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Author: Jaromil
To: dynebolic mailinglist
Subject: [dyne:bolic] Gambiarra: Repair Culture - on the present, past and future of Maker culture

dear dyne:bolic community, blessed people around the world

no news yet about a new release, but soon :^) as we are good busy on
http://devuan.org which will be the new base for Dyne:bolic 4.0

meanwhile, here I share with you a critical text by Bricolabs bro' Felipe
Fonseca, fellow hacker from Brasil, with good reflections about what OUR
"makers movement" has become, as it was back around 15 years ago - and what the
industrial biz hype is reducing it today. It also has some good insights about
where to go, actually. Ultimately, I'm optimistic, since its evident we had
good visions back then and we still nurture good forward looking strategies
- for the liberation from mental slavery!


    don't believe the hype

        live clean let your work be seen



Web version: http://efeefe.no-ip.org/livro/repair-culture/gambiarra

Dom, 08/03/2015 - 21:24 by felipefonseca

Tags: Doha fablabs gambiarra gambiologia maker culture metareciclagem qatar
    repair culture vcuq VCUQatar

Maker culture has gained a lot of ground in the last few years. Maybe too much,
in fact. We can of course ignore those people who are only, as always, surfing
the current wave of hype. They seldom have any clue of the ideas they are
selling themselves with anyway. But it also feels as though everybody else is
talking about maker culture. Those words are even being uttered by people who
have always been opposed to what they should mean. Or is it me? Did I get it
wrong all the way?

First time I read about a "maker culture", it was a sort of relief. I had
finally found - or so I thought - a way to explain a number of initiatives some
of us in Brazil had been involved for some years before that. Framing those
things as "making" enabled us to mix critical thinking with DIY (as brilliantly
put by Matt Ratto on "critical making"), proposing a sort of creative
engagement that escaped the dead-ends of tedious market-driven innovation. A
culture of conscious makers could recognize and promote alternative solutions
and new perspectives for everyday problems, valuing distributed and
collaborative approaches and seeking the common good. It would help overcoming
traditional institutions and their clogged circuits of information. Local,
cooperative formations would challenge the logics of global industrial
capitalism, treating every human being - or small group, however loose it was -
as potentially creative and productive. Industrial products that suffered of
planned obsolescence would be repaired as armies of amateurs used the internet
to share digital models of replacement parts. New kinds of meaning and
engagement would evolve influenced by such approaches to material and cultural
expression. Possibilities emerging from the free software and hacker movements
would finally evert to the world of things.

And yet, we ended up in a world of newbie geeks assembling prefabricated kits
of 3d printers, with which hipster designers-to-be (often the new-geeks
themselves) can melt lots of plastic which is hardly recyclable into prototypes
of new products, hoping to become rich and famous. Most such prototypes will
never be used to anything at all, but their creators will anyway spam all over
facebook, twitter and instagram trying to convince us they are building our
(better, in a way no one can precise) future. Who knows, they may be invited to
do a TED talk or raise some buck on kickstarter. Or at least become consultants
for an international NGO willing to develop "technologies for education".

And there we go. Forget about hackers getting blisters in their hands as they
struggle to become carpenters. Those times are gone. Sadly, the most important
skill in the maker culture these days seems to be keeping a spreadsheet on
google drive with a business plan and a consistent strategy on social media.
Numbers everywhere.

In more general terms, instead of portraying an acceleration towards the end of
industrial age, celebrity author-speakers are now talking about a "new
industrial revolution". In the same direction, the Obama administration in the
US is reportedly planning to pour one billion dollars to set up 15
"manufacturing innovation hubs" with the goal of sustaining industrial growth.
As if the centuries oriented by industrial paradigms didn't bring enough harm
to the world already. Sure, one can not deny the improvements brought about by
industry - especially in terms of driving scientific development and its
implications in food, transportation, health and communications. At the same
time, though, we have seen some aspects of contemporary life go in a totally
wrong way. Think for instance about waste and pollution, inequality,
disintegration of cultures and social ties, permanent global war and many other
consequences of the industrial age. I'm not sure we should be even trying to
promote a new industrial revolution if those aspects are not carefully taken
into account. And judging by the prevailing discourse within the current breed
of maker culture, I'm not sure they are.

