Waiting for the impending industrial revolution

A new industrial revolution is upon us.

This self-fulfilling prophecy, first announced by Wired and subsequently picked up by The Economist, helped to make an even more striking comparison with another reality, the one told by the macro-economic indicators that marked the steady decline of industrial production which was expressed by the gross domestic product.

Since then, the relentless media coverage has altered our perceptions of space and time: overnight —and without warning— we found ourselves in the future. The spread of 3D printers installed in the dusty garages of makers around the world sold for only a couple hundred euro helped to fuel the the more sensationalist features of the media’s morbid attachment to the new manufacturing technologies. Meanwhile, fascination passed from a state of techno–utopian infatuation to that of collective hallucination.

The emphasis on the wonders of a relatively cheap and accessible hardware eclipsed some of the really sensational traits of the invasion of low–cost 3D printers: they were self–replicating machines created by an open source community and not by a central R&D, approached thousands of people to the ethical questions that this philosophy entails and, at the same time, pushed many unsuspecting people to learn the rudiments (ABC’s) of electronics and mechanics.

In our society pervaded by the coupling of technology and capitalism, the spasmodic attention given to the theme of technology is inevitable, although, to date, the technologies that will ferry humanity towards a new socio-economic paradigm are probably not yet among us.

To catch sight of them you must renounce the ingenuous perspective proposed by the media and look to the future not as an inscrutable set of random events, but rather as a reaction of history to a specific program of economic stimuli. If the technologies in their final and marketable form are still far away, the ‘road map’ of innovation from now over the coming decades has already been drawn from research institutes and universities such as MIT, whose authority in the matter is such as to discourage any impetus in the search for alternatives.

When these strategic programs make it across the generally well guarded ford, beyond which public opinion lies, our perception of the future changes: we thought we were already immersed in the future up to our necks, but soon realize that by simply rolling up the hem of our pants we avoid the risk of getting wet.

But what does the future hold? It would seem that that radical innovation that we’re all waiting for will mark the transition from analogue materials, which includes current CNC technologies such as ‘3D printers’, to digital ones. The latter, like chains of amino acids that form proteins, will incorporate into them a code and will be assembled and disassembled without waste to form new objects.

While we wait for this scenario to materialize, it is worth remembering that the availability of new technology in itself is not synonymous with paradigmatic change of production models, distribution, consumption of goods or ways of working.

For example, post–Fordism has never supplanted the mechanism of the ‘assembly line’ as a mode to organize work, legacy of the previous era. Matthew Crawford knew this well, while he voluntarily abandoned his position in the chain of knowledge production within a prestigious research institute to concentrate on repairing vintage motorcycles. An activity which, in his opinion, requires great intellectual effort and dexterity and offers the pleasure, denied to the  production line worker, to be able to finish what he started.

For Chris Anderson, in advance of all other tech evangelists, the next ‘wave’ of the start–up will be hardware. What is taking place now is something very similar to what happened with computers in the garage of many adolescents and inventors who have installed affordable desktop manufacturing tools near their laptops. The return to material after decades of digitalization of the real world, well expressed by the mantra “atoms are the new bits”, does not, however, seem to scratch the basis on which the previous paradigm stands: the myth of the garage start–ups, the unshakable faith in the relationship between technology and capitalism, the appropriation and reworking of the consumerist culture and social practices born within the countercultural movements as a form of resistance.*

This latter feature brings us back to one of the most interesting expressions of the counterculture in which the non–confrontational attitude towards the capitalist model even becomes an identity element: the Maker ‘movement.’ Although to become a real movement it still lacks a political agenda shared by its members, rather than one imposed by its self–proclaimed founder and leader Maker Media, the ‘movement’ has had the merit of giving voice and recognition to a multitude of individuals whose skills and abilities are difficult to fit into the canon of traditional knowledge.

One could therefore say that the term ‘maker’, as well as being a clever lexical invention, a meme that lends itself to endless interpretations and associations, fills the void caused in the collective conscious by the erosion of traditional forms of work.

While the ‘mechanic’ or ‘craftsman’ recall a pattern of work organization and knowledge still penalized by the stereotype “manual labor = uncool job,” the know–how possessed by these figures will increase in proportion to the complexity of the market in which they operate. The ‘maker culture’, therefore, enhances its ‘ability to do’ in a forward–thinking manner, renouncing any nostalgic interpretation.

During the past few years, the community of makers has grown exponentially, becoming a global phenomenon with over 100 Maker Fairs and an audience of more than 530,000. ** This virality is also due to the dual meaning that its demiurges were able to give it (it is worth remembering that Maker Media arose from the division of O’Reilly Media, the most well–known publisher of books on technology in Silicon Valley), re–mixing in a wise way, and not without ulterior motives, old warhorses of the counterculture, such as the Do–It–Yourself and financial capitalism of Venture Capital in Silicon Valley.

The first meaning is in fact the most universal and inclusive: “Makers are enthusiasts; they’re amateurs; they’re people who love doing what they do.” Given that, with rare exceptions, we all love to do something, in principle this attitude of the human race makes us all makers. To give you an idea of ​​how this vision is true, in 2010, when the makers were almost unknown outside of the United States, Von Hippel observed that in the UK 2.9 million consumers had changed or improved existing products on the market.

The second meaning, a little less explicit but no less meaningful, reminds us that we are part of a new category of consumers. Not only do we have more sophisticated tastes and are more sensitive to social and ethical issues, but we are also equipped with the skills and tools —which the online shop is there for— to imprint our personality, ergonomics and vision onto the objects we own. And if this attitude, “If you can not open it, you do not own it.”  is in some way inhibited, it is here that the first meaning comes back with the force of a moral imperative. To the maker, cornered by who violates his right to enter into things, there is nothing left but to do–it–self, by reclaiming scrap material culture from the past and hacking it to his pleasure.

The two meanings together highlight the spectrum of changes in the dynamics of design, manufacturing and consumption, which have their fulcrum in the transition from active to passive user. In my opinion, this is the cornerstone on which the reflections on the new models of production rest.

Given that the previous Industrial Revolution gave the world the figure of the designer, unless the transition to the next doesn’t involve a return to the pre–industrial economic models, the role of design within this new macro–scenario will become more delicate instead of disappearing. This is because the level of interaction between the user and everything that was previously precluded from the product, that is how, when and by whom it is made​​, is likely to increase.

In this sense, the challenges for design are numerous: how to design (for) the transition towards new methods of use in which the user takes on an increasingly more active role?

If an increasing part of the final product design is in the hands of the end user, a design discipline is entitled to a new phase of transformation: it must extend its influence not only to how objects are made, but also to how they are produced.

What I mean is that the design of the product, or the product–system, must also take into account the design of the production process. This essentially means redesigning the factory —or the production unit— so that the production becomes flexible, scalable, reconfigurable, replicable in different local contexts, and enables advanced customization of products by its users.

In the more radical and open to experimentation design circles and universities this is already happening at both theoretical and practical levels, for example, exploring the theme of autoproduction and of advanced craft. What unites these new–old design practices is the desire to extend the creative process to the method of production as well, opening new scenarios of research and experimentation.

With the impending industrial revolution, re–designing the ‘factory’ and its relationship with the city will represent an increasingly crucial theme for design, and for all disciplines that aim to transform the reality in which we live.


* On this issue look at the analysis of the project Hackintosh by Paolo Magaudda in Magaudda, P., How to Make a ‘Hackintosh’. A Journey into the ‘consumerization’ of Hacking Practices and Culture. in Journal of Peer Production, 2012.

** Source: Maker Media. http://mwne.ws/1vXmNyX