For a New Mapping of Assembly Methods

17-19 déc. 2012
Quai Branly Museum, 7 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris Les Ateliers-Paris Design Institute (École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle), 48 rue Saint-Sabin, 75011 Paris - PARIS (France)
Every new generation of mobile phone or computer is celebrated as if it always represented the future of technology and a decisive step forward for humanity. Conversely, some think that our only salvation lies in “low tech”—that heterogeneous set of techniques, approaches, uses, models and alternative methods of composition, defined sometimes negatively (poverty or lack of resources) sometimes positively (doing lots with little, making the best of what one has, making things that are sustainable and non-polluting, more local and more participatory, more fit for purpose, etc.). Low tech is presented as abounding in diverse, more ecological, more economical, more sustainable solutions for resolving a wide range of problems, particularly ecological ones: pollution, energy management, alternatives to fossil fuel, the development of local public transport, etc. The goal of this workshop is not to blindly confirm one or the other of these alternatives; it is to consider a new mapping of technical and technological assembly methods at the global scale, by identifying and comparing unusual assembly methods (both low-tech and high-tech), not just in terms of materials used, assembly lines, and the psychological, physical and chemical properties of objects, but also in terms of uses. We will show to what extent one can sketch a new geography of innovations, by tracing this “cobbling-together”, which is often far removed from the kinds of assembly lines developed by the “ideologues” of assembly (Ford, Taylor, etc.). On the occasion of the first workshop last year in Pondichéry, we compared several ethnographic cases, highlighting how a variety of very heterogeneous forms of technical knowledge found themselves being recomposed. We examined how manufacturing processes, objects, materials and components were used and reinvented as they circulated between different social settings and different parts of the world, whether it be in the field of electronics, robotics, textiles, radiology or even plastic surgery (see This new workshop is intended to be an extension of the last one. We will once again use precise ethnographic examples and detailed historical studies to discuss particular technical processes, components, resources, and the possibility of mapping assembly methods. It will be a matter of considering the collective form that an inventory project of this kind can assume, as well as its methods of implementation and execution. Several initiatives already exist in this area, demonstrating the considerable reservoir of low-tech solutions that Western societies already offer (see for example Kris de Decker’s site: For their part, anthropologists of material culture have never stopped uncovering methods of assembling the most diverse “objects”, combining heterogeneous data, which in itself also constitutes an immense reservoir of assembly methods (see, for example, Pierre Lemonnier’s work on drums like the “psychopomp funnel” in New Guinea, in “Mythiques chaînes opératoires”, Techniques et Culture, 2004, online). As a matter of priority, the workshop will discuss types of work that modernise little-known initiatives and uses, forms of prototyping and construction, and methods of assembling the most varied “objects” (gods, clothing, robots, clocks, automobiles, etc.). The aim will be to lay the foundation for an alternative mapping of assembly methods. We will also give attention to any new attempt to define the anthropological meaning of composing, assembling or cobbling, and to any contribution that serves to advance one of the following objectives: 1/ getting beyond the opposition between “innovation-centric” and “usage-centric” approaches to technology. “By thinking about the history of technology-in-use,” writes David Edgerton, “a radically different picture of technology, and indeed of invention and innovation, becomes possible. A whole invisible world of technologies appears. It leads to a rethinking of our notion of technological time, mapped as it is on innovation-based timelines. Even more importantly it alters our picture of which have been the most important technologies. It yields a global history, whereas an innovation-centred one, for all its claims to universality, is based on a very few places. It will give us a history which does not fit the usual schemes of modernity, one which refutes some important assumptions of innovation-centric accounts” (Edgerton 206: XI). In fact, it was Edgerton who showed the drastic change in approach that resulted from taking into account not only how technology was “invented” or initially distributed, but also how all sorts of technologies ended up used or reused, appropriated and reappropriated, invented or reinvented over the long-term, in a wide variety of social and cultural environments (Edgerton, 2006). In this way, the study of techniques and technology is fundamentally substituted by that of the societies that used them—the study of how and why they use them. At the first workshop in Pondy, this change of perspective in the approach to technology, which consists in moving away from “innovation-centric” models in favour of uses, was the subject of a collective discussion—from a methodological point of view and on a more specifically ethnographic basis—that we would like to follow up. 2/ on the theoretical and technical level, going beyond ‘biographies of things’ in favour of a new mapping of uses , composition processes and components. As we know, from a historical and anthropological perspective, approaches to material culture have placed particular emphasis on the importance of the method that consisted of tracking the “career” of objects and their “afterlife” beyond culture, as well as the specific context in which they had initially come into being (Appadurai and others). But although the fruitfulness of such an approach has now been well