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Critical Notions of Technology and the Promises of Empowerment in Shared Machine Shops image

A variety of making, fabricating, fabbing, tinkering, assembling, prototyping, coding and manufacturing shops are promisingly opening up opportunities for decentralized and collaborative engagements with technology, not only related with material and technical experimentations, but also with economic, cultural, social and political consequences, and ultimately with conceptual and epistemological changes. With due attention to their differences, there is a common and shared rationale that supports an openness when approaching and thinking about technology. This article, however, calls for a closer attention to current narratives that are enveloping the realities of making. It argues that they are popularizing a certain meaning of technology that may grow afar from more critical and democratic understandings. The article concludes with some alternative insights to further advance the realities and spaces of personal fabrication in terms of how technologies themselves are designed, by who, for who and for what.

Empowerment, Openness, Technology, Maker movement, Critical STS, Policy

Susana Nascimento

A large variety of making, fabricating, fabbing, tinkering, assembling, prototyping, coding, and manufacturing spaces are increasingly becoming a significant part of our technological landscapes, calling for more and more people to open up their devices, recreate them, create new ones, personalize some, hack others, mash them all together, understand their inner workings and their outside impacts. Fab Labs, Makerspaces, Hackerspaces, Techshops and other types of innovation and production labs are venues where a wider range of citizens and groups are getting more familiar not only with digital tools (CNC machines, CAD programs, laser cutters, 3D printers, open source hardware, etc.) for personal fabrication or manufacturing (Mota 2011), but also connecting with peer-production communities (Troxler 2010, Abel et al. 2011) who collaborate, share their work, and support others with common interests, through online communication, data and documentation repositories, or physical meetups, workshops and events where people with assorted skills meet and work together. This twofold notion of access – to technical means and to communities – represents the basic principles for the current modification and building of tangible things, but in a certain sense, it is also the most apparent or recognizable dimension of more far-reaching transformations in how we can conceptualize and act through technology.

These new settings are promisingly opening up concrete opportunities for decentralized and collaborative engagements with technology, not only related with material and technical experimentations, but also with economic, cultural, social and political consequences, and ultimately with conceptual and epistemological changes. With due attention to their differences, there is a common and shared rationale attached to these emerging spaces that supports an openness when approaching and thinking about technology. This powerful and captivating rationale expresses that any user, consumer, or citizen should be ultimately able to produce, use, share, copy and improve technologies, with little to no help or backup from traditional technological experts, organizations or institutions. And from this standpoint, derives a multiplicity of potential pathways for empowerment through technology and democratization of technology for broader social groups.

In a first level, empowerment can arise simply from the act of creation itself, that is, of altering the world around us through a material engagement, following the notion that “our existence is technologically textured, not only with respect to the large dramatic and critical issues which arise in a high technological civilization – such as the threat of nuclear war or the worry over global pollution, with its possibly irreversible effects – but also with respect to the rhythms and spaces of daily life” (Ihde 1990: 1). You can find today in many instances the praise of “making is connecting” (Gauntlett 2011) with things, people and the world, in the sense that making something entails a different type of mediation with your surroundings, potentially a more sensorial awareness of things (Borgmann 1984), or even a sense of craftsmanship (Sennett 2009) and its values of satisfaction of doing good work, the pursuit of community, and the respect for material reality.

In another and more crucial level, empowerment through hands-on experience alters your own knowledge of technologies, and thus encourage the opening up of the many black boxes of our technologically complex world. As the codirectors of the Tinkering Studio of San Francisco’s Exploratorium state, “when you tinker, you’re not following a step-by-step set of direction that leads to a tidy end result. Instead, you’re questioning your assumptions about the way something works, and you’re investigating it on your own terms” (Wilkinson and Petrich 2014: 13). It isn’t simply, however, as this last quote implies, a matter of questioning the technical assumptions of a device, understood in a more restrictive idea of what is technology. Instead, the possibility to design something from scratch, to modify a certain device, or to repurpose it to other functions and ends, implies broader social, cultural and political assumptions about technology. A more direct knowledge about how technologies work, from more ordinary objects to more complex systems, can be said to be a matter of democratic right for all citizens (Sclove 1995), given the pervasiveness and influence of technology in all public and private domains.

