Tag Archives: EASST Events

From the Periphery: exploring STS at the edges of Europe

An interdisciplinary gathering of scholars took place at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute (M-ITI) on October 19-21 2017. We came together to discuss the issues we confront in our work looking at the intersection of remoteness, technology, and self-determination. What began as a plan to write a manifesto ultimately resulted in a hypertext document replete with ambiguity. The structure of the final piece was intended to mirror our booksprint location and site of inspiration – an archipelago of islands, in this case formulated as a series of interlinked but standalone pieces of writing.

This report is being written in the aftermath of a vicious storm which swept the Portuguese island of Madeira – flights cancelled, no one coming in or out. The fisherman’s boats usually dragged up on the wharf had to be relocated to protect them from waves several meters high. A few days later, life more or less went back to normal. The weather, usually a topic reserved for awkward water-cooler small talk in big cities, is a topic of major concern on a remote island, dictating whether the isolation of island life is felt acutely or obscured.

We were fortunate, when we chose to gather in late October of 2017, that the weather was with us, so none of our guests were detained enroute. Together we were a group of eight academics, with five of us from Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute (M-ITI) (Michelle Kasprzak, Gemma Rodrigues, Mariacristina Sciannamblo, James Auger, Julian Hanna), one rural-born Canadian artist (Garnet Hertz), an Irish artist living on a remote Orkadian island (Saoirse Higgins), and an Indo-European design scholar (Deanna Herst). We started our booksprint trying to define the contours of the chosen topic before us – STS and remoteness/islandness. (Figs 1 and 2). We arrived having browsed a series of communally suggested paper recommendations beforehand, featuring STS thinkers such as Susan Leigh Star, Sheila Jasanoff, Ruth Oldenziel, Steven Jackson, and Bruno Latour, as well as Island Studies scholars such as Elaine Stratford and Adam Grydehøj.


Fig 1. Whiteboard brainstorming at Madeira Tecnopolo.
Fig 2. The group discussing text fragments arranged on the Floor.

Though in our initial planning we entitled the booksprint “Science, Design, and Technology on the Periphery: A Manifesto”, and despite the presence of an expert in manifestoes in the person of digital humanities scholar Julian Hanna, the relativities and ambiguities of our topic soon became clear, putting the case for a manifesto on unsteady ground. In our discussion we were able to define many polarities when thinking of island life or remote living and technology: tourist/local; mainland/island; resilience/fragility, et cetera. These polarities, which may have provided scintillating material for a pointed manifesto, proved difficult to maintain once interrogated further. Ultimately we found more interesting murky corners in the contradictions and overlaps, such as a quasi-aphorism from an anonymous Madeiran local: “There are tourists who visit and tourists who live here”, and the idea of the island’s distinct borders also ultimately acting as threshold. Each concept we explored seemed to have a surface polarity obscuring a deeper complication or paradox.

This complexity also manifested in the final form our writing took on. Inspired by anti-colonial theory and non-binarism, a key element of our explorations looked at how ‘epistemological ecologies’ and diversity could be an antidote to ‘epistemicide,’ the obliteration of locally adapted ways of knowing and doing (de Sousa Santos). Thinking in a non-binaristic way and hoping to present many different aspects of related problems in the area of STS, design, and remoteness/islandness, we created an “archipelago” format for our final publication. We decided to create multiple short texts, each one an “island” in the final larger archipelago. Each island would concern itself with one theme, and within the context of the larger archipelago would find the resonances and references to other concepts. We accepted that within this there would be slight thematic overlaps, but that each island could potentially treat a similar concept with a different perspective. For example, the textual island themed “Mainland/island” looked at power relationships between mainland and island, and specifically at re-examining the Indonesian concept of “goytong rotong”, or reciprocity, as a way of circumventing top-down authority. Other textual islands also looked at power, but addressed this notion in geographical, technological, or cultural ways.

