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.