Within a democratic framework, emerging realities of devising prototypes in shared machines shops can allow for each technological phase to be reflected upon, decided or envisioned by a broader spectrum of actors, thus allowing for the embedding of needs, values, expectations in artifacts themselves. In this sense, empowerment may arise from a greater variety of options and choices to be made regarding the purposes, impacts and uses of the artifacts in question (Nascimento and Polvora 2013). It can be argued that the acts of making, fabricating or manufacturing in these settings can substantiate some of the ideas of critical and democratic traditions in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which have revealed and countered cultural stereotypes, power relations, and patterns of social order that are embedded in technologies. The social character of our artifacts and the social meaning of technical features are thus extended to a broader attention to technologies as “forms of life” (Winner 1986), regarding the social conditions brought about by technologies, demanded by them, and expected to emerge through them, and other possible intermediary or appropriate technologies (Schumacher 1974, Boyle & Harper 1976), convivial scenarios (Illich 1973, Granstedt 2007), or alternative modes of organization (Hess 2007) at any given time.

It is against this conceptual and practical background that we should pay close attention to current visions and narratives that are enveloping the emerging realities of fabricating, tinkering, prototyping or manufacturing. At this moment, we are witnessing in fact an affirmative hype around ‘making’ or the ‘maker movement’, covering a broad scope of people and communities with miscellaneous goals, from creative self-expression and technical curiosity, through more commercial objectives up to ethical commitments and political frameworks. More and more individual and collective actors are coming into play, from crafters, hackers, artists, designers, scientists and engineers, to amateurs, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, companies, students, professors, researchers, children, communities, and civil society organizations. They are modifying and creating things on their own in Do-It-Yourself (DIY), Doing-It-Together (DIT) or Doing-It-With-Others (DIWO) ways, within their homes, garages, schools, science museums, libraries, and shared machine shops as FabLabs, Makerspaces, Hackerspaces or Techshops.

For the most part, present maker discourses and practices are oriented towards the values of self-expression, knowledge sharing, community building, re-skilling, creativity, and innovation. It is more popularly visible in bold proclamations of ‘we are all born makers’ (Anderson 2012), or ‘(almost) anybody can make (almost) anything’ (Gershenfeld 2007), or in ‘maker manifestos’ (Hatch 2014) focused on buzzwords of “make, share, give, learn, tool up, play, participate, support, change”, or in the ‘Maker’s Bill of Rights’ [1] or the ‘10 Commandments of Making’ [2] held by Make Magazine. It is predicted that the ‘disruptive innovation’ coming from maker trends and platforms will greatly affect technologies, organizations, government, education and ultimately society, and as such, makers are leading the vanguard in creating, experimenting, producing and distributing more quickly newer and better technological solutions.

This disruptive impact is being argued in terms of not only cultural relevance and popularity, but also economic and political significance. In terms of economic importance, a recent report from Deloitte Center for the Edge gives an overview of this next generation of craftspeople, tinkerers, hobbyists and inventors, who are experimenting with new fabrication tools and forming communities that are reshaping the meaning and ways of doing technological innovation. Quoting this report, “making – the next generation of inventing and do-it-yourself – is creeping into everyday discourse, with the emerging maker movement referenced in connection with topics ranging from the rebirth of manufacturing to job skills development to reconnecting with our roots” (Deloitte 2014).