When the maker culture becomes eminently entrepreneurial, we should wonder what
mechanisms are set into motion. It may as well be the old capitalist drive to
turn the critique to itself into the gears of its own reinvention gaining
ground. Could we ever escape that path?


It was 2002 when a group of people in Brazil first discussed the ideas that
eventually led to the creation of MetaReciclagem. In the first projection of
those shared cyberpunk dreams, we would use the internet to gather local groups
to work with the discarded PCs we saw piling up everywhere. Once repaired and
put back to work using free and open source software, those computers could
then be configured as nodes in autonomous wireless networks that promised
digital communications beyond the constraints and market limitations of
corporate internet. Nevermind the fact that in that time none of us had ever
touched a wifi card, and only a couple had any working experience with
free/open source software. We were opening up those magical black boxes with
our own hands and changing the way they worked. And it felt great. It was a
group of passionate explorers of new possibilities, however remote those might
seem. I don't think we did set up a lot of those Utopian networks, but by
decomposing the steps that would bring us there we managed to accomplish a lot.

We were of course following the huge tidal changes taking place by the turn of
the millennium. Some of us had been dragged into the dot-com bubble (the first
one, still in the last century) with hopes of infinite creative challenges,
only to end up finding office doors closed with locks after stocks imploded.
Others were involved with urban demonstrations against WTO and corporate
globalization. The second edition of the World Social Forum in 2002 offered
some of us glimpses of hope in a world otherwise still paralyzed by 9/11.
Despite the bad times, within MetaReciclagem it felt as if faith, good
intentions and hard work would allow us to create better futures. Whatever that
meant. Our part, it seemed by then, should start by gathering every Saturday in
a warehouse in the southern part of São Paulo to repair discarded computers.

MetaReciclagem turned from an idea into a distributed group, and then onto a
methodology that was open to be appropriated by whoever wished to, anywhere. At
some point, a network of about half a dozen self-managed MetaReciclagem labs in
different regions of Brazil would receive donated PCs, make them useful again
in some way and then give them away to social projects and movements. Some of
us were also invited to advise on and implement public policies related to
information technologies and society. At some point MetaReciclagem came to be
explained in such an elastic definition as a loose network promoting the
"critical appropriation of technologies for social change". During that
evolution, we discovered a number of groups, people and initiatives in other
parts of the world that acknowledged the huge potential of using discarded
equipment and free/open source software to address both the uneven distribution
of and the enclosure of knowledge into information technologies.

Our own contribution to this context was related, we found some time later, to
the way our actions were deeply informed by Brazilian cultural practices such
as gambiarra and mutirão. Mutirão is the sort of collective dynamics that take
place when we Brazilians need to find solutions - say, building an extra room
to accommodate a newborn child - and proceed by inviting neighbors, relatives,
friends and acquaintances to help out, often with their own hands. The result
is an autonomous, iconoclast and celebratory sociability that is abundant and
productive. Gambiarra refers to all kinds of improvised solutions to concrete
problems that appear when one doesn't have access to the proper tools,
materials, parts or specific knowledge to perform a given task. It is all about
repairing or re-purposing objects that seemed to be of little use but end up
acquiring new value out of tacit, applied creativity. I sometimes call it
"everyday innovation". Spanish designer Victor Viña draws a parallel between
gambiarra, jugaad and bricolage. Those are cultural practices which are
naturally tactical, deeply rooted in the essentially human and widely available
ability of understanding objects with one's mind and hands, and then taking
action over such objects. They see the world as abundant in potential solutions
instead of precarious or scarce in resources.

