Review: “Makers” by Chris Anderson and “Makers” by Cory Doctorow
Makers: Separating Fact from Fiction
Once upon a time not so long ago, computer programmers wore starched white shirts and stodgy ties, and worked in immaculate corporate spaces with giant machines called ENIAC and Colossus. But the anarchic, transformative power of these tools was too great to be constrained by the corporate world, and a generation of hippie hackers with names like Jobs, Wozniak and Gates threw off their ties and sparked an information revolution from their California garages. It’s a story we know well, but it’s also one we’re about to see retold in the field of manufacturing. Additive manufacturing, digital fabrication – however we choose to label it, the radical shift in “making” has broken the old model of assembly lines, of hierarchical shiftwork and production, and even of factories themselves. Ladies and gentlemen, manufacturing has – quite literally – left the building.
Makers I: Fact
Chris Anderson is the Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine. As it turns out, he’s also the head of a multimillion dollar manufacturing initiative that builds drone aircraft. Of course, this second role is a part-time gig – it’s called DIY Drones, and it’s the poster child for a new kind of manufacturing. Much like “hackers” in the IT world – innovative and creative software programmers who liked to pull things apart and remake them in new and creative ways – a new generation of “makers” is riding a wave of innovative technologies to transform the world of manufacturing. They don’t work in factories, they work in communal maker spaces or FabLabs. They don’t compete against each other for market share, they collaborate to make cool things. And they don’t spend billions building the physical infrastructure that many traditional economic developers have come to rely on, but they swap digital files to drive small-scale, leading edge equipment in their own hometowns. And they are the future of manufacturing.
In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Anderson uses his insider’s point of view to describe this strange and exciting new world, and to think about the many ways in which it will transform our economy and – by extension – our approach to economic development. The central argument can be broken into three core ideas. First, a range of new physical and digital tools (including digital visualization tools, additive printing technologies and precision laser cutting equipment) is enabling the rise of low cost manufacturing initiatives at the micro scale. Second, while large scale manufacturing of simple, mass-produced items may continue along traditional lines, the bespoke nature of a manufacturing system built on customizable digital blueprints suggests that the production of many, many goods will enhance to uptake of digital manufacturing. Third, the rise of these technologies means that much of the manufacturing sector will shift from a focus on products produced in large factories and distributed globally to a focus on product produced in small factories locally, with digital files and raw material distributed globally. In other words, every person in every community has the capacity to become a manufacturer, and – for economic developers – the age of “smokestack chasing” is truly over.
Future manufacturing strategies will focus on skills development and education, and on linking digital capacity to hubs of local manufacturing knowledge. Makers at the local level will develop and market innovative manufactured goods, which they will sell locally – while selling the digital “directions” to make those products in a global market that pushes manufacturing into an iTunes sales model. And just as that model has reshaped the music industry, the television industry, the travel industry and a hundred others, it will leverage the power of disintermediation to rewrite the rules of manufacturing.
Makers II: Fiction
While Anderson’s book reads to some like science fiction, it is in fact history…he describes not what is to come, but what has already arrived and is already reshaping our economy. But Anderson does acknowledge a debt to the field of science fiction, and specifically suggests that he borrowed the title of his book form an earlier book the same name. Makers is a 2009 novel by Canadian science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, but it’s a book that has transcended its beginnings as entertainment to become a key text of the growing maker movement. On the surface, it’s the story of a small group of makers and hackers who leverage the creative power of entire communities to build a new kind of economy based on both technology and freedom. Below the surface, it’s a manifesto for a new kind of economic development, in which kids with quirky visions and unique voices tear down the megacorporations of the old economy to create a new kind of libertarian, entrepreneurial world where people matter more than profits and communities join together to fend off the negative effects of globalization, corruption and recession.
Why should the average economic developer care about such a novel? Back in the early 1990s, as the new generation of IT entrepreneurs like Jobs and Gates were rising to dominate the corporate world, a generation of hackers and dreamers galvanized themselves around the novel Snow Crash byNeal Stephenson. That book has become a key text for understanding the worldview of the digital generation. Makers plays the same role in the increasingly influential world of the makers – it provides insight not just to into the technologies at play, but the mindset of those driving the maker movement itself.
If your career in – or vision of – economic development extends more than 5 or 10 years into the future, then both of these books are important reading. It’s well worth picking up copies of Makers (the novel) and of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.