Makerspaces and urban ideology: the institutional shaping of Fab Labs in China and Northern Ireland | new journal article

Abstract from my new article due to be published in June in the Journal of Peer Production .. co-authored with Xin Gu.

Makerspaces—specifically those with a focus on digital fabrication and physical computing—are emerging as symbols of social and economic change in many cultures. Much of the empirical evidence that provides details of this phenomenon has been gathered in neo-liberal market economies in Europe and North America. Existing findings have helped situate makerspaces as sites that emphasise ‘commons based peer production’ underscored by non-proprietary ‘gift economies’ (see Gershenfeld 2005, Anderson 2012, Troxler 2013, Kostakis et. al 2015). These narratives have been expanded by findings that reveal how participation is shaped—and often impeded—by the communities, platforms, and policies surrounding makerspaces (see Alper 2013, Toupin 2014, Moilanen et al 2015, Shea 2016). This paper contributes to the literature through an analysis of the institutional arrangements of Fab Labs in China and Northern Ireland. It argues that processes of institutionalisation within these makerspaces are shaped by the specific urban ideologies they are bound to. Fab Labs in Belfast and Derry (Northern Ireland) are deployed as facilitators and enablers of unification processes in a post-conflict society, while Fab Labs in Shenzhen (China) have been manipulated for a specific post-industrial agenda. Institutionalised makerspaces, shaped by these different realities, challenge existing narratives of maker cultures in several ways: first, the development of makerspaces cannot be divorced from top down processes of nation building, as a range of strategic public policy agencies are involved despite low public participation rates; second, makerspaces are a reflection of local values rather than of the ‘commons based peer production’ paradigm of open source culture; and third, commercial corporations are investing in makerspaces to align with public policy paradigms despite uncertain economic returns. The accounts detailed in this paper further expand dialogue towards a more critical and nuanced analysis of makerspaces and global open source cultures.

Journal of Peer Production, issue 12 (forthcoming, June 2018)

Bringing Interoperability to Kids' Construction Toys

There is so much that is good about this project. Prepare to be blown away (the following blurb is from the F.A.T. Lab website):

"F.A.T. Lab and Sy-Lab are pleased to present the Free Universal Construction Kit: a matrix of nearly 80 adapter bricks that enable complete interoperability between ten* popular children’s construction toys. By allowing any piece to join to any other, the Kit encourages totally new forms of intercourse between otherwise closed systems—enabling radically hybrid constructive play, the creation of previously impossible designs, and ultimately, more creative opportunities for kids. As with other grassroots interoperability remedies, the Free Universal Construction Kit implements proprietary protocols in order to provide a public service unmet—or unmeetable—by corporate interests. The Free Universal Construction Kit offers adapters between Lego, Duplo, Fischertechnik, Gears! Gears! Gears!, K’Nex, Krinkles (Bristle Blocks), Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, Zome, and Zoob. Our adapters can be downloaded from Thingiverse.com and other sharing sites as a set of 3D models in .STL format, suitable for reproduction by personal manufacturing devices like the Makerbot (an inexpensive, open-source 3D printer)."

Unlike Us: Adjacent Communities and the Adjacent Possible

Last week I attended Unlike Us, a conference exploring alternatives to social media monopolies. Held in Amsterdam and hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures, it brought together communities of academics, artists, designers, educators, and activists, who share an interest in developing alternative code and cultures around social media. The event proved identity affirming for me, as it brought together the disparate elements of my work practice, around subject matter I’m really interested in. I witnessed some excellent debates about the politics of centralization and decentralization; the politics of assuming different identities in social media networks; and, the problems with defining relationships in code.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook received a lot of attention. Anne Helmond’s and Carolin Gerlitz’s ‘Reworking the Fabric of the web: The Like Economy’ was a stand out presentation, as was Harry Halpin’s ‘Hidden History of the Like Button’. PhD researcher Frederick Borgesius also gave a fascinating talk about behavioral targeting and how advertisers are buying audiences through data profiles.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Unlike Us appealed to me. I have always really enjoyed events that bring together different groups that are adjacent in proximity but have few opportunities to cross-pollinate. I like these opportunities as they give me a glimpse of what Stuart Kaufmann calls the adjacent possible: “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

The adjacent possibilities that emerged from the gathering of these adjacent communities, involved new thinking, new software platforms, new ways of organising and new modes of coalition building. The different approaches people were taking to advance critical thinking and practices around social media alternatives – from software protocol development to digital literacy education to network theory – revealed a need in my mind to be involved in more initiatives that facilitate collaboration between adjacent communities.

CCi 2011 Conference Takeaways

Once again, the biannual conference of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCi) was a winner. The event took place in Sydney and was hosted by the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW. This was my fourth CCi conference and the one I have enjoyed the most. The point at which I am in my candidature, combined with excellent papers, stimulating emerging scholars workshops and enjoyable social activities all contributed to a great experience. My highlights included hearing Deb Verhoeven's 'Digital Production (research) methodologies', where she proposed that data sharing and interoperability become a research default standard and that we need to move to dynamic publishing where our publications respond to shifting data. I also enjoyed Jean Burgess' 'Computational Turn', where she urged us to think about computation as a core cultural dynamic, and echoed Richard Rogers' call to action to use the internet to diagnose social change as opposed to studying how people use the internet. Jason Potts' 'Innovation Commons' was also very interesting, and involved the proposition that there are two commons - the resource and information commons, where the latter involves knowledge about opportunities and market conditions. The session that explored the CCi narrative was also great, where Elspeth Proben and Kim Anderson delivered enlightening responses to questions about the future of the centre.

On a broader note, I feel very privileged to be part of the research culture that has been cultivated by the centre. Having the opportunity to be exposed to the work of media, communications and cultural studies scholars from other Australian universities as well as visiting international scholars is really awesome, and has been a key professional development outcome of my PhD candidature.