July 15, 2005

FAB: A missed opportunity to tell a great story, but what incredible assumptions and presumtions people have about this new kind of fabrication of personalized manufacturing

I'm in this book group, called 'netheads' where we read books about networks, network effects, digital culture and new technologies. We've been reading Fab by Neil Gershenfeld, who is a prof at MIT.

He started a class on fabricating your own stuff.. and instead of the 10 students he thought would sign up, 100 signed up, making things using computerized fabrication and CAD tools, and some other things, in a fab-lab. He later got copies of the lab exported around the world. The book relates what he observed, taught and learned, with people basically thinking along the lines of personalized, remix culture (which we usually see in digital situations) applied to what is normally considered to be mass-market manufacturing, in the one-size fit's all model.

The book is repetitive, and not very well written at times. And the way he tells different students' stories is frustrating, because sometimes people come up with amazing things, like the computer interface for parrots, or the scream machine, and you really want more, in-depth information about how they did it, what the interaction is in the thing they made, how they figured it out exactly, and lots of detail about how they worked with the lab etc. instead of a glossing over in a page or so description. It feels at times that he is jumping from one 'cool' think to the next, of is focusing on personalities instead of the beginning of a really interesting social phenomenon.

I really wanted deep thinking, connection and comparison between earlier self-manufacturing and this current version, and some analysis about how people make the leap from consumer to self-manufacturer. Instead, I got these quick hit stories where I had to figure it out myself to some degree from the skimpy information, but I know there is much more behind it and it felt missing from the stories and analysis.

But the assumptions the people in the book take on are radical. Just like we (online digital people) wake up every day presuming we can both make code that remixes other code, or remix digital information, or that we can write and rewrite whatever we want online, remixing others' words to create something new, assuming this is normal and possible, and just another everyday thing, so do the folks who have access to fab-labs presume they can remix the material world, and assume it's normal. I was imagining, in reading the stories of people's inventions, finding those things in Walmart. Would never happen. This stuff is too customized, too personal, too handmade, and too useful to find its way into some marketed, glossy mass-production type store.

Also, what is interesting is how people assume they are capable of this. 100 years ago, people manufactured their own things, but at some point, we gave that up. The vast majority would never think of self-manufacturing. But with computerized fabrication labs it's possible to think we can do this, just by watching others in a fab-lab or similar workshop, having them teach us, sharing information one-by-one and thinking in a remix mindset that takes you beyond the consumer, manufactured frames we are born into now.

It's extremely politically subversive stuff, amazing and exciting. It's really too bad that Gershenfeld isn't a great writer, who could transcend his own fascination with being cool, to find what is so changing about these labs, the communities that build up and fall out and build again around projects and creators personal assumptions and shared information and learning. Because what is in the subtext that he never really brings to the surface is potentially transcendental for our culture.

It also reminded me of what I learned from my father when I was a kid. He was the CEO of a company for 25 or so years, and yet, he would take the opposite of those skills and experiences, in spare time, where he and I would do things like replace a sewage line, or rewire the bathroom, or replace a garbage disposal. Or make a rabbit hutch for my rabbits and ginnea pigs, or build a playhouse. I don't know that I could fabricate things yet that they did in the fab-lab, but because of my experiences with my father, I believe I can do a lot of things that I hear others say they can't do. The possiblity for me is there, and I think the fab-labs extend that possiblity to lots of people for manufactured kinds of things. The fab-labs offer an incredible change in personal assumptions for people.

Posted by Mary Hodder at July 15, 2005 11:56 PM | TrackBack