Is all technology authoritarian?

“In three years, Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers, becoming fully unmanned. Afterwards, they fly with a perfect operational record. The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes online August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug. “

The Terminator franchise draws from a deep well of mythology – preying on our fears that humans will be crushed by the technology that we ourselves create. The horrible inevitability of our fate makes it a compelling story.

There is a converse myth: that through ever-advancing technological progress, rational man (and we can go down a whole other rabbit hole about gender, Francis Bacon, the enlightenment and rationality) can overcome all challenges, and create whatever he needs to further our interests. Continue reading “Is all technology authoritarian?”

Making a TAZ – Reformulating the question

Having done lots of research around this theme, I’ve been able to get some perspective. So here’s a reformulation of the question into something more concrete:

  1. How do we best harness the energy and creativity of the maker movement (and associated groups, technologies and ideas) to develop new ways of living, production, commerce, and art that are sustainable, fair and rewarding for humans and the rest of the planet?
  2. More broadly, if making culture can itself be a laboratory for new cultures to emerge, how do we design the technology, institutions, and social relations of this making culture to better our chances of getting these outcomes. What does a healthy maker culture look like, and how do we nurture in into this shape?
  3. And can we shed light on today’s situation by looking at how previous technology systems have emerged, been designed or co-opted, and where earlier socially progressive maker movements (e.g. the Arts and Crafts movement) have failed? Can we see the traps we should avoid, what dramas are being played out, and who is writing the stories?

Going back to our makerspaces example, if you believe that makerspaces could be seen as “sites of agitation that champion a different way of living”, how do you design spaces so they can fulfil this function? How should they be set up and managed? What should happen inside, and what should it feel like to be there? Who should be using them? If you look at the actual makerspaces we have today, are they up to the task, or are they deficient in some way? If the latter, is that a systemic problem, or could spaces be tweaked in some way to be more effective in this respect?

Makerspaces are just one area of concern. This issue also touches on manufacturing, craft practice, education (formal and informal), work, the economy and labour relations, materials, tools, morality and social values. And these are by no means technical issues – they’re questions of power, ethics, and deeply conflicting agendas.

The question has urgency because this culture is being formed today. It’s shifting dramatically from previous incarnations of craft, art, leisure and manufacturing culture – it’s contested, and therefore contestable.

And it has high stakes because our track record at turning technology-led movements to social benefit is mixed at best: private transport, the web, and of course the big one – the Industrial Revolution itself – have all been heralded as transformative utopian shifts in technology, but have turned out to have significant negative effects on the environment, social justice, and the systems they infiltrate.

Does digital fabrication technology lower the barriers to making?

(Note: this is part of a series of half-formed thoughts. The usual caveats apply.)

The question is left intentionally generic. In practice, the sentiment takes many more specific forms, often unstated, or expressed as a sense of optimism, rather than explicit arguments. Nevertheless, I have talked with many people who are either proponents of digital fabrication tools (3D printers, laser cutters, CNC mills large and small, and so on) or who have encountered them at a Maker Faire or seen them on TV, and express this in some way:

  • Now anyone can be a maker!
  • You can 3D-print the thing you want, not the generic mass-produced version
  • Design something and it can be distributed globally and fabricated on demand (with the corollaries: 1. your market as a maker is global, and 2. this will enable a new revitalised, sustainable, local manufacturing).

To be clear, many people are exploring these issues critically, but there is a high volume of noise (often made by people with something to sell) that should be cut through. I have 3 main concerns:

1. Assembly is the greater part of making

This applies particularly in the case of 3D printing. In most cases, it is far better to make use of existing materials, whether they be bricks,  metal extrusions, fabrics or plywood, to cut and assemble these to form structures, than to digitally grow/print/fabricate structures from scratch.

