Chapter III

Open Blueprints
Instituting the "Wikipedia of Things"

After adopting the designer’s point of view in the previous chapter, and considering peer designing as a form of collaborative knowledge production, this chapter charts what happens to the fruits of such design labour. To this end, I switch focus to approach design through blueprints, i.e., the documentation made available to access, modify and distribute the knowledge that is produced. Once something is designed, the knowledge of how to produce that thing becomes separated from the labourer and encapsulated in the blueprint. The resulting design knowledge is not merely a series of instructions, but rather a factor of production on its own, and the determinant factor in the valorisation of design, operating in an entirely different class of relations to the economics of design labour. I use the term “design blueprint” distinctly from the previously defined “design project”. A design project is understood in the broadest sense as an effort to achieve, build or improve something, an undertaking that may yet be incomplete that involves several actors, stages or outcomes, and that is usually driven by a central idea, principle or interrogation. While design projects are ideal cultural objects that are worthy of research, revealing themselves through discourses, activities and artefacts, design blueprint, on the other hand, is a narrower, more technical term, indicating a visual representation and detailed instructions of all the knowledge needed to build, produce or assemble the desired object. While other techniques have long replaced the chemical process at the origin of the word, the term “blueprint” implies that reproduction has been an essential characteristic of a technical drawing. It would seem then to be appropriate to rejuvenate this term for the digital era, even if the preferred medium is now computer screens. The distinction is relevant, as a design project contains more than just blueprints, comprising also social relations, institutional frameworks, and legal and financial arrangements, all of which are knitted around the blueprints. A reference book on open design defines blueprints as follows:

Blueprints are representations of objects-to-be of the highest technical order. Combining the technical drawing and the instructions on how to execute that drawing, the CAD file you send and squeeze into any sort of printer can be regarded as such. Blueprints and their derivatives form an essential component of open design, as they are the appearance of design in the form of content-to-be-materialized. (Abel et al.)

A blueprint is, by definition, a copy. It is meant to be reproduced so that the design can be replicated. If that knowledge is available in a digitally reproducible form, then it is subject to the economics of information, and should cost virtually nothing when abundantly copied. In other words, even under market conditions, a blueprint is meant to have “zero marginal costs” (Rifkin), or to be circulated freely. However, the (re)production, circulation and ownership of information, knowledge and immaterial goods obey an entirely different set of rules under the commodity-machine. While computers facilitate digital reproduction, they do not spontaneously give way to free circulation. Designs remain locked inside computers, not as a result of technical limitations, but because of legal and economic obstacles that are artificially implemented and enforced. Laws regulate the ownership of knowledge and information, and as a result, the ability to set an arbitrarily established market price and the extraction of a commission from every additional copy. Different “intellectual property rights” (IPR) regimes apply depending on the kind of content, with copyrights, patents and trademarks applicable to distinct objects, such as artworks, inventions or identities. If copyright regulates the conditions in which royalties are claimed from every reproduction of an artwork, patents are meant to keep inventions out of circulation, to be licensed only on a case-by-case basis. Design blueprints have historically been rather loosely covered by the iron law of IPR (Boldrin and Levine 69), and it is difficult to categorise what counts as inspiration, imitation or counterfeiting. For the lack of a better word, I use the shorthand “CopyRent” to refer to the IPR applied to design blueprints. Instead of a “right”, what is in fact granted is a “rent” —in an accumulative instead of productive relationship with intellectual property. CopyRenting is foundational to the commodity-machine, as when designs are CopyRented, the designers are expropriated from the fruit of their labour, and what they produce is enclosed by their employer or client, to the expense of everyone else that could benefit from that knowledge.

Patents were originally intended to give relative control to inventors, allowing them to enjoy exclusive rights in the form of returns on their investment for a limited time, thus providing them with sufficient livelihood to pursue further innovations. The creation of a public depository of patents was meant to protect solitary inventors that would otherwise be defenceless against more prominent competitors. Nowadays, however, the situation is reversed, with large multinationals and “patent trolls” who stockpile patents to stave off competition, sue each other in “patent wars”, and lobby to expand the prevailing CopyRent laws to own life forms. At the same time, they feel threatened by collective efforts to copy, hack or reverse-engineer their products, to restrict fair use and to delay expiration dates. The combined consequence of all these pursuits is the stifling of innovation (except in legal constructs), cross-pollination of best practices, and ultimately productivity (Boldrin and Levine 69). The second consequence of CopyRent is the introduction of an artificial scarcity that reduces the spread, and therefore, the utility of information. In a vicious circle, the less a blueprint is reproduced, the less useful it is, and the less value it generates. In other words, the entire circuit of ownership and trade, and the resulting scarcity of ideas, renders design blueprints less productive of further valorisation, limiting their full economic potential. This chapter looks resolutely at the opposite paradigm of commoning blueprints, being the case for open blueprints, which overcome the limitations of CopyRent, investigating how they constitute a precondition for unsustaining the commodity-machine. The chapter begins by setting the terrain, advancing design blueprint as essential concepts for the theorisation of design in the age of digital reproduction. The second part expands on the qualities of openness of blueprints, and discusses the implications on the design project itself. This midway chapter is pivotal to the thesis in more than one sense, by centring on design projects as an interface between human subjects and material objects, as serving as a bridge between the constraints of late capitalism and the latent potentials of postcapitalism.

III.A. Blueprints
Infinite reproduction for digital fabrication

In this section, I make an analysis of OpenDesk as an example of blueprint-driven design practice, following their self-production from the computer screen to the physical object. Do the designs themselves have a steep learning curve, or are they as easy as IKEA assembly? Is there room for modularity, customisation or improvements to the original design? The intention here is to interrogate whether or not the blueprints are sufficiently self-explanatory and easy enough to build, and to look at how additional assembly guides, web platforms and the like are designed to facilitate the diffusion and appropriation of designs. I conclude that more than blueprints are needed if openness is to be achieved.

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