Critical making panel with DoIIIT lab – Part 2

by cindy lin

“The model of anarchist/DIY performativity aims to revitalize political action, though, not first by mapping out the better good life but by valuing political action as the action of not being worn out by politics.” (261-62)

— Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism


During our two-day workshop, the organizing committee of DoIIIT hosted a panel entitled “critical making & body politics” to better understand what the “critical” in critical making look like from different disciplines. We invited experts from technological, designerly and artistic fields—namely, Leah Buechley, developer of Lilypad Arduino and former MIT Media Lab professor, Sophia Brueckner, Assistant Professor at Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design (STAMPS), Nick Tobier, Professor at STAMPS and Erik Hofer, Clinical Assistant Professor and Chief Information Officer at School of Information, University of Michigan (UMSI). In this panel, we put forth three provocations:

  1. In your work, where does the ‘critical’ play out in your making/projects?
  2. As artists and designers, how does your work contribute to sociopolitical and cultural transformations?
  3. What do you envision as crucial for cultivating inclusivity in the spheres or communities that you work in?

We explored themes ranging from infrastructure and the scale it warrants to the marginalizing tendencies of contemporary DIY maker culture. All panelists responded strongly to how they redressed the ‘dark spots’ of DIY maker culture, where exclusionary impulses and uncritical techno-utopianism are animated. Our attachments to particular social values and commitments to DIY making demands that we slow down our claims as to what constitutes making, what it can do for us and others and who can participate in such work.

As the moderator of the panel, i was curious as to how panelists might begin to account for the ‘dark’ side of contemporary DIY tech work from different orientations. Tobier expressed his concerns about how crafting and hands-on work are often positioned as less sophisticated maker skills than digital fabrication and electronics tinkering. This difference, Tobier explicated, could only be read through the gendered histories of craftwork and textile making where such forms of expertise are coded as feminine. To begin to suggest what DIY making is required panelists to first account for crafting traditions and its contemporary remix to broaden the premise of what it makes to be a maker.

One could approach this by adopting what Brueckner calls “critical optimism,” a move away from an unconstructive criticism of technology towards a hopeful approach with the thoughtfulness necessary to guard against its misuse. Brueckner used science fiction stories to offer artists, designers and engineers a common language to communicate and adopt an extrapolative thought process with regards to the ethical development of future technologies. The advancement of digital fabrication, while rife with controversy, has allowed artists the opportunity to deploy alternative technologies within communities, in addition to only showing their work in a gallery context. Brueckner’s work departs from what Buechley later characterized as the naiveté common to Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurship culture. Its feel-good sentiments and world-changing rhetoric, as i see toxic to the political promises of DIY bottom-up expertise, hazard the value of collective action and political organizing in other forms (i can elaborate this in a later blog post). Of course, one can also ask: political for whom?

Panelists also foregrounded how scale matters when thinking with and through the infrastructures that enable the practice of DIY making. Hofer discussed how labor is rendered invisible in the maintenance of infrastructure, whether it be knowledge, electricity, water, transportation, cloud data and so on. This is especially so when infrastructure ‘scales up’ to support the production, circulation and access to specific resources. Consider how mass manufacturing of electronic kits in Shenzhen, China is interdependent on the extraction of tantalum in eastern Congo. This process of scaling up, Hofer argues, reveals infrastructure’s “messiness”. Drawing attention to the clunky nature of infrastructure brings into focus how any attempt to nest competing scales of knowledge-making and tech production might disrupt DIY making’s wholeness, legibility and mobility. How might we think differently about DIY making had we attend to where and how Makey-makey and other maker educational kits were being produced? If we had exhausted the spectacle of large-scale maker faires to only notice the precarious labor of aspiring techpreneurs in Jakarta, Indonesia? What is at stake when in Tobier’s words, wasteful plastics are churned out in the name of “rapid prototyping”?

Where education is concerned, panelists are also interested in how DIY making has unsettled the division between theory and praxis. Panelists have interweaved their academic concerns with public outreach through a series of platforms, such as workshops, exhibitions and talks. Their work resembles what Matt Ratto (2011) calls “critical making” – material-oriented engagement that aspires to bridge the gap between “creative physical and conceptual exploration” (252). Critical making demands that panelists “care for” the societal issue at hand by mapping theoretical concerns with material work, albeit at risk of its own translation mishaps. Perhaps Buechley’s designerly transformation of the stiff and forbidding circuit board to the open-source Lilypad board begins the project of unearthing gendered participation in electronics tinkering. The Lilypad also makes malleable our technological interactions with different interfaces and mediums, opening up possible recombinations of different skill sets such as knitting with electronics. Buechley, along with the other panelists’ projects, enact diverse modes of making to take us away from the elusive black-boxes of Technology (with a capital T). It is exactly in this multiple where we can potentially locate moments of care, of an otherwise and to live on.

prepping, with many others (Jasmine, Chuan-che, Licia, Shriti, Yu-Jen), for crit making workshop in DOIIIT lab

Special credits to Leah BuechleySophia Brueckner, Nick Tobier, and Erik Hofer for making the necessary adjustments, edits and guidance for this blog post.

Works Cited

Ratto, Matt. “Critical making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life.” The Information Society 27.4 (2011): 252-260.

Critical making workshop with DoIIIT lab – Part 1

By Seyram Avle

critical making DoIIIT
critical making DoIIIT

20161018_104920The Designers of Interactive, Intelligent, Internet of Things (DoIIIT) is a group of faculty and students at the University of Michigan who are “passionate about interactive, intelligent and Internet of things (IoT)”. Two members of the tcm research collective are founding members of this group (Silvia Lindnter is one of the faculty sponsors, Cindy Lin is on the programing board of PhD students).

