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Makerspaces and Peer Production: Spaces of Possibility, Tension, Post‐Automation, or Liberation?

Abstract

Makerspaces are open community workshops for peer production which provide people with technical tools and training to experiment with making, learning, and hands‐on participation around material cultures. These workshops come in a variety of forms, and they are called by many names, including shared machine shops, hackerspaces, fab labs, digital studios and many other labels – including makerspace, which we will use as an umbrella term to keep things simple. What they have in common, however, is a commitment to providing people with the skills and means needed to access versatile design and fabrication technologies, and to fostering communities that share an open and collaborative ethos regarding the possibilities that democratized design and fabrication technologies might offer personally, socially, economically, and culturally. In this chapter, we discuss the diverse dynamics of maker- spaces, and how encounters between makerspaces and institutional interests in particular are shaping what is possible. We also ask what is gained from the radical redistribution of prototyping capabilities in societies that makerspaces represent, and what is diminished.
The Handbook of Peer Production
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production:
Spaces of Possibility, Tension, Post-Automation, or Liberation?
Kat Braybrooke, University of Sussex, UK & Adrian Smith, University of Sussex, UK
This is the author’s version of a chapter accepted for publication in the Handbook of Peer Production. Changes resulting
from the publishing process such as copy-editing, typesetting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected
in this document. This author manuscript version is available for personal, non-commercial and no derivative uses only.
Citation: Braybrooke, K. & Smith, A. (2020). Makerspaces and peer production: Spaces of possibility, tension, post-
automation, or liberation? In: M. O’Neil, C. Pentzold & S. Toupin (Eds.), The Handbook of Peer Production (pp. 347-358).
Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
ISBN 9781119537106 Available at: https://www.wiley.com/en-au/The+Handbook+of+Peer+Production-p-9781119537090
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
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1. Introduction
Makerspaces are open community workshops for peer production which provide
people with technical tools and training to experiment with making, learning, and hands-on
participation around material cultures. These workshops come in a variety of forms, and
they are called by many names, including shared machine shops, hackerspaces, fab labs,
digital studios and many other labels including makerspace, which we will use as an
umbrella term to keep things simple. What they have in common, however, is a
commitment to providing people with the skills and means needed to access versatile
design and fabrication technologies, and to fostering communities that share an open and
collaborative ethos regarding the possibilities that democratized design and fabrication
technologies might offer personally, socially, economically and culturally. In this chapter,
we discuss the diverse dynamics of makerspaces, and how encounters between
makerspaces and institutional interests in particular are shaping what is possible. We also
ask what is gained from the radical redistribution of prototyping capabilities in societies
that makerspaces represent, and what is diminished.
Makerspace communities engage with a versatile selection of design and
fabrication tools frequently with special emphasis on digital tools for fabrication, in
which code and designs are shared over networks, but also including more traditional hand
and craft tools as well, that enable people to engage in material participation, pursue new
livelihoods, and simply have fun making cool projects (O’Donovan & Smith, 2020). Tools
are maintained and accessed through peer networks of makerspace members, who
collectively manage spaces, share skills and mentor incoming makers, and who design,
prototype and make anything from street-furniture to wearable electronics to hydroponic
systems, from open-source beehives to 3D printed prosthetic limbs using recycled
materials, and from environmental monitoring systems to musical instruments. Members
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
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might call themselves hackers, makers, tinkerers, activists, entrepreneurs or simply
creators. A typical makerspace like Gearbox in Nairobi, Kenya
1
or Chaihuo Makerspace in
Shenzen, China
2
, for example, provides tools (such as 3D printers, computer-numerical-
controlled machining (CNC) machines, laser cutters, sewing machines, soldering
equipment and micro-electronics), community services (such as pedagogical materials for
digital making, training sessions for educators, and support for start-ups and small
businesses), and membership to its users (with plans ranging from daily to life-long in
length).
When makerspaces are also founded with the ideologies and non-proprietary gift
economies of ‘commons-based peer production’ (Benkler, 2002; Wolf et al., 2014) in
mind, their practices (such as co-designing), their modes of production (like 3D printers),
and their outputs (like an open source windmill or a prosthetic arm built from open
hardware designs) are collaborative, non-hierarchical, decentralized, and openly shared,
with the aim being to encourage future innovations amongst members, who will then share
their contributions in turn. Other makerspaces are founded with a more entrepreneurial
focus, and act as small business incubators, where outputs are privately owned by their
creators. So, makerspace practices may include commons-based peer-production or
personal and proprietary projects and many sites encourage all of these.