The idea of island as outpost and laboratory became a focal point where histories of technology and sociotechnical imaginaries intersected strongly with the concept of remoteness. In the textual island we developed entitled “Laboratory”, we explored the long history of how islands lend themselves well to becoming sites for technological or social experimentation, or as Schalansky points out: “For empirical research, every island is a cause for celebration, a natural laboratory.” (Schalansky 2010) The constant search for new territory is expressed in the dark visions of techno-libertartians who promote concepts such as seasteading or the colonization of outer space. Techno-libertarians also fetishize islands (natural or created) as providing an ideal incubator for moonshot projects, away from the regulatory structures and taxation obligations of nation states. These principles are made clear in, for example, Wayne Gramlich’s manifesto ‘Seasteading: Homesteading on the High Seas’: “tax avoidance is my pick as the most powerful motivator for the development of sea surface colonization technology.” (Gramlich 1998)

Another key island in our textual archipelago examined the phenomenon of frugal innovation. When materials can take quite some time to arrive, or aren’t available at all, local hacks provide a way to continue to experiment with new designs to common problems. Known as a ‘kludge’ in America, ‘bodge’ in England, ‘jeitinho’ in Brazil, ‘jua kali’ in Kenya, ‘jugaad’ in India, ‘zizhu’ in China and ‘Systeme D ‘in France, this way of creating has resonance far beyond the island context. However, we noted that “Islands serve as a microcosm of the world, reminding us of the global condition of having limited resources – and that ad hoc repairs, whether on an island or on the mainland, is a raw form of design that stands in contrast to the standardized, commodified and generic.” (Kasprzak et al, 2017)

Once we had drafted our series of textual islands, the question remained about how to best present them. Typically a book sprint involves several collaborators working on a digital document which is then published as an EPUB and shared. These results are sometimes printed out as short-run books. In our case, our multiple textual islands lent themselves well to neither an EPUB nor a printed document, and instead we found the hypertext paradigm fit our concept best. Using Twine, an online tool for constructing simple games, we were able to create our archipelago, even including a simple method of wayfinding and navigation in the pages. (Fig 3)

Fig 3. Working view of the Twine coding interface, showing the “island/archipelago” structure of our publication.

Our event drew to a close, and we continued the work of final editing and sourcing images. Throughout we maintained a commitment to ‘island thinking’ and tried to imagine what the connections were between textual islands. The thematic pieces of writing all belonged together in one archipelago, but it is a network with connections of various strengths among islands. We made choices on where to include links to other islands based on what we believed were particularly strong or relevant thematic connections.

Throughout our process, we continually returned to the notion of how the edges can lead, or be independent, instead of being the isolated backstage, tapped of resources to support a distant metropole. With this final collection of textual islands, we hope to provide a stimulating set of responses to the ongoing issue of technological development and how it benefits and burdens center and periphery in differing ways.

Read the full publication: http://bit.do/periphery

Community and identity in contemporary technosciences: Conceptual issues and empirical change

In February 2017, about 30 international STS scholars gathered in a three-day workshop to address ‘Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences’. Presentations were based on case studies featuring so-called emerging fields such as synthetic biology or nanotechnology, interaction formats such as science festivals, and collaborative environments such as excellence centres or COST projects. The ubiquitous and far reaching impact of a new funding regime and its local interpretations and repercussions resulted as a common theme from presentations and discussions. Also, the presentations reflected an ongoing search for new conceptions of scientific community and identity so as to foster the empirically grounded analyses of modes of being and belonging in science.

Doing science comes with a specific identity and membership. From Ludwig Fleck’s ‘thought collectives’ to Warren Hagstrom inspired ‘scientific communities’, from Tony Becher and Paul Trowler’s ‘academic tribes’ to Knorr Cetina’s ‘transepistemic networks’, STS scholars have been busy analysing links between identity and belonging and conceptualising what the socio-cultural units of such belonging might be. Still, conceptual discussions on these themes somehow dissipated, with central arguments left hanging in the air (is it communities or networks that are the basic units of epistemic cultures?) or even untouched (how does scientific identity relate to community membership?). One cause of this unresolved situation might be that the decisive aspects of such arguments lay in the details of each empirical case and the specific questions its analysis raises. Another cause might be found in the parallel existence of anthropological and sociological approaches. And with all the pressing new issues of contemporary STS, we might well take a relaxed view on all this ambiguity, unresolvedness and multivocality. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) some fundamental shifts within our contemporary empirical cases render this comfortable position problematic. Some things are definitely on the move with regard to scientific communities and identities, however we used to conceptualise them in the 1930s, 1960s or 1980s. It stands to be proven anew that we have the conceptual instruments and theoretical clarity to re-construct and analyse these changes and make sense of current constellations. We are faced with new education/socialisation phenomena like synthetic biology’s iGEM competitions where students compete in constructing ‘Genetically Engineered Machines’[i], with institutional reorganisations like university reforms, with new modes of institutionalisation like excellence initiatives, with new funding constellations and paradigms like the ones of Horizon2020 and RRI. All these leave their traces in community constellations and identity patterns within science; and they do so in resonance with the very  local (geographic, institutional, sub-disciplinary) parameters at hand (cp. Merz and Sormani, 2016).

