Knowledge, skill and labor

This is the second of two texts, written in October 2016, resulting from my period as a resident researcher in Nantes, invited by PiNG Association. There is a French version here. It is preceded by another piece titled “Transformed worlds”, available here.

In order to explore possible paths to move us away from the contradictions of contemporary world — in particular those related to the relation between people and the material objects they use every day -, I will once again make use of my past experience of dealing with discarded electronic material in the MetaReciclagem network. I heard one day at Plateforme C, in Nantes: every object has a story. That certainly resonates with some of our experiences in Brasil — every object that shows up to reuse is brought by someone which has something to tell about it. But in fact the story always starts way before that.

MetaReciclagem lab in Santo André (circa 2004)

Things don’t come out of nothing. That’s one of the reasons I try not to use the verb “make” in my projects. It does sound akin to “create”, and when it comes to concrete objects those words sound a little too theological... Fiat Lux. Turning nothing into something. In my experience, that is never the case. Even a blank sheet of paper is already something with a concrete existence. So, when looking at a computer I see an object composed of pieces of the planet that were extracted and transformed into modular parts. This transformation owes to three concurring elements:

  • Applied knowledge, stemming from varied sources within our shared history of science and culture;
  • Human skills, formed through millennia of craftsmanship and tool-making;
  • Embodied manpower brought about by concrete labor.

Those three aspects are naturally present, at least potentially, in any innovation that comes about. But they are in fact made concrete as things are produced.

Hand-assembled computer parts. Photo by Aoife Giles.

After the computer parts are made, they are then assembled — transformed again by labor, in dialog with available knowledge and skill. Some would call the outcome a final product, but the truth is that the process goes on. There are products that keep on being transformed by labor, skill and knowledge — be them designed for that or otherwise. American scholars Andrew Russel and Lee Vinsel published early this year a praise of the maintainers [1]. For the authors, these professionals are as important to everyday life, and possibly more so, than innovators. I would also add to the picture those people involved with installing, adapting, customizing, repairing and re-purposing objects. It is a multitude of professions and activities intrinsically involved with everything that surrounds our physical presences in the world (at least everything human, but even some particular natural environments as well). One can not tell these people aren’t innovators. In fact, as I will suggest below when talking about Gambiarra, there is a high level of innovation on the edges that should be taken into account, even more so on current times.

What I am trying, here, is to get a seemingly loose set of practices, and draw connections between them. Finding what they have in common. I propose that this commonality is the transformation of matter: using knowledge, skills and labor to turn materials into things. Or to turn things into other things. Or to modify things. That applies to what is now being called “making”. But also to repairing things. And adapting, personalizing, customizing. It might as well extend to cooking, taking care of a garden, growing food and animals.

Am I then trying to vulgarize making? It may be so. Whenever those new “makers” — often white, well-educated, hyper-connected urban males — are treated as geniuses that should guide the world into a new era of innovation, I am a little scared. And bored, too. Because it seems they are willing to disregard thousands of years of accumulated knowledge on how to find solutions for everyday problems, only to create yet another laser cut ipad stand. Or anything with an arduino and leds. Or 3D-printed heads of Master Yoda.

And yet when we see big institutions trying to propose alternatives for the world’s contradictions, what we often see is a lot of talking about innovation, sometimes labeled “social” innovation. Or inclusive, distributed, democratized innovation. But always fostering the myth of the creative genius: bright individuals competing for attention in an economy hungry for buzz. Well, it makes perfect sense, if you are a big institution. What they are trying to do is not to create a fair, sustainable, inclusive future. They want to save industrial capitalism and its speculative mechanisms. And there they go praising fablabs, makerspaces, business plans of green entrepreneurship and putting a little money into young entrepreneurs who honestly believe they will save the world. Outsource R&D. Transition from linear production into a circular economy. Engage corporations, design the right systems, improve product-making. Make room for benevolent managers on suits and innovators on hipster uniform. All white, urban, well-shaved and clean. But there must be no hard work in sight. And please, no unions. Everything must be clean, playful and conflict-free.

Unlike this sort of trap that we might as well call neo-making, though, transforming matter is everywhere. It has always been, since the dawn of our species. Adapting. Repairing. Customizing. Personalizing. Of course, prototyping and making are an important part of it, but by no means the only or even the more relevant. All these ways to interfere with material reality have always been around, and play a particular role in poor parts of the world.

Gambiarra is a term widely used in Brazil to describe all sorts of improvised fixes to everyday problems. It usually denotes informal repairing, often when one doesn’t have access to the proper tools or spare parts, or doesn’t know how to do it the right way. Or simply has no time to do that. It denotes a sort of distributed, in situ creative action. It is driven by real-world problems instead of abstract profitability.

Gambiarra is similar to cultural material practices in other parts of the world, such as Jugaad in India, Rebusque in parts of Spanish-speaking South America, Kludge in the United States of North America, and perhaps Débrouille in the francophone world. As I believe is the case in other locations, Gambiarra has historically been treated by the upper classes in Brazil as something wrong in itself. After all, people should “do things properly”. That is, submitting to market expectations: following the manual, buying the right tools or spare parts when they exist, resorting to official service providers. Buying new instead of fixing. And never trying to explore least expensive (or even worst, more autonomous or even amusing) alternatives.

Obviously my opinion, and of some colleagues, is completely opposite to that perspective. We have been trying to understand and propose Gambiarra as an important form of distributed, situated creativity that allows people to establish a closer connection to the material world surrounding them. It is of even greater importance once one realizes that, in the last couple hundred years, just as we gained access to a universe of new types of products, most of us lost at the same time the ability to understand the processes involved in making and maintaining these things.