As for political significance, already in his November 2009 speech for the “Education to Innovate” Campaign, USA President Barack Obama talked about “the promise of being the makers of things and not just the consumers of things,” [3] referring to his commitment to STEM education. Moreover, Obama proclaimed June 18 as the National Day of Making 4 in the opening of the White House Maker Faire, thus strengthening US commitment to ‘democratization of technology’ through sparking creativity and stimulating innovation in each community. In the European context, in an interview at TEDx Brussels in October 2013 Commissioner Neelie Kroes acknowledged the emergence of new peer-to-peer economies and that “joining and sharing is the thumb rule of the new economy” [5]. The political importance of making is also visible, for instance, in the initiative Europe Code Week focused on stimulating digital skills. It is particularly clarifying in their website the answer to the question “Why Learn to Code?”: “In a world where we’re surrounded by technology and where so many of our interactions we have are with computers, learning to code helps us understand how these services work. What’s more learning to code gives us a powerful way to explore our ideas and make things, both for work and play” [6].

At first glance, this quote appears to relate to the idea of understanding technologies as an essential part of a new way of engaging more directly and concretely with the world through these emerging trends and spaces, as previously argued. However, a closer look to these cultural, economic and political visions of making, and by broad inclusion, to fabricating, manufacturing or assembling, reveals at times a failure to fully grasp the inherent assumptions, necessary conditions and possible consequences of such trends or movements. At their basis, these narratives are professing and popularizing a certain meaning of technology that, unfortunately, may grow afar from a more critical and democratic understanding of technology, although it depends of course on their most probable developments in the near future.

The content of maker declarations and manifestos, as presented above, continue for the most part to adhere to postulates about technology as a matter of individual control and access to the most promising set of tools and machines. This is clearly visible in the words of Dale Dougherty, founder, President & CEO of Maker Media: “you’re makers of your own world, and particularly the role that technology has in your life. (…) Makers are in control. That’s what fascinates them; that’s why they do what they do. They want to figure out how things work, they want to get access to it, and they want to control it; they want to use it to their own purpose” (Dougherty 2011). Here the problem resides in the belief that what is seen as cheap, powerful and available tools will drive by themselves a widespread revolution in the ownership and use of the means of production, and thus bring about economic, cultural, social and political changes.

But valuable lessons from history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy of technology should have established by now that focus on individual capacities and choice in terms of the means of production don’t, and won’t in most cases, lead to desired goals of empowerment, creativity or innovation through technology. Significant changes imply much more, and require instead a close examination of how technologies themselves are designed, by who, for who and for what. Thus, the basic premise is that technologies aren’t neutral in any of its dimensions, and as such, the shared machine shops where people fabricate, modify or make artifacts, aren’t neutral either. Almost immediately our attention is directed to the issues of power, gender, ethnicity, geographical origin, social and cultural capital imbalance, which are present for example in social appropriation STS approaches (Eglash et al 2004), and now and again in public warnings against what was once called “digital divide” or “gap”, and now usually goes by the name of “diversity”.

For instance, the diversity reports released these past months by American tech companies [7], including Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook, plainly show some of these disparities. With minor differences, there is a prevalence of white and Asian men, and a wide gender, hispanic and african american differential. In a brief overview regarding gender, 42% of eBay’s employees globally are women, against 37% in Yahoo, 30% in Google, 31% in Facebook and 30% in Twitter. These numbers further drop in leadership (28% eBay, Twitter 21%) or tech jobs (eBay 28%, Facebook 15%, Twitter 10%). Similar scenarios in terms of gender divide are also visible in other technological spaces such as Fab Labs, where the issue is beginning to be analyzed towards shifts in gender roles and relations (Carstensen 2014).

Maybe a more direct awareness is apparent in the Open Design and Hardware movements, as seen in discussions within the community dedicated to the issues of gender and diversity [8], or even the central roles of women in well-known open hardware initiatives and companies (AdaFruit founded by Limor “Ladyada” Fried; Littlebits lead by Ayah Bdeir; and Open Source Hardware Association presided by Gabriella Levine and lead by Alicia Gibb). As another positive sign, a number of nonprofit organizations, such as CoderDojo NYC, Black Girls Code or Girls Who Code, or educational networks such as Connected Learning Alliance (Ito et al 2013), are directly addressing learning gaps and gender and ethnic diversity in education, by targeting youth in economically-marginalized communities and neighborhoods.

