Friday, January 15, 2016

[Yasmin_discussions] Transformative and Critical Making

At the outset, I would like to extrapolate from some points mentioned by Dr
Malina that I found extremely insightful in the shaping my thoughts around
some aspects of critical making. I find Seb Franklin's view of control
systems being an infinite continuum of socio-cultural feedback loops to be
an elegant model that does not differentiate between analog and digital
practices, modes of production and representation of information, the human
and the virtual machine, and places interfaces of contention within the
framework of embodied cognition.
I find the epochal differentiation of 'anthropocene' and 'digital' made by
Colette Tron to be different from the above view but probably best pursued
in another thread (infact 'anthropocene' as a world view proliferated on
the web collective - as discussed in a post of mine with Dr Bruno Latour An interesting point raised by Colette to describe
the points of transition between 'making as self-reflection' and 'making
for merchandising' has catalyzed some parallels that I would like to draw
with respect to dynamics in the evolution of 'network society'.

It is apt to bring to light the life of an inventor and maker, one Mr Almon
Strowger, whose important contribution to communication networks was born
from the 'business of death'. For Strowger was an undertaker in Missouri,
in a town where there was yet another undertaker whose wife began to work
as a switching operator in the local telephone exchange. Every time a call
came in regarding a death of a person in need for a coffin and funeral
service, the wife routed the call to her husband, thereby putting Strowger
out of business. The hapless Strowger gained inspiration to make a
brilliant machanical contraption that could automatically switch calls
giving rise to the first automated telephone network also popularly
referred to in engineering text books as the Strowger Switch. ( Consequently was formed in 1892,
the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company at Indiana with about 75
subscribers. Strowger later sold his patents for a paltry $10,000 in 1898
to the Automatic Electric Company, a competitor of Bell System's Western
Electric. His patents were eventually acquired by Bell systems for $2.5
million in 1916, showing just how much growth and investor interest the
telephone industry had gained by then.

As automatic circuit-switched telephone networks expanded rapidly,
connecting disparate regions around the globe, the 1960s saw the birth of
the ARPANET, that later evolved to the internet as we know it today. In
contrast to mechanical circuit switching employed by telephone lines, the
internet works on packet switching, where 'soft switches' routed
information between source and destination using the physical network,
sparking a war between 'carriers' of information and their providers, which
has culminated in the debate of 'net-neutrality' as we know it even today.

It is debatable wether the 'invention' of Strowger to cater to his own
self-interest, that later revolutionized the telephone industry maybe
called 'Critical Making', nevertheless the intention of the 'instrument'
that he created, was to remove information bias and promote fair
competition within a neutral network. The making of the internet on the
other hand cannot be attributed to a single person as the free and open
source stack of the ARPANET was built by a community of chosen scientists
in 2 weeks for an 'exhibition' at the first International Conference on
Computer Communication (1972). The numerous trust-based protocols of
interaction and exchange, standards, and algorithms that keep the internet
alive are part of a free and open source stack. Yet, the very same open
stacks have been used to make closed and proprietary systems that govern a
vast amount of processes in today's networked society.

My goal here is not to pitch critical making for 'open systems' against
'closed ones' but to call for the need to situate Critical Making into the
larger framework of Intellectual Property regimes that exist in a constant
flux between being open and closed, beyond the argument of 'Property
Rights'. In developed countries this debate often weighs the rights of the
owner vs the moral rights of the user, but in developing economies the
conversation moves beyond ' permission based fair use' doctrines and
'creative commons approaches', that has often witnessed the use of content
in a way that breaks all norms in intellectual property regimes.
Furthermore, I feel there is a need to analyze differences in the notion
and perception of 'Openness' and 'Fair use' in both these regions.

Yet another meta layer associated with Critical making has been
Attribution, which can be gamed as well. On one hand 'Attribution' (self or
community driven) has taken the role of 'incentivizing' the critical maker
to produce and publish his work in the open domain, while on the other hand
there are critical makers who embrace 'anonymity' and sometimes even 'false
attribution', if the making activity bears undertones of subverting
socio-political norms.

Today's networked society is driven by a 'search engine bias', where
equitable access to the network , open access to knowledge, and the tenets
of net-neutrality have yet again come under threat. As the internet is in
the throes of renewal in 2016 with the US Department of Commerce & ICANN
pulling out of internet governance, will we see a more equitably
distributed network topology emerge across nations built on the same open
values in which the internet was made?How differently must 'Critical
Making', the publication of the Critical Making processes and the knowledge
be aligned to embrace the values of the very same open network that its
proliferation rides on? How will the makers of this medium evolve to become
transformative pallbearers of the old networks's funeral rather than take
the role of the undertaker's wife?

I request your feedback along with any readings that might make the above
thoughts more lucid. In my next post I would like to address the Critical
making movement through the lens of my own practice as a radio frequency
hacker and amateur radio astronomer in the intersection of the arts and

Sharath Chandra Ram
(Sharathchandra Ramakrishan)
Faculty, Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology
Researcher, Centre for Internet and Society
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