Text published in the Planète Laboratoire N°4
The Solar FabLab House1 which was built in 2011 by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia2 in partnership with the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology3 is perhaps the most significant representation to date of the virtuous junction between digital production and environmental adaptability.
Beyond its passive nature and a monitoring integrating the principles of domestic metabolism, which interests us here is that this house is built with ready-made spare parts made on large CNC machines (Computer Numeric Control) or in the FabLab (“fabrication laboratory”) of the Institute of Architecture. These machines interpret the manufacturing files and translate them into a code (G code) which is understood by the mechanical tools that will cut, countersink, print or shape the raw materials into workpieces.
The Center for Bits and Atoms and it's director, Neil Gershenfeld, are based on the idea that the future of digital manufacturing is comparable to changes that occurred in the transition from large computers to personal computers and industrial printing houses to personal printers. Once an object, even a large-scale architectural object, can be expressed with precision by a digital code for its manufacture, the conditions of its reproduction become similar, or at least comparable, to those of other digital goods such as software, images and music. Founded in 2001, the CBA embarked in 2002 into the construction of a laboratory dedicated to manufacturing and equipped with small CNC machines in a small town in India. In the following years, a heterogeneous network of FabLabs was born around the world, deploying unique bottom-up research strategies, sharing knowledge, standards, and even drawings. Many of these early FabLabs were first situated on outlying sites, and became nodes of experimental alternative strategies for community building and economic development. Neil Gershenfeld's project is to develop the reappropriation of the production tool by reducing the size of CNC machines, the concept of shared and open FabLab gradually creating a better experience and knowledge of technical processes, which allow the development of a more precise discourse on the real positioning of the FabLabs regarding the industry. Nevertheless, we can still criticize the MIT network for the “gospel preacher” style of its representatives. The FabLab cadets travel a world in chronic crisis, promoting in the show-offs of innovation the humanitarian nature of their global network, from the opening of FabLabs in India or in Jalalabad to the manufacture of low-cost prosthetic legs, but also being able to explain the FabLab fashion, or how they cut a bikini in material with their laser cutter and then test it in their pool. Ultimately, these charitable souls omit to specify that the CBA, however, works for aviation and American military research, DARPA and the interest the FabLabs represent on remote military operations theaters.
Living in the Age of self-replicating machines
Neil Gershenfeld and his colleagues are working on machines that could one day be able to replicate themselves. 3D printers like the RepRap or the Cupcake Makerbot, are already capable of replicating a significant part of their own components. According to their designers, the emerging scenario of machines that would be able to manufacture other machines4 opens potentially revolutionary perspectives on economical and political levels. The next step of this well established Asimovian scenario lies in assembling machines. Gershenfeld even estimates his approach to be in its very preliminary stage regarding a new evolution process of machines. Its horizon, its uniqueness, is to eliminate the barrier between the world of physics and the world of computers, eliminating the border between bits and atoms, so that intelligent computation may be integrated into the physical world itself. He thinks of molecular machines which, at the same time, would be able to make “perfect things from defective parts through computerized manufacturing” and to duplicate, program and recycle themselves, machines with “the essential attributes of living systems.”5 Therefore, we better understand how some people and initiatives in the field of objects and furniture design through digital cutting are reluctant to fully adhere to the MIT version of the FabLab process. We can mention two initiatives, an English one, the store-workshop of furniture design Unto This Last6 in London, and a French one, the experimental workshop Magasin Laboratoire - MagLab - in Paris7, who feel largely concerned with the social script that would give the machine a power of emancipation rather than alienation. Furthermore, both initiatives come from a “super minimum”8, “less mass, more data” movement, which aims to reduce wastage of raw material and is influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, a late nineteenth century movement for which happiness lies in craft, because a worker can blossom and be proud of his work if involved at every stage of its implementation and manufacture. Thus, the store-workshop Unto This Last takes its name from a book by John Ruskin published in 18629, where the defender of medieval and gothic craftsmanship, mastermind of the Arts & Crafts movement, issues a series of serious doubts about the human cost of the Industrial Revolution and advocates a return to the craftsman workshop.
