were motivated by the desire to make things they’d always wanted, but that didn’t exist.... [T]heir motivation was their own pleasure in making and using their inventions.

The third surprise was what these students managed to accomplish. Starting out with skills more suited to arts and crafts than advanced engineering, they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and build complete functioning systems. (5–6)

And in this last sentence, we see the unsurprising urge to distinction between these artists with with their arts and craft level skills and advanced engineering. I do not think I am projecting when I hear the sneer underneath the surprise. This urge to distinction is the echo of the movement towards professionalization and subsequent distaste for those outside the fraternity noted by Olendziel.

In the rest of the events, however, we may see the puncture in the facade of engineering that allows for us to reconstitute technology as more than men in factories. Gershenfeld and the FabLabs are not the only drivers of the redomestication of fabrication. The maker movement as a whole, embodied in the TechShops of Mark Hatch, Make magazine, and ever-popular Maker Faires, all contribute to a culture encouraging small-scale, at-home fabrication. And it might be working to help highlight the women as engineers instead of to hide us. Hardware startups: Little Bits, AdaFruit, and JewelBots are all women-led and unashamedly female companies putting their stamp on small-time, at-home making, for kids and adults.

This movement is not without its downfalls and concerns. Tying the feminine to the domestic, for instance, brings up the old feminist conundrum between demanding access to previously male space versus advocating for the appreciation of all spaces. While the correct answer is, of course, both, over-advocating for the domestic might have the effect of circumscribing other options. A bolder move might be to advocate for the return of the artisanal and the undoing of the factory altogether. This would push further than the current maker movement, which views desktop technologies like 3D printers and small routers as tools for creating prototypes, with real manufacturing in real factories taking over when it it time to get building.

This however runs a real risk of replicating the problems of the Arts & Crafts movement as related by Evgeny Morozov in the New Yorker. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the movement advocated for “good taste and self-fulfillment through the creation and the appreciation of beautiful objects; its more radical wing also sought to advance worker autonomy.” It foundered on a lack of demand, explained by Mary Dennett, a women’s and worker’s rights advocate,

“The employed craftsman can almost never use in his own home things similar to those he works on every day,” she observed, because those things were simply unaffordable. Economics, not aesthetics, explained the movement’s failures. “The modern man, who should be a craftsman, but who, in most cases, is compelled by force of circumstances to be a mill operative, has no freedom,” she wrote earlier. “He must make what his machine is geared to make.” (Morozov)

Morozov sees the same danger in the maker movement today:

A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channelling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors.... But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies.

Nye would suggest that this is to miss the purpose of mass production altogether: that only through mass production can we enjoy the standard of living we have today. In this case, at-home creation can only be a side-line, a hobby.

But perhaps new desktop fabrication technologies are in fact radical and perhaps we can imagine a better implementation of them that honors labor. The desktop machines of the maker movement could become prototypes themselves — of computer-driven artisanal production machines that would bridge the gap between the mass-produced and the autonomously produced. Allowing for mass transfer of technique via data files but the artisanal creation and customization of a personal device, these new machines could allow for personal creation of production quality goods.

If so, we could reduce the footprint of the factory, bring manufacturing home and heal the rift between male engineer and female artisan, and return a little more autonomy to us all. Now how do we get it into the institutional imagination?


Works Cited

“Emily Warren Roebling.” ASCE. American Society of Civil Engineers. n.d. Web.

Gershenfeld, Neil. Fab. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.

Morozov, Evgeny. “Making It.” New Yorker. January 13, 2014. Web.

Nye, David. America’s Assembly Line. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015. Print.

Olendziel, Ruth. Making Technology Masculine. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999. Print.

Postrel, Virginia. “Losing the thread”. Aeon. June 5, 2015. Web.

008: This Class Is Making Me Communist: A Phase One Reading Response

Overall I would break our phase one readings into a number of categories: on what it is to be an engineer, on specific innovations, on making and makers, and on cultural interactions with technology. Of course some readings spanned categories — Chris Anderson’s “Open Hardware” is both about the maker movement and the development of a specific DIYDrones product — but the major themes are clear.

What is Engineering?

To this category I would assign all the readings from Natasha McCarthy’s Engineering and “Engineer’s Imperialism.” From the former, chapter 3, “Core Elements in Engineering” drove home how similar the engineering design process is to the iterative user experience process I am familiar with from my own career. Also interesting was the discussion of the differences between risk to an engineer and to a layperson, especially the idea that laypeople have much less tolerance for risk whereas engineers are used to quantifying it and may take a more abstract approach.

However, the history of engineering, as covered in the other readings in this section was profoundly depressing — the field appears explicitly rooted in nineteenth-century “muscular masculinity” concepts of dominance that serve to both repel me and to undermine many of engineering’s claims towards “helping humanity.” Chapter 1 of Engineering harkens back to the field’s military origins and as “Engineers’ Imperialism” makes clear, the historical hubris of engineering is linked directly in its support of a violent and racist colonialism. The author notes that to the engineers ruling the Philippines, “subject people [were] viewed as a set of technological problems,” and this view is reflected in a lot of technologists attitudes today, only their fellow citizens are now the colonized.

On Specific Innovations

“America’s Assembly Line” bridges this category and the former, discussing both the development of the assembly line, as one of America’s greatest feats of engineering. Like many of the works we read, the historical insight seemed hampered by an unwillingness to really question capitalism and an over-identification with owners over workers. For instance, the author accuses workers of “hoarding” saved time as opposed to “sharing efficiency,” when the reverse, forcing workers to move just as fast no matter the machine assistance, could be seen as stealing the gains of efficiency from the workers and handing it, in the form of profit, to the owners. Likewise, focus on an “emergence” model, in which innovations “just happen,” as opposed to being planned for and researched, can work to remove responsibility for outcomes from the decisionmakers themselves — a questionable result.

An interesting line from here might be to compare the innovations and repercussions from R&D–focused companies, like Bell Labs, with more “emergent” innovations.

In a further look at worker-relations innovations, we had “Citizen’s Share.” This history of worker co-operatives started off rather optimistically, before being brought down by capitalism and over-sympathy for managers. It was glad to point out that inexperienced co-ops often folded for lack of experienced management but was conspicuously silent on the fact that the final outcome, where companies offer shares instead of true profit-sharing payouts, is really a way to mute worker protest by creating the illusion that they are invested in capitalism, though their power is so diluted, they end up having little meaningful say on broader actions. (They do note however that the preference for options comes in part because options didn’t involve actually paying out real money.)

More precise looks at innovations, “Facsimile and Networks” and “Bioprinting in Living Ink” were very interesting. The first focused on how context is important in innovation and part of a self-reinforcing system: covering technical and social elements that went into a fax machine, from newspapers through telephone deregulation. It skimped a little on the cultural reasons people might want individual machines — we are not all newspapers after all — but that is my only criticism. For “Bioprinting in Living Ink,” I would have liked to hear more about the ethics of the matter, but was captivated by the way biological integration demands leaving literal space for other organic items to grow into manufactured parts. Elaborating on this metaphor might help engineering consider a model of itself beyond dominance.

Makers and Making

Of course, another path leading away from the dominance road is the domestication of engineering via the maker and fab lab movements. In “How To Make,” Gershenfeld says of the fab lab’s pivotal first class: “Their inspiration wasn’t professional; it was personal. The goal was not to publish a paper, or file a patent, or market a product. Rather, their motivation was their own pleasure in making and using their inventions.”

Overall the entire tone of the article is utopian (and a little hand-wavy), but the optimism found in the possibility of broader expression for everyone was rather intoxicating. And then came the part where the fab lab successes seem to just be more “entrepreneurship”: people in poor place X could make things easier and make more money, now that they had these atom machines!

Here I do begin to wonder if I am being too cynical; tracking a herd more easily does seem like an awesome thing, and one I probably should not denigrate out of dislike of the tone in which the lab is wrapped. Then again, here comes open source software being used as an example. It has become clear through the past years that just being “open” has not democratized Linux or other projects, many of which have reputations for being unwelcoming to anyone other than white men. Will this be the same with hardware?

“Open Hardware” certainly continues by praising the “open” model, wherein you convince people to work for you for free or for trinkets, instead of hiring instead of just hiring people and supporting their community through developing junior engineers. Since the author was also the editor for Wired for many years, these ideas have been promulgated throughout our current technological discourse, possibly not for the best.

Technology and Society

The final category took a more nuanced look at human-technology interaction. “Three Product Designers at Work” provided a somewhat dated overview of different approaches engineers have taken in integrating computers with their work. As an introduction, though, the chapter sketched more questions than answers. “Designing Makerspaces for Family Learning ...” also proved to be light on details, though I was interested in the echo of fab lab results in reports of the affection for the “consequential products” they developed at the museum. I would have loved to hear more details about the labs, including deeper looks what people created.

Conclusion

In the end, my greatest takeaway is the engineering has a very anemic critical culture. While the information in the readings was cool, it was so clear from the tone that the weakest works were those that investigated cultural ramifications and many would sound completely tone-deaf in most humanities traditions of the past fifty years. I hope engineering can be rescued, before one of its risks blows up in all humanities’ faces.

007: Reflections on Our Trip to Industry City

The field trip to Industry City covered three locations: Lights Up,  MakerBot, and Eyebeam.

I missed the optional stop at Lights Up due to a preceding class and lab meeting, and I am super disappointed because I was not into Makerbot at all. That stop seemed more focused around the labor needs of the company than around teaching us anything about manufacturing or R&D. Since we were not allowed on the R&D floor — despite super aggressive NDAs the second we arrived — and since the parts of the machines are created elsewhere, all that really occurs at the factory is assembly and testing. With most of the lines not running, that meant we got to see the testing farm and not much else.

I wish we had gotten a tour from people other than the VP of Operations; I would have liked to hear what the employees — engineers and floor workers — had to say about the work they do every day instead of discussions of "lean" work, which I am pretty certain is a word management uses when they want to squeeze everything they can out of their team. For instance, the suggestion wall of which our guide was very proud strikes me as the kind of thing management institutes and labor mocks. These impressions may not have been correct, but since we didn't get to talk to any workers, I can only elaborate from my own experiences.