Last week (Oct 17 -18) they hosted a two-day workshop on critical making and body politics, with participation from largely MSI and Phd students in UMSI and a panel including Leah Buechley (creator of the LilyPad Arduino and former MIT professor), Sophia Brueckner (Assistant professor at the Stamps school of art & design and also previously at MIT), Erik Hofer (UMSI’s CIO and a clinical assistant professor) as well as Nick Tobier (Professor at Stamps and founder of a Detroit makerspace).

The workshop began with an introduction of key concepts in critical making and the theme of body politics to participants. Jasmine Jones did a great job of underscoring how objects made from a critical making perspective are often speculative and meant to provoke reflection on a key idea. This was emphasized during the segment of the workshop in which teams came up with a project. Prior to these teams being formed, there were discussions (zip.crit) about provocative techs (mostly wearables eg. digitsole, Samsung gear S2, etc). breakout discussions were on body politics and 1) health 2) culture 3) bio-hacking and 4) personal informatics.

This sort of active group engagement went on throughout the workshop. Group projects were decided by people teaming up projects they had co-signed during a brainstorming session. My group, made up of 2 MSI students and 2 postdocs, created a wearable that is to share emotion at a distance. One of the assumptions we were taking aim at is the ubiquity and constant nature of communication notifications. We also wanted to question the idea whether emotion can be communicated effectively through technologies. Our prototype used a laser cut wood pendant with a pressure sensor that sends a signal to trigger some activity over the internet to a device elsewhere with a tactile component. We also made a heart shaped brooch with paper and an led light based on the same idea. We wanted a wearable that the user could decide when to use and hence store information about the user instead of constantly tracking. On the output end, the options include a bubble blower, lava lamp or anything else that could give show that whoever it was connected to on the wearable end had thought about them and wanted to share an emotion. We deliberately left it ambiguous to get people thinking about what kind of emotion was being communicated. So for example, if I saw a cute puppy that I think my nephew would love, I can push the pendant and a bubble blower in his parent’s living room would send out bubbles that he can run around the room chasing after. We wanted a fixed output to again counter the constant notification and communication we have come to expect with mobile phones and other wearables.

Other groups had similar emotion sharing projects. One signaled by LED lights on sunglasses if a person was open to talking to someone. One really cool one wanted to push the idea that death is a finality and created a gizmo that essentially allows the living to visit the places a recently passed person had visited. The device is carried on the living, vibrates when they get to where the dead had been and they get to see through a small screen videos/pictures of the person.

Overall, this was a fun workshop with a range of designers and techies quite open to the possibilities of critical making. I’m joining the DoIIIT studio to get my hands dirty with making and hacking, something I think will be useful for my next round of fieldwork.

Cindy will provide a more nuanced review of the workshop panel as its moderator and one of the organizers of the workshop in part 2 of this review.

Till then,


On tech production/innovation in the global south and ICTD research*

By Seyram Avle

*This is an edited version of a short talk (less than 10 minutes if I remember correctly) that I gave at a joint University of Michigan and Michigan State University mini-symposium on ICTD on October 30, 2015  about the upcoming ICTD conference to be held in June in Ann Arbor (I’m the program committee). I wanted to talk about bringing more of what tech industries in developing countries are doing into conversation with ICTD research and the Q & A session somewhat accomplished that, in that it focused on shedding more light on the industry in Ghana with a room full of ICTD researchers… I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with them and others who will be at the conference. Begins after the jump.

**Image from the office of Africa’s Talking (Nairobi, Kenya)

I’ve been thinking about the production culture and industry evolving around ICTs in places like Ghana. Production culture is about the practices, beliefs and situated actions targeted at designing, building, and distributing ICTS in the country. Industry logics speak to the broader political economy (both local and global) that impact how the collection of firms, individuals etc. that make up the industry go about building, designing, distributing ICT products, both software and hardware.

Let’s think of ICTD as a field is writing a history of technology in the global south. Is it doing it by coming at it from a place of lack/want, on what external agents bring in and neglecting much of what is already happening? We have a definition of what innovation is and what design looks like in part due to interdisciplinary work done in fields such as HCI and design, documenting, questioning, and theorizing tech developments in silicon valley, research hand national labs, the military, etc. in the US and other western contexts. On the other hand, a lot of the research from the south is about how agents from outside that group think about what is missing and what to add, what they need, and less so about what may already be happening outside of the immediate area of interest. As a group of researchers concerned with the present and future well being of fellow humans in less privileged societies, I think we will be shortchanging the very group we seek to help if the record we leave posterity is that of mostly failed projects and funder agency ego stroking.

In thinking through my own work, one way that an explicit focus on industry can work its way into ICTD’s mandate is to document, make sense, and theorize what is already taking place in the global south. That is, for us to to look more closely at where design and innovations are already happening in situ. It requires a shifting of lens, repositioning of self, and rethinking the questions we ask. For me, that means moving from a position in which “my work is development related to the extent that it resides in a developing country” to more of a “my work is development related because it reflects how people living in a developing country, are utilizing what is around them, creating and tapping into networks, and seriously building things for their own societies”.

