The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
Digitally-Operated Atoms vs. Bits of Rhetoric: A Mash-Up image

maxigas and Peter Troxler

using sources by Ursula Gastfall, Thomas Fourmond, Jean-Baptiste Labrune and Peter Troxler

Licence exception: unlike other contents in the Journal of Peer Production, this text is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Fablabs — spaces for the deployment of autonomy?

Maker practice is as much about building something yourself than building something for yourself – that is to say, a demonstration of skills and the expression of one’s autonomy: I shape objects, therefore I act on the world. Autonomy is a form of liberty in action that we can exercise to work out or define our relationship with everything around us and the way we act in their midst. It has nothing to do with the realisation of a certain isolation that privileges self-sufficiency, in which case we could just as much talk about autarchy. Autonomy is a practice of empowerment, the development of a relationship with the world and with others which converges towards collective formations. A complex togetherness where our perspectives overlap and we recognise the necessity for certain affects and obligations.

The rhetoric of autonomy and the common practical achievements of fablabs quickly attracted participants with diverse amibitions, sometimes with such antagonistic backgrounds as the entrepeneurial world and anticapitalist activism. For the latter, maker culture became an important way to thrive for political projects [1]. Even if for them technology is a simple means, in contrast to maker culture, where it is the ultimate end.

But also institutional actors see in the fablab concept a powerful political device. An example case is France, where many actors (techno think-tanks like FING, prestigious design schools like ENSCI) are now educating the french opinion to what they believe is or should be these new spaces of personal production and sharing. At LIFT France 2010 in Marseille, a paying event on innovation and future making (kind of a french TED), these actors invited many porte-paroles of the Fabworld, to help people understand what are these fablabs. In the excitement of the beginning of a new project, passion, desire to make there is an interesting tension between the discourse (and discourse makers) and the reality of sharing, opening, beyond the declarations of intentions. The recent explosion of places for digital production (with CNC machines, sharing ressource on electronics, fabrication, etc.) has been slowly recuperated by influencers, opinion leaders, etc. Whether these places are Fablabs, Techshops, Hackerspaces, are they really different from the places that exist in art and design schools to create new media projects? (I am thinking for instance in France of the work of J.P. Mandon, Douglas E. Stanley in Aix, J.N Montagne in Main d’Oeuvres with the CRAS, and many! others.)

Beyond the discourse about the future, innovation, sharing (as mentioned in all the fab presentations and videos such as the one made at the opening of FL Arnhem or also the one for Shift, a video celebration of how things are now easy, simple, “the beginning of a new era”) where are the actual files, resources, projects, etc.? We believe that scenario-making, futurology, prospective and their associated discourse, envisionings, visions, imaginaries and other beautiful and convincing depictions of how things to come might be better, augmented, easier, etc. is an important step towards the realization of great things. However, if these narratives are the only things created by these new places, it might not be enough to really change anything in the way people can or allow themselves to reconfigure their socio-material practices. Jean Baptiste was invited to Yale to present his lab, specialised in experimental media practices. He recounts: “They invited me to talk about the future, as if I was coming from there. :)” Instead of presenting exclusively a techno-enthusiast vision of it, he tried to give a more nuanced account of how the future is a fiction, and tried to reflect on the role that these story-bits play in contemporary cultural discourse making, especially in the publishing industry – his audience that day. The presentation is here.

Since its inception, maker culture is indeed very close to entrepreneurial culture – in no way aversed by ethical or social aspirations of hackers or makers, the corporate world sees no disadvantage, as long as it is being served up to new markets… Innovation is the catchy word given to all makers who want to participate in economic competition. In this regard, the words of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova [2] are illuminating: “The anti-hierarchy side of late capitalism is simply successful advertising!! (…) The logic of totalizing normality continues to operate in countries that provide the material basis to anything that is creative, mobile and new in late capitalism (…) workers in these regions have no right to eccentricity.”

It would be wrong to analyze and search for a common political project in the Maker movement. In attempting this, we would discover a set of conflicting ambitions and intellectual confusion of the most surprising kind. The “makers’ talk” is about re-appropriation of the means of production, re-localization of the economy, working passion, ecology, business capitalism, anti-capitalism… to be a maker is foremost to be a doer, an actor or a manufacturer. And that’s probably one reason why the maker culture has such a large influence – it is not a societies’ project, but an active relationship with the world that is at once individual (DIY) and collective (especially in fablabs).

Fablabs — spaces for the creation of new worlds?

We are so ignorant of the complexity of goods around us that anything beyond assembling a puzzle or an Ikea furniture can be hastily baptized as a DIY achievement. Thus emerges the kit – DIY’s ersatz, it’s commercial counterpart. More pleasant than the mere use of a consumer good, autonomy becomes synonymous with assembly and repair, itself reduced to a simple replacement part. The kit empties DIY of its substance, like a marketing bundle.

Once the thin veil of the kit is up, even if done in a fablab and is derived from the “free culture”, we simply find a new type of consumer desire: an egocentric customization sometimes combined with the naive and emphatic economics of sustainable development.

Thus, the tools used and claimed by the “creative and innovative” often mean exactly the opposite for their producers. Without going as far as extracting the necessary minerals for the manufacture of electronic components, it’s hard to imagine that this process is self-managed and fun. What simplicity is for users, is simplexity for engineers, or more precisely according to Alain Besnier [3]: “making things easier to the user necessarily means having to make them more difficult to the engineer who invents them.”