A short look at – admittedly my own empirical case – the University of Vienna’s biology departments may further illustrate what I hint at: for 100 years, the University of Vienna was content to feature one or two chairs of zoology, one chair of botany and one chair of plant physiology. A human biology / anthropology institute existed almost as long, switching from one label to the other and back after its split from cultural anthropology. Since the early 2000s, along with legal and organizational reforms, this situation has changed abruptly: you will look for a zoology or botany department in vain (‘integrative zoology’ is the closest you get to such ‘antiquated’ traditional labels), instead be impressed by a quickly growing number of new labels, such as ‘computation systems biology’ or ‘microbiology and ecosystems science’, affiliated with ever more complicated organisational constructions – such as interfaculty and interuniversity centres – and very likely ever shorter shelf life.

And then, STS is also confronted with and co-created by these new conditions. How we think of community and identity, how we make use of our re-constructions and discussions of community and identity and how they are made use of is open to change. New funding programmes and initiatives address scientific communities and identities in a new strategic manner, aiming at building, nurturing or engineering them so as to enhance the competitiveness, productivity and responsibility of contemporary technoscience. The European Commission’s Framework Programmes are probably the most visible representatives of this new funding regime. Not only did they gain influence with ever higher monetary power in absolute and relative terms, they also changed their character from rather open, unlabelled calls for medium scale projects to targeted calls for large scale collaborative projects with more specific agendas (beyond the overarching stimulation of a ‘European Research Area’ to secure ‘Europe’s global competitiveness’) – or, in the European Commissioners’ own words: “Their objective has also evolved from supporting cross-border collaboration in research and technology to now encouraging a truly European coordination of activities and policies” (Moedas and Smits, 2015:1). Recent Framework Programmes include ‘Coordination Actions’ such as ERASysBio, explicitly aiming at “support[ing] the convergence of life sciences with information technology & systems science”[ii] with diverse activities, thereby self-consciously co-creating a new technoscientific identity and community with a new repertoire of funding Instruments.

This, in short, was the motivation to organise an international and interdisciplinary workshop to probe our notions and empirical accounts of “community and identity in contemporary technosciences” (thematically a follow up of a session held at the EASST conference 2016 in Barcelona, see below). The respective organising committee of this workshop included Martina Merz (Alpen Adria University Klagenfurt), Ulrike Felt, Max Fochler, Anna Pichelstorfer (University of Vienna), Niki Vermeulen (University of Edinburgh) and myself. The workshop was co-funded by EASST, STS Austria, the Alpen Adria University Klagenfurt, the University of Vienna, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Science Fund.

FIGURE 1: Gathering right before the second public keynote at the Biozentrum Vienna – with organismal biology’s take on identity and change over time (© Karen Kastenhofer)

In February 2017, some 30 workshop participants from the US, UK, France, Denmark, Germany and Austria, affiliated with sociology, philosophy, history, political science and cultural anthropology, and representing all academic career stages from PhD student to professor, gathered at the Alpen Adria Universities’ Institute of Science Communication and Higher Education Research in Vienna to present their take on this theme. The workshop spanned three days and comprised four sessions: two sessions focussing on aspects of community, two sessions focussing on aspects of identity. All presentations drew on empirical material from so-called ’emerging fields’ in the realm of science (such as supramolecular chemistry, systems medicine, systems biology, synthetic biology, microbial fuel research and nanotechnology) or cutting edge science and engineering more generally.

The first session combined very similar papers: all of them addressed the impact of the current funding regime on community building and characteristics in synthetic biology / microbial fuel research. Community was addressed as ‘paradoxical establishment’, as ‘project-ed community’ or described as ‘community of needs’ or ‘community of utilisation’. With the changing context of community formation – so one résumé – the very character and function of community seems to change. Following this first session, Susan Molyneux-Hodgson (University of Exeter) gave a public keynote on ‘Making a new community: the ‘scaling up’ of synthetic biology’. The second session combined papers that allowed for contrasting different conceptions of sociality in inter-disciplinary fields, spanning from sociality as institutionalisation to collective reactions towards the dominant funding regime or to stabilising collaboration networks; here, clearly the old debate of communality as culture and community or as collaboration and network lured in the back.

