The Lean Startup author Eric Reis puts it, Marx got it wrong: “It’s not about ownership of the means of production, anymore. It’s about rentership of the means of production.”
Such open supply chains are the mirror of Web publishing and e-commerce a decade ago. The Web, from Amazon to eBay, revealed a Long Tail of demand for niche physical goods; now the democratized tools of production are enabling a Long Tail of supply, too.
In a world dominated by one-size-fits-all commodity goods, the way to stand out is to create products that serve individual needs, not general ones. Custom-made bikes fit better.
These niche products tend to be driven by people’s wants and needs rather than companies’ wants and needs. Of course people have to create companies to make these goods at scale, but they work hard to retain their roots.
Under somewhat different historical conditions, firms using a combination of craft skill and flexible equipment might have played a central role in modern economic life—instead of giving way, in almost all sectors of manufacturing, to corporations based on mass production. Had this line of mechanized craft production prevailed, we might today think of manufacturing firms as linked to particular communities rather than as the independent organizations that, through mass production, seem omnipresent.
What does artisanal mean in a digital world? In his 2011 book, The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Mario Carpo, an Italian architectural historian, argues that “variability is the mark of all things handmade.” So far, no surprise for anyone who has bought a tailored suit. But he continues: Now, to a greater extent than was conceivable at the time of manual technologies … the very same process of differentiation can be scripted, programmed, and to some extent designed. Variability can now become part of an automated design and production chain.23 Just consider the Web itself. Each of us sees a different Web. When we visit big Web retailers such as Amazon, the storefront is reorganized just for us, displaying what its algorithms think we’ll most like. Even for pages where the content is the same, the ads are different, inserted by software that evaluates our past behavior and predicts our future actions. We don’t browse the Web, but rather search it, and not only are our search strings different, but different users get different results from the same search strings based on their personal history. Writes Carpo, “This is, at the basis, the golden formula that has made Google a very rich company. Variability, which could be an obstacle in a traditional mechanical environment … has been turned into an asset in the new digital environment—indeed, into one of its most profitable assets.”
Variability, which could be an obstacle in a traditional mechanical environment … has been turned into an asset in the new digital environment—indeed, into one of its most profitable assets.”
And the more products become information, the more they can be treated as information: collaboratively created by anyone, shared globally online, remixed and reimagined, given away for free, or, if you choose, held secret. In short, the reason atoms are the new bits is that they can increasingly be made to act like bits.
But as we’ve learned over the past few decades, digital is different. Sure, digital files can be shared and copied limitlessly at virtually no cost and with no loss of quality. But what’s more important is that they can be modified just as easily. We live in a “remix” culture: everything is inspired by something that came before, and creativity is shown as much in the reinterpretation of existing works as in original ones. That’s always been true (the Greeks argued that there were only seven basic plots, and all stories just changed the details of one or another of them), but it’s never been easier than it is now. Just as Apple encouraged music fans to “Rip. Mix. Burn,” Autodesk now preaches the gospel of “Rip. Mod. Fab” (3-D scan objects, modify them in a CAD program, and print them on a 3-D printer). That ability to easily “remix” digital files is the engine that drives community. What it offers is an invitation to participate. You don’t need to invent something from scratch or have an original idea. Instead, you can participate in a collaborative improvement of existing ideas or designs. The barrier to entry of participation is lower because it’s so easy to modify digital files rather than create them entirely yourself.
Think of a digital product design not as a picture of what it should be, but instead as a mathematical equation of how to make it. That is not a metaphor—it’s actually the way CAD programs work. When you draw a 3-D object on the screen, what the computer really does is write a series of geometrical equations that can instruct machines to reproduce the object at any size in any medium, be it pixels on a monitor or plastic in a printer. Increasingly, those equations don’t just describe the shape of a thing, but also its physical properties—what’s flexible and what’s stiff, what conducts electricity and what insulates heat, what’s smooth and what’s rough. So everything is an algorithm now. And just as every Google search uses its algorithms to produce a different result for each person searching, so can algorithms customize products for their consumers.
Likewise, the examples where consumers are designing their own products online are rarely mass. Threadless (T-shirts), Lulu (self-published books), CafePress (coffee mugs and other trinkets), and others like them are thriving businesses, but they are platforms for creativity more than great examples of mass customization. They simply give consumers access to small-batch manufacturing on standard platforms: shirts, mugs, and bound paper.
Instead, what the new manufacturing model enables is a mass market for niche products. Think ten thousand units, not ten million (mass) or one (mass customization). Products no longer have to sell in big numbers to reach global markets and find their audience. That’s because they don’t do it from the shelves of Wal-Mart. Instead, they use e-commerce, driven by an increasingly discriminating consumer who follows social media and word of mouth to buy specialty products online.
In a 2011 speech at Maker Faire, Neil Gershenfeld, the MIT professor whose book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop anticipated much of the Maker Movement nearly a decade ago, described his epiphany like this: I realized that the killer app for digital fabrication is personal fabrication. Not to make what you can buy in Wal-Mart, but to make what you can’t buy at Wal-Mart. This is just like the shift from mainframes to personal computers. They weren’t used for the same thing—personal computers are not there for inventory and payroll. Instead personal computers were used for personal things, from e-mail to video games. The same will be true for personal fabrication."
Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson