Open source networks have the potential to radically disrupt activities and domains that have traditionally been under the purview of governmental and corporate entities. Traditional manufacturing, for instance, has often relied on large scale institutions for capital, distribution, and bureaucratic/services support. However, with the proliferation of open source networks, small, independent actors can collaborate with one another bypassing larger institutions. Such ‘off-grid’ activity may potentially bring with it a range of economic, environmental, and psychological benefits. This paper explores the logic and potential impact of distributed, open architecture, and community-based fabrication. We focus in particular on (i.) problems of meaning, motivation and behavioural change and (ii) alternative modes for the provision of public goods. To unravel the connections between political economy, technology, and problems of meaning and behaviour, we propose the concept of the “reMaker society,” which centres on micro-manufacturing practices and localized distribution networks. In particular, we explore the possibility of DIY production to shift markers of social prestige and psychological self-worth from passive consumption to active and collaborative making, drawing on the organization Open Source Ecology as an exemplar.
reMaker society, distributive economy, consumption, open source networks, immortality project
By Stephen Quilley, Jason Hawreliak, Kaitlin Kish
Whether mass collaboration and ‘Wikinomics’ does indeed ‘change everything’ is open to debate (Tapscott and Williams, 2010). Hyperbole in relation to telematics is as old as computers. But with increased access to computing technologies and the proliferation of open source networks, a substantial shift in manufacturing and distribution models may be on the horizon.
Over the last five hundred years, the arc of social transformation has been in one direction – namely towards the expansion and integration of markets and the loosening of the cultural matrix embedding economic transactions into the social life of particular communities and places. Karl Polanyi (1944; 1968) identified the ‘disembedding’ of economic life as the single most important feature of capitalist modernity. From this perspective, successive phases of economic and societal expansion are all but episodes in an overarching process of capitalist modernization: the enclosure of common land to facilitate capitalist agriculture in early Modern England; the invasion and settling of the New World; the emergence of the international Victorian liberal economy and England, as in Disraeli’s words, the ‘workshop of the world’; Bretton Woods, the establishment of Keynesian mixed economies and ‘the Long Boom’ (Aglietta, 1976); the subsequent pattern of neo-liberal privatization and retrenchment; and since the 1980s the process of globalization that has seen the enthronement of capital mobility and the emergence of China as a serious challenger to America as unrivalled economic and military hegemon.
The disembedding of economic life has everywhere been characterised by:
a) processes of individualization (Beck, 1992) in which increasing interdependency between individuals and groups is less connected to their physical interactions in particular places;
b) a rationalization and formalization of social life associated with disenchantment and the loss of meaning (Weber, 1921; Curry, 2011);
c) the alienation of producers from both each other and from the things that they make (Marx, 1844; Ollman, 1977);
d) tensions between the logics of place versus space i.e. a weakening connection between processes of consumption in particular communities and places and market-driven production organised across flexible, contingent and abstract economic space;
e) an enormous expansion in social complexity and the functional division of labour.
Above all, modernization has involved the rampant monetization of ‘common pool resources’, goods and services previously exchanged freely in the context of relationships of reciprocity (Polanyi, 1944; 1968; Eisenstein, 2011; see also Ostrom, 2015). As Eisenstein (2011) remarks, the monetization of social capital amounts to the “strip mining of community” – a process that is intrinsic to the logic of unrestrained economic growth (p. 76).
For more than a century sociologists have sought to capture the directionality of these processes, contrasting i.) the contractual, cosmopolitan society (‘gesellschaft’) of mobile individuals linked by abstract process operating at the level of market and state (Tönnies, 1887; Durkheim, 1893) with ii.) the organic, place-bound and integrated communities (‘gemeinschaft’) organised around the principles of reciprocity, redistribution and status, and the vitality and acknowledgement of common pool resources – the latter everywhere disappearing into the rear-view mirror of pre-modernity.
For several centuries, technological change has invariably been the handmaiden of this ‘disembedding’ (Polanyi, 1944, 1968) – fostering change in the direction of the abstract society of individuals, with unruly markets sometimes more and sometimes less regulated by the state. Throughout this time, utopians and Romantics have often proclaimed the need to reverse this process and re-embed economic activity in the social life of very specific, more place-bound communities whilst sustaining continuing technological progress. Radical dreamers such as Kropotkin, Gandhi, Geddes, Mumford and later bioregionalists and greens of many stripes, sought an alternative, ‘neotechnic’ (Mumford, 1934) modernity in which the fiduciary value of money, the dominance of price setting markets and the fungibility of valued goods and services are restrained within social, ontological and ecological limits. In practice, radical politics usually foundered because such dreams seemed to require the wearing of a ‘hair shirt’ and a rejection of ‘progress’: technological modernity and social emancipation seemed inextricably tied to a world of ceaseless growth, abstraction, and mobility.
Now in the twenty first century, concatenating environmental crises and systemic limits to growth provide a new context for such dreaming (Röckstrom et al., 2009). Climate change, a systemic energy crunch, crashing biodiversity, and resource shortages underpin an endemic crisis of growth. Marginalised by the discourse of sustainable development, ‘limits thinking’ has come back into the mainstream of environmental politics (Jackson, 2009; Victor, 2008). Particularly in Anglophone countries, the Transition movement has advanced a community-based model of relocalization premised on the twin shocks of peak oil and climate change (Quilley, 2014). Elsewhere proponents of ‘degrowth’ (D’Alisa, Demaria, and Kallis, 2014; Kallis, Kerschner, and Martinez-Alier, 2012; Sekulova et al., 2013), are developing the case for proactive embrace of economic stabilisation and even controlled contraction. Degrowth represents a real challenge to Keynesian welfare systems and the trajectory of technical innovation, both of which depend on steady economic expansion driven by the consumer society (Quilley, 2013). However, whilst there have been attempts by economists to model a low/no growth society (Victor, 2008), the realization of this model on the ground is sparse to say the least. Even at its epicentre in Totnes, Transition has nowhere had a significant impact on the metabolism of a local economy. Relocalization remains an aspiration and relocalizing communities remain completely dependent on global production chains and fiscal transfers organised through a national welfare-taxation system. And as the continuing crisis in Europe demonstrates, both sides in the politics of austerity remain absolutely committed to and dependent upon growth: health and welfare systems, public infrastructure, technical innovation, military capabilities and internal political stability all depend upon it.