I’ll give an example. I went to Ghana to speak to a range of actors in what is still a growing tech industry, surveyed some more after I returned, and basically tried to make sense of who is doing what, why, and how they are doing it. I interviewed CEOs of very established, multinational but Ghana founded and based tech firms as well as recent college grads armed only with an idea and generalized basic tech skills. My goal was to document, understand, and make sense of what to me was an industry with its own peculiarities in its social, cultural, economic and political milieu. Part of the motivation then, and still is, that we can’t challenge dominant notions and discourses on what design is, what it looks like if we have little to compare it to. There’s work from China’s manufacturing sector (for instance Silvia Lindtner et al’s work) challenging that but there’s still a lot of work left to move the discourse of design and technology innovation forward towards a multiplicity of contexts the way user appropriation work has done. It’s still very easy to slip into claiming that all/most innovation comes from Silicon Valley (the “center” in the center-periphery narratives) and diffuses elsewhere. Switching where we begin the work is how I’ve been looking at it.

My informants answered a range of questions about their backgrounds, interest, motivations for doing technology, what products and services there were building, what their business strategies were, etc. I didn’t ask about development or ICTD. The questions were framed as more oriented towards business and the economy, the role of the government in supporting industry, etc. I wasn’t planning an intervention or thinking about what development means.

One key theme that emerged that struck me, was the ways that technology entrepreneurship was framed. It was presented to me as a set of practices, as an identity, and as an economic position, al of which do different kinds of work. One kind of work was the aspirational – the tech entrepreneur is a highly valued and valorized identity that new entrants into the market aimed at. Some of the people mentioned were the likes of Bill Gates, others were Herman Chinery-Hesse, one of the first Ghanaians to build a tech company, Patrick Awuah (founder of Ashesi University), people in Ghana building things they wanted to emulate. If we think about this through the lens that Kentaro Toyama (author of Geek Heresy) has recently been talking about, i.e. getting at people’s needs and aspirations, and then seeing how we can help with the resources we have, I think we can do development work by asking what is going on in industry by looking at the goals and aspirations, and building on from there.

Another theme from the Ghana work was how the practice of design and its purposes were framed. There was a certain instrumental functionality applied to what these technologists were building. One was the requirement that what they designed filled a need, not just as a market function, i.e. “there’s this need and I’m only providing a business response”. It was often framed within a broader need, as one step towards a bigger problem. So, the person building software to help process insurance claims, was addressing a very local (but also global south) challenge of hospital record keeping. The one building games was targeting a generation of Africans who were absent in a particular space – gaming – but also towards building a company that trained people to think across story telling, engineering, computer science, English majors, etc. to build a dynamic system. [I talk about some of this in a paper (with Silvia) accepted for the upcoming CHI conference]

We could take a skeptical view and say “oh Silicon Valley techies also say they want to change the world”. However it won’t be a helpful view and doesn’t really advance the conversation. Those identifying peculiar needs from the sample I’m drawing from weren’t necessarily trying to save the world. They didn’t present idyllic view of some techno utopia to come; which isn’t to say those trying, say, through social enterprises are. I’m interpreting this as a somewhat pragmatic response of making use of what is available in a resource-constrained environment and innovating around that challenge, understanding that some challenges are things they cannot directly change. The innovation might be in the training they do of recent university grads, or it might be allowing people to pay utility bills via multiple platforms through the ubiquitous mobile phone, leaving utility provision to others skilled at providing that. But the applications are not being built just for smart phones; many targeted ‘dumb ones, basic java enabled ones… across the spectrum of phones available and users, not just rich not just poor but both plus the growing middle class.

So, while we are looking for those vulnerable populations or the ever present farmer and fisherman in need of our interventions, we can also look for who in the local market is already thinking about this farmer and building something that we can add on. In fact, there are more than a couple that were working (for e.g. Farmable, Esoko, etc), some of which are profitable while still serving a critical need for the poor (who make up the majority of customers in some cases). The market isn’t inherently evil. It has its distortions but it can be useful for thinking about collaborating instead of starting whole new projects that cannot scale outside the particular context we implement them in. Participatory design for instance gets at some of this. Studying what the local industry is already doing, then should also be fulfilling some of the ‘development mandate’ in perhaps more sustainable ways.

Identity, Anonymity, and Appropriation on a Location-Based App for Queer Men

by Jean Hardy

On February 27, I will be attending a workshop as part of the 19th ACM conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. The workshop, titled “Collaborative Appropriation: How couples, teams, groups and communities adapt and adopt technologies,” brings together researchers from North America and Europe to tackle this topic.

Paul Dourish describes appropriation as “making use of the technology for purposes beyond those for which it was originally designed, or to serve new ends” (p. 2, 2003). While a small amount of literature has looked at how groups of people appropriate technology for new uses (Balka & Wagner, 2006; Draxler & Stevens, 2011), this literature focuses primarily on appropriation happening among people who already know each other. My position paper, titled “A Case Study of Appropriation Diffusion in a Semi-Anonymous Network,” uses Scruff, a location-based mobile application for gay, bisexual, and queer men, to examine how appropriation works among a network of people who are largely anonymous and/or unknown to each other. This paper was informed by an interview study I performed of rural Scruff users in Michigan, my experience as a Scruff user since 2010, and previous conversations with Mark Handel (a UMSI PhD alumni).

I picked one particular appropriation, the inclusion of a plus-sign (+) into a user’s profile name, as my case. When Scruff was first developed, the iTunes App Store had rigid guidelines that restricted material related to sexuality. These guidelines, among other things, made it so profile fields related to HIV-status were unable to be incorporated into user profiles. To circumvent this restriction, HIV-positive (HIV+) users of Scruff started adding a + into their user names. The plus-sign was a way for these men to disclose their HIV-status before being contacted by other users who may not be interested in having sexual relationships with HIV+ men.

