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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Contesting Common Assumptions: Technological Development and DIY Products

Satisfaction gained from 'primitive' do-it-yourself activities (like homebrewing) challenges the idea that technical innovation always leads to increased social good.

Gathering fuel for maple syrup evaporation.
Propane would be easier; wood is more fun.
By Wes Eaton

Recently I have been considering questions of how new technologies and their related social practices come into being. By “technologies” I am referring to a whole range of technical artifacts, from small, handheld objects like sledgehammers and iPhones to larger technology systems like highways and nuclear power plants, and by “come into being” I mean how technologies are transformed from ideas into material things and social activity around those things. Recent research on technologies tells us that many common understandings of these processes are missing out on what’s really going on. For instance, it's common to hear people make the argument that technological innovation always provides societal benefits, and that technologies are getter better or more efficient all the time.

What are these common claims missing? Essentially, they are glossing over the work it takes to introduce new technologies and champion certain designs and arrangements over others. Some social researchers like to point out that “natural science” scientists are also “social” scientists, meaning that scientists such as engineers not only invent material things, like smart phones, but they need to convince others, in this case consumers, that their product, out of so many other options, is worth uptake. Their job is considered successful when consumers say, “This product, as compared with others, is the most efficient and provides social benefits.” The point then is to recognize that seeing some technologies as beneficial or more efficient than others is itself an accomplishment, the achieving of which requires the imposition of some technological designs—and human preferences—at the expense of others. In other words, there is a power struggle going on that often gets covered up with assumptions that one choice is “naturally” better than the other.

Let’s see how this works in the realm of food-related do-it-yourself (DIY) activities, such as food preserving, preparing, and beer- and wine-making. I have three points to share. First, if we look at our own DIY hobbies, we see that efficiency and “natural” design choices do not hold up. For example, in an earlier article, I discussed my hobby of making maple syrup annually each spring. Compared to larger producers, I use a smallish pan, about 2’ x 4’, and evaporate syrup outdoors over a wood fire and on top of cinder blocks. My sap team and I set out and haul around about sixty 3-gallon buckets and tap as many trees. So while there are many more trees that could be tapped, more “efficient” methods of transporting sap to the syrup pan, and more productive evaporative designs—all of which are within our present capacities—the point of this illustration is to note that certain scales of operation are more conducive to enjoyment, regardless of their efficiency. We could think about home brewing in a similar fashion, asking, how big do we want to get with this practice?

Second, when we do “scale up” and perhaps open a brewery, a bakery or a winery, we get a glimpse at the way technical artifacts—in this case food/beverage products—are transformed from a range of possibilities into claims about “this is naturally best.” A clear example of this is the “default” categories all around us that we see as “natural.” For instance, in written language, authors used and continue to use the words “men” and “man” in reference to all types of people, and white people generally grace the cover of cereal boxes and play the lead roles on television. I find this to be particularly interesting in the realm of beer. The word “beer” for instance is closely associated with cans of, say, Budweiser. Craft beer of course works to challenge these default positions, first by raising awareness of alternatives and then by challenging the construction of the definition of “beer” itself.

The point I want to emphasize is that upsetting these taken-for-granted realities is a struggle and challenge since, once instilled, these common understandings are difficult to disentangle from what we perceive to be "reality," which is itself comprised of countless default positions. This is not a trivial point, and one that I feel innovative brewers, marketers, and PR agents take to heart. Much like Plato’s “Ideal Forms,” we use default understandings—which we may see as “inherent”—to make sense out of what a thing should be. For example, when people taste a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale for the first time, if the beverage is thought of as a “beer,” the experience will most certainly be shocking. I know it was for me! Why? I learned “beer” was a fizzy yellow corny beverage that made you belch. While this is changing, I am identifying it as a hurdle for artisan producers of multiple products.

I have one final point related to efficiency arguments. Craft producers are in a unique position in that they are using “traditional,” in the sense of less-than-the-most-efficient practices and technologies, to produce their products. For instance, American Imperial Stouts and massive IPAs require excessive amounts of ingredients, ingredients that could likely be used alternatively to produce multiple batches of more typical products. Whether or not this is a “waste” is a matter of one’s perception of (a range of) resources. Ask your local brewer about this. At the same time, breweries, especially Michigan breweries, are rapidly increasing their production, which means more and more of these massive beers need to be produced. Doing so requires both the inefficiencies of traditional practices, but also the capacity to do so on increasingly large scales.

To bring this together, the point that I want to share is that technologies—and in this case I discussed food products—are not driven by efficiency or social benefits alone. Specifically, for food products, the equivalent argument is that product design choices, despite competitive markets, are not only about efficiency and quality, but instead reflect political tensions between competing visions. It is only the (temporary) winner who has people saying, for instance, “now THIS is a beer!”

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