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.