However, whilst they are important sites for prototyping peer production through
material engagement, makerspaces are other things beside that. Their versatility has caught
the imaginations of a wide variety of institutions, who see in them an exciting buzz of
organized possibilities. This speaks to a growing body of research literature that analyses
the wide range of sociotechnical practices that are experimented within makerspaces, and
1
Located on the web at http://www.gearbox.co.ke/
2
Located on the web at http://www.chaihuo.org/home/index
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
4
the multiple issues that arise around these (Hielscher & Smith, 2014; SSL Nagbot, 2016).
This chapter makes use of that literature, and it also takes a broader perspective by
considering makerspaces as situated in relation to social institutions. By social institutions,
we mean both broad norms and routines in societies, such as conventions for property in a
market-based economy, and also more specific institutional actors such as museums,
schools, and innovation agencies, amongst whom there has been interest and support
towards makerspaces.
What kinds of encounters do makerspaces have with these institutions, and how do
these interactions enrich our understanding of the critical implications of peer production?
We address this question by first looking at makerspaces as spaces of possibility, by
introducing some of the innovative practices that have emerged from the prototyping of
alternative sociotechnical configurations in makerspace settings. We then consider
makerspaces as spaces of tension, examining the contradictions and contestations they
manifest, and the ways they interpret, reinforce and challenge prevailing sociotechnical
logics. Here, it is important to understand how the power relations of institutional
encounters shape the terrain of makerspace possibilities and limitations. We engage in a
historical analysis of the deeper conflicts of open community workshops and the
institutional tendencies that have structured them, discussing how makerspaces can be
conceived of as spaces for post-automation,’ constituting more human-centered
alternatives for commons-based technology as compared to the approaches of typical
automation theories, represented most recently in Industry 4.0 discourse. And we conclude
by discussing the emergence of even more liberatory visions of makerspaces as sites of
radical sociotechnical reconfiguration. In doing so, our aim with this chapter is to capture
some of the ways institutional encounters in makerspaces anticipate and shape peer
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
5
production futures while leaving space for the many contingencies that give each
makerspace its own unique flavor.
2. Spaces of Possibility
We opened this chapter by introducing makerspaces as open community workshops
which offer people the tools and mentors to engage with materially-engaged making and
learning. This basic template has caught the imagination of a wide variety of actors who
are intrigued by the possibilities of such spaces, from computer hackers and schoolchildren
to global corporations. It has also meant that makerspaces have become ciphers for the
broader sociotechnical aims and imaginations of those who encounter them and as such
they are described as innovators of education, cradles for entrepreneurship, studios for
digital creativity, catalysts of social change, prototyping shops for local manufacturers,
twenty-first century libraries, laboratories for smart urbanism, galleries for digital
explorations of material culture, and so on not forgetting, of course, spaces simply for
hanging out and having fun.
More radical depictions of makerspaces have anticipated them becoming not only
workshops for making and learning, but also the “occupied factories of peer production
theory” (Troxler & Maxigas, 2014), by providing people with alternatives to mass
production and business-as-usual (Arvidsson, 2020). Such conceptions of makerspaces
foresee their potential to interrogate more complicated sociotechnical dynamics through
material experimentation that elicits wider socio-cultural transformations. In this framing,
makerspaces can be understood not only as educational environments where people can
learn digital fabrication skills, but also as “real-life laboratories” (Dickel et al., 2014)
where new ways of working and interacting within civil society can be experimented
through what the craftivist Sarah Corbett has called “slow and mindful activism” (Corbett,
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
6
2017, p. 2). These possibilities have led to some pundits going so far as to laud
makerspaces as harbingers of a “fourth industrial revolution” (Anderson, 2012) which is
claimed to have originated from the examples of a few influential ventures in North
America, like the newly-defunct Make Magazine.
With aspirations for global sustainable development like that of the circular
economy
3
starting to redefine the norms and rules by which products and services are
produced, consumed and remanufactured, meanwhile, makerspaces are also increasingly
being cast as actors within even broader imaginaries of systems-level transformations
(Prendeville et al., 2017). Their tools and technical possibilities are also being used to
rethink how global circulations of design and machining can be harnessed for more
sustainable and local fabrication (Smith & Light, 2017). The concept of redistributed
manufacturing (RDM) in particular has become alluring for a number of institutional
agendas, which look to makerspaces as pioneers in prototyping systems and practices
aimed at shifting the organization of manufacturing through local supply chains (Corbin &
Stewart, 2018).
