The Future Is Fabulous: A Critical Anthropology of Fabbing
Consumer culture maintains an ambivalent relationship with the products populating our lives; we have feelings of both alienated discomfort and sincere love and attachment for our “things.” Our conception of production lingers in a turn-of-the-century capitalist mythology of industrial manufacturing: dirty, mechanistic, and forceful. This vision is irreconcilable with the clean modes of production familiar to information and service workers. Self-imposed ecological disaster and increasingly apparent social inequities demand a revolution in our relationship to “stuff.” Yet the global outsourcing of production, along with personal and cultural identities forged through consumption, leave us without the means to understand contemporary object making.
Enter “fabbing” (personal digital fabrication), a collection of intertwined—if immature—production and information technologies. Fab promises to empower every person to design and manufacture his or her own products, but the ways in which this technology will actually accomplish such a goal remain fuzzy. The technological utopias that fab envisions project a completed futurist narrative, but offer only a few clues as to how we might get there. A development such as fab changes how we conceptualize production, and radically realigns consumer-product and designer-product relationships. Fabbing technology represents real-life science fiction, complete with Enlightenment-like progress narratives, tech fantasies, shifting subjectivities, and power relations. It also proposes an unprecedented expansion of product design as a discipline.
To comprehend the changes this technology offers, we turn to science fiction and futurism—discourses that imagine utopias resulting from technological innovation. We envision new relationships to the material world, like the replicator in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a favorite reference for fab’s inventor-evangelists. But these images and rhetoric make up more than futurist utopian fantasies; they drive technology development. These science fictions also construct new subject positions, from which we can act with alacrity in a complicated, data-saturated future.
This presentation investigates fabbing in light of our advancing datascape (the mass of digital information used to model human behavior) and its effect on designing, buying, and interacting with products. It also considers current trends such as product customization (selecting the colors and features of a Mini Cooper, for example) and targeted marketing, though these developments only seem to multiply the possibilities for constructing our identities through consumption. The project seeks to understand the rhetorical, practical, and epistemological changes embedded in the emergence of fab, a technology that could empower both consumers and designers.