the making of makers

As the geeks are gathered in Portland for XOXO, it’s time for me to update and complete a draft I nearly but never finished, like far too many things these days.

I was privileged to attend last year. It was joyous, inspiring, unabashedly positive and deeply humane: a testament to the love and hard work put in by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan in its creation. It celebrated the creativity and dedication of its speakers, and served as a glorious advertisement for Portland’s idiosyncratic urban vision. It connected and reconnected me with people who have been touchstones throughout my (long) time messing around with the web, educated me with every impromptu conversation, and mainlined hope and wonder and energy and engagement. A glow emanated across the web from everyone who attended, and the after-party discussions focused around two questions: ‘what’s next?’ and ‘how can I contribute to it?’ — not because there’s a pot of gold to be found, but because those contributions will build better things for everyone.[1]

And yet, I worry. I worry about scaling and access in this bright new domain, and the need to avoid unwittingly repeating the mistakes of the past. But in the spirit of XOXO, I’m convinced those worries can be acknowledged and overcome by creating new structures to address them.

Meet the new middlemen, not the same as the old middlemen

The timing of XOXO alongside the launch of the new iPhone, both this year and last, is a curious coincidence. (While high-end smartphones are clearly not uncommon things, their density at the picnic tables outside the YU Contemporary, in the shadow of the food carts, is something to behold.) We use technology that represents triumphs of global supply-chain management and economies of scale, while talking about models of production and trade that would be familiar to Adam Smith. That’s hardly new: the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century never resolved the tension between the factory and the workshop either.

So it’s not really a paradox when the tools of mass communication and mass production are enlisted in support of small-scale creative work, any more than it was for Morris’s hand-printed books to be sent around the world on railways and steam ships. As John Hegley noted, if you have 5,000 fans prepared to pay you a tenner a year, that’s a living, and the confluence of social media and online payment into crowdfunding makes it possible to cultivate a market or audience that’s small and intimate, yet globally dispersed. In similar terms, we’re indebted to mass production moving the tools of rapid prototyping beyond the corporate R&D lab, so that 3D printing is now feasible on a workshop scale.

That’s a disintermediation… of sorts. In place of the old distribution and management structures, we’re seeing a new set of intermediaries eager to connect creative producers with the growing market for their work. For the moment, that intermediary space remains a somewhat narrow one, carrying huge amounts of responsibility, and the decisions made in these early years will define what follows. No pressure there, then. What makes these new intermediaries especially powerful is that they speak with distinctive voices: the most engaging platforms have personalities, the most engaging personalities have platforms.

But that’s not a bad thing: total disintermediation carries with it the risk of disempowerment; complete independence can bring isolation. It only becomes problematic if the new intermediaries are driven to consolidate their status, or when the accumulative power of platforms threatens their cultivation of the particular, but we’re far from that point. (What would a Kickstarter to make new Kickstarters look like?)

Making things is hard; making makers is even harder

It’s a mistake to judge Kickstarter by focusing on high-profile projects that disappoint or fail to deliver, no less so than the current lazy habit of ’21 People On Twitter Who Said Something Stupid About X’. (A million-dollar project is an edge case to begin with, and if it becomes a model for crowdfunding, you can declare that model is broken.) It’s also a distraction to rake over whether becoming a ‘backer’ is investment, pre-payment, a kind of patronage or donation, or something else entirely. Subscription schemes have always had messy, multiplicitous motivations, going back to the days of Pope’s Homer: many of the Persons of Quality who coughed up two guineas in hand and a guinea a year were more interested in having a pretty set of quartos and their name in the credits than reading the translation. Nevertheless, subscription income helped create the first generation of truly professional writers. [2]

What matters more is how the process of funding extends into that of delivery.

There’s now a well-established vocabulary and choreography to crowdfunding: not just the ubiquitous project video, but the structuring of targets, the scaling of rewards, the ‘and there’s more…’ of stretch goals. There is ample guidance on how to offset the capriciousness of time-limited appeals to the crowd, and to shape and promote a campaign so that it attracts attention from people whose amplifying influence will propel you to your total. Again, that’s not a surprise: like grant writing, online fundraising is a single, self-contained field, while projects themselves cover a vast range of disciplines and capabilities.