The realities of current-day makerspaces, however, are even more heterogeneous,
and humble, than the grand visions of fourth industrial revolutions and circular economies.
When makerspaces do engage with such visions, their strength rests in conceptualizing
their practical requirements on a day-to-day level (Kohtala & Hyysalo, 2015). Makerspace
possibilities have always been grounded by the many contingencies of the cultural and
historical contexts within which they are situated. Makerspaces also come from a long
tradition of hacking, crafting, fixing, remaking, circuit bending and other innovative
3
The circular economy is a framework that correlates economic growth with sustainable development by replacing the
current ‘take-make-waste’ industrial model with one where waste and pollution are designed out of the system, by keeping
materials in use, transitioning to renewable resources and regenerating natural systems (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2018)
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
7
sociotechnical practices that have taken many different forms around the world, especially
in nations on the periphery (Braybrooke & Jordan, 2017; Smith et al., 2016; Turner, 2018).
In India, for example, unofficial makerspaces have flourished for years through the
assorted activities of ‘jugaad’ culture, a colloquial Hindi and Punjabi word meaning an
innovative fix rooted in necessity, the practices of which have been described as
community-led combinations of making-do, hacking, and frugal engineering (Ray
Murray & Hand, 2013; see also Deka, this volume). Jugaad projects, which typically re-use
recycled and discarded materials from digital consumer cultures, range from Frankenstein
bikes made up from discarded bike parts to walls built with recycled bottles. As an
inextricable part of Indian life and cultural rhetoric, jugaad is a visible postcolonial practice
in many different kinds of environments, from repair shops to homes and roadside cafes
(Rai, 2015).
Spaces for making and hacking in China, meanwhile, have long been associated
with copyleft or ‘shanzai cultures of technological disobedience, as well as China’s
extensive history of digital fabrication as a mode of mass manufacturing (Arvidsson, 2020;
Braybrooke, 2019; Lindtner & Li, 2012;). Makerspaces have more recently become a core
focus of economic development for the national government, which has introduced policies
that emphasize digital making as a way of transforming the next generation of Chinese
young people into entrepreneurs to address concerns over future unemployment (Justice,
2012; Shea & Gu, 2018). The specific circumstances that fostered the creation of today’s
government-funded makerspaces in China started to emerge around 1988, when the
Ministry of Science and Technology launched its first ‘Torch Programme’ to help foster
new R&D spaces across the nation to promote an “innovation-oriented China” such as
science and technology industrial parks a conceptualization of material participation as
economic development that was also introduced in the U.K. around this period (Massey &
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
8
Wield, 1992; Wang, 2016). This history has meant that peer production is typically viewed
in China not as a creative hobby, but instead as good business, and government subsidies
have helped over 7,500 makerspaces and tech hubs open across the nation a higher
concentration of such spaces, China claims, than anywhere else in the world (The People’s
Republic of China, 2017).
3. Spaces of Tension
Because makerspaces emerge from ever-evolving and contingent contexts like the
above, a deeper examination of their impacts conjures up many contradictions as well as
possibilities. Some makerspaces have been criticized for perpetuating contrasting
ideologies of egalitarian openness on one hand, while at the same time maintaining an
apolitical stance towards issues of race, class and gender, which perpetuate privileged and
hierarchical or “pushyocratic” (Toupin, 2014) cultures. In North American and European
makerspaces in particular, members remain predominantly white, male, educated, and
middle-class (Davies, 2018; Nesta, 2015). Ideologically-oriented makerspaces, such as the
feminist hackspace Mz Balthazar’s Laboratory in Vienna, attempt to address these issues
by experimenting not only with new technologies, but also with new ways of working that
tackle these asymmetries.
Other kinds of spaces, however, have become synonymous with neoliberal
business-as-usual, where a kind of entrepreneurial citizenship is prototyped through the
exploitation of precarious labor by businesses and institutions alike, with producers
blocked from the rights to their own creations (Irani, 2015; Lindtner, 2017; Smith et al.,
2016). Critics argue this kind of enactment turns the makerspace model into yet another
site of consumption, in which designs, materials, tools and cool lifestyle projects are
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
9
marketed to hobbyists, with little of the social awareness or transformational aspirations of
peer production (Gertz, 2012).
There is also an increasing proliferation of makerspaces that have opened with
institutional associations, situated within libraries, museums, universities and companies.
The emergence of these hybrid spaces provides a new set of opportunities and tensions.
