Gambiarra: Repair Culture

Excerpt from the text "Gambiarra: repair culture", available on my website.


Maker culture has gained a lot of ground in the last few years. Maybe too much, in fact. We can of course ignore those people who are only, as always, surfing the current wave of hype. They seldom have any clue of the ideas they are selling themselves with anyway. But it also feels as though everybody else is talking about maker culture. Those words are even being uttered by people who have always been opposed to what they should mean. Or is it me? Did I get it wrong all the way?

First time I read about a “maker culture”, it was a sort of relief. I had finally found — or so I thought — a way to explain a number of initiatives some of us in Brazil had been involved for some years before that. Framing those things as “making” enabled us to mix critical thinking with DIY (as brilliantly put by Matt Ratto on “critical making”), proposing a sort of creative engagement that escaped the dead-ends of tedious market-driven innovation. A culture of conscious makers could recognize and promote alternative solutions and new perspectives for everyday problems, valuing distributed and collaborative approaches and seeking the common good. It would help overcoming traditional institutions and their clogged circuits of information. Local, cooperative formations would challenge the logics of global industrial capitalism, treating every human being — or small group, however loose it was — as potentially creative and productive. Industrial products that suffered of planned obsolescence would be repaired as armies of amateurs used the internet to share digital models of replacement parts. New kinds of meaning and engagement would evolve influenced by such approaches to material and cultural expression. Possibilities emerging from the free software and hacker movements would finally evert to the world of things.

And yet, we ended up in a world of newbie geeks assembling prefabricated kits of 3d printers, with which hipster designers-to-be (often the new-geeks themselves) can melt lots of plastic which is hardly recyclable into prototypes of new products, hoping to become rich and famous. Most such prototypes will never be used to anything at all, but their creators will anyway spam all over facebook, twitter and instagram trying to convince us they are building our (better, in a way no one can precise) future. Who knows, they may be invited to do a TED talk or raise some buck on kickstarter. Or at least become consultants for an international NGO willing to develop “technologies for education”.

And there we go. Forget about hackers getting blisters in their hands as they struggle to become carpenters. Those times are gone. Sadly, the most important skill in the maker culture these days seems to be keeping a spreadsheet on google drive with a business plan and a consistent strategy on social media. Numbers everywhere.

In more general terms, instead of portraying an acceleration towards the end of industrial age, celebrity author-speakers are now talking about a “new industrial revolution”. In the same direction, the Obama administration in the US is reportedly planning to pour one billion dollars to set up 15 “manufacturing innovation hubs” with the goal of sustaining industrial growth. As if the centuries oriented by industrial paradigms didn’t bring enough harm to the world already. Sure, one can not deny the improvements brought about by industry — especially in terms of driving scientific development and its implications in food, transportation, health and communications. At the same time, though, we have seen some aspects of contemporary life go in a totally wrong way. Think for instance about waste and pollution, inequality, disintegration of cultures and social ties, permanent global war and many other consequences of the industrial age. I’m not sure we should be even trying to promote a new industrial revolution if those aspects are not carefully taken into account. And judging by the prevailing discourse within the current breed of maker culture, I’m not sure they are.

When the maker culture becomes eminently entrepreneurial, we should wonder what mechanisms are set into motion. It may as well be the old capitalist drive to turn the critique to itself into the gears of its own reinvention gaining ground. Could we ever escape that path?

Read the rest of this text here.