Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Imagining a Maker Revolution

This week's Economist magazine has a fantastic overview of "makers", describing some of the key technologies and businesses involved in this potentially paradigm-shifting (or destroying) movement. Sharing many similarities with open-source software, the maker movement is essentially open-source manufacturing, and is often grouped together with nanotechnology, synthetic biology, quantum computing, fusion power, and environmental sustainability as a potential tech trend that could lead the developed world out of its current innovation stagnation.

So what might happen if a huge chunk of consumer goods suddenly shifted production from factories to individual households? First let's consider the cultural response. There's no doubt free-market cheerleaders praise the Schumpeterian idea of 'creative destruction'--in the abstract. But when it comes to the individual industries at risk of being 'creatively destroyed', they tend to fight tooth and nail for survival: protecting themselves with political concessions and acquiring regulation, and by insulating themselves from competition through collusion and creating barriers to entry for new firms. We see a great example of this currently with the battle over SOPA, a proposed internet censorship bill.

Now, I'm certainly no strong adherent to communist philosophy, but parts of its critique of capitalism explain pretty well the elite response to disruptive innovation. Most new technologies or business practices might eliminate small industry segments, but nothing more. In these cases free market cheerleaders stay relatively passive. But if there are changes on the horizon that threaten big moneymaking in any systemic way, we see opposition. The internet was successful in changing the world in part because of its rapid development, and also because no one saw it coming. Economic revolutions that are obvious and occur slowly (environmental sustainability, say) provide plenty of time for capitalists to defend the status quo.

So let's bring it back to the maker movement. I could see a big backlash occurring by elites: "it will crash our consumption-based economy because people won't have to buy stuff anymore! Not to mention the job losses in retail and manufacturing! And has anyone really considered the threat to national security! Terrorists could be making guns and bombs right down the street from where your kids have little league practice!"

On the other hand, I'm not so sure small-scale distributed manufacturing would really be as disruptive as many predict. Even with a 3-D printer in every home, I doubt a very large proportion of people would tinker and design much. Outside of a small core of devoted amateurs, most of the blueprints for stuff would probably still come from big-name brands. Does anybody really think Lego would disappear if it wasn't manufacturing its own plastic blocks? Among rich-world companies, the shift away from manufacturing to ideas and marketing has been occurring for some time due to globalization. At this point it doesn't really matter where stuff gets made; high schoolers will always be willing to pay a little extra to print out hoodies with the trademarked Abercrombie logo on it (intellectual property rules would become really important under a maker revolution, but that's a topic for another blog post).

But this brings me to my last digression: a maker revolution's impact on developing countries. If the rich world no longer needs anyone to make its stuff, then what happens to the developing world? There are two likely development paths. First, the collapse of labor demand might arrest growth for some time (natural resource extraction would still be a source of growth, although with distributed production various cradle-to-cradle resource streams would likely develop in the rich world). Second, the developing world could chart a novel development path. When a country develops necessarily affects how a country develops, and just as Africa has leapfrogged on telecommunications using cell phones, so too might distributed production allow poor households to jump directly into relative material wealth. I'm not sure what will become of this intriguing movement, but generally the easier it is for creative people to turn ideas into tangible reality, the better.

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