This text was written after a residence in the VCUQ in Doha, Qatar. Previous versions were published in my old (now archived) blog and Makery (in English and translated to French). Some months later it was slightly improved by the editors of Tvergastein and included in its sixth edition. More about the two weeks I spent in Doha can be read in this microtext for Facta magazine or this blog post (both in Portuguese); and seen in this picture album. There is also an unfinished book about our field trip and the Salleh Lab that I hope to finish someday in the future.
Maker culture, the so-called revolution bringing digital fabrication technologies to the common citizen, has gained a lot of ground in the last few years. Maybe too much, in fact. We can of course ignore those people who are only, as always, surfing the current wave of hype. They seldom have any clue of the ideas they are selling themselves with anyway. But it also feels as though everybody else is talking about maker culture. Those words are even being uttered by people who have always been opposed to what they should mean. Or is it me? Did I get it wrong all the way?
The first time I read about a "maker culture", it was a sort of relief. I had finally found - or so I thought - a way to explain a number of initiatives some of us in Brazil had been involved in for some years already. Framing those things as "making" enabled us to mix critical thinking with DIY (as brilliantly put by Matt Ratto on "critical making"), proposing a sort of creative engagement that escaped the dead-ends of tedious market-driven innovation. A culture of conscious makers could recognize and promote alternative solutions and new perspectives for everyday problems, valuing distributed and collaborative approaches and seeking the common good. It would help overcome traditional institutions and their clogged circuits of information. Local, cooperative formations would challenge the logics of global industrial capitalism, treating every human being - or small group, however loose it was - as potentially creative and productive. Industrial products that suffered of planned obsolescence would be repaired as armies of amateurs used the internet to share digital models of replacement parts. New kinds of meaning and engagement would evolve, influenced by such approaches to material and cultural expression. Possibilities emerging from the free software and hacker movements would finally evert the world of things.
And yet, we ended up in a world of newbie geeks assembling prefabricated kits of 3D printers, with which hipster designers-to-be (often the new-geeks themselves) can melt lots of plastic - which is hardly recyclable - into prototypes of new products, hoping to become rich and famous. Most such prototypes will never be used for anything at all, but their creators will none the less spam all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram trying to convince us they are building our (better, in a way no one can specify) future. Who knows, they may be invited to do a TED talk or raise some bucks on Kickstarter. Or at least become consultants for an international NGO willing to develop "technologies for education".
And there we go. Forget about hackers getting blisters in their hands as they struggle to become carpenters. Those times are gone. Sadly, the most important skill in the maker culture these days seems to be keeping a spreadsheet on Google drive with a business plan and a consistent strategy for social media PR. Numbers everywhere.
In more general terms, instead of portraying an acceleration towards the end of industrial age, celebrity author-speakers are now talking about a "new industrial revolution". In the same direction, the Obama administration in the US is reportedly planning to pour one billion dollars to set up 15 "manufacturing innovation hubs" with the goal of sustaining industrial growth. As if the centuries oriented by industrial paradigms didn't bring enough harm to the world already. Sure, one cannot deny the improvements brought about by industry - especially in terms of driving scientific development and its implications in food, transportation, health and communications. At the same time, though, we have seen some aspects of contemporary life go in a totally wrong way. Think for instance about waste and pollution, inequality, disintegration of cultures and social ties, permanent global war and many other consequences of the industrial age. I'm not sure we should even be trying to promote a new industrial revolution if those aspects are not carefully taken into account. And judging by the prevailing discourse within the current breed of maker culture, I'm not sure they are.
When the maker culture becomes eminently entrepreneurial, we should wonder what mechanisms are set in motion. It may as well be the old capitalist drive to turn the critique to itself into the gears of its own reinvention gaining ground. Could we ever escape that path?
It was 2002 when a group of people in Brazil first discussed the ideas that eventually led to the creation of MetaReciclagem. In the first projection of those shared cyberpunk dreams, we would use the internet to gather local groups to work with the discarded PCs we saw piling up everywhere. Once repaired and put back to work using free and open source software, those computers could then be configured as nodes in autonomous wireless networks that promised digital communications beyond the constraints and market limitations of corporate internet. Never mind the fact that at that time none of us had ever touched a Wi-Fi card, and only a couple had any working experience with free/open source software. We were opening up those magical black boxes with our own hands and changing the way they worked. And it felt great. It was a group of passionate explorers of new possibilities, however remote those might seem. I don't think we set up a lot of those Utopian networks, but by decomposing the steps that would bring us there we managed to accomplish a lot.