The third and fourth session addressed the precarious situation of technoscientific identity and related ‘identity games’. Two papers focussed on socialisation processes, one on discrepancies between science ideals and the actual reality of every day experiences, the other on the often ignored impact novices can have on technoscientific fields. Two further papers addressed how technoscientists make strategic use of identity work, by playing the game and adopting provisional identities. The last four presentations scrutinized four different organisational contexts: a COST action, the FP 6 framework programme, a science festival and a transdisciplinary funding programme. Authors addressed ‘hybrid actors’, ‘multiple identities’, ‘reactive identities’ and identity work as ‘choreography’. A public keynote by Alfred Nordmann (Technical University Darmstadt) addressed the issue of identity, referencing Max Weber’s “Wissenschaft als Beruf”.

In short, I found two aspects of this workshop and the preceding sessions in Torun and Barcelona most striking: first, how the theme got translated into an issue for STS seemed to depend very much on the local configurations of the respective empirical context. Bettina Bock von Wulfingen (Humboldt University, Berlin,) at the respective session in Barcelona, had focused on an excellence initiative – an institutional research format specific to the contemporary German education and science system; Sarah R. Davies’ (University of Copenhagen) take on a science festival also reminds us of the very local relevance and interpretation of this scheme of interaction, presenting science and scientists at public locations via interactive formats; with Béatrice Cointe’s (University Aix Marseille) analysis of “one large regional project on microbial energy” again regionality is put forward as a theme; the influence of local conditions was tangible in Marianne Noel’s (Univ. Paris-Est) historical reconstruction of the emergence of supramolecular chemistry in France, while transdisciplinarity and academia / industry integration were a central issue in presentations from Austria based scholars Anja Köngeter (Austrian Institute of Technology), Barbara Grimpe (Alpen Adria University) and Andrea Schikowitz (University of Vienna) – arguably because disciplines and basic academic research are still very influential points of reference in this local context.

Second, all presentations in one way or the other referred to influences of funding schemes. Thus, emerging technosciences seem inevitably to be tied to the trans-local emergence of a new funding regime, albeit with its very local repercussions. This observation already found its way into the scholarly literature (cp. e.g. Whitley et al. 2018), but warrants further analyses and discussion. What will the medium and long term effects of this change in science governance on scientific community and identity be? How will they relate to the new interest of funders and funding programmes in these very same categories? If, for example the identification with one specific field or community erodes, what sense does it make to target a specific communities’ ethos or sense of responsibility? If a specific mode of community has already ceased to exist, what sense does it make to aim at building and strengthening allegedly ‘emerging communities’ (like that of systems biology or synthetic biology)?

A dedicated volume, covering presentations from the session in Barcelona in 2016, from an even earlier session at the EASST conference in Torun 2014 (details below) and from the workshop in Vienna in 2017, is currently in preparation and will hopefully be published this year. Any feedback concerning your take on this theme is highly welcome! Also, a track on identity is scheduled for this year’s EASST conference in Lancaster, organised by two workshop participants, Sarah Schönbauer and Rosalind Attenborough (details below).

[i] “The iGEM Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration. This is done by fostering an open, cooperative community and friendly competition.” (http://igem.org, last accessed 5 April 2018).

[ii] Compare <https://www.erasysbio.net/Summary>, last accessed 5 April 2018.

What does a workshop? Reporting from an event on STS and democracy

Last November, a collection of European STS researchers gathered in Copenhagen for an EASST-sponsored workshop focusing on STS and Democracy. Keynote speaker Kristin Asdal kicked off with a tour-de-force of “concepts, approaches and origins” with which to think about STS and politics. The second day started with Andrew Barry’s empirically rich keynote on the different materials and registers of a controversy surrounding an Italian gas pipeline. For the remainder of the two days, participants presented not their own, but each other’s draft papers. This is what happened, but how did it come about, and what came out of it? What does a workshop?