Now, however, technological innovations in telematics (communication, coordination and organization) and micro- fabrication are combining to make possible a shift in the opposite direction. Open production and the distributed economy make it at least conceivable that high tech production and innovation can be achieved i.) more sustainably, using eco-cyclical patterns of resource use in smaller-scale, bioregional contexts, and ii.) in more place-bound and communitarian settings that reduce the spatial scope of interdependency whilst increasing the intensity of interactions in place. However, whilst technical developments may make possible a more fractal and distributed model of production, technical solutions alone will not resolve the problem of over-consumption. The post-consumer society intimates problems of meaning [ontology], societal values and non-rational drivers of behaviour. Even more difficult is the extent to which open-architecture production models involve the informalization of economic activity. Because ‘re-embedding’ economic activity in this sense involves the contraction of that part of the formal economy that is ‘visible’ to the state, and therefore taxable, the open economy presents a terminal threat to the established models of public infrastructure, redistribution and welfare provision – all of which depend on fiscal transfers from a growing economy. In what follows, we explore the logic of the distributed, open architecture ‘reMaker society’, focusing in particular on the problems of meaning and alternative modes for the provision of public goods. To unravel the connections between political economy, technology, problems of meaning and behaviour, we propose the concept of the reMaker society, which places value in community based manufacturing practices, localized distribution networks and shifts markers of social prestige from consumption to making.
2. Context: The ReMaker Society
Making is fundamental to what it means to be human. We must make, create, and express ourselves to feel whole. There is something unique about making physical things. Things we make are little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our soul. (Hatch, 2013, p. 11)
Contemporary maker culture celebrates the countercultural ethic of ‘hacking’ and urban maker spaces but shows signs of increasingly sophisticated corporate panache, not least with the culture of Maker Faires (Frauenfelder, 2010; Doctorow, 2010; Anderson, 2012). Although defined by the ethos of digital hacking and a decade of open source innovation in software and publishing, the credo of making goes back to nineteenth century Romantic critiques of industrial capitalism. The world of ‘makers’ starts from an old idea that to be human is to make (Arendt’s Homo faber). This philosophical expression of the dignity of creative labour, echoes early Marxist sentiments (Marx, 1844) – that, in the context of a highly complex division of labour, the wage relation alienates people from both the products of their creative activity and from other people (Ollman, 1977; Anderson, 2012; Giddens, 1973, p. 11). In a critical tradition going back to William Morris, makers seek to reclaim the ‘objects’ of their labour and reinvigorate creative agency and expression lost through a period of efficiency and specialization.
Ushered in by new technological possibilities for both sharing and collaborating in design and miniaturising and democratising high tech manufacturing processes, the mythology of the modern ‘maker movement’ started with the reclamation of electronic and software production in the context of overlaid hippy and punk countercultures predisposed to an ethic of D.I.Y. (DiBona and Ockman, 1999; O’Reilly, 2009; Kuznetsov and Paulos, 2010; Ratto and Ree, 2012). This culture of online exchange certainly opened up the possibility for incorporating the local and physical markets and craft processes into a larger network of ideas and entrepreneurial creativity. Telematics has exploded the potential of previously proprietary, slow, and/or expensive processes of production; punk rock zines moved to desktop publications and blogs, garage bands moved to ‘GarageBand’, craft workers found international markets through Etsy and investigative real-time journalism, and social activism took to a variety of phone apps and start-ups.
Networks of exchange have evolved, riding on the human drive for sharing (Eisenstein, 2011), to a point where things and ideas are easily accessed through a variety of sharing networks. In this context, open source production has been mirrored by a much hyped putative paradigm of collaborative consumption (CC) – the same telematics infrastructure facilitating the re-emergence of ‘product service systems’, redistribution markets, and ‘collaborative life-styles’ (Botsman and Rogers, 2010). The defining feature of this ‘movement’, according to Botsman, is that access to services and functions is beginning to trump ownership of things. The concept of CC promoted by boosters such as Botsman, thrives on an expectation of renewed opportunities for reciprocity, gifting and philosophy of open source, a redefinition of lost commons. At least potentially, CC can reduce the metabolic imprint of consumption – by focusing on use and access rather than ownership, maximising the intensivity of usage associated with shared material infrastructure and promoting long-life repairable and recyclable designs. In principle open production and collaborative consumption are mutually reinforcing because the latter facilitates access to equipment and networks previously out of reach of part-time, poor or tangentially interested journeyman.
Although presented as progressive and liberating, CC also raises difficult issues with regard to labour rights and regulation (Tufekci and King, 2014; Scholz, 2014). Tool libraries, online forums and maker spaces become integral to supporting the maker base and providing the necessary tools for building, creating, and sharing.
References to a ‘maker movement’ are certainly over-blown, suggesting a degree of cohesion, direction and political agency that is not there. There are also profound differences in the way these potentials are realised in different societal contexts (e.g. Lindtner, 2014 on China). Sociological complexities notwithstanding, these spaces do open up two significant opportunities. First, they provide relatively risk-free opportunities for creative and innovative ‘play’ linking amateurs with experts as well as makers with complementary skill sets (Smith et al., 2013). Second, these spaces make at least conceivable the re-emergence of a more place-bound community tied to bioregional production systems (Richardson et al., 2013; Kadish and Dulic, 2015).
These spaces are potentially revolutionary in the sense that they prefigure a very different kind of political economy. Insofar as informal production could conceivably undermine the social compact linking corporate taxation to public services and infrastructure, it undermines the structures of stable welfare capitalism. More positively, to the extent that open architecture, collaborative models of production and consumption re-articulate the value and viability of common pool resources they represent a possible route to the re-embedding of economic livelihood and a partial reversal of the historic enclosure of land and resources. At its most radical there is a possibility for the opening up of a culture of propriety knowledge that has for decades restricted the autonomous capacity for learning, sharing, creating and making with regard to authentic needs rather than manufactured desires. The ‘reMaker society’ refers to this vista of open-source participatory fabrication combined with a culture of collaborative consumption, a more ecologically restrained, less individualistic and less materialistic culture of self, and more communitarian and place-bound forms of welfare.
Hype notwithstanding, maker spaces have variable degrees of effectiveness in building a sustainable and common space. They are certainly not threatening the global architecture of capitalist manufacture and distribution, nor are they likely to any time soon. But there are interesting developments. Inspired by the durability and traction of open-source software and online applications, attention has been switching to the idea of open hardware (Platt, 2009; Monk, 2013; Scherz and Monk, 2013). Maker spaces across the world are thus developing as hot-spots, not only for the creation of new physical goods that contribute to an informal economy, but as a movement toward a modular consumer economy and radically new business models (Anderson, 2012; Kish and Quilley, 2015).
