ReMaker Society

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Discussion

By Stephen Quilley, Jason Hawreliak, Kaitlin Kish:

"Technological innovations in telematics (communication, coordination and organization) and micro- fabrication are combining to make possible a shift in the opposite direction. Open production and the distributed economy make it at least conceivable that high tech production and innovation can be achieved i.) more sustainably, using eco-cyclical patterns of resource use in smaller-scale, bioregional contexts, and ii.) in more place-bound and communitarian settings that reduce the spatial scope of interdependency whilst increasing the intensity of interactions in place. However, whilst technical developments may make possible a more fractal and distributed model of production, technical solutions alone will not resolve the problem of over-consumption. The post-consumer society intimates problems of meaning [ontology], societal values and non-rational drivers of behaviour. Even more difficult is the extent to which open-architecture production models involve the informalization of economic activity. Because ‘re-embedding’ economic activity in this sense involves the contraction of that part of the formal economy that is ‘visible’ to the state, and therefore taxable, the open economy presents a terminal threat to the established models of public infrastructure, redistribution and welfare provision – all of which depend on fiscal transfers from a growing economy. In what follows, we explore the logic of the distributed, open architecture ‘ReMaker Society’, focusing in particular on the problems of meaning and alternative modes for the provision of public goods.

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The vision, only occasionally explicit in this burgeoning maker scene, is of a post-consumer society in which fabrication of everyday material artefacts is routinely practiced in domestic and community contexts. This is supported through collaborative design across information networks, less grid-dependent energy and resource networks, and citizen participation in material production. While remaining critical of the techno-utopian rhetoric which often surrounds the maker movement, we propose that the open source ‘distributed’ economic model now coming into view has the potential to become truly disruptive, as demonstrated by the growing system of makers, informal economic activity, interest in repair and modularity, maker faires, and online shops and exchanges. Participatory fabrication has the potential to challenge the logic of passive consumption through communities based on sharing and creativity. These communities engender a new kind of community-based economy emphasising tacit and community knowledge, co-operative ownership, and implicitly removing one’s self from mainstream economic activity. Such changes have potentially drastic implications for a distributive political economy and a new reMaker society.

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The model of the reMaker society is potentially significant for two reasons. Firstly, decentralised, participatory ‘low overhead’ production models make it conceivable that at least some of the material culture that defines modern societies might be sustained and reproduced outside of the integrated formal economy that currently straddles the globe. By substituting for this globally integrated market, a series of networked and more embedded (in Polanyi’s sense) bioregional economies, the reMaker model would not obviate the cycling of growth, collapse and reorganization phases. But it would eliminate the possibility of large scale systemic collapse, whilst i.) reducing the local and regional ecological impacts of growth and ii.) the social consequences of periodic retrenchment. Secondly, the reMaker model would allow alternative structures of political economy to emerge in tandem with more communitarian models of care, welfare and the provision of local public goods. Re-embedding economic activity and livelihood could conceivably see the re-emergence of the gift economy and reciprocity as important ‘planes of integration’ (Polanyi, 1968) and a reduced emphasis on mechanisms of both market and state. Examples might include public involvement in hospital care, familial and community home-schooling or community involvement in the repair and maintenance of public infrastructure. Because strategies for social emancipation have historically been so entwined with the expansion of both market and state in highly complex societies, such re-embedding scenarios raise difficult questions. Nevertheless, the reMaker society intimates a hitherto unacknowledged ‘adjacent possible’ i.e. a combination of state, (formal) market and (informal) communitarian reciprocity that could conceivably deliver modern technology and levels of innovation at a much lower ecological cost, and in the context of a much less individualistic post-consumer society." (http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-9-alternative-internets/peer-reviewed-papers/finding-an-alternate-route-towards-open-eco-cyclical-and-distributed-production/)


