During a recent event with Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio, we focused on the topic of decentralization. It got me thinking about the manifestation, and consequence, of pre-centralization. In particular, what did the 18th and 19th century pre-industrial landscape in the United Kingdom look like in terms of production, making, and craft? Obviously agriculture and its associated activities played a far larger role in the UK economy at the time, and it employed a larger labor force than it does in today. But agriculture is still significant in many countries’ economies, and therefore I thought it is an appropriate place from which to start. Don’t despair: this piece doesn’t eulogize a pre-mechanized world of rural idylls, undivided labour and the happy artisan. Instead, I am interested in how decentralized production enabled an object’s common form to proliferate into numerous varieties, each one responding to local contexts.
The billhook is a seemingly simple one-handed cutting tool used for a range of pruning, hedging and coppicing activities. Its history can be traced as far back as 1000 BCE, and it has close relatives all around the globe such as the Indian akkuruval. Like the lota discussed by Wallace in “The Internet as a Lota”, the billhook is an artifact that found various forms over the course of thousands of iterations. These forms were not so much designed but rather evolved. Similar to Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos, this evolution resulted in species of billhooks with a huge variety of specialist adaptations across geographical regions in the UK.

Darwin’s finches by John Gould.

The range of English billhooks by Jack Wilson.
The shapes vary from county to county, and differences have also been identified from town to town, with a unique billhook even found in a village of only 50 people. Historically, these tools were produced by the local makerspace, i.e. the smithy. The regional differences found in blade length, beek shape, hooks size, etc. are rooted in specific local use that’s driven by the particular environments of the region. So, even across a small country such as the UK, the differing climates and geologies privilege particular indigenous and crop species to flourish more than others. In turn, these crops require slightly differing approaches to management. This variation drives changes to make the most optimal tool for the job at hand.

Interestingly, this is not a design innovation process. Rather than radically “rethinking” the production process or resulting solution, this system incrementally accrues the knowledge and skill to create handthought, not just handmade, artifacts. It empowers multiple communities of makers, not just a single designer, and it emphasizes the importance of local learning and knowledge. Arguably, this craft approach improves local resilience to change. For example, if the regional agricultural practices change slightly, there are the resources and knowledge to tweak the local tools accordingly. The power of this evolutionary craft approach, rather than design innovation, appears to have been recognized by the centralized, urban industrial manufacturers in the first half of the 20th century as they took over most of the UK’s agricultural tool production. Even sales catalogues in the 1970’s still list tens of billhook designs, often in multiple sizes, and still named after their regional heritage.

In conclusion, is this model of decentralized vernacular making of any relevance when considering the challenges of the 21st century internet and burgeoning field of IoT? Echoing Wallace’s call to recognize the complexities of individual lived experience, we are seeing how centralized Internet platforms are restricting and limiting the individual’s power to control and change the shape of their online lives. Major internet companies dominate our imagination for how we might interact online. What if, instead, there were more nuanced and poetic approaches?

I would promote similar aspirations for local communities being able to control their online lives. The billhook story provides a useful example of local production being independent of centralized systems. It is truly grounded in the needs of a local community and therefore facilitates the crafted evolution of artifacts and technologies that fit the specific needs of the context out of which they were born. There are significant challenges in developing this craft approach and grounding its ethos in real-world IoT projects, such as:

Skills: like the blacksmith, the skills of the technologist are not quickly acquired or easily won. Nurturing local competency and skill capacity is a long term mission, as is its continual development and sustenance.
People & Roles: if the ethos of this approach is grounded in local community knowledge and skills, what roles do external people, such as designers, technologists and researchers, play in facilitating and supporting the instigation of such activities?
Materials & Logistics: the nature of digital hardware, in its material composition and micro-scale complexity, makes it impossible to produce locally from scratch. But, like the raw materials imported into local blacksmith shops, the components should be efficiently sourced and delivered.
Time: the craft approach is slow, iterative and incremental, not rapid and disruptive. How can testing be carried out in a funding environment that wants and expects rapid results, and may promote impact, but rarely funds projects over a long enough period to support it?
I argue that there is value in a craft approach for the Internet of Things. Especially given their physical embodiment, Internet connected devices should be adapted to their local contexts. Local digital craft, that draws on local knowledge and needs, could create a healthier, more inclusive, more resilient way of working and connecting today.
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