The vision, only occasionally explicit in this burgeoning maker scene, is of a post-consumer society in which fabrication of everyday material artefacts is routinely practiced in domestic and community contexts. This is supported through collaborative design across information networks, less grid-dependent energy and resource networks, and citizen participation in material production. While remaining critical of the techno-utopian rhetoric which often surrounds the maker movement, we propose that the open source ‘distributed’ economic model now coming into view has the potential to become truly disruptive, as demonstrated by the growing system of makers, informal economic activity, interest in repair and modularity, maker faires, and online shops and exchanges. Participatory fabrication has the potential to challenge the logic of passive consumption through communities based on sharing and creativity. These communities engender a new kind of community-based economy emphasising tacit and community knowledge, co-operative ownership, and implicitly removing one’s self from mainstream economic activity. Such changes have potentially drastic implications for a distributive political economy and a new reMaker society.
In what follows we introduce theoretical resources for assessing the potential of the reMaker society.
3.1 Non-rational Drivers: Making and Open Source Ecology as Terror Management Practices
It is clear that solving the problems associated with globalization, feelings of alienation, and climate change will take more than technical and economic advances alone. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll (2015), 63% of American respondents claimed that they see climate change as a ‘serious issue,’ with 52% saying it is ‘very serious.’ However, although fossil fuel consumption is down slightly from 2001 levels (and this is encouraging), Americans still receive nearly 84% of their energy from fossil fuel products (World Bank, 2014), and sales of SUVs and Crossover vehicles are in fact growing (Durbin, 2015). As Robert Gifford (2011) notes in a paper examining the psychological barriers to climate change action on the individual level, there is a persistent “gap between attitude (‘I agree this is the best course of action’) and behavior (‘but I am not doing it’) with regards to environmental problems” (p. 290). In other words, although we know that certain behaviours have negative impacts on our health, finances, the environment, and so on, mobilizing that knowledge into significant, specific action is tricky at best. Gifford and others (e.g. Vess and Arndt, 2008), have attempted to explain this gap by examining the psychological motivations behind the general apathy and outright denial of climate change. Broadly speaking, there are a host of psychological reasons (Gifford, 2011) why people act in ways that are counter to their best interests, both in the long and short terms (e.g. due to ‘numbness’ and ‘comparison with others’). In the context of the reMaker society, we also propose a psychological framework for understanding the gap between knowledge and action noted above, and perhaps more importantly, for producing a potentially meaningful way to address it.
For starters, it seems likely that part of the solution must come about by better understanding the role of consumer culture in bolstering self-esteem and ontological security (Laing, 1961; Giddens, 1991). One useful point of departure in this regard is Terror Management Theory (TMT), an empirical psychological framework validated by experimental data from over 300 published studies. According to the TMT model, cultural belief systems function as ‘immortality ideologies’ which act as buffers against existential anxiety (Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski, 1984). Based on the work of Ernest Becker (e.g. 1973; 1975), TMT contends that human beings possess the same biological imperatives to survive as all organisms, but also possess the mental capacity to anticipate [and dwell upon] their inevitable death, and more generally to understand the significance of mortality. The combination of an instinctual will to survive with the knowledge of inescapable finitude is a source of potentially crippling anxiety. In order to cope with existential terror, we create and subscribe to meaning systems which allow us to believe that we are special, or in Becker’s parlance, that we are more significant than “worms and food for worms” (Becker, 1973, p. 26). To achieve this, we engage in ‘hero projects’ – culturally sanctioned practices that increase feelings of belonging, social recognition and self-worth. Furthermore, social systems provide avenues for ‘immortality projects’ through which individuals can live on in perpetuity, literally (perhaps through a religious conception of an afterlife) or symbolically (Lifton, 1983), in the form of a legacy.
TMT has been used to great effect to examine the impact of non-rational drivers in consumption habits (e.g. Arndt et al, 2004) and climate change denial (Vess and Arndt, 2008; Dickinson, 2009). One consequence of modernization is that the in the context of individualized, mobile urban societies, processes of disenchantment, cultural relativism and secularization have undermined cohesive, culturally-sanctioned and shared hero/immortality projects. Even markers as basic as ‘being a good mother’ or ‘living like a good Christian’ no longer function as effective hero/immortality projects. Consumerism has become the lowest common denominator and signifier of last resort. Conspicuous consumption, style and the ownership of things have become highly visible and universally understood markers of prestige and self-worth (Becker, 1973; Kasser and Sheldon, 2000; Arndt et al., 2004). It is the endless cycle of consumption that serves at once to distract us from our mortality whilst providing us with highly visible indicators of success and prestige. Owning a large house, expensive car, or even the latest smartphone (O’Gorman, 2010) are all means for quantifiably demonstrating success within a capitalist system. This may partially account for why people continue to buy into the logic of passive consumption even when they are aware of its negative impacts on workers, local economies, and the environment: the self-esteem boost gained through consumption and ownership may overwhelm any moral quandaries regarding working conditions, sustainability, or the environment (Dickinson, 2009). Thus, one way to counter the logic of passive consumption may be to provide alternative sources of meaning and self-esteem – hero/immortality projects that privilege making and repurposing over buying and throwing away. This is a central aim of the reMaker society: not directly to replace or upend globalization and capitalist hegemony, but to offer a meaningful alternative to the logic of passive consumption. The concept of the reMaker society seeks to link the potential of open source technics, the DIY ethos, and maker-spaces, to an alternative vision of political economy and psychologically informed understanding of green hero/immortality projects.
3.1.1 Open Source Ecology
One of the most high-profile experiments in open source, participatory design and fabrication is ‘Open Source Ecology’(OSE) – a project that has been the focus of much hype and perhaps excessive expectation. Founded in 2003, OSE hopes to “see a world of prosperity that doesn’t leave anyone behind” (Open Source Ecology: About, 2014). At its core, OSE designs and provides open source blueprints for a ‘Global Village Construction Set’ (GVCS), described as “a set of the 50 most important machines that it takes for modern life to exist” (Open Source Ecology: GCVS, 2014). These include tractors, earth-brick presses, ovens, and circuit makers. OSE calls their pieces of machinery ‘lego’ as they can be interchangeable and designed to fit user needs. One of the primary goals of the GVCS is to provide an alternate means for procuring equipment essential for self-sufficiency at a fraction of the cost of retail machines. For instance, according to OSE’s website, a John Deere Utility Tractor may cost upwards of $44,487; a tractor built according to OSE’s designs, however, may only cost $9,060 (Open Source Ecology, 2014). By implementing a system which emphasizes modular design, individuals do not need to purchase manufacturer specific components or pay exorbitant labour costs; instead, they are potentially able to construct, repair and modify their equipment when necessary.