The first fab lab, for example, was opened through partnerships at the MIT Centre for Bits
and Atoms in the United States in 2001, and the model soon spread to other regions, who
opened their own fab labs enacting the same fabrication tools and modes of knowledge
production as the original fab lab. There are now nearly 2,000 fab labs active in over 40
nations, many in partnership with private and institutional actors (Fab City Research Lab,
2019). A network of city and regional authorities, from Barcelona and Plymouth to Kerala
and Seoul, is now using the idea of designing-globally and making-locally to promote a
Fab City concept, which situates fab lab districts as the basis for prototyping new urban
metabolisms.
4
The idea is to seed a transformation to more circular economies by creating
city-scale infrastructures that are networked with other cities, so that capabilities expand
for ‘designing globally and making locally’ (Diez, 2012; Kostakis et al, 2015).
Increased institutional attention towards makerspaces means they are subject to a
plurality of developments and demands, which can result in a loss of autonomy when they
conform to the ways of working of their institutional hosts (Braybrooke & Smith, 2018).
However, more enlightened institutions are finding the experimental approaches of
makerspaces are of value for reforming their own practices. Noteworthy here are the
Citizen Innovation Laboratories pioneered by Medialab-Prado in Madrid and the regional
government of Aragón in Spain, and now being adapted across Latin America. These
laboratories convene citizens in the co-production of new institutional forms for resolving
4
https://fab.city/
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
10
development needs and aspirations, which are framed collaboratively, and with the
ensuing, peer-produced social innovations treated as a commons (Pascale, 2018). The
critical factor here will be whether the conditions under which these kinds of initiatives are
cultivated are sufficient to carry forth their prototypes and turn them into instruments for
wider institutional reforms (Smith, 2018), under which a more radically open and
democratic commons can be instituted.
Here, institutional theory can come in handy, as it seeks to explain the kinds of
settled (and unsettled) social environments in which organizations operate, and the effects
that different kinds of organizations have on each other’s development. Institutions can be
very broad and cultural, such as those concerning property, or they can be instrumental and
specific, like a government agency, the formation of a law, or a particular regulation. The
increased institutionalization of makerspaces means they may experience powerful
pressures to conform an example being isomorphism, a process which occurs when
organizations encounter each other’s practices over time in such a way that they inevitably
come to resemble one another (DiMaggio & Powell, 2000). By definition, institutions also
seek to normalize and routinize and, when challenged, tend to adapt and elaborate rather
than transform and liberate (Willmott, 2014).
Criticisms of institutional theory argue that it can be overly static and conservative
(Munir 2015), prompting perspectives that view institutions more dynamically, and
propose the creation of new kinds of institutions that transform social environments.
Institutional collaborators can transform institutions, for example, by exploiting social
movements and shifts in social discourse, which undermines the legitimacy of incumbent
institutions and opens space for the development of alternatives (Levy & Scully, 2007;
Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010). Whilst institutions do constitute a powerful pressure for
conformity, meanwhile, there is nevertheless scope for strategic maneuvers by
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
11
organizations encountering these pressures. Research has found, for example, that when
grassroots innovation movements encounter mainstream institutions, alternative pathways
to innovation are made possible through the synthesis of their different modes of
engagement (Fressoli et al., 2014). Institutional environments have also been depicted as
hybridized and complex, impacted by multiple logics (or belief systems that structure
behavior) and demands (Pache & Santos, 2012). These ever-shifting agencies, it is argued,
can enable shifts or ‘cracks’ in the power relations that otherwise maintain institutional
control, opening up new spaces for the development of alternative ways of doing and
interacting (Fuenfschilling & Truffer, 2014; Hirsch & Lounsbury, 2015; Zietsma &
Lawrence, 2010). Such situations open possibilities for institutional entrepreneurs and
social movements to press for institutional redesigns and reforms.
Research on ‘collections makerspaces’ based in museums in London, U.K., for
example, has found that they foster institutional change by providing friendly
environments where digital tools enable publics to manipulate, remix and play not only
with a set of cultural artefacts, but also with their perceptions of the museum that acquired
them in the first place (Braybrooke, 2018). This kind of encounter enables collections
makerspaces to be activated by their users in ways that can foster critical inquiry into
museums themselves, and the conventional logics of culture and privilege that they
precipitate. These logics do not disappear as a result of encounters between collections
makerspaces and museums, but they do evolve, and enable the redistribution of power and
agency from museum headquarters to publics. Studies of institutional makerspaces in
South Africa, meanwhile, have illustrated how a co-existence of informal and institutional
practices can be possible. The grassroots engagements of maker communities are being
formalized by virtue of their institutional partners, it is argued, while at the same time a
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
12
commitment to informality and open collaboration is increasingly valued amongst those
same partners (Armstrong et al., 2018).
