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A Generative Perspective on Engineering: Why the Destructive Force of Artifacts Is Immune to Politics


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Whether value is extracted for redistribution by a communist state, or extracted for purposes of private enterprise, the problem is in the extraction, which is strongly influenced by the engineering design. A generative approach to engineering would maintain value in unalienated forms, and allow it to circulate such that it returns to the communities of generation.
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Eglash, Ron. A Generative Perspective on Engineering: why the destructive force of artifacts is
immune to politics. pp. 75-88 in Subrahmanian, Eswaran, Odumosu, Toluwalogo, Tsao, Jeffrey
Y. (Eds.) Engineering A Better Future: Interplay of Social Science, Engineering and Innovation;
New York: Springer 2018.
A Generative Perspective on Engineering:
why the destructive force of artifacts is immune to politics
Engineering is closely tied to social and environmental destruction across the globe. The
energy industry has created global warming, oil spills, acid rain, and toxins ranging from
mercury to radioactive waste. Manufacturing has turned skilled crafts into low paid, repetitive
assembly jobs. Information technology has accelerated wealth inequality such that the top 1% of
the world’s wealthy now own 50% of the wealth. One theory is that these detrimental effects
have nothing to do with the engineering design; that they are merely the result of how capitalism
forces us to use otherwise “neutral” technologies. But socialist experiments from the USSR to
Venezuela have shown the same degree of pollution and poverty as capitalism. “The People’s”
radioactive waste left over from the USSR will kill you just as fast as General Electric’s
radioactive waste in the US. The destructive force of artifacts is immune to politics. However
that is because both left and right ends of the political spectrum have focused on systems built
for the extraction of value. A generative approach to engineering, in contrast, would design
technologies specifically for maintaining value in unalienated forms, and circulating that value
rather than extracting it. This paper will review this underlying concept of generative justice, and
how that can be adapted to engineering practice.
Labor value, ecological value, and expressive value
Elsewhere (Eglash and Garvey 2013; Kuhn 2016; Eglash 2016a, 2016b) we have explained
generative justice by starting with examples of indigenous cultures. In the traditional
communitarian economy of the Iroquois for example, an “agroecology”—the three sisters of
corn, beans and squashhad dramatically higher yields than European plow methods of the
day (Mt Pleasant 2006, 2011). Bean root nodules contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria that help corn
and squash; corn provides vertical support for beans; squash’s broad, spiny leaves prevent soil
moisture loss, weeds and pests. The soil agroecosystem was so effective that Euro-American
farmers who annexed their land in 1804 reported initial yields of 80 bushels per acre. By 1845
yields had dropped to 26 bushels per acre; without the Iroquois ecosystem the soil was rapidly
depleted. Even today, artificial pesticides and chemical fertilizers fail to achieve the long-term
effects that agroecosystems make possible (creating, for example, pesticide “treadmills”).
It is easy to understand, in the case of soil depletion, what is meant by “value extraction”. A flow
of things that have value with respect to ecosystem flourishingnutrients, physical features,
hydrationmove in a cycle. Human harvests by the Iroquois were part of that cycle. The Euro-
American farmers extracted value rather than cycling it. Once extracted and sold for cash, we
can say the value was “alienated”—converted to a form the ecosystem cannot use. Other
examples of ecological value extraction include over-fishing, unsustainable logging, and so on.
The concept of “value alienation” is most closely associated not with ecological value, but rather
with Karl Marx’s analysis of labor value. In his 1844 “comment on James Mill” he asks us to
imagine a traditional artisan whose pride in excellent crafting skills and pleasant social ties in a
pre-capitalist village provide the greatest satisfaction in life; here “the act of labor itself is for him
the enjoyment of his personality and the realization of his natural abilities and spiritual aims.”
Marx later used the Iroquois specifically as an example, since Lewis Morgan had documented
how their relations of reciprocity, communal sharing, and gift-giving ensured unalienated labor
value circulation.
Marx contrasts that vision of traditional artisanal satisfaction with the physical, financial and
psychological deprivation of low-skilled workers in industrial factories: the worker has become
alienated from their product (one cannot take pride in having repeatedly inserted screw #17 on
the assembly line all day); alienated from their work process (see “assembly line”); relations with
users (who might not buy the product if they could see the suffering attached to it); and even
their own bodies (e.g. repetitive strain and industrial toxins). From Marx’s point of view, the labor
value that one could have invested in meaningful artisanal work has now become alienated from
the worker.
