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
Editorial note: We now have the means of production, but where is my revolution? image

Peter Troxler and maxigas

The last years saw an incredible proliferation of shared machine shops in a confusing number of genres: hackerspaces, makerspaces, Fab Labs and their more commercial counterparts like TechShops, co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators. Without being comprehensive, the articles collected here address Fab Labs, hackerspaces and hacklabs, but the questions raised reach beyond the walls of each. Shared machine shops figure as the occupied factories of peer production theory – worker owned production units which often look like the perfect illustration of the revolutionary theory on first sight, yet on closer look exhibit all its contradictions. Of the phenomena customarily examined under the rubric of peer production, they are probably as close as we got to an image of a peer produced social fabric – a society of peers.

Despite the marketing clangour of the “maker movement”, shared machine shops are currently “fringe phenomena” since they play a minor role in the production of wealth, knowledge, political consensus and the social organisation of life. Interestingly, however, they also prominently share the core transformations experienced in contemporary capitalism. That is, for the individual: the convergence of work, labour and other aspects of life. Moreover, on a systemic level: the rapid development of algorithmically driven technical systems and their intensifying role in social organisation. Finally, as a corollary: the practical and legitimation crisis of modern institutions, echoed by renewed attempts at self-organisation.

Arguably, hackers occupied such an ambiguous position since the beginning of hackerdom, but shared machine shops represent a new configuration. They appear as embodied communities organised in research and production units of physical and logical goods; they even appear to escape the subcultural ghetto as they expand their collaborations to educational institutions, museums, and libraries. They are eminent laboratories in both their practices and products: as experimental forms of social institutions, and as the developers of technological prototypes projecting new visions of the future. Industry actors, state authorities and policy makers have recognised such milieus as prolific grounds for recruitment and new organisational models, which in itself warrants critical attention.

Each article in this special issue addresses a received truth which circulates unreflected amongst both academics analysing these phenomena and practitioners engaged in the respective scenes. Questioning such myths based on empirical research founded on a rigorous theoretical framework is what a journal such as the Journal of Peer Production can contribute to both academic and activist discourses. Shared machine shops have been around for at least a decade or so, which makes for a good time to evaluate how they live up to their self-professed social missions.

We learn from Adrian Smith that Shared Machine Shops are not new. As a historical prelude to the formation of Shared Machine Shops, he documents the ideas, struggles and achievements of the movement for socially useful production during the Thatcher era in the United Kingdom. The technology networks and the workers of the Lucas Aerospace Company argued along similar lines to the techno-missionaries of today, sometimes engaging in “technological agit-prop”. What set them apart from contemporary hackers was their clear political vision, which was often lost in translation between the activists who wanted to use alternative technological paths for consciousness raising purposes around issues such as industrial design practices, renewable energy, public transportation, etc. and those who wanted to spread these social innovations through mainstream market circulation. One of the lessons offered to similar movements today, however, is that the alternative path they were beating out could not survive the neoliberal reforms sifting through the larger social institutions of society which provided the context for their efforts.

Cinty Kohtala and Camille Bosqué both visited the first European Fab Lab, the one at Lyngen farm in northern Norway. This lab has been, in Fab Lab chronicle, dominating the discourse on how a Fab Lab should be open to everybody and being able to sustain itself. They both encountered a place that strangely deviated from known experiences and practices: it was not a place of hustle and bustle of making but a rather solemn and pretty quiet community center. They intertwine their individual ethnographic observations to arrive at a rich and multi-level portrait of a very peculiar Fab Lab at the core of which stands Haakon Karlsen Jr., the labs founder, gifted story teller and renowned personality in the Fab Lab network.

Busting another myth, Patricia Wolf, Peter Troxler, Pierre-Yves Kocher, Julie Harboe and Urs Gaudenz asked practitioners about sharing project documentation between Fab Labs. The researchers do find some evidence about the exercise of this core value – and key purpose – of the Fab Lab network (laid down in the Fab Lab Charter) yet in rather local and personal cluster. Hence the title echoes the conclusion: sharing is sparing. The challenges involved are dissected in detail based on in-depth interviews and field observations, which can ground proposals for improving the situation.

