Liberatory technologies? Grassroots digital fabrication

Speaker: Dr Adrian Smith # University of Sussex

9th Feb 2015

15:30 - 17:00

Room 1.06, Old Surgeons' Hall, High School Yards

In this seminar I will explore some of the excited claims being made for grassroots digital fabrication.

There has been a flourishing in recent years of community-based workshops equipped with advanced design and fabrication tools, and which are intended to furnish social and material resources for people to explore the personal and collaborative possibilities of these technologies. In principle, participants can use these tools to make almost anything they want. And indeed, some groups, including international collaborations between workshops, have fabricated everything from local wifi systems and renewable energy devices, to cars and houses. Observers declare excitedly that these spaces and a wider ‘maker movement’ signify, variously, seeds for a new industrial revolution, the democratisation of manufacturing, an unlocking of grassroots innovation, and a sustainable reconfiguring of localised circuits of production and consumption.

In addition to grassroots groups forming their own workshops - such as hackerspaces, makerspaces and fablabs - there are increasing varieties of institution, including libraries, universities, local and national governments, and corporations, who are supporting workshops. What are we to make of this fascination with the social possibilities of machine tools?

One interpretation could be to see it as a phenomena generated by deeper-seated structural changes in technology, society, economy, culture and politics, and which are genuinely opening up radical new possibilities. Another possibility is to see this as the latest manifestation of a long-standing desire in industrial societies to reclaim control, reinstate craft, and overcome alienation through liberatory technologies. In this light, we can think with history, and draw insightful questions for the present. I will attempt this by comparing contemporary making with the experience of community workshops for socially useful production in London in the early 1980s. Finally, another way of trying to make sense of the diversity of workshops and claims for them is to draw on the conceptual resources of STS, in parts informed by earlier activism associated with socially useful production, and which is where I will finish my seminar and open up to discussion.

Speaker's biography