The Revolution Will Be Printed | Print Version
by Larry Deck*
Le Québécois Libre, August 15, 2013, No 313

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson. McLelland and Stewart, 2012
The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, by Kevin Carson. Booksurge Publishing, 2010 [Free ebook or pdf ]

Cheap, easy-to-use and reliable home manufacturing tools are fast becoming as widely available as laser printers and flatbed scanners. What effects might this have on society?

The titles of the two books under consideration suggest that the effects will be stupendous: nothing short of another industrial revolution. The original industrial revolution catapulted Britain into a world-shaping power through the cheap mass production of textiles and attendant technologies of mechanization and steam power (not to mention trade-friendly legislation). What some call the “second” industrial revolution began with the Bessemer process, which lowered the price of steel production and led to assembly line manufacturing. Some would say digitization and robotic automation constitute yet another industrial revolution, and now these two authors (and others) see a nascent revolution in home and local small-batch manufacturing. But while both have seized the same grandiose expression to discuss the subject, the way each one imagines the outcome of the revolution could not be more different.

The Bright Future

Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and the author of two previous books, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006) and Free: The Future of a Radical Price (2009). In The Long Tail he argued that the web makes it possible for more producers of niche goods to find small but enthusiastic populations of consumers, and thus survive and thrive. Whereas mass-production/mass-distribution business models depend on satisfying a “lowest common denominator” consumer in the “big head” of the demand curve where sales volumes are high, niche producers occupy some spot further along in the lower demand, low sales volume part of the curve. That’s where the web increasingly helps specialized producers like fringe authors and indie bands find small but dedicated groups of true fans who will buy whatever they crank out. That book focused on the “long tail of media.”

Anderson is also the founder of the GeekDad blog and founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, a company that makes autopiloting systems for model planes. It’s his experience setting up this open hardware tech business using rapid prototyping and encouraging online discussion and modification of his early efforts that has led him to conclude that a big shift is coming in manufacturing in general: we’re already creating the “long tail of things.”

The stories Anderson tells paint a vivid picture of the “maker” scene and the serious potential for exploiting niche markets that arise when “everyone is a designer” because prototyping software is free or super-cheap and versatile, and easy-to-program microcontrollers are likewise cheap and getting cheaper. And now we’re seeing the second or third generation of true desktop manufacturing devices: small CNC (computer numeric control) milling machines, laser cutters, 3D scanners and 3D printers.

Domestic 3D printers in many ways epitomize the almost magical promise of home manufacturing. These relatively simple devices move a nozzle over a heated platform, extruding a filament of melted plastic to lay down layer after layer of almost any shape imaginable. They follow patterns that can be bought or found free online, or that enthusiastic and patient users can learn to create themselves using free solid modeling software. One popular open source model of 3D printer, the RepRap, is specifically designed to print as many of its own components as it can, moving incrementally closer to the day when the home manufacturing enthusiast can reproduce his or her own workshop from raw materials.

Anderson does a great job of capturing the exhilaration of this proliferating technology and the community of users who share their designs and schematics online. He makes a plausible case that these technologies open up huge commercial opportunities for people—in large part because they combine with social media and the culture of participation they encourage to drastically lower both barriers to entry and transaction costs. It would be hard to dispute the revolutionary potential of combining cheap and easy digital design and prototyping systems with crowdfunding and other innovative sources of financing.

A paper recently published by a team of researchers at Michigan Technological University described a small study in which the authors looked at 20 consumer goods for which “equivalent” open-source printable designs were available free online, and concluded that even if it were only used to produce these 20 things, the printer under consideration (a version of the RepRap) would pay for itself in under two years, and the owners would get a significant return on investment. They printed out things like orthotics and safety razors, which are not cheap but are not complicated to print (with the right designs).

Now, a team of engineering profs might not factor in the time it takes to assemble, calibrate, and maintain an open-source 3D printer, and the trouble involved would probably daunt lesser mortals. But early laser printers were large, complicated and finicky too. The undeniable momentum behind this technology will hopefully lead to commensurate improvements in “plug-and-play”-type usability.

What about the Dark Side?

All of which is to say that I find Anderson’s enthusiasm well-justified, and I share it. Nevertheless, there is something unsatisfying about reading a book like Makers, and if I were to try to put my finger on it, I would say that it’s like watching a cut of Star Wars from which all of Darth Vader’s scenes have been removed. Writing about the original industrial revolution, Anderson points out that the spinning jenny and the other machines that made mass production of clothing from cheap colonial cotton “arrived at the right time, in the right place. Britain in the 1700s was going through an intellectual renaissance, with a series of patent laws and policies that gave artisans the incentive not only to invent but also to share their inventions.” Anderson sees all “intellectual property” laws in this way: not as state-manufactured monopolies and impediments to free market activity, but as benign “incentives” without which nothing would ever be invented. As if the open source software and hardware movements he lionizes were not the obvious direct refutation of that very idea!