Although Marx was primarily focused on labor value, some of his remarks on soil depletion
show that he was aware that ecological value was also circulated in traditional societies. And
although he had no category for it, he occasionally mentions what I would place in a 3rd
category, that of “expressive value”. The Iroquois, for example, had voting for women centuries
before any European nation. Like most Native American cultures they provided a legitimate role
(“Two Spirits”) for people we would consider gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-variant. And
while neither Marx nor the Iroquois might recognize them all, most of the things we consider
protected by civil rights in our erafree speech, the right to be an atheist or practice a religion
of your choosing, free access to knowledge, love for people and places, and so onwould also
be examples of expressive value. Like labor value and ecological value, the generation of
expressive value also best flourishes when it is freely circulated, and can be extracted to the
detriment of those who generate it (think, for example of the ways religious faith is extracted for
political gain).
In all three caseslabor value, ecological value, and expressive value--the promise that capital
makes (“no worries, we will return that value back to you in the form of money) is a false one,
because once systems of work are designed to maximize the extraction of valuemass
production, deskilling, “externalizing costs” such as health and environment protections—the
damage has already been done, and buying commodities to compensate merely immerses us
further in alienated products.
Marx thought that taking capitalism out of the equation would solve the problem, but he was
mistaken. One of the best sources for this comparison is sociologist Michael Burawoy (1985),
who carried out participant observation studies as a factory worker in the manufacturing industry
in Chicago, and similar plants in communist Hungary and the USSR. As a life-long dedicated
Marxist, he had no personal inclination towards reporting the negative side of state socialism, so
his critiques are all the more convincing. In both capitalist and communist industries he found
similar deprivationsdangerous environments with limited safeguards; low pay; and his main
focus, forms of coercion that keep people working hard. The methods of coercion were
different, but equally damaging: “each system has its own rationalities and irrationalities, and
each fashions workers who adapt to or resist those (ir)rationalities” (2006, p. 65).
Rather than extract value and centralize it for later redistribution, it is possible to have a
generative economy: leave value in unalienated form, and circulate it through a commons.
Hence the definition of generative justice (Eglash, 2016a): The universal right to generate
unalienated value and directly participate in its benefits; the rights of value generators to create
their own conditions of production; and the rights of communities of value generation to nurture
self-sustaining paths for its circulation.
Marx thought that extraction and centralization would be required for high-tech societies; the
generative ideal would only be possible for low-tech indigenous societies. But generative cycles
are indeed possible in high tech circumstances as well: open source computing is a common
example. The challenge is that since we are starting from an extractive economy, it is hard to
kick-start an entirely new mode of living: for example if you give away code for free, how do you
make a living?
In Eglash (2016b) we provide an example of such a transition in the case of Arduino, an open
source microprocessor (figure 1). We have visualized the flow of value in two ways. When
Figure 1: the links between extractive and generative flow in the Arduino ecosystem
alienated it appears as a single line; when unalienated as double lines. In the upper left
quadrant, we see mass production of computer chips as the extraction and alienation of labor
value as Marx envisioned it: low income workers with little benefits or pay. In the lower right we
see unalienated value flow without income; the internet “gift economy” of makers. But in the
upper right we see a hybrid cycle in which both the gift economy and realistic income converge.
This example is a modified Arduino board, the circular LillyPad created by Leah Buechly to
reduce gender barriers to DIY electronics and computing. As a for-profit company, it is creating
income. But as part of the gift economy, its design and code is open source, and users freely
give away their designs to a commons, from which they too benefit. In Eglash 2016b I have
detailed many examples of such beneficial social relations embedded in the Arduino
ecosystemin particular social justice and environmental sustainability projectsand the ways
that has enabled other instances of this “third cycle” in which a gift economy is linked to forms of
social entrepreneurship.
The Arduino ecosystem is not an independent generative economy. It is still tied to exploitation
of labor and nature in some of its electrical components in the upper left quadrant, and even the
other two are still vulnerable to problems such as sexism in makerspaces (Dunbar-Hester
2016). But it creates a clear goal for the transition to generative justice: shrink the upper left
quadrant and expand the two on the right. What kinds of engineering practices can contribute to
that pathway? What kinds of engineering opportunities do we need to be attentive to when
asking how we can replicate such cycles elsewhere? The next section will examine both
historical and contemporary case studies.