This paper (which you can read here) uses Everett Rogers’s concept of diffusion of innovation to model how the + appropriation may have spread through user networks on Scruff. I also use Rogers’s concept of “re-inventions” to look at how similar appropriations were spun off of the + appropriation. Questions I have unanswered, and look forward to discussing at the workshop, include:

  • Can appropriation ever be truly collaborative, or is it ultimately just individual appropriations that diffuse through a network or group?
  • Is designing for appropriation antithetical to the act of appropriation?
  • How do designers act on appropriations of their tools?

With that last question, I have a few preliminary thoughts. In the case of Scruff, recent revisions to the App Store have made it so developers at SCRUFF could incorporate new profile fields that allow users to disclose sexual information (including HIV-status). This design changes ways in which people disclose their HIV-status but doesn’t empower people to have conversations about stigma in the same way that the appropriation might have. Additionally, I would argue that the inclusion of new designs to address appropriations have created new norms of disclosure that may create bias against those HIV+ users who don’t want to publicly disclose their HIV-status.

If you have any questions or feedback about the paper, I can be reached at jkhardy (at) umich (dot) edu. Otherwise, y’all will hear from me again with a CSCW 2016 report-back in March!

Size Matters: Hackathons & Burns

by Melissa Weintraub

2015 was different. I was introduced to maker communities, immersing myself in a creators’ cooperative home, hackathons and Burning Man events. These spaces celebrate creativity, giving rise to art and technology that would otherwise be unimaginable. The scale of these gatherings shapes this creative culture and ultimately the creations. I noticed that artistic vision and individuality was lost (or harder to come by) at large-scale maker gatherings. The size of a community warps the intent of production.

AfrikaBurn, a regional Burning Man event in South Africa differed dramatically from Burning Man. AfrikaBurn’s Tankwa Town is home to 10,000 creators primarily from South Africa, while Burning Man’s 70,000 creators travel from all corners of the world to build the temporary Black Rock City.

Burners build a city in the desert, joining together and contributing to a shared space. The shared ethos and collective mission integrate culture and labor. Frank Turner explains, “gifts can come back to participants not as money, but as reputation, artistic pleasure or friendship – or all three.”  This gifting economy allows for creativity to come to life in beautiful forms, from a metal fire-breathing serpent on wheels to a cuddle puddle in a seemingly uninhabitable desert.

Burning Man didn’t seem to be particularly representative of Reno, Nevada or any part of America for that matter. Black Rock City felt outside the realm of space. Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once described the Sabbath as “a cathedral in time rather that in space”, as its ethos transform invisible time into a seemingly physical space. Similarly the Burning Man ethos have created a spaceless time that has been replicated across the globe. Yet no two burns are the same, even on the same soil, they differ dramatically year to year. What primarily shapes the burn is not the physical space, but rather the magnitude of the gathering.

Similarly at hackathons, participants join engineers, designers and creators to build a functional piece of hardware or software in 72 hours. Some hackathons have themes aimed at solving a community-facing problem. Here too, participants join in a shared commons, gift in the spirit of social service, and celebrate their creations amongst the community.

The rise in popularity of hackathons has also created a similar boundless space, a cultural movement quickly gaining popularity across the world. It too has been replicated in smaller-scale forms. At Shift, thirty undergraduate students live, work and co-create. Members come together to explore their curiosities—from using a car engine to power an espresso machine to building an online community to support mental health.

At hackathons, participants win prizes while networking with participants, mentors and corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsors coerce hackers into building products to their liking. It’s harder to really get to know the other hackers, their interests and passions when we’re distracted by the shiny awards, prizes and tremendous opportunities for career advancement. Shift creators are building for no one but themselves, and have the endless support and hands of their fellow peers. The same hackathon ethos of production permeate Shift, without the influence and pressure of judges and awards. The level of interaction is much more intimate and personal, each member wanting to help in the success of their peer.

One afternoon at Burning Man, I was checking out a sculpture and noticed a man bent over beside it with tools in his hands. When I asked him if he was the artist, he simply said he was just a repair-man attending to a problem. He assured me that he had no artistic vision behind the piece and continued rewiring the circuit. I felt a little disappointed. Where was the artist who built this? At AfrikaBurn, I discovered a peaceful temple-like space, framed by barely-there canvas walls which blew with the wind. I would regularly come to this spot to clear my mind. Once, a woman took a seat beside me and we shared a lovely conversation. I soon discovered that she was the artist who built that sacred space. She told me that her artistic vision actualized upon seeing me interact with her art. I felt completely entranced within that canvas pop-up temple.

While there are no official winners at Burning Man, some of the big art projects cost a couple hundred thousand dollars, consequently receiving considerable recognition and fame.  This exposure allows artists to network with the community without shaking any hands or passing out business cards, ultimately pushing their artistic pursuits forward.

The individuality and intent of production is seemingly lost at large-scale maker gatherings. Creativity is stifled in the process of pleasing others. Smaller scale, regional events like AfrikaBurn and Shift allow participants to interact, co-create and understand the visions of their partners. In the larger events, these interactions are lost, as creators are more distracted. Nevertheless, this pervasive support and celebration of creativity drives production and connects creators, and that is a tremendous feat in itself.

From the Field: Observations on tech production & innovation in Ghana – Part 1

By Seyram Avle

I’m back in Ghana to continue fieldwork I started in 2012 – documenting & making sense of technology and new media production  [see here, here, and here for published work on this]. This is the end of my third week, and in that time, I’ve (briefly) visited two co-working spaces in the city, attended a couple of industry events, and spoken to some tech entrepreneurs. Given the limited time and data so far, my observations should be not be interpreted as sweeping claims about technology production/entrepreneurship in Ghana as a whole. Kumasi, another major city, has its own stuff going, as does Takoradi which now apparently has a fablab and hosts a maker group (more on that later). These are just some things that are striking based on what I saw in 2012 and what I’m observing this time around. I expect that some of these impressions will change as I spend more time with a couple of companies and talk more to the different actors in the tech and new media sectors.