In short, acknowledging the non-neutrality of technologies leads to a far more complex understanding of emerging trends and spaces of making, fabricating, assembling or manufacturing, and of course, their overall conditions and effects. We are indeed close to the critical and democratic traditions in STS previously cited, and as such, a view on technologies embedded with values, social norms and power relations, as clearly demonstrated in the issues of diversity. Taking one step further in this line of reasoning, the potential for empowerment in such trends and spaces may reside in a clear rethinking about the specific values, norms and relations, such as sustainability, social justice, fairness or responsibility, to be embedded in artifacts, and at the same time, about the alternative technological and social scenarios that may arise. This perspective is clearly distant from certain attitudes more engaged in experimenting for the sake of experimenting, or yet making something only for the sake of using for instance the newest tools of additive and subtractive fabrication, thus falling into the fallacy of “envisioning our future almost exclusively in relation to alternatives predicted on feasibility, or ‘can’” (Ozbekhan 1968: 86)

To counter these and other reductionist views, and thus develop instead a critical thinking and making of technologies, we should propose a few crucial insights that can further advance the realities and spaces of personal fabrication in terms of the social, cultural and ethical premises and consequences linked to the acts of making or modifying something. First of all, such transformations can be enhanced by the active and direct involvement of social sciences and humanities in the realms of technological design and creation. Such involvement has showed its valuable role in crossings between STS and design practices that gave careful attention to the reconstruction of technologies in more wise and fair directions (Woodhouse and Patton 2004). Benefiting from the openness inherent to current trends and shared machine shops, social sciences and humanities practitioners can find new ways to work directly with people from different scientific and technical backgrounds (Nascimento and Polvora 2012), through interdisciplinary collaborations that privilege hands-on and problem-solving approaches. It entails new modes of conceptual and practical collaboration that can reflect upon and integrate at the same time a spectrum of distinct components, as for instance recycled and environmental friendly materials, renewable energy sources, reuse and repair guidelines, fair trade, local economic practices, public participation, cultural contexts, social inclusion and justice, equal opportunities, ethical scenarios, intended and non-intended consequences, and convivial uses.

Second, a critical understanding of technologies in shared machine shops need to be fostered through more concrete academic, government and civil society support from regional, national and international research and policy bodies to these same spaces, and to the particular programmes they may develop for instance in the areas of sustainability, social justice, ethics in design and other social topics. The current challenges to assure financial, organizational and material sustainability, pose concrete obstacles not only to the continuous existence of these spaces, but also the pursuit of more alternative projects, prototypes or modes of functioning, and thus the potential inclusion of more diversified groups of citizens or participants. Policy and decision makers must not strictly focus on the potential for job growth and digital skills arising from maker spaces and cultures, but most of all, direct their attention to the possibilities of empowerment for citizens and groups through the pursuit social topics and goals as mentioned above. This change of focus can be performed by offering a more diversified set of funding opportunities for small scale projects including non-traditional partners and associations arising from these spaces, thus providing the necessary conditions to continue their transformative actions over time. It also entails, however, a more profound change in political culture and attitude about what constitutes innovation in technology, and to see beyond simple technical improvements or marketable outputs. There needs to be a real acknowledgment from political discourse and practice regarding the importance of all social, ethical and cultural dimensions in technology, and accordingly a sustained support of open, bottom-up and collaborative paradigms that are expanding how we think about technologies, who develops them, and who benefits from them.


[1] (Accessed 8 September 2014)

[2] (Accessed 8 September 2014)

[3] (Accessed 8 September 2014)

[4] (Accessed 8 September 2014)

[5] (Accessed 8 September 2014)

[6] (Accessed 8 September 2014)

[7] See news thread of releases from (Accessed 8 September 2014)

[8] Topic stream 11: Gender and Diversity in Openness, OKFestival 2012, (Accessed 8 September 2014)


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