The two ‘doings’ of a workshop

Describing a completed workshop seems at the first instance a challenge of recounting the important parts of the event without boring the reader to death. However, as one of the organizers, I am acutely aware that a lot of work took place before and after (and around) the event itself. Such work is rendered invisible in the way most meetings are reported. Another question that bugs the organizer is what came out of the workshop? Did we achieve what we hoped for? Asking “What does a workshop?” captures both of these agendas: How was it done and what did it do? In this short exposition, I will deal with each in turn.

Figure 1: The illuminated walkway at Aalborg University Copenhagen on the evening of 23rd November 2017.

What came before the event?

First, there is the issue of ‘what does the doing‘ of a workshop. How was the workshop done, how did it come about? This line of questioning takes us back to the year 2013, when three Copenhagen-based researchers embarked on their doctoral dissertations. The life of a PhD student can be a lonely one, so when the three realised they not only shared timing but also an interest in STS and politics, they decided to start an exclusive but also entirely informal organization called the Working Group for STS and Politics (WGSP). In all three calendars, events marked WGSP started to occur.

One member was studying a municipal election (Vadgaard 2016), another the coming together of a zero-emissions island community (Papazu 2016), the third how media publics relate to issue politics (Birkbak 2016). Across different empirical commitments, we found uniting themes such as how to negotiate relations between the highly normative idea of democracy and the mostly descriptive impetus of actor-network theory. Differently put: How to describe the ideal when the ideal is description? On top of such conundrums, we spent several meetings commenting on each other’s draft chapters and comparing the three different labyrinthic universities to which we belonged.

Fast forward to 2016, and suddenly all three had completed and defended their theses. This tale might have ended here, but WGSP had, despite its informality, achieved a sort of institutional inertia, asking: What’s next? Dreams of an anthology project on the common question of STS and democracy became more concrete when EASST announced its biannual call for applications for workshop funding. We wrote a proposal calling for “a democracy-in-action approach” that pays ”close attention to the situated practices and entanglements” of ”political institutions and concepts”. Our search for allies was successful: On 23-24 November 2017, 18 scholars from 7 different European countries met at Aalborg University in Copenhagen for an EASST-sponsored workshop under the headline of STS and Democracy.

Various other activities led up to the event. At the 3rd Nordic STS Conference taking place in Gothenburg last year, we organized a panel together with Linda Soneryd on STS and democratic politics. Kristin Asdal was among the participants in our panel and she later joined us as a keynote speaker at the workshop in Copenhagen. We were fortunate to have another top capacity on the topic of STS and politics, Andrew Barry, to join as our second keynote speaker. The other participants, who were selected based on abstract submissions following a call distributed on the Eurograd mailing list, were also put to work: We asked everyone to submit a short chapter draft in advance and prepare to present not their own, but someone else’s chapter. Over the two days in Copenhagen, each participant was subjected to having their paper presented by another participant, followed by time for discussion in which the author was welcome to contribute on an equal footing with everyone else, but was encouraged to listen rather than speak.

What did the event do?

A more complete account would explore all the other work that took place before and around the event – all the emails, the catering, the funding, the nerves, etc. – but let us move on to the second question of what a workshop does. How did the event affect the world around it? Some participants commented that an informal and collaborative atmosphere was created at the workshop, which made it possible to be relatively frank with each other about the strengths and weaknesses of the work-in-progress texts. The fact that all drafts were short enough to be read quickly, combined with the circumstance that all papers had at least one designated reader, meant that there was rarely a shortage of comments and questions. Presenting someone else’s paper in addition to having one’s own paper presented also meant that each participant was ‘activated’ at least twice during the workshop. All in all, the format turned out to be an intense but also involving one.

In addition to these sessions designed to feed into the work of an author in the middle of writing, the workshop also surveyed how STS researchers in Europe engage with democratic politics at the moment. Several threads could be identified, while still intertwined with one another. One part of the workshop contributions followed up on a long-standing STS interest in participation, asking for instance how participation becomes meaningful in practice or how public dialogue approaches are co-shaped with STS. Another set of the papers focused on how existing scientific and technological practices evoke questions related to democracy, including maker prototypes, carbon markets, and ethical oversight committees. Finally, a third group of participants emphasized the devices with which democratic politics are made in practice, such as big data software for targeted political campaigning, municipal election procedures, newspaper debate, refugee activism, and social media diplomacy.