These materials have structural, mechanical and aesthetic properties that are impossible to replicate by extruding or sintering plastic; they are readily available, and manufactured to consistent standards. Assembly can be digital of course, and I think this is where it gets interesting; robots welding, stitching, glueing existing materials to form new structures. An example is this plywood pavilion in which the individual sheets of ply have been formed and also stitched together by robots.


2. Software is a significant barrier, relative to non-digital making skills

What is the barrier that is being overcome? The craft skills of woodwork, sewing, or metalwork? It’s true these skills take practice to master. Maybe 10,000 hours to master fully. But as anyone who’s tried to send a file to a laser cutter, or design a 3D model in CAD will tell you, software brings with it its own barriers. And the binary failure of digital tools is in many ways a more dispiriting one than the partial failure of an unpracticed maker using hand or machine tools.

3. Making mediated by software is an impoverished kind of craft; this disengagement from the material world is not something to be celebrated

As a general rule, I’d say it’s good to get your hands dirty, to smell the earth, to work up a sweat, to touch the world. There are limits, for example unsafe or unhealthy industrial work, but I don’t think we should be rushing to spend more time sitting behind computers.

That’s my sentiment, and I lack an argument to rationalise it. I’d be curious to hear what the counter is.

So that’s my digital scepticism in a nutshell. Being reactionary is rarely a good strategy, so I’m uninterested in attitudes that simply dismiss technology, and try to resist it. However, I am interested in designing technologies that can better serve us, whether they be social networks, smart cities or fabrication tools, and I would like to see greater engagement with the challenges of these tools.

Making a Temporary Autonomous Zone

Well, my last hunch went a bit long, so here I’m just going to plant a stake in the ground and try to leave it alone.

It’s fair to say that many of us dissatisfied with the dominant model for organising society, whether we’re marxists, anarchists, or just artists (I’m only the last of these), are attracted to the idea of new models of living emerging within the existing system. Better to see some positive change today than wait for a revolution that may never come. For me, when I was a young philosophy student, attracted to radical politics, pranksters and poetic terrorism, this was beautifully articulated by Hakim Bey in his essay the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ).

At the time, we thought maybe the web itself could be a TAZ, though I’m sure Bey would have had issues with such a dream, and certainly it seems that structural forces act against that tendency in most cases. So with each new technological innovation or cultural movement, we ask, could this spawn a TAZ? Does the new technology of digital fabrication give us an opportunity? Can the Maker Movement, if there is such a thing, build its own TAZ? Are makerspaces the locus of a physical TAZ?

This last one sounds like the most interesting possibility, and while I don’t think the RSA’s revolutionary fervour stretches this far, they do suggest that makerspaces could at least be sites for prototyping new ways of living:

But makerspaces should also be seen as sites of agitation that champion a different way of living

Makerspaces are not just sites to craft objects but also places to champion values and experiment with a different way of living – one that may be based on the virtues of self-reliance, sustainability, data agency and open source knowledge sharing. Fab Lab Barcelona runs a Smart Citizens initiative that encourages residents to monitor local levels of noise and air pollution, MadLab in Manchester organises workshops teaching people how to eco-retrofit their homes, and the ZB45 makerspace in Amsterdam hosts monthly gatherings for people to talk about technology and its impact on censorship and surveillance. All this comes at a time when people are beginning to question the principles of capitalism and look for alternative ways of organising our economy and society – as revealed in our survey.

So, without further analysis, here’s the relevant excerpt from Bey’s book, which you can read freely online.

Pirate Utopias

THE SEA-ROVERS AND CORSAIRS of the 18th century created an “information network” that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported “intentional communities,” whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.
Some years ago I looked through a lot of secondary material on piracy hoping to find a study of these enclaves–but it appeared as if no historian has yet found them worthy of analysis. (William Burroughs has mentioned the subject, as did the late British anarchist Larry Law–but no systematic research has been carried out.) I retreated to primary sources and constructed my own theory, some aspects of which will be discussed in this essay. I called the settlements “Pirate Utopias.”

