November 23, 2014

Metafoundry 15: Scribbled Leatherjackets

Reading room; Homo Fabber.

COORDINATES: Sitting on the balcony of a hotel room in Cairns, Australia, with a view of the palm-fringed Esplanade and the Pacific Ocean and the long shadows cast by the late-afternoon sun behind me, listening to unfamiliar birdsong. Partly cloudy and about 30C. On Friday night, when I flew here from Brisbane, we skirted a thunderstorm and I watched it from my airplane window; the towering characteristic anvil-shaped clouds lit from below by nearly continuous flashes of lightning and silhouetted against a sky full of constellations I didn't recognise. Yesterday I went diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I often describe diving as the closest I'm likely to come to exploring an alien planet: transforming ourselves even further into cyborgs to survive in an environment that would otherwise kill us within minutes, in an effectively zero-gravity environment, visitors to a different world. We saw hundreds of species, from palm-sized undulating marine flatworms to sharks to a cuttlefish as long as my arm and giant clams that outweighed us, but my favourite creature was a small remora, black and grey with a white racing stripe, that I later identified as a (likely juvenile) slender sharksucker (Echeneis naucrates). It joined our group as soon as we descended and paced us as we cruised around for the entire forty minutes or so of the dive, darting between us in search of a place to attach, stymied by our Lycra suits and the galvanized steel of our tanks. Brucie Rosch put her finger on why I found it so endearing; it was one of the few creatures we saw that interacted with us as anything other than interlopers. To it, we were just large, oddly-shaped fish.

READING ROOM: Work and travel mean I am behind on my reading, but I love receiving Pome, Matthew Ogle's thoughtfully-curated newsletter of one poem each day, and Matt Sheret's The Bureau of Small Observation, mostly short descriptions of the people and places of his London home. Also, I now have an account on This. and plan to be sharing links there more regularly.

HOMO FABBER: Every once in a while, I am asked what I ‘make’. When I attended the Brighton Maker Faire in September, a box for the answer was under my name on my ID badge. It was part of the XOXO Festival application for 2013; when I saw the question, I closed the browser tab, and only applied later (and eventually attended) because of the enthusiastic encouragement of friends. I’m always uncomfortable identifying myself as a maker. I'm uncomfortable with any culture that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express a facet of your own identity (‘maker’, rather than ‘someone who makes things’). But I have much deeper concerns.

Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labour—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women. As a teenager, I read Ayn Rand on how any work that needed to be done day after day was meaningless, and that only creating new things was a worthwhile endeavour. My response to this was to stop making my bed every day, to the distress of my mother. (While I admit the possibility of a misinterpretation, as I haven’t read Rand’s writing since I was so young my mother oversaw my housekeeping, I have no plans to revisit it anytime soon.) The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling things), and from what Ursula Franklin describes as prescriptive technologies to ones that are more holistic, it mostly reinscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

In light of this history, it’s unsurprising that coding has been folded into ‘making’. Consider the instant gratification of seeing ‘hello, world’ on the screen; it’s nearly the easiest possible way to ‘make’ things, and certainly one where failure has a very low cost. Code is 'making' because we've figured out how to package it up into discrete units and sell it, and because it is widely perceived to be done by men. But you can also think about coding as eliciting a specific, desired set of behaviours from computing devices. It’s the Searle’s 'Chinese room' take on the deeper, richer, messier, less reproducible, immeasurably more difficult version of this that we do with people—change their cognition, abilities, and behaviours. We call the latter 'education', and it’s mostly done by underpaid, undervalued women.

When new products are made, we hear about exciting technological innovation, which are widely seen as worth paying (more) for. In contrast, policy and public discourse around caregiving—besides education, healthcare comes immediately to mindare rarely about paying more to do better, and are instead mostly about figuring out ways to lower the cost. Consider the economics term ‘Baumol's cost disease’: it suggests that it is somehow pathological that the time and energy taken by a string quartet to prepare for a performance--and therefore the cost--has not fallen in the same way as goods, as if somehow people and what they do should get less valuable with time (to be fair, given the trajectory of wages in the US over the last few years in real terms, that seems to be exactly what is happening).

It's not, of course, that there's anything wrong with making (although it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). It's that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it's nearly always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually  or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products. 

I am not a maker. In a framing and value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is, at least superficially, the same year after year. That's because all of the actual change is at the interface between me, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like 'design learning experiences', which is mistaking what I do for what I’m actually trying to elicit and support. The appropriate metaphor for education, as Ursula Franklin has pointed out, is a garden, not the production line.

My graduate work in materials engineering was all about analysing and characterizing biological tissues, mostly looking at disease states and interventions and how they altered the mechanical properties of bone, including addressing a public health question for my doctoral research. My current education research is mostly about understanding the experiences of undergraduate engineering students so we can do a better job of helping them learn. I think of my brilliant and skilled colleagues in the social sciences, like Nancy Baym at Microsoft Research, who does interview after interview followed by months of qualitative analysis to understand groups of people better. None of these activities are about ‘making’. 

I educate. I analyse. I characterize. I critique. Almost everything I do these days is about communicating with others. To characterize what I do as 'making' is either to mistake the methods—the editorials, the workshops, the courses, even the materials science zine I made—for the purpose. Or, worse, to describe what I do as 'making' other people, diminishing their own agency and role in sensemaking, as if their learning is something I impose on them.

In a recent newsletter, Dan Hon wrote, "But even when there's this shift to Makers (and with all due deference to Getting Excited and Making Things), even when "making things" includes intangibles now like shipped-code, there's still this stigma that feels like it attaches to those-who-don't-make. Well, bullshit. I make stuff." I understand this response, but I'm not going to call myself a maker. Instead, I call bullshit on the stigma, and the culture and values behind it that reward making above everything else. Instead of calling myself a maker, I'm proud to stand with the caregivers, the educators, those that analyse and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things and all the other people who do valuable work with and for others, that doesn't result in something you can put in a box and sell.

A short primer on hummingbird aggression.