Sara M. Watson: Welcome to MindFul Cyborgs. This is Sara Watson. I am joined [by] Klint Finley. Hey, Klint.

Klint Finley: Hey, how’s it going?

Watson: Good, how are you?

Finley: I’m good. I’m dial­ing in today from the Web 1.0 Conference in Portland.

Watson: Ooh, I’m so jeal­ous. I want­ed to be there.

Finley: Yeah, there’s some friends of the show around. Amber Case, Adam Rothstein, are float­ing around. So shout out to them.

Watson: Awesome. Is it as retro-tastic as I imag­ine it might be?

Finley: It depends on what you’re imag­in­ing, but yeah it’s been a lot of fun so far.

Watson: Well, thanks for tak­ing time out from an amaz­ing con­fer­ence to join us for the record­ing. And we have a very spe­cial guest today, Deb Chachra.

Deb Chachra: Hi, Sara.

Finley: Where are you call­ing from today? I’m at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Watson: Nice. I also hap­pen to be not in Singapore but in Massachusetts, so it’s nice to be on this side of the world for once. 

Deb is an Associate Professor at Olin College of Engineering. You may know her as @debcha on Twitter. She also has a great newslet­ter called Metafoundry, which I think in our newslet­ter con­ver­sa­tion a cou­ple episodes back we name-dropped Deb as one of our favorite newslet­ters that we’ve been sub­scribed to for a while, along with Warren Ellis and a few oth­er people.

Deb also hap­pens to be some­one who’s super cool and is real­ly good at mak­ing cock­tails. I have per­son­al­ly imbibed one and ben­e­fit­ed from her skills. She also has an amaz­ing vinyl col­lec­tion. She’s just super cool. So it’s very awe­some to have you here with us today, Deb. Thanks for join­ing us.

Chachra: Thanks. I’m hap­py to be here.

Watson: So, we have a lot of things we want to talk about today, I think, but maybe the first place to start is to get a lit­tle bit more back­ground on what it is that you do as a mate­ri­als sci­ence and engi­neer­ing educator.

Chachra: Sure. My dis­ci­pli­nary back­ground (so what my actu­al PhD is in) is study­ing bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als. So I’ve done a lot of work study­ing most­ly bone, look­ing at osteo­poro­sis and treat­ment for osteo­poro­sis, but also look­ing at how flu­o­ride in the drink­ing water affects bone. That’s what I did my PhD work on.

All of that got sort of set aside for a lit­tle bit because I came to Olin col­lege to help found the col­lege. It’s a new school. We just grad­u­at­ed our first class in 2006. So I do a lot of research in oth­er things, par­tic­u­lar­ly engi­neer­ing edu­ca­tion. But I do like to keep my hand into the bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als world. 

So besides teach­ing intro­duc­to­ry mate­ri­als sci­ence as well as teach­ing about bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als and teach­ing about mate­ri­als for implants, I do have sort of a small­ish research project that’s ongo­ing that’s look­ing at a type of plas­tic that’s made by bees.

Watson: Ooh. Tell us more about that.

Chachra: It lit­er­al­ly I think got start­ed by read­ing some­thing on the Internet about cel­lo­phane bees. And I was like oh, what are these? And I went inves­ti­gat­ing. And it turns out that there’s actu­al­ly a fam­i­ly or sub-families or bees called Colletes, and of these there’s a species that’s endem­ic to the Northeast called Colletes inae­qualis. These bees dig under­ground tun­nels that dig under their nests that they use basi­cal­ly to lay their eggs in. So they lay an under­ground nest, they line it with what looks for all the world like cel­lo­phane, they pro­vi­sion it with nec­tar and pollen, and then they lay an egg on it. And that egg. They do this in May in the spring, typ­i­cal­ly. Then, over the course of about a year, the egg hatch­es into a lar­va, it goes through var­i­ous instars, and then the fol­low­ing spring it hatch­es and basi­cal­ly digs its way out of the nest and the won­der­ful cycle of life starts all over again.

The thing that was real­ly Interesting to me is that these nest cells were plas­tic, but also the Northeast has ter­ri­ble weath­er. It’s hot and it’s cold and it’s wet. So the plas­tic was essen­tial­ly buried in the soil, but was­n’t degrad­ing. It was actu­al­ly pro­tect­ing the con­tent of the nest from basi­cal­ly mois­ture, but also bac­te­ria and fun­gi. So it was kind of an inter­est­ing mate­r­i­al. So some years ago, I got put in touch with Jeremy Rozen, who’s a senior researcher at the American Museum of Natural History who’s been study­ing bees since I think about 1958, maybe, and went to see him and start­ed learn­ing more about these bees and got put in touch with some­one who knew where Colletes nest­ed in the Boston area and went out and dug up a bunch of nest cells.

For me the super excit­ing part of that research was dis­cov­er­ing that pre­vi­ous work had shown that the nest cells were made out of plas­tic, so some­thing very sim­i­lar to a poly­ester. What we end­ed up show­ing was that they actu­al­ly lay down silk fiber first. In fact, we actu­al­ly thought we were wrong because there’s not that many adult insects that lay down silk. It’s some­thing that typ­i­cal­ly lar­vae do, so think silk­worms. But the evi­dence is actu­al­ly pret­ty clear, and there’s enough oth­er adults that do it that we think it seems plau­si­ble that adult bees lay down silk first, and then they basi­cal­ly put the plas­tic on the scaf­fold­ing of silk.

So in essence what they’re mak­ing is fiber­glass, it’s real­ly a fiber-reinforced poly­mer that con­sists of plas­tic around a scaf­fold­ing of silk. So one of my for­mer stu­dents went and con­tin­ued this work on fel­low­ship in the UK, and we’re now in the process of extend­ing this work to look at oth­er sub-families with­in this larg­er fam­i­ly to see across how many species does this type of struc­ture in the nest cells extend.