We were of course following the huge tidal changes taking place by the turn of the millennium. Some of us had been dragged into the dot-com bubble (the first one, still in the last century) with hopes of infinite creative challenges, only to end up finding office doors closed with locks after stocks imploded. Others were involved with urban demonstrations against WTO and corporate globalization. The second edition of the World Social Forum in 2002 offered some of us glimpses of hope in a world otherwise still paralyzed by 9/11. Despite the bad times, within MetaReciclagem it felt as if faith, good intentions and hard work would allow us to create better futures. Whatever that meant. Our part, it seemed by then, would start by gathering every Saturday in a warehouse in the southern part of São Paulo to repair discarded computers.
MetaReciclagem turned from an idea into a distributed group, and then onto a methodology that was open to be appropriated by whoever wished to, anywhere. At some point, a network of about half a dozen self-managed MetaReciclagem labs in different regions of Brazil would receive donated PCs, make them useful again in some way and then give them away to social projects and movements. Some of us were also invited to advise on and implement public policies related to information technologies and society. At some point MetaReciclagem came to be explained in such an elastic definition as a loose network promoting the "critical appropriation of technologies for social change". During that evolution, we discovered a number of groups, people and initiatives in other parts of the world that acknowledged the huge potential of using discarded equipment and free/open source software to address both the uneven distribution of and the enclosure of knowledge into information technologies.
Our own contribution to this context was related, we found some time later, to the way our actions were deeply informed by Brazilian cultural practices such as gambiarra and mutirão. Mutirão is the sort of collective dynamics that takes place when we Brazilians need to find solutions - say, building an extra room to accommodate a newborn child - and proceed by inviting neighbors, relatives, friends and acquaintances to help out, often with their own hands. The result is an autonomous, iconoclast and celebratory sociability that is abundant and productive. Gambiarra refers to all kinds of improvised solutions to concrete problems that appear when one doesn't have access to the proper tools, materials, parts or specific knowledge to perform a given task. It is all about repairing or repurposing objects that seemed to be of little use but end up acquiring new value out of tacit, applied creativity. I sometimes call it "everyday innovation". The Spanish designer Victor Viña draws a parallel between gambiarra, jugaad and bricolage. These are cultural practices which are naturally tactical, deeply rooted in the essentially human and widely available ability of understanding objects with one's mind and hands, and then taking action over such objects. They see the world as abundant in potential solutions instead of precarious or scarce in resources.
Some years into this game, I had already heard of and even visited a number of the projects which for over a decade then had been proposing and implementing similar ideas. In particular European hacklabs, were rooted into a social context that I could relate to. People involved with these hacklabs stemming from an activist context - squatters, hackers, engaged artists, even critical theorists - talked of other possibilities for contemporary living, of cultural diversity and common good reaching far beyond the tired mechanisms of a market economy ruled by big media. They promoted networked politics that were radically inclusive. They strove to fight cognitive capitalism, consumerism and alienation. DIY was the norm, as well as copyleft and consensus-based decision-making. In that context, free and open source software was not only an efficient way to organize the production of knowledge but also a cultural and critical take on the pervasiveness of relationships mediated only by economic values. That universe made a lot of sense to our projects and political momentum in Brazil as well.
The same can't easily be said of formations that would emerge later on, even ones inspired by the very same context. A symbolic example is the transformation performed by the hackerspace movement, translating and transporting the largely underground practices of (basically) European hacklabs to a wider public first in the US and later in the rest of the world. The association of hackerspaces with what came to be known as a "maker culture" gave me, as said above, an amazing first impression. Indeed, while reading Cory Docotorow's Makers - first published in 2009 - I was pleased to recognize practices, methods and aspirations that felt similar to ones common within the MetaReciclagem network in Brazil. I also noticed essential differences in the world portrayed by Doctorow's novel, such as the central role attributed to commercial modes of operation. But I eventually dismissed the relevance of these nuances, treating them as result of particular cultural biases.