So, what’s changed since 2012?

New and varied players

  1. Several new companies have emerged, still largely software based. However, many of these companies are service providers first, tech companies second; i.e. lots of tech enabled services like food/grocery delivery, banking, e-commerce, etc. serving both local and diaspora based Ghanaians.
  2. Some of the startups from 2012 have been acquired by foreign entities (E.g. ClaimSync, now part of Genkey, Saya is now part of Kirusa) and many have evolved in what service/product they deliver.
  3.  The school/Incubator (MEST) that some of those companies came out of has refashioned into a “school and incubator for African startups” – showing a broader continent wide focus that speaks a lot about its growth in the last few years.
  4.  There are two additional incubators/hubs in the city (iSpace and Impact Hub (formerly Hub Accra) that house a number of startups while doubling as co-working spaces.
  5. Most, if not all, of the telecom operators now offer some sort of mobile money (See Airtel Money, Vodafone Money, Tigo Cash, etc.) that are either competing or working with companies like MPower, expressPay, etc. Likewise banks are offering mobile services for their customers, e.g. GT mobile, all showing how pervasive mobile based products are in the fin tech sector.
  6. National aid/development actors (eg. USAID, DANIDA, etc) are getting in on the action by directly funding companies or initiatives, reminding me of just how entrenched the NGO infrastructure is in Ghana and Africa in general. I had an interesting conversation about the implications of this shift and keeping my fingers crossed that my interlocutor will write a neat post about it that we can share here and elsewhere.
  7. Chinese technology in the form of user products have become a formidable force in the marketplace. Huawei and Tecno phones are competitively priced for both the middle class and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Samsung and Apple are still the high end desired products but those other two are not to be sneezed at in their higher end lines. There appears to also be some more collaboration between Chinese firms and Ghanaian partners, not just in phones but across different industries. (The China angle is a whole other post that will come later).
  8. Women technologists are more visible. I don’t know for sure if there are more women moving into tech related endeavors or some other broader issue. What I do know is that I’m looking out more for more women techies (especially at the C-level (i.e. CEO/CTO, etc) and thus seeing more of them.  I only managed to speak to 4 women tech CEOs compared to 14 men (as a subset of the larger group of people I spoke to) in 2012.  I’ve since met or heard of a few others at that C-level or other positions of power, with many more at various levels. Just take a look at Women in Tech Africa, and see for yourself. You can search by country under “meet amazing women in tech”.

Innovation is a keyword

In 2012, I was very much focused on technology entrepreneurship and my research questions were centered around the activities happening in that space. I’m following up this year but I’m also interested in the term ‘innovation’ and what it means to the people using it, what my own understanding of the word is, what extant literature both from the global north and south say about it, and what my fieldwork presents for empirical evidence. At iSpace, it was explained to me that the ‘i’ there is for innovation and not information or information technology as some might think. Indeed, not all the companies there are IT based (e.g. ZaaCoal, a green energy from waste start up). While hanging out there, I run into folks from a company that recycle plastic into cool looking bags [Trashy bags]. Impact Hub also has non-tech companies (e.g. Raffia) and one of the co-founders spoke of ‘innovation funding’. Unlike many of the tech hubs around Africa, these spaces have broadened the narrative beyond information technologies; and, while entrepreneurship is still privileged, the path is not predetermined to be a tech focused solution or idea.

Last week I purchased an ‘emergency fan’ designed by a Ghanaian and manufactured by a Chinese company and then shipped back to Ghana. This multifunction device (labeled Ferddy King (and no, that’s not a typo)), like the power bank phone, is a response to the ongoing electricity crisis in the country (dubbed ‘dumsor’ from the Akan phrase for ‘turn it off, turn it on’). This thing has a rotating fan, a fairly large LED light, a radio tuner, USB port for an MP3 player and another to charge your phone, and a tiny remote control for the audio components. Its  battery is charged by A/C power but lasts for more than 10 hours thereafter.  The few people who saw me using it all expressed surprise at the revelation that the design and specs originated from within the country. Those encounters reminded me that its easy to miss innovation because we’re used to seeing a specific kind from a specific place and don’t open our eyes to possibilities outside of those places. Moreover, the mix of design, manufacture and distribution factors around this device underscore the new forms of collaboration that are emerging in and outside Ghana, both in terms of technology and other forms of production.

In my next post, I’ll talk some more about innovation and what it’s looking like in the info tech space specifically and perhaps talk a bit about how new partnerships and collaborations are emerging with China in that area in Ghana.






Hope in Inquiry: A reflection on 4S 40th Annual Meeting

by Cindy Lin

4S 40th Annual Meeting was held from 11-14 November 2015 at Denver, Colorado. I will highlight some of the crucial moments during the conference that relate to both my research interests as well as other insightful moments in this short reflection of particular panels and informal conversations I have participated in.

In this conference, I presented “(Un)making Indonesia: Local Particularities of Grassroots Technological Production in Hackerspace” as part of the (incidental) chairing of a panel called “Hackerspaces and Makerspaces” on 11/14, Saturday. I used Anna L. Tsing’s metaphor of friction[1] to discuss the disruptions and opportunities experienced by Lifepatch, a citizen laboratory and hackerspace invested in the intersections of art, science and technology to produce do-it-yourself (DIY) tools and platforms which critically respond to local political and socioenvironmental problems. The metaphor, friction, allows me to elucidate the vulnerable yet flourishing encounters they have productively engaged with in transnational projects and collaborations.