Watson: Wow. Cool. That’s such a per­fect exam­ple of the kind of wow fac­tor or, look at this total­ly fas­ci­nat­ing and weird thing that hap­pens in nature” that I I real­ly like about your whole newslet­ter and Twitter. There’s always some­thing total­ly ran­dom. Where do you find this kind of stuff?

Chachra: Mostly just sort of read­ing and hav­ing the sense of what I think inter­ests me? But the one thing I want to say about the bees is that… So these bees are endem­ic to the Northeast, so if you have kind of sandy soil in your back yard around here, you prob­a­bly have some of these bees, or you have bees that are very close­ly relat­ed. People are sort of famil­iar with hon­ey bees, and peo­ple have been think­ing about bees recent­ly, but soli­tary bees, so bees that don’t live in colonies, are still not very wide­ly known.

So the thing to me that’s sort of inter­est­ing about these is that these kind of bio-mimetic mate­ri­als are all over and we’re just not very aware of them. These bees are lit­er­al­ly beneath our feet. So there’s cer­tain­ly bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als that I think of as basi­cal­ly the charis­mat­ic megafau­na of the bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als world. Things like seashells and spi­der silk that are the sub­ject of inten­sive research by labs that are fund­ed by DARPA. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about, there’s a new North Face par­ka that’s being made out of syn­thet­ic spi­der silk, so spi­der silk that’s man­u­fac­tured by bac­te­ria. These are the things that are kind of telegenic and get a lot of play. But there’s an enor­mous world out there of bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als that we most­ly don’t even notice that are still sort of interesting.

So one rea­son why I’m inter­est­ed in these bee nests is because they’re kind of a proof of con­cept of a bio-derived plas­tic that is quite resis­tant to degra­da­tion. If you think about if you’ve ever had used biodegrad­able cut­lery, which is typ­i­cal­ly made of poly­lac­tic acid (PLA), it this sort of beige, matte-textured stuff. You’ll notice that if you start eat­ing hot soup with a spoon, before you’ve fin­ished the soup the spoon will be notice­ably dam­aged. Which is fine for dis­pos­able cut­lery. But we might be inter­est­ed in hav­ing things that are an alter­na­tive to petro­le­um plas­tics that don’t degrade in short peri­ods of time but can be bro­ken down over a long peri­od of time. And we know that these nest cells do even­tu­al­ly degrade because oth­er­wise if they did­n’t we’d be up to our eye­balls with all the nests that were cre­at­ed since the last Ice Age.

I think there’s a whole world of bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als out there that most peo­ple haven’t spent much time pay­ing atten­tion to, and those real­ly do fas­ci­nate me although as I said its only a part of what I work on these days.

Finley: Maybe we could back up a lit­tle bit and try to define what mate­ri­als sci­ence is. It’s sort of not on a lot of peo­ple’s radar all the time.

Chachra: Yeah, sor­ry. It’s the curse of the sci­en­tist. It’s like, Yes, every­one knows every­thing I know!” Materials sci­ence is the study of how typ­i­cal­ly the phys­i­cal prop­er­ties of mate­ri­als relate to the under­ly­ing struc­ture and com­po­si­tion, and then also how they’re made or the process of.

So the phys­i­cal prop­er­ties com­mon­ly used include things like mechan­i­cal prop­er­ties, how strong or how stiff things are. But it can also include things like opti­cal prop­er­ties. It can also include things like elec­tron­ic prop­er­ties, so how do semi-conductors work. I like to think of it as lots of…basically the way we inter­act with the world, the way things behave when we inter­act with them, where do those prop­er­ties come from? And those prop­er­ties typ­i­cal­ly come from under­ly­ing atom­ic or mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture, as well as how they’re man­u­fac­tured. And often, for exam­ple, in the case of semi-conductors extreme­ly care­ful­ly man­u­fac­tured so that they have the prop­er­ties that we need to build tran­sis­tors and cir­cuits out of them.

Finley: Going back to what I was just say­ing about it not nec­es­sar­i­ly being on a lot of peo­ples’ radar, it feels like mate­ri­als sci­ence has been on my radar a lot more the last cou­ple of years and been get­ting a lot more press. You men­tioned the spi­der silk par­ka. Graphene has been get­ting a lot of atten­tion. Or is it just me? Does it seem like mate­ri­als sci­ence is hav­ing its moment in the pub­lic eye, or is it just kind of a coin­ci­dence for me that I’m see­ing all this stuff lately?

Chachra: I think I’m going to have to say yes and no. As you point­ed out, I think that not many peo­ple know what mate­ri­als sci­ence is per se. But I think cer­tain­ly if you’re inter­est­ed in design at all you end up notic­ing mate­ri­als. I’ve described mate­ri­als in the past as being basi­cal­ly the infra­struc­ture of design. It’s the stuff that’s there that you just use and you don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think about where it comes from. Or you think about how you can use it but you don’t real­ly think about what the source of it is.

Designers do spend a fair bit of time think­ing about what mate­ri­als to use, but they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think about why those mate­ri­als have the prop­er­ties that they have. And I’m more inter­est­ed in the lat­ter ques­tion than the for­mer ques­tion. But one of the things is that it’s real­ly impos­si­ble to do design with­out think­ing about what the mate­r­i­al you’re going to make some­thing out of is. And then the sec­ond piece of it is that as more mate­ri­als become avail­able it real­ly expands the pos­si­bil­i­ties for design.

