Challenges and Opportunities in Building the Hardware to Change the World

Two weeks into the internship, and we’re packing up a 15 passenger van with 2 tons of steel, 13 people, and enough food and equipment for a week of camping. We’re driving to Wisconsin to lead our first workshop on the CEB Press at Mid State Technical College, and showcasing it at the renewable energy fair. We’ve all finished out module instructionals and have received some elementary training on welding. Here we go.

A lot as gone on since I arrived, and we’re all pretty well versed in the rhythms of doing intensive collaborative work. A few days before we left, I had a long talk with Catarina Mota, an Open Source Pioneer who works with OSE, about her most recent research on the changing landscape of technology, hardware, and democracy across the world. We discussed how there is a growing discourse around the need to find some means of democratizing technology, and that this is a widely agreed upon sentiment in many academic spheres. But, as Catarina pointed out, very few people are talking about DOING as a means of democratizing. Some people will suggest shifting policies, others want a means of community control, but who is talking about democratizing technology by crowd sourcing it? This helped give me some perspective on the impact Open Source Ecology is having on the world. They are the leading organization in Open Source Hardware, and they are doing their work on a global scale. More importantly, they are living proof that this model of open collaboration is viable and achievable even when you are collaboration is often spatially limited (you need to be in the same place at the same time to build a machine together, unlike collaborative computer coding or information compilation).

But still, I wonder about the challenges we face on the way. I write as if their model is flawless and efficient, but it is far from it. We met many of these challenges in the past few weeks. It turns out modular is not necessarily as clean and easy as I suggested. There are tons of tiny design flaws that are not realized until after the machine is built, there are many different formats of designing and building that are not necessarily aligned with one another. There are many questions around the kind of efficiency that we want (sure, we can build an entire house in a day, but shouldn’t we allow it to take more time so we can anticipate some of the structural problems before putting it all together?).

And what about the challenges of people working together? There is a type of diversity strongly present at OSE—that of geography, perspective, life goals, and nationalities, but there is also a degree of homogeneity present as well. The majority of people here identifies as White, Straight, come from middle class backgrounds, attended college, and so on. Being at OSE is a privilege in itself; to take time of work, pay money to work here, have access to information and knowledge necessary to be a valuable asset to the team. I wonder just how Open Source we can be. When we say that anyone can access and use this technology, what we are really saying is that anyone who knows about this project with the time, care, and knowledge necessary to engage with it, can access it.

In my darkest thoughts, I wonder if this is hardware really for the people, or if it is another form of collaboration meant only for the educated and privileged enclaves of individuals across the world. Are we building viable alternatives or building a self-help network?

I also wonder a lot about how people react to the kind of project that OSE is: intensive, built on sweat and powered by vision, deep radical potential, and so on. I think people, especially young progressive college students, have a set of expectations in their mind about how this kind of work is supposed to pan out. People don’t expect reality to smack them in the face: this is really hard work. Lots of hours, lots of crises, no 5-star hotel accommodations. It gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The septic system might not have enough diffusers, the pump might be broken, and the weather might kill all of your tomato plants. You have to deal. Be calm under pressure. It’s not that bad. I’ve learned that many people are not ready for this. We make plans and want to stick to them (but you know what they say… the Universe laughs in your face when you make plans). I should say that I’ve spent many years in thought about this, about how people react to these situations, and why I think they do, and what I have to say about it (with a lot of boring personal backstory to how I got here), but I suppose that I am simply trying to establish that there are a multitude of challenges on many different levels that we face.

But these are the dark thoughts. OSE is creating something powerfully imaginative and dangerously impactful and I am most proud that I have the privilege to be a part of it. This work is, after all, what I want to spend my life doing!

Sam Kiyomi

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