CRITIQUE: DEPENDENCE ON CAPITALIST SYSTEM AND PROBLEMS OF ACCESS

"We have sought to distinguish the potential of a reMaker political economy from the sociology of contemporary maker culture, eulogised by the Make Magazine and the Maker Faires (‘the greatest show and tell on Earth’ http://makerfaire.com). There are obvious critiques of maker culture relating to income and educational barriers. Joining a maker space requires upfront cost, free time, some basic skill level, and knowledge of the group (generally disseminated in Universities). Certainly the number of maker spaces have greatly increased over the last 10 years (there are over 410 maker/hacker spaces listed on databases online, (“Directory” http://spaces.makerspace.com/makerspace-directory), almost none of which existed 10 years ago). But the maker culture also depends on the larger economic system for a flow of components, skills and expertize. With regard to patterns of maker motivation, there is also a structural link between capitalism and social systems of individualisation and freedom of choice/mobility (see Quilley, 2013). First, this dependence is logistical. Maker spaces are not typically able to supply, by making for themselves, the tools necessary for production. While most spaces are equipped with 3D printers, these printers are typically unable to print a metal blade for a rotary saw, for instance. Even more difficult, is obtaining the metal to make the saw, or the rare Earth metals to create the computers for operating CAD and the software to use the 3D printer. Without specific levels of technology, it is impossible to say what kind of scale of economy could independently exist in a reMaker society. There is no clear idea about the minimum scale of technology required for a single functioning maker space, let alone a community based on these ideas. This extends to the problem that “not all societies are at the same level of informational development, that the revolution is well entrenched in the richest countries and is only beginning in the poorest” (Mosco, 2004, p. 18). This may make it difficult for developing countries to adopt the maker culture as it exists in the West, without first going through an industrial revolution of their own – demonstrating the difficulty in suggesting a political economy that is dependent on the foundation that it seeks to challenge. However, there is another possibility that we address below.

The second argument for dependence on the capitalist system comes from complexity theory – that there is no ‘trivial consumption’.

Economic responses to biophysical limits to growth need to consider broad, long-term social development consequences. Degrowth literature (Kallis, Kerschner, and Martinez-Alier, 2012; Sekulova et al., 2013; D’Alisa, Demaria, and Kallis, 2014) commonly assumes that the political structure of degrowth will allow for the values of social inclusion, justice, peace and development to be reconciled with limits to growth. However, Ophuls (2011) demonstrates that this would come with significant complexity constraints and trade-offs between societal consumption and characteristics of cultural progress. The values, practices and institutions of social emancipation [at least as they have been understood over the last century] are tied intrinsically to overall levels of socio-economic and technical complexity, i.e. the extent of the division of labour and the degree to which the economy generates fiscal transfers to fund state infrastructures and institutions (e.g. state childcare programmes, the expansion of higher education, disability benefits). To the extent that contemporary maker culture i.) is part of the leisure economy, ii.) represents the self-actualising expression of highly individualised consumers with economic resources, and iii.) is parasitic on forms of social and cultural capital (e.g. individuals with high levels of tertiary education)—it is very much a function of the consumer society. Any significant process of degrowth or contraction would have unknowable consequences for the social, political, and cultural structures upon which contemporary maker culture depends. More generally, the decline in the scale of the economy would likely be accompanied by, what Elias refers to as, a process of ‘decivilisation’ i.e. a loosening of internalized processes of psychological restraint along with a decline in the regulatory capacity of the state (Linklater and Mennell, 2010). Quilley expands on this argument extensively in his paper “Degrowth is Not a Liberal Agenda” (2013).

In an editorial note for the fifth issue of this publication, the editors ask, “We now have the means of production, but where is my revolution?” (Maxigas and Troxler, 2014). As many of the articles in the fifth issue note, the revolutionary promises of maker culture, FLOSS, etc. have largely failed to materialize. One article which is particularly relevant to our discussion of OSE and the emancipatory rhetoric surrounding maker culture is Wolf et al’s (2014) examination of “Fab Labs” or fabrication laboratories. Like OSE, Fab Labs “have the ambition to share digital fabrication blueprints as well as operating instructions for using the machines in the worldwide community” (Wolf et al, 2014: para. 2). As the researchers found, however, there are significant “motivational, social, technological and legal barriers” (para. 3) which make it difficult to achieve this ambition. Indeed, they note that “within the Fab Lab community global open knowledge sharing is far from the norm, despite the high claims of the Fab Charter” (sec. 4.1, para. 3). Like OSE, members of these fab-labs are well-intentioned and many are altruistic in their aims. Yet, significant challenges remain, such as the issue of accessibility, and a critical assessment of the associated techno-utopian claims can help us address them. So maker culture is not a social movement in the sense of presenting a coherent and self-conscious challenge to the structures of contemporary capitalist society (Roots, 1997; Melucci, 1989; Laclau and Mouffe, 2001). It is self-evidently tied to the existing structures of global consumer capitalism (Bean and Rosner, 2014). Using the heuristics of complex systems analysis, maker culture is deeply entrenched in the existing ‘basin of attraction.’ In any objective sense, experiments like Open Source Ecology remain utterly marginal and insignificant. There is no conceivable way in which, other things being equal, participatory fabrication can challenge incrementally the logic of accumulation driving the current system. In all sorts of ways, makers like everyone else are tied to a capitalist growth economy – not least because all public sector infrastructure, health systems, welfare, roads, universities, education systems etc. depend absolutely upon fiscal transfers from a growing economy. But in an era of limits, it is possible that the rules could change rather quickly. If we have learned anything since 2008 and from the on-going crisis in Europe, it is that continued growth is not guaranteed. And any serious failure of the growth machine would quickly lead to what Habermas (1975) referred to as legitimation crises. In an era of systemic limits, environmental politics is likely also to prove non-linear: opportunities are likely to emerge rapidly and in the context of crisis. In this context any relationship between current maker culture and a conceivable future/emerging reMaker society should be seen as ‘pre-figurative’: a shallow basin of attraction explored by pioneers and counter-cultural radicals that may have the potential to explode given a sufficiently destabilising exogenous shock to the current system. To use Gramsci’s metaphor (1971) the leading edge of maker culture can be seen as a resource for and an arena for a ‘war of position’ – the struggle to reveal cultural and political-economic ‘adjacent possibilities’ that have the potential to proliferate under the right conditions (Quilley, 2016). Open Source Ecology is in this sense a kind of pre-figurative politics (Graeber, 2002; Young & Schwartz, 2012).