One of my favorite exam­ples of this is in the 70s, when you think about poly­ester cloth­ing we sort of thought of it as very plastic‑y and not very com­fort­able and that it would tend to get sweaty or wet because it did­n’t breathe very well. And around the 90s (and it’s fun­ny because I’m actu­al­ly deduc­ing this from the mate­ri­als as opposed to from first prin­ci­ples) there was a rise in poly­ester cloth­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly orig­i­nal­ly for tech­ni­cal use. I think my first poly­ester cloth­ing was a t‑shirt for run­ning in made by Nike.

Basically it became pos­si­ble to extrude out, to actu­al­ly use spin­nerettes, to make very fine fibers of poly­ester. And what that meant was that it was much more com­fort­able to wear, it was much more breath­able, it could wick mois­ture away from the skin. So I think around the mid-90s I was doing triathlons so I had one t‑shirt that was made of poly­ester that I could wear, that I could pull on over my wet swim­ming suit. And then I had my first Polartec fleece head­band that I got for Christmas and I wore that for a run (I was liv­ing in Toronto at the time) and was just kind of aston­ished to come home…my ears were nice and warm and I could see the mois­ture bead­ed on the out­side of the head­band from my sweat­ing dur­ing the run, but it was kept away from my skin.

Since then, of course, we’ve seen this rise of things like Patagonia uses recy­cled poly­eth­yl­ene tereph­tha­late to recy­cle soda bot­tles to make fleece and Polartec and lots of per­for­mance fab­rics that have actu­al­ly gone from tech­ni­cal wear into kind of urban or streetwear now. So this whole thing has hap­pened, but unless you’re pay­ing atten­tion you would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have noticed the fact that there’s all these new mate­ri­als, all these new tex­tiles, that are avail­able and that they’re avail­able because of advances in the mate­ri­als pro­cess­ing of poly­ester and oth­er syn­thet­ic materials.

So I would use that as an exam­ple of how changes in mate­ri­als enable these kinds of advance­ments but we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly see them, because we see the out­put, we see the prod­ucts, and we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly real­ize there’s a sort of under­ly­ing change in the mate­ri­als behind them.

Watson: Klint, you were kind of touch­ing on the fact that some of the atten­tion to 3D print­ing might be a way that we’re start­ing to pay a lit­tle bit more atten­tion to materials.

Finley: Yeah, that was anoth­er avenue. New mate­ri­als are com­ing out for print­ing or that there’s this need for inno­va­tion there. So it seems like that’s dri­ving more atten­tion to mate­ri­als, but also semi-conductor mate­ri­als or the Internet of Things. The need to cre­ate new types of sen­sors and sens­ing mate­ri­als that those depend on. But again, it’s hard for me to tell if that’s just the stuff I’ve been writ­ing about for Wired or if the gen­er­al pub­lic is see­ing more of this stuff. But I feel like I see more sto­ries about mate­ri­als sci­ence just out in the world than I have before.

Chachra: As I said, part­ly I think it’s dri­ven by peo­ple being inter­est­ed in design. So whether that’s design in the more gen­er­al sense or whether that’s 3D print­ing or whether that’s the Internet of Things, it’s real­ly hard to talk or think about design with­out think­ing about materials.

When the new iPhone came out, there was the video about how the gold was han­dled to make it hard. It was like, how do we make 22 or what­ev­er karat gold have rea­son­ably good resis­tance to being scratched? So Apple pret­ty reg­u­lar­ly comes out with stuff that’s like, Hey, these are the new mate­ri­als that we use in our design that enable the design that you have, that enables the design of phones.” As I said, because new mate­ri­als are such a dri­ver of new designs, if you’re pay­ing atten­tion to new designs you’re def­i­nite­ly going to see new materials.

Watson: That was such a huge piece of the per­son­al­iza­tion aspect of, espe­cial­ly in the watch. It was all about which mate­ri­als and which…almost fetishized videos, right?

Chachra: I’m sor­ry, I mis­spoke. It was­n’t the new phone, it was the gold of the new watch.

Watson: Right, yeah.

Chachra: And it’s fun­ny because I watched the video and I was like, Oh yeah,” I mean I’m sure that there’s chunks of it that are very pro­pri­etary in Apple’s stuff, but I lit­er­al­ly teach the process­es that they were using to my first-year mate­ri­als sci­ence stu­dents. It’s sort of stan­dard approach­es to hard­en­ing met­als, although I’m sure that Apple’s spe­cif­ic tech­nique is proprietary.

Then of course the oth­er thing is that it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly new mate­ri­als, it’s doing unprece­dent­ed things with new mate­ri­als. My favorite exam­ple of that of course is the Gorilla Glass that’s used in phones, because that glass— It’s about strength­en­ing glass by basi­cal­ly putting it into a bath of molten salts so that the ions in the salts then dif­fuse into and then embed them­selves in the glass.

That tech­nique was devel­oped in the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry. I want to say in the 30s, per­haps, maybe a lit­tle bit lat­er. But cer­tain­ly a long time ago rel­a­tive to elec­tron­ic devel­op­ment. It was a process that def­i­nite­ly made glass much tougher, so much hard­er to break. But at the same time it was a super-expensive process. So it real­ly was­n’t until…was it the iPhone 3 or the iPhone 4 that was the first one that had glass on both sides? Basically the appli­ca­tion for it did­n’t come along until many decades lat­er, where some­thing that was high-value enough where those prop­er­ties that real­ly mat­tered were worth pay­ing for. It real­ly enabled the design of mod­ern phones, but also mod­ern screens gen­er­al­ly, to have this glass that is much much much tougher than oth­er types of glass. So Corning, which invent­ed this glass, it basi­cal­ly was this enor­mous resur­gence in the com­pa­ny to be this patent that they held, this glass that they devel­oped, sud­den­ly this glass that they invent­ed became incred­i­bly use­ful and valu­able to them.

