Dougherty, Hatch, and the trio of authors who penned the “Emerging Sites of HCI Innovation” article all extol the merits of making as a kind of post-consumerist constellation of activities that allows the populace to cast off the passive shackles of simple user- and receiver-hood and engage directly in the processes of creative production. These exhortations are imbued with a sense–sometimes explicit, sometimes implied–that this transition is both a return to a pre-consumerist state of greater agency and a step forward into an era of unprecedented and democratized access to tools and capital. While there is some validity to this narrative, it glosses over several key economic considerations and phenomena. This post is dedicated to scrutinizing this master narrative and questioning the rhetoric it deploys in its advocacy of the make-to-manufacture supply chain.
In Free to Make, Dougherty spends some time reflecting on the centrality of small-m making to everyday American life in the first half of the 20th century. This was a making born of economic necessity. Lacking the resources to simply purchase replacements for malfunctioning tools, implements and other material goods, some degree of general handiness or makerly skill was essential to getting by. It is worth noting that in 1900, approximately 41% of the country were farmers as their primary occupation, and as such faced situations which required creative problem-solving and tinkering on a daily basis. What I want to underscore here is that this kind of making arose out of and addressed pressing needs, and was first and foremost a making for self and family, and occasionally for neighbor or community. In other words, making in this context was truly an alternative to consumption, and stood for a set of activities meant to extend the useful life of necessary goods to forestall a purchase.
When Lindtner, Hertz, Dourish, Fallows, Muro, Hirshberg and Dougherty frame making as a reclamation of agency by passive consumers who take the reins in the name of innovation, it is important to recognize that implicit in this model is an assumption that someone will buy the resulting product. I certainly agree with them that we are witnessing a movement that stands to rewrite the innovation playbook in a way that democratizes product design and brings a much broader array of perspectives to the table. However, it is misleading to portray it as a rejection of passive consumerism for active producer-hood. This is because nearly all of the vectors of revolutionary change in this context exist within a context not of tinkering or hacking one’s own collection of artifacts, but of reduced barriers to entry in the realm of R+D and the procurement of funding for products with a niche, global, distributed market. For this model to work, even if we all become maker-manufacturers, we must also all become consumers of an ever more diversified and specialized array of goods (e.g. rapid cold brew coffeemakers or rarefied wearables). As Fallows notes in his discussion of FirstBuild, many of these products are designed with the intent to produce low-volume runs to fill niche market demands, so the model doesn’t rely on everyone buying one of every product. Still, logically if the economy shifts toward an Andersonian “long tail” marketplace, we will see a more dizzying array of consumer goods than ever before, and such a profusion can only be supported by ever more discerning and avid consumers. I want to stress that most of these products will be of a discretionary rather than necessary nature in the context of a home budget. In light of this, the narrative of making as a set of processes that will empower us all to transcend the limits of consumerism seems pretty disingenuous.
At the close of the 20th century, farmers accounted for just 2% of the national population. Similarly, that century saw a steady decline in manufacturing, as noted by Fallows. This decline was especially marked when it comes to traditional lower-tech goods as opposed to, say, computer hardware. In other words, more and more people make their living in ways that are less and less directly tied to providing the necessary essentials of living. The making as manufacturing juggernaut is, in fact, a logical extension of this trend and not a disruption of it, despite the disruption it represents in other contexts.
Ultimately, there is an intense dissonance between the empowerment that making represents in a non-transactional, exploratory context, and the kind of neo-consumerism that the flourishing of making-to-manufacture depends on in order to be viable in a predominantly capitalist global economy. The invocation of a golden age when we used to work with our hands is therefore a dubious and misguided rhetorical tactic in this context. I realize that our economic model relies on people consuming goods and services, and I don’t think that some level of consumption is inherently bad, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves by pretending we are moving beyond consumerism by adopting tools that merely distribute and diffuse the relationships of producers and consumers.