In other cases, the attraction to makerspaces is derived from their presumed ability
to help institutions reach out and connect beneficially with large informal sectors, which
themselves already have cultures of creativity and innovativeness, by strengthening that
potential economically and socially. In São Paolo, the city authorities opened public fab
labs in a variety of districts, including the disadvantaged Cidade Tiradentes on the margins
of the city (literally and figuratively). In this case, aspirations to seed inclusive
developments within a community depend upon makerspaces connecting with the
Brazilian culture of improvisation and making-do known as gambiarra, as well as learning
from earlier programs for social technology aimed at emancipating people from poverty
through other kinds of participatory technology programs (Fonseca, 2015; Thomas, 2013).
What is striking in these spaces, and familiar to public support for makerspaces in other
cities, is how makerspaces are seen as an instrument that permits a new ‘script’ to be
written for technology and local development, compared to the norms and routines of more
institutional approaches to innovation (Akrich, 1992). However, the critical factor here is
whether the intended beneficiaries recognize this potential also, and can develop their own
scripts for local development with makerspace technologies, skills and prototyping
possibilities. What is important for initiatives like São Paolo, and others like it, is the
processes by which people can bring their own scripts into technology developments in
makerspaces as well as narratives about the communities in which they are situated, and
what they’d like them to become (Dias & Smith, 2018).
Institutional encounters with makerspaces are not restricted only to specific
programs, however. Recalling that institutions also precipitate broader norms in society,
such as property relations, or norms for how innovation should operate, these norms can
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
13
also be conceived of as pervasive within makerspaces. Makerspaces have been found to
intersect with institutions in ways that generate expectations amongst their participants in
relation to the impacts of those social institutions sometimes as an Other to be challenged
(such as intellectual property rights used by commons-based maker activists) and
sometimes as an unquestioned reality (such as the practices of start-up culture). This means
that when a society more generally seeks to change its institutions, its makerspaces are
presented with key opportunities to be in the vanguard of defining what those aspirations
can mean in practice.
4. Spaces for Post-Automation?
The tensions above demonstrate in particular how the ways digital technologies are
interpreted and used in makerspaces may serve to advance or challenge the institutions of
the societies within which they are located. The relations of makerspaces, like those of
cafés, bookstores, libraries, parks and other ‘third places’ (Oldenburg, 1989) in between
home and work where people gather for less institutionalized purposes, provide spaces for
considering the forces at play within the dominant sociotechnical regimes that constitute
our worlds. Makerspaces show us that technologies are adaptable, and that their impacts
depend upon the environments within which they are produced and interacted with which
may be hegemonic, or hackable, as circumstances permit. At their best, makerspaces
provide people with capabilities to question prevailing assumptions, and to do things
differently, according to social values that may diverge from economic orthodoxy (Ratto &
Boler, 2014).
One orthodoxy whose foundations need to be interrogated through practical
material activity as a matter of urgency, is, arguably, automation in society. The experience
of building and using community-run and managed routers and laser cutters in a
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
14
neighborhood woodworking project dedicated to reclaiming a public space with upcycled
street furniture, for example, is obviously a different social phenomena to using similar
digital technologies to fabricate on-demand flat-pack furniture in an automated factory,
where the operative has no control over the outputs of their labor, and is alienated from the
process via fabrication robots, mass marketing and shipping between warehouses. The
sociotechnical configurations of these two different interactions with similar fabrication
technologies are radically different, as are the networks of technological and non-
technological actors that are deployed, and the social and private values produced. By
redefining value chains and inserting new (social) values, geographies and directions into
digital fabrication, makerspaces enable the kinds of sociotechnical experiments that can
challenge prevailing industrial relations.
Many of the digital fabrication tools in current-day makerspaces hold within them
particular historical ironies that only grow deeper upon examination. The introduction of
computer-aided-design (CAD), computer-numerical-controlled machining (CNC), and
computer-integrated-manufacturing (CIM) equipment in the 1970s and 1980s North
America and Europe, for example, threatened the livelihoods and identities of local
manufacturing communities of the time (Noble, 1984). In the current day, however, their
more accessible technological descendants have been widely celebrated, for enabling new
opportunities for learning and agency amongst maker communities (Gauntlett, 2013).