Finley: It seems like envi­ron­men­tal and social con­cerns are also play­ing into peo­ple’s grow­ing aware­ness of this sort of stuff. The term con­flict mate­r­i­al” is in our col­lec­tive lex­i­con now, and peo­ple real­ly think­ing more about rare earth min­er­als and things like that that are hard to get or that are very lim­it­ed in the envi­ron­ment, and the need to replace those or think about those.

Chachra: And one of the things that’s kind of inter­est­ing about 3D print­ing is that it can be… So, peo­ple sort of thing of 3D print­ing as sort of the start­ing point for the mate­ri­als. It’s like, Oh we’re build­ing some­thing from the raw mate­ri­als.” But of course the ABS or the PLA or what­ev­er you use is also the end­point of a glob­al sup­ply chain of mate­ri­als. So you might be think­ing of a reel of fil­a­ment as the start­ing point but in fact it’s actu­al­ly a sophis­ti­cat­ed prod­uct in its own right. 

But there are cer­tain­ly peo­ple who are doing inter­est­ing things. I know there’s groups that are look­ing at, for exam­ple, recy­cling soda bot­tles and water bot­tles into fil­a­ment and using those for 3D print­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in places that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have access to the finan­cial or oth­er resources to buy fil­a­ment. That basi­cal­ly reusing waste mate­r­i­al is sort of fun­da­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able; that if you had these mate­ri­als any­way you can reuse them for print­ing. So there is a fair bit of inter­est­ing stuff going on in that space of think­ing about how do we repur­pose plas­tic that’s already been used for 3D print­ing? How do we cre­ate mate­ri­als for 3D print­ing that are sus­tain­ably sourced? Bio-derived mate­ri­als are a good exam­ple of that. 

But there’s also a fair bit of, Oh, well we just buy the fil­a­ment, that we made the fil­a­ment.” And try­ing to get past that is some­thing that a num­ber of peo­ple are engaged in. And I think if you real­ly want to think about 3D print­ing as a dis­trib­uted sup­ply chain, then I think it’s real­ly impor­tant to think about the raw mate­ri­als also being dis­trib­uted and think­ing about how to source the raw mate­ri­als, both sus­tain­ably but also local­ly rather than part of a larg­er sup­ply chain.

Finley: That’s a good tran­si­tion to some­thing else we want­ed to talk about, which was an arti­cle that start­ed out in your newslet­ter then was run by The Atlantic web site, which was Why I Am Not a Maker,” I think that was the title of it, and how look­ing at who we as a… I guess we could say the broad­er tech and design com­mu­ni­ties, who we think of as mak­ers and who we don’t. Maybe I should let you talk about it, but there’s kind of the sense of a guy 3D print­ing stuff in his garage is a mak­er, but the per­son at Foxconn who actu­al­ly is build­ing the 3D print­er, or the min­er who is find­ing some of the raw mate­ri­als… Those sorts of peo­ple, we don’t think of them nec­es­sar­i­ly as mak­ers. Or am I mis­re­mem­ber­ing it?

Chachra: No, actu­al­ly. I think you actu­al­ly made an inter­est­ing point that was not in fact the pri­ma­ry point of the arti­cle but I want to pur­sue that as well. The gen­er­al point of the arti­cle was that we val­ue mak­ing. So mak­ing phys­i­cal objects, whether it’s 3D print­ed or whether it’s craft, any­thing that’s a dis­crete phys­i­cal object, we val­ue that above doing work that does­n’t involve mak­ing, which usu­al­ly involves work­ing with oth­er peo­ple and is often caregiving.

So basi­cal­ly any­thing where you actu­al­ly make a phys­i­cal thing ends up being val­ued more than doing any­thing that has to be done over again, for exam­ple keep­ing house or doing any­thing that involves work­ing with oth­er peo­ple like care­giv­ing. By and large. In par­tic­u­lar, his­tor­i­cal­ly these divides have been pret­ty strong­ly gen­dered, that care­giv­ing was gen­er­al­ly female and then actu­al­ly mak­ing things, par­tic­u­lar­ly mak­ing things for pub­lic con­sump­tion or to be sold or to be shared, were male-dominated. Most of the mak­ing that was done by women was only seen by their imme­di­ate fam­i­lies or pos­si­bly com­mu­ni­ties. Certainly noth­ing that their names were attached to.

One of the things that I see in the mak­ing move­ment is this idea of reach­ing for that type of val­i­da­tion, the val­i­da­tion that’s asso­ci­at­ed with mak­ing things. Whether this is crafters call­ing them­selves mak­ers or whether this is schools try­ing to have more mak­er cul­ture, the idea is that you can align your­self with mak­ing because mak­ing is some­thing that has been his­tor­i­cal­ly reward­ed in a way that oth­er activ­i­ties haven’t, and in par­tic­u­lar care­giv­ing. So teach­ing, tak­ing care of chil­dren and tak­ing care of old­er peo­ple or peo­ple who are sick, has not been rewarded.

So I think the gist of the arti­cle was not that I don’t think that mak­ing is valu­able. I’m an engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor and I teach engi­neers, and a huge chunk of that par­tic­u­lar­ly at Olin is teach­ing them how to design and make things. It’s that I think that we underval­ue the peo­ple who are involved in tak­ing care of oth­er peo­ple and I’m sort of push­ing back against the increased val­oriza­tion of mak­ing in favor of no real­ly, I would actu­al­ly like to see us val­ue care­givers, and val­ue edu­ca­tors, and val­ue teach­ers and nurs­es more than we do as a soci­ety. And as I said, I sus­pect part of the rea­son why they’re not val­ued as much is because these are gen­dered activ­i­ties, things that are tra­di­tion­al­ly marked as female.

