SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Crafting and coding experiences with digital fabrication technologies

Over the last few decades, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have substantially transformed several aspects of our everyday life, enabling terrific progress for human beings both in the workplace and as individual consumers, agents and citizens. Yet, how can we assess the complex and multifaceted impacts of ICTs on individuals’ welfare, and shape ICT research and innovation activities towards responsible trajectories?

Happiness research has become a popular and engaging field of investigation, at the intersection between economics and psychology. Interestingly, however, this field has not yet taken into great consideration the role of advanced technologies, and in particular ICTs, and how these may shape subjective well-being through positive effects as well as new risks. The breadth and complexity of ICTs and the pervasiveness of their effects on individuals’ well-being and quality of life call for a broad, holistic and multidisciplinary framework taking insights from innovation studies, economics and psychological approaches. 

Project Summary

The aim of this research project is to produce a systematic analysis of users of digital fabrication technologies in non-industrial settings, and to learn whether and how their use contributes to subjective wellbeing and human development. It plans to appraise varied user-experiences amongst a diversity of people, but who fall into two broad groups: coders and craftspeople. The research is being carried out by Dr Cian O’Donovan and Professors Adrian Smith and Ed Steinmueller.

Digital design and fabrication technologies, and their non-industrial use in community settings such as hackerspaces, makerspaces and FabLabs, attract considerable attention. Enthusiasts celebrate a widening appropriation of tools like CAD, 3D printing, laser cutters, routers and other computer-controlled technologies, arguing it brings to material culture and the making of things some of the individual and collective empowerment associated with personal computing in the past. Yet it is curious how computer-controlled design and machining technologies that once deskilled and damaged manufacturing worker communities in the past, are now celebrated as providing people with new skills and building maker communities with new capacities for human development. Perhaps the real picture is somewhat ambiguous and ambivalent?

The project’s analysis will map out the plural ways that using digital fabrication technologies contribute positively and negatively to human development as experienced by users coming from both coding backgrounds and crafts background. The project will compare these two groups, looking at how the first comes to digital fabrication from the realm of software and programming, whereas the second uses digital technologies from a position rooted more in working with materials.

Methodology

The project will use Q method to appraise any differences in user-experiences between coders and crafters and to see what contributions to human development arise. In practice, Q method involves participants sorting a series of written statements into a pattern that most accords with their experience, in this case with digital fabrication technologies across a number of themes (e.g. whether users strongly agree or disagree with statements on skills, creativity, community, material presence, and capabilities). Afterwards there is an opportunity for participants to discuss with the researcher how and why participants sorted the statements, and any other points arising. The discussion prompted by the sorting exercise is an integral part of the research and provides it with important additional information. The ‘sorts’ of participants will be analysed statistically to see if there are any patterns or recurring features amongst the diversity of participants. The ambition is to obtain systematically a fairly robust range of experience viewpoints, that can inform the future development of digital fabrication technologies and debates about the technology, including ongoing debates about automation and wellbeing.

The research builds upon earlier research at SPRU, on digital fabrication technologies past and present, and a literature review of community-based digital fabrication research.  

Partners and links

The project is funded by a larger programme of work led by the TIK Centre (Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture) at the University of Oslo under the title 'Responsible Innovation and Happiness: A New Approach to the Effects of ICTs'. The aim of this larger work is to better understand notions of subjective wellbeing (‘happiness’) amongst ICT users, and to use that analysis to inform more responsible innovation policy for future digital developments. The programme, and hence our research, is funded by the Norwegian Research Council, a public organisation that funds independent academic research.

Related publications

Smith, A. (2015) Technology networks for socially useful production, Journal of Peer Production, Issue 5.

Hielscher, S. and Smith, A. (2014) Community-based digital fabrication workshops: a review of the research literature SPRU Working Paper Series SWPS 2014-08, May, Brighton.