Makers culture, social movements and subcultures in Europe. Paths of change and cultural fossilization

In the last months I’m reflecting on the possibility of a switch to a new paradigm in goods production, also because of the work we are caring on at the University of Milano with Adam Arvidsson and Zoe Romano in the general frame of the EU Project Edufashion (and its generated project Openwear).

The proliferation of Fablabs and DIY spaces all over the world is rising quickly.

A whole bunch of new cheap hardware technologies are changing the way we conceive high tech: the open hardware micro-controller Arduino; the open hardware 3d printer RepRap; new generations of cheap CNC machines.

New networks are spreading, connecting all sorts of geeks from everywhere: Maker Faire, the (mainly) US based fair of garage hardware inventors;  100k garages, a “community of workshops with digital fabrication tools for precisely cutting, machining, drilling, or sculpting the parts for your project or product, in all kinds of materials”; Dorkbot, the network of “people doing strange things with electricity”.

The communication and narrative of such processes has increased constantly, from Make Magazine to the recent (great) book by Cory DoctorowMakers“.

For people dealing with geek subcultures, electronic music and political undergrounds such topics are not new. It’s something that, more or less, you have always seen around: i still remember when I was 20 and I went to the 2nd italian Hackmeeting at the squat Desposito Bulk in Milano. It has been a cognitive clash! At the same time, it seems that what is going on in the last years is something new and different, much more connected and self-conscious. The thing that is crucial is that it seems that the idea of open (open data, open software, open hardware, etc) has gone beyond far the borders of the activists’ subcultures.

Now, there ‘s something that continue to stomp in my mind in the last months.

In the last years we are witnessing the rising of a new entrepreneurial spirit, connected to social entrepreneurship and social innovation. It seems that this new entrepreneurial approach is at the core of the makers movement: on one sidem this is exactly the way Doctorow narrate it in “makers”; on the other side, this is clearly recognizable in the discourses of key actors such as Eric Wilhelm of Instructables and many others. More recently, I’ve noticed a great interest from many social entrepreneurs in Europe and in Italy too.

In Italy, it seems that most people coming from countercultures and movements are simply looking at this new phenomena with very few attempts to take part into what’s happening. That’s really a pity. In the last 20 years, an incredible number of grassroots technologic experimentations has happened in the leftist subcultures in Italy. Spaces like the Hackmeeting, L.O.A, ReLoad, Freaknet MediaLab, the many hackspaces in the hundreds of “Centri Sociali”, have witnessed exciting unconventional, disruptive, crazy approaches to technology.

But now, 9 years after the brutal repression of social movements during the G8 Forum in Genova, after years of trials, evictions, daily racism and homophobia in an anomic and anesthetized society that is light years far not only from the engagé country of the ’70s but also from the on-the-move one of the ’90s, social movements in Italy seem totally unable to find a way out of the cultural fossilization that have hit them in the last 5 years or so. It seems that there is no chance to think something new now that the number of the Centri Sociali is shrinking abruptly (real estate is the main business in italian cities, and no one is pleased of leftist squatters into highly valuable urban spaces).

Some of the key actors of the scene have been co-opted by big institutions or firms, some others have more or less renounced to any form of activism. But what is hard to see is a new form of social innovation able to integrate the heritage of italian underground approach to technology with the emerged makers culture.

I’m very curious of what will emerge in the next year or so. Will the scene be able to change, transform and adapt? And how?


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