But the point that you just made, Klint, about mak­ing (3D print­ing some­thing) ver­sus mak­ing (work­ing in a fac­to­ry), I think that actu­al­ly goes back to Ursula Franklin, who wrote probably—if I had to point to one book that’s prob­a­bly the sin­gle most influ­en­tial book on me, it would be her book The Real World of Technology, which is actu­al­ly a series of lec­tures that were broad­cast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1989, I believe. 

She dis­tin­guish­es between pre­scrip­tive and holis­tic tech­nolo­gies. A holis­tic tech­nol­o­gy is what we tend to think about when we think of arti­sans. People who have con­trol over the whole process begin­ning to end, and are mak­ing deci­sions about what to make, how to make it, mak­ing deci­sions dur­ing the actu­al process of mak­ing itself. Whereas pre­scrip­tive tech­nolo­gies are those that are typ­i­cal­ly gov­erned and ordered from above. The quin­tes­sen­tial fac­to­ry work or work where every­body sort of does their own com­po­nent. I’m think­ing of Adam Smith’s mak­ing pins, where every­body makes their own com­po­nent and then togeth­er you end up with some­thing. But that means that every­body needs to do their own piece of it to the spec­i­fi­ca­tions of some kind of over­sight, so a per­son, a sys­tem, and so forth. 

So when we think of mak­ing or mak­ers, quite often we real­ly just focus on peo­ple who are using holis­tic tech­nolo­gies. People who are mak­ing deci­sions about what they want to make from begin­ning to end, the sort of arti­sanal approach, and we do not think about mak­ing in the sort of pre­scrip­tive tech­nol­o­gy con­text, whether it’s cre­at­ing the sys­tems for mak­ing or whether it’s doing the actu­al phys­i­cal labor of mak­ing. So yeah, I think there’s two dis­tinct points there, and in gen­er­al in our world being a holis­tic mak­er is still kind of a lux­u­ry. Not every­one has access to doing that kind of work.

Watson: The rea­son I real­ly enjoyed that arti­cle is I think you’re doing some­thing real­ly impor­tant, which is pulling out the value-laden charges that are going on in this rhetoric about mak­er move­ments and the under­ly­ing neolib­er­al approach to valu­ing that kind of work, and what you’re kind of point­ing at is how charged those terms real­ly are. But it’s inter­est­ing because it also makes me think of how in this con­text of course mak­er’s very gen­dered in the male sense, but if you think back, home­mak­er is the fun­da­men­tal female ver­sion of that, right? You are mak­ing a home. But whether that’s val­ued in the same way in the same lan­guage, it’s almost com­plete­ly divorced from that kind of meaning.

Chachra: And his­tor­i­cal­ly it’s not like women haven’t been mak­ing things. They just haven’t nec­es­sar­i­ly been get­ting the exter­nal val­i­da­tion and cred for doing so. Just try­ing to think of an exam­ple, read­ing Little House of the Prairie as a kid—

Watson: Churning but­ter, and pies—

Chachra: And mak­ing clothes, right? And spin­ning wool and mak­ing sweaters, and basi­cal­ly women were mak­ing things all the time.

Watson: Including babies, by the way.

Chachra: Right, yes. And some of it is con­sum­able. Things like keep­ing your fam­i­ly fed. But lots of it is per­ma­nent, like mak­ing sheets and cloth­ing and the like. The idea’s not just who does the mak­ing, it’s who gets cred­it for it and what kinds of things do peo­ple get cred­it for?

Finley: And there’s also a class ele­ment to that inso­far as the moti­va­tions for mak­ing are also sort of pri­or­i­tized. Making your own stuff because you’re poor is unglam­orous, but mak­ing your own com­put­er because you’re a hax­or is total­ly rad. Or mak­ing your own clothes because you’re part of the Etsy craft move­ment is real­ly just seen and val­ued in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way from mak­ing clothes at home or repair­ing clothes at home for pure­ly eco­nom­ic reasons.

Chachra: Yeah and there’s lots of peo­ple, and cer­tain­ly women, who are like, The rea­son I make my own clothes is because I can’t buy clothes that fit my body or that I can’t find clothes that fit me that have the aes­thet­ic that I’m after.” So it’s because they’re actu­al­ly poorly-served by mass pro­duc­tion, not because of any sort of com­mit­ment to mak­ing their own clothes. The choice is between being poorly-served or learn­ing how to do this. And of course we val­orize mak­ing in the devel­oped world, but in devel­op­ing coun­tries mak­ing is not real­ly an option. You need to do the most you can with what you have avail­able to you.

Watson: And that almost gets back to the pre­scrip­tive vs. holis­tic divi­sion, right? The fact that we’re talk­ing about mak­ers now, it’s respond­ing to the fact that we are part of this larg­er sup­ply chain, major com­mer­cial way of get­ting most things. And that is all part of this pre­scrip­tive sys­tem. So it’s almost revalu­ing or reintro­duc­ing the val­ue of holis­tic mak­ing in response to not being a part of that, not being a cog in the wheel.

Chachra: Yes, I think that’s exact­ly right. I think it’s pre­cise­ly about the expe­ri­ence of work­ing with holis­tic tech­nolo­gies and holis­tic mak­ing, often in explic­it con­trast to pre­scrip­tive tech­nolo­gies, in explic­it con­trast to mass production. 

I wrote recent­ly about how I get annoyed when I see the word arti­sanal.” The main rea­son I get annoyed when I see it is because I feel that the word arti­sanal to me is explic­it­ly linked to holis­tic tech­nolo­gies. So when it’s used, par­tic­u­lar­ly used by com­pa­nies that don’t have any trans­paren­cy in their process, then it seems high­ly like­ly that they are not in fact holis­tic, that they’re like­ly to be pre­scrip­tive technologies. 

