Looking for directions in Participatory Practices and beyond

Recently  I have observed – with mixed feeling and a bit of disorientation– the rise of  maker culture. Among them, agitators, activists and artists are finding ways to use the latest developments in 3D printing, DIY and citizen science to produce innovative tools and ingenious artifacts for the benefit of the common good. I can feel the excitement in the air as 3D printers pop up everywhere, even in libraries and museums as the next “must know” instrument that will possibly change the future of production and distribution forever.

While I can list a number of useful projects geared towards making a difference for a group or a community, I have also experienced the buzz that this 3D revolution has generated  among people who don’t necessarily know what to do with it but are just thrilled or compelled at the idea of just making things. I am not talking about experimentation, but about a buzz, a fashion, partially dictated by the urgency to KNOW the latest technology and USE it for whatever business idea (often very bad and not really innovative) may come out, and partially coming out of some nostalgic idea that owning a 3D printer will enable the owner to bring back the toy of your childhood, or create the object of your dream, as if one could telepathically operate a 3D printer and make anything possible –and impossible. This is why I am a bit thorn about this so-called revolution, since I am not sure if it will actually produce the change that has been promised by many early adopters, or it will just contribute to bury us in more plastic and gadgets and….Yoda Heads!!!

yoda

I was amused and quite pleased when Matt Ratto (director of the Critical making Lab at U of Toronto)  took the stage with a rather critical approach to the 3D printing and making revolution. To quote his first words, a 3D printer, despite its quite imaginary reputation, is not a Star Trek Replicator, but a complex machine that needs programming and has its glitches and failures!

Despite the myths, this technology and the maker culture that has contributed to its development and popularization have been very important. However, now that we have all seen with great excitement and trepidation the Yoda head materializing layer after layer in front of our eyes, how do we move to something more substantial?

Ratto has two main concerns. First, the focus on the thing made has obscured the individual making it and all those people who worked in the background to make sure that the machine actually “make” the object. The 3D printing revolution is praised for its embracing of open source values and software and for the potential low-cost of its production. However, in this context, labor is somehow forgotten. who is getting paid for what?

A second important concern is that so far, there have been many scattered projects, sometimes very useful, sometimes botched that have produced quite a number of potentially useful and life changing products, such as Project Daniel or E-nabling the Future, both engaged in creating prosthetic limbs for children. However, Ratto argues, the maker community comprises tactics, but not a comprehensive strategy: most 3D printed projects tend to be a one time endeavor, or a lone project in a sea of disconnected and fragmented projects. everybody seems to be involved in making their own, but there is no sharing with actual technicians and professionals who may be able to fit these prosthetic limbs, may be able to help with their expertise. A paper on Information Society explores some of these issues