Across these themes and empirical touchpoints a meeting place was created for multiple STS traditions interrogating political assemblages and their democratic aspirations. It became clear that a new generation of scholars are ready to contribute to the growing conversation about STS interventions into the twin activities of studying and caring for democratic politics. Aside from the peer feedback and motivation that participants brought home from Copenhagen, the jury is still out on what exactly the workshop ‘did’. Hopefully it will be possible to continue the exchanges started at the event and work towards a collected volume on the matter. Such a book would immediately become the most tangible outcome of the workshop. The workshop would then be one of the invisible connectors that made the book come about, in the same way that WGSP was an important yet largely invisible part of what made the workshop possible.

As the lighted walkway on the AAU campus in Copenhagen was there to remind us, there are always new gaps to be crossed, and while the bridge between STS and democracy is far from steady, at least for a couple of days in November, we worked on it together.

I would like to thank all the workshop participants for their wonderful contributions, including not least the two keynote speakers. I also wish to salute my two co-organizers Irina Papazu and Anne Kathrine Pihl Vadgaard, and the following sponsors: The European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (The Annual EASST Fund), the Department of Learning and Philosophy, Aalborg University, and the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School.

Yet Another Industrial Revolution — A Dialogue on Tensions in Digital Fabrication

YB: In review, how would you summarize the liberatory ideas around the contemporary digital fabrication from the presentations in the track?

BC: As an outsider to the field of making and digital fabrication, I wanted to know more about the values (or regimes of value – Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006) that are guiding these practices—how they may coexist, clash or subordinate one another. I have identified at least three distinct regimes of value, based on the empirical cases presented by the panelists. Obviously, what follows is a simplification, but I guess it can be a good starting point for our discussion.

Roughly put, digital fabrication has been explained or heralded as:

  • A way to democratize knowledge and to empower communities by giving them an opportunity to appropriate technological tools and innovate for collective needs. Similarly, it could be described as a way for people to own back the means of production and to allow for non-alienated forms of labor.
  • As part of a green discourse, when it is praised as a way to save natural resources by manufacturing locally and sharing globally open digital designs for more sustainable products (see also Kostakis et al. 2016).
  • As a form of open innovation that can be easily geared towards the creation of new marketable products and services, a form of entrepreneurship that can be at the service of industrial research or of startups seeking investors on financial markets; as the key to an era of economic growth based on knowledge and innovation.

I could see in some of the empirical cases presented at the track that one or another mode of valuation was predominant, or that there were usually some tensions between them (some more explicit, some less).

YB: I think you identified most attributed values. In addition, there are hybrids between them, as aiming for sustainability through local production might be something that a local community is looking to achieve through the means of digital fabrication. In a sense, it’s community-building through resourceful digital fabrication. While I don’t recognize any critical tension between the first and the second form, there is certainly potential for conflict when the third one acts upon the other ones.

BC: Then the suggestion by the track convenors, to look back at history and find similar (if not the same) kind of tensions, might be accurate. I am sure there are both continuities and discontinuities. How relevant and productive do you think these historical comparisons can be for the case of digital fabrication?

YB: I think this suggestion was outside of the scope or research goal of most of the presentations. Some of them clearly identified if not a similar historical tension, at least a historical point of reference to compare the ideological developments of digital fabrication. That being said, we can begin with some of the presented cases and see how much we can connect our discussion to temporalities.

The ten presentations not only reflected the different meanings of making and digital fabrication to the different actors being studied, but also revealed that the very same aim to transcend the common geopolitical and disciplinary boundaries. At best, they show how different studies of one and the same concept, here for example, mass customization through digital fabrication, can lead to somewhat opposing results and understandings. As in ginger coons’ detailed study of contemporary digital customization techniques for the mass-consumer market, where she argued that they cannot generate the same experience and connection between consumer/client, manufacturer, and the object of production as was the case of late 19th century tailor-made dresses in Victorian England. On the opposite, Sam Forster and Katharina Vones argued that through the introduction of 3D printing of souvenirs in a cultural institution such as a museum or a castle, museum visitors often felt they were getting something unique or custom-made for them instead of the common mass-produced objects. What both studies disclose is that digital fabrication, based on the principles of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) systems, is actually much closer to the mass-production processes than it is to traditional craftsmanship, but through its small scale of production it appears as tailor-made to the end-user. This is just one side of the story to look at.