OSE is an ambitious organization with lofty, world-changing aims. When asked about his goals in an interview with Make magazine, OSE’s founder, Marcin Jakubowski, responded that “we’re trying to reinvent civilization” (Kalish, 2012). We see this rhetoric at play in the organization’s “Vision” statement as well:
This work of distributing raw productive power to people is not only a means to solving wicked problems – but a means for humans themselves to evolve. The creation of a new world depends on expansion of human consciousness and personal evolution – as individuals tap their autonomy, mastery, and purpose – [t]o Build Themselves – and to become responsible for the world around them. One outcome is a world beyond artificial material scarcity – where no longer do material constraints and resource conflicts dictate most of human interactions – personal and political. (Open Source Ecology, 2014)
Although certainly an interesting idea the GVCS remains an aspiration. With the possible exception of the Earth Brick Press, the open hardware is nowhere sufficiently robust and replicable as to compete with commercial products. Our own OSE powercube workshop, run by Tom Griffing in August of 2014 at the DIYode makerspace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, produced only one partially functioning machine that was not sufficiently robust, reliable and replicable to displace the mainstream equivalent. Nevertheless, the project is important not only in exploring the technical potential of open-architecture manufacturing, but because it intimates an equally paradigmatic change in the psychological relation to the processes of production and consumption. The rationale implicit in this project is that this form of relocalization can link local livelihood and bioregional manufacturing, to ecological and communitarian hero/immortality projects, i.e. that an open-source and community-based approach to the design and fabrication of everyday material culture could become the basis for ontological security (Laing, 1962), the re-enchantment of everyday life (Berman, 1989) and a more active, less-consumption oriented pattern of life. Taken together, the technology, the open architecture collaboration, the model of distributive political economy and alternative vehicles for meaning-making, provide the basis for a truly alternative basis for modernity. Both as i.) a prefigurative model of a future society and ii.) a model of activism and social entrepreneurship in the present, the real potential of OSE is as a nascent hero/immortality project.
In OSE we see the belief that the power of networked communication and the open source ethos are truly emancipatory. At least in principle, they not only provide people with a means towards self-sufficiency, but also evoke a world free of ‘artificial material scarcity’ – a leading cause of hunger, poverty, and war. These are lofty and noble claims, to be sure. However, whether or not OSE’s vision to ‘reinvent civilization’ ever comes to pass, it is nevertheless an example of the sort of movement which characterizes the reMaker Society. The ethos of OSE is not so much anti-capitalist as pro-self-sufficiency. Unlike the immortality ideology of Western capitalism, where prestige and self-esteem are attained through purchases and the logic of passive consumption, OSE provides its participants and adherents the chance to use their skills and knowledge to build something tangible and, potentially, of lasting worth. From the perspective of TMT, OSE provides participants with an alternative vehicle for the accrual of prestige, self-esteem and ontological security.
So what sort of experience does a typical OSE workshop provide? Interested individuals—usually in their twenties or younger—travel to OSE’s farm in rural Missouri, where they participate in a variety of workshops, equipment builds, and brainstorming sessions. The farm is largely off-grid, meaning modern amenities such as clean water, heating, and wireless internet are either non-existent or unreliable (Eakin, 2013). In an interview with New Yorker magazine, one volunteer summed up the reasons for foregoing the conveniences and, frankly, safety of contemporary, first-world life: “I was looking for a way to affect the economic system with technologies—a classic how-to-change-the-world mentality” (Kang, qtd. in Eakin, 2013). Likewise, another OSE participant who built a Compressed Earth Brick Press via OSE’s online documentation, noted the rewards which come from contributing to the project: “It was like, finally, for the first time in my life I knew what I had to do…. It was kind of like giving birth. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh. We built this, we did this and here’s the result”’ (Slade, qtd. in Kalish, 2012). In the same New Yorker interview referenced above, Jakubowski notes what he calls the “Ikea effect, which is that you like something that you build more than something else [i.e. something purchased]…There’s a deep drive in humans to create their own existence” (Eakin, 2013).
These testimonials exemplify the sense of meaning and ontological security potentially offered by making. To return to Becker (1975), ‘What man [sic] really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning’ (p. 4). In this context, projects like OSE offer a potential salve to the Marxian/Weberian/Durkheimian problems of alienation, disenchantment and anomie. Through participating in an OSE workshop or build, volunteers are able to directly see and benefit from the fruits of their labour (e.g. by drinking the water from a freshly dug well); to find meaning in a radically different understanding of ‘the good life’; and to consolidate deep connections with co-producers. Furthermore, since OSE provides its materials freely accessible online, participants know that their contributions will be viewed by others for potentially years to come, further adding to the opportunity for a digital legacy i.e. an ‘immortality project’.
This is not to suggest that OSE is not without very obvious problems. For starters, living off-grid brings a whole host of logistical and even health challenges, and many workshop participants simply lack the technical skills needed for the workshops to function efficiently, meaning timelines are pushed back or people quit prematurely (Eakin, 2013). Furthermore, at this point the near utopian DIY, off-grid rhetoric of OSE cannot fully mesh with the reality that the project is necessarily completely dependent on commercial components and services – not least the Internet, computer technology, rare earth metals sourced from China. Even in a more limited sense, the OSE farm has had to purchase commercial equipment, such as a bulldozer, and pre-fabricated windows (Eakin, 2013). We also want to emphasize that OSE and maker-culture broadly is only one potential alternative model for economic praxis and self-esteem accrual, and that at this point, any economic or environmental impacts are nominal. Nevertheless, if viewed as a move towards something rather than a fully realized vision, OSE and related groups possess the potential to provide the alternative models of localized economics, self-esteem accrual, and meaning making noted above. In short, OSE may be viewed as an early example of what a small-scale reMaker Society might look like.
3.2 Exploring a ReMaker Distributive Political Economy
Recalling earlier models of distributivist political economy (e.g. Chesterton), proponents such as Mark Hatch (2013) advance a ‘maker manifesto’ which starts from a vision of human nature as fundamentally cooperative and creative. For Hatch this premise leads directly to an open source, sharing economy of producers in which products are designed for self-build, self-maintenance, modification, and recycling.
Pointing to a new political economy ‘in-line’ with left-environmentalism, this putative reMaker distributive political economy provides a number of opportunities for localized economic systems, redefining social, economic, and technological progress, decoupling the social compact and socio-technical innovation from growth (Daly, 1990; Victor, 2008; Jackson, 2009). Disruptive technologies and open-Wiki architectures fused with countercultural social innovations in business modelling, ownership, and political ideologies, point to a possible new trajectory for modern society. For instance, the commonly-used culture and architecture of Wiki platforms demonstrates a democratization of knowledge that lays the foundation for sharing of ideas and things, directly challenging any idea of ‘ownership’ (Botsman and Rogers, 2010), bringing back a culture of the ‘commons’. Maker culture, broadly speaking, combines the commons with new micro fabrication technologies that bring manufacturing to the people (e.g. 3D printing) (Gershenfeld, 2013), and into a community context (Anderson, 2012). This suggests that such a combination makes possible self-sufficient communities that are also highly technical and science-based (Carson, 2010; Rifkin, 2014).
