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.


16 thoughts on “Untouched By Human Hands

  1. John Stoner says:

    You know, the Reprap desktop manufacturing revolution is starting slow, but it’s picking up a little speed. It’s still a ways from crossing the chasm, but it’s looking more and more inevitable. Economies of flexibility over scale are not just for bits. They’ll be for atoms too, soon enough, and I think the Chinese model of hypercentralized production for most things won’t survive that.

    If/when that happens, the pattern of ‘commoditization’ will shift profoundly, if it doesn’t go away altogether. I imagine a long process of gradual decommoditization, as more and more parts are subject to desktop production.

  2. Brian says:

    I have thought that the inevitable end to the problem of digital forgery would be the “return” of signing things in blood. That is including actual DNA in the artifact. Even if DNA could be forged the effort in decoding and then synthsising a useful amount of an individual genome, not to mention getting it into convincing hair, blood etc, would be prohibitive for most applications. Will crafters eventually embed bits of thier “flesh and Blood into thier products as proof of “craftyness” with universal access to product data (who remembers “spimes”) it would be relativly easy to send a spider out to see if genome x was on 1 item or 10 or 10 thousand.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I really like the visual of “Markov chains fed on angry blog posts.”

  4. Suzanne LaForest says:

    Take a look at Regretsy’s (www.regretsy.com) hilariously sad posts on Anthropologie and Etsy. Anthropologie is blatantly ripping off Etsy goods and mass producing them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Short version: Yes, old guys in spats and monocles are waxing their moustaches while looking for ways to appropriate and mass-produce authenticity, in between puffs on their robustos.

    Longer version: The suits tell their creatives and designers to figure out what’s hot, and said designers, many of whom are fans of Make/Core 77/etc. look for things with appeal to the public at large. In its search for novelty, the mainstream will always consume the avant-garde.

    Personally, I have the most respect and affection for those companies/artisans/designers/etc. who just do their own thing, their own way, and let the world come to them if it feels like it, but they don’t lose much sleep either way. If hemlines are long this year they’ll be short next year.

  6. Bradley Gawthrop says:

    I don’t want to be a troll here, but this is getting out of hand.

    “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.”

    Over-the-top much? This is the sort of extra strength scoldsmanship that makes Doctorow such a tedious pundit, at times. He surely cannot have missed the fact (now thoroughly documented) that suicide rates among Foxconn employees are substantially lower than the Chinese national average. Similarly the amounts of Tantalum (the end product of coltan mud) in a mobile phone are vanishingly small, and most Tantalum doesn’t originate in “brutal dictatorships” but in Australia. Since ROHS, most mobile phones no longer contain any lead to be leached into the water table. Planet-warming diesel freighter? don’t get me started.

    Mr. Doctorow is much too well read and much too smart not to know these things, so why is he trying to manipulate us with this hyperbolic guiltmongering melodrama?

    This is not the first time that Make has published an article by Doctorow with absolutely nothing of value to Makers in it; at least this one wasn’t a political rant.

    1. Anonymous says:

      “Mr. Doctorow is much too well read and much too smart not to know these things, so why is he trying to manipulate us with this hyperbolic guiltmongering melodrama?”


      My big gripe with Doctorow’s column is that if I really wanted to read that sort of thing, I could easily get it for free from BoingBoing, The Guardian, or the guy in line ahead of me at Whole Foods. You could probably replace him with a Perl script that takes a headline as an input without most people knowing the difference. I get that Make’s formula is one part instructional DIY book, one part “Dwell with a drill press,” but sometimes the engineering-to-liberal arts ratio gets really low.

      Personally, I’d love to see that space used to feature more people who are *living* the ideas that Doctorow writes about–the artists, artisans, and garage manufacturers who quietly pay their rent by making things rather than shouting slogans.

  7. TWIID #36 | Northern Beaches Websites says:

    […] Untouched by Human Hands […]

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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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