Sunday, June 1, 2008

The digitization of "Stuff"

Taking the printed page to the digital changed publishing forever. Suddenly printing, copying, sharing and editing became as easy as typing. Next, audio went digital with major consequences for the recording industry. Just their name, "the recording industry" tells you all you need to know about how behind the curve they were/are. Now, the film/video industry is coming under the same Sword of Damaceles, with You Tube kicking the ass of every other outlet and five kids, a camcorder and a Mac with Final Cut have 80% of the capacity of a major motion picture studio.

So, we're done right? We've digitized everything? Not by a long shot. First, there is services. As most of you know, my company is one of leaders in starting that trend. But even more earth shaking will be the digitzation of stuff. Real, down-to-earth, good 'ole fashioned stuff.

This is so fundamentally disruptive because stuff has always been the foundation of modern economies. Once we, as civilized humans, got food production wired, making things and selling things was the name of the game. This spurned entire economic systems, like capitalism, for instance. And its response, communism.

But how do you digitize stuff? Well, everything that gets made has a blueprint, right? That blueprint tells the person building it what to make and what to make it out of. That can as easily be told to a computer-controlled fabrication machine as it can to an artisan or engineer, and the plan can be sent to any computer and thus to any fabricator that has the capacity to work the materials specified. Think of it as 3D printing.

What this means is that stuff becomes commodity, the same way music and print and video has become commodity. It also means that instead of getting stuff off the shelf designed for everyone, people will be able to modify the plans to their own specifications. Want that tennis racket handle a little bit thicker? No prob, just change the dimensions on the design software.

This future is already being made down in the Fab Lab at MIT. Tons of people are working on desktop fabbers, there is a Fabber Wiki. Right now we're about where we were with computers in 1975- big clunky things that can't do a lot. But the process will move incredibly quickly, as we know, and it won't be long until if you want something, you go to a local shop that has a fabber and get it made in real-time. And it won't be much longer beyond that that anything small you print off the same way you do for a document. This is not wishful thinking. This is all happening today.

So what does this mean? Well, I wouldn't want to be a manufacturer when this technology comes on line. I also wouldn't want my economy to be pegged to mass production. Hello! China! I'm talking to you here! It won't be tomorrow when you can walk down to your local Fab shop and have them print out a Ferarri for you, but you will be able to, and probably within 20 years.

Additionally, the open-source mindset will be already in place when this technology comes online. Just like Linnux, people will have the products they create listed for people to use and modify. Open source stuff, open source everything. No economy is equipped to handle this. Who gets paid? What has value? All that remains are land, services and commodities. Why work 40 hours per week to buy things when you can just print the things you want out? We're going to need to come up with a totally different way of incenting work when this comes to pass.

Anyhoo, enjoy this explanatory video.

No comments: