Towards Open, Eco-cyclical, and Distributed Production

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* 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



"Open source networks have the potential to radically disrupt activities and domains that have traditionally been under the purview of governmental and corporate entities. Traditional manufacturing, for instance, has often relied on large scale institutions for capital, distribution, and bureaucratic/services support. However, with the proliferation of open source networks, small, independent actors can collaborate with one another bypassing larger institutions. Such ‘off-grid’ activity may potentially bring with it a range of economic, environmental, and psychological benefits. This paper explores the logic and potential impact of distributed, open architecture, and community-based fabrication. We focus in particular on (i.) problems of meaning, motivation and behavioural change and (ii) alternative modes for the provision of public goods. To unravel the connections between political economy, technology, and problems of meaning and behaviour, we propose the concept of the “reMaker society,” which centres on micro-manufacturing practices and localized distribution networks. In particular, we explore the possibility of DIY production to shift markers of social prestige and psychological self-worth from passive consumption to active and collaborative making, drawing on the organization Open Source Ecology as an exemplar."


On ReMaker Society

"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.


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.


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."

On Terror Management Theory

"In the context of the reMaker society, we also propose a psychological framework for understanding the gap between knowledge and action noted above, and perhaps more importantly, for producing a potentially meaningful way to address it. For starters, it seems likely that part of the solution must come about by better understanding the role of consumer culture in bolstering self-esteem and ontological security (Laing, 1961; Giddens, 1991). One useful point of departure in this regard is Terror Management Theory (TMT), an empirical psychological framework validated by experimental data from over 300 published studies.

According to the TMT model, cultural belief systems function as ‘immortality ideologies’ which act as buffers against existential anxiety (Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski, 1984). Based on the work of Ernest Becker (e.g. 1973; 1975), TMT contends that human beings possess the same biological imperatives to survive as all organisms, but also possess the mental capacity to anticipate [and dwell upon] their inevitable death, and more generally to understand the significance of mortality. The combination of an instinctual will to survive with the knowledge of inescapable finitude is a source of potentially crippling anxiety. In order to cope with existential terror, we create and subscribe to meaning systems which allow us to believe that we are special, or in Becker’s parlance, that we are more significant than “worms and food for worms” (Becker, 1973, p. 26). To achieve this, we engage in ‘hero projects’ – culturally sanctioned practices that increase feelings of belonging, social recognition and self-worth. Furthermore, social systems provide avenues for ‘immortality projects’ through which individuals can live on in perpetuity, literally (perhaps through a religious conception of an afterlife) or symbolically (Lifton, 1983), in the form of a legacy.

TMT has been used to great effect to examine the impact of non-rational drivers in consumption habits (e.g. Arndt et al, 2004) and climate change denial (Vess and Arndt, 2008; Dickinson, 2009). One consequence of modernization is that the in the context of individualized, mobile urban societies, processes of disenchantment, cultural relativism and secularization have undermined cohesive, culturally-sanctioned and shared hero/immortality projects. Even markers as basic as ‘being a good mother’ or ‘living like a good Christian’ no longer function as effective hero/immortality projects. Consumerism has become the lowest common denominator and signifier of last resort. Conspicuous consumption, style and the ownership of things have become highly visible and universally understood markers of prestige and self-worth (Becker, 1973; Kasser and Sheldon, 2000; Arndt et al., 2004). It is the endless cycle of consumption that serves at once to distract us from our mortality whilst providing us with highly visible indicators of success and prestige. Owning a large house, expensive car, or even the latest smartphone (O’Gorman, 2010) are all means for quantifiably demonstrating success within a capitalist system. This may partially account for why people continue to buy into the logic of passive consumption even when they are aware of its negative impacts on workers, local economies, and the environment: the self-esteem boost gained through consumption and ownership may overwhelm any moral quandaries regarding working conditions, sustainability, or the environment (Dickinson, 2009). Thus, one way to counter the logic of passive consumption may be to provide alternative sources of meaning and self-esteem – hero/immortality projects that privilege making and repurposing over buying and throwing away. This is a central aim of the reMaker society: not directly to replace or upend globalization and capitalist hegemony, but to offer a meaningful alternative to the logic of passive consumption. The concept of the reMaker society seeks to link the potential of open source technics, the DIY ethos, and maker-spaces, to an alternative vision of political economy and psychologically informed understanding of green hero/immortality projects."

