A Low-Tech Future

During the COVID-19 crisis, distributist and mosaic patterning of low-tech maker nodes helped create resilience within communities. More research is required on the role that technology and maker nodes play in establishing local community and economic resilience. I have recently closed a preliminary study looking at some of these ideas (detailed below) and will start a new project that explores the relationships, opportunities, and barriers of:

  • modern connectivity (i.e.: fiber optics),
  • empowerment of low-tech production (i.e.: maker spaces, hacker labs, tool libraries),
  • increased demand of locally produced goods by consumers, and
  • uncertainty regarding global production chains – as witnessed during COVID-19.

My interest in a low-tech future started when I took Pete Schuler and Dan McCarthy’s Indigenous Knowledge course at the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability. We were asked to make something, and I wanted to finally make my partner and I wedding bands. It was an unmitigated disaster. It took me hours to make the ugliest rings in the world that turned both our fingers green within 4 hours.

I wondered if I can’t even make a set of rings, how the heck are we going to survive if production chains break down? This is when I added a second advisor to my committee and we began the Metcalf funded study on Makers.

Metcalf Project: reMaker Society

We began from the understanding that humanity is caught in a growth trap.  Ending poverty, enhancing and expanding the culture of liberal democracy, sustaining the amazing pace of scientific discovery and technical innovation – all of these cherished goals depend upon continuing economic growth. But growth – i.e. the escalating throughput of energy and materials flowing through human systems – is necessarily achieved at the expense of natural ecological systems and the consumption of finite resources.  And although mainstream economics presumes a never-ending cycle of expansion, there are clearly material and ecological limits to growth: nothing can expand indefinitely (at least not without breaking the laws of physics).  While more people than ever know rampant consumerism is devastating planetary ecology, there is still little environmental movement on a large scale.

Participants and leader of the OSE workshop

Impending resource constraints are likely also to place an unbearable strain on the social and political institutions of liberal societies, and to create geopolitical disorder on an unimaginable scale. We are seeing this on a small scale with the COVID-19 pandemic. Our room for manoeuvre is thus circumscribed – by the maximum scale of economy compatible with the ecological integrity of the biosphere and the minimum scale required in order to sustain a globally-connected, technologically progressive, science-based, liberal-cosmopolitan society.

What seems certain is that this leaves no room for rampant consumer capitalism.

Funded by the Metcalf Foundation this project was a response to the Foundations’ Green Prosperity Challenge. Aiming to support creative, practical activities that reduce pressure on production chains and on the natural environment in southern Ontario while also fostering economic and social well-being.

Metcalf believes there is a pressing need to identify ways in which we can address environmental challenges, in tandem with creating economic and social benefits. Green prosperity will only be possible if we begin to redefine growth and re-imagine economic progress. With this in mind, this project explored the possible relevance of community-based fabrication to a post-consumer society.  

Our idea is that the habit of actually making things may challenge logic of passive consumption while engendering a new kind of community-based economy. Although there is a compelling case for low/no growth economics (e.g. Jackson 2009; Victor 2019), this vision has not been demonstrated much ‘on the ground’.

The convergence of (i) new communication and organizational [open source, P2P] technologies associated with the Internet, with (ii) emerging micro fabrication technologies (e.g. 3d printing) is creating as yet untapped possibilities for small-scale, community-based economy which combines artisanal craftsmanship with both technical innovation and a much more integrated recycling, reuse and repair of material objects. This project tested the capacity of community-based hacking spaces and Maker projects to engage ordinary people, unpick the psycho-cultural attractions of consumerism, change behaviour and transform local economies.

The study consisted of four workshops – of relevance here is the Powercube workshop run by Open Source Ecology, a movement driven by the vision:

We – the countless collaborators upon whose shoulders this Vision stands – imagine a world of innovation accelerated by open, collaborative development – to solve wicked problems – before they are created. We see a world of prosperity that doesn’t leave anyone behind. We see a world of interdisciplinary, synergistic systems thinking – not the isolated silos of today’s world.

Me welding for the first time

My ongoing work aligns deeply with the vision and mission of OSE.

A model of ‘green prosperity’ with traction would need to simultaneously address a) the social compact, b) technological innovation, and c) drivers of behaviour change.

In this research, we found that this suggests a need for cascading social-behavioural change combined with:

  • open source business models
  • distributed forms of technical collaboration and design (distributed forms of production and design are now my primary area of individual research)
  • new socio-ecological institutions (such as ecological monetary theory)
  • new cultural framing of the ‘good life’ and redefinitions of success

Such a process of change can only start within communities with forms of social and technical innovation, which address these issues simultaneously, albeit at the micro level. More specifically, what is at issue is whether a dynamic culture of technical innovation can be married to a reinvented, artisanal craft-culture of saving, (re)Making, repairing, recycling and reusing. Such a culture, built around a powerful ethic of participation in a collaborative, creative culture of self-fabrication, could perhaps provide an alternative source of meaning. A shared (re)Maker mythology might provide an alternative to the compulsive retail therapy that drives the consumer society. Such a (re)Maker society will work to the extent that it provides community-endorsed avenues and projects through which individuals can be seen to succeed, achieve status and feelings of self worth, and generally ‘make their mark’.

New technological opportunities

Of course, the Romantic vision of democracy of re-born artisans is as old as industrial society. In the past such visions have come up short because they seemed inimical to any commitment to science and technological innovation. But this is condition is now changing. Disruptive technologies combined with radical social innovation are pulling back the veil to reveal the outlines of possibilities for the future. Makers were at the front of COVID-19 production response measures.

