In early June, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Engineering and Liberal Education Symposium at Union College. The first session of the Symposium was dedicated to “Exploring the Aesthetic and Humanistic Dimensions of Maker Culture,” and during it I gave a talk titled, “Prototyping as Inquiry,” which was inspired by Daniela Rosner’s notion of design as inquiry. The slides for my talk are online. During the talk, I focused on how the Kits for Cultural History extend and complicate Fluxkits from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, and I walked people through various components of the Kits as both concepts and matter. Theoretically, the talk was inspired by new materialism, especially Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway.
Prior to the Symposium, I was quite intrigued by an event bringing together engineering and the liberal arts. And during my visit to Union, I participated in a few sessions about that very intersection. I learned a tremendous amount from fellow participants in these discussions, and in this brief post I simply want to share two questions I’ve been considering since the Symposium. Generally speaking, these questions concern a long view of “making” in the academy, largely because many conversations at the Symposium addressed issues of planning, infrastructure, collaboration, and project development. At the moment, I don’t have concrete responses to them; however, they are questions we’ll be unpacking in the MLab during the next year or two.
First, how are academic maker cultures defined in relation to disciplinary foundations? Since do-it-yourself (DIY) or do-it-ourselves (DIO) approaches to material culture typically undermine individualist notions of possessive expertise (i.e., notions that expertise is autonomous, not relational or situational), they also complicate assumptions about what competencies people should develop within a specific discipline or across the disciplines. But what foundations should maker cultures not ignore? If we are talking about making across the arts, humanities, and engineering, then answers to this question are certainly not simple. In the case of the Kits for Cultural History, a knowledge of how to write media history and think through media theory have been essential to our research. Foundations in visual arts have been essential, too. To be clear, all of this knowledge is not possessed by any one person on the MLab team; it is shared, with certain researchers knowing more about particular techniques and methods than other researchers, and with a significant amount of learning happening tacitly or by proxy.
That said, critiques of possessive expertise need not imply that experience and expertise are inconsequential, and one of my ongoing concerns is that a maker culture push to democratize technologies does not correspond with democratized labor relations. After all, increasing access to technologies frequently entails deskilling, or the instrumentalist belief that—once anyone can acquire and learn a given technology—specialization no longer matters (e.g., “everyone is a designer” or “everyone is a photographer”). By extension, attribution for that work may be overlooked, compensation for it may be reduced (if not eliminated), and occupations based on it may dwindle in number (or be rendered obsolete). In academic contexts, one way to explore this phenomenon is to examine how calls for making eschew habituated knowledge practices instead of building upon and enriching them (where “enriching” involves expansion as well as critique). This gesture is often entangled with treating “digital” as a synonym for “revolutionary” or “not traditional.” Yet I hope that, instead of becoming reactionary or positivist formations, academic maker cultures are sites for collaborative, transdisciplinary projects aware of biases and foundations in their respective disciplines. Perhaps this hope is naive. At the moment, though, I consider it an optimism of the will.
This optimism overlaps with my second question: how do we nudge making beyond play and prototyping into matters of maintenance and sustained engagement? Terms such as “rapid prototyping” and “popup” may not always help researchers communicate the ways in which experimental methods shape long-term engagements with social and cultural issues. They may also be too conducive to an entrepreneurialism invested more in novelty and whiz bang than infrastructural dispositions or enduring communities of practice. As I’ve argued elsewhere, historicizing maker cultures (beyond or against the grain of, say, Maker Media) is one step toward understanding maker cultures after the whiz bang. Another step is positioning those cultures as collectivities, not individualist worldviews steeped in Horatio Alger myths. Here, Sarah Fox, Rachel Rose Ulgado, and Daniela Rosner’s “Hacking Culture, Not Devices: Access and Recognition in Feminist Hackerspaces” is a compelling example, developing existing work in Science and Technology Studies (STS). During the Engineering and Liberal Education Symposium, Ellen Foster also presented some persuasive STS research, with a nuanced account of makerspaces across multiple settings and communities. My fingers are crossed that such research is indicative of STS work to come.
For now, I want to thank the NY6 Think Tank for inviting me to speak at the Symposium, and Christine Henseler, Atsushi Akera, and Ellen Foster for their generosity and support during my visit to Union College. It was a pleasure. The Engineering and Liberal Education Symposium is an inspiring model the MLab aims to emulate in the future.