Digital fabrication is largely predicated on the aim of democratising inventive and creative practices that were previously available only to experts. However, one might say that there is a degree of naivety in the way the notions of ‘creative practice’ and ‘innovation process’ get conflated in the language of making and fabrication.
Creativity is one of the most researched and contentious topics in educational research, and significant uncertainty still surrounds its constitutive elements and its manifestations: does it take unique forms specific to areas of artistic expression and professional practice, or is it a general trait that shifts and adapts according to situational and educational demands?
The debate seems to have partly settled over the last decade, and the current consensus is that whether creativity is domain-dependent or domain-general does not matter: pragmatic educational approaches must take into account that creative behaviours exhibit both context-free and context-dependent aspects.
Even so, an additional layer of complexity is added to the discussion when the languages of creativity and technological innovation get mixed up – there are certainly overlaps, but important distinctions need to be fleshed out and explored further if we are to improve our understanding of ‘making’, viewed less as a novel phenomenon than the 21st century reframing of traditional themes at the intersection of education, techno-romanticism and economic calculation.
The three factors/themes at play are as follows:
- The economic and socio-cultural revival of ‘tinkering’: something that harks back to hobbyist cultures in the US and Europe, which have been in recent years ‘reframed’ as economically and educationally relevant activities.
- The liberating potential of technologies, which for a few years now have been strongly associated with grassroots creative practices, first in exclusively digital settings, and now spilling over into real, situated contexts thanks to the growing availability and affordability of development tools and ‘rapid prototyping’ devices (e.g. 3D printers).
- The ‘silicon valley’ entrepreneurial myth of technological proficiency, pioneering spirit and unbridled, unconventional creativity.
These three factors have very much shaped the current digital making ‘discourse’- a discourse which, speaking as a social scientist, feels unsatisfactory both from an educational theory perspective and a technology studies one.
In particular, I feel that the mainstream rhetoric fails to adequately reflect the fraught and deeply social process that from ‘creative ideas’ leads to prototypes and inventions.
My argument is that the socio-technical nature of how design processes move from intangibles to ‘artefacts’ must be examined more closely if we are to develop a more informed notion of making in formal education – including a balanced discussion about its very possibility. Although the literature on making emphasises notions like iteration, debugging and the need to overcome repeated failures, these aspects are always ‘individualised’, that is, reduced to ‘skills’ or aspects of individual character that ‘young innovators’ need to develop. While this is certainly the case (to an extent), there are other equally important aspects missing in the digital making narrative.
Making as a ‘sociomaterial’ phenomenon
The famous philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour has something very interesting to say about technological innovation. He describes technologies as (quite literally), high maintenance lovers that require full, uninterrupted attention and a great deal of propping up, encouragement and cheerleading.
Perhaps, this notion of ‘technological love’ can help us make more sense of the making practices emerging at the crossroads of formal and informal education. Latour’s starting assumption (shared to a greater or lesser degree by others interested in the ‘social shaping’ of technology) is that – historically and sociologically – humans, society and objects (artefacts, machines, etc.) have developed together to form tangled-up, multi-layered networks which evolve, adapt, change and, more often than not, die.
Neither the nature of a ‘novel’ technology, nor the role of social factors on their own determine an innovation’s fate: whether it is successful or gradually withers out. It’s rather the overlapping negotiations across all elements that constitute a network that may or may not cause the much desired transition of innovations from a state of indeterminacy to one where they begin to actually ‘exist’.
This approach assumes that reality is ‘co-constructed’ and reflects in equal measure the influence of social and material factors. It was used, for example, to describe the historical and technological trajectory that led to the bicycle, as it evolved from earlier versions (i.e. various iterations of the penny farthing) to the artefact we know today, through a process of negotiation, influencing and, indeed, ‘discoursing’.
Rather than being the work of ‘invention’, technological progress requires a commitment to a tireless process through which innovators must mobilise opinions, recruit each other and generate interest. With a modicum of tongue in cheek, Latour suggests that such a totalising commitment can only be described as a form of love: so is there never any respite? Can’t the work of creating interest ever be suspended? Can’t things be allowed just to go along on their own? Isn’t there a day of rest, after all, for innovators? No: for technologies, every day is a working day (…) the innovator’s work is very complicated. Not only does she have to fight on those two fronts, dealing with supports that are removed and parasites that are added; not only does she have to weave humans and nonhumans together by imposing the politest possible behaviour on both; not only does she have to attach nonhumans together; but also she has to know who, among the engineers, executives, and manufacturers speaks for the good actors that need to be taken into account. Should the managing director order a market study – which would speak in the name of consumers – when his technical department is declaring that the project is not technologically feasible without a revolution in microprocessors?
In our own Maker Ed project I observed something remarkably similar, although at a much smaller scale. The process of working with students from a vague design idea to an output of some description was as much based on a playful engagement with tools and hackable devices, as on the constant need to generate interest and secure localised forms of ‘micro-sponsorship’, whilst maintaining high levels of engagement and motivation.
The truly interesting thing – and possibly a valuable contribution of our project to the general understanding of these practices – was the distributed and multidirectional nature of this process.
On the one hand, we encouraged students to inject personal motivations and interests in their designs; we asked them to convince us and their peers that their ideas were interesting and worth pursuing; and we invited them to go online to seek validation and advice from various online communities of makers.
On the other hand, we were doing something very similar in our own relations with schools, teachers, our employers and external funders. Laboriously rekindling interest among actors while trying to secure sponsorship for the project and convincing our interlocutors that this was a worthwhile effort which would generate impact.
It was precisely at the juncture points of all these networked relations and performances that the ‘creative’ process was taking place, not in the heads of students – although the educational value of their engagements with technology is beyond doubt.
It is also undeniable that some of the creative outcomes that emerged from this process were more successful than others – by ‘success’ we mean the coming together of individual, technical and social factors that allowed some ideas to eventually ‘become real’, leaving behind the nebulous stage of sketching and ‘messing about’ (often accompanied by playful banter and mild forms of disruption- see pictures) and acquiring tangible connotations.
Whenever this happened, it led to those magical ‘eureka’ moments which were as uplifting for students as they were for us , as we were all equally implicated and invested in this miniature innovation process.
So, as we approach the end of the fieldwork with schools in Leeds I begin to see the ways in which a more theoretically informed definition of Maker Education can be articulated, beyond the myth of the inventor and the rhetoric of entrepreneurial creativity.
Above all, I think digital making and fabrication offer the opportunity to develop educational languages that can be used pragmatically to discuss technologies and innovation processes in a more critical fashion, even with younger students.
Fully accounting for the technical side of things (e.g. learning to code, or soldering, or 3D printing and whatnot) but also unpacking the messy, negotiated nature of sociotechnical phenomena.
Part of this ‘new’ language has to be a pedagogical impetus to (sometimes at least) go beyond ‘learning’, by engaging students in educational dialogues about the political/economic/cultural nature of innovation processes.
For instance inviting questions about biases, assumptions and exploring critically the formation of alliances and interest groups around ideas and artefacts – rather than focusing too narrowly on individual work and the linear assessment of skills and knowledge.