I also noticed that the racial makeup on the floor and the racial makeup in the office were very, very different, and I wonder what Makerbot is doing about it. If the insights of floor workers are useful enough for a monthly suggestion contest, surely they are useful enough for some of those workers to be trained and promoted to the cushy side of the glass wall — the side where I assume you are not hired and laid off in three-month cycles.

It is possible, even probable, that the Makerbot factory is not unlike most of the other factories that make the things I have at home; it is probably much nicer than many offshore facilities. Yet it makes it viscerally obvious why unions and frankly has me hoping the nozzle-testing farm bots are plotting their own small robo-rebellion.

In contrast, the visit to Eyebeam was super fun. Though I am familiar with the organization and seem to know a lot of people who were once fellows, I had been neither to the Brooklyn nor Chelsea locations. It was cool to see the different works people were creating — especially the Afro-Futurism corner and the Grumpy Cat dot experiments — but what I really loved was seeing the wood shop and the Fab Lab. The latter especially has me strongly considering applying for a fellowship once they are relaunched.

I am excited to see how the stops at the Navy Yard contrast with Industry city.

006: Fab Project no. 1 Talisman Wrapup

Here are the slides an annotations for my phase 1 project wrapup.

My interest in creating talismans is related to the research I am doing for my thesis. As of my latest question reformulation, my thesis will be focused on researching and creating digital objects that can work as memory charms — self-reflection tools that may also live on to communicate with future-humans. More detail about how I hope that will work, can be found in the storyboards, mind map, and system diagrams.

My inspiration for this topic comes as much from literature as it does from other fields. Proust is of course the king of modernist olfactory memories, but I also love the Narnian idea that with the right magic artifact, one could end up in an entirely different world. In this case, that world is our own past, shifting as we re-encounter it once and once more. I am also inspired by HCI work from Katherine Isbister and Kristina Höök on supple, private, and autonomous experiences.

In a previous prototype last semester, for augmented reality studio, I created a work around experiencing my memories through scent and sight. Users would pick up up objects — papier mache with scent strips glued on top and AR markers on the bottom — and smell, triggering the onscreen experience. While I was happy with the project, the use of mass-produced objects resulted in some limitation on how to present the memories. Reliance on my own dexterity to shape these objects was also a bit of a limitation.

For a look into previous works, I looked at the history of mold-making and casting. These techniques are of course very ancient, being used to create both art and practical objects (like coins) for centuries. Bronze-age molds for spear tips have been found as well as ancient Greek molds for clay figures. Silicone was invented in 1943 and since has spread to become a common material for artists, bakers, and jewelers alike. The material picks up fine detail, sticks to very little, and is very flexible. Its biggest flaw can be cost, but since my creations are small, that was not a big worry. 

Design-wise this work is situated square within the history of talismans and reliquaries. However, rather than focus on drawing luck via symbolism, I am more interested in how we might create objects people can invest with symbolism themselves.

For my test items, I chose four icons. Two, from an icon set, I have used in my pre-thesis brainstorming work and have come to be representative of the project. The other two elements, the blob and water lines, I created in order to play with different types of shapes. I am hoping a range of items will help illuminate various characterists of the materials.

It took three tries to mill the wax correctly. First the wax must be faced, with a layer removed but for a small lip. This creates the "tray" which will be the base of the silicone mold. The first facing attempt ended in a giant divot being removed from the wax when the material came loose from the bed. I had used Glue Dots to secure it, and they just weren't strong enough. The second facing attempt ended with a very thin wall and then, in attempting to add the engraving, a misaligned file caused the mill to start cutting into it. (It was at this point I discovered the top-down view is highly superior to the isometric one.) Unlike previously, I did not have issues loading the files themselves and I feel like I understand now the procedure for loading and laying multiple SVGs in order to cut different depths.

Next was pouring the silicone. The  biggest problem in casting is avoiding bubbles. Following advice on the Othermill Snowflake tutorial (of which this project is an adaptation), I poured slowly and from a height, and the only bubbles I got were on the back of the mold, where they do not matter. I was suprised how very file the detail lines on the icons ended up being, but the silicone got them all.

I finished up by testing two materials in the mold: resin and plaster of paris. The resin picked up detail great but came out pretty bubbly. After the viscous plaster pouring, I think I underestimated the speed at which the resin came out. These talismans are very durable and I look forward to carrying them around. The plaster picked up much less detail than the resin, so much less that the thinner icons do not appear at all. It is also more delicate than the resin. However, I like the touch of the clay somewhat more so far, and I think there is an interesting exploration of what purposes a delicate talisman might serve.

Next Steps

This project was just a first phase in what I hope to be an ongoing work. I plan to go on to mill wood; to test bigger shapes and different reliefs; to cast clear resin with objects suspended within: grass, glitter, etc;  and to cast concrete and wax. I've also found a set of blog posts on creating stronger plaster by mixing it with wood glue, so I plan to try out this approach. 

Overall, I am super happy with this project.