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<nettime> Means of production: The factory-floor knowledge economy (le m
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<nettime> Means of production: The factory-floor knowledge economy (le monde diplo)

The factory-floor knowledge economy
Means of production

Digital manufacturing with 3D printers is for some enthusiasts an
anti-consumer concept, promising a return to a craft ethos and an end
to outsourcing. But this may not be the real future of the technique.

by Johan Söderberg

The third industrial revolution might come with personal or digital
manufacturing, when what used to be bought in a shop could be made
at home with such tools as laser cutters, 3D printers and computer
numerical control (CNC) milling machines (1). They are all based on
the same principle, using software to help guide the movements of a
machine tool, and the one that has attracted the most media attention
is a printer that prints three-dimensional objects, with a nozzle that
lays down a plastic material layer by layer. Designs for the printer
of such objects as doorknobs or bicycles can be downloaded from the

The media articles featured one of the many commercial 3D printers,
but the technology was developed by a loose network of hobbyists or
“makers”, whose homemade 3D printer is called RepRap. They are rooted
in the world of free software and strive to apply the same values and
practices to manufacturing; some aspire to democratise the means of
production and abolish consumer society. It is often predicted that 3D
printing will reduce labour costs and lessen the incentive of firms
to outsource production to low-cost-labour countries (2). This idea,
which is closer to a respectable business outlook, is endorsed by the
publisher of Make magazine, which also organises annual Maker Faires
in major US cities.

At the New York 2011 Faire, I noticed a certain dissonance with
the revolutionary ideals. A corner of it was dedicated to “the
Print-Village”, with 20 booths devoted to the RepRap and its many
derivatives. Nearby was a much larger pavilion with many exhibitions
of sophisticated CNC machines, and one booth that stood out — it was
for the “Alliance for American Manufacturing”, between American steel
manufacturers and United Steelworkers (USW), and had red, white and
blue banners with the message “Keep it made in America”. A hostess
handed out badges with the same message; she confessed to me she found
it ironic to be doing that here, next to the machines descended from a
technology that contributed so much to the destruction of factory jobs
in the US and elsewhere.

The historian David Noble has shown that CNC machinery came out of
numerical control (N/C) machinery — automated machine tools — which
originated in the context of the cold war (3), its development largely
funded by military contracts. The technology was thought to be crucial
to the arms race against the Communist enemy, and the fight against
unions; a major source of union strength was the workers’ knowledge
monopoly over the production process. Fooling the employers

This had been identified by Frederick W Taylor, in his principles
of scientific management: “The managers assume ... the burden of
gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past
has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating,
and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws and formulae which are
immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work.” The pages
preceding this quote describe the ways that workers can pretend that
they are working at full speed to fool their employers. A benchmark
of average performance had to be established so that lazy, dishonest
workers could be detected, but when engineers were sent in to measure
worker productivity, the workers learned how to fool them too.

Compliance could be enforced through the design of the machinery. In
the early 19th century, the British mathematician Charles Babbage
travelled to observe different branches of industry, and then produced
a catalogue of ingenious mechanisms by which the honesty of servants
and workers could be ensured in the absence of their master. He
declared: “One great advantage which we may derive from machinery is
from the check which it affords against the inattention, the idleness,
or the dishonesty of human agents” (4). Babbage is chiefly remembered
as the “father of computers”, due to his pioneering experiments
with calculating machines; his Analytical Engine was programmed
with punched cards, “software” that was used a century later in N/C

Noble explained how software realised the dreams of control of
Babbage and Taylor: “Essentially, this was a problem of programmable
automation, of temporarily transforming a universal machine into a
special-purpose machine through the use of variable ‘programs’, sets
of instructions stored on a permanent medium and used to control the
machine. With programmable automation, a change in product required
only a switch in programs rather than reliance upon machinists to
retool or readjust the configuration of the machine itself.”