There isn’t room here for an extended theoretical discussion, but it is worth noting that the significance of the combination of micro-fabrication technology and open architecture forms of organization is precisely that it has the potential to reduce the thermodynamic and material cost of social complexity. H.T. Odum (2013) used the concept of ‘eMergy’ to explore the way that any process or material artefact depends on embodied energy distributed across all the antecedent biological, social or technological pathways necessary to support it. A pride of lions depends on a minimum area of grassland that can support a minimum population of herbivores. Likewise, the construction of a mobile phone, depends on amongst other things, a system of universities producing a flow of technicians and scientists. In both cases these costs can theoretically be quantified and compared in terms of inputs of solar energy. The central point is that complexity of any kind costs. Information rich systems tend to be associated with the highest ‘transformities’ (Odum’s term for the measure of antecedent energy transformation) and are the most vulnerable to systemic shocks. More recently, John Michael Greer and Kevin Carson argued about Buckminster Fuller’s concept of ‘ephemeralization’ (see Carson, 2013). Contrasting the few pounds of material in a satellite with the massive infrastructure of undersea cabling, Bucky had argued that the unit energy/material cost of technology was declining. Pointing to the obvious dependence of satellite technology on a deep swathe of social-technical systems, Greer countered with the rather obvious point that technological sophistication invariably comes with an unavoidable thermodynamic price tag – a price that can’t be ducked. Greer was right about this particular example. But an open theoretical question underlying our project, is whether new micro-process technologies allied with new forms of collaboration do in fact have the capacity radically to reduce the ‘transformities’ associated with certain technological functions. For example, if it were ever possible to 3D print computer chips and construct/repair/upgrade telecommunications technology in a domestic or community setting, it is possible to envisage a massive reduction in the associated metabolic footprint (the ‘unit transformity cost’) of mobile telephony or computing. This would be something akin to lions being able to eat grass (see Odum, 2013). The possibility of reducing the metabolic cost of complexity goes to the heart of the left-green dilemma. Social emancipation has hitherto depended on forms of technological and social complexity that involve an economic scale (the throughput of energy and materials) that is, in the long term, unsustainable. It is an open question as to whether a reMaker society might eventually make complexity affordable.
Such a society would be much more decentralised with a great deal of active participation in the making, repair, and recycling of everyday goods, thus possibly presenting a significant growth in the informal economy. The potential for a modern green distributive political economy is one in which the goods produced are much cheaper and sustainable to make (Hatch, 2013), relies on open design and flexible fabrication (Jakubowski, 2008), collaborative design and funding (crowdsourcing), modularity, and electronic re-invention based on need, rather than want. The potential primary social and economic outcomes of such a new society emerge from the interplay of new social milieu and re-focusing of technological innovation. We have outlined potential outcomes of such an interplay in a set of eight propositions below, summarized in Table 1. These potential outcomes are situated against the technics of the mainstream political economy, heavily situated in corporate capitalism with a tendency toward globalised modernity.
Table 1: Corporate versus Open-Source Technics
3.2.1 ReMaker political economy and the steady state economy
Since the original MIT ‘Limits to Growth’ report (Meadows et al., 1972), the ecological economic concept of the steady-state economy has become a recurring point of reference for radical political economy. Ecological Economics starts by privileging the metabolic scale over efficiency i.e. the scale of material and energy flows in the human economy relative to those in the biosphere as a whole (Daly, 1990; Norgaard, Martinez-Alier, and Schlupmann, 1990; Victor 2008; Kallis, Kerschner, and Martinez-Alier, 2012). But however compelling as a discursive foil for rapacious capitalist growth, the concept of the steady state is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the notion of economic and ecological equilibrium runs counter to the cycles to the of expansion, collapse and reorganization that seem to be a ubiquitous feature of both economic and ecological complex systems (Gunderson and Holling, 2002; Schumpeter, 2013; Quilley, 2016). Secondly, even to the extent that it is conceivable, a low throughput equilibrium economy is at odds with the cosmopolitan, individualist and rationalist commitments that define the spectrum of liberal, social democratic and green politics. Degrowth is not, by definition, a liberal project (Quilley, 2013) because the architecture of open, democratic, liberal societies has been constructed on the basis of high levels of complexity, continuing growth and a model of public infrastructure (including welfare, health, education, transport) funded by fiscal transfers from an expanding and visible formal economy.
In this context, the model of the reMaker society is potentially significant for two reasons. Firstly, decentralised, participatory ‘low overhead’ production models make it conceivable that at least some of the material culture that defines modern societies might be sustained and reproduced outside of the integrated formal economy that currently straddles the globe. By substituting for this globally integrated market, a series of networked and more embedded (in Polanyi’s sense) bioregional economies, the reMaker model would not obviate the cycling of growth, collapse and reorganization phases. But it would eliminate the possibility of large scale systemic collapse, whilst i.) reducing the local and regional ecological impacts of growth and ii.) the social consequences of periodic retrenchment. Secondly, the reMaker model would allow alternative structures of political economy to emerge in tandem with more communitarian models of care, welfare and the provision of local public goods. Re-embedding economic activity and livelihood could conceivably see the re-emergence of the gift economy and reciprocity as important ‘planes of integration’ (Polanyi, 1968) and a reduced emphasis on mechanisms of both market and state. Examples might include public involvement in hospital care, familial and community home-schooling or community involvement in the repair and maintenance of public infrastructure. Because strategies for social emancipation have historically been so entwined with the expansion of both market and state in highly complex societies, such re-embedding scenarios raise difficult questions. Nevertheless, the reMaker society intimates a hitherto unacknowledged ‘adjacent possible’ i.e. a combination of state, (formal) market and (informal) communitarian reciprocity that could conceivably deliver modern technology and levels of innovation at a much lower ecological cost, and in the context of a much less individualistic post-consumer society.
3.2.2 Local, repairable, recyclable, and upgradeable goods bring to the forefront visible and readable impacts on bioregional ecological systems, challenging imperceptible global production systems.
In every generation, crafters and DIY activists have intimated a different trajectory of technological modernity. The contemporary maker movement is dominated by largely uncritical celebrations of technological promise (Gershenfeld, 2013) and rosy but under specified articulations of a radical new culture (Frauenfelder, 2011; Anderson, 2012). But there is no shortage of critical commentary focusing on the co-optation of the DIY movement by corporate capital and consumer culture (Bean and Rosner, 2014; Armes et al., 2014). Although much of the real action in DIY manufacture is taking place in the context of Chinese sweatshops, there is certainly also evidence of great potential with respect to the emergence of new forms of creativity (Tannenbaum et al., 2013), craftism as a vibrant form of social critique (Garber, 2013) or as a vehicle for new kinds of education (Martin, 2015). In what follows we distinguish between the extant maker culture particularly as celebrated in the popular media and the potential of the reMaker Society – a potential that remains at best latent.
