Eric Hunting on P2P architecture (4): the maker movement and the quest for an open industrial infrastructure

Eric Hunting:

Now, imagine if you could do something like this for a very large variety of artifacts and technologies. This is what I was planning for the Open Source Everything Project. The idea here isn’t just to invent and disseminate a collection of open source artifact designs. The idea is to create an organized mass exchange of these designs bootstrapped by starting it out with the dissemination of designs for tools and the techniques for them. It’s not just about products. It’s an open source industrial infrastructure.

We continue our interview with Eric Hunting, this is the fourth in a series, which directly tackles the dream of an open industrial infrastructure. For context, the previous part discussed how to bridge the divide between environmental and high tech sensibilities.

What Eric says below is very important and resonates with my own predictive feeling that the true p2p revolution will not take place in the West, but in countries like China and the soutern hemisphere.

Eric Hunting:

The answer may be in software. Software is an intellectual product but is more than a book or a piece of music because it controls physical machines which, in turn, have the potential to produce -or aid the production of- physical products. I’m sure you’re familiar with the OLPC project. On their wiki site they have a section for proposed software of the XO laptop. Some time ago in that section I proposed a modular building design tool based on -as you might have guessed- Box Beam. This program would be a very simplified 3D CAD program specific to the geometric system of Box Beam and with simplified finite element analysis so that it would tell you when a structure design was out of the bounds of safety. Box Beam only deals in a few basic kinds of standardized elements so one could easily design objects like playing with a virtual building toy and then the program could print-out the standard isometric, planar, and exploded views and a recipe list for the parts. With this program kids and their teachers could design things that they could actually make themselves with very simple tools, which would be perfectly functional, and, using the Internet, they could trade these designs with other kids around the world and create a communal archive for them all. All the furniture in a classroom could be made by the students themselves. And then they could take that skill-set home and make useful things their on their own and with their parents. Box Beam is a good choice for this because it’s based on simple materials (wood and any flat stock) that are pretty cheap, don’t need heavy industry to produce, and are likely to be obtainable even in the developing world.

Now, imagine if you could do something like this for a very large variety of artifacts and technologies. This is what I was planning for the Open Source Everything Project. The idea here isn’t just to invent and disseminate a collection of open source artifact designs. The idea is to create an organized mass exchange of these designs bootstrapped by starting it out with the dissemination of designs for tools and the techniques for them. It’s not just about products. It’s an open source industrial infrastructure. Designs for everyday objects that improve standard of living are good but to begin with you have to disseminate the tools and techniques to make those with too. Ultimately people have to learn how to make things wherever they are with whatever resources are at hand. It’s not always going to be in the same ways. You can run a program that donates masses of power tools or puts Fab Labs in the Congo but that’s only helpful until they break. So what you have to do is develop and communicate this whole open source ecology of progressive industrial capability -as if NASA had to communicate to a bunch of colonists on Mars how to bootstrap a civilization from scratch starting with a small kit of hand tools.

Now, the key thing here is that the end result is physical goods and any physical artifact you can make you can potentially sell. As you’ve already learned, software’s economic value is keyed to the exclusivity of its distribution. It has no value in and of itself. If I open a business based on putting Linux in a box on store shelves I can only make money from the most hapless computer novices -people so ignorant they probably couldn’t use something as complex as Linux anyway. So monetization of Linux has been based on two things; appropriating code for reuse in propriety software one can control distribution of or turning the Linux community into a trades guild for specialist technicians versed in its unique language -which is probably why Linux development has made such slow effort towards being easier to use. There’s monetary value in the community-specific exclusivity of its based of knowledge. (which is why early scientists, physicians, and trades guilds had a habit of documenting all their knowledge in secret codes…)

But it’s a different story when the end result of open source development is physical products. Even if the knowledge of how to make a thing is completely free and universally available, the tools, skill, talent, materials, and time to make it aren’t. So there’s value encoded in the production of an artifact. Not everyone can or will make something themselves. So this presents an opportunity for entrepreneurship within a local market. There’s a common phenomenon in the world of crafts and hobbies. Someone can publicly share the complete knowledge for how to make something on-line or in magazine articles and they will STILL get letters from people asking them to make the thing for them for a price or sell them materials they can’t find locally. Maker skills and the tools and free time to use them are not universal -especially in the western world. We don’t have a culture like Indonesia’s. So from this often come the start of new small businesses. People start making things on ‘commission’ for others, or start selling in small volumes hard-to-find parts and materials that they have found a source for in bulk, or they develop and sell kits where the rare materials are pre-packaged and the hardest parts of making an item have been pre-done. If you have some business savvy -which is also in short supply in the west- you can cultivate this into a self-perpetuating industry and a life-long career. Countless businesses have been created in this way.