There have always been generative alternatives to extractive forms, and they do not all lie in a
low-tech indigenous past. For example, in 1872 Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin traveled to the
Jura Mountains in Switzerland. The communities in the region were famous for having defended
their industry against corporate take-over by the pressures of mass production, which was
turning out cheaper (and lower quality) products elsewhere. And yet they also defended the
autonomy of groups within the International Workingmen's Association (IWA), rejecting an
attempt by Karl Marx and his followers to turn the IWA general counsel into the central authority
of a political party. What power could be hidden in these small towns that could withstand the
pressures of both right wing and left wing authoritarians? Kropotkin (1899) writes:
In a little valley in the Jura hills there is a succession of small towns and villages, of
which the French-speaking population was at that time entirely employed in the various
branches of watchmaking. …The very organization of the watch trade, which permits
men to know one another thoroughly and to work in their own houses, where they are
free to talk, explains why the level of intellectual development in this population is
higher than that of workers who spend all their life from early childhood in the factories.
The egalitarian relations which I found in the Jura Mountains, the independence of
thought and expression which I saw developing in the workers… appealed far more
strongly to my feelings; and when I came away from the mountains, after a week's stay
with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled. I was an anarchist.
I selected the Jura example because this volume is dedicated to a conversation between
engineering and social science. Illustrating the concept of unalienated value with indigenous
culture seems like something that appeals best to anthropologists, but I hope that watchmaking
is an example of unalienated value can speak to engineers: the material and intellectual
demands for precision, metallurgy and mechanics; what Csikszentmihalyi (2000) refers to as the
mental state of “flow” during a skillful crafting experience; pride in design innovation; and
respect for independent, rational thinking. Beyond individuals, the collective social dimension
here is quite significant. Kropotkin immediately saw the critical role that was played by workers
in charge of their own production environment; in particular the role of “expressive value”: free
speech and inquiry, intergenerational relations of caring (Folbre 2014), and other features were
cycled within this network as well. Veyrassat (1997) compares the success of Jura watchmakers
to the failure of the calico-printing industry in yet another Alpine valley in Switzerland during this
same time period. She shows that the calico printers attempted to preserve wages and working
conditions by passing laws against innovations such as “double printing”; in doing so they
became vulnerable to advances elsewhere. In contrast “the watch industry was to set out on the
path to a modernization that did not break with the indigenous manufacturing model” (p. 201).
Auerswald (2017) points out that the Jura watch tradition did not stop there: In 2014 China
exported 669 million watches; 20 times that of Switzerland thanks to the role of automation and
robotics. Yet robot profits did not exceed those of highly skilled humans: At $24.3 billion, the
Swiss watch industry made 5 times that of the Chinese. On the other hand, contemporary Swiss
watchmaking is no longer the province of working class artisans. Auerswald is not insensitive to
this issue; he points out that the American company Shinola, located in Detroit, imports Swiss
watch parts and assembles them into American-branded casing. He cites this example--a new
company birthed in the very city that symbolizes American manufacturing decline--as vindication
for his thesis that the increasing abstraction of technologythe tendency to move from physical
mechanism to code—spontaneously creates new entrepreneurial niches, due to “an inexorable
evolutionary logic that constantly shifts the landscape of opportunity”.
What Auerswald fails to note is that Shinola’s location in Detroit was part of a carefully
calculated marketing strategy. Muller (2013) describes how Texas billionaire Tom Kartsotis first
did marketing research. He discovered that a luxury item branded as “made in Detroit” made
the product attractive enough to compete against luxury imports; he then purchased the Shinola
name from the defunct shoe shine company to add a nostalgic aura. As Perman (2016) puts it,
With Shinola, Kartsotis has performed a near magical marketing act--creating an
artificial heritage brand by co-opting others' rich American histories. …Shinola's
products are designed and packaged with an American midcentury look, evoking
nostalgia for a bygone era of quality and integrity. Most important, by hatching the
brand in Detroit--a city emblematic of American hardship, resilience,
and craftsmanship--the brand is selling more than watches; it's selling a comeback.
Every time customers in Neiman Marcus or Saks purchase one of the brand's $850
watches or $300 leather iPad cases, they too can feel like they're doing their part in
Detroit's fight for survival.
In other words, Auerswald has it backwards. It’s not an inexorable evolutionary logic” of
progressive technological abstraction that spontaneously created a new job niche, and they just
happened to locate it in Detroit. It’s because Kartsotis and his market research discovered they
could tap into a yet-to-be-exploited source of expressive value: the human desire to love our
cities despite their decay; to root for the underdog; to live a morally acceptable life. And our
human fears too: our feeling that as rich Americans wearing a luxury European brand we might
be seen as traitors, while wearing an American brandeven one made from Swiss partswill
make us feel good about ourselves, because we see ourselves through the eyes of others.
