Automation for the Artisanal Economy

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  • Eglash, R., Robert, L. P., Bennett, A., Robinson, K. P., Lachney, M. Babbitt, W., (accepted in 2019). Automation for the Artisanal Economy: Enhancing the Economic and Environmental Sustainability of Crafting Professions with Human-Machine Collaboration, AI & Society,


"the paper details the possibilities of utilizing AI to support hybrid forms of human-machine production at the micro-scale; localized and sustainable value chains at the meso-scale; and networks of these localized and sustainable producers at the macro scale".


"Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to eliminate millions of jobs, from finance to truck driving. But artisanal products—(e.g. handmade textiles) are valued precisely because of their human origins, and thus have some inherent “immunity” from AI job loss. At the same time, artisanal labor, combined with technology, could potentially help to democratize the economy, allowing independent, small scale businesses to flourish. Could AI, robotics and related automation technologies enhance the economic viability and environmental sustainability of these beloved crafting professions, perhaps even expanding their niche to replace some job loss in other sectors? In this paper we compare the problems created by the current mass production economy, and potential solutions from an artisanal economy. In doing so, the paper details the possibilities of utilizing AI to support hybrid forms of human-machine production at the micro-scale; localized and sustainable value chains at the meso-scale; and networks of these localized and sustainable producers at the macro scale. In short, a wide range of automation technologies are potentially available for facilitating and empowering an artisanal economy. Ultimately, it is our hope that this paper will facilitate a discussion on a future vision for more “generative” economic forms in which labor value, ecological value and social value can circulate without extraction or alienation."


"Artisanal labor, combined with technology, could potentially help to democratize the economy, allowing independent, small scale businesses to flourish (Diez and Posada 2013). Finally, many artisans strive to be more environmentally sustainable, using “green" supply chains and techniques. Could AI, robotics and related automation technologies enhance the economic viability and environmental sustainability of these beloved crafting professions, perhaps even expanding their niche to replace some job loss in other sectors?

Part 2 of this paper will compare the problems created by the current mass production economy, and potential solutions from an artisanal economy. We show that mass production problems may be exacerbated by automation, and that these are generally problems of extraction. The problems can be generally classified as the extraction of labor value from workers; the extraction of ecological value from nature; and the extraction of social value from civic activity. We then review the potential for solutions in an artisanal economy: replacing extraction with a generative network in which value circulates in unalienated forms. Hence the need for new forms of automation that can scale up these generative alternatives.

Parts 3, 4, and 5 of this paper details the possibilities of automation technologies for facilitating and empowering an artisanal economy at three scales:

  • Part 3: At the economic micro-scale, we examine how human-machine collaboration can

sustain and empower the kinds of “unalienated” (enjoyable, meaningful) labor tasks that make artisanal jobs attractive. In particular, our findings show distinctly different outcomes from that of Gombolay et al (2015). In their scenario, workers preferred to cede task control to automated machines, which modelled context of mass production. Our initial experiments with humanmachine collaborations situated in African American, African, and Native American artisanal traditions (Eglash et al. forthcoming; Lachney et al. forthcoming) show distinctly different preferences depending on the context.

  • Part 4: At the meso-scale, we examine how automation technologies--in particular AIbased pattern recognition--could be used to help consumers authenticate product origins and producers improve fabrication sustainability.
  • Part 5: Finally, at the macro-scale, we provide a brief review of the ways that natural

language processing, network optimization algorithms and related technologies might be deployed to develop a robust technosocial ecosystem for the artisanal economy as a whole.

In the conclusion of this paper, we will summarize the above analysis, and provide some directions forward. It is our hope that this research will move discussions beyond the exclusive focus on “green tech” often occurring in literature on “circular economies” or “industrial symbiosis”. We propose that AI could play a transformative role towards futures in which unalienated labor value, unalienated ecological value, and unalienated social value circulate in mutually supporting networks; what we have defined elsewhere (Eglash 2015) as generative justice."


The potential of artisanal economies

Ron Eglash:

"All three domains--labor alienation, ecological alienation, and social alienation--can be addressed in terms of artisanal economies. The phrase “artisanal economy” was first introduced by historians and rural sociologists to describe pre-industrial forms of production, but it increasingly appears as a vision of the future in which small scale entrepreneurs network to create custom-made products. Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz has tied this vision to automation impacts: “It’s possible that information technology and robots eliminate traditional jobs and make possible a new artisanal economy … an economy geared around selfexpression, where people would do artistic things with their time” (Thompson 2015).

