Making, Morris and a New Utopia?

In a recent episode of Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, materials scientist Mark Miodownik argues that contemporary society doesn’t lack access to information as it did in the past, rather it lacks access to tools and workshops for people to make things. He claims “making is who we are” and discusses how workshops should be at the heart of cities.

His arguments echo those of groups such as Common Futures who are exploring ways to harness the wealth of tacit knowledge within local communities and to allow this knowledge to be shared between generations.

Screen shot 2014-03-16 at 16.20.00Look back 125 years and remarkably similar sentiments were being expressed by members of the Arts and Crafts Movement such as William Morris. Morris’ socialist utopia depicted in News from Nowhere attempted to abolish divisions between life, art and work, emphasising the importance of human creativity and the pleasure of ‘good’ work. Morris’ vision harked back to a pastoral idyll, in contrast to the urban, industrialised utopias imagined by his contemporaries such as Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward. In contrast, today’s post-industrial creative maker cultures are keen to enhance the value of ‘hands-on’ activities through the new  possibilities offered by developing technologies. There’s certainly growing interest in the potential of makerspaces as the resources I recently collected together indicate, with most such environments supporting a balance of digital and craft activities. Some of my favourite ‘crossover’ items combining craft and digital making include: LED paper flowers, EL wire hula hoops and fibre optic bracelets. 

There is, however, a notable similarity between Morris’ world and our own, namely, the Screen shot 2014-03-16 at 16.20.17sense of a growing distance between production and consumption. In the late nineteenth century, Morris feared the alienation he believed resulted from the mechanisation of the production process. Today, few workers in the UK are directly connected to the production of the goods and products they use, even in the soulless fashion Morris dreaded. For white collar and service sector workers, making has ceased to be a part of working life. In such a context, could makerspaces and similar movements be an opportunity to reclaim making as the fulfilling, creative activity Morris described? At present many of the items created in makerspaces are superfluous – nobody really needs an LED paper flower!  But this does not mean such activities are irrelevant. It is the process of making and the sense of achievement, rather than the practical value of the finished product, which is important.  Perhaps, if we come to see making as a pleasurable, rewarding activity, rather than a chore, then our attitudes towards how we produce, consume and the ways in which we value various forms of work would change – the new utopia?!

Sarah McNicol

2 thoughts on “Making, Morris and a New Utopia?

  1. Brilliant bog, Sarah. Answers the question I daren’t ask (Er, James, wots a makerspace?) and alerts me to how important makerspaces might be to my own work in the coalfields where the level of unused skills is very high (little known fact: 40% of coal industry workers had completed a full trade apprenticeship!)

    • Thanks Geoff – yes I can certainly see relevance there. And a lot of the discussion at the moment is about the possibility of makerspaces in former public libraries which are no longer supported by local authorities. I suspect quite a few of these are likely to be in the type of pit village communities you work with…

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