Using the colloquial term “bougie” [boo-zhee] for bourgeois, professor of design Rebekah
Modrak’s (2015) insightful essay titled “bougie crap” examines the contradiction between the
working class cultural capital that Detroit represents, and the lack of return value flow to the
working class in the case of Shinola. She attributes that in part due to the product itself (hence
the title), and in part the resulting gentrification:
Start with a neighborhood or city that lacks economic incentives or that is populated by
minority groups, which are underserved by municipal services including education,
transportation, street lighting, police response time and maintenance. Enter a mainly
white, middle-class population. Investors clamor to underwrite new businesses,
sponsor grants or to secure real estate. This triggers a spike in real estate prices and a
flood of new commercial ventures that sell expensive bougie crap that only the new
residents can afford.
I don’t mean to be dismissive about the gamble Kartsotis made in locating in Detroit, or even the
idea of tapping into such wellsprings of expressive value. Rather, we should focus on the
missed opportunity to return value to those who generated it. As a counter-example, consider
Leo Bachinger’s (2015) analysis of the VinziRast coffee cooperative in Vienna (figure 2). Just as
Detroit has a symbolic heritage in its manufacturing history, Vienna has one in its coffee houses.
Figure 2: generative and extractive cycles in the VinziRast coffee house in Vienna.
Coffee farm photo courtesy of Trocaire.
They were the historic hangout for intellectuals, artists and activists from Sigmund Freud to
Leon Trotsky; the target of Nazi closures in 1938; and today officially designated as “intangible
cultural heritage” by UNESCO. Like Shinola, VinziRast taps into this flow of expressive value
rooted in a civic history. But VinziRast is not a relationship of value extraction: All the café profits
go to an NGO, and the business is part of an innovative housing project where students and
formerly homeless people live, learn and work together. The café employees are drawn from
this low-income population, the food is locally grown, and even the supply chain transportation
is sustainable; using bikes they have modified with loading bins.
As in the case of Arduino, the flow chart shows three linked cycles: an exploitative relationship
in the upper left (the image shows child labor on a Nicaragua coffee farm); a non-profit cycle of
commons-based value flow in the lower right; and the hybrid cycle of VinziRast in the upper
right. Using a sliding scale for its café prices, VinziRast allows consumers to democratically
decide how to modulate the links between gift economy and profit economy. Again, the question
is how we can expand the right side’s generative cycles, and diminish the left quadrant’s
extraction. Shinola’s expanding profits and product line are empowered by technological and
design innovation; could that be adapted by VinziRast? Conversely, could VinziRast’s cycle of
unalienated value flow (assuming the political and financial will to do so) be adopted by
Shinola? Or is there something inherent in engineering technology that locks these two on
opposite sides of a divide?
I find that such possibilities for synthesis are too often answered with relatively minor tweaks:
perhaps Shinola offers to add donations to some local charity, or VinziRast adds a cell phone
app for ordering. Haraway’s (1991) cyborg metaphor is a useful starting point for dismantling the
barriers that keep this divide in place. She notes that creating a divide in which social justice
and sustainability are pushed to an organic, low-tech side, and naming “the enemy” to be
everything on the other side ends up reproducing many of the misleading assumptions that
caused the problems in the first place. Authoritarian claims for “the natural” are common in the
history of injustice: when LGBTQ people are accused of “unnatural sex” or interracial
relationships are seen as violating national purity and its union of “blood and soil” we witness
the negative consequences of the natural/artificial dualism. Instead Haraway urges us to
recognize that humans are “always already” part artificial: our jaws evolved to their present tiny
size because we invented fire; our immune systems have been reprogrammed to ward off polio,
diphtheria, and other deadly diseases; everything deeply human about us, from language to
clothing to shelter, draws as much from the artifice of innovation as it does from nature. That is
not to say that making something “more cyborg” automatically makes it more just or sustainable;
rather it is a call for considering multiple paths that do not exclude the cyborg options.
A cyborg path to generative justice
One of the pressing issues of our historical moment is the dramatic increase in automation, from
AI to robotics. Auerswald’s above discussion of watchmaking was intended to address that
issue in two ways: first, he claims that tasks which tend to be more human-centric (in this case
high-end luxury watch crafting, but he also mentions waitress, cook, actor, etc.) will always
provide a safe economic refuge, even against automation challenges. Second, he claims that
automations’ encroachment spontaneously creates new economic niches, and some of those
will be suitable for exactly those human-centric tasks. I hope the description of Shinola’s
marketing strategy above provides a useful counter to the second claim: markets are
strategically created, not simply handed to us by inexorable techno-evolution, and the available
strategies are increasingly in the hands of the already-wealthy. As to the first claim, I will offer a
counter-argument from David Noble’s (1986) analysis of General Electric’s (GE) experiments in
replacing skilled machinists with numerically controlled (NC) machine toolsautomated devices
that shaped metal according to a computer programduring the early 1960s.
