The Null Device


In the past, hand-made goods used to be considered inferior; cheap, flawed, jerry-rigged substitutes for expensive manufactured products. Nowadays, perfectly mass-manufactured goods are cheap, almost to the point of disposability. Hand-crafted items, meanwhile, have become signifiers of status, their flaws and imperfections representing individuality and artisanal values, in opposition to the alienatingly sterile qualities of assembly-line products. (That bag hand-sewn from drink containers by some dude in Berlin or Portland may not be as solidly made, well-designed or otherwise fit for purpose—in a prosaic, bourgeois way—as one manufactured in Shenzhen by the million, but what you lose in build quality and materials, you get back tenfold in the warm fuzzy feeling of being part of something outside the corporate-consumerist mainstream, i.e., differentiating yourself from the wrong kinds of white people who shop at Wal-Mart and eat at McDonald's.)

Writing in Make (a magazine of the maker culture—a new hobbyist culture with a focus on repurposing existing items, from cheap consumer electronics to flat-packed furniture, often for fun), Cory Doctorow speculates on how the corporations will attempt to commodify this trend, extrapolating from the already prevalent practice of having call centres in low-wage countries full of workers trained to pretend to be American/British/Australian to a vision of a manufactured replica of an anti-corporate maker counterculture, conjured out of the whole cloth using low-wage labour and business-process outsourcing methods:

Will we soon have Potemkin crafters whose fake, procedurally generated pictures, mottoes, and logos grace each item arriving from an anonymous overseas factory?
Will the 21st-century equivalent of an offshore call-center worker who insists he is “Bob from Des Moines” be the Guangzhou assembly-line worker who carefully “hand-wraps” a cellphone sleeve and inserts a homespun anti-corporate manifesto (produced by Markov chains fed on angry blog posts from online maker forums) into the envelope?
If it happens, it won't be unprecedented. Ersatz authenticity (from studiedly shitty-looking advertiser-sponsored zines to ProTools plugins for making major-label alternative bands sound grungy and lo-fi) is big business.

authenticity commodification deception diy 1