Posted on 10/7/2015

Robots: The Destruction and Restoration of the American Imagination

One of my favorite stories told by my father was the only time he recalls seeing his mother in the buff. She flew from the bath at the sight of my father, then seven, who had carved a deep gouge in his neck while shredding her rubber galoshes to craft a slingshot. This toy/weapon would accompany the motorized go-cart, the handmade printing press, an elaborate treehouse, and a basement full of eviscerated toasters and wiring. 

Kids used to make. Kids used to use knives, light fires, and blow up boxes on the driveway. Domestic physics.

After three years on the Automation Alley Education and Workforce Development Committee, and at TechShop Detroit (TechShop is an open to the public fabrication and prototyping studio with locations across the U.S. and is growing internationally), and after a lifetime of making, augmented by an art and design education, I see the maker movement and the economic complexity it wraps up as a problem of imagination.  In underserved communities, and for many parents, creativity is a luxury. One could think of creativity as agency: the presence or absence of the belief that one can be generative. In the design world, this notion is taken for granted, but working close to the automotive industry and in art and educational institutions, it is one of the most complicated concerns facing American society. Who makes? Why don’t we make? Why should we make?

The best thing we have going for us is alignment around the idea. From President Obama’s cabinet, to Governor Snyder’s office, to the Detroit Public School classroom, all parties are looking to science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) to reboot American manufacturing and innovation in the global market. So, how do we reignite innate creativity when we handed off the role of generation/production to robots decades ago?

TechShop is founded on the principle of innate creativity, that each person can generate ideas and make them manifest. What is so interesting is how automation (i.e., the robot) is one of the key factors that dissolved the necessity to make, but now, the robot is the very catalyst for waking that sleeping inclination. 

The best example of this is seen in FIRST Robotics. TechShop provides FIRST teams with training sponsored by Ford Global Technologies and Licensing, our founding launch partner in Detroit. It is miraculous to witness the transformative nature of the culture and knowledge/skill base required to construct a competitive FISRT robot – design, iterative prototyping, metal milling, CNC technologies, textiles, programming, surface design, electrical and mechanical engineering, and not least of all, the generous collaborative spirit (thank you Dean Kamen, FIRST Robotics founder). I say witness because anyone who has seen the depth of engagement and exuberance surrounding this process is in fact witnessing the reemergence of the American imagination, of creative agency. FIRST stands in for the best of change yet to come, the intelligence of the hand and the reinstallation of an American belief system. 

About the Author

Addie Langford | TechShop Detroit

Addie Langford is senior accounts manager of TechShop Detroit, the location of Automation Alley’s upcoming Education and Industry Summit on growing the manufacturing pipeline. Click here to register.


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