established and it has generated numerous studies, it seems to us that the studies inspired by this perspective more often focused on the circulation of well-defined objects than on how these could have been dismantled or broken up and recomposed in the course of their respective “biographies”. By the same token, emphasis seems to have been placed more on the materiality of the objects in question than on how their use might be reconsidered, or on their manufacturing processes and all of the practical and theoretical knowledge that might enable new uses to be made of them. We also propose to consider how one could view, instead of objects, the biographies of components or of the careers of materials, taking account of how they serve as catalysts for heterogeneous, largely unknown forms of composition. Any contribution that helps visualise or trace forms of composition on a technical level (software, mapping, etc.) will be welcome. 3 / challenge the “chaîne opératoire” notion as it is normally understood in anthropology as well as that of “localisation” and “delocalisation” in economics. In fact, in either case, the implementation of “traditional” technologies—as with technological “innovation” and the production of “things”—is supposed to find its initial explanatory principle in relation to a given historical, geographic and cultural context. And it is only on the basis of this initial contextualisation that the analysis unfolds through a more specific examination of how a given technical “invention” or production process will be delocalised or reinvented. However, we believe that numerous assembly lines are, on the contrary, characterised by composition and recomposition processes that, between them, immediately link broadly heterogeneous contexts, on the social and cultural level as well as on the spatial and temporal level. For example, today there is only limited sense in speaking of “delocalisation” in a whole series of fields in which one knows that in reality, the “objects” produced already mobilise a majority of components and forms of know-how that are themselves already being produced and “invented” or “reinvented” in the most diverse parts of the world. The real question, in this context, is instead to understand how rights are appropriated, abilities learned and aptitudes defined in relation to the construction and reconstruction of the objects and techniques that define our environment. 4/ consider the role allotted to each person—or the role that one would like to see each person play—in innovation. Today many regard every social, technological or commercial initiative as decisive progress that ends up weakening the opposition between producers and consumers or even that between creators and users. This is why, for example, post-Taylorism sought to “enrich” workers’ activity by giving them greater initiative in the production, and even in the development, of objects and services. In relation to this rationale, one must also consider the significance of the development of fablabs, as well as other initiatives aiming to “democratise” the very act of technical and technological “innovation”. So it was that MIT’s Media Lab proposed to integrate into one single approach “high and low technological materials, processes, and cultures [...] to engage diverse audiences in designing and building their own technologies by situating computation in new cultural and material contexts, and by developing tools that democratize engineering”, convinced that “the future of technology will be largely determined by end-users who will design, build, and hack their own devices.” It is particularly important to realise that this sort of innovation sharing in fact already exists, if mostly informally, and particularly in society’s most marginalised sectors. Also, in this context, we believe it is particularly valuable—to better appreciate the issues currently linked to this ideal of innovation democratisation—to seek to better understand the functioning of the technological recomposition processes that, in all their homogeneity, characterise our time, and also understand their associated issues. In particular, this could help us to better understand the forms of “creativity” and “durability” that these processes already bring, and to see how these heterogeneous composition and recomposition chains lead to a reassessment of the very notions of “low tech” and “high tech”, as well as their associated connotations. 5/ make it possible, as the title of our workshop indicates, to go beyond the “low tech” / “high tech” opposition and propose finer technological innovation process apprehension categories. When one views technological innovation and its uses from the perspective of heterogeneous composition chains, both in time and in space, the characteristics linked to the notions of high tech and low tech take on a different meaning. In fact, from this point of view, the most recent and most sophisticated innovations are not necessarily the most significant. But neither are the simplest and most traditional as such. It is rather those which can be invented or reinvented, deconstructed and reconstructed, distributed and redistributed in the most diverse social and cultural contexts. We would therefore like to sketch the foundation of an analysis and topology of forms of technological innovation, ideally based neither on criteria of sophistication or “traditionality” of chaînes opératoires or fabrication processes, but rather on their capacity for recomposition in contexts marked by heterogeneous needs and issues. Artmap is a platform that brings together researchers from various fields (anthropology, history of science, technological arts, robotics), working in Europe, India, Southeast Asia and Japan. Its long-term aim is to become a reservoir of technological alternatives, passing on, from an anthropological perspective, a whole range of initiatives, experiments and uses—at the junction between high tech and low tech—that renew our view of technology. Contacts : (
Discipline scientifique : Anthropologie sociale et ethnologie

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