One of the current impediments to desktop 3D printing is the fact that all the open source printer designs rely on extruding a filament of plastic, which limits the level of fine detail they can achieve. One reason home-printed versions of commodities that are mass produced by injection molding are only “equivalent” is this rough-finish quality they have. But the patents currently protecting the monopoly on laser sintering 3D printers that can produce much finer results expire next year, a fact that many predict will be the turning point for desktop 3D printing. Yet if patents have ever impeded progress or caused deadweight loss in Anderson’s world, well, it’s all been for the best. Inventors need monopoly privileges as an incentive to come up with new things, except when they’re on Facebook, or something.

Describing the bloody enclosures that involuntarily displaced hundreds of thousands during the same period, Anderson writes, “Improved farming methods, including the fencing in of pastures that avoided the “tragedy of the commons” problem, had a lot to do with it.” There is no doubt that driving people off the land and into cities had “a lot to do” with the commercial expansion of England, but if that’s a reason to gloss over the real suffering of the people who had been managing their tragic commonses pretty stably for centuries, I’m not convinced.

That’s probably why the “revolution” described by Anderson ends up sounding a lot like an exciting but not-very-revolutionary way to make a little money.

There are no bad guys in Makers. Everything is up, up, up, and you get the impression that not only will nobody be on the losing side of the suspiciously bloodless disruptions caused by these revolutionary “disruptive technologies,” nobody has ever really been on the losing side at any time. In fact, change is so positive for everyone always and everywhere that there is nobody who might, you know, resist the revolution. A revolution without counterrevolutionaries! Huzzah!

Kevin Carson knows better. Darth Vader and all the stormtroopers haunt the pages of The Homebrew Industrial Revolution as thoroughly as they are absent from Makers. To begin with, Carson describes the history of industrial revolutions in such a way as to leave no doubt why people consider them revolutionary. Blood was spilled in the transition from agrarian to industrial economies and again, more significantly for Carson, in the transition from small-scale local manufacturing to massive, centralized (what Carson characterizes as “Sloanist”) mass-distribution production.

Size Isn’t Everything

Humanity took a “wrong turn” as far as Carson is concerned when it allowed small, electrified local manufacturing to be crushed in favour of the centralization deliberately promoted by state subsidies for distribution (canals, railroads and highways, not to mention more specific subsidies and favouritism for mass-distribution industries). By concealing the diseconomies of scale that would have been obvious if producers had had to pay full market price for developing transportation networks, and by regulatory regimes that prevented smaller local producers from competing, the state created the gigantism of 20th century industry, along with the managerial liberalism that was its governing ideology.

A genuine home-manufacturing revolution, as Carson sees it, would swing the pendulum back to the missed opportunities of small-batch local production. Unlike Anderson, Carson is happy to identify the people who would lose in this revolution (the mass production industries) and the villains who will fight to protect their unjustifiable power (the regulators and obedient legislators, busy outdoing themselves in their attempt to shore up the regimes of “intellectual property” and extend and prolong the rents from their arbitrarily granted monopolies).

If Carson’s book benefits from the dramatic advantage of having both good and evil represented in its pages, it suffers somewhat from lack of focus and occasionally misplaced enthusiasm for New-Left-sounding “community alternatives.” Carson is a left-wing market anarchist, a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society and the author of two previous books, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy and Organization Theory: a Libertarian Perspective. As a left-libertarian, he’s anti-statist but favours market solutions (and technologies that might help free the market) first and foremost because they would improve the lives of poor people. I’m with him on that—wholeheartedly—but I don’t always agree with the tone of some of what he writes.

For instance, when he writes approvingly of the “shared machine shops” promoted by the great left-libertarian Karl Hess in his Community Technology (1979) and then says “[t]he same idea has appeared in the San Francisco Bay area, albeit in a commercial rather than communitarian form, as TechShop,” my first reaction is to ask “What’s the difference?” It’s literally true that TechShop is a commercial venture, and Carson plainly prefers the “communitarian” alternative, which is essentially a cooperative or tool-sharing club. But if a commercial venture makes it possible for makers to cheaply and reliably prototype their designs, should they really care that they don’t own the laser-cutters for now? Elsewhere he quotes at length and without serious criticism a proposal for “venture communism” in which co-ownership is based on labour not on contributions of cash or capital. Could someone hire another person to contribute “his” labour to such a project and thus own a piece of it? I guess probably not, but why not? At the risk of sounding like the “vulgar libertarians” whom Carson excoriates (most often rightly, in my opinion), I have to register my lack of enthusiasm for the metaphysical value of labour, but I’m glad to have Carson try to convince me otherwise. It beats listening to another whitewash of the enclosures or anecdote about Steve Jobs.

I recommend both of these books. The one is an upbeat pep talk on some great and probably lucrative new things, the other is a sometimes somber but ultimately even more upbeat description of a future utopia that would really deserve to be called the outcome of a revolution.

* Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.