Recently Bruce Sterling, one of the leading exponents of Cyberpunk science fiction, published a near-future romance based on the assumption that the decay of political systems will lead to a decentralized proliferation of experiments in living: giant worker-owned corporations, independent enclaves devoted to “data piracy,” Green-Social-Democrat enclaves, Zerowork enclaves, anarchist liberated zones, etc. The information economy which supports this diversity is called the Net; the enclaves (and the book’s title) are Islands in the Net.

The medieval Assassins founded a “State” which consisted of a network of remote mountain valleys and castles, separated by thousands of miles, strategically invulnerable to invasion, connected by the information flow of secret agents, at war with all governments, and devoted only to knowledge. Modern technology, culminating in the spy satellite, makes this kind of autonomy a romantic dream. No more pirate islands! In the future the same technology– freed from all political control–could make possible an entire world of autonomous zones. But for now the concept remains precisely science fiction–pure speculation.

Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom? Logic and emotion unite to condemn such a supposition. Reason demands that one cannot struggle for what one does not know; and the heart revolts at a universe so cruel as to visit such injustices on our generation alone of humankind.

To say that “I will not be free till all humans (or all sentient creatures) are free” is simply to cave in to a kind of nirvana-stupor, to abdicate our humanity, to define ourselves as losers.

I believe that by extrapolating from past and future stories about “islands in the net” we may collect evidence to suggest that a certain kind of “free enclave” is not only possible in our time but also existent. All my research and speculation has crystallized around the concept of the TEMPORARY AUTONOMOUS ZONE (hereafter abbreviated TAZ). Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (“attempt”), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma. In fact I have deliberately refrained from defining the TAZ–I circle around the subject, firing off exploratory beams. In the end the TAZ is almost self-explanatory. If the phrase became current it would be understood without difficulty…understood in action.

Platforms are the new gatekeepers

This post is one of a series of hunches that explore ideas around Liberatory technology. I am thinking aloud. Caveat emptor.

OK, so a strand of any discussion about technology and emancipation has to be about the role of the web in enabling more people to access tools, information, collaborators, distribution and markets, and conversely the new economics and behaviours that grow up around such systems.

The argument goes something like this:

  1. The web has dramatically lowered the barriers to entry for anyone who wants to participate in creative practice: writers, musicians, designers, makers, etc.
  2. The mechanism is the open protocols of the web/net
  3. In practice, thanks to these open protocols, a number of platforms have emerged that serve to link together people in different relationships. In the case of making, these might be things like YouTube or Instructables (information on how to make things); Facebook or Twitter (a way to share what you’re making with other people, to find people to work with, or market a commercial product); Etsy, Tindie, etc. (a marketplace where people can buy your product) … and so on.

So far, so good. We’ve all benefited from it, and Chris Anderson encapsulated the potential of this technology in his article and book, The Long Tail.

Where it gets tricky is that having disintermediated the old mediators (libraries, magazines, shops, distributors, and so on) we find ourselves at the mercy of a new set, many of whom are funded by VCs demanding vigorous returns on their investment. You can see this play out on Facebook quite simply. If you have a Page about your project or product, you can post an update to people who have Liked it, connecting directly with your fans so they can feed back, share it themselves, or buy it, depending on the nature of your relationship. But Facebook will limit the reach of your update, offering to give you better reach in return for money. Their business is structured in such a way as to incentivise them to extract rents from users in this way.

The ‘infinite shelf space’ and zero distribution costs of the web also kick back in another way. They lower the barriers to participation, but in doing so, create a new scarce resource: attention. There is simply too much stuff to look at, buy, read, share, fabricate or hack on the web. So very few makers make it big; it’s difficult to stand out.