An assessment of the Open Source Ecology project in psycho-spiritual terms

OSE may be viewed as an early example of what a small-scale reMaker Society might look like:

"One of the most high-profile experiments in open source, participatory design and fabrication is ‘Open Source Ecology’(OSE) – a project that has been the focus of much hype and perhaps excessive expectation. Founded in 2003, OSE hopes to “see a world of prosperity that doesn’t leave anyone behind” (Open Source Ecology: About, 2014). At its core, OSE designs and provides open source blueprints for a ‘Global Village Construction Set’ (GVCS), described as “a set of the 50 most important machines that it takes for modern life to exist” (Open Source Ecology: GCVS, 2014). These include tractors, earth-brick presses, ovens, and circuit makers. OSE calls their pieces of machinery ‘lego’ as they can be interchangeable and designed to fit user needs. One of the primary goals of the GVCS is to provide an alternate means for procuring equipment essential for self-sufficiency at a fraction of the cost of retail machines. For instance, according to OSE’s website, a John Deere Utility Tractor may cost upwards of $44,487; a tractor built according to OSE’s designs, however, may only cost $9,060 (Open Source Ecology, 2014). By implementing a system which emphasizes modular design, individuals do not need to purchase manufacturer specific components or pay exorbitant labour costs; instead, they are potentially able to construct, repair and modify their equipment when necessary.

OSE is an ambitious organization with lofty, world-changing aims. When asked about his goals in an interview with Make magazine, OSE’s founder, Marcin Jakubowski, responded that “we’re trying to reinvent civilization” (Kalish, 2012). We see this rhetoric at play in the organization’s “Vision” statement as well:

This work of distributing raw productive power to people is not only a means to solving wicked problems – but a means for humans themselves to evolve. The creation of a new world depends on expansion of human consciousness and personal evolution – as individuals tap their autonomy, mastery, and purpose – [t]o Build Themselves – and to become responsible for the world around them. One outcome is a world beyond artificial material scarcity – where no longer do material constraints and resource conflicts dictate most of human interactions – personal and political. (Open Source Ecology, 2014)

Although certainly an interesting idea the GVCS remains an aspiration. With the possible exception of the Earth Brick Press, the open hardware is nowhere sufficiently robust and replicable as to compete with commercial products. Our own OSE powercube workshop, run by Tom Griffing in August of 2014 at the DIYode makerspace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, produced only one partially functioning machine that was not sufficiently robust, reliable and replicable to displace the mainstream equivalent. Nevertheless, the project is important not only in exploring the technical potential of open-architecture manufacturing, but because it intimates an equally paradigmatic change in the psychological relation to the processes of production and consumption. The rationale implicit in this project is that this form of relocalization can link local livelihood and bioregional manufacturing, to ecological and communitarian hero/immortality projects, i.e. that an open-source and community-based approach to the design and fabrication of everyday material culture could become the basis for ontological security (Laing, 1962), the re-enchantment of everyday life (Berman, 1989) and a more active, less-consumption oriented pattern of life. Taken together, the technology, the open architecture collaboration, the model of distributive political economy and alternative vehicles for meaning-making, provide the basis for a truly alternative basis for modernity. Both as i.) a prefigurative model of a future society and ii.) a model of activism and social entrepreneurship in the present, the real potential of OSE is as a nascent hero/immortality project.

In OSE we see the belief that the power of networked communication and the open source ethos are truly emancipatory. At least in principle, they not only provide people with a means towards self-sufficiency, but also evoke a world free of ‘artificial material scarcity’ – a leading cause of hunger, poverty, and war. These are lofty and noble claims, to be sure. However, whether or not OSE’s vision to ‘reinvent civilization’ ever comes to pass, it is nevertheless an example of the sort of movement which characterizes the reMaker Society. The ethos of OSE is not so much anti-capitalist as pro-self-sufficiency. Unlike the immortality ideology of Western capitalism, where prestige and self-esteem are attained through purchases and the logic of passive consumption, OSE provides its participants and adherents the chance to use their skills and knowledge to build something tangible and, potentially, of lasting worth. From the perspective of TMT, OSE provides participants with an alternative vehicle for the accrual of prestige, self-esteem and ontological security.

So what sort of experience does a typical OSE workshop provide? Interested individuals—usually in their twenties or younger—travel to OSE’s farm in rural Missouri, where they participate in a variety of workshops, equipment builds, and brainstorming sessions. The farm is largely off-grid, meaning modern amenities such as clean water, heating, and wireless internet are either non-existent or unreliable (Eakin, 2013). In an interview with New Yorker magazine, one volunteer summed up the reasons for foregoing the conveniences and, frankly, safety of contemporary, first-world life: “I was looking for a way to affect the economic system with technologies—a classic how-to-change-the-world mentality” (Kang, qtd. in Eakin, 2013). Likewise, another OSE participant who built a Compressed Earth Brick Press via OSE’s online documentation, noted the rewards which come from contributing to the project: “It was like, finally, for the first time in my life I knew what I had to do…. It was kind of like giving birth. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh. We built this, we did this and here’s the result”’ (Slade, qtd. in Kalish, 2012). In the same New Yorker interview referenced above, Jakubowski notes what he calls the “Ikea effect, which is that you like something that you build more than something else [i.e. something purchased]…There’s a deep drive in humans to create their own existence” (Eakin, 2013).