Nobel shows that the tools were not the simple result of superior technology replacing inferior
humans: the machinists’ hand-guided product was, during the initial years, superior to that of the
NC automation in both quality and quantity. Rather it was a deliberate strategy to break labor
union shop floor control, and enhance “Taylorism” in which workers behavior is strictly controlled
from the top down. Putting computer programmers in charge of NC tools was an attempt to put
shop floor production in the hands of a white collar task (coding), a natural alliance with
management, leaving the machinists as deskilled machine button pushers. But an important
objection to Noble’s account was raised by Andrew Pickering (1995).
Picking begins by citing Haraway, noting that the machinists and their tools already formed a
“cyborg” pairing prior to NC automation. In his language, when human agency interacts with
machine agency they always form a “mangle” of the two, and any destabilizationintroducing
new technologies, social formations, etc.will always contain an element of unpredictability; a
“dance of resistance and accommodation” as human intentions and non-human forces negotiate
until re-stabilization occurs. He notes that Noble’s own analysisthe Marxist claim that class
domination will always be the overriding force, even above profits or productivityfailed to
predict what happened next. Once the poor quality of NC tool production was made apparent,
GE management attempted the usual set of rewards and punishments to fix the problem. When
that failed, they made a desperate move: a pilot program put these workers in charge of
A radical experiment in worker control given the context, GE’s new Pilot Program would be
"unique in that there was to be no foreman, no scheduled lunch periods, and flexible starting
and personal times." (Nobel 281). The generative opportunity was not lost on workers:
machinists began to schedule equipment start-up; work with planning in developing,
implementing, and controlling new methods and procedures; approve programming from the
viewpoint of good machine shop practice; review and make suggestions about changes in
workstations, tools, and fixtures; assume responsibility for quality in the unit and interface with
quality control; [and] monitor the area for availability of all materials and check equipment to
insure safe and proper functioning (280-81). Production and quality dramatically increased. As
newly empowered workers began to clash with management, GE administration concluded that
the risks were now exceeding their benefits, and enough had been learned to re-establish the
older managerial style.
From Pickering’s view this shows that his framework of the emergent human-machine “mangle”
offers a better understanding, because the worker-controlled production, even if only temporary,
was unpredicted. From Noble’s view the fact that managerial dominance was eventually re-
asserted proves his Marxist framework; the momentary contradiction was merely a sham for
duping workers into exploiting themselves. But I want to draw out a third possibility by
comparing the GE pilot program to a strikingly similar event happening at exactly the same time
period on the other side of the iron curtain. In 1968 many factories in Czechoslovakia also
began to experiment with worker control.
The backdrop of the Czech experiment is always described in political terms, and for good
reason. At the end of WWII Czechoslovakia was the only nation that voluntarily voted to be on
the Soviet side, and they naively thought that they could create their own vision for communism.
The “Prague Spring” of 1968 saw a brief liberalization in many domains: fewer travel
restrictions, less censorship, more consumer goods. The brief rise of worker-controlled factories
is usually seen as a purely political outcome of this movement. But there was also an
undercurrent of the same internal engineering critiques that plagued GE regarding parts quality.
The communist version of Taylorism (in the USSR promoted by nauchnaia organizatsia truda,
“the movement for the scientific organization of labor”) was similar to GE’s top-down control
methods. In a 1968 speech promoting the worker self-management movement, one of the
engineers described a similar disappointment in the quality of machined parts:
When we steel workers pointed out that we were turning out steel for the scrap heap,
they nearly put us in jail because, they said, we were throwing mud at our socialist
industry. …Aren't you ashamed,' they said 'you're steel workers and you criticize the
steel concept. You're reactionaries.' Only I don't have to be dumb just because I'm a
steel worker. (Vitak 1971, p. 251).
The generative alternative for both GE factory workers and Czechoslovakian factory workers
ended by different methods: at GE they simply reasserted the old top-down management,
whereas in Czechoslovakia half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks invaded the county. But
I hope readers can also see the underlying similarities (figure 3). Whereas Noble’s Marxist
analysis positions the generative moment as an all-too predictable capitalist ploy, and Pickering
sees it as evidence of the inherently unpredictable emergence, a generative perspective would
view it in terms of movements along a dimension orthogonal to the left/right political spectrum.
The question is then how to nurture the movements along that vector, adapting to the
unavoidable contingencies.
