Lydia Nicholas, UCL Digital Anthropology, @lydnicholas
In UCL’s digital anthropology department, students are never allowed to forget that digital practices are performed by physical bodies, and that informants are embodied and situated, carrying their own culture with them as they write code, comment anonymously, or direct avatars to move through virtual environments.
I was interested in the flow of habit and meaning in the opposite direction- how experiences in digital spaces -such as familiarity with the affordances of writing code- could feed into informants’ understanding of the non-digital. The political side of this process is explored in depth by Keltys and Coleman. Yet I wanted to investigate how experiences manipulating digital objects might affect one’s expectations of the affordances of the physical world on a more prosaic level. If users carry culture into digital spaces, surely they carry new or developed knowledge, assumptions, habitus back out. Anyone who has stood frustrated in a rearranged supermarket and felt an unfulfillable urge to press ‘search’ may understand.
Sugru is a self-setting silicon rubber coloured black, white, red yellow or blue sold in 5 gram packets for £12.99. Once a packet is opened the substance is flexible enough to mould for about 30 minutes before beginning to set into its final form which is waterproof, heatproof up to 180°C, strong, slightly flexible, and capable of sticking to almost any surface- plastic, metal, glass, ceramics, wood, etc.
In late 2012 I did a small study exploring how the politics and affordances of digital culture influence physical making and mending through the use and marketing of Sugru. I interviewed and collected narrative accounts from 28 Sugru users, sampled by approaching those who tweeted or posted to Facebook publically about having bought or used Sugru, and recruiting through those respondents’ networks. I studied the company’s marketing materials and social media activity, and contacted the company to ask for interviews- due to time constraints they directed me to specific preferred interviews which were already available publicly online.
Full disclosure: I used Sugru to fix the split case of the laptop on which wrote I this article
‘Hacking’ and ‘fixing’ objects with Sugru are practices by which consumers exercise creativity and skill to exert power over products in resistance to a culture of mass-consumption. Consumers used conceptual models drawn from digital material culture and hacker culture, particularly Free/ Open Source Software (F/OSS) movements (Coleman 2012), to re-imagine technologies which had been black boxed (Bijker 1987) as open and amenable to adaptation. Whilst it is true more generally that ‘moments of socio-technical closure… are illusionary’ and that objects are always part of a continual narrative of ‘consumption, practice, and meaning’ (Shove et al. 2007) in these practices of ‘fixing’ as described by my informants, consumers were particularly conscious of this process of changing and developing the narratives of their objects by opening them- unscrewing boxes, escaping legal restrictions, and the extending the object’s functionality beyond that endowed by the original producer. Through this form of ‘craft consumption’ (Campbell 2005) consumers were able to extend the work of ‘translating products from alienable condition’ (Miller 1987) beyond the stylistic to the functional, fitting products’ material properties to the precise needs of their particular situation, thereby performing power and avoiding waste. These processes were framed as part of political projects, and ‘fixes’ were shared with others both to demonstrate the fixer’s skill and ethics, but also in the hope of gaining adherents to these projects.