Indeed, it is a curious feature of makerspaces that these sites of creativity make use
of digital technologies whose origins can be traced back to the automation of design and
manufacturing. Where previous generations had experienced these technologies as
automation artefacts which deskilled and robbed operatives of livelihoods something that
continues with Industry 4.0 today in makerspaces we see people cultivating new skills,
finding collaborative and commons-based forms of working with peers, and exploring
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
15
potentially sustainable livelihoods for their futures (O’Donovan & Smith, 2020). Whilst
still marginal to the latest wave of automation being promoted by capital and installed by
management consultants under the rubric of Industry 4.0, makerspaces nevertheless
demonstrate in a vivid and practical way something that technology studies scholars have
long known: there is nothing automatic about automation.
Industry 4.0 provides a seamless vision of global ‘cyber-physical systems’ for
manufacturing, logistics and markets, whose revolutionary advances in production and
consumption will be made through the proprietary deployment of cloud computing, the
Internet of Things, robotics, 3D printing, Big Data, machine learning, genetics, material
science and other technologies of communication, computation and control (Schwab,
2017). Advocates like the World Economic Forum, leading business consultancies and,
increasingly, national governments anticipate a cornucopia of opportunities by actively
investing in these new technology systems; and which differ from previous automations of
specific processes and organizations by now seeking the automation of entire systems of
production and consumption. However, not everyone is so sanguine about these
opportunities. Waves of enthusiasm for automation by capital have always been
accompanied by undertows of social anxiety about the consequences; whether for the
future of work, the consumption of our finite planet, concentrations of political and
economic power, or the fact, as illustrated in the makerspace examples from India, China
and Brazil above, that visions of universal technological frontiers seem to be blind to the
uneven geographies and technological realities on the ground.
Socializing control over the means of automation is a long-standing response to
some of these anxieties, by reassuring citizens that the benefits (and risks) will be spread
fairly by the state (Ad Hoc Committee, 1964). State coordination and planning is
advocated as vital to translating the labor productivity gains of computer technologies into
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
16
reduced work for all, fair distribution of technological abundances in goods and services,
and often backed by a universal basic income for citizens unable to retrain into the new
high-tech jobs. Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) is the most recent
articulation of these ideas, updated with arguments from ecological modernity anticipating
technology-fixes for environmental problems (Bastani, 2019; Srnicek & Williams, 2015;
c.f. Benanav, 2019). These ‘automation theorists’ seek to advance automation as widely
and profoundly as possible, but adapted to public good rather than capital accumulation by
socializing ownership of the technology.
Because arguments like these are centered on the social control of seemingly
inevitable automation, the technologies of automation themselves are all too often treated
as black boxes whose ownership and/or application is disputed, rather than being opened
up to scrutiny as sites of political struggle which frame the sociotechnical configuration of
society (Benanav, 2019). Here, makerspaces become especially relevant, because many of
their particular sociotechnical experiments point to different development directions for
digital technologies, which imply a post-automation space whose assumptions, values,
and practices of care contest the universalist logics of control in automation theory. Where
automation theory pursues a logic of ever-increasing labor productivity, tightening
management control, and capital accumulation, makerspaces can open up digital
configurations to other kinds of developments that foster durable, locally sensitive material
cultures, that have human creativity and collaboration at their core, and whose organization
brings together networked technologies and platforms with skillful contributors to
constitute a new kind of commons. Such experiments in post-automation are already taking
place, and perhaps even finding roots, in spaces that exist beyond conventional industrial
settings and global chains of design, production, consumption and disposal (Smith et al,
2020).
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
17
Of course, the design entrepreneurialism and product prototyping that takes place in
many makerspaces can just as easily feed into the global value chains of Industry 4.0: a
creative input into business-as-usual. But when post-automation initiatives are
accompanied by concerted efforts to develop other kinds of institutional logics such as
commons-based peer-production, the prototypes and experiments of makerspaces may
succeed at fostering alternative sociotechnical futures. Given how heavily-instituted
Industry 4.0 is becoming, constituting but the latest wave of a long history of automation
(with advances in machine learning only beginning to become dominant), so arguments for
post-automation spaces appear utopian. But, given the diverse geographic realities of
technology use today, and the imperatives for sustainable development that are now
challenging many of the foundational assumptions in industrial society, perhaps post-
automation activity is no more naïve than the presumptions of automation theorists?