It seems however that the current breed of maker culture has completely surrendered to market forces. I won't even start discussing the prevalence of proprietary operating systems inside the laptops (and smartphones, tablets, etc.) of today's so-called makers. Let's try to focus on the bigger picture. Not only did the hackerspace movement give room to somewhat domesticated practices of commercial entrepreneurship, but their close and often submissive relationship with models such as MIT's Fablabs brought along a vocabulary packed with terms stemming from the industrial age. In 2008, Bre Pettis wrote an article for 2600 magazine promoting hackerspaces and technologies of digital fabrication. In this three-page long rant, Pettis mentions "prototypes" or "prototyping" over 20 times. As already noted by Gabriel Menotti, the prototype is to an extent the opposite of the Brazilian gambiarra. The prototype, as an object, wouldn't have an existence on its own – it would only be a sort of rehearsal for "proper" products to be mass-produced at some point in the future. In itself, a prototype is already a piece of waste. On the other hand, gambiarra is about finding multiple concrete solutions, often by re-purposing two different objects to perform a task none of them were originally built to. In the context of a contemporary society struggling for sustainability, meaning, creativity and value, gambiarra seems to have more to offer than the weak existence of layers and layers of plastic-made prototypes.
Back in the beginning of MetaReciclagem - when we were still trying to find out what it was that we wanted to accomplish in those lost, sometimes frustrating Saturdays - someone shared a link in our e-mail discussion list. It pointed to a project in the UK called Lowtech. Associated with Access Space, a digital arts centre in Sheffield that used exclusively discarded computers and Linux to carry its activities, Lowtech offered valuable insights that were definitely incorporated into our practices. It wasn't before half a decade later during an edition of Futuresonic (now FutureEverything) in Manchester that I had the opportunity to get acquainted with James Wallbank, the British artist who ran Access Space and created Lowtech. We then started an open-ended conversation - that is still taking place today - about machines, hands, skills, scents and futures.
When I met James again a couple of years ago in Finland for the Bricolabs programme during the Pixelache festival, he was promoting the Refab Space. This was his own take on setting up a lab with digital fabrication equipment - some of it donated from local factories that were moving abroad. Instead of buying into the holy grail of maker culture, James was curious about the actual potential of using those technologies that were becoming increasingly available. He told me the laser cutter was a real workhorse. On the other hand, the 3D printer was - if I remember James' words correctly - the least useful and most complex of this type of equipment. Nevertheless, it still had an indirect role for Refab Space as it attracted talented people wanting to have the chance to explore new possibilities.
But there was something else there. I wanted to ask James what he made of the whole maker culture concept. Unfortunately, I can't tell what he would have replied, as the idea of a culture of repair suddenly struck me as too important to be overlooked and I was lost in daydreaming. Why had the maker culture become concerned only with industrial methods - prototyping future mass-produced objects? What would be the concrete outcomes of a number of success-eager young talents spitting out objects made out of melted plastic, hardly - if ever - recyclable, everywhere in the world? Doesn't the planet have enough useless objects made of plastic already?
Of course, a repair culture isn't just about repairing things. We could try to find a better way to define a culture of reuse, repair and re-purposing. But proposing repair - the physical act of mending things in order to extend their lifetime or else turning them into something else of use - as a core value sounds good enough for a current need: criticizing the path apparently taken by maker culture that is addicted to novelty, becoming consequently toxic, unsustainable, superficial and alienating.
In a sense, repairing may be rooted in tradition the same way startup making is related to novelty. Indeed, a number of makerspaces and fablabs sound all too anxious to reach an abstract future, often at the cost of discarding any sort of tradition. Repair culture, on the other hand, is nothing new. It has evolved with human history since thousands of years before the industrial revolution. In fact, it was only recently that repairing objects came to be regarded as something society as a whole and any person individually should avoid. But if we agree with that, something very important is being taken from us: the exercise and accumulated knowledge of matching everyday problems and the countless solutions available for them. There would be hipster designers everywhere, but the fundamental divide between makers and mere users would linger, or even increase. In other words, a renewed industrial sector, now distributed and even more dynamic, is planning to take creativity away from our everyday lives. We cannot afford to lose that.
Perhaps we could start by shifting the focus away from "what valuable new thing can I come up with that will make me famous/rich/sexy". Repairing things as a cultural trend is inextricably related to organic food, natural birthing, cultural diversity, upcycling, sustainable mobility, urban farming, fair trade, culture of peace and digital commons. Repair culture, in that sense, is not a mere side effect of the development of industrial societies. On the contrary, it is one of the very few distributed and consistent niches of resistance against the transformation of all human creativity into quantifiable commodity. I reckon it's not hard to pick a side on this matter.
1 - After reading a draft of this text, Wallbank told me he resigned from Access Space and opened a shop in Sheffield dedicated to maker culture. He is excited with the way youngsters are curious with "remaking, reuse, crafting and making" these days.