The Democratic Necessisty of Power Tools

I listened to an interesting lecture last weekend by Mark Miodownik, entitled Are public workshops more important than public libraries? In a nutshell, his argument is that the power tool (representing the ability of citizens to create meaningful objects for society) is far more endangered than the book (representing the ability of citizens to access information).

Consider everything around you right now: the walls, ceiling, furniture, dishware, everything is material; human society is a material society. Virtually every action involves interacting with human-made objects. This raises the question: given the importance and centrality of manufacturing and making, how did such a large social and economic dichotomy arise between people who “work with their heads” and people who “work with their hands”?

…materials, the material world, and everything in it, isn’t owned by material science. Chefs (people who make edible materials), chemists, architects, artists, jewellers, farmers — there is a huge number of people who know a huge amount of materials. Each one of these is a different facet, a different landscape, a different scale of understanding materiality… Everyone has to pitch in to create the sophistication of the modern world.

According to Miodownik, the history of the book library presents a case study of how public workshops and makerspaces could play an integral, democratizing role in society. Through public libraries, books made knowledge accessible to everyone. But Miodownik believes the ability to make is as equally important as the ability to know.

Libraries came out of the idea that you could not have a democratic society when people were denied access to the knowledge that a very small subset of people had. And basically it was hindering innovation, and people’s freedom of thought, creativity, and all these sorts of things. So people (like Andrew Carnegie) spent a long time and a lot of money making public libraries available. It was thought to be the most important thing you could do for people.

At the outset, a vast majority of the population were industrial workers, home makers, and farmers. (Lots and lots of farmers.) Cooks, craftspeople, and builders — virtually everyone was involved in making things. Nowadays, says Miodownik, we have come full circle: the smartphone has put the world’s library in the palm of our hand… but only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population actually knows how the smartphone works.

We have gone from makers without knowledge, to knowers who lack the ability to make.

As a result, we have culturally and economically overvalued the bearers of knowledge at the expense of recognizing the skill of labour and craftsmanship.

So we’ve shifted from hardly having any access to books (and almost everyone having access to a workshop) to a modern society where hardly anyone has access to a good workshop (and everyone has access to more books than they could read). This is why I feel so strongly that this is the way forward: we’ve swung from one direction to another: from information poor to information rich; from making rich to making poor.

In today’s world, Miodownik advocates for public makerspaces that are not “a part of the cognoscente.” The narrative and rhetoric of the knowledge economy has undermined our respect and appreciation of manual labour. Working with our hands is mostly absent in public education, he points out. If we really want to think about democratic participation in society today, and if we want a democratic society which invites the participation of every citizen, then we need to swing the knowledge-labour pendulum — the balance of making versus knowing — back towards the centre. This means promoting cultural and public support for manufacturing, building, and experimenting…

…which means changing our attitudes about the nature of made objects.

2 thoughts on “The Democratic Necessisty of Power Tools

  1. One of the perks I enjoyed most when in the Navy was that nearly every major base has an auto hobby shop where, for a token fee, one has access to a completely equipped, professional auto garage. People did everything from oil changes to restorations, getting help from staff, without having to invest in thousands of dollars worth of tools. It was great. I’ve often thought about how nice it would be to have a civilian equivalent.

    • That kind of environment seems to closely align with the tone of Miodownik’s vision.

      One of the other ideas mentioned in the lecture is this: if culture became oriented around makers, economies could shift dramatically. Imagine the disruption that would occur if many people started doing their own car repairs! Or if you bought your cell phone from a group of local hackers instead of big telecomm?

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