While many panellists acknowledge the plural meaning of making today, there are discussions which surround the kinds of expertise that can and should enter these circles to write about personal fabrication. Some of the more memorable discussions by Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars, designers and engineers presenting at 4S are questions surrounding who has the right to write about maker culture, what counts as being a maker and how is making articulated in different cultural and socioeconomic contexts.  Other discussions went so far as to argue that STS scholars might have to learn how to ‘make’ in order to write about maker culture. I vehemently believe that being able to prototype with 3D printers does not make one any better of a researcher about maker culture if he or she is unable to articulate their stance clearly and with nuance.

The second day (11/12) of the 4S conference started out with an invigorating panel session on ‘Translational STS: From Seeing to Doing/Making/Changing’. I was most intrigued by James W. Malatiza’s[2] presentation “Bodymancy: STS as a Link between Bodyhackers and the Medical Community” and his explication of the relationship between individuals who are biomodification practitioners and their relationships with medical practitioners and professionals. Malatiza attempts to bring the concept of “hyperobjects” by Timothy Morton[3] in the conversation of a modified body, showing how sensitivity to the various invisible viscosity and stickiness of micro-elements such as radio waves are made more apparent to the modified body.

Since biohacking is one of my main research and practice interest, “Joining Reference and Representation – Citizen Science as Resistance Practice” on 11/13 also excited me with the panel’s focus on the politics of digital mapping, actionable science, and the meeting of various domain expertise. I was most taken by Max Liboiron’s[4] “Charismatic Data in Citizen Science Environmental Monitoring” where Liboiron discusses the potency of visualisation when tackling representation of scientific data. From campaign images by large non-governmental environmental organization such as Greenpeace to the milder forms of microscopic scientific visualisation, Liboiron warns against particular kinds of charismatic data which “can get you in to trouble”. In other words, scientific representations can be sometimes, misconstruing and edgy.

In the last panel that I have attended “Resistant Matter: Histories, Politics and Science of Multispecies Entanglements,” one of the panellist, Andrea Nunez Casal[5] in “Impacted Immunities: Anthropocene Bodies and Environments in Microbiome Research” discusses how the framework of bio-inequalities is crucial for explaining how themes such as geopolitics, southern cultures and antibiotics is still present in the politics of colonial science practised in the global south. Where state borders and scientific regulations are relaxed in southern cities, capitalism encroaches on the vulnerability of biosoverignity in these sites as they clamour for more “un-impacted” and “isolated” genetic samples for the production of antibiotics. It might be useful here to recall how biosovereignty was conceived in discourse during the H5N1 Influenza outbreak (2005-2013) when World Health Organisation (WHO) shared viral samples from Indonesia to in turn, encourage the fabrication of patented and unaffordable vaccines back to infected Indonesians.

But what resonated throughout the immense bleakness of some of the unresolved, Janus-faced complications of science and technology discussed, scrutinised, and dissected during 4S is the trope of “hope” in society. Perhaps it was the optimism driven by Denver’s frothy beer or the snow-capped hills that bring forth new ways of understanding my own embeddedness in other kinds of ecologies, but I was inclined to think about micro-acts of resistance and desires for new alliances and opportunities. Steven J. Jackson[6] also discussed the trope, “hope” as resonant throughout the panellists’ presentations in “Contested Spaces of Innovation: Reimagining Postcolonial Geographies”. I am, too, fully taken by this proposition and hope to redeem Hope as a way to think about personal fabrication in periphery sites.

I see in my field sites – Detroit, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Jakarta, Bandung – an immense sense of Hope in hackerspaces and makerspaces. While one may easily associate the “Hope” project with blind optimism, naïveté, and the uncritical, I see it as a project that exceeds beyond such loaded and terribly misunderstood words. Look beyond the criticisms towards urban city planning, educational policies and neoliberalism, there isn’t a murky vision of loathsome excitement but a hope which scares those who remain hopelessly cynical. Hope does not smear away differences. Instead, Hope revels in the tiny instances of possible shifts towards aggregates of productive misinterpretations and awkwardness so that we can better understand how we might like to move forward. However gingerly.

I will quote here a sentence from Cultural Anthropology’s “Reclaiming Hope” by Eben Kirksey and Tate LeFevre,

While hopes can indeed have toxic properties, optimistic dreams also have the indeterminate qualities of the pharmakon—a substance capable of acting as both poison and remedy depending on the dose, the circumstances, and the context (Stengers 2010, 29).[7]

I will be at the 3rd Urban Social Forum organised this December 19, 2016 in Surabaya, Indonesia where I will watch, listen and learn from my interlocutors and other grassroots collectives, non-governmental organisations and start-ups from Indonesia and other parts of the world. Perhaps we will relish in pharmakon one more time.
3rd Urban Social Forum at Surabaya, Indonesia















Written by Cindy Lin




3rd Urban Social Forum:


[1] Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

[2] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton University Press, 2005.

[3] Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. 2013.

[4] Assistant Professor in Sociology and Environmental Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland

[5] MPhil/PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London

[6] Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University

[7] See authors’ introduction in “Reclaiming Hope” issued online in the journal, Cultural Anthropology

Announcement: Workshop at Exhibition ‘Social Glitch’

by Stefanie Wuschitz

When: November 27, 2015: 15.00 – 20.00

Where: Vienna, Kunstraum Niederösterreich


In the 1960s, the Indonesian president Suharto initiated the radical prosecution of communist tendencies within the young nation-state. ‘Gerwani’ was a feminist movement in Indonesia that suffered tremendously under this prosecution.

