Untouched By Human Hands

Untouched By Human Hands

Cory Doctorow Make Free Volume 25
Cory Doctorow Make Free

I spent most of 2008 researching my novel For the Win, which is largely set in the factory cities of South China’s Pearl River Delta. If you own something stamped MADE IN CHINA (and you do!), chances are it was made in one of these cities, where tens of millions of young women have migrated since the combination of Deng Xiao Ping’s economic reforms and the World Trade Organization agreement set in motion the largest migration in human history.

It’s difficult to characterize the products of these factories: everything from high-priced designer goods to the cheapest knockoff originates there (on average, one container per second leaves South China for America, every second of every hour of every day).

But there’s one characteristic almost all these products share: they’re produced on an assembly line, and they’re supposed to look like it. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine a mainstream store that sold handmade goods for the purpose of daily use by average people.

The notion of “handmade” has undergone several revolutions in the past century, its meaning alternating between “precious and artisanal” and “cheap and inferior.”

Artisanal fashions have likewise swung between the two poles of “rough and idiosyncratic” and “all seams hidden, every rough edge sanded away.”

Today, the fit and finish that the most careful, conscientious artisan brings to her creations usually ends up making them look machine-
finished, injection-molded, seamless as if they were untouched by human hands, not because they were lovingly handled until every blemish was gone.

What’s more, the increasing awareness of the environmental and human cost of intensive manufacturing has started to give factory goods a whiff of blood and death.

Your new mobile phone was made by a suicidal Foxconn worker, from coltan mud extracted by slaves in a brutal dictatorship, shipped across the ocean in a planet-warming diesel freighter, and it’s destined to spend a million years in a landfill, leaching poison into the water table.

Make Free Volume 25 Pullquote

Which leads me to wonder: is there a boardroom somewhere where a marketing and product design group is trying to figure out how to make your next Happy Meal toy, laptop, or Ikea table look like it was handmade by a MAKE reader, recycled from scrap, and sold on Etsy?

Will we soon have Potemkin crafters whose fake, procedurally generated pictures, mottoes, and logos grace each item arriving from an anonymous overseas factory?

Will the 21st-century equivalent of an offshore call-center worker who insists he is “Bob from Des Moines” be the Guangzhou assembly-line worker who carefully “hand-wraps” a cellphone sleeve and inserts a homespun anti-corporate manifesto (produced by Markov chains fed on angry blog posts from online maker forums) into the envelope?

I wouldn’t be surprised. Our species’ capacity to commodify everything — even the anti-commodification movement — has yet to meet its match. I’m sure we’ll adapt, though.

We could start a magazine for hobbyists who want to set up nostalgic mass-production assembly lines that use old-fashioned injection molders to stamp out stubbornly identical objects in reaction to the corporate machine’s insistence on individualized, 3D-printed, fake artisanship.

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is For the Win (Tor Books U.S., HarperVoyager U.K.). He lives in London and co-edits Boing Boing.

This column first appeared in MAKE Volume 25 on page 16.

Check out MAKE Volume 25:
MAKE Volume 25: Arduino Revolution
Give your gadgets a brain! Previously out of reach for the do-it-yourselfer, the tiny computers called microcontrollers are now so cheap and easy to use that anyone can make their stuff smart. With a microcontroller, your gadget can sense the environment, talk to the internet or other hardware, and make things happen in the real world by controlling motors, lights, or any electronic device.


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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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