I was pretty comfortable by the end!

Communications technology, micro-manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing and the social innovation of open source, reciprocative property rights (e.g. Creative Commons; Woody Guthrie Public Licence ), now combine in such a way, that it is possible to envisage an alternative more decentralised, community-based and place-bound way of organizing modern production and consumption.

Specifically, the Internet and the emerging architecture and culture of Wiki organization is leading to a radical democratization of knowledge and laying the foundations of a sharing, collaborative economy in which access to goods and services, trumps ownership (Botson and Rogers 2010).

Combined with proliferating micro design and fabrication technologies epitomized by the 3D printing revolution (Gershenfeld, 2007), there is now a real potential for a new kind of political economy based on radically distributed processes of wiki-design along with community based (re) fabrication. Commentators such as Jeremy Rifkin (2014) and Kevin Carson (2010) argue that the ‘neo-technic’ vision of networked, relatively self-sufficient communities is now compatible with a continuing science-based, high tech trajectory of technical innovation. They envision a much more decentralised, distributed economy involving greater active participation in the (re)Making, maintenance, repair and recycling of the material culture of everyday life. The reMaker society will, it is argued, involve a paradigmatic shift away from the high-throughput, passive consumption, which defines contemporary capitalism.

Hacking spaces such as Diyode and Kwartzlab are part of an emerging Maker culture that combines a resurgence of interest in traditional craft skills with relatively high-low tech platforms such as Arduino (electronics) and process technologies such as 3D printing. As well as access to a wide range of tools, membership of a shared space provides work and storage space, friendship networks, informal mentoring and training opportunities and a sense of belonging and shared vocation. These groups are loosely affiliated to the wider MAKER movement promoted by Make Magazine and associated with the Maker Faire expo, which operates in large cities across North America. Kitchener hosted it’s own mini MakerFaire in 2013 and this event is likely to become a permanent fixture in the municipal calendar.

Despite the growing visibility of this subculture, there is an entrenched perception that participation in Maker culture is for highly skilled ‘nerds’ or technology geeks – a participant at the International Society for Ecological Economic annual conference publicly deemed them as such. However, there is immense contribution to the wider economy in terms of skills training, product innovation development and enhancing the wider culture in terms of an entrenched confidence and capacity for designing, using, repairing and working with technology.

More research is needed on how the skills training and personal confidence levels associated with the (re)Maker experience affect individual engagement with the passive culture of consumption. We do not know whether (re)Makers are more motivated to change personal behaviour in ways that reduce the ecological footprint of consumption, but this study produced preliminary data to suggest it does.

Future and Ongoing Research

My research on the reMaker economy took a back seat to the Liberty and EE Agenda projects. Now, I am returning to makers with a specific focus on a) how makers connect to one another to build regional resilience through local hubs, and b) further exploring how makers bolster self-esteem and establish pro-environmental behaviours.

a) Some Indigenous agroforestry utilizes mosaic land use patterns that sustain high levels of biodiversity (Berkes 2012). This points to a possible model allowing for system dynamics in shared ecosystems. This organization maintains disequilibrium (often less energetically intense than equilibrium) patterns that promote biodiversity while allowing for co-evolution between nearby neighbours (Armitage 2003; Berkes 2012: 205). In 1973, Holling introduced the concept of ecosystem resilience using the spatial heterogeneity of mosaics as an example of resilient patterns of interaction. He argued that the first step is to recognize that the natural world is “not very homogenous over space” but rather consists of this mosaic spatial patterning with each area possessing it’s own distinct “biological, physical, and chemical characteristics that are linked by mechanisms of biological and physical transport” (Holling 1973: 16). There are certainly logistical difficulties in researching such a landscape. However, within maker culture there are dispersed ecosystems of production and relation that are networked between other maker ecosystems – nodes of micro-production and innovation. The grassroots nature of makers, and their ability to operate just out of state control, have established a mosaic patterning, that mimics the economic theory of distributism. I would like to explore these relationships in more depth.

b) Preliminary data from the reMaker project indicates that being a part of a maker group improves self-esteem and that makers generally have pro-environmental attitudes (although, it is likely individuals over-emphasise their own environmentalism). More research is required on the psychological processes involved here and if making really is a sufficient enough activity to remove the “urge to splurge” (Arndt, Solomon, Kasser, Sheldon 2004). Using ideas from psychology, including terror management theory, the reMaker research group is working with members from the environmental psychology lab at Wilfred Laurier University to quantitatively test how making improves self-esteem and environmental attitudes.

Works Cited

Armitage, D. 2003. Traditional agroecological knowledge, adaptive management and the socio-politics of conservation in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Environmental Conservation 30:79-90.

Arndt, Jamie, Sheldon Solomon, Tim Kasser, and Kennon M. Sheldon. 2004. The Urge to Splurge: A Terror Management Account of Materialism and Consumer Behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology 14 (3): 198–212. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327663jcp1403_2.

Berkes, Fikret. 2012 [1999]. Sacred Ecology. 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge.

Carson, Kevin A. 2010. The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto. [S.l.]: BookSurge.

Gershenfeld, Neil. 2007. Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. 1 edition. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Holling, C. S. 1973. Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4(1-23). DOI: 10.1146/annurev.es.04.110173.000245

Jackson, Tim. 2009. Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. London; New York: Earthscan.

Rifkin, Jeremy. 2014. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. 1st Edition edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Trade.

Victor, Peter A. 2019. Managing without Growth Slower by Design, Not Disaster. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.