Because platform owners are the ones aggregating all this attention, they’re well-placed to charge for access (as in the Facebook example), but also to commoditise creative content. Your cool project writeup, your 3D design file, your Kickstarter, even your hand-crafted artisanal whatnot are all fungible. If you decide not to share them on these platforms, chances are there’s another one that’s similar enough that no-one will notice. Thus the value in the sharing economy – particularly for purely digital goods – is largely captured by platform owners, leaving makers and content creators as an unpaid labour force. That is to say financially unpaid, though there are non-monetary benefits we do receive from using platforms, which should not be forgotten.

And it gets worse. Because audiences (other makers, journalists, consumers, etc.) only have time to give to a few platforms, the successful ones tend to become more successful. i.e. Markets in which aggregators can thrive can become monopolistic. Ben Thompson has written about this well, mostly in the context of commercial aggregators like Airbnb and Uber, but the same forces apply on other sharing platforms:

To briefly recap, Aggregation Theory is about how business works in a world with zero distribution costs and zero transaction costs; consumers are attracted to an aggregator through the delivery of a superior experience, which attracts modular suppliers, which improves the experience and thus attracts more consumers, and thus more suppliers in the aforementioned virtuous cycle. It is a phenomenon seen across industries including search (Google and web pages), feeds (Facebook and content), shopping (Amazon and retail goods), video (Netflix/YouTube and content creators), transportation (Uber/Didi and drivers), and lodging (Airbnb and rooms, Booking/Expedia and hotels).

The first key antitrust implication of Aggregation Theory is that, thanks to these virtuous cycles, the big get bigger; indeed, all things being equal the equilibrium state in a market covered by Aggregation Theory is monopoly: one aggregator that has captured all of the consumers and all of the suppliers.

— Antitrust and Aggregation, Ben Thompson

Many platforms used by makers are run by people with good intentions, but ownership changes, people get tired, more aggressive competitors emerge. Many platform gatekeepers promise not to be evil, but business structures are powerful forces, that, over time exert more influence on products, than the ideals of individuals.

So one take out from this is simply: beware of platforms. There is another way of looking at it though: if the structure of platform businesses has undesirable — certainly not liberatory — effects on the behaviour of those businesses, then idealistic platform designers should approach business structure intentionally, and try to build platforms that don’t suffer from these flaws (an investor would not see them as flaws of course).

Going back to more widely used platforms, it’s easy to see how Uber is structured in a way that commoditises drivers (the ‘makers’ in this analogous context), whereas Airbnb leaves room for its ‘makers’ (people with a spare room) to differentiate themselves, and retain more of the value in the relationship.

It’s also easy to see that free-to-use, ad-supported platforms scale successfully (and in particular reach critical mass much more successfully than user-supported platforms), but that this model ends up incentivising user-hostile behaviour by platform owners, in the form of invasive data mining, excessive advertising, or paid-for placement. But subscription models are slowly becoming more accepted, and maybe there is room in the future for platforms in which the users are not ‘the product being sold’.

There are also governance structures which can help to mitigate some of these forces. The Wikihouse Foundation was set up to guide the eponymous open-source housing project and “establish a neutral, non-profit platform for the ownership & governance of the project”. But while in this case, the interests of the commons are protected in its constitution, it’s not clear how one could design a platform structure that is incentivised to serve the interest of its suppliers (makers, content creators, etc.) over the interests of the platform owners.  Certainly it doesn’t sound like a great investment opportunity.

Thinking in public – Liberatory technology


I’m trying to articulate an argument about the liberatory potential — or otherwise — of technology, and in particular the technology of makers: to help humans become freer, more creative, less beholden to systems of constraint, and so on.

It’s proving difficult, so instead of trying to finish the whole in a one-er, I’m going to lay out pieces of the jigsaw as they come to mind (or to some level of clarity) and see if I can piece together something that makes sense.

I’ll do this in public (note the optimism of a new project) rather than a series of Evernote entries or Post-its on the wall, to enforce some kind of clarity in my thinking and writing. Some form of organisation will emerge, tbc.