Once the money’s in the bank, though, there’s still a tendency to clam up, talk opaquely about the supply chain, elide the challenges of fulfilling orders, or say anything that potentially frights backers. Even among projects that deliver, fallibility is taboo, and that makes the delivery process brittle, prone to break rather than bend. Although you’ll find ‘lessons learned’ articles in various places, there’s still no real place within Kickstarter itself for project creators to offer debriefings, share battle stories and show off their scars, or seek help when things get tough.

And yet, at XOXO, the most compelling talks are the ones that retrospectively confront that fallibility, just as engineering blogs like Etsy’s Code As Craft show the value of lifting the curtain to describe scaling challenges and breakages and resolution. This isn’t magic: it’s a narrative of hard work, gradual improvement, unforeseen setbacks and improvised solutions. In short, it involves people.

That’s where the downside of disintermediation kicks in: if we see each project as intensely individuated, then the impulse is to think that its challenges are unique and have little to contribute to a wider body of collective knowledge; when those projects are delivered, it’s understandable that their creators want to move on. But that runs the risk of repeatedly confronting the same problems — that plastic is a category, not a substance; that delivering 10,000 things is not the same as dealing with 100 — instead of being able to build on past experience to confront new ones.

Instead, we should see each project as a component of a wider enterprise: the establishment of an industrious, creative community with complementary skills and expertise.

Translating the language of trade: devops for the physical world

Wandering through downtown SE Portland in the hours before breakfast, I noticed how much of the space between the river and the railway line still belongs to the skilled trades, like so many working cities: builders’ merchants, die-cutters, injection-moulders, blade-sharpeners, widget-vendors. Housed in nondescript buildings with short aisles, long counters and deep warehouses, these are the places that you visit only if you know exactly what you need, or have sufficient fluency to ask questions without sounding like an numpty. Having grown up around tradespeople, I can manage the basics, but it’s still intimidating to engage with an environment that runs on specificity and expertise, which is why Home Depot and its peers turn a profit.

The shift from bits to atoms is tricky, not just because it requires adapting design concepts to the physical world, but because it entails learning another language, or finding a translator you can trust. Without that capability, projects too easily run into trouble at the factory gate.

Increased access to 3D printing makes a difference here, but it’s still confined to a limited range of materials. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance that a local fabricator has the capacity to provide guidance on materials, produce prototypes, or even do short production runs, if only you knew they existed and had the ability to articulate your needs in the language of their trade. The obvious inspiration here should be Newspaper Club, which both exposed the capability of large presses to carry out small-run orders, and has served as the best possible gatekeeper for those who wish to take advantage of it.

What’s needed, then, is an ongoing conversation between designers and manufacturers that builds into a public repository of knowledge and experience: a Yelp for the supply chain, a StackExchange for materials science. Where is the nearest CNC workshop? Who can I talk to about polycarbonate tensile strength or bookbinding techniques or studio space? Call it a 21st century guild system; draw from existing Maker communities; reach out to the other side of the tracks.

That’s a platform I want to build.

A very bourgeois revolution

That’s a phrase that I scribbled into my notebook last September: it wasn’t meant pejoratively then, and shouldn’t be taken that way now. Bourgeois revolutions generate much smaller body counts, leave fewer piles of rubble, have fewer unintended consequences: they challenge a moribund set of rulers and the institutions that sustain their power, rather than seeking to remake society from top to bottom. However, with that constraint comes vulnerability against pushback and co-optation and simply becoming, over time, the things you wanted rid of. They’re fragile things that require vigilance to survive.

XOXO provides a tonic against complacency, a reminder that creative independence thrives through collaboration and collective support. Since the technology doesn’t yet exist to replicate the Andys, it’s up to those who attend to perpetuate that spirit.


[1] My intention was always to sit it out this year, so that others more deserving of the experience could feel the love. More to the point, I need to get my arse in gear to justify my presence.

[2] Did that model revolutionise publishing? Not really: within a generation, booksellers and authors were fighting over perpetual copyright. But it showed how an writer of prodigious talent with a marginal social position and a canny business sense could escape the twin scourges of capricious patrons and profiteering publishers and end up in a nice Twickenham villa.