Rethinking Redundancy: Making, Materials and Skills for Survival

Chris Gibson

University of Wollongong


A widespread assumption in advanced economies has been that the decline of manufacturing is inevitable. Within this narrative, making is usurped by a transition to knowledge work and additive technologies, where the real value of a product is said to be in its intellectual or design content, not its material fabrication. In this paper I seek to challenge this narrative, in two ways. First, I question the ontological and political premises underpinning the false distinction between making material things and creative labour processes. The rise of 3D printing, craft and home-based forms of manufacturing not only blurs the distinction, but challenges gendered and classed assumptions about regional industrial inheritances, the location of production innovation, and seemingly 'redundant' skills among manufacturing workers to make and re-make objects through the manipulation of physical materials. Second, I expose the shortcomings of economic metanarratives that over-emphasise human dynamism (via capitalist technological revolutions), all the while relying on stable, rather than catastrophic, conceptions of socio-ecological futures. Given the spectre of environmental crisis, what things should we make (and re-make), using new and old manufacturing techniques, and inside and outside waged labour? What kinds of dormant practices of making and using things can be retrieved, and how might these rekindle connections with the animate qualities of the materials themselves? What roles are there for the state, and for culture and creativity in refocusing forms of material work and production? Do we also need an anti-innovation culture? If this all sounds too cerebral, I will illustrate the argument using diverse empirical examples including surfboards, bricks, cowboy boots, and car battery chargers.