Figure 3: Generative justice as orthogonal to the left/right political spectrum
Tuning for Generative Justice
Tuning is Pickering’s term for the series of adjustments that occur as human and machine
agencies re-stabilize. I think Pickering is right about the unpredictability engendered by such a
“dance of agency,” but a generative perspective can adopt that as a positive attribute; a means
of exploring the potential design space. Our own experiments in this area are often with
indigenous groups, and when introducing our design process I frequently use the metaphor of
plant roots and water. When water enters soil it undergoes percolation, trickling through
whatever grains of sand or crevices offer the path of least resistance. Plant roots take a similar
search, growing along whatever hints they can sense in the earth. Eventually water and roots
meet up.
In similar ways, our engineers and their indigenous community need a two-sided, exploratory
process in order to find the right way to meet up. Otherwise we fall into trap of “clever engineers
here to solve your problem,” or the reverse trap of fragile indigenous cultures who will be
tainted by any change. Rather, each side needs to explore the space of possibilities, find
meeting points where root and water intersect, and guide and research the potential
consequences as the intersections evolve. Reducing indigenous knowledge to a western
translation is not sufficient; a recursive transformation is required (Lachney et al 2016a) in which
a shared sense of social justice can guide the process. Terms like “holistic” are so ambiguous
that they fail to provide any guidance at all. Vandalism of sacred sites has become increasingly
common as “New Age” cults appropriate indigenous cultural features to shore up their identities
as white shaman. We need concepts that become more compelling with advancing knowledge,
not less so. We to help engineers tune their work to the self-generating key of life, and that
won’t happen in the tone-deaf training camps we call STEM education.
STEM education is increasingly turning to bottom-up structures, and yet these often fail to offer
generative justice because they ignore value alienation. Consider, for example, MIT’s Scratch
program in which children learn coding to create their own games and animations. Our recent
study (Lachney et al 2016b) showed 2,960 occurrences for “Barbie,” 6,530 results for
“McDonalds”; 4,600 for “Disney Princess”; 8,210 for Transformers; “17,400 results for Call of
Duty; and over 3 million search hits for Pokemon.” And yet the Scratch website’s motto is: “We
turn children from consumers into producers.” Marketing and media has colonized children’s
lives. For the last decade our group at RPI ( has been creating alternative
forms of STEM education using simulations of Navajo weaving, cornrow braiding, urban graffiti
and other practices that can empower children with their own heritage, rather than the lesson
that both science and art all come from the colonized world (Bennett 2016; Eglash et al 2017).
As we explore these connections with local community partners, we’ve expanded beyond
STEM, and learned more about cycling unalienated value back to its source of generation in
domains such as health, ecology, and economics, which I will illustrate with the following
example from our work in Ghana (Babbitt et al 2015).
When I said we needed concepts that become more compelling with advancing knowledge, and
not less so, I did not mean to suggest that atheism is better than spiritual practices; rather it’s a
question of contextualizing these guiding principles in ways that advance both technoscience
and indigenous partners. In our work to establish an indigenous basis for engineering in Africa,
we began with adinkra, an indigenous stamped textile practice that uses symbols representing
spiritual concepts such as the life-force present in all living things, reconciliation with enemies,
etc. Adinkra ink is made from the bark of the Badie tree, and areas in which the bark is
extracted suffer less deforestation. Our first intervention was using solar energy rather than
firewood to cook the ink. The second was using the adinkra symbols themselves in math and
computing education; combining virtual forms with a hands-on practice that helps increase
employment for ink makers and symbol carvers. The virtual form was burned to CDs for local
sale. Adinkra also found their way into a project on HIV prevention. We began with surveys that
indicated embarrassment at point of sale was a barrier for condom use. The inspired a project in
which New York and Kumasi mechanical engineering students collaborated on the development
of a locally-produced condom vending machine. Adinkra artisans created an exterior to add
local aesthetics. And an e-waste “upcycling” program was introduced to supply parts for both
the condom machine and the computing education program.
Figure 4 shows the flows of value described above. Some of the engineering was quite
sophisticated; for example the local team in Ghana wanted to add 3D printing for the gears in
the vending machine using recycled plastic. They are now adapting the design to fit pregnancy
tests and reproductive health kits. And least this seem like it is doomed to be restricted to small
scale enterprises or remote villages, one can look at how our indigenous simulations have been
taken up by architects attempting to improve the environmental and social characteristics of
large scale buildings (figure 5).
Figure 4: unalienated value flow in engineering projects in Ghana
At the same time, little of this was intuitive for the engineers involved. We need to stop training
engineers to ask “what do people want an answer which will be conditioned by their training
in capitalist extraction of value and colonization, as we saw in Scratch and rather train them to
research and recognize unalienated value; to engineer solutions in which that value can be
nurtured and circulated; and to develop systems that put those who generate the value
humans and nonhumans alikein charge of its production.