5. Spaces of Liberation?
This being said, it is important to question exactly how makerspaces might enable
the technologies of digital design and fabrication to escape their origins and become
democratic infrastructure for commons-based economic activity. Just how open to radical
sociotechnical reconfiguration are these technologies? Whilst primitivist anarchists like
John Zerzan might argue that any historical turnaround in the significance of automating
technologies is a mirage, and that activity today is still based in an inherently technological
(and therefore oppressive) society, social anarchists like Murray Bookchin might be more
hopeful and enthusiastic regarding their alternative technological possibilities. Fifty years
ago, Bookchin, like other activists, welcomed a post-scarcity future in which technological
progress would give collectives the opportunity to own tools and organize production non-
hierarchically and sustainably, harnessing ‘liberatory technologies’ for socially useful
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
18
purposes (Bookchin, 1967). In this view, as Janet Biehl (2007) has stated, technological
innovation need not always lead to a continued alienation from the means of opening up
the ‘black box’ of technological production, and can instead provide new opportunities to
enact the concepts of commons-based peer production through these sociotechnical
experiments.
These are enduring challenges. In a different setting, organized workers in
Scandinavia, Germany and the U.K. collaborated with leftist researchers in the 1980s for
the introduction of human-centered computer technologies into workplaces, in ways that
would democratize the labor process (Ehn, 1988; Rasmussen, 2007). These initiatives were
inspired in part by a movement in the U.K. for socially useful production, whose iconic
expression originated in the Lucas Plan.
5
Launched by shop-floor trades unionists at
Lucas Aerospace in 1976, and emulated by workers in other factories, the Lucas Plan
presented an alternative approach to technology development, industrial production, and
socialized consumption that was ecologically-aware (Smith, 2014b). Workers at Lucas
Aerospace a firm heavily dependent upon government defense contracts, and whose jobs
were threatened by industrial restructuring and new technologies - prototyped over 150
alternatives for socially useful products which diverged from military applications, ranging
from wind turbines to medical equipment, from devices for people with disabilities to
public transport. These practical prototypes served also as emblematic illustrations for a
more profound proposition: democratic re-organization of the workplace; manufacturing
planned in consultation with local communities and for the common good; computer
technologies that enhanced and extended operator skills rather than displacing their labor;
and socialized market based in use value (Wainwright, 1982). Prototyping as
‘technological agit-prop’ (Cooley, 1987).
5
For a recent documentary about the Lucas Plan, see www.theplandocumentary.com
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
19
Inspired by these developments, a movement of labor activists in London worked with the
municipal government in 1982 to open a series of open prototyping workshops called
Community Technology Networks (Smith, 2014). These Networks enabled citizens to
access new technologies to design socially useful products, with the intention of linking
them to local authority schemes for creating co-operative manufacturing businesses
(amongst the start-ups launched by the Greater London Enterprise Board were a re-
manufacturing enterprise and a women’s computing co-operative). Commenting on these
moves, the sociologist Donald Mackenzie noted, “Whatever the eventual success or failure
of these efforts to alter the nature of technology, our understanding of how technology
changes can only profit from them. For, by making contingency and choice actual rather
than merely hypothetical, they throw into ever-sharper light the ways in which social
relations shape technical development” (Mackenzie, 1984, p. 502).
The experiments of these open community workshops sat in stark contrast to the
automated ‘workerless factory’ that owners, management and consultants were promoting
in the 1980s (Kaplinsky, 1984). The workers’ alternatives were ignored by management,
investors, government, and even the senior trade union hierarchy, who were more
comfortable negotiating redundancy packages and uneasy about radical workplace
democracy. Ultimately, the creativity arising from the worker initiatives generated little
lasting impact because the coalitions that were formed and the spaces they created were
swept aside by the rise of Thatcherism in the U.K., and the installation of neo-liberal
ideologies in public institutions. Notions of social purpose in technology and production
were overwhelmed by the ideology of free markets. Organized labor became contained
within restrictive legislation. The demonstration of prototypes proved insufficient in the
absence of a political economic program that challenged economic restructuring and
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
20
relocation by capital and that closed factories, redefined jobs, and put pressures on
communities.
Ironically, in pursuing a sociotechnical alternative, the activists of open community
workshops did succeed at pioneering methods in participatory technology design whose
appropriation by business is widely practiced today though for user-centered and
customer-loyalty purposes rather than democratizing production (Asaro, 2000). But the
alignment of institutions to the movement’s more radical political and economic visions
proved beyond its agency at the time. This is a salutary lesson today for the kinds of spaces
that makerspaces might be able to sustain in the absence of wider social mobilizations
around political and economic programs for peer production (see for example Birkinbine;
O’Neil & Broca; and Pazaitis & Drechsler, all in this volume).
