The January 13th issue of the magazine includes an interesting article by New Yorker correspondent Evgeny Morozov critiquing a new “Makers” movement that combines elements of home crafts and computer hacking with high-tech tools, from 3D printers to what are described as “personal drones.” Like some elements of the “appropriate technology” movement of the 1970s, it’s accompanied by claims of a “revolutionary” new kind of personal autonomy that comes from making things in your garage and becoming an entrepreneur. A fatal flaw, says Morozov, is that:
In this vision, it’s up to individuals to accommodate themselves to the system rather than to try to reform it. The shrinking of political imagination that accompanies such attempts at doing more with less usually goes unremarked.
Morozov concludes by citing some of the important debates that accompanied the 1970s fad of “hackerdom,” framing the analogies between then and now as follows [with explanations of earlier references from the article inserted in square brackets]:
One thinker who saw through the naïveté of Illich, the Homebrewers, and the Whole Earthers was the libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Back in the late sixties, he published a fiery essay called “Towards a Liberatory Technology,” arguing that technology is not an enemy of craftsmanship and personal freedom. Unlike [Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart] Brand, though, Bookchin never thought that such liberation could occur just by getting more technology into everyone’s hands; the nature of the political community mattered. In his book “The Ecology of Freedom” (1982), he couldn’t hide his frustration with the “access-to-tools” mentality. Bookchin’s critique of the counterculture’s turn to tools parallels [women’s rights pioneer Mary] Dennett’s critique of the aesthetes’ turn to education eighty years earlier [in the early 20th century Arts and Crafts movement]. It didn’t make sense to speak of “convivial tools,” he argued, without taking a close look at the political and social structures in which they were embedded.
A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channeling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors. Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like “Cool Tools,” is at its zenith. (Never before have so many had access to thermostatically warmed toilet seats.) But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”
The lure of the technological sublime has ruined more than one social movement, and, in this respect, even Mary Dennett fared no better than [Homebrew Computer Club founder Lee] Felsenstein. For all her sensitivity to questions of inequality, she also believed that, once “cheap electric power” is “at every village door,” the “emancipation of the craftsman and the unchaining of art” would naturally follow. What electric company would disagree?