Definitions of ‘hacking’ and ‘fixing’ were contested and ambiguity caused confusion amongst users with different backgrounds who came together to discuss their work. Sugru confronted this problem in its FAQ section:
Why do you talk about ‘hacking’? That word means something different to me…
There are many definitions of the word hack; for us a hack is a clever solution to an everyday problem. We feel that it captures a strong can-do attitude that we hope inspires people to take control of their stuff. (Sugru n.d.a)
The use of ‘hack’ to mean ‘to cope with’ or a person who can and will do ‘any kind of work’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2012) predates computers, but the pride many informants took in saying “I’m a hacker” made it clear that they did not conceive of ‘hacking’ as substandard workarounds. Rather, ‘hackers’ enjoyed demonstrating power over objects through exercising creativity and skill in a manner which echoed the affective experience of software development described by Coleman as “the joy that follows from the self-directed realization of skills, goals, and talents.” ‘Hacks’ were an exercise in ‘control’ because products were seen to be influenced by the intentions of their mass-producer in ways which restricted their fit into the consumer’s life. F/OSS hacker culture is scornful of legal restrictions on software and explicitly connects the right to modify with the right to free speech (Coleman 2012). This leads to the extension of the understanding of ‘brokenness’ to include objects that are capable of performing the functionality intended by their producer but are not open to adaptation to the consumer’s individual needs. This allowed the gradual (and by no means total) replacement of ‘hack’ with ‘fix’. Drawing from F/OSS culture means that this model has inherited the movement’s political concerns with resisting the wider cultural system which enables and implements restrictions and creates products which are wastefully inefficient fits to consumer needs. It is no coincidence that Sugru’s original slogan ‘hack things better’ was replaced in June 2012 with ‘the future needs fixing’ (Sugru n.d.b)
Whilst other similar products such as Arduino and Makerbot use similar vocabularies and political messages, and are also often used to alter or improve the functionality of objects owned by the user- automating the watering of plants, replacing plastic components of broken printers, etc- they both require the use of code or digital design tools. Sugru stood out for this study as a purely physical product which demonstrated the translation between digital and physical affordances and cultural practices. The superficial similarities in material affordances between Sugru and established products aimed at craft and DIY practitioners such as epoxy resin and superglue serve as evidence that the consumptive practices associated with Sugru are not technologically determined. Campbell’s ‘craft consumer’ who creates assemblages of ‘mass-produced retail commodities’ in order to fulfil a ‘bourgeois desire for self-expression’(2005) provided a useful reference point for placing ‘fixing’ in the context of available models of consumption. In this model consumption was work, as described by Miller (1987), but Campbell’s craft consumer took this work beyond ‘merely exercise[ing] control’ over objects, and brought ‘skill, knowledge, judgement, love and passion’ to the process of translation. I built on Shove et al.’s (2007) elaboration of the particular aspect of this model which views consumers as ‘knowledgeable actors whose consumption is in some sense an expression of their capabilities and project-orientated ambitions.’ Like the DIY projects which are the focus of Shove et al.’s study, ‘fixing’ usually involved one or more mass-produced objects, and results emerged from a ‘dynamic relation between product and practise’, but the changes the original objects underwent in the course of projects were often not so radical as to result in the ‘new ‘ensemble-style products’. ‘Fixed’ products usually performed the same or similar function as they did when purchased, but the relation between user and product was changed.
Sugru was invented by Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, who is co-founder and CEO of FormFormForm Ltd., the company which produces, packages, markets and sells Sugru. The material’s affordances were designed over a period of six years’ research and development by Ní Dhulchaointigh to balance ease and pleasure of use with the flexibility to be applicable to as wide a variety of fixing and hacking projects as possible.
I want to make it easy for anyone to adapt, modify, repair and improve their stuff to make it work better for them.” (Ní Dhulchaointigh 2011)
Informants unanimously agreed that Sugru was indeed easy to use. This was considered so obviously true that questions about difficulty sometimes elicited laughs.
I used my kindergarten experience with play-doh to great effect, no tutorials really except checking hardening times,
Sugru in its pre-cured state possesses affordances which feel as familiar, intuitive and safe as children’s toys. This inspired confident, creative practises of consumption such as improvisation and experimentation even in new users. In a model of distributed knowledge (Hutchins 1993) Sugru takes on the majority of the burden for knowing how to tackle the specific chemical and physical problems within users’ idea, for instance how to stick two surfaces together, support weight or absorb shock. Thus Sugru and user form a human-non-human hybrid (Latour 1993) that is immediately highly capable. Being easier to use did not lead consumers to do the same thing quicker but instead led Sugru consumers to engage in significantly different patterns of practice than do the consumers of DIY products investigated by Shove et al. (2007:63). Because the DIY products were expensive and inflexible, and skill in specific DIY activities increased through experience, the competencies gained and leftover resources of tools and materials from each project had a significant effect on the next project, propelling users along a ‘career trajectory.’ In contrast Sugru’s flexibility, low cost, and lack of skill barrier engendered openness and set a high value on creativity. Users narrated sequences of projects which wandered at the whim of inspiration:
“made feet for metal speaker stands to keep them off new wood floor, fixed a thermos, fixed a ginormous stand-up to use shoe-horn, made a grip modification for a SLR camera, made grip modification to spoon for a disabled person, made numerous hacks to exterior of my stucco walled house to make climbing vines from plants that wouldn’t normally do that.” John
Whilst the product opened these possibilities it did so in a dynamic relationship with consumers’ ability to conceive of the physical products they owned as open to fixing- both in terms of restoring original functionality and fitting products to their situational needs. This reframing of products and problems was influenced by digital start-ups and F/OSS culture and was actively promoted by FormFormForm Ltd.