Gambiarra can be used as a way to resist such de-humanizing trend, and in that relates to a long history of initiatives. We can acquire agency over the things we own by tinkering with them. For instance, by customizing our gear. Or getting those broken objects — clothes, furniture, computers — that we have hidden somewhere in our garage or basement, and trying to repair them. In fact, in some senses trying to repair something is even more important than having it effectively repaired. We always learn something deep when we get a screwdriver and open up objects that industrial capitalism would rather have us only buying and throwing away.

Affordable cutting boards repurposed to house a refurbished computer (an experiment developed by artist Glauco Paiva)

Getting one’s hands involved with things can also be an engaging social act. There are a number of initiatives nowadays attempting to help on that, be it by offering space and equipment, or else by promoting the transformation of matter through periodic events. Those present to the festival Ceci n’est pas un déchet in Nantes witnessed exactly that: objects leveraging conversations and mutual learning. It is naturally related to the surrounding environment: I was happy to learn during my residency that there are a lot of similar initiatives taking place in Nantes, not least in Plateforme C and the Atelier Partagé du Breil. These are places in which particular objects, as well as regaining their usefulness, become also indirect tools for sociability and mutual learning. It is in these places also that tools, equipment and skills which were once the sole domain of big companies or specialized professionals are made available for anyone interested, and that is not a small thing.

But how far can those initiatives take us? I mean, we can make use of these new tools and methodologies and struggle to make economy circular and solidary. We can think of logistics schemes and new business models based on local production. We can use the Internet to spread information about organic vegetables and create shared marketplaces. We can indeed make a better use of digital fabrication that is not about seeking a new industrial revolution. We can assure maker culture establishes a productive dialogue with repair culture. We can seek alternative sources of goods and raw materials that are fair, renewable, local, organic.

But the powers that be remain there, making the big decisions that impact all our lives. Trumping representative democracy and exhausting the world’s resources. Causing a number of problems that may look unsolvable. The real world effects of austerity, for instance. Ethnic and religious conflict based on intolerance. Increased production of waste that can not be handled sustainably. Oil and pollution. War. How can we act against that? We are all mapped already. As soon as you click to like the Ceci n’est pas un déchet fanpage on Facebook, your movements are already being tracked and monitored. Anything creative you do has already a numeric value algorithmically defined in the networks. If it really gains ground, you will be bought out. How can we escape a system in which all possible diversion is already mapped out and neutralized?

I have no answer but to expect the unpredictable to happen. The unexpected. To quote Italian theorist Tiziana Terranova: to give “a stab at the fabric of possibility, an undoing of the coincidence of the real and the given”[2], to make room for the improbable. For that, we should not accept that the use of any technologies, methodologies and equipments is already determined. Actually, one thing that disappoints me when talking to fablab people from different parts of the world is to hear the same stories. To see the same “creations”. The same collaborative methodologies. And, on the other hand, to hear very little about traditional repairmen and craftsmen joining in.

A couple years ago, during a short residency in Doha, I had the opportunity to visit traditional repairmen and craftspeople with a group of graduate students of design at VCUQatar. We have seen, for instance, a tailor who has been making clothes for decades. His sewing machine is older than his children. And none of his children followed his trade. In fact, I have seen nobody younger than 40 years old while visiting craftsmen and repairmen in Qatar. These people are by definition experts in finding particular solutions for material problems. Often, their hands are more savvy than their minds — in the sense that they own many layers of embedded knowledge that is not that easy to make explicit. Much less to become instructable posts on the Internet. Where are those people in the map of neo-maker cultures? Conversely, how can we create spaces, methodologies and dynamics in which they feel entitled to share their skills and voice their own concerns and perspectives? And going even further: what can the new technologies and a renewed interest in the material relationship with things do to improve the quality of life of these people, some of which are wise masters of the transformation of matter? Instead of letting their knowledge disappear and try to create all of it anew, I believe it is the case that new spaces should find ways to welcome them and establish intergenerational and trans-disciplinary regular exchange.

My particular take on this is that whenever one enters a fablab, there is already a spatial organization and a number of expectations about what is going to happen. In that sense, I see a lot more potential for actual change when I visit, in Nantes for instance, the Atelier Partagé du Breil with its open-ended meetings for repairing things, than the fablab Plateforme C. Nothing against the people involved with it, but it seems to me that the social role of the fablabs is already over-determined. I am aware, of course, that the scenario is not that homogeneous and that even inside the network of fablabs these conflicts are also present, but am still eager to learn more about their actual potential of changing the predictability of fablabs as workspaces.


So, to sum up. When we think of spaces and dynamics, how can we concatenate knowledge, skills and labor in the making of new worlds? Worlds in which the improbable can happen. I do believe in human ingenuity. We have all we need to change things for the good as well. It requires a cultural strategy, as well as policies. And generous spaces where it all can happen.

And here is a reminder, once again: whenever someone suggests that anything will bring about a new industrial revolution, we have to make them understand that that is not a good thing in itself! What we need is another path, possibly made from stitching experiences already at hand. Attributing the proper value to embodied knowledge. Making people work together. Transforming matter through collaborative ways. Removing garbage from the trash can. And, please, expecting (and making room for) the unpredictable.


[1]Rob van Kranenburg suggested this text on the Bricolabs mailing list.

[2]Tiziana Terranova. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (2004).