However, we can still find traces of this movement if we look at the rich variety of women groups today. They organize and care for each other locally and celebrate DIY and DIWO practices.

We took interviews that raise the question in how far today’s strong growing DIY (Do It Yourself) and DIWO (Do It With Others) culture is built upon and influenced by these early, self-organized groups.

During our NENEK PROJECT – December 2014 until March 2015 – we tried to collect technologies, tricks and experiences of the generation of women, born between 1934 and 1954. The workshop aims to mediate DIY and DIWO practices we learned from our interview partners – mothers of actors in the contemporary DIY and DIWO scene.









Based on interviews with:

Ibu Rini Astuti Nasution, Ibu Emirita AryatiIbu, Ibu Wahyuni Reksoatmodjo, Ibu Martizawari, Ibu Sumini Soeprapto, Ibu Theresia Pasaribu, Ibu Rukiyati, Ibu Syamsuri

THE NENEK PROJECT is a collaboration among Lifepatch [ID], Cindy Lin Kaiying [SG] and Stefanie Wuschitz [AT].

Made possible by:


Mass Making in China: Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Mindset

OR: “The opportunity of the majority to realize a life-long dream”
 –Wan Gang 万钢, Minister of Science and Technology, PRC, Oct 27, 2015

by Silvia Lindtner

October 27-28, 2015, Shanghai held its 8th Pujiang Innovation Forum 浦江创新论坛, focused on “communicating innovation strategies” and a global perspective on innovation in China today. Jeff Ding 丁峻峰 from Tongji University 同济大学 invited me to participate as a speaker in one of the Forum’s sessions on 创客和社会革新 (maker and social innovation/social impact) and talk about the diverse cultures of making and open manufacturing I have been studying in China since 2010 (click here for more info about my research). Some of the other invited speakers were people, from both China and abroad, who had been instrumental to what is now often characterized as “the global maker movement:” David Li, Mitch Altman, Thomas Diez, John Klein, Memet Unsal, Hyun Park, Chen Zhengxiang, Fiona Ching, Ricky Ye, Leo Lee, Justin Wang, and Guo Qiang. This was the first time a “maker perspective” was included in the Pujiang Innovation Forum, as such constituting a unique moment to witness how policy makers, government officials, educators, individual makers and entrepreneurs come together today to discuss how they envision innovation, entrepreneurship and making in and beyond China.

While the Forum has been held in Shanghai since 2008, its topic has only this year become a central concern to other local governments all over China; in January 2015, prime minister Li Keqiang 李克强 visited a local maker space Chaihuo 柴火 in Shenzhen, in the South of China. At Chaihuo, the premier met some of China’s makers, who had turned their experiments with open source hardware and DIY maker tools into productive businesses and flourishing companies by partnering with Shenzhen’s unique open manufacturing ecosystem (see more of my writing on this topic here and here). Soon after his visit with makers in China’s manufacturing capital, Li Keqiang announced a new national initiative called “mass makerspace” 众创空间, followed by a series of policies entitled大众创业 and万众创新, which translate loosely into mass innovation and mass entrepreneurship. The underlying vision – as articulated in numerous government speeches, texts and also at the Pujiang Innovation Forum – is that entrepreneurship will help democratize innovation, technology and scientific advances beyond a set of privileged few – the “mass” in mass innovation and mass entrepreneurship, in other words, stands for the goal to cultivate a broader mindset of entrepreneurship and mobilize many – if not masses of – people in China to start-up their own businesses.

Making and open source hardware tinkering are considered one of the key mechanism to help cultivate this new attitude of what the brochure of the Innovation Forum called “self making” and “self entrepreneurship.” In his opening speech at the Forum, Wan Gan 万钢, Minister of Science and Technology, described this as:

“This is part of the new normal; we need to better transfer academic research into commercial products; science should serve our economy. And we need to better promote the great scientific achievements of China and let them be known all over the world… we have a new technology revolution, which will help restructure old patterns… open source and open hardware can help realize this innovation strategy. We encourage crowdsourcing and mass entrepreneurship in society so that resources are better distributed… It’s the opportunity of the majority, rather than just the privilege of the few, to realize a life long dream.”

The Chinese term for maker 创客is not an invention by the government, but was coined by China’s makers themselves, when back in 2012 they organized China’s first international maker event: the Maker Carnival. They chose the term to distinguish their work from the more negative 黑客 or hacker – 创客 has the benefit to connote related words such as 创新 (innovation), 创业 (start-up a business), and 创意 (creativity). The character 创 features in all of these words and so the meaning of 创客 itself is flexible and can be used in a variety of ways.

Since the announcement of China’s mass makerspace initiative, funding has been made available to local governments across regions to set up makerspaces, incubators, and fablabs. Middle and high schools, universities, but also companies and somewhat ironically factories have opened up such new spaces. The goal is not only to train the next generation of entrepreneurs, but also upgrade traditional manufacturing and industrial production companies through digital technology, innovative thinking and automation, which is more widely known as the “InternetPlus” 互联网+or “Industry 4.0” initiative, that has also rolled out in Europe. What the Forum brought home was how making in China currently functions as a strategy to both upgrade old industries and cultivate a mindset of entrepreneurship. This move does not come from nowhere. Media coverage on China over the last months, especially in the US, has heavily centered on shifts in the Chinese economy, with its rapid growth slowing and previous pillars of the economy such as construction and manufacturing responding accordingly. The cultivation of an entrepreneur mindset is seen as a central strategy to address these shifts in the economy. In particular, the government fears high unemployment rates (especially amongst college graduates) and social instability. The excitement that making has generated in China is envisioned to be productively morphed into alternative occupations for the passionate and self-driven members of Chinese society, as was addressed in numerous talks at the Pujiang Innovation Forum.

