Tools for conviviality and personal digital fabrication

In the last few months I decided to take a break from the usual work routine to get time explore new ideas and to meet grassroot no-profit communities in the area were I’m living.

One of these explorations allowed me to get to know better the makers movement, the network of FabLabs and Hackerspaces in Barcelona.
In this time I joined FabAcademy. FabAcademy is a distributed training program on digital fabrication started by prof. Neil_Gershenfeld inspired by his course “How to make (almost) anything” at MIT.
I wrote more in detail about this experience in these pages.

It has also been a refreshing experience to make again a lot of mistakes, and especially to be able to see the physical outcome of my mistakes :) It is something that as “knowledge workers” we do not experience as frequently as we should.

The participation in this course was triggered by a book I read almost 10 years ago: Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop - from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.
Only while attending and experincing this first person I was able to connect some of its principles to another book I had a chance to read a couple of years ago: Ivan Illich’s Tools for conviviality.

Illich was a Croatian-Austrian philosopher, who was mostly active in the ’60s and 70s and one of the critical voices of the contemporary Western institutions and culture.
I went back to read some passages of his book and I want to share them here:

I here submit the concept of a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools. In each of several dimensions of this balance it is possible to identify a natural scale.
When an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself. These scales must be identified and the parameters of human endeavors within which human life remains viable must be explored.
Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society’s members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior. Corporate endeavors which thus threaten society cannot be tolerated. At this point it becomes irrelevant whether an enterprise is nominally owned by individuals, corporations, or the state, because no form of management can make such fundamental destruction serve a social purpose.

These words resonate sharply while we are today witnessing the predictable burst of the “Cambridge Analytica/Facebook” scandal. Today one of the biggest and most influential corporations in the world has contributed in undermining the already fragile democratic process of one of the most powerful state institutions in the world. But this is not news.

Illich was critical as well of the institutionalization of specialized knowledge, the monopoly of its application and the dominant role of technocratic elites in industrial society. This process has brought today to the growth of knowledge silos inside of corporate walls and the datacenters of technology firms. He argued for the need to develop instruments for the reconquest of practical knowledge by all citizens.

… the vision of new possibilities requires only the recognition that scientific discoveries can be useful in at least two opposite ways. The first leads to specialization of functions, institutionalization of values and centralization of power and turns people into the accessories of bureaucracies or machines. The second enlarges the range of each person’s competence, control, and initiative, limited only by other individuals’ claims to an equal range of power and freedom.

People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves.

As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

It is difficult to not recognise in those passages some of the cultural values of the maker and hacker movements.

Now we need to find the keys to be able to trasform a small hobbist and niche cultural movement in a (eco-)sustainable effort and be able to challenge some of the corporate power structures.

The liberation is not only about inverting the dependency relationships with our tools, but also about unlocking our creative immaginations.

Our imaginations have been industrially deformed to conceive only what can be molded into an engineered system of social habits that fit the logic of large-scale production.

Tools are intrinsic to social relationships. An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image.
Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others.

By becoming builders and designers of our tools we expand the possibility to build and design our futures.
When we act as passive consumers we are surrendering our possibilities into the hands of other designers. That power is not always held responsibly and is limiting our choices. Not all products are designed to empower others, but to generate profits.
We need to be the ones designing, milling, cutting and molding our furniture instead of just queueing at IKEA stores. We need to be the ones creating the links, content and algorithms governing the Web instead of being the ones that are only clicking algoritmically crafted ads.

Illich critique extended to the education sector as well.
We need a digital fabrication movement that creates alternatives to reduce our dependency from the corporate complex and forges new ways to disseminate knowledge beyond institutionalized structures.
Teaching each other should become a mean to defend against technocratic and institutionalized education that mainly serves the elites needs.
Our educational networks should increase our opportunities to learn, share and care about each other.

Digital fabrication, free software, makers, hackerspaces and fablabs are sometimes divided by differences in approaches, identity and values. Still they are all part of a common movement that is trying building alternative dependencies from existing power structures and bringing power back to people in form of (digital) knowledge.
On the other side of the spectrum we are witnessing corporations and national state institutions amassing data, patents and creating regulations at service of oligopolies. We we build accountability structures for the institutions and try to bring ethical thinking and culture inside of their walls we have to keep thinking also at alternative models that can challenge them.
Creative capabilities still resides largely in individuals and in our interactions: From here we should start our journey.

We are still away from achieving a sustainable and incisive change in our societies. The projection for scaling down digital fabrication from a small lab level to a personal level will still require years. Building circular economies and ecosystem is advocated in the eco-startups fantasies but still far from reality. With this new body of knowledge that we are discovering often the dependency to the corporate structures is only moving one level below the surface of the products we build and the machines we use. But here I still hold some hopes.

We have to keep dreaming about the world we want to create and drastically rethink our participation in the current economic system with determination. There’s no single answer on how we’re going to do that and we will keep learning along the way.

“Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance. Something that is constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there. An insurrection is not like a plague or a forest fire — a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythms of their own vibrations, always taking on more density.”
(The Invisible Committee)