Chapter IV

Maker Machines
Providing 'everything for everyone'

The previous two chapters have focused on design labour and design knowledge, both of which are immaterial aspects of production. Now I will turn focus to the physical outcomes of design and the making of artefacts themselves. Accordingly, this chapter tackles more directly the tensions between ecology and technology. It is common for any critique of industrialism to be dismissed as if the only alternative is to “return to the Stone Age” – a cartoonish expression that is indicative of a failure of the imagination. Ever since the time of the Luddites in the 19th century, direct acts of sabotage against “all machinery hurtful to commonality” (qtd. Linebaugh, Ned Ludd 15) have marked the collective imaginary (and language) with a skewed, simplistic interpretation of a “rage against the machine”. Framing Luddism as a primitivist, technophobic reaction to the shock of the new is intended to downplay and ignore the social and political aspirations that were central to their demands. It wasn’t the manufacturing technology itself that was the enemy of the Luddites, but the social relations that deployed it; imposing mechanic time and de-skilling workers, thus tipping power away from labour and towards capital (Jones). This is why distinctions must be made politically, for which I intend to demonstrate that the seemingly irreconcilable opposition of environmental protection and technological progress is an ideological construct that begs to be unravelled, and that alternative futures that synthesise enviro- and techno-politics merit exploration. The literature at the intersection of ecology and technology presents a vast and complex landscape that covers many contested issues, such as labour vs automation, local vs global, limits vs growth, and scarcity vs abundance. I am aware that any of these dichotomies alone would be a worthy topic for a thesis; and so I will suggest here that there are no simplistic polarities, with ambiguous positions identifiable on either side of a political spectrum.

Before introducing my own framework for a postcapitalist eco-techno synthesis, I need to distinguish it squarely from the predominant ideology of ecomodernism. There have been multiple proposals made of how to correct the mistakes and excesses of the previous paradigms and to put capitalism back on track, including “new” (Marsh), “next” (Hawken), “third” (Rifkin) or “green” industrial revolutions, to name but a few. In contrast, self-professed “ecomodernists” display the most confident Prometheanism, being distinctively uncritical of capitalist growth and managerial control. What sets them apart is their complete faith in technology to overcome any obstacle – endorsing nuclear energy, geoengineering and genetic modification as solutions to ecological crises. By siding unambiguously and unapologetically with market-based and top-down approaches, they represent a dangerous form of techno-optimism (if not downright techno-fetishism) – one that stands at odds with any emancipatory social project. If ecomodernism is techno-utopianism without a social and ecological basis, most ecological politics, in contrast (ecosocialism, degrowth and deep ecology, to name a few), remain distant and reluctant to engage with techno-politics. Localist sufficiency, voluntary simplicity and slowness may all be defensible polar opposites to the capitalist values of efficiency, complexity and instant convenience. However, without identifying the role of technology in achieving social and ecological benefits, there would seem to be little distinction between self-imposed frugality and systematically enforced austerity. As discussed previously, left-accelerationists have more recently attempted to fill that gap by embracing technology as an integral part of an emancipatory social project, but have also attracted criticism for sailing dangerously close to ecomodernist assumptions (Carson, Techno-Utopianism). Instead of pitting degrowth and left-acceleration against each other, my interest is in finding productive common grounds between them. This rift between these strands of radical politics (both with valuable postcapitalist outlooks) needs to be bridged if they are to effectively counter the predominant ideology of eco-modernism.

Underlying all techno-utopian projects is the challenge of coming up with a plausible vision of what constitutes wealth, abundance and luxury —a post-scarcity civilisation providing a good life for all – within the limits of the possible. In this chapter, I conceptualise a “counter-industrial” synthesis of degrowth and accelerationist positions, but I should first put forward my reasons for choosing this term. Postcapitalist technologies, rather than being in favour of an “industrial” (in the sense of hierarchical, centralised, closed, linear) system, would be very much against it. They would however also be very different from anti-industrialism, which implies a categorical rejection of all technologies in favour of simple living. They would also spurn the new/next/third industrial forms of techno-optimist vision, which remain compatible with capitalism. Admittedly, “post-industrial” itself is a problematic term, in that it denotes a society that has supposedly moved on to services and knowledge, but is yet still heavily dependent on outsourced industries and economic growth. The term “counter-industrial” brings a useful ambiguity, since it not only means (anti-)opposition, but also retaliation and rivalry, or doing better than the industries in order to overcome them. Narrowing down the definition, I refer to maker machines specifically as the design applications of the emerging counter-industrial paradigm. Since my interest in this chapter is on the artefacts alone, instead of taking maker subjectivities or spaces as the central topic of study, I focus primarily on the machines that are made by or for the makers.

That said, the maker culture needs to be introduced and situated at the intersections of DIY, hacking, crafts and design. The emerging maker figure —extending beyond the solitary inventor, the industrial designer and the factory worker— while certainly not revolutionary, is nonetheless the cultural figurehead in the counter-industrial transformation. A proud manual labourer as much as a “smart” creative entrepreneur, maker subjectivity has yet to transcend the neoliberal individualism of the start-up culture as it advances towards the constitution of expansive cooperative arrangements with comparable political and economic weight as medieval guilds. In this sense, there are vast overlaps between maker subjectivities and the designer-commoners I discussed in earlier chapters when looking at the challenges and possibilities. The critical difference (or rather, additional criteria) that should be considered is in the machines with which the makers are “coupled”. Instead of imagining generic “jack-of-all-trades” makers, or considering isolated machines independently of human agency, my preferred approach is to study the pairing of makers and machines. When makers and machines complement each other (as opposed to the manual worker being subordinated to the machine), it is possible to achieve socialised fabrication, or in the words of Gorz, an “appropriation of technologies by the users for purposes of social transformation” (‘Exit’). Compared to the previous examples of household items and flatpack furniture, the two case studies in this chapter stand out with their maker-oriented, appropriate technology choices. They also present the most explicit ecological missions, where sustainability is not an afterthought but the primary purpose, tackling environmental challenges head-on. Through these examples, I intend to offer a glimpse into the great range of cultural transformations that prefigure in the steel, solder and circuits of mundane machinery, reversing the sophisticated austerity of the commodity-machine with a simpler postcapitalist abundance.

IV.A. Machines
The self-production of the means of production

This section focuses on the themes of self-production and post-scarcity, identifying in what ways critiques of existing industries lead to different approaches to the organisation of manufacturing? To what extent can maker machines deliver a material abundance that is also ecologically sound? Through the study of Open Source Ecology, some shared characteristics of machines that exemplify the counter-industrial paradigm will be introduced. Starting with an analysis of discourse and continuing with a studying the machines themselves, I will conclude the study with a discussion of what I consider to be the failures of this project.

Built with Mobirise - More info