In the global consumer economy, high turnover, inbuilt obsolescence, passive consumption and cycles of trivial innovation, short product life and disposability are difficult to disentangle from either welfare and more general social progress or the trajectory of technical innovation per se. This is because high rates of public and private investment depend upon fiscal transfers from an expanding economy. In this sense there is no trivial consumption. The reMaker society concept starts to unpick this Gordian knot in a number of ways.
· Open source design in the context of a community of makers would emphasize on modularity, repairabilty, upgradeablity and recyclability as design parameters. Removing the processes of design and fabrication if only partially from corporate cycles of investment and profit would allow the emergence of technologies with intrinsic design characteristics rather products imprinted by the extrinsic logic of the corporate ecosystem. The beginnings of such an ecosystem are discernible in OSE’s system of open product releases and in the culture of Instructables, IkeaHack, Make Magazine and numerous open hard ware projects.
· Bioregional material flows and reduced global trade in products and raw materials would create an economic and design premium in favour of material recycling but also salvage, component recovery and re-use.
· Modular design would minimise wastage associated with repair, recycling and upgrading (as with start-up modular Phoneblok – ‘a phone worth keeping’); maximise the coherence of product sets both in domestic and commercial settings – and so reduce the tendency towards the duplication of hardware (as with OSE’s Global Village Construction Set).
· Reflexive local manufacture: The geographically dispersed but functionally integrated manufacturing systems operating in abstract space of the global economy are characterised by opaque and unreadable supply chains. The potential of a bioregional reMaker society would be to minimise the length and complexity of supply chains, to make visible the full financial, ecological, material and social costs of production and to make comprehensible the relationships between consumers and producers. From a systems perspective this reflexivity would enhance the feedback loops and information flows regulating processes of production.
Of course any significant reorganization of production and consumption along these lines would have enormous collateral implications for society – not with regard to the fiscal implications of the informalization of the economy and the capacity of the state to provide social and technical infrastructure. The model also intimates a completely different relationship between the sphere of production and the and ontological frameworks or mythology of a post-consumer society.
3.2.3 Personal fulfilment and lengthy time commitments to projects and community development lead to personal satisfaction of a more limited set of needs, challenging mainstream artificial needs.
Regulation theorists have provided a compelling analysis of the inter-war crisis as a failure of effective demand (Aglietta, 1976; Boyer, 1992). The emergence of Keynesian welfare states combined with an enormous architecture of psychological advertising (Curtis, 2002) to create an umbilical link between mass production and mass consumption. Curtis shows how through Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the Freudian unconscious became a central arena for strategies of both corporate and political legitimation and what Bernays famously referred to as the ‘engineering of consent’ (1947). Curtis’ account complements that of Ernest Becker (e.g. 1975). Capitalist modernization has long been associated with processes of ‘disenchantment’ (Weber, 1921) and individualization, resulting in a systemic crisis of meaning and problems of ‘ontological insecurity’ (Giddens, 1991; Laing, 2010). For Becker (1975), in mobile, diverse, cosmopolitan societies, the loss of a cohesive shared mythology and culturally sanctioned ‘hero/immortality projects’ has left individuals in modern societies vulnerable to existential trauma. Into this breach, consumerism has become the shared meaning system of last resort (Dickinson, 2009 – see also Lasch, 1979; Douglas and Isherwoood, 1996; Dittmar, 2011).
In this way, a culture of passive consumerism has become an indispensable source of cross cutting psychological, political and cultural legitimation. Consumer spending drives the economy – and so underpins welfare and security in very immediate ways. Personal consumption has become a central vehicle for the creation of meaning and self-identity. Constantly rising material standards of living combined with the steady cycling of new innovations is critical in engineering consent and bolstering a pervasive narrative of progress. And in this context, environmental and social justice critiques have proved largely impotent, unable to penetrate the deep ontological and practical investments that ordinary people have in the culture of consumerism.
In principle, the reMaker society may begin to unpick this social-psychological dependency on consumerism in a number of ways.
· To the extent that participatory fabrication, repair and maintenance opens up avenues for a creative and collaborative relationship to material culture, the immediate psychological rewards for passive consumption may become less compelling.
· A community-based reMaker networks could eventually provide a peer-to-peer counterculture sufficiently robust as to weaken the individualistic appeal of personal consumption. In Becker’s terms, opportunities for the accrual of self-esteem, prestige, status and perhaps also a sense of personal legacy in a material culture ‘made by hand’ could amount to a radically different set of culturally sanctioned hero/immortality projects.
However, to the extent that the disruptive potential of the reMaker society was realised, this would bring with it real political and economic dangers. Not least, the erosion of consumer culture would potentially undermine a key process of state legitimation at precisely the moment that the informalization of the economy is reducing the capacity of the state to deliver welfare, services and infrastructure.
Table 2: Open Source Production, Open Design, and Flexible Fabrication (Adapted from Jakubowski 2008: slide 7)
3.2.4 The reMaker society, training and education
In one of the most shared TED talks, Ken Robinson has argued that modern education systems are not fit for purpose (Robinson, 2013). The networked society, he argues, needs an education revolution which leaves behind the rigid, siloed, top-down institutions and methodologies of the past century. Students need to be set free to co-create more tailored, self-directed and polyvalent curricula that speak to them as individuals. Of course this kind of critique by radical educationalists (e.g. Pashler et al., 2008; Lengel and Kuczala, 2010), echoes the much longer Romantic ambivalence about the utilitarianism and specialization of technical education and its relation to modern labour. The need to reintegrate hand-brain learning and connection is a theme that runs throughout early commentary on modernization and alienation (Marx, 1846), through William Morris (1890) and John Ruskin (1862), and later to Ivan Illich’s manifesto Deschooling Society (1973) and the contemporary homeschooling movement. This translates into a modern interest in traditional craft skills as central to modern work, leisure, and well-being (Greenhalgh, 2002; Sennett, 2008; Ferraro et al., 2011; Adamson, 2009; Yair, 2010), commonly featured in green (Hopkins, 2014) and radical education critiques inspired by Illich (c.f. Gibson, 1979, p. 254; Robinson, 2013).