Turning to the hackerspaces scene, Sophie Toupin interviewed hacker/maker/geek women who decided to make their own spaces out of frustration with the politics of openness – or in other words, the practices of exclusion – in mainstream hackerspaces. Their powerful rearticulation of open sociality marked a historical fork in the movement which stimulated reflection on liberalisms on both sides, and politicised issues of gatekeeping which many kept purely technical before. Moreover, the meeting of feminist and geek cultures proved to be a fertile ground for cross-pollination while we are reminded that hackerspaces are not open.

Anita Say Chan analysed the counter-domestication practices of a Peruvian hacklab where communities had to deal with OLPCs falling from the sky. The air-drop model of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) proved to be neo-colonialism driven by technological determinist imaginaries. The smoke screen of marketing talk which was deployed by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (notable, Intel), supported by an assortment of high-profile academics (Nicolas Negroponte) and politicians, and reached out to the compromised decision makers and thought leaders of remote territories was averted by coalitions of local translators, teachers and free software hackers. While we learn that technology is not neutral, the green mini-laptops got content, software, and user interfaces which made sense in the local socio-cultural environment.

Meanwhile in North America, hackerspaces are not solving problems, they are rather producing subjectivities and socialities. In the most rounded ethnography of the collection, Austin Toombs, Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell traced how new members grew into the maker identity, and what prevented them from doing so. Developing tool-sensitivity, adopting an adhocist attitude, and trusting one’s abilities turned out to be important factors. In defiance of established academic norms, the selection of examples was not based on cherry-picking the few exceptional, commercially successful hacks from the repertoire of the space, which typically stand in for the numerous other inventions. Rather the authors followed practitioners and what was important for them. Thus we see that each participant made sense of the tools in the hackerspace based on their previous backgrounds and experience, and made new ones that stemmed from both.

In the last article in the peer reviewed section, Sascha Dickel, Jan-Peter Ferdinand, and Ulrich Petschow probed the role of shared machine shops in innovation processes. They showed that shared machine shops were a protected niche which was at best but one component of innovation ecologies. Their role as real-life laboratories was both important and unique, but successful products must “escape the lab” or grow out of it. Therefore, Anderson’s (2012) rhetoric of a new industrial revolution where shared machine shops take over centralised production is called into question. The sober conclusion of the authors is that “to expect them to overthrow centralised forms of production might therefore demand too much of these still fragile niches which got to handle the ambivalence between experimental freedom and socio-economic pressures.”

Finally, in the editorial section both of us editors address the trajectory of our respective scenes – Fab Labs and hacklabs/hackerspaces – through the lens of a key moment in their historical formation. Peter Troxler documents an ’ontological turn’ in the history of Fab Labs: the rise of grass-rouge labs which challenged the official MIT model, winning a perhaps limited but still crucial recognition in the official discursive framework. Thus the realities of political economy: the requirements of capital extraction by hegemonic centres came into contradiction with ideological imperialist ambitions on spreading new relations to technology. In turn, maxigas interprets a controversy about the inclusion/exclusion of the authorities in the hackers scene, placing it in the wider context of the socio-economic developments of hacklabs and hackerspaces. Gatekeeping practices are influenced by the institutional experiences of organisers and participants.

Tomas Diez gives his unique take on the smart cities agenda, questioning the role of citizens versus the power effects in techno-utopian urbanism. He emphasises the role of shared machine shops in creatively mediating between sweeping agendas imposed from above and needs arising from citizens’ life world.

Complementing the insider perspective of Diez, Susana Figueiredo do Nascimento evaluates shared machine workshops from the point of view of a researcher working in the European policy space. She acknowledges hackers’ sensitivity to critical notions of technology questioning its neutrality, but also highlights their blind spots which result from their social status, their focus on the capabilities of technology rather than its consequences, and their liberal bias. As an antidote she proposes a supportive engagement with shared machines shops through the involvement of social sciences and humanities as well as policy makers and political actors.

Thus all articles contribute to critical scholarship on peer production – an antidote to the laudatory studies which flooded the academic market in recent years. On another level, we hope to swing the emphasis of scholarly attention to the interactive study of past and present, in contrast to extrapolatory studies of (mostly techno-optimist) futures. Because the second industrial revolution will not be bereft of social conflict.

ps: We would especially like to thank all contributors, specifically for reviewing each others’ papers, which was very valuable and worked well as a production practice.