Acknowledgement: The author would like to acknowledge NSF grants DRL-1640014 and DGE-
0947980 in support of this work.
Auerswald, P. 2017. The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History. Oxford University
Press, 2017.
Babbitt, William, Michael Lachney, Enoch Bulley, and Ron Eglash. (2015). “Adinkra
Mathematics: A Study of Ethnocomputing in Ghana.” Multidisciplinary Journal of Educational
Research 5, no. 2 (June 15, 2015): 11035.
Bachinger, L. More than just coffee. Unpublished manuscript, 2015.
Bennett, A. Ethnocomputational creativity in STEAM education: A cultural framework for
generative justice.” Teknokultura 13(2) 587-612: Dec 2016
Burawoy M. 2006. “Antinomian Marxist”. In The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the
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Figure 5: indigenous fractals in contemporary architecture (from
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... The self-organized flows of three values comprising this emerging theory of justice (ecological value, value from labour, and social value) have been proposed as underlying how social justice and environmental sustainability can be enhanced (Eglash & Garvey, 2014;Eglash, 2016). Other key concepts relate to the effects of 'value extraction' as opposed to 'value-recycling/upcycling'the former concept being a linear, one-way movement of value out of the social or ecological generator, 'alienating' it from the source -while the latter concept embodies a circular economy of value, replenishing the generator (Eglash, 2018). And conversely these elements of social ecologies will influence in what ways generative justice can be analysed and assessed. ...
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What might generative justice look like in places? Are there forms of development and occupation in the city that may reveal where extractive values predominate, or where unalienable values may be in circulation or are under threat? The emerging literature on generative justice has been rightly concerned for the most part, on the forms and effects of extractive values on livelihoods through analyses of labour, ecological and social value. While illuminating, there has arguably been less focus on the spatial means through which these are occurring, and the values could be mistaken as being necessarily universal and aspatial. We argue that a key form of value extraction in the city in terms of ‘top-down’, rather than ‘bottom-up’ values, occurs through urban re-developments – often labelled either ‘urban renewal’, urban regeneration’ or ‘urban re-habilitation’. Our methodology featured a longitudinal case study of change in a London neighbourhood spanning key interventions over a period of 30 years. We reflect here on the identification and assessment of key values, as well as their implications for generative ‘spatial’ justice in places. We conclude by reflecting on alternate forms of emerging ‘spatial justice’ that is more bottom-up, and whether any could ever be really ‘generative’ in cities. [Open access:]
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Resumen The fiber arts, because they are practiced in different forms around the globe, have the potential to teach us much about generative justice that unites labor, ecological, and expressive values. The ecological mutualism documented in Navajo corrals supports traditional weaving, dyeing, food, and medicinal practices in a sustainable and generative cycle that survives despite disruption and exploitation. The network of fiber craftspeople, retailers, ranchers, teachers, spinners, and dyers and their organizations supports the social mutualism of fiber communities. Fiber arts practices can benefit individuals, communities, the environment, and public health, among other things. Conscious fiber activism and critical making can also be used to explicitly draw attention to problems such as overconsumption, waste, industrial “fast fashion,” labor exploitation, environmental degradation, toxic risks, intolerance, and the devaluing of women and their work. Fiber arts have the potential to support environmental and social mutualism and catalyze a new aesthetic of long-term attachment to meaningful objects and communities, reinforcing the creation and conservation of expressive, ecological, and labor value.
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Resumen In the United States, the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (also widely known as STEM) attract very few African American, Latino, and Native (indigenous Alaskan, North American, and Pacific Islander) students. These underrepresented students might be more attracted to STEM disciplines if they knew STEM education’s extraordinary potential to circulate value back to their ethnic communities. For instance, underrepresented medical students, after graduation, are statistically more likely than white students to conduct research on health issues relevant to their ethnic communities. One of the most popular STEM reform movements that of STEAM (STEM + Arts) has done very little to help circulate the unalienated value of these ethnic communities. This paper describes “ethnocomputational creativity” as a generative framework for STEAM that circulates unalienated value in the arts back to underrepresented ethnic communities. We first will look at the dangers of extracting cultural capital without compensation, and how ethnocomputational creativity can, in contrast, help these communities to circulate value in its unalienated form, nurturing both traditional artistic practices as well as creating new paths for "heritage algorithms" and other forms of decolonized STEM education.