Some years into that game, I had already heard of and even visited a number of
the projects which for over a decade then had been proposing and implementing
similar ideas. In particular European hacklabs, rooted into a social context
that I could relate with. People involved with those hacklabs stemming from an
activist context - squatters, hackers, engaged artists, even critical theorists
- talked of other possibilities for contemporary living, of cultural diversity
and common good reaching far beyond the tired mechanisms of a market economy
ruled by big media. They promoted networked politics that were radically
inclusive. They strove to fight cognitive capitalism, consumerism and
alienation. DIY was the norm, as well as copyleft and consensus-based
decision-making. In that context, free and open source software was not only an
efficient way to organize the production of knowledge but also a cultural and
critical take on the pervasiveness of relationships mediated only by economic
values. That universe made a lot of sense to our projects and political
momentum in Brazil as well.

The same can't be easily said of formations that would emerge later on, even
ones inspired by the very same context. A symbolic example is the
transformation performed by the hackerspace movement, translating and
transporting the largely underground practices of (basically) European hacklabs
to a wider public first on the US and later in the rest of the world. The
association of hackerspaces with what came to be known as a "maker culture"
gave me, as said above, an amazing first impression. Indeed, while reading Cory
Docotorow's Makers - first published in 2009 - I was pleased to recognize
practices, methods and aspirations that felt similar to ones common within the
MetaReciclagem network in Brazil. I also noticed essential differences in the
world portrayed by Doctorow's novel, such as the central role attributed to
commercial modes of operation. But I eventually dismissed the relevance of
these nuances, treating them as result of particular cultural biases.

It seems however that the current breed of maker culture has completely
surrendered to market forces. I won't even start discussing the prevalence of
proprietary operating systems inside the laptops (and smartphones, tablets,
etc.) of today's so-called makers. Let's try to focus on the bigger picture.
Not only did the hackerspace movement give room to somewhat domesticated
practices of commercial entrepreneurship, but their close and often submissive
relationship with models such as MIT's Fablabs brought along a vocabulary
packed with terms stemming from industrial age. In 2008, Bre Pettis wrote an
article for 2600 magazine promoting hackerspaces and technologies of digital
fabrication. In this three-page long rant, Pettis mentions "prototypes" or
"prototyping" over 20 times. As already noticed by Gabriel Menotti, the
prototype is to an extent the opposite of the Brazilian gambiarra. The
prototype, as an object, wouldn't have an existence on its own - only a sort of
rehearsal for "proper" products to be mass-produced at some point in the
future. In itself, a prototype is already a piece of waste. On the other hand,
gambiarra is about finding multiple concrete solutions, often by re-purposing
two different objects to perform a task none of them was originally built to.
In the context of a contemporary society struggling for sustainability,
meaning, creativity and value, gambiarra seems to have more to offer than the
weak existence of layers and layers of plastic-made prototypes.

Back in the beginning of MetaReciclagem - when we were still trying to find out
what was it that we wanted to accomplish in those lost, sometimes frustrating
saturdays - someone shared a link in our e-mail discussion list. It pointed to
a project in the UK called Lowtech(.org). Associated with Access Space, a
digital arts centre in Sheffield that used exclusively discarded computers and
Linux to carry its activities, Lowtech offered valuable insights that were
definitely incorporated into our practices. It wasn't before half a decade
later during an edition of Futuresonic (now FutureEverything) in Manchester
that I had the opportunity to get acquainted with James Wallbank, the British
artist who ran Access Space and created Lowtech. We started then an open-ended
conversation - that is still taking place today - about machines, hands,
skills, scents and futures.