These testimonials exemplify the sense of meaning and ontological security potentially offered by making. To return to Becker (1975), ‘What man [sic] really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning’ (p. 4). In this context, projects like OSE offer a potential salve to the Marxian/Weberian/Durkheimian problems of alienation, disenchantment and anomie. Through participating in an OSE workshop or build, volunteers are able to directly see and benefit from the fruits of their labour (e.g. by drinking the water from a freshly dug well); to find meaning in a radically different understanding of ‘the good life’; and to consolidate deep connections with co-producers. Furthermore, since OSE provides its materials freely accessible online, participants know that their contributions will be viewed by others for potentially years to come, further adding to the opportunity for a digital legacy i.e. an ‘immortality project’.

This is not to suggest that OSE is not without very obvious problems. For starters, living off-grid brings a whole host of logistical and even health challenges, and many workshop participants simply lack the technical skills needed for the workshops to function efficiently, meaning timelines are pushed back or people quit prematurely (Eakin, 2013). Furthermore, at this point the near utopian DIY, off-grid rhetoric of OSE cannot fully mesh with the reality that the project is necessarily completely dependent on commercial components and services – not least the Internet, computer technology, rare earth metals sourced from China. Even in a more limited sense, the OSE farm has had to purchase commercial equipment, such as a bulldozer, and pre-fabricated windows (Eakin, 2013). We also want to emphasize that OSE and maker-culture broadly is only one potential alternative model for economic praxis and self-esteem accrual, and that at this point, any economic or environmental impacts are nominal. Nevertheless, if viewed as a move towards something rather than a fully realized vision, OSE and related groups possess the potential to provide the alternative models of localized economics, self-esteem accrual, and meaning making noted above. In short, OSE may be viewed as an early example of what a small-scale reMaker Society might look like."

Using the ReMaker Society model to reduce the material footprint of complex societies

"There isn’t room here for an extended theoretical discussion, but it is worth noting that the significance of the combination of micro-fabrication technology and open architecture forms of organization is precisely that it has the potential to reduce the thermodynamic and material cost of social complexity. H.T. Odum (2013) used the concept of ‘eMergy’ to explore the way that any process or material artefact depends on embodied energy distributed across all the antecedent biological, social or technological pathways necessary to support it. A pride of lions depends on a minimum area of grassland that can support a minimum population of herbivores. Likewise, the construction of a mobile phone, depends on amongst other things, a system of universities producing a flow of technicians and scientists. In both cases these costs can theoretically be quantified and compared in terms of inputs of solar energy. The central point is that complexity of any kind costs. Information rich systems tend to be associated with the highest ‘transformities’ (Odum’s term for the measure of antecedent energy transformation) and are the most vulnerable to systemic shocks. More recently, John Michael Greer and Kevin Carson argued about Buckminster Fuller’s concept of ‘ephemeralization’ (see Carson, 2013). Contrasting the few pounds of material in a satellite with the massive infrastructure of undersea cabling, Bucky had argued that the unit energy/material cost of technology was declining. Pointing to the obvious dependence of satellite technology on a deep swathe of social-technical systems, Greer countered with the rather obvious point that technological sophistication invariably comes with an unavoidable thermodynamic price tag – a price that can’t be ducked. Greer was right about this particular example. But an open theoretical question underlying our project, is whether new micro-process technologies allied with new forms of collaboration do in fact have the capacity radically to reduce the ‘transformities’ associated with certain technological functions. For example, if it were ever possible to 3D print computer chips and construct/repair/upgrade telecommunications technology in a domestic or community setting, it is possible to envisage a massive reduction in the associated metabolic footprint (the ‘unit transformity cost’) of mobile telephony or computing. This would be something akin to lions being able to eat grass (see Odum, 2013). The possibility of reducing the metabolic cost of complexity goes to the heart of the left-green dilemma. Social emancipation has hitherto depended on forms of technological and social complexity that involve an economic scale (the throughput of energy and materials) that is, in the long term, unsustainable. It is an open question as to whether a reMaker society might eventually make complexity affordable.

Such a society would be much more decentralised with a great deal of active participation in the making, repair, and recycling of everyday goods, thus possibly presenting a significant growth in the informal economy. The potential for a modern green distributive political economy is one in which the goods produced are much cheaper and sustainable to make (Hatch, 2013), relies on open design and flexible fabrication (Jakubowski, 2008), collaborative design and funding (crowdsourcing), modularity, and electronic re-invention based on need, rather than want. The potential primary social and economic outcomes of such a new society emerge from the interplay of new social milieu and re-focusing of technological innovation."