Ghosts of Revolutions Waiting to Happen

There once was a neologism (what do you call old neologisms?) “See-Throughs”… being big office buildings that have failed to fill with the sorts of creatures that inhabit such terraria. You can see from one side to the other… no desks or filing cabinets or spider plants etc.

I’ve been noticing a number of Web 2.0 equivalents of late… or Web 3.0 maybe… the long (is it long yet?) anticipated “Internet of Things”, for which I’m seeing a lot of gushing enthusiasm but precious little in the way of a Killer App. Well, not for we jaded, prozac-stuffing westerners anyway.


Exhibit 1)


Someone’s invented a better clothes-peg generating a buzz of enthusiasm from those who monitor such things, as to how this thing would be tooled?

What interested me though was the site it came from…, professing to be a discount pre-seller of next-generation products… the idea being that you submit a bit of money into escrow, and if a threshold is past where it’s actually worth making the thing, they will.

Which is a great idea – a friend of mine has been proposing this as a music-industry model for years. I think it’s a goer… only it ain’t going.

Not sure how long this site has been up – since 2008 presumably… I can remember there being a bit of a buzz over it a while back over the launch of a money-clip made out of money… and while I’m all in favour of art for art’s sake, lets have an Emperor’s New Clothes moment here shall we? Selling magnets taped to bank notes? Come on. That’s taking the piss. Honestly, what problem is being solved here? What value is being created?

Maybe I should put some of my stuff up on it.. see what happens… but to be fair, although I’ve been playing with Ponoko for quite a while now, apart with the possible exception of Golden Mean Calipers, I haven’t made anything that I’d actually call useful.

So maybe that’s the answer to the recent query (from someone I can no longer find), “What’s the biggest barrier to mass customisation?”. It’s simply that we can’t think of anything to make. We solved most of our manufacturing problems ages ago… and yea, being able to design then print a working whistle (albeit one that looks like it’s been chiseled out of wax) might be an impressive proof-of-concept, we (as a species) solved the whistle problem a long, long time ago… this is also “evidence of concept” that we’re not exactly setting the world on fire here with Stuff That People Actually Need.


Exhibit 2)

Which looks like comparison shopping for digital-fabbing plants… which I think may be in the same arena as what Ponoko are aiming to do – by making their software available to anyone with a laser-cutting shop. Outsourcing manufacture to the cloud as it were. Makes sense – if you’re dealing with physical stuff, then simply “knowing what’s available, and where to get it” seems to be 9/10ths of the law. It makes double sense if like the Makerbot lot, you’re getting your customers to make Makerbot parts for you.

There’s quite a nice roundup of the various technologies available here, though not a lot on location/who’s going to do the work etc.


Exhibit 3)… which looks like a site where you can sell other people’s products… or have yours sold by other people. I might have a go at this one actually because I find it a lot easier to make things than to sell them… the only catch-ette being, I’m a software guy which means I’m location-agnostic. If I start making physical things then I’m tied to a specific address. Unless I get someone else to do it of course. That would be ok. Make themselves useful etc.

So anyway… this could be a goer as well, but the “featured” sellers department leaves me feeling a certain un-put-my-finger-on-able unease. It reminds me of the electrical-gear shops in Tottenham Court Road in London where everything seems to be for sale and although all the shops are different, they have this distinct vibe of being run by a massive cartel of excited and shifty Indian pirates. One of the “featured shops” (for example) has a sideline in Gadget Models. Another one sells spy-gear.

Which kindof clashes with the Web 2.0 at-the-front vibe, but there you go.


Exhibit 4) Open Structures


This looks quite cool actually – or has potential at least. It looks like an attempt to create a cross between Lego and Ikea… standardised parts and connectors that people can use to build whatever they like, so long as it’s made entirely out of right-angles. The site has only been up for a month or so, and the first post in their blog is still in Latin (bless)… and I think it should stay that way. It’s like a “hello world” moment, and a backhanded testament to Cicero who originally wrote the thing… “lorem ipsum” being a musing on ethics… all very heavy and meaningful etc… now famous for precisely the opposite reason – it’s meaningless.

Anyway, Open Structures has a bit where you can upload your own components and share them etc… a small handful there already, most of them not for sale, but there you go.

I think this might be a way forward – out of the situation we have at the moment where there’s mass-customisation potential, but people aren’t really using it that much. Building blocks are good. If everything was made out of building blocks we wouldn’t have landfill sites filled with old “consumer-durables”… or “consumer-utterly-undefuckingstructables” as they will come to be known, 500,000 years from now when they still haven’t biodegraded.

So anyway… random thoughts, apropos of very little again… but circling around feelings of doubt about the “crowd-sourced-manufacturing-revolution” that is all the rage at the moment… because the BIG problem with it, is that we (jaded, prozac-stuffing westerners) have kindof satisfied our “product-acquiring” needs.

So the anticipated shift from “buying stuff” to “spending even more $$$ than it would to buy stuff, making it ourselves” isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. Really, home-fabbing is another way of acquiring stuff… and the acquisition of stuff, although it may be our raison d’ĂȘtre as prescribed by mainstream (ie: marketing) culture, ain’t really doing it for us is it.