This weekend Bloomberg.edu released a podcast of an interview I did with one of their reporters on the liberal arts as a pragmatic form of education for our time. Today my review of Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution appeared in the Washington Post. Anderson argues that the digital economy offers enormous opportunities for inventors and entrepreneurs.
Having spent seven years as president of an art and design school known for education through the arts, I am particularly interested in the ways in which “making stuff that matters” is relevant to liberal learning. Over the next few years we will be launching an initiative to enable more Wesleyan students to increase their digital and computational literacy, and we will be expanding access to spaces in which students can make stuff with digital tools. Liberal learning should go hand in hand with creating things that make a positive difference in the world. Here’s the review:
These days, when our slow recovery from recession seems like a full-employment program for pessimistic pundits, it’s great to have a new book from Chris Anderson, an indefatigable cheerleader for the unlimited potential of the digital economy. Anderson, the departing editor in chief of Wired magazine, has already written two important books exploring the impact of the Web on commerce. In “The Long Tail,” he argued that companies like Amazon that faced distribution challenges arising from having large quantities of the same kind of product would thrive by “selling less of more.” Corporations didn’t have to chase blockbusters if they had a mass of small sales. In “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” he argued that giving stuff away to attract a multitude of users might be the best way eventually to make money from loyal customers. Anderson has also helped found a Web site, Geekdad, and an aerial robotics company. From his vantage point, in the future more and more people can get involved in making things they really enjoy and can connect with others who share their passions and their products. These connections, he claims, are creating a new Industrial Revolution.
In a 2010 Wired article entitled “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits,” Anderson described how the massive changes in our relations with information have altered how we relate to things. Now that the power of information-sharing has been unleashed through technology and social networks, makers are able to collaborate on design and production in ways that facilitate the connection of producers to markets. By sharing information “bits” in a creative commons, entrepreneurs are making new things (reshaping “atoms”) more cheaply and quickly. The new manufacturing is a powerful economic force not because any one business becomes gigantic, but because technology makes it possible for tens of thousands of businesses to find their customers, to form their communities.
Anderson begins his new book, “Makers,” with the story of his grandfather Fred Hauser, who invented a sprinkler system. He licensed his invention to a company that turned ideas into things that could be built and sold. Although Hauser loved translating ideas into things, he needed a company with resources to make enough of his sprinklers to turn a profit. Inventing and making were separate. With the advent of the personal computer and of sophisticated but user-friendly design tools, that separation has become increasingly irrelevant. As a child, Anderson loved making things with his grandfather, and he still loves creating new stuff and getting it into the marketplace. “Makers” describes how today technology has liberated the inventor from a dependence on the big manufacturer. “The beauty of the Web is that it democratized the tools both of invention and production,” Anderson writes. “We are all designers now. It’s time to get good at it.”
Here’s where social networks come in. By sharing design ideas, we improve performance and find efficiencies. Communities of makers — whether they care about sprinklers, 3-D printers or flying robots — exchange ideas, correct one another’s plans, and together make something worth having (and that many are already invested in). Anderson sees a revolution in the contemporary preference for amateur content, and he approvingly cites Web entrepreneur Rufus Griscom’s talk of a “Renaissance of Dilettantism.” This is a “remix culture” in which everything can be customized. Web culture reveals the “long tail of talent,” and with barriers to entry rapidly disappearing, Anderson sees a new, more open playing field in which inventor-entrepreneurs (makers) will fuel economic development while creating fulfilling, less hierarchical communities.
This is heady stuff, and Anderson is an excellent guide to companies that make niche products for an international market. There are, apparently, enough folks interested in products like hammocks, weapons for Lego sets, and cool flying machines to support producers whose design and manufacturing costs are kept very low. Most of Anderson’s product examples are the kinds of things boys like to play with, and there is something of the “I found other kids like me” joy in his descriptions of community-building through the social networking of makers. The new industrial revolution, apparently, will have less to do with confronting poverty, disease and climate change, and more to do with inventing better, cooler toys. It will also be, like the last one, very male.
A firm believer in the wisdom of crowds, Anderson doesn’t take time to explore the dangers — or the limits — of wired dilettantism. He counts on networks to uncover error rather than to reinforce prejudice, and he has faith that real talent will be recognized more easily by those invested in solving a problem than by those seeking somebody who is merely properly credentialed.
Anderson is a good storyteller, and these anecdotes effectively highlight changing economic dynamics. Take Jordi Munoz Bardales, who went from hacker-hobbyist to CEO just a couple of years after graduating from his Tijuana high school. Bardales’s posting online of his design innovations to a toy helicopter was proof enough in Anderson’s eyes that he had the right stuff to be the leader of a robotics firm. It just didn’t matter where he went to school. It mattered that he had the skills and a capacity to share them.
In Anderson’s view, the Web creates an arena in which inventive people can connect with one another and figure out ways to turn their designs into things that will succeed in the marketplace. This will “unlock an economic engine” as thousands of small enterprises find new ways to be sustainable. Anderson convinced me that these enterprises will indeed succeed in making cool things that are fun to play with or that offer heightened convenience.
And I even have some hope that these new powers of making might address some of the major problems that still plague us from the last Industrial Revolution. Making hope in the future may be the most important product of the dynamic Anderson describes in his inventive new book.