Now, open source artifacts will generally not compete with corporate industrial products in the western world for some time. They will tend to be clunky, will cost more that what you can get at Wal-Mart, and their appeal will most likely be based on their counter-cultural aspect, their novelty, and their potential for customization. People in the west don’t use Linux because it’s ‘better’ than Windows or Mac OS. (frankly, all computer operating systems suck rocks with equal vigor and should have been obsolesced 20 years ago…) They use it because its an alternative to those. But in other countries where hard cash is hard to come by Linux is the only legitimate game in town. So it becomes a means of empowerment -albeit a bit weak because the hardware still can be produced locally. The same will be true of open source artifacts. Look at how big a deal the Baygen/Freeplay Energy company’s radios are -radios that are totally non-competitive on the western electronics market, yet they’re doing wonders for people in developing countries or disaster situations and which western people are perfectly happy to pay a premium for here knowing it helps support local industry and aid projects in the developing world. That’s a powerful thing to tap into. Can you imagine the impact of a Freeplay refrigerator?

So I see this Post-Industrial Revolution evolving like this; initiated in the west, the Maker movement will remain focused on hobby and altruistic activity for the near-term future, periodically producing altruistic projects based on models like OLPC and Freeplay to disseminate the more practical and appropriate of Post-Industrial technology in the developing world. (and the ‘new’ developing world in the inner cities) It will pursue functional parity with Industrial Age technology but not cost-parity -which it really can’t do until long-term trends push the costs of labor and resources beyond a certain threshold- and will favor pushing the leading edge in the technology. So the counter-cultural symbolism, novelty, and customization potential of these open source fabrication technologies and their products will be what sustains the movement for some time. There will be some entrepreneurship generated after the models of hobby/craft community entrepreneurship and some attempts by corporations to exploit the novelty or unique technologies that might emerge in the manner of the Linux monetization strategy. But in general this may remain marginal for a long time. It will be a while before Makers can match the iPod or a BMW.

In the developing world the Maker movement – already nascent but amplified by western ‘Outquisition’ activity like OLPC – will bring new empowerment manifesting as new entrepreneurship which will interface with the microloan movement to create new Post-Industrial infrastructures that are very practical and functional in a spare resource situation. Both functional and cost parity with western products will be pursued, because labor is so much cheaper in this environment and hard currency so much more dear. Some of this entrepreneurship will branch off into parallels of existing Globalization industrial models – job shops for export goods. But much will remain local. Dissemination of Post-Industrial technology brings with it ad hoc technological education leading to the potential for innovation in the context of adapting open source designs for greater local appropriateness. This will feed-back through the communications networks for Maker knowledge distribution to the west, expanding the base of novelty but also providing very practical answers that would tend to elude western Makers because of their different environment and less practical thinking. Technology tends to both disseminate and assimilate culture where its development has an opportunity to ‘flow’ in more than one direction. Americans introduced personal computers to Japan and now Americans play Japanese designed computer games with Asian cultural themes on them -and the Chinese ‘farm gold’ for those players… This feedback would have the potential of pushing Post-Industrial technology to critical mass because for people in the developing world this isn’t fun and games or a counter-cultural movement. This IS their first real-world practical industrial infrastructure and they’re going to use it to catch up with the western standard of living despite their lack of Industrial Age style resource infrastructures. As those old infrastructures break down in the west, the Outquisition might reverse direction in predominate knowledge flow. The real Eco-Tech safe haven may be in the Third World.

This is why I was interested in that notion of a Maker incubator that was globally mobile or had mobile satellites. Right now there is a lot of practical technology in the rest of the world that we in the west never hear about. The Auram 3000 is a good example of that. Maybe 1% of all ‘green’ builders in the US and Europe have heard of it. The way most Chinese cities grow most of their produce within city limits is another. NYC now talks about vertical farm skyscrapers to do this, but the Chinese have done it without such elaborate structures forever. Hell, the US is in such a self-imposed vacuum its nearly as bad as North Korea. We don’t even know what’s going on in most of the rest of the west! I wonder how many readers of the Make blog have ever heard of N55 in Denmark. ( They were active makers before the term came into fashion. So such mobility is intended for two-way communication and education. For too long western people have acted like the developing world is populated by feral children. But these people know stuff. Useful stuff. They’ve got just as much to teach as to learn. You don’t survive on the narrow resource margins they do being stupid. I suspect that in this fact is the potential for that Post-Industrial critical mass.”

1 Comment Eric Hunting on P2P architecture (4): the maker movement and the quest for an open industrial infrastructure

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