This notion of pre-figurative politics also has implications for radical community development in the global south. The notion that all countries are destined to follow an immutable sequence of developmental stages has often been a feature of both Marxist and mainstream political economy (Rostow’s modernization theory). However not only has this idea been challenged in theory (Skocpol, 1977; Kay, 2010; Escobar, 2011), it is also being turned upside down by novel applications of technology in the field. Stewart Brand (2010) uses the example of mobile telephony in Africa to demonstrate how technology is transforming the relationship between infrastructure and development facilitating entirely new and less grid dependent trajectories for industrialization. In this context, it seems at least plausible that global economic shocks might be most likely to trigger a deepening and widening of the reMaker basin of attraction in the proliferating urban conurbations of the global south. In such contexts the potential for polyvalent, multi-skilled artisans working with open-sourced, multi-functional, small scale machines to re-imagine the relationship between production and consumption seems to be much greater – not least because of the lower regulatory burden. These ‘low-overhead’ contexts are the likely to be most conducive for a transition from maker culture to a reMaker society."


CONCLUSION

The reMaker society offers a number of possibilities for community structures centred on open source technics of relocalization. While still dependent on global production chains, the ongoing aspiration for relocalization is for the first time supported by technological innovations and micro-fabrication that give hope for a shift away from a corporately dominated political economy. Such a political economy, bolstered by growing support for open-source/commons ownerships and approaches would be more likely to achieve a ‘sustainable degrowth’ (Martínez-Alier, 2010) by a) making visible impacts on local bioregions and ecological systems and b) restructuring satisfaction toward a more limited set of needs. It would also redefine ownership, both of goods within a community and toward a single produced good. Citizens would be engaged, embedded in community and place, gaining satisfaction through family, community, and creative activities. All of this sounds like the idyllic visions of a post-growth society. However, open production and the distributed economy make conceivable such social structures in conjunction with high-tech production and technological innovation. With satisfaction coming from community and kin ties, a potential post-consumer, yet high-tech, society becomes possible. At the same time, we must keep a watchful eye on the utopian rhetorics surrounding progress and potentially emancipatory technology, while also remembering that this is not a condemnation of it. Indeed, as ambitious and utopian as it may be, the OSE project, for instance, is noble in its pursuits. However, by better understanding the limits of open source networks—technical, rhetorical, economic, and socio-political—groups such as OSE and Fab Labs will be better positioned to make good on their goals. In looking at OSE, the risk is not so much that its adherents will exploit those they purport to help, but rather, that in getting too caught up in what can be accomplished technically, they unwittingly ignore the complex network of human factors upon which their success depends. Additionally, the amount to which an open-source distributed political economy relies on the corporate capitalist system remains an open question. This suggests two significant areas for future work and investigation. First, to select a set of various social outcomes of the corporate capitalist system and examine the consequences when each of those outcomes is threatened by a reduction in governmental and centralized support (e.g. health care). Second, to further explore the likelihood of having information technology without reliance on larger global systems of trade and distribution."

More Information

* Article: Finding an Alternate Route: Towards Open, Eco-cyclical, and Distributed Production. By Stephen Quilley, Jason Hawreliak, Kaitlin Kish. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #9: Alternative Internets, 2016

URL = http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-9-alternative-internets/peer-reviewed-papers/finding-an-alternate-route-towards-open-eco-cyclical-and-distributed-production/