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This paper examines imaginaries of work and labor in “open technology” projects (especially open source software and hackerspaces), based on ethnographic research in North America. It zeroes in on “diversity initiatives” within open technology projects. These initiatives are important because they expose many of the assumptions and tensions that surround participatory cultures. On the one hand, these projects and spaces are organized around voluntarism; in theory, everyone who wishes to participate is welcome to do so. On the other hand, diversity initiatives form in order to address the “problem” of imbalance in the ranks of participants. Technology is a unique domain for the discharge of political energies. In collective imagination, it has been vested with the power to initiate change (even as this belief obscures the role of social and economic relations). Multiple ideas circulate about the relationships between diversity in open technology projects and paid labor. This paper argues that in part due to the legacy of technical hobbies as training grounds for technical employment for much of the twentieth century, as documented by historians of radio (Douglas, 1987; Haring, 2006), voluntaristic technology projects are vexed sites for imagining political emancipation. To a large degree, diversity initiatives in open technology projects are consistent with corporate values of diversity as a marketplace value. At the same time, collectivity formations around technology that incorporate feminist, antiracist, or social justice framings may begin to generate connections between diversity advocacy in tech fields and social justice movements or policy changes in order to effect deep social change.
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Marx proposed that capitalism’s destructive force is caused, at root, by the alienation of labor value from its generators. Environmentalists have added the concept of unalienated ecological value, and rights activists added the unalienated expressive value of free speech, sexuality, spirituality, etc. Marx’s vision for restoring an unalienated world by top-down economic governance was never fulfilled. But in the last 30 years, new forms of social justice have emerged that operate as “bottom-up”. Peer-to-peer production such as open source software or wikipedia has challenged the corporate grip on IP in a “gift exchange” of labor value; community based agroecology establishes a kind of gift exchange with our nonhuman allies in nature. DIY citizenship from feminist makerspaces to queer biohacking has profound implications for a new materialism of the “knowledge commons”; and restorative approaches to civil rights can challenge the prison-industrial complex. In contrast to top-down “distributive justice,” all of the above are cases of bottom-up or “generative justice”
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In Marxist frameworks “distributive justice” depends on extracting value through a centralized state. Many new social movements—peer to peer economy, maker activism, community agriculture, queer ecology, etc.—take the opposite approach, keeping value in its unalienated form and allowing it to freely circulate from the bottom up. Unlike Marxism, there is no general theory for bottom-up, unalienated value circulation. This paper examines the concept of “generative justice” through an historical contrast between Marx’s writings and the indigenous cultures that he drew upon. Marx erroneously concluded that while indigenous cultures had unalienated forms of production, only centralized value extraction could allow the productivity needed for a high quality of life. To the contrary, indigenous cultures now provide a robust model for the “gift economy” that underpins open source technological production, agroecology, and restorative approaches to civil rights. Expanding Marx’s concept of unalienated labor value to include unalienated ecological (nonhuman) value, as well as the domain of freedom in speech, sexual orientation, spirituality and other forms of “expressive” value, we arrive at an historically informed perspective for generative justice.
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Ethnocomputing is the study of the intersections between culture and computing. In addition to cultural analysis of computing, it also utilizes computing to model artifacts or practices from a given culture. In this essay, we consider three modes of modeling. In the first mode, the knowledge flow is unidirectional: the researcher analyzes indigenous designs and provides a computing model. In the second mode, the knowledge flow is bidirectional with researchers bringing a technical etic (outsider) perspective and informants bringing a cultural emic (insider) perspective. In the third mode, knowledge flow is recursive; there are bidirectional flows nested within other bidirectional flows. Our case study begins with computer simulations of log curves in Adinkra symbols in Ghana. Thus, we show that there are nested flows between nature and the indigenous artisans who model nature’s growth patterns; between our own ethnocomputing simulations and the students and teachers in Ghanaian classrooms; and finally between the history of computing in the West and the implementation of educational technology. Our data indicates that a recursive model that can account for these nested flows better enables researchers to integrate social justice and sustainability with education and research in both social and technical domains. Keywords: Agency; Ethnocomputing; Indigenous Design; Modeling; Translation.
Bridging schools and communities has been a goal, if not hurdle, for reformers who aim to improve the education of low-income and underrepresented students from the bottom-up. Strategies to create these connections are often characterized as ‘brokerage’, where individuals or organizations bridge two or more social worlds. This paper details the design and implementation of educational technologies that support the brokering of school–community connections using a ‘culturally responsive computing’ (CRC) framework. Culturally responsive education is often limited to content and learning styles, which misses the opportunities it creates for a brokerage process that also connects to education-based social movements for economic access in underrepresented communities. This paper provides empirical support for the claim that the CRC framework is well suited for both purposes. It allows schools and communities to build assets together, translating the knowledge and skills of underrepresented communities into math and computing education, while illuminating the ways in which technologies can motivate education-based social movement building.