Why the Maker Movement Matters: Part 1, the Tools Revolution
James Fallows reports in the Atlantic:
In the years when I was visiting and learning about factories in China, my dominant emotion was, I can’t wait to tell people about this! Of course everyone “knew,” in general terms, about the rise of Chinese manufacturing and the country’s role as workshop-to-the-world. But the experience of seeing the factories that turned out computers and smart phones and everything else was so different from hearing about “low-wage Chinese sweatshops” that I thought, people really have no idea.
Sure, low wages and lax-to-nonexistent regulatory and environmental standards were big advantages. But it was mainly the speed of the industrial ecosystem in places like Shenzhen that was so amazing. And the density of all elements of the supply chain — if you needed a certain kind of keyboard or connector, there were five suppliers to choose from within an hour’s drive.
And one more underappreciated element was essential: the new tools of connectivity and logistics that allowed a customer in Chicago to shop online for a smartphone, and have their customized specs conveyed instantly to a production line in China, where the order would be put together and then taken to the airport in Hong Kong for airfreight back to the U.S. These new tools really mattered: China had had low wages for a very long time (and they were beginning to rise fast in these factory zones); it had abused the environment for years (and was trying to clean up). But it was only the knitting-together of information and logistics that allowed Chinese factories to be as directly incorporated into the world production-and-marketing system. That’s the story I told nine years ago in “China Makes, The World Takes,” about a company that had pioneered this kind of connection.
I have had a similar feeling in recent years as I’ve seen outposts of the “Maker Movement” across the United States: This matters! People should pay attention! In this and the next few dispatches I’ll explain why I think so, and give illustrations from Kentucky, Oregon, South Carolina, California, and elsewhere.
I imagine that many readers might have heard of this movement or seen one of its Maker Faires. But my guess is that most people who aren’t directly involved think of it as fringe and hobby-minded, artsy-and-craftsy and hip rather than a serious economic, technological, and city-development force. I’ve come to disagree, and let me lay out some of the reasons why.
First, the lay of the landscape: You can see information about the national Maker Faire cycle here, for information about shows and displays. The next big event on the calendar is the National Maker Faire, in DC two weeks from now. You can read about MakerCon here, which I’ve been to and enjoyed, and go here forMake: magazine, to which I subscribe. In two weeks the White House will have events for the National Week of Making, with more information here. Make: had a story on the Maker City Initiative here; Peter Hirschberg has a speech explaining the concept here; and the Institute for the Future had an early report here.
Now, what this movement is and why it matters. Everyone who has heard a political speech, listened to a talk show, or looked at the “Made in China” labels in retail stores is familiar with the idea that “America doesn’t make things any more.” There are obvious reasons, and some less obvious ones, why people feel this way. A certain kind of high-volume production certainly has shifted from the rest of the world to China (and elsewhere) in the past generation. As economies get richer, the relative share of manufacturing in their output and their workforce inevitably goes down (as it does for farming—even as absolute output in both categories keeps going up), because service sectors are growing faster. This is true even of economies which much more aggressive pro-manufacturing industrial government policies and corporate practices, like Germany and Japan: . . .