The big unanswered question that was haunting the grand conference halls with their dark wooden panels and golden ornaments was who will in practice benefit from the considerable amount of resources currently distributed in order to enable this mass maker entrepreneurship. In many ways, the opening up of makerspaces all over the country and the upgrading of old industries reminds considerably of a policy initiative that was similarly aimed at transcending China’s reliance on manufacturing and transform the country from “made in” to “created in:” China’s creative industry policy, which since China’s entry into the WTO 2001 has concrete material manifestations such as the urban redesign, most prominent in Shanghai, of old factories and industrial buildings into creative industry parks, trendy design and art boutiques and galleries. To which degree, I kept wondering, is the recent mass makerspace initiative just a new, fresher name for China’s creative industry initiatives that did not lead to the economic success envisioned by its policy makers? Is the build-up of maker spaces all over China at risk to just become one of China’s many urban construction projects that benefit the already wealthy?

One of the big complaints about the creative industry clusters was that, while aimed at boosting creativity, many of the artists, freelancers, and entrepreneurs who would have greatly benefit could not afford the high rent the creative industry parks ended up charging. When the government talked about creativity back then, it mostly referred to established firms including for instance international corporations, film and animation studies, and architecture firms – which were the ones that ended up occupying most of the creative industry clusters in Shanghai, for instance. Those starting out their own ventures were rarely supported. This appears to be different now: the government specifically emphasizes the importance to move beyond supporting the selected few on the top. And yet, in its implementation, we see very little change. Who is considered a maker and innovator remains limited in ways similar to how creativity was construed back at the turn of the century: While makers from all over the world travel to China to learn from China’s expert makers in factories, street shops and electronic markets, the official rhetoric – even when it comes to making – portrays China as “lagging  behind the US.”  China looks – once again – towards the West as a model (and the US in particular), with making being understood through the lens of venture capital, Silicon Valley start-up culture, and MIT Media Lab Fablabs. Just as the creative industry policies back at the turn of the century, the mass makerspace initiative today runs risk to dismiss alternative forms of making and entrepreneurship cultures that are visible in China today: the workers, engineers and designers in China’s manufacturing businesses, the small craftsman and repair workshops that still make up much of China’s urban fabric are in the eyes of China’s decision makers rarely synonym with the kind of making and entrepreneurship culture they now endorse.

Leo Lee, from Southwest Jiaotong University and a makerspace in Chengdu, in his speech at the Forum, crystallized this for me, when he said: “In China, we are not in shortage of makers. Actually we have makers all around us, the makers who build our infrastructures, who repair our phones, and build our homes. China has so many makers, we just don’t have a mechanism to identify them. We don’t see them.”


Questioning Habermas

Over this summer, I was fortunate enough to do some preliminary ethnographic research in Marquette, Michigan. This research is part of a broader project investigating use of digital technology by LGBT people in rural Michigan. Inspired by the works of scholars such as Mary Gray and Michael Warner, Silvia and I began thinking through how the social networks created in these areas, and specifically Marquette, can be framed and explicated using concepts such as publics, counterpublics, and boundary publics. Though I felt like I had a handle on these concepts and could apply them to my research, my knowledge of what these were based on, Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and Fraser’s “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” was very limited. In this post, I’d like to speak briefly to bias in Habermas’ description of the shifts and decline of the bourgeois public sphere. For a more complete review of the text, check out the Wikipedia article or Spark Notes.

I received my copy of Habermas through our university’s Interlibrary Loan and opened it up to see pages covered in large exclamation points, check marks, and circled X’s in the margins. Right away I could tell that previous readers of this book had felt and reacted strongly. Like many others, maybe even some of those that read this exact copy, I continually asked myself questions such as, “What was the public sphere for the poor and the illiterate?” Habermas is clear that the basis for the public sphere and publicity was a class of people who visited salons and coffee houses. These people were moneyed, middle class, shopkeepers, or intellectuals (and men). Through an evolution of architecture after the 17th century, the members of the bourgeois public sphere often also had access to a formalized individual private life in their own homes. It seems like these folks had the best of both worlds: spaces outside of the home to come together and discursively create and produce media and texts, in addition to areas in the home that allowed these same individuals access to what are now modern interpretations of a private life.

It is also interesting to note that in Habermas’ analysis, the most dramatic shift (section 18, the shift from a culture-debating public to a culture-consuming public) is caused by a mass democratization of economic culture in the 19th century. Essentially, because more people were engaged in media at a mass scale, including those who had not formerly been included in categories that fell under the bourgeois public sphere, a “world of letters” lost its dominance and was replaced by a society of consumption. Though this transition makes sense and I see a valid argument for this shift, my mind was racing with exclamation points going off in my head as often as they appeared on the pages of my worn copy of this book. Is access to mass culture more important than holding up a specific privileged notion or process of cultural creation? I would argue that yes, it is, and I want to know why Habermas wasn’t asking these kind of questions.

Fortunately, many have come after Habermas and tried to answer these, expanding on what it might mean when poor people, women, and other classes of people not included in the bourgeois public sphere come together to discursively create material and digital spaces. I am happy to report that I can now continue my work, building on those that have built on Habermas, and say that I’ve actually read the damn thing.