Chris Anderson on Why He's Leaving Digital for DIY
Wired's long-time editor in chief, Chris Anderson, announced on Friday that he was leaving the magazine to become CEO of his DIY-drone company, 3D Robotics. This move comes a month after the release of his latest book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. In an interview last week (and a brief follow-up after Friday's announcement), Anderson talked with me about today's biggest revolution in how and where we actually make things. If the last few decades have been about big digital forces — the Internet, social media — he notes that the future will be about applying all of that in the real world. "Wondrous as the Web is," he writes, "it doesn’t compare to the real world. Not in economic size (online commerce is less than 10 percent of all sales) and not in its place in our lives. The digital revolution has been largely limited to screens." But, he adds, the salient fact remains that "we live in homes, drive in cars, and work in offices." And it is that physical part of the economy that is undergoing the biggest and most fundamental change.
RF: So you're leaving Wired to concentrate on your company, 3D Robotics, which makes DIY drones. This seems very closely related to the things you write about in Makers. It seems like you're shifting your own life from a thinker and writer to a maker. Did your writing of this book influence this life-changing decision. If so, how?
Some people hear the word "maker" and imagine we are going back to the past, a world of artisans using traditional tools to make craft products. From reading your book, that’s not exactly what you mean. You're talking about a blurring of what might be called the analog and digital worlds. Tell us more about how you see this playing out.
The "Maker Movement" is simply what happened when the web revolution hit the real world. The term, in its current sense, was first coined in 2005 by Dale Dougherty of the tech book publisher O’Reilly, to describe what he saw as a resurgence of tinkering, that great American tradition. But rather than isolated hobbyists in their garages the way it used to be, this was coming out of Web communities and increasingly using digital tools, from 3D printers, which were just then starting to be available for regular consumers, and to a new generation of free and easy CAD software programs. ...The world’s factories are now increasingly open to anyone via the web, creating what amounts to "cloud manufacturing." And huge Maker communities have grown around sites such as Kickstarter and Etsy. In Silicon Valley, the phrase is that "hardware is the new software." The web's powerful innovation model can now be applied to making real stuff. As a result, we’re going from the "tinkerer" phase of this movement to entrepreneurship, too. What began as a social revolution is starting to look like an industrial revolution.
What are the key technological innovations and shifts that are enabling and powering the revolution in making things?
There are really two: the first on the desktop and the second in the cloud.
On the desktop, it's been the arrival of cheap and easy-to-use digital fabrication tools for consumers. Although the technology, from 3D printers to laser cutters and CNC machines, have been used in industry for decades, they've only reached the consumer desktop over the past few years. Five years ago, that started with the RepRap project, which was an open-source 3D printer design that could be assembled as a kit and led to the first MakerBots.
Call that the Apple II phase, where the machines were mostly sold to geeks who were willing to put up with a lot of complexity to experiment with an exciting new technology. But over the past year, to extend the analogy, we've entered the Macintosh phase: consumer 3D printers that come ready to run, and just work out of the box with simple software.
That allows anyone to fabricate complex objects, with no special machine-shop skills or tools. In the same way that the first consumer laser printers, back in the 1980s, were able to hide all the complexity of professional printing behind the a simple menu item that said "Print," today’s 3D printers hide the complexity of computer-controlled fabrication behind a simple menu item that says "Make."
That desktop manufacturing revolution is great for making a few of something, as a custom product or prototype, but it should not be confused with mass production. It can take an hour or more to 3D-print a single object. So how do we get from there to an industrial revolution? Enter the second enabling technology: the cloud.
Over the past few decade, the world’s factories have embraced the Web. Thanks to online marketplaces such as Alibaba (in China) and MFG.com (in the U.S.), factories that would once only work for big commercial customers will now take orders from anyone. That means that once you've prototyped your widget on your desktop, you can send the same digital design to a big factory to be turned into a form that can be mass-produced. You don't need to be a company, and typically such factories are willing to work at any scale, from hundreds to hundreds of thousands.
Once, to get into manufacturing, you needed to own a factory. Then, with outsourcing, you needed to at least know someone who owned a factory. Now all you need is a web browser and a credit card to get robots in China to work for you!
You have a chapter titled: "We are All Designers Now." What exactly does that mean?
In 1985, when Apple released the LaserWriter desktop printer to go with its then-new Mac, it made "Desktop Publishing" possible, which was mind-blowing at the time. Five hundred years of printing and typesetting expertise was reduced to cheap software that anyone could use. We made a mess of fonts and had to learn some industry jargon (kerning, leading, etc), but pretty quickly anybody could make a professional-looking page. Then, ten years later, along came the web and "publish" turned into a button you could click in your browser. So, in that sense, we all became publishers. ... Now, with cheap and easy-to-use CAD [computer-aided design] software, anybody can do digital product design. Free software and sites like TinkerCad make powerful CAD tools practically as easy to use as Minecraft, without forcing people to learn the terms of art of the professional CAD designer (chamfer, extrude, etc). Kids can start with Lego Digital Designer and graduate to free iPad apps like Autodesk’s 123D Sculpt, making sophisticated designs without even using the letters C. A. D. So, just as desktop publishing and then the web democratized the tools of media, these new tools are democratizing the tools of manufacturing.
This chart, from Anderson's book, outlines "The Hierarchy of Reward."
You write about "maker businesses," "open organizations," "desktop factories," and the "21st century workshop," but the history of making and inventing — and of progress itself — is rooted in communities and cities. I'm sure Cities readers would love to hear more about what you've learned about maker communities and maker cities.
Interestingly, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area is not the center of the Maker Movement. Sure, that's where it got started, with O'Reilly’s Make magazine and the first Maker Faire, TechShop, and some of the first hackerspaces. But today, New York, home of Kickstarter, Etsy, MakerBot, AdaFruit, Quirky, Shapeways and others is every bit as influential. The New York Maker Faire this year attracted a record 55,000 people. While that's not as many as the Bay Area's 100,000+, it's just the third year of the New York festival and it's bigger at this stage than the Bay Area one was.
Why would New York, with its high labor costs and limited space, be one of the centers of a new industrial revolution? Because digital fabrication technology means that the hard work of making things is increasingly automated and desktop-sized, putting a premium on one thing that New York is hands-down America’s leader in: design. ...But the reality is that Maker Movement is neither exclusively American nor limited to cities. Instead, it’s fully distributed, from Europe’s RepRap and Arduino projects to the many hundreds of makerspaces (also called hackerspaces) you can find around the world.
In that sense, you can think of the Maker Movement as less about the return of industrial cities in the developed world and more about a new kind of cottage industry. Once, people had to move to cities because that's where the means of production were. Now the means of production can come to them, wherever they live.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Top image: Creative Commons, by Joi Ito; All other images courtesy of the Crown Publishing Group.