If the last 20 years were about the web, then the next 20 will be about making. Why? Ubiquitous connectivity and decentralised production in the virtual world have made revolutions in creating, sharing and consuming on-line. Now the same changes are starting in the world of manufacturing, and the consequences are likely to be massive.
Remember how hard it used to be to publish? Photocopiers spawned a whole generation of fliers and fanzines, but the big-time of global distribution used to be a very closed world. When we publish we share, and the web has let us share as never before — but, until recently, we've mostly used the web to share information (in the form of bit streams of one sort or another). The next revolutionary wave of technology brings the ability to share into the physical world — it brings the information revolution from bits to atoms. And as Chris Anderson writes in his Makers1, the physical world dwarfs the virtual. (There's perhaps an 80-20 ratio between economic activity devoted to atoms in comparison to bits.)
Capitalism drives innovation, which brings with it continual waves of technological revolution.2 Anderson's book quotes Cory Doctorow saying that increasingly "the money on the table is like krill" — many many tiny chunks of nutrition that suits a new type of sieve, smaller and more distributed (a "long tail"). Both authors imagine the changes that will take place when the means of production become minituarised, localised, and — in a sense — democratised. At least under some circumstances the small and the open and the fast moving can sneak beneath the corporate radar long enough to become viable alternatives — like my friends at Pimoroni in Sheffield, for example, who sold tens of thousands of locally-made boxes for the Raspberry Pi.
The new methods of manufacturing (CAD-CAM designs driving CNC routers, 3D printing and laser cutting), and the new culture of open source and dynamic virtual organisations start to challenge corporate dominance, at least around the edges. China's explosive growth and its willingness to ignore the west's definition of "intellectual property" helps too (though bringing with it the labour relations of the sweatshop).
Anderson talks of a "future where the Maker Movement is more about self-sufficiency... than it is about building businesses...". This, he says, is "closer to the original ideas of the Homebrew Computing Club or the Whole Earth Catalogue. The idea, then, was not to create big companies, but rather to free ourselves from big companies" (pp. 225-226)
We can also make a link into the argument for localist economics made by organisations like the Transition Network (e.g. in Rob Hopkins' books) — peak oil, social instability and environmental crisis all point to the local and the small scale as a key source of sustainability and resilience. The more stuff we can manufacture within short distances of where we live, the safer we are (not to mention the saved carbon in long-distance transport).
Welcome to the future — perhaps it will be of our own making :-)
[Looking for my old pages? They're here.]
- The title and the theme echo Cory Doctorow's Makers; read them both!
- The unfortunate thing, of course, is that it doesn't do this in service of human need, but as part of the competition for corporate profit — hence our inability to stop the degradation of our environment, or the banker-oriented response to the economic crisis, or the continual wars over oil in the Middle east. This isn't about bad people, or even bad ideas — it is the central logic of the system that revolves around competition between vast corporations, and everything else is secondary. See Joel Bakan's The Coporation for a good description of how this works (or doesn't!).