While Katz stresses the fit between an automated future and artisans, many scholars have noted the rise in artisanal products in the present. Whether empowered by digital fabrication, or reliant on strictly traditional forms, meaningful, enjoyable labor is still a hallmark of artisanal work. Sennett (2008) notes that the concept of craftsmanship--doing a job well for its own sake-- can be found as a fundamental human impulse throughout history. Ocejo (2017) shows that older, disparaged professions such as butcher have now been reborn by applying new technologies or “cultural repertoires”, creating upscale versions that are revitalizing urban centers. Luckman (2015) finds that many features defined in the labor literature as “good work”-- autonomy; interest and involvement; self-esteem; sociality; etc.--are associated with the rising number of these crafting professions. In their article “Investigating the value chain of modern artisanal innovation” Rao et al (2016) show how artisanal forms can flourish in a wide variety of technological scenarios, ranging from enabling hand-made sales by digital platforms (e.g. Etsy) to small scale automated production (e.g. Sole, which 3D prints shoes specific to each customer).

In addition to addressing the problem of job alienation, artisanal economies also hold promise for reducing ecological alienation; that is, for environmental sustainability. In many cases artisans are making a deliberate attempt to be more environmentally sustainable, using “green" supply chains and techniques, which can also empower their branding (Marsden and Smith 2005; Cimatti et al 2017). However, the sustainability dimension need not be artificially imposed. For example, Haro-Zea et al (2018) show that the burgeoning market for handicrafts in Chiapas, Mexico has been strongly tied to more sustainable sources of plant and mineral feedstock, simply by following traditional methods and sources. Carr and Gibson (2016) note a wide variety of sustainability gains from the artisanal economy, ranging from repair and reuse to the choice of supply chain materials.

The two features of the artisanal economy described above--as a solution to job alienation, and as a solution to environmental degradation--both play a role in the third feature, which is reducing social alienation. This aspect often emerges in artisanal attempts to address overconsumption. For example, Rüthschilling (2019) outlines the clothing collectives in Brazil that arose in response to the growing fashion industry: their aim is “to make fashion serve people’s lives, bearing in mind that there are already too many clothes in the world”. The solutions range from a textile maker space where lay citizens can create their own, to fabric recycling, to the incorporation of traditional textiles that have always made use of natural plant fibers. In their anthology of case studies of “ethical consumption” ranging from foods to furniture, Lewis and Potter (2011) note that “a greater use of localized craft designs, to produce higher-quality, better-made, longer-lasting goods with greater sensory-aesthetic qualities, would encourage the kind of small-scale, artisanal and sustainable forms of consumption required to support more ethical and aesthetic ways of life.”

In sum: the potential advantages of moving to an artisanal economy include decreasing job alienation; increasing environmental sustainability, and replacing the damaging, commodityobsessed marketing society, geared towards over-consumption, with a more meaningful and intrinsically motivated network of localized producers and thoughtful consumption practices."

From the Conclusion

Ron Eglash:

"This paper has reviewed the potential role of automation in creating a future vision for what we refer to as an artisanal or “generative” economy: one in which labor value, ecological value, and expressive value remains in unalienated form, circulating through commons-based production rather than extracted for external exploitation. We outlined the destructive tendencies of current mass-production; and reported on initial experiments in which digital technologies were merged in a synthesis with African American, Native American, and African artisanal traditions, as well as with other community organizations.

At the micro-economic scale, our analysis contrasts with the view of a single optimum for human-machine task allocation that is implied elsewhere in the literature. Rather we find that participants preferred a diversity of hybrid forms; corresponding to the sociocultural and ecological diversity of the artisans and contexts, and that this diversity was fundamental to sustaining artisanal production as a more pleasurable, meaningful, and sustainable alternative to mass production. At the meso-economic scale, our initial experiments connecting makerspace fabricators, traditional artisans and natural resources in Ghana, and urban artisans and growers in Michigan, indicates that connecting the flow of unalienated value from labor, environment and expressive generation requires significant innovation if it is to develop as a self-sustaining economic network. Our research, however, indicates that the kinds of data mining, pattern recognition and related tasks required are well within the grasp of humanautomation symbiosis. Finally, at the macro-economic scale, we point towards worker-owned platforms and innovations in commons-based peer production as areas in which automation innovation and artisanal economic structures can co-evolve. But we caution that policy formulation, widely adopted metrics and other kinds of legal, political and civic infrastructure are needed to support such transformations. In sum: we hope this project will show how the powerful automation technologies such as AI can best serve social justice and sustainability not as a trickle -down of innovation from above, but as bottom-up empowerment starting from the grassroots."