The aim of reducing managers’ dependency on skilled machine operators
was an incentive behind the development of N/C technology, as were
the need to manufacture parts that could not easily be constructed
manually, the imperative of increasing productivity and, as far as
the researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
were concerned, the joy of solving mathematical problems. Noble argues
there were alternatives that would have had less adverse consequences
for workers, but these were deliberately not pursued (5). A repressed
memory for makers

This puts the enthusiastic claims for 3D printers into perspective.
One claim is that laid-off American workers can find a new source
of income by selling printed goods over the Internet, which will
be an improvement, as degraded factory jobs are replaced with more
creative employment opportunities. But factory jobs were not always
monotonous. They were deliberately made so, in no small part through
the introduction of the same technology that is expected to restore
craftsmanship. “Makers” should be seen as the historical result of
the negation of the workers’ movement. Many high-profile makers
are students and teachers at MIT, which played such a decisive
role in the creation of N/C and CNC technology. This history
returns as a repressed memory for makers, in their obsession with
abandoned factories and scrapyards. Detroit, the global symbol of
deindustrialisation, is repeatedly featured in Make magazine and
associated blogs (6).

Catherine Fisk, a lawyer, has gone through old trials in the US in
which employers and employees confronted each other over the ownership
of ideas. In the early 19th century, courts tended to uphold the
customary right of workers to freely make use of knowledge gained
at the workplace, and attempts by employers to claim the mental
faculties of trained white workers were rejected by courts because
this resembled slavery too closely. As the knowhow of workers became
codified and the balance of power shifted, courts began to vindicate
the property claims of employers (7). This lends a different aspect
to the makers’ ideas about alternatives to copyright, such as free
software licenses and Creative Commons. Some researchers have warned
that these might end with workers exploiting themselves (8). There is
a crowdsourcing platform owned by Amazon, where net users are invited
to solve simple tasks, such as identifying people in photographs. The
average income of an “employee” is $1.25 an hour (9).

Plans are already being worked out for integrating home 3D printers
into a flexible production line; and it is easy to see how this could
lead to downward pressure on wages in the industry. When I suggested
this to Adrian Bowyer, the instigator of the RepRap project, he
agreed, but said: “It might not be such a bad thing for workers,
because they would not have to buy as many things in stores.” So the
struggle is to be fought out at the point of consumption, involving
intellectual property legislation and the design of the tools made
available to the general public.

While some hobbyists strive to develop a machine that corresponds to
their ideals about distributed production, entrepreneurs, investors
and intellectual property lawyers back a very different idea of what
the 3D printer might become. The stakes were spelled out in the
Technology Bill of Rights, proposed in 1981 by the International
Association of Machinists (IAM), when CNC machines were making
inroads into manufacturing industry. The manifesto declared: “The new
automation technologies and the sciences that underlie them are the
product of a world-wide, centuries-long accumulation of knowledge.
Accordingly, working people and their communities have a right to
share in the decisions about, and the gains from, new technology.

Johan Söderberg is a sociologist at the University of Paris East and
the Ifris and Latts institutes.

(1) The Economist, London, 21 April 2012.

(2) See Laurent Carroué, “Europe’s economic disarmament”, Le Monde
diplomatique, English edition, April 2012.

(3) David F Noble, Forces of Production: a Social History of
Industrial Automation, Transaction Publishers, Piscataway (New
Jersey), 2011.

(4) Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (4th
ed), Charles Knight, London, 1835.

(5) Philip Scranton, “The shows and the flows: Materials, markets, and
innovation in the US machine tool industry, 1945-1965”, History and
Technology, vol 25, no 3, September 2009.

(6) Sara Tocchetti, “DIYbiologists as ‘makers’ of personal biologies:
How Make magazine and Maker Faires contribute in constituting biology
as a personal technology”, Journal of Peer Production, no 2, 2012.
See also Steven C High and David W Lewis, Corporate Wasteland: the
Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization, ILR Press, Ithaca, 2007.

(7) Catherine Fisk, Working Knowledge: Employee Innovation and the
Rise of Corporate Intellectual Property, 1800-1930, University of
North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2009.

(8) See Pierre Lazuly, “Artificial artificial intelligence”, Le Monde
diplomatique, English edition, August 2006.

(9) Lilly Irani, “Microworking the Crowd”, limn.it

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