For me, at times, the meanings and valuation of making and digital fabrication for different people remind me a little bit of the Arts and Crafts movement and its ideology. Those who had the time to indulge in it as leisure had the financial security and the free time of the upper middle class. The others did not have the free time and most likely had to do it for a living. This is similar with digital fabrication—in wider parts of the Global South it provides the means and promises for a better living. So the ties to innovation are not bad per se. On the other side, we can see how in the rather affluent parts of Europe and North America it’s being adopted for the promise to contribute to sustainable living and to reduce our global problems of consumption, pollution, or poverty. Yet again, even within the Global North the access to it is limited by our financial and social status.

The question is how to balance the utopian vision of making and digital fabrication as being practices and tools for everyone and their incorporation into the same old ways of knowing and doing. It is in this sense a bit like the archetypical idea of the computer hackers revolting against the system, while at the same time so many of them are ready to take on a job for the global IT companies. I think, more than anything else, the track displayed that we might need a typology of making and digital fabrication. Then, again, STS teaches us that classifications fail to account for everyone and everything (Bowker & Star 1999).


Fig. 1: Tools for digital fabrication in Machines Room, London
Courtesy of Yana Boeva, 2016


BC: You made two interesting remarks there. First, on how digital fabrication may be closer to customization within mass production than to small-scale craftsmanship. To that I would also add a complementary historical pattern in computer development: the relations of power and control between managers and the detainers of capital, on the one hand, and knowledge-workers and makers, on the other, which have been updated, only to be kept the same. Here I’m thinking about Tobias Drewlani and David Seibt’s description of Google’s Project Ara, for designing a modular smartphone, whereby a certain openness towards hackers and independent developers in the innovation process can be easily translated to enhanced corporate control.1 Collaborative dynamics and open knowledge are embraced by corporations, as long as they are the ones setting the standards in the design process and controlling production and distribution.

Second, you mentioned the question of access to these spaces, usually limited to those with a certain financial and social status. I was happy to see a counterexample in Rafael Dias and Adrian Smith’s presentation, about digital fabrication labs in São Paulo and their connection to the local community and schools. Apparently, one of the spaces was set up mostly with an educational focus, to provide the tools and social environment for the purpose of learning, of exercising creativity and curiosity. Not only did they observe a kind of “barefoot making” (as the authors named it, in contrast to the predominant culture of white male geeks), but also a space that did not come with any requirements or expectations to innovate, to produce “disruptive” ideas or products to the market. This arrangement should last, of course, as long as there is any budget – and not less important, the political will – for the municipality of São Paulo to continue funding the place.

This brings us back to the question of a wider context – political, economic or even historical – in which these spaces as inserted. The context should be explained (and not the automatic explanation), of course, for each empirical situation, but as researchers we should not overlook the recurring patterns that can be identified across sites. I noticed this thread running throughout the different presentations. Evelyn Lhoste and Marc Barbier treated the institutionalization process of the hacking and making movement by focusing on the work of Fab Lab managers as brokers, whilst Klara-Aylin Wentel, Sascha Dickel and Anton Schröpfer showed how a makerspace in the Technical University of Munich2 turned into a place for potential entrepreneurship, for business and startups, thus reproducing employer-employee relations and more hierarchical modes of knowing and investigating. The political context in urban planning was also pinpointed by Ramón Ribera-Fumaz: makerspaces can be planned top-down, placing a city in the global market to attract capital and startups, or they can be set up in a bottom-up fashion, towards citizen empowerment and to attend local needs.

Whether you call this interplay between different modes of valuation a process of “transformation”, “co-optation” or even “translation” of interests (the latter following the ANT-inspired approach), you have to recognize, as a scholar, that there are enduring patterns throughout time and space (call them social/power structures, depending on your theoretical leanings), despite the ontological uniqueness of each empirical setting studied. The proposal of the track, in this reading, was to identify one such pattern of social relations running throughout history.

YB: I’m glad you mentioned the context within which Fab Labs and makerspaces are both set up and researched, as well as how they are increasingly integrated into corporate and institutional traditions. I would add to that the idea of the value of co-creation for corporations and organizations. I would not argue that control is necessarily the leading motivation for projects like Project Ara or even the workshops run by UnternehmerTUM. Most often, larger companies and institutions just lack the flexibility to develop and create new concepts and products by themselves and the “open” inclusion of externals in these projects fosters innovation. Despite that, in the end the model often leads to what you described.