The prominent position of the CEO in company messaging and the connection of use of the product with broader positive changes in users’ lives and an explicit political agenda which centres around using openness and creativity to improve efficiency is reminiscent of digital start-ups. FormFormForm’s headquarters and main factory is based in Hackney, a short walk from the glut of digital start-ups of Old Street’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’. When asked about the location, which is unusual for a factory, Ní Dhulchaointigh ‘insists that her company is not much different to the digital start-ups located down the road in the area nicknamed Silicon Roundabout.’(Moules 2011). These similarities are so core to FormFormForm that they alter the material itself. Sugru’s formulation is still continually updated in response to feedback from the community regarding desired qualities such as colour, stickiness and shelf-life. This flexible, iterative design enacted by ‘designers who are themselves immersed in an engaged community of users’ (Hill 2004:48) echoes practices recognised as typical of digital start-ups more than those of manufacturing. Showing users that their feedback contributes to the development of the product and the company is just one of the ways that Sugru Inc. creates a relationship with the consumers of their products which elevates them from purchasers into active participants in a larger project with a political dimension. Whilst FormFormForm is a mass-producer their quick responses to complaints or questions and the high value placed on user’s contributions of pictures and information showed them actively driving the development of a relationship based on the principles of ‘mutual aid, transparency, and complex codes of collaboration’ observed by Coleman (2012:4794) in F/OSS culture. Sugru’s official Twitter feed responds to most public mentions of using the product, in particular congratulating those who did not quickly receive responses from elsewhere.
@DM_Se7en</strong>: Fixed my stethoscope with @sugru #amazingstuff pic.twitter.com/dPJja2in
@WL_5ive Hey Dwayne, will check in with the team on this but I think that might be the first sugru-ed stethoscope we’ve seen! Awesome
@DM_Se7en</strong>: @sugru Awesome! Glad I could make history! (DM_Se7en, Sugru December 2012)</p>
Sugru did not retweet @DM_Se7en’s fix so this communication provided Sugru with no publicity or content. It served primarily to engage @WL_5ive, whose mention of Sugru had otherwise gone unheard. His response, which playfully accepts the call to conceive of his fix as part of Sugru’s narrative is typical of the exchanges I witnessed.
Many of my informants explicitly framed their fixes as a means of resistance to the culture of mass-consumption. Whilst the ‘yearning for singularization in complex societies’ (Kopytoff 1986) was a factor, a key difference was the desire to avoid consumption perceived as excessive. Campbell’s ‘craft consumers’ and Shove et al.’s DIY practitioners consume mass-produced products in their efforts to circumvent the homogenising effect of the mass-production system. Whilst it required the purchase of Sugru, fixing with Sugru was described as a way to avoid purchasing and wasting. Waste was referred to in visceral and emotive terms, and fixing as a potential path to escape or transcend it.
