Our readers in the United States will have recently spent a weekend evening grilling, relaxing, and lighting off fireworks in celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, one of the founding documents if the United States. Along with The Constitution, and its amendments, collectively the Bill of Rights, this document served to align and direct the efforts of the newly born nation. More importantly, with these documents our founders hoped to ensure (or at least suggest) that subsequent generations might work to maintain the country's formative values and goals, even in the face of new social, political, and technological developments. In honor of Independence Day, and in keeping with this charge of re-examination of our national foundation in light of new technologies, let me propose a new clause of amendment one of the Bill of Rights:
Making is Speech.
In order to understand what I mean, you have to put yourselves in Ben Franklin's (or any late 18th century busybody's) buckle-front, square toed shoes. Why were the colonists so worried about their freedom of speech, press, and assembly? Why were these rights listed first, and foremost, above even freedom from unwarranted search, or the right to bear arms (both of which seem at least more physically damaging if violated)? Surely there are many reasons (and political scientists and legal wonks will fight to the death to make theirs the most important) but one makes particular sense in the context of Humblefacture, and making in general. In colonial times, speech, and the press were the primary instruments of leverage available to the colonists.
Leverage is a concept by which a small initial action can have greatly amplified effects. While the concept applies to the "teeter-totter" simple machine called a lever, it can also apply to other domains, such as home loans (a small down payment buys a big house over a long time), or laws (a court decision on a single case forms a precedent which governs all subsequent cases). There are four primary domains of leverage in the world. Humans control three:
- Social Technology (Familial, political, religious, popular media, etc.)
- Financial technology (investment, currency creation, speculation, etc.)
- Object technology (steel plow, locomotives, Cars, cellphones, etc.)
- Nature(global warming, predators, ecosystem succession, etc.)
Out of the three leverages available to them, the colonists were not rich enough to gain advantage from financial technologies, and not educated enough to gain advantage from object technologies. Thus the best way they new to gain leverage was in using oration, the press, and other social technologies, such as fraternal organizations, to unify themselves into a force strong enough to resist the English. Think about this -- the most influential people of the time weren't that way because they were rich (though some were quite well off, both Jefferson and Hamilton died with large debts), or because they invented things (Ben Franklin was more famous for his print projects than for his swimming paddles). The most influential people were orators, and ran printing presses, and spread ideas about the way people in this new nation should behave. And, eventually, because they preserved their freedom to speak and print about what they wanted, that new nation grew to incorporate the values encapsulated in those early speeches and pamphlets.
Now, step forward 233 years. What has changed? Leverage still exists in the same forms. Furthermore, the average citizen can still count social technologies (speech, blogging, twitter, etc) as their most powerful form of leverage. However, the world we live in is substantially different than the one the colonists posted their seditious flyers in. Speech is nowhere near as powerful a force as it once was, not because it has lost energy, but because the amount of noise than any signal must overcome is overwhelming. Marketing, media, political machinery, and plain old gossiping chatter has changed speech from a dangerous weapon to a well loved convenience of modern life.
So, if speech doesn't define our times, what does? Financial technology has grown in importance, but with the exception of a few innovations like microlending, it has become less and less available to the individual (and some would argue, more and more like a a force of nature, especially recent credit crash occurrences). No, I would argue that the primary tool of leverage that people use in society today is, well, the tool.
Computers, iPhones, cars, wind generators, jeans, messenger bags, bicycles, chicken coops, e-book readers; All of these devices change the way a single person or a group of people are able to convert effort into results. Using these tools, a person can move faster, learn more, eat better food, live a safer life, raise smarter children, or make their community more resilient in the face of adversity. And, like all tools, the side effects of these devices affect everyone, users and non-users alike. Burned fuel, leached toxins, non-biodegradable waste, shortened attention spans, revenue stream destruction, business model disruption, culture loss, and more are the costs of the tools we use. Object technology has become a primary driver of action on the world stage.
But despite its broad reach and powerful impact, an ordinary citizen has limited opportunity to articulate the type of tool they need, or the burden of consequence they are comfortable carrying in order to use it. An ordinary citizen has limited opportunity to make.
This brings us back to the First Amendment: The architecture of our computers influences behavior just as surely as the architecture of the Constitution. Cellular phones change our social structures in subtle ways just as Poor Richard's Almanac did. If objects now carry the influence that speech once did, then making is comparable to oration, or pamphlet printing. If objects are our modern vehicle of values, but we cannot make our own, then our speech is not free.
In this case, however, it is not an oppressive king, or absentee government who we can blame for our oppression. Instead, while we have increased the power of our object technologies since the American Revolution, we have done so by narrowing technological access to those with highly specific education, space for extensive mechanical infrastructure, and money to buy machinery. It is as though only wealthy factory owners had access to printing presses, and even then, those presses could only print about specific types of events.
Humblefacture rejects this tyranny. We believe that problems like global warming, the digital divide, endemic poverty, deforestation, and electronic waste cannot be solved unless users have the individual agency to fix what matters to them. We believe that homogeneity of objects is too high a price to pay for low prices. We believe that too many cooks in the kitchen is a lot more fun. Perhaps most importantly, we believe that the "inefficiency" of many varied products is more than made up for by faster adaptation in the face of new challenges. Humblefacture is a work in progress to remove these barriers and empower the ordinary citizen, as we believe it is their right.
We hold these truths to be self evident: That though life and liberty may be provided for by government and social constructs, the pursuit of happiness cannot be undertaken without ready and open access to making.