When I met James again a couple years ago in Finland for the Bricolabs
programme during the Pixelache festival, he was promoting the Refab Space. It
was then his own take on setting up a lab with digital fabrication equipment -
some of it donated from local factories that were moving abroad. Instead of
buying into the holy grail of maker culture, James was curious about the actual
potential of using those technologies that were becoming increasingly
available. He told me the laser cutter was a real workhorse. On the other hand,
the 3D printer was - if I remember James' words - the least useful and most
complex of those equipments. Nevertheless, it still had an indirect role for
Refab Space as it attracted talented people willing to have the chance to
explore new possibilities.

But there was something else there. I wanted to ask James what did he make of
the whole maker culture thing. Unfortunately, I can't tell what he would have
replied*, as suddenly the idea of a culture of repair struck me as too
important to be overlooked and I was lost in daydreaming. Why had the maker
culture become concerned only with industrial methods - prototyping future
mass-produced objects? What would be the concrete outcomes of a number of
success-eager young talents spitting out objects made out of melted plastic,
hardly - if ever - recyclable, everywhere in the world? Doesn't the planet have
enough useless objects made of plastic already?

Of course, a repair culture isn't about repairing things only. We could try to
find a better way to define a culture of reuse, repair and re-purposing. But
proposing repair - the physical act of mending things in order to extend their
lifetime or else turning them into something else of use - as a core value
sounds good enough for a current need: criticizing the path apparently taken by
maker culture that is addicted to novelty, becoming consequently toxic,
unsustainable, superficial and alienating.

In a sense, repairing may be rooted into tradition the same way startup making
is related to novelty. Indeed, a number of makerspaces and fablabs sound all
too anxious to reach an abstract future, often at the cost of discarding any
sort of tradition. Repair culture, on the other hand, is nothing new. It has
evolved with human history since thousands of years before the industrial
revolution. In fact, it was only recently that repairing objects came to be
regarded as something society as a whole and any person individually should
avoid. But if we agree with that, something very important is being taken from
us: the exercise and accumulated knowledge of matching everyday problems and
the countless solutions available for them. There would be hipster designers
everywhere, but the fundamental divide between makers and mere users would
linger, or even increase. In other words, a renewed industrial sector, now
distributed and even more dynamic, is planning to take creativity away from our
everyday lives. We can not afford to lose that.

Perhaps we could start by shifting focus away from "what valuable new thing can
I come up with that will make me famous/rich/sexy". Repairing things as a
cultural trend is inextricably related to organic food, natural birthing,
cultural diversity, upcycling, sustainable mobility, urban farming, fair trade,
culture of peace and digital commons. Repair culture, in that sense, is not a
mere side effect of the development of industrial societies. On the contrary,
it is one of the very few distributed and consistent niches of resistance
against the transformation of all human creativity into quantifiable commodity.
I reckon it's not hard to pick a side on this matter.


* After reading a draft of this text, Wallbank told me he resigned from Access
Space and opened a shop in Sheffield dedicated to maker culture. He is excited
with the way youngsters are curious with "remaking, reuse, crafting and making"
these days.


DOCTOROW, Cory. Makers. Novel available on http://craphound.com

FONSECA, Felipe Schmidt. Redelabs: Laboratórios Experimentais em Rede. Master
thesis. Campinas: Unicamp. 2014. Available (in Brazilian Portuguese) on
http://redelabs.org/livro/redelabs-laboratorios-experimentais-em-rede-2014 .

MAXIGAS. Hacklabs and Hackerspaces: tracing two genealogies. In: Journal of
Peer Production. Vol. 2: Bio/Hardware Hacking.

MENOTTI, Gabriel Gonring. Gambiarra: the prototyping perspective. Available on

PETTIS, Bre. Hacker Perspective: Bre Pettis. In: 2600. New York: 2600
Enterprises, 1984-2008, vol. 25, N 4, 2008. Trimestral. ISSN 0749-3851.

RATTO, Matt. Critical Making. In: Open Design Now. Available on

VIÑA, Victor. DIY in Context: From Bricolage to Jugaad.

Jaromil, Dyne.org Free Software Foundry (est. 2000)
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