So the language in Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab bothered me a little bit. Particularly this section on page 6:

“The overwhelming interest was from students with relatively little technical expertise was only the first surprise. The next was the reason why they wanted to take the class. Virtually no one was doing this for research. Instead, they were motivated by the desire to make things they’d always wanted, but that didn’t exist … their inspiration wasn’t professional; it was personal … Starting out with skills more stuited to arts and crafts than advanced engineering, they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and building complete functioning systems.”

And again on page seven: “The learning process was driven by the demand for, rather than the supply of, knowledge. Once students mastered a new capability … they had a near-evangelical interest in showing others how to use it. As students needed new skills for they projects they would learn them from their peers and then in turn pass them on.”

Well, ain’t that all so very, very surprising, Mr. Gershenfeld.

Let’s break it down a bit: This is MIT. The fab lab was considered to be in advanced engineering, something students would use in research. While, the admitted student gender ratio is 1:1, 35 percent of engineering majors are women. Gershenfeld mentions “arts and crafts,” typically distaff. Inspiration was personal, not professional. There was much peer teaching, an arguably feminin(e/ized) process.

Hm. I’m sure surprised.

Gershenfeld’s examples, in this excerpt, are largely female: the students who built the portable screaming device and the alarm clock; the Boston child who made the circuit board; the Indian women who made the blocks for their embroidery. The analogy of the fab labs to microcredit, typically extended to women.

As Gershenfeld himself observed, “Girls (and boys) increasingly can do and make anything. Their futures are literally in their own hands.” (27)

The interesting part, for me, is how that connects this statement on page 8: “Such a future really represents a return to our industrial roots, before art was separated from artisans, when production was done for individuals rather than masses.”

As any midwife can tell you, professionalization is enacted patriarchy. Look at chefs. Look at clothing designers.

Perhaps computers have finally reached the bricolage part of the process beyond coding. It has finally become more interesting what one can do with them than the ways one can make them do what one wants. Certainly, the idea of repurposing established technologies to create anew was evident in the fab lab. That it was done by non-typical types of students (architects? oh my!) was, perhaps, subversive.

As Renate Mohrmann says in “Occupation: Woman Artist” in Feminist Aesthetics (Beacon Press: 1986. ed. Gisela Ecker.) the Commedia Dell’Arte invited women in through its need to portray lived reality, officiating women’s entree into the (male-defined) artistic profession. (153)

But as Mohrmann goes on to state, “The prevailing definition of art is inadequate as it is the product of a consensus of patriarchal definitions of art … an artist should also be defined as someone who decorates a house, a flat or a room, who lays the breakfast table pleasingly or who transforms a garden into a symphony of color.” (151)

Perhaps this is also because those sorts of (ahem) non-typical students have a different relationship to objects. (To give Gershenfeld credit, he lays his initial biases out for us to easily pick apart.) If, as Sherry Turkle (isn’t she an MIT professor?) talks about the object as companion and emotional bridge, we could think about objects, even ones we own and have not fabricated ourselves, as a relational interface with the world. Perhaps that’s why she also talks about “how the mental space between computer keyboard and screen creates a sense of erotic possibility” (8) in her introduction to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With” (MIT Press, 2007.)

Erotic, perhaps, in the sense of a (pro)creative act?

(Look at all those parentheses! And a slash up there! I’m so 90s! But this comment is meta! I’m so 00s!)

If, as Gershenfeld states, the world is a computer (4), we’re essentially the microprocessor and machine that fabricates our own mice.

Turkle also states, “We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of the thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.” (8)

Arguably, we explore our own identities through objects as well (personal branding) and increasingly use them as a lens, in a metaphoric sense and in a physical one (augmented reality) to explore the world itself and redefine our relationships with it.

Creating objects, then, is also creation of identity, a technologically superior and aided identity that is fulfilling in its creative potential and ultimately personally created.

And that brings us back to cyborgs.

[Unless we tip it all on its head: I’m not my own fabricator, either as a vessel for the species or the tools to sustain it. The world is not a computer. As it supports life and offers it the materiel to survive, it is inherently female. Typical then, for patriarchal science to view it as a male-invented computer. Life defies logic, and the universe defies order. Chaos, entropy: how like a woman.


*Virginia Woolfe, A Room of One’s Own

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