Cobots, i.e. Collaborative Robots

Ron Eglash et al.:

"Recent literature on human-machine work collaboration has frequently focused on collaborative robots (“cobots”), where humans and robots work together side by side to accomplish shared work goals (Colgate et al. 1996; Peshkin and Colgate 1999; You et al. 2018). Human-robot work collaboration is being offered as a potential solution to the fear of massive job losses due to automation. But, as we detail below, our preliminary research shows two different faces to this work. As an example of public-facing discourse, Rethink Robotics has produced TED talks and other media showing how “cobots” allow workers to continue in a new collaborative role.

But in their industry-facing discourse, CEO Scott Eckert’s blog (Eckert 2016) explicitly positions cobots as solving “the rising cost of labor”, implying massive layoffs. Indeed robots are expected to replace nearly half the human workforce in 10‒20 years (Ackerman. 2014, Owais et al. 2014; Webster, 2014). In many cases robots will entirely replace their human counterparts. For example, robotic process automation (RPA) provides “digital workers” which can both perform the work of humans and manage other “digital workers.” (Lacity & Willcocks, 2016; Le Clair, 2017)." (

Heritage Algorithms

Ron Eglash et al.:

"The alternative to mass production is often phrased as “design globally, manufacture locally” (Kostakis et al 2015) or “global bits, local atoms” (Gershenfeld et al 2017). Such frameworks are helpful in conveying the idea that it is more environmentally sustainable to manufacture locally than to ship items around the world. But it fails to capture the sense that there are locally specific algorithms. If a French designer is sending his digital file to be 3D printed in Senegal, where it is locally sold, with some profit share back to France, the system sounds suspiciously neocolonial; perhaps more environmental but still positioning Europe as the knowledge base and developing nations as market and materials source. Artisans, especially those operating in a cultural tradition, should be positioned as knowledge experts, not merely a cog in the wheel of sustainability.

Just as local gardeners can help to sustain biodiversity with heritage crops, we have found that local artisans can help to sustain cultural diversity with “heritage algorithms” (Bennett 2016). These are the underlying formal patterns of cultural artifacts. Examples include iteration in Navajo weaving, fractals in African American cornrows, nonlinear curves in urban graffiti, reflection symmetry in Latinx leather tooling, hexagonal tiling in Appalachian quilting, and so on." (

Culturally Situated Design Tools

= " an open source archive of heritage algorithms".

"We developed the CSDT simulations through a respectful collaborative design process that begins in interviews with elders, artisans and other cultural representatives. The enthusiasm for having youth continue traditions in new media was striking. Some elders, who feared that their knowledge in Navajo weaving or Anishinaabe woodcraft was vanishing, were strong advocates for this synthesis between tradition and innovation. Several adults embraced the idea of deeper involvement."

Upskilling, not deskilling

"The general trend for human-machine interaction is toward voice commands, automation “at the touch of a button”, and other ways to make human intervention as simple as possible. But this approach fails to appreciate the long-term trend towards “deskilling” in labor, which was deployed historically to disrupt shop floor control by machinists and others (Nobel 1979). To reverse that trend, the interface needs to find the “sweet spot” between ease of use and skills development. Future directions for this aspect of the project include the development of the CSDT website as an open-source, open-access research platform in which various functions within scripts can be seamlessly assigned to machine intelligence or human control as users and researchers see fit."

More information

    • Specialized articles From the Bibliography==
  • Carr, C., & Gibson, C. (2016). Geographies of making: Rethinking materials and skills for

volatile futures. Progress in Human Geography, 40(3), 297–315.

  • Cimatti, B., Campana, G., & Carluccio, L. (2017). Eco Design and Sustainable Manufacturing in

Fashion: A Case Study in the Luxury Personal Accessories Industry. Procedia Manufacturing, 8, 393-400.

  • Diez, T., & Posada, A. (2013, February). The fab and the smart city: the use of machines and

technology for the city production by its citizens. In Proceedings of the 7th international conference on tangible, embedded and embodied interaction (pp. 447-454). ACM.

  • Gallegos, J. E., Boyer, C., Pauwels, E., Kaplan, W. A., & Peccoud, J. (2018). The Open Insulin

Project: A Case Study for ‘Biohacked’Medicines. Trends in biotechnology.

Generalist material from the Bibliography

  • Bauwens, Michel, & Pantazis, Alekos. (2018). The ecosystem of commons-based peer

production and its transformative dynamics. The Sociological Review, 66(2), 302–319. London, England: SAGE Publications.

  • Eglash, R. (2016). Of marx and makers: An historical perspective on generative justice.

Teknokultura, 13(1), 245-269.

  • Kneese, T., & Rosenblat, A. (2014). Technologically Mediated Artisanal Production. Open

Society Foundations' Future of Work Commissioned Research Papers.

  • Kostakis, V., Niaros, V., Dafermos, G., & Bauwens, M. (2015). Design global, manufacture local:

Exploring the contours of an emerging productive model. Futures, 73, 126-135.