The reMaker society intimates the possibility of a very different relationship between education, socialization, participation in community and the process of production. A shared experience of making things in a community context, undermines the one-dimensional understanding of human motivation (Sennett, 2009; Ingold, 2013). In The Deschooling of Society, Illich argues (from Weber) that education suffers from over institutionalization. He suggests that approaches for addressing this issue must include hands-on learning and prioritization of tacit knowledge, a sentiment echoed repeatedly in maker discourse (Turner and Turner, 1985; Sennett, 2009; Anderson, 2012; Hatch, 2013). This view of learning and education is certainly implicit within the ethos of contemporary maker spaces. The reMaker society goes further intimating a neo-technic vision of a decentralized society coupling modern technology and with a renewed emphasis on polyvalent craftsmanship. Aligned with radical green projects, this vision has the opportunity to take advantage of micro-process technologies, the sharing of capital and tools and a resurgent cultural valorization of common pool resources at the level of ideas as well as resources. In the reMaker society education would become a much broader process through which individuals and groups tapped into a social stock of knowledge, know-how and expertise to achieve shared goals (Botsman and Rogers, 2010; Carson, 2010; Steele, 2012; Gershenfeld, 2013; Rifkin, 2014)
3.2.5 While corporate capitalism depends on abstract trust and blind interdependence on the global systems of trade and expertise, citizens of the reMaker society could become engaged with relationships of interaction within networked place-bound communities
Modernization has been characterized by a mutually reinforcing bundle of processes including urbanization, individualization, rationalization and secularization (Weber, 1921). Face-to-face interaction between known individuals in the context of cohesive, place-bound communities has given way to opaque patterns of interdependency between anonymous individuals and groups, over larger territories and in the context of much more complex societies (Tonnies, 1887; Weber, 1921; Elias, 1991). During the process of ‘detraditionalization’, individuals freed from the ascriptive structures of gender and class, find themselves increasingly responsible for crafting and identity, making (occupational, marital, consumption) choices. With the emergence of more contingent relationships in relation to extended family, friends and place-bound communities, the locus of trust shifts from interactions with known individuals to a trust in the abstract processes of expert systems and institutions, such as banks, insurance companies, state institutions, hospitals, schools (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991). In this context, trust becomes both more personal and more abstract, but less of a shared or group experience. What Polanyi refers to as the disembedding of economic activity, involves the parallel removal of livelihood activities from these place-centred, networks of trust and reciprocal participation.
Through a partial re-informalization of economic activity and the re-emergence of an open-source gift economy and a renewed recognition of common pool resources, the concept of the reMaker society points to a trajectory of modernization in which the economy is partially re-embedded into wider patterns of culture. A society of networked bioregions could re-establish the significance of interpersonal interactions and interpersonal trust. The reMaker society, balancing on philosophies of common ownership, trust through networked systems, mentorship programs, and re-embedding economic and cultural life, has the potential to transform the system of trust, combining the antipodean organizing principles of traditional and modern society. Makers in such a society would be engaged with relationships of interdependency, yet are able to do so through abstracted networked systems. Where modern individuals are at the mercy of expert trust relations (mechanics), makers may either reskill to perform tasks on their own or have a networked system of trusted relationships. Although the success of Open Source communities hinges on their capacity to mobilise expertise, the flat organizational structure and the element of gifting or reciprocity allows both expertise to be more widely available as a form of capital, but also for expert systems to be monitored and held accountable. This potential to re-embed expertize technical rationality in place-bound and /or virtual community can be seen in many ways as an extension of what Beck referred to as reflexive modernization (Beck, 1992).
3.2.6 Summative Remarks
While there is no reason to suppose that any or all of this is happening on a large scale or threatening manufacturing companies, the open source technic and ‘internet of things’ present a paradigmatic case of disruptive innovation (Bogue, 2013; Grynol, 2013; Lindtner, 2014). The propositions outlined above point to opportunities that are emerging in maker discourses and on-the-ground action that are beginning to advance new visions of sustainable commons rooted in community. Communities representing all, or some, of the above propositions are growing, such as Open Source Ecology, the hundreds of maker spaces across the world, online maker Wikis, the growth of commons ownership, collaborative consumption start-ups, and crowdsourcing as an increasingly common source of funding. These examples are beginning to assemble a new model of distributive economics that feature radical business models, disruptive collaboration and design to hack existing products, complete redefinitions of the relationship between citizenry and the state, and profoundly different cultural framings of success and ‘the good life’. Such a change is fundamentally reliant on communities with technologically innovative approaches to knowledge and social collaboration.
4. Critique: Dependence on Capitalist System and Problems of Access
We have sought to distinguish the potential of a reMaker political economy from the sociology of contemporary maker culture, eulogised by the Make Magazine and the Maker Faires (‘the greatest show and tell on Earth’ http://makerfaire.com). There are obvious critiques of maker culture relating to income and educational barriers. Joining a maker space requires upfront cost, free time, some basic skill level, and knowledge of the group (generally disseminated in Universities). Certainly the number of maker spaces have greatly increased over the last 10 years (there are over 410 maker/hacker spaces listed on databases online, (“Directory” http://spaces.makerspace.com/makerspace-directory), almost none of which existed 10 years ago). But the maker culture also depends on the larger economic system for a flow of components, skills and expertize. With regard to patterns of maker motivation, there is also a structural link between capitalism and social systems of individualisation and freedom of choice/mobility (see Quilley, 2013).
First, this dependence is logistical. Maker spaces are not typically able to supply, by making for themselves, the tools necessary for production. While most spaces are equipped with 3D printers, these printers are typically unable to print a metal blade for a rotary saw, for instance. Even more difficult, is obtaining the metal to make the saw, or the rare Earth metals to create the computers for operating CAD and the software to use the 3D printer. Without specific levels of technology, it is impossible to say what kind of scale of economy could independently exist in a reMaker society. There is no clear idea about the minimum scale of technology required for a single functioning maker space, let alone a community based on these ideas. This extends to the problem that “not all societies are at the same level of informational development, that the revolution is well entrenched in the richest countries and is only beginning in the poorest” (Mosco, 2004, p. 18). This may make it difficult for developing countries to adopt the maker culture as it exists in the West, without first going through an industrial revolution of their own – demonstrating the difficulty in suggesting a political economy that is dependent on the foundation that it seeks to challenge. However, there is another possibility that we address below.
