A review of Chris Anderson’s “Makers” for the April issue of Blueprint magazine. Pleased to have used the phrase “Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons” in it, and indeed to have got it finished. Thanks to Shumi Bose for asking me to do it, and for nagging me to complete before the deadline!
On the surface, you’ll experience a distinct lack of surprise reading Makers, if – like me – you’re familiar with Chris Anderson’s previous output.
I expected plenty of techno-utopian, libertarian, anarcho-capitalist “Californian Ideology“, which there is in spades – but perhaps not his family history in the garden sprinkler industry, Marx, or 1980s US punk-rock references.
The central thesis of Makers blends these around innovations in the manufacture of physical goods, specifically low cost 3d printing and robotics, and the ongoing disruptive forces of the internet and open-source software – to convince us that we are entering the era of ‘The Long-Tail of Things”. Herein, niche needs can be met by niche manufacturing eating into the dominance of the mass-manufacture models of the industrial age. Anderson’s last-but-one book “The Long Tail” argued this for culture and media, of course.
In this near-future, the 1980s Punk DIY ethic transmutes into a kind of on-demand artisanal yuppie boutique-consumerism, a cornucopia of high-margin corner-cases.
Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons.
Which begs the question – in the future, who does the boring stuff?
In Anderson’s view, much of it is automated – with mass-manufacture jobs becoming more precarious, lower-paid and rare driven by technology, commoditisation and globalisation. Although, interestingly, he sees the tide turning away from China as planetary factory – as robotics, middle-class wage aspirations and cost of shipping conspire against it’s dominance in the medium to long-term. He has Mexico marked down as the new China. At least it’s his choice for outsourcing his boutique robotics firm…
While 3d-printing is the subject of a lot of hype and hope, the steady march of robotics into small and medium enterprises from their beach-head in mass manufacturing is perhaps the most profound trend of our times covered in Makers. It’s one of the enablers, as well as the subject of Anderson’s business, but it’s not something that is critiqued in much depth by him. He does make strong points about the future of the American middle-class (our working classes) but for a more thorough look at this, I’d recommend “Race against the machine” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.
The other powerful trend covered in Makers is the accessibility of tools and knowhow that the Open-Source movement has catalysed and provided to the small business. While capital might be in short supply, much of the (software) means of production is seizable for free, and as Anderson points out – the physical hardware and infrastructure of prototyping, manufacture and distribution is rentable as a service. This is a trend that we at BERG have made great use of in the last few years in our own small-scale product prototyping and manufacture e.g. Little Printer (http://bergcloud.com/littleprinter)
Anderson finishes with a short speculation on the open-source future of biology itself. With synthetic biological components being hacked on inside the canonical garages that created the computer industry, it promises to be a disruptive movement worth a book of it’s own. The analysis in Makers seems a little tacked-on, but it may prompt the curious to investigate further.
Ultimately however, “Makers” suffers, like most business books, of being a something that would made a great, insightful magazine article, but drags as a full book – and feels anachronistic in contrast to the digital communities, blogs and other online resources devoted to its subject matter.
Part invigorating, part infuriating, “Makers” is squarely aimed at airport bizbook crowd rather than designers or makers – although conversely designers and makers could learn from the business-y bits. It’s message is perhaps most urgent though for the UK’s education policy makers – hopefully leading them to question their victorian obsession with testing the three R’s, and instead shaping an education system centred around design, play, flexibility, invention, creativity and ingenuity – skills that Anderson’s vision of the near-future demands.