So when McDonald’s says that they have an arti­sanal chick­en sand­wich it’s like yes, I believe that chick­en sand­wich was hand-made. I do not believe that it was hand-made by some­one who had any agency over how they were going to make it.

Watson: Right. Well this is the same as the IKEA this is hand-woven.”

Chachra: Yeah, and you see that a fair bit for mass-produced objects pro­duced under pre­scrip­tive tech­nol­o­gy, and it shows that [there are] lots of things humans are actu­al­ly still bet­ter at mak­ing than robots. And when I say bet­ter I mean cheap­er, as well as bet­ter. So it shows that it’s actu­al­ly cheap­er to pay humans to make these things by hand. Everything from tamales at Trader Joe’s to iPhones that are man­u­fac­tured by hand. Your iPhone is not artisanal.

Watson: Absolutely. Unless you have bedaz­zled it or etched it in some way to per­son­al­ize it.

Chachra: That’s because you have the agency and the auton­o­my over what you’ve cho­sen to do, but I guar­an­tee you that the per­son who actu­al­ly made your phone had zero auton­o­my over what they chose to do with it.

Watson: Right. I’m curi­ous what the response was from the mak­er com­mu­ni­ty to this arti­cle. How much pick­up did it get? Was there mansplain­ing going on about what peo­ple are doing in the mak­er movement?

Chachra: Predictably, peo­ple who iden­ti­fy them­selves as mak­ers… I did not intend it to be an anti-maker screed. I intend­ed it to be sort of a pro-looking-beyond-mak­er screed. But peo­ple being peo­ple, cer­tain­ly peo­ple who iden­ti­fied as mak­ers read it as sort of an anti-maker thing. 

What was much more strik­ing to me was the num­ber of peo­ple who con­tact­ed me to say, You know, I’ve felt this for a long time and I real­ly appre­ci­ate you artic­u­lat­ing these ideas,” or It’s real­ly made me rethink how I think about mak­ing or the mak­er move­ment.” I think peo­ple per­ceive it as an unal­loyed good and did­n’t stop to think about why they thought it was an unal­loyed good. And I think this sort of made peo­ple pause a bit and think about, Okay wait. Why do we think that mak­ing is good and worth­while?” Which is of course a real­ly great ques­tion to have peo­ple ask­ing them­selves, par­tic­u­lar­ly for things like— Obviously I have a vest­ed inter­est in things like edu­ca­tion, to think about why are we valu­ing this over oth­er things that we could be valu­ing in our edu­ca­tion­al systems?

Watson: Another par­al­lel piece that I think real­ly pairs well with this that just came out recent­ly, I think this week, also in The Atlantic (love The Atlantic) was Ian Bogost’s piece about the engi­neer in the tech indus­try. I think there’s an inter­est­ing par­al­lel unpack­ing what it means to val­ue mak­ers and val­ue engi­neers in this econ­o­my of tech­nol­o­gy, and he’s basi­cal­ly argu­ing that the title of the engi­neer is actu­al­ly less­ened in the tech space because pro­gram­mers are not real­ly nec­es­sar­i­ly serv­ing the pub­lic inter­est as tra­di­tion­al con­cep­tions of engi­neers have in the past.

It also runs par­al­lel to a cri­tique that I’ve had about call­ing the work that tech com­pa­nies are doing as data sci­ence kind of giv­ing the impri­matur of Science with a cap­i­tal S or Engineering with a cap­i­tal E to the work with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly the rig­or that these insti­tu­tions have had in the past. Deb, did you get a chance to check that arti­cle out?

Chachra: It crossed my path, but I did­n’t actu­al­ly check out the arti­cle itself. Although I would point out that engi­neer­ing has always kind of served two mas­ters. Less so sci­ence, but cer­tain­ly engi­neer­ing. And you know, I see this as I said being an engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor, there’s always this ten­sion between the com­pa­ny that you work for and work­ing for the pub­lic good. Yes, there are civ­il engi­neers who most­ly work on pub­lic projects, but there’s lots and lots of mechan­i­cal engi­neers who work for car com­pa­nies, or chem­i­cal engi­neers who work in oil companies. 

I went to engi­neer­ing school in Canada, and Sara I’m not sure if you saw or noticed this, but I wear a stain­less steel ring on the pinky fin­ger of my right hand. The rea­son why I do that is because in the 1920s, I think, one of the pro­fes­sors at my alma mater The University of Toronto decid­ed that engi­neers need­ed some­thing akin to the Hippocratic Oath, that they need­ed some for­mal recog­ni­tion of the respon­si­bil­i­ty that they had to the pub­lic at large. So he wrote Rudyard Kipling (you know, poet of engi­neer­ing) and asked him to design a cer­e­mo­ny for grad­u­at­ing engi­neers to under go that would be sort of par­al­lel [to] the Hippocratic Oath, that would basi­cal­ly ask them to for­mal­ly rec­og­nize the respon­si­bil­i­ty that they had to the public.

So Rudyard designed a cer­e­mo­ny. It’s tech­ni­cal­ly secret. It’s a lit­tle white man-burdened, espe­cial­ly if you’re in a place like Toronto which is an incred­i­bly diverse school and had lots of women in it. It sort of assumes you’re a white Christian male who’s get­ting an engi­neer­ing degree. But one of the key ideas in it is that you have to be will­ing to blow the whis­tle on your employ­er. It very explic­it­ly rec­og­nizes that there may be a con­flict between what you’re doing for the per­son who pays your salary and what’s bet­ter for the world at large, and that you should be pre­pared. And you wear a ring on the fin­ger of your work­ing hand so you see it while you work. You should be pre­pared to do what’s in the pub­lic inter­est, even if it means going against the per­son who’s sign­ing your paychecks.