”It can make something last longer and avoid our disgusting human penchant for waste” Sam
“I do not believe in throwing things that are fixable away.” Sarah
“I … do not like frivolous consumption” Alex
The system of ‘belief’ which discourages ‘disgusting’ and ‘frivolous’ habits of waste is drawn from the maker movement which itself draws heavily from F/OSS culture. Ní Dhulchaointigh made this connection and its political connotations explicit by creating (through open debate in the company) ‘The Fixer’s Manifesto’ in two forms which demonstrate the combined heritage of ‘fixing’. The GitHub version of the ‘manifesto’ makes the connection between physical fixing and open source software explicit as it is not a collaborative writing platform but a leading free tool for collaborative software development. Its use is a core practise in both digital start-ups and F/OSS projects and requires knowledge of technical language. The poster version includes a pen and explicit call to edit the text, the description includes precise details about the materials, processes and brands of its component parts. This renders it open to comprehension and modification echoing in physical form the affordances of open source code. The text of the manifesto frames the act of fixing as the use of creative self-expression to resistance the wastefulness of mass-consumption.
“Everyday practical problem solving is the most beautiful form of creativity there is… Resist trends and needless upgrades. They fuel our throwaway culture.”
This creativity relies on the ability to conceive objects as open to fixing and individuals as having the right and the responsibility to fix.
“If it’s broken, fix it!… If it’s not broken, improve it… People are infinitely diverse. Products should be too.” (Fixers Manifesto n.d.)
Products are reframed as physically alterable, with ultimate responsibility for rendering them fit for individual needs delegated to the consumer rather being controlled by the producer. This effort to unpack black boxes owes much to the work of F/OSS culture, as in the note routinely included in OSS source code:
“This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.”
Warranties are a part of the process which black boxes technologies (Bijker & Pinch 1987). By requiring that their products be used only as specified in the warranty, or by making products which cannot be opened or modified without being damaged mass-producers retain power over objects after purchase, preventing consumers from altering products in order to fully ‘translate’ them to diverse contexts. The object retains properties and features which are not ‘fitting’ and so potentially wasteful. Resistance to this aspect of mass consumption is evident in the above note which explicitly moves the product of F/OSS developers labour outside of the mass-market, beyond the sanctions of warranties. Coleman (2012) remarks that the statement possesses “subtle irony” because “even if developers cannot legally guarantee the so-called FITNESS of software, they know that in many instances free software is often as useful as or in some cases superior to proprietary software.”
This resistance to boundaries in favour of openness is clear in the phrase “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it”, the motto of Make magazine “a central organ of the maker movement”(‘More than just digital quilting’ 2011). The motto was first published in 2006 as subheading to their “Owner’s Manifesto” which details practical ways in which mass-produced products should be made easier to open and to understand.
“Cases shall be easy to open.”
“Circuit boards shall be commented.” (Mister Jalopy, 2006)\
Informants who had a background in software development made a direct connection between their own affective experience of software development and their expectations of physical products in their possession and their ability to understand and affect the properties of those products, thereby furthering the process of translation from ‘alienable condition’ to a meaningful fit.
“I try to fix and make as much as possible… I think this is driven, in part, from my job as a Software Developer which has taught me that most things in life can be made by yourself given the right knowledge and drive. I find that it gives my life a little more meaning knowing that I’ve made/fixed something which I rely on.”
Those who didn’t have direct experience of software development still used its language to frame their practices. Physically adapting products extended the scope of consumers’ work of appropriation, the depth of meaning they ascribed to objects, and the power they believed they had over those objects, which they related to a wider system of power inherent in a culture of mass production. Speaking of products which were had long been owned and incorporated into their ‘stylistic array’ informants reported that after fixing them they felt “more attached” and that such consumptive work “feels like you take ownership of your stuff.” The pride many took in money they had saved by employing their own creativity and skill in fixes was another aspect of this resistance of waste. Whilst feeling ‘proud’ of their work was one motivation for consumers to describe fixes to friends, individual use cases could be seen as ‘a bit trivial’. More often they reported an interest in discussing their interest in fixing and the associated culture and practices.
“I’m proud of it so I do mention it to people, mostly to spread awareness of Sugru and even more so of cost cutting via make-do-and-mend mentality.” Laura
Ironically, affective experiences of digital material culture and the consumptive practices that emerged from those practices have led a growing number of consumers to become newly interested and active in exploring the materiality of the physical products that they consume, and the power they can exert over the material features and functionality of their property.
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