BC: The motivation behind this kind of projects is ultimately to increase profits by developing new technologies. Some form of control is necessary in order to accomplish that, either by setting the standards of the design or by owning the property rights or the capability to produce and sell any product based on the developed technology. But are the forms of control today the same as they were once, when the first forms of computerized automation at industry were seen as a way to solve the problem of labor (Noble 1984)?

YB: As Maxigas points out to David Noble, the introduction of CNC in the United States was meant to reduce workers’ control in the production process and suppress their skills (Noble 1984). But Noble also notes that with time the skills became dispersed, engineers had to interact with shop-floor workers in order to achieve what they wanted, and workers had to acquire and adapt their technical skills, so a full deskilling never happened. Moreover, not all historical examples of CNC machines or computers in work practice were considered negative or a plan to deskill workers. Pelle Ehn and Morten Kyng’s famous Scandinavian UTOPIA project from in the 1980s, where the introduction of computers for the production of a daily newspaper involved the printers, the typesetters, and the journalists to work on the development of this new system, is one such historical example of a cooperative type of hierarchy (1991).

I find it interesting that the track description brought the example of the “historical irony” that now workers demand that such automation is being introduced. I think the difference to 40-50 years ago as in Noble’s examples is that those machines and computers are now part of worklife and for many not only indispensable but also least understood as a control mechanism. If we take 3D printing as an example and its use in Fab Labs, especially those charging a pay-on-the-go fee, it might actually give back control to the ‘workers’—those that use it to create and manufacture prototypes of designs without the classical manufacturing chain of outsourcing the production elsewhere, often abroad, and waiting for their prototype to be shipped back weeks later. Rather, where I see what Noble describes happening, is the full automatisation of production with robots and not deskilling, but displacement of human beings. But this is a topic for a different discussion.

BC: The project of substituting unruly factory workers by machines certainly did not work. What solved this issue (still from the perspective of the corporate and managerial elites in the US) was moving production overseas to China and other countries with cheap workforce. That is why we need to situate technological development and its intimate relationship with labor in different periods of history (and here we are talking mainly about post-war capitalism and the subsequent period of neoliberal globalization). It is telling, for example, that John Maynard Keyne’s prediction in the 1930s about technological development lowering our working hours considerably by the end of the twentieth century never became true. What happened there, and what kind of technological advancement is being made? I find very compelling David Graeber’s (2015) argument that the present form of capitalism is more characterized by an all-pervasive bureaucracy than competition in the market spurring innovation and technological breakthroughs. In this respect, one could not help but wonder if hackerspaces and makerspaces were not also set up originally as a reaction to this bureaucratic and managerial culture of research, both within universities and corporate R&D departments. Certainly, for many they seem to be an oasis for curious, no-strings-attached, exploration of technology, in a desert of administrative paperwork and productivity goals. Perhaps that is also why leading companies are turning towards peer production and fomenting collaborative dynamics (IBM and Linux, for example), as a way to find the value they would not get from regular job contracts. Add to this the so-called sharing economy of Uber and Airbnb and we have got a great and unsustainable model based on precarious labor. But the game is not over and digital fabrication still holds its promises in a hostile environment. I agree that 3D printing has a potential to relocalize manufacture, to create a design commons, and empower cooperative of workers and communities. In that case, we need to create and reinforce the appropriate institutions to make it work.

YB: Good point and I won’t dispute this. For sure, many of these spaces and collectives began as a counter-reaction to the ‘slow’ and inaccessible modes of research and production. But I wonder which appropriate institutions would be the most empowering. In my research, I’ve been encountering several funding models for makerspaces and Fab Labs in order for them to be able to survive — communal or national government funding to establish the space, corporate partnerships to acquire the machines, business angels to ensure that staff gets paid, and at the very least paid memberships to keep it running. It’s not very different from how academic institutions or small companies run their business. Perhaps, and in conclusion, the difference is in the scale as one of my interviewees said about the plastic waste produced with 3D printing — at least, it’s one small piece at a time and not the thousands of mass-produced pieces of junk that drive the global economy.


1 In their presentation, Drewlani and Seibt showed how the conflict between openness and closure slowed down the development of the project. As a matter of fact, Project Ara was officially discontinued by Google on September 2, 2016—one day after the two researchers presented their empirical study. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-google-smartphone-idUSKCN11806C [retrieved on October 14, 2016]

2 UnternehmerTUM, https://www.unternehmertum.de/index.html [retrieved on October 14, 2016].