So cer­tain­ly there is absolute­ly a his­to­ry of this sort of ten­sion between what is the pub­lic good and what works for your com­pa­ny. And one of the things that marks pro­fes­sions as opposed to just jobs is that they are seen to have an ele­ment of work­ing in the pub­lic inter­est and doing so in an eth­i­cal way. So engi­neer­ing, just like med­i­cine, has been good at putting under­stand­ing what the bound­ary of the pro­fes­sion is and rec­og­niz­ing that the rea­son why we have these bound­aries is to say, We work in the pub­lic good. We don’t just work for our employ­ers. We work for these larg­er goals.”

I kind of think the ship has sailed on call­ing things engi­neer­ing or not engi­neer­ing, but I think even with­in engi­neer­ing, if you work for a car com­pa­ny are you real­ly work­ing in the pub­lic inter­est? But at the same time I think a for­mal recog­ni­tion that you have respon­si­bil­i­ties that go beyond the com­pa­ny that you work for is— so rather than say­ing that soft­ware engi­neers should­n’t be engi­neers, I would rather than engi­neers said, Oh yes, if we’re going to call our­selves engi­neers, we need to take on these respon­si­bil­i­ties to the pub­lic that go beyond just who we work for.”

Watson: Right. And I think that is part of Bogost’s point. Engineering has this rich tra­di­tion, as you so nice­ly shared that sto­ry about the ring. There is this his­to­ry and kind of weight to the code of ethics or code of prac­tice. But I think in soft­ware engi­neer­ing that code of ethics does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly exist or isn’t quite so for­mal­ized or struc­tured right now. And I think, as you sug­gest, if we’re going to call our­selves engi­neers or data sci­en­tists or what­ev­er, we should hold our­selves to the rig­or that we’re kind of ben­e­fit­ing from by call­ing our­selves that.

Chachra: And it’s the same thing with mak­ers. If you’re going to call your­self some­thing why are you choos­ing to do that? What sort of unpack­ing, what is sort of the virtue to doing that? And cer­tain­ly call­ing your­self an engi­neer is about tak­ing on that sense that it’s a pro­fes­sion not just a job and that it has con­cerns larg­er than just, I’m just going to do my job.”

To me one of the things that’s real­ly chal­leng­ing, though, is that it’s hard enough to tell with phys­i­cal objects whether or not some­thing is done uneth­i­cal­ly or eth­i­cal­ly. Like did we real­ly cut cor­ners on this to the point where it’s going to endan­ger peo­ple or is it going to be okay? And then of course there’s the VW thing, which increas­ing­ly seems like they could say, Well it was just a soft­ware thing; it’s just a cou­ple of peo­ple.” But it’s real­ly hard to imag­ine that it could not have been a sys­temic deci­sion, and the val­ue or rather the impact on the pub­lic good seems incred­i­bly clear of let­ting cars delib­er­ate­ly fail emis­sions test­ing. But I feel like in the case of soft­ware it’s much much hard­er to make deci­sions about what’s in the pub­lic good and what’s not in the pub­lic good.

Watson: Before we go, I want­ed to talk a lit­tle bit more about some of your cyborg work, or over­lap. At Cyborg Camp I think you were talk­ing a lit­tle bit about the mate­r­i­al sci­ence of cyborgs, of grinders and that whole com­mu­ni­ty. Do you want to say a lit­tle bit more about that? Maybe just explain who grinders are and what they’re doing and how those inter­ests over­lap with your mate­r­i­al sci­ence and engi­neer­ing interests.

Chachra: Sure. First of all I should say that I am not a grinder. I have some num­ber of pierc­ings and tat­toos, but I would not call myself a grinder. I’m not push­ing the envelopes of what peo­ple can put in their bod­ies. Grinders are basi­cal­ly peo­ple who are doing this. They’re typ­i­cal­ly implant­i­ng things in their bod­ies that could either pro­vide extend­ed or dif­fer­ent functionality. 

The clas­sic exam­ple of it is implant­i­ng a mag­net, but it could also be things like there’s an embed­d­a­ble ver­sion of the North Paw com­pass. It’s an embed­ded hap­tic device that tells you which way north is. It was orig­i­nal­ly designed (and I’m so ashamed that I can­not remem­ber the per­son who designed it) by some­one at NYU’s ITP pro­gram. The idea was that it was an anklet that you wear and as you walk in the city and you change direc­tion, the side that was north would buzz. So it would basi­cal­ly give you an ambi­ent aware­ness of which way north was, and there’s now an embed­d­a­ble ver­sion of this. So that’s a good exam­ple of using an implant to pro­vide you with a sense that you would not oth­er­wise have, in this case basi­cal­ly a com­pass sense, an aware­ness of where north is.

Coming from a more tra­di­tion­al bioengineering/biomedical mate­ri­als back­ground, all of the stuff that I talk about and teach about in mate­ri­als sci­ence is real­ly about the aver­ages. It’s real­ly about what works for most peo­ple. It’s what the aver­age response is. But what grinders are real­ly typ­i­cal­ly inter­est­ed in is what works for them. It’s a one-person exper­i­ment; you’re going to implant it in your own body and see what works. And dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent respons­es and it’s prob­a­bly a safe bet, for exam­ple, to assume that grinders have gen­er­al­ly more pos­i­tive respons­es to implants than on aver­age because oth­er­wise it would be a very frus­trat­ing hob­by to be involved with.