The second argument for dependence on the capitalist system comes from complexity theory – that there is no ‘trivial consumption’. Economic responses to biophysical limits to growth need to consider broad, long-term social development consequences. Degrowth literature (Kallis, Kerschner, and Martinez-Alier, 2012; Sekulova et al., 2013; D’Alisa, Demaria, and Kallis, 2014) commonly assumes that the political structure of degrowth will allow for the values of social inclusion, justice, peace and development to be reconciled with limits to growth. However, Ophuls (2011) demonstrates that this would come with significant complexity constraints and trade-offs between societal consumption and characteristics of cultural progress. The values, practices and institutions of social emancipation [at least as they have been understood over the last century] are tied intrinsically to overall levels of socio-economic and technical complexity, i.e. the extent of the division of labour and the degree to which the economy generates fiscal transfers to fund state infrastructures and institutions (e.g. state childcare programmes, the expansion of higher education, disability benefits). To the extent that contemporary maker culture i.) is part of the leisure economy, ii.) represents the self-actualising expression of highly individualised consumers with economic resources, and iii.) is parasitic on forms of social and cultural capital (e.g. individuals with high levels of tertiary education)—it is very much a function of the consumer society. Any significant process of degrowth or contraction would have unknowable consequences for the social, political, and cultural structures upon which contemporary maker culture depends. More generally, the decline in the scale of the economy would likely be accompanied by, what Elias refers to as, a process of ‘decivilisation’ i.e. a loosening of internalized processes of psychological restraint along with a decline in the regulatory capacity of the state (Linklater and Mennell, 2010). Quilley expands on this argument extensively in his paper “Degrowth is Not a Liberal Agenda” (2013).
In an editorial note for the fifth issue of this publication, the editors ask, “We now have the means of production, but where is my revolution?” (Maxigas and Troxler, 2014). As many of the articles in the fifth issue note, the revolutionary promises of maker culture, FLOSS, etc. have largely failed to materialize. One article which is particularly relevant to our discussion of OSE and the emancipatory rhetoric surrounding maker culture is Wolf et al’s (2014) examination of “Fab Labs” or fabrication laboratories. Like OSE, Fab Labs “have the ambition to share digital fabrication blueprints as well as operating instructions for using the machines in the worldwide community” (Wolf et al, 2014: para. 2). As the researchers found, however, there are significant “motivational, social, technological and legal barriers” (para. 3) which make it difficult to achieve this ambition. Indeed, they note that “within the Fab Lab community global open knowledge sharing is far from the norm, despite the high claims of the Fab Charter” (sec. 4.1, para. 3). Like OSE, members of these fab-labs are well-intentioned and many are altruistic in their aims. Yet, significant challenges remain, such as the issue of accessibility, and a critical assessment of the associated techno-utopian claims can help us address them.
So maker culture is not a social movement in the sense of presenting a coherent and self-conscious challenge to the structures of contemporary capitalist society (Roots, 1997; Melucci, 1989; Laclau and Mouffe, 2001). It is self-evidently tied to the existing structures of global consumer capitalism (Bean and Rosner, 2014). Using the heuristics of complex systems analysis, maker culture is deeply entrenched in the existing ‘basin of attraction.’ In any objective sense, experiments like Open Source Ecology remain utterly marginal and insignificant. There is no conceivable way in which, other things being equal, participatory fabrication can challenge incrementally the logic of accumulation driving the current system. In all sorts of ways, makers like everyone else are tied to a capitalist growth economy – not least because all public sector infrastructure, health systems, welfare, roads, universities, education systems etc. depend absolutely upon fiscal transfers from a growing economy. But in an era of limits, it is possible that the rules could change rather quickly. If we have learned anything since 2008 and from the on-going crisis in Europe, it is that continued growth is not guaranteed. And any serious failure of the growth machine would quickly lead to what Habermas (1975) referred to as legitimation crises. In an era of systemic limits, environmental politics is likely also to prove non-linear: opportunities are likely to emerge rapidly and in the context of crisis. In this context any relationship between current maker culture and a conceivable future/emerging reMaker society should be seen as ‘pre-figurative’: a shallow basin of attraction explored by pioneers and counter-cultural radicals that may have the potential to explode given a sufficiently destabilising exogenous shock to the current system. To use Gramsci’s metaphor (1971) the leading edge of maker culture can be seen as a resource for and an arena for a ‘war of position’ – the struggle to reveal cultural and political-economic ‘adjacent possibilities’ that have the potential to proliferate under the right conditions (Quilley, 2016). Open Source Ecology is in this sense a kind of pre-figurative politics (Graeber, 2002; Young & Schwartz, 2012).
This notion of pre-figurative politics also has implications for radical community development in the global south. The notion that all countries are destined to follow an immutable sequence of developmental stages has often been a feature of both Marxist and mainstream political economy (Rostow’s modernization theory). However not only has this idea been challenged in theory (Skocpol, 1977; Kay, 2010; Escobar, 2011), it is also being turned upside down by novel applications of technology in the field. Stewart Brand (2010) uses the example of mobile telephony in Africa to demonstrate how technology is transforming the relationship between infrastructure and development facilitating entirely new and less grid dependent trajectories for industrialization. In this context, it seems at least plausible that global economic shocks might be most likely to trigger a deepening and widening of the reMaker basin of attraction in the proliferating urban conurbations of the global south. In such contexts the potential for polyvalent, multi-skilled artisans working with open-sourced, multi-functional, small scale machines to re-imagine the relationship between production and consumption seems to be much greater – not least because of the lower regulatory burden. These ‘low-overhead’ contexts are the likely to be most conducive for a transition from maker culture to a reMaker society.
The reMaker society offers a number of possibilities for community structures centred on open source technics of relocalization. While still dependent on global production chains, the ongoing aspiration for relocalization is for the first time supported by technological innovations and micro-fabrication that give hope for a shift away from a corporately dominated political economy. Such a political economy, bolstered by growing support for open-source/commons ownerships and approaches would be more likely to achieve a ‘sustainable degrowth’ (Martínez-Alier, 2010) by a) making visible impacts on local bioregions and ecological systems and b) restructuring satisfaction toward a more limited set of needs. It would also redefine ownership, both of goods within a community and toward a single produced good. Citizens would be engaged, embedded in community and place, gaining satisfaction through family, community, and creative activities. All of this sounds like the idyllic visions of a post-growth society. However, open production and the distributed economy make conceivable such social structures in conjunction with high-tech production and technological innovation. With satisfaction coming from community and kin ties, a potential post-consumer, yet high-tech, society becomes possible.
At the same time, we must keep a watchful eye on the utopian rhetorics surrounding progress and potentially emancipatory technology, while also remembering that this is not a condemnation of it. Indeed, as ambitious and utopian as it may be, the OSE project, for instance, is noble in its pursuits. However, by better understanding the limits of open source networks—technical, rhetorical, economic, and socio-political—groups such as OSE and Fab Labs will be better positioned to make good on their goals. In looking at OSE, the risk is not so much that its adherents will exploit those they purport to help, but rather, that in getting too caught up in what can be accomplished technically, they unwittingly ignore the complex network of human factors upon which their success depends.
Additionally, the amount to which an open-source distributed political economy relies on the corporate capitalist system remains an open question. This suggests two significant areas for future work and investigation. First, to select a set of various social outcomes of the corporate capitalist system and examine the consequences when each of those outcomes is threatened by a reduction in governmental and centralized support (e.g. health care). Second, to further explore the likelihood of having information technology without reliance on larger global systems of trade and distribution.
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