Notes from a Future Tense Event on “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 26 2012 1:13 PM

Notes from “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution,” a Future Tense Event

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Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson

Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images

In the title of his latest book, Wired Editor Chris Anderson is clear that he thinks the maker movement will change the world. Enabled by a swath of new technologies, the hacker culture known for tinkering with computer software is moving into the physical world, giving rise to new forms of art, manufacturing, and industrial design. And as Anderson explains in “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution,” this union of Web culture and the real world could change everything from American manufacturing to business creation to primary and secondary education.

 Anderson sat down with Slate editor David Plotz Thursday evening at a Future Tense happy hour at the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, DC, to discuss the power of the maker movement and celebrate the release of his new book.

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 Of all the technologies driving the maker movement, few get more attention than the 3-D printer. Cheap computers, feature-rich smartphones, thriving online communities, and physical hacker spaces have all bolstered the Do It Yourself mentality, so what makes the 3-D printer so revolutionary? Makers cherish machines like MakerBot, but at the end of the day, as Plotz put it, they’re just “extruding some plastic doodad.”

“Let us not discount that extruding a plastic doodad is kind of amazing just by itself,” Anderson said. The 3-D printer follows a trend of new technology empowering individuals to create in ways they haven’t been able to before. Personal computers and desktop printers gave rise to desktop publishing in the 1980s, when anyone could write, design, and publish whatever they wanted from their home office. Then publishing moved to the Web, where centuries of printing technologies fused into a single “publish” button on a Web page.

We might not be impressed by these technologies today, but the impact they’ve had on society is undeniable, allowing bits of information to be shared more easily than ever before. The 3-D printer is the next machine to do that. It’s just that now, atoms are the new bits.

To illustrate the point, Anderson described one way his household has embraced the 3-D printer. His daughters wanted to get new furniture to put inside their dollhouse. Looking around the web, Anderson noticed that the available options were  very expensive, that choices were limited, and that it was hard to find something in the right size. So he went to Thingiverse, an online community for sharing digital design files. The furniture hunters found a design for a chair they liked and printed it out in the color and size they wanted for no more than the cost of the materials.

The final product isn’t as high quality as one available from a store, but Anderson’s daughters feel a sense of ownership and creativity over this chair—one that they don’t experience with toys simply given to them. “If you’re a toy company, this should just fill you with terror,” he said.

The story exemplifies two big changes Anderson expects from a DIY economy. First, creating a new product and getting it to market will be much easier for the average person. Second, industrial-level design will move from a specialized, advanced education to become a general hobby, and potentially part of the high school curriculum.

Sites like Kickstarter and Etsy are already taking the maker movement mainstream, letting people turn their concepts and crafts into full-fledged businesses. The Pebble “e-paper watch”, Anderson’s favorite Kickstarter project, was designed by four people in Palo Alto. It was announced the same week as Sony’s SmartWatch, but because the Pebble creators were more innovative and more social in their marketing, their product raked in $10 million and became the leading example of smart watch technology, leaving Sony’s product an also-ran.

Communities like Kickstarter generate money based on individuals turning their concepts into reality. The communities and technology encourage people to fulfill what Anderson sees as an innate desire to tinker and create, and it’s a chance to bring back a high-school classic: shop class. DARPA is working to bring the maker movement into American high schools, funding more than 1,000 Makerspaces to get kids interested in the future of manufacturing. Wood- and metal-working classes have receded from public schools in recent years because of increased liability and a perceived irrelevance to the workforce. But the tools for these new shop classes are safer and less expensive, and offer a chance to learn design principles, computer programming, math, science and more.

The maker movement is characterized by the ability to create at a low cost, share ideas with the world in an instant, and collaborate to improve upon whatever is out there. “Someday a generation will laugh at us for being impressed,” Anderson said. For now, the key to the new industrial revolution is all about stoking the natural curiosity that makes us all makers.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.

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