Arts & Crafts
John Ruskin was popularized by the socialist William Morris, whom he met in the circles of
the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a movement defending an artistic form of revival of Italian and Flemish primitives' styles from before Raphael. At the Universal Exhibition in London in 1851, William Morris was indeed surprised by the ugliness of the objects presented : according to him, the Industrial Revolution, by standardizing the manufacture of articles, put forward the notion of profit at the expense of aesthetics and quality. In 1861, when Ruskin published Unto this Last, Morris established his craft business, the future base of the Arts & Crafts movement. Morris would later be known as a political advocate the working class:
“But it is waste of time to try to express in words due contempt of the productions of the much-praised cheapness of our epoch. It must be enough to say that this cheapness is necessary to the system of exploiting on which modern manufacture rests. In other words, our society includes a great mass of slaves, who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, and that their daily necessity compels them to make the slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.” (William Morris, “Useful Work vs. Useless Toil”, 1884)10
Another important dimension of the Arts & Crafts movement was that one can do a good job only if he lives and works in a healthy and pleasant environment. Many communities of utopian artisans engaged to leave the polluted cities of the Industrial Revolution and settled in the countryside and lead a simpler and more ethical life. This project was also found in the US with new models of colonies, like the Ruskin Colony in Tennessee, established in 1894 by the socialist journalist Julius Augustus Wayland. The cooperative commonwealth of such colonies settled in a rural context differed from classical committed socialism in the cities, by trying to put into practice an effective creation of wealth and a collective control of technology11. The main leaders of the Arts & Crafts movement were actually quite divided by the question of whether machines should be completely
rejected or not. Morris was not the most radical in this area. He thought that production through machinery was goverall poorh12, but if industrialists were to be found who accepted his specific standards, then he used their services. Morris said that in a “real society”, that does not produce luxury goods nor poor quality cheap products, machines could be improved and used to reduce the time of work13. Another player in the movement, Charles Robert Ashbee, initiated a League of Handicraft of medieval inspiration, following a utopia engaged against industrial manufacturing, claiming “We do not reject the machine, we welcome it. But we would desire to see it mastered”14.
For John Ruskin, political economy based on the theories of laissez-faire and competition (from Thomas Malthus to John Stuart Mill) leads to thinking society as a whole will benefit from the greed and materialism of selfish individuals. He condemns the religion of the “economic man” who “invariably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained in the existing state of knowledge.”15 To Ruskin, liberals of his time did not consider the social wealth that binds communities together. Ruskin then uses a large metaphor for home and family to demonstrate the communal and sometimes sacrificial nature of real economy.
Textiles, home economics and machines
It is interesting to go back over the history of textile production and its transformation through the Industrial Revolution. In 1801, Joseph Jacquard invented a loom which hooks for lifting wool yarn were guided through by a system of punch cards. This loom is sometimes considered the ancestor of the computer through this use of punch cards. The Jacquard loom required only one craftsman at work. Until then two people were occupied per loom, the weaver and the puller, who raised the yarns with ropes (or laces). The work was conducted in the homes of the weavers. The Jacquard loom was a major cause of the Luddites revolts (1811-1812) in Great Britain and the Canuts revolts (1831-1834) in Lyon. The weavers broke machines, a new phenomenon who would make history. It should be understood that the economy of textiles of their time originated from proto-industrial “home economy”, cottage economy which consisted of a commercial relationship between farmers and traders who provided craft work or weaver work in periods of low agricultural activity, a work which could be done at home. This relationship was linked to the economic condition created by the process of agricultural plots enclosure with hedges or walls, a process that had allowed to switch from an agriculture deemed unproductive to a more intensive capitalist agriculture. Home economy would then evolve into a “workshop economy” (workshop system/putting-out system) where artisans-farmers receive the raw material from the trader who later collects the end product, a change favorable to an outsourcing strategy of a home economy previously limited to local