Although makers have a greater awareness of the social dimension of technical issues than engineers and tinkerers, it can be observed that many fablabs like to acquire a non-free machine which is more precise, rather than a technically more limited one that would generate more socially and environmentally just relations. It therefore seems unlikely that makers can bring genuine social change. Current achievements tend much more to reproduce the relations of capitalist production and consumption than trying to overcome them.

Makers are not only agnostic of political economics, they are also at least naïve with regard to geopolitical issues. It could be interesting to see how the new places of fabrication will allow places that are not centers or hubs in the network of discourse to create and redistribute new forms of artistic productions but also to collectively develop repositories of engineering practices and knowledge. What about creating projects using wood from trees from the Mediterranean climate (and then maybe collaborate with people in California – Big Sur for instance, since they share these species) and then create new ways to make furniture, musical instruments, toys for children, small communication networks, etc, etc.… What about Fablabs linked with water to make boats, floating stuff and other sea related innovations? What about plunging into the incommensurable cultural reservoir of Mediterranean cultures and revive traditional techniques in the context of digital fabrication and reproduction (machines are precise and can do repetitive tasks) but always with human supervision and creative insights? (I am thinking for example of making a cheaper – by-an-order-of-magnitude and maybe-more-innovative instance of Factum Foundations’ conservation technologies). And what about maybe creating these places not only as English or French speaking entities but on the contrary based on local language and culture ?

Some fablabs have already been created in places like Takoradi in Ghana, where the Maker Faire Africa took place in 2009, or in Kenya, South Africa. The French speaking community is now trying to open fablabs and also other networks like OSD (On Se Debrouille, presented at Afropixel in 2010) and also BricoLabs. Again, why again Englitch and Frentch? What about laboratories in Wolof, Zulu or Swahili? Sure, it will not be easy to share discourse and other PR materials, but if what is shared are files and conception patterns, examples and projects, it might actually work. Files, pictures of projects and creative objects could be a digital and reified lingua franca. 🙂


“In fact and in practice, the real message is the medium itself, that is to say, simply, that the effects of a medium on the individual or on society depends on the scale of change produced by each new technology, each extension of ourselves, in our lives.” [4]

If the marketing of journalists and presenters – and of many makers themselves – did not frame their aspirations to see the world finally evolve towards a more just world, we would judge them less severely. However, our ignorance against real resources used for the manufacture of goods that we take for essential limits our imagination about an alternative to the capitalist mode of production. Many things that seem natural are actually based on the over-exploitation of resources.

Of the four possible interpretations of Fab Lab and maker culture – bourgeois pass-time, innovation in education on technology, new renaissance reconciling liberal arts with science and engineering in a contemporary and playful way, and new industrial revolution – the practice appears to swither between the former two, while the latter two rhetorically complement the former, either romantically or rebelliously according to taste.

It seems that to fulfill their promises, fablabs should consider a more radical analysis of technology and capitalism by not grounding the autonomy they defend in hidden domination taking place in seemingly invisible worlds.

This requires developing a critical discourse around a few implicit assumptions – technology is not neutral but “society made durable” [5], technology and people are “entities that do things” [6], and technology comes with built-in societal, cultural and political assumptions; participation will not just work out-of-the-box but is influenced by local cultural and social variables such as heterogeneity and the role of elites, downward accountability and upward commitment are key to making participation work [7]; as Fab Labs and their network are at the forefront of technical innovation in and for society, they are also looked at in moral controversies to provide leadership and not a “neutral” hands-off attitude. Overall, in Morozov’s analysis, “there’s more politicking – and politics – to be done here than enthusiasts (…) are willing to acknowledge” [8].


[1] Sometimes [the culture of free] ( is cited as the realisation of Ivan Illich’s tools for conviviality.

[2] Pussy Riot activist in correspondance with Slavoj iek.

[3] Besnier, Jean-Michel. 2012. L’homme Simplifié. Paris: Fayard.

[4] McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, p. 7.

[5] Latour, Bruno. 1991. Technology is society made durable. In: A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London: Routledge.

[6] Latour, Bruno. 1992. The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In: Bijker, Wiebe; Law, John (eds.). Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnological Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[7] Mansuri, Ghazala & Rao, Vijayendra. 2004. Community-Based and -Driven Development: A Critical Review. World Bank Res Obs 19 (1), 1-39. doi:10.1093/wbro/lkh012

[8] Morozov, E.. 2014. Making It. Pick up a spot welder and join the revolution.
New Yorker, January 13, 2014. Available at: [Accessed September 15, 2014].


The editors mixed several texts to come up with this one:

Gastfall, U. & Fourmond, Th. 2014. DIY, makers, fablabs: A la recherche de l’autonomie [DIY, makers fablabs: (Re)search for autonomy]. Trans. Sophie Toupin. In: Haché, Alex (editor). Souveraineté technologique. Paris: Ritimo.

Labrune, J.-B. 2010. FABLAB. Message to the Yasmin mailing list, dated 2010-07-09.

Troxler, P. forthcoming. What is a FabLab for? The philosophy, general and specific purposes. In: Menichinelli, M. FabLab. Revolution Field Manual. Rome: SHS publishers.