These lessons from history do not mean that the social significance of makerspaces’
more radical aspirations should be ignored, however, nor should we discount their potential
to be enacted as sites for experimenting with post-automation. As we have written
elsewhere: Timing and contingency are always significant in the social shaping of
technology, but the ready provision of plural possibilities is a never-ending requirement.
Even if alternative pathways are by definition more open and less powerfully articulated
than conventional institutions for innovation, they nevertheless cultivate ideas and
practices that sometimes resonate through time, and can have real material consequences
when the moment is right ... [The movement for socially useful production] pioneered
ideas and activities for a more constructive and democratic relationship with technology
development in society […] Insisting upon democratic technology developments, and
attempting to advance this practically, was probably the most socially useful product of the
movement” (Smith et al., 2017, p. 55).
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
21
And today, it is precisely because automation trajectories have become so
powerfully entrenched institutionally that we need makerspaces, because they provide
publics with valuable opportunities to experiment with, and question, our sociotechnical
interactions by engaging in peer production through communities of support and solidarity.
6. Conclusion
The discussions of this chapter illustrate the value of situating the dynamics of
current-day makerspaces within the historical and cultural contingencies that are
interwoven into their relationships with institutions. This enables us to cultivate a more
nuanced appreciation of the many potentials, and limits, of these spaces, and the wider
sociotechnical configurations and power relations that they both facilitate and challenge.
Throughout this chapter, we have examined the many encounters that can emerge between
makerspaces and other actors (from grassroots communities and entrepreneurs to flows of
global capital), asking how these relations produce makerspaces as sites of possibility,
tension, post-automation and liberation. We have also asked how these relations impact on
the ways that the ideologies, structures and mechanisms of peer production can be
experienced in practical ways, through material participation. As spaces of not only
making and learning, but also of social experimentation with new ways of working and
interacting, makerspaces reflect the tensions, understandings and visions of the diverse
actors who engage with them. In this sense, makerspaces can be perceived of as
kaleidoscopes ever-shifting, diversely colored prisms through which makers, institutions
and societies more generally can reflect upon the different possibilities of flux and
disruption that can shift the conditions of our sociotechnical engagements.
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
22
We have seen, for example, how some makerspaces are being enacted as spaces of
rearticulation, where new ways of working and being-in-the-world are fostered, while
others are produced in ways that reinforce the logics of incumbent institutions. We have
also seen how the practical implementation of peer production practices in makerspaces
remains a privilege, which is more accessible to some groups and cultures than to others,
and which remains structured by institutional and systemic biases that need to be more
proactively countered. We used the historical experiences of automation in design and
fabrication, and corresponding movements for socially useful production, to cast the limits
faced by these kinds of spaces in a stark, political economic light.
The important takeaway here, though, is that makerspaces also show us how such
limits can be countered through material participation. Even when they are captured by
institutions, makerspaces can enable further transformations by regrouping, restating and
renegotiating the terms of such encounters. We have seen how institutional interest in
makerspaces is sometimes derived from their perceived potential to deliver longstanding
agendas in novel ways, which may or may not involve peer production. In other cases,
makerspaces attract interest because they anticipate new institutional possibilities, and
offer incumbents responses to pressure for change. Thus, the extent to which peer
production within makerspaces can inform the development of institutions (and society) to
engage in more peer production will depend upon wider social pressures and aspirations
for the latter. As the examples above illustrate, there are complex mixes of both currents
within the kaleidoscope: existing institutional agendas moving into makerspaces, new
institutional possibilities emerging out of makerspace experimentation.
So, makerspaces are subjects in a plurality of institutional advances and
developments. There is a contradiction at the heart of these encounters that drives their
dynamics: makerspaces are about experimentation, improvisation, and unruliness; and yet
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
23
institutions promote regularity, certainty, and orderliness. This often uneasy co-existence
illustrates the many challenges of translating emancipatory ideas into mundane realities. It
is important to recall here that while makerspace users and facilitators are, in many
contexts, energized by the possibilities of commons-based peer production, these
motivations are not necessarily shared across other kinds of makerspaces, or other cultures.
The ideals of peer production, and the promotion of its advancement in society at large,
must thus be adapted to the particular kaleidoscope of each makerspace in turn, with a
sensitivity to the community histories of control, emancipation and transformation which
structure the shape of its relations. Most importantly, the contingent and multi-layered
interactions of makerspaces and institutions show us that local geographies and
experiences matter. These dynamics are the sociotechnical anchors with which peer
production ceases to be an ideal, and starts to become a new way of being.
Chapter 26 Makerspaces and Peer Production
24
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