activity. The beginnings of capitalist globalization. Part-time craft work involved the whole family, depending on the craft stages. This model also had had the advantage to promote the nuclear Christian family, while also forcing the “mental enclosure” of women into leaving their peasant condition to focus on domestic activity, spinning wool and taking care of child workers. It is then a curiosity to notice two types of “resistance” to this additional form of enslavement of artisans-farmers that will arise from the arrival of machines. On the one hand the Amish, coming from alsatian Anabaptism, whose home is the place of worship, refuse mechanization (the industrial speed being detrimental to the community) and work for the preservation of their religious autonomy (they were persecuted) and their savoir faire. To them, the enclosure principle has become a metaphysical one. To Amish people, mutual aid and solidarity within the community can not be corrupted by any kind of outsourced “social protection.” Sometimes, within the family, the father transmits the farm to the eldest as soon as he is married, and then turns to wood craftsmanship or weaver activity. We meet again the communal and sacrificial nature evoked by Ruskin. And it is still the case today. On the other side, the Canuts, to whom the weaving machine invaded the domestic space. Jacquard looms measure up to twelve feet high (hence their concentration in the area of the Croix-Rousse, in Lyon – France -, where the buildings allowed it) but only the weaver was now working with it. Other tasks that used to be carried out by women or children were now automated. This situation, which destroyed the family balance of the workshop home economy would encourage Canuts to create mutual aid societies. This was the birth of mutualism and the labor press. Rebellion through the destruction of machines came with the destabilization of prices by traders. The straw that broke the Canut's back.
In 1904, Gandhi discovered the book Unto This Last by John Ruskin. It would have a radical influence on his philosophy. He decided, not only to immediately change his own life in accordance with the teachings of Ruskin, but also to adapt Unto This Last in 1908 in Gujarati, under the name of Sarvodaya (the welfare of all). It is also the name he gave to his philosophy. The activism of Gandhi would be closely tied to textile's history and its relationship to british colonialism. Upon his return from Africa he settled in Ahmedabad, the capital of Indian textile. There, he would expand his principle of non-violence by joining the Swadeshi movement (swa-“self” or “own”, desh-“country”, thus meaning “of one's own country”), born in 1905, and its policy of boycott of foreign goods, especially British goods. Gandhi asked that the khadi (home-made clothing) be worn by all Indians instead of British textiles, and that every Indian, rich or poor, man or woman, spins every day to help the independence movement. He applied this principle to himself all his life. From the writings of Ruskin and his experience by the side of the Swadeshi movement, he would develop the concept of swaraj (swa-“self”, raj-“rule”), focusing on decentralized governance rather than hierarchical government, but a self-governance at work made of individuals brought together by the establishment of a community.
You might wonder why I mention all this ? To emphasize the absence and the impossibility of an absolute emancipation by simple access to the tools. The FabLabs today do not allow us to bypass educational background or the emancipation from mastership, they just allow an accompanied experimentation of the machines and techniques.
The Arts & Crafts movement tried to establish a balance of power with capitalism of their time, while FabLabs are models of capitalism to come: we are bound to see this as a falsification
of Ruskin's principles. Digital craft does not offer in itself an answer to the dream of decentralized self-governance, and MIT's FabLab evangelism in a context of neoliberal globalization could very well lead countries development towards a “workshop economy” kind of exploitation, in a new proto-neo-industrial economy.
5« WikiPlaza et autres hétérotopies FLOS [Free Libre Open Source] » , Jose Perez de Lama, Actes Futur en Seine 2009, ed. Ewen Chardronnet, Cap Digital, 2010
9 John Ruskin, Unto this Last, Penguin, 1986
10William Morris, "Useful Work versus Useless Toil", Asa Briggs (ed.) William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs, Harmondsworth: Pengin, 1980
11W. Fitzhugh Brundage, A Socialist Utopia in the New South, University of Illinois Press, 1996
12Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design, from William Morris to Walter Gropius, Yale University Press, 2005
13William Morris, "Useful Work versus Useless Toil", Asa Briggs (ed.) William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs, Pengin, 1980
14Ashbee, C.R., A Few Chapters on Workshop Construction and Citizenship, D.C. Heath, London, 1894.
15John Stuart Mill, “the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It”, London and Westminster Review, 1836