So the thing that spoke about at Cyborg Camp, and that I think is kind of an inter­est­ing space is the idea of grind­ing as cit­i­zen sci­ence. As I said, tra­di­tion­al­ly the way we get new bio­med­ical devices out there is it gets devel­oped by some com­pa­ny, and it goes through FDA tri­als that look for both its safe­ty but then also its effi­ca­cy. So one, mak­ing sure that it does­n’t actu­al­ly cause prob­lems and then two, mak­ing sure it does what you’re actu­al­ly try­ing to get it to do. And it’s an oner­ous process. I should point out that I am not anti FDA process­es. I think it’s impor­tant that there is a large-scale sys­tem that is auditable and track­able and that actu­al­ly deter­mines that things are safe. But it takes an enor­mous amount of invest­ment to do this.

On the oth­er hand, there is a whole bunch of peo­ple who are now implant­i­ng things in their own bod­ies and mov­ing for­ward, and what I would kind of like to see is more of that being sys­tem­atized and shared so essen­tial­ly soft of a grass roots build­ing up of this body of knowl­edge about what things work and what things don’t work in a way that isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly pos­si­ble in the clas­sic top-down FDA approach. So to me that’s kind of an inter­est­ing thing. And it’s hard, because a lot of this stuff is quasi-legal. 

This is where I have the dis­claimer. I am not a doc­tor. I am not endors­ing any of this stuff that peo­ple are mak­ing their own deci­sions about what they’re choos­ing to do. But if peo­ple are going go to do it, then I would love to see more of it get shared. So from my point of view, part of that is actu­al­ly hav­ing enough of an under­stand­ing of what the bio­log­i­cal respons­es to implants are, or what are the qual­i­ty issues with the mate­ri­als, so that you can appro­pri­ate­ly write about, doc­u­ment, share, what you’re doing. Because it’s hard to describe things if you don’t actu­al­ly know what’s hap­pen­ing, because you don’t know what’s sig­nif­i­cant and what’s not sig­nif­i­cant. But actu­al­ly hav­ing an under­stand­ing of the bio­log­i­cal process­es that occur with implants means that you’re in a much bet­ter posi­tion to describe what’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing, which means you’re in a much bet­ter posi­tion to doc­u­ment them and share them with oth­er peo­ple. And I kind of feel like if peo­ple are going to be doing this, then it seems like kind of a log­i­cal thing to do that and to share.

So here’s an exam­ple. My friend Quinn Norton implant­ed a mag­net in her fin­ger a num­ber of years ago and she wrote this up for Wired. As part of the final exam for one of my cours­es, I give the piece that she wrote to my bio­med­ical mate­ri­als stu­dents and I ask them, Okay, you’ve now learned about these bio­log­i­cal process­es. When you read Quinn’s report for Wired, tell me what you think is hap­pen­ing. What are the under­ly­ing process­es? What are the bio­log­i­cal process­es that are hap­pen­ing that Quinn is describ­ing?” Basically it’s a bit about putting those two things togeth­er, the for­mal knowl­edge of bio­med­ical mate­ri­als togeth­er with indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences that peo­ple have.

Watson: Yeah, that’s great. And it sounds very sim­i­lar to the kind of scale and scope of what peo­ple are doing in the quan­ti­fied self com­mu­ni­ty, like try­ing to find a very per­son­al solu­tion and either test or set of fac­tors to look at on an n of 1” scale, but also shar­ing it out and shar­ing it as a prac­tice and shar­ing it as a learn­ing. Even if it’s not quite Science with a cap­i­tal S, it’s some­thing to share the prac­tice of, I guess.

Chachra: Yes, I think that’s exact­ly right. And I think for sim­i­lar rea­sons. Every per­son is dif­fer­ent, every per­son responds dif­fer­ent­ly, every per­son is moti­vat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. We talked about mak­ers and sup­ply chains the sort of mass sys­tems don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly respond to every­one. They’re things that works on aver­age for peo­ple, but they aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the thing that works best for a giv­en indi­vid­ual. So both the quan­ti­fied self move­ment and the grind­ing move­ment are real­ly about tak­ing these sys­tems that are gen­er­al­ly made for large groups of peo­ple and fig­ur­ing out, What can I do with­in this realm that actu­al­ly works for me.” So I guess what I’m advo­cat­ing, and I know what you work on in the quan­ti­fied self move­ment, is then how do we inte­grate what works for indi­vid­u­als and what can you learn from what peo­ple do as indi­vid­u­als that we can then think about more broadly.

Watson: And how does that feed back into the larg­er pic­ture to have a bet­ter sense of the edges, right? Like, it’s not just about aver­ages and stan­dard deviations.

Chachra: Yeah, exact­ly. What are the edge cas­es. Because you know, some­times some­thing is frac­tal. You can have awful lot of edge for a giv­en amount of area or vol­ume. Just because it’s an edge case does­n’t mean that it’s minor or lim­it­ed. The edge cas­es are often the determinant.

Watson: Absolutely. That seems like a good place to wrap up, the impor­tance of the edge case. Deb, thank you so much for join­ing us today. Where can peo­ple find your work?

Chachra: Probably the eas­i­est place to keep on top of what I do is my Twitter account, which is @debcha, and there’s a link that goes from there to my newslet­ter if peo­ple are inter­est­ed in fol­low­ing my newslet­ter. Those are prob­a­bly the two best places to keep on top of what I do.

Watson: That is where I fol­low Deb, absolute­ly. And we’ll def­i­nite­ly have a bunch of links in the pod­cast notes, a bunch of those arti­cles and books and all of these good things that Deb has been talk­ing about with us today. Awesome. Be well, guys.

Chachra: Great. Thank you.

Finley: Bye.

Watson: Bye.

Further Reference

The Mindful Cyborgs site, where this episode’s page has addi­tion­al links and credits.

A detailed exam­i­na­tion of the Apple Watch mate­ri­als videos at Atomic Delights, with expla­na­tions (and some spec­u­la­tion) about the process­es shown.

Quinn Norton even­tu­al­ly had the mag­net implant removed.