The New MakersMarch 29, 2012
If you want a glimpse of one possible future go out and buy  ‘Makers’ by Cory Doctorow. Try, if you can, to get past the overworked prose that mars the opening. I almost gave up after Doctorow’s line; “His breath smelled like he’d been gargling turds,” on the second page. Persist and it’s a compelling prediction of a world where micro-scale customization defines the manufacturing economy just as Henry Ford’s ‘any color you like, so long as it’s black’ captured the spirit of the assembly line revolution 100 years ago.
I say that ‘Makers’ is ‘one possible future,’ but in the three years since Doctorow wrote the book it’s looking less and less like a possibility and more and more like a dead cert.
The story centers on a tech writer (the fantasy element of the book is that she makes loads of money writing about tech) who heads off to Florida to meet a couple of guerrilla manufacturers, Perry and Lester living in a ghost mall. Armed with an array of 3D printers, and with ready access to a scrap heap of discarded tech toys that they’re free to plunder for useful parts, the two makers knock out custom gizmos a few hundred at a time.
Doctorow describes a new manufacturing ecology, driven by small units of specialists. The makers in Florida design, develop and build. A group of marketers pushes the stuff out to anyone and everyone on the net who must have something different and has the cash to pay for it. Micro distribution companies move the products around while, as soon as something catches on, bigger manufacturers are poised to grab hot ideas, mass produce them, bring the price down and try to make a margin on volume. Of course by then Perry and Lester have moved on to the next innovation. They dream it. They make it. They never stop.
That future is rapidly approaching. 3D printers are getting cheaper. It’s possible to buy a pretty smart one for less than $4,500. There are already websites that offer thousands of design plans for things to make with your printer. True, most of the things you can make come under the heading of ‘stuff you don’t need’ – hey, so does most of the stuff you can buy in your local mall – and they’re plasticy and not very nice. But these are early days. It wasn’t so long ago that eBay was a ghetto for people who collected Beanie Babies.
Couple next-generation-but-one 3D printers with the nano-materials already appearing on the horizon and you could potentially build parts that will be lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel.
If you think that’s far fetched, and seriously people – it’s not, look into our schools. Private schools already have kit like laser cutters in their tech classes (20 years ago it was just woodworking tools) – and that’s just for 9 and10 year olds. When you get a generation that’s grown up from the age of five being able to make stuff using a laptop and a 3D printer it will change the relationship between the consumer and the maker. The chain will be reduced to almost nothing.
Once we had to use cardboard and sticky tape to realize our childhood dreams or wait for some cynical corporation in Japan to create and market something that we could pester our parents for. A generation is being born right now that will be able to make stuff themselves just as good as they could buy in the shops.
What this will do, possibly, indeed probably decisively, is break the control that manufacturers have over intellectual property – where ideas are useless unless you have the means to make them real. Instead we’re likely to see a vibrant market in ideas and in plans to make them.
The technology involved in this is truly ‘generative’. A million people with 3D printers immediately creates a huge market for CAD plans for stuff you can make with them. Some people will produce great CAD plans. Others will produce dreadful ones.
The point is that we are seeing the emergence of yet another knowledge market because rather than manufacture being centralized with the products being distributed we’re moving to a world where the manufacture is decentralized and the ideas are distributed. And, as a Mancx user, you’ll know only too well that the knowledge markets to service this new economy are already in place.
I don’t know about you but it sounds like a damned exciting world to live in.
 I say buy it – because you can download it here for free if you want (Cory D is very cool that way) – it’s just that reading from a page beats reading from a screen and is a nice way to say thank you to all the people who sweat away bringing you great stuff that makes you think.
 Cf Jonathan Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet’ for a fuller picture of the idea of ‘generativity’ – essentially the hackability of technology to allow applications not envisaged by its creators. The PC is highly generative whereas the iPhone is rather less so and the Sony Playstation isn’t particularly generative at all.