Rapidly evolving technologies for creation will unleash waves of distributed creation - that is the key message I took away from a fascinating new book called Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop - From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. While at the Microsoft CEO Summit last week, I met Neil Gershenfeld, the author of Fab. He is the Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and he is writing about some of the technology he has developed while teaching a course call "How to Make (almost) Anything". It's an ambitious title, but Neil is serious. As he writes:
At the intersection of physical science and computer science, programs can process atoms as well as bits, digitizing fabrication in the same way that communications and computation were earlier digitized. Ultimately, this means that a programmable personal fabricator will be able to make anything, including itself, by assembling atoms. It will be a self-replicating machine.
Using the analogy of the evolution of computers, Neil estimates that we are roughly at the minicomputer stage of development for personal fabricators. A versatile personal fabrication station today consists of tools using a combination of supersonic jets of water, lasers and microscopic beams of atoms and costs about $20,000. With these tools, Neil has been busy creating "fab labs" or laboratories for fabrication in areas as diverse as inner city Boston, rural India, Costa Rica, northern Norway and Ghana.
Neil writes about some of the surprises he encountered in his initial course at MIT:
The overwhelming interest from students with relatively little technical experience (for MIT) was only the first surprise. The next was the reason they wanted to take the class. . . . they were motivated by the desire to make things they'd always wanted, but that didn't exist . . . The final surprise was how these students learned to do what they did . . . the learning process was driven by the demand for, rather than the supply of, knowledge . . . As students needed new skills for their project they would learn them from their peers and then in turn pass them on. . . This process can be thought of as a "just-in-time" educational model, teaching on demand, rather than the more traditional "just-in-case" model that covers a curriculum fixed in advance in the hopes that it will include something that will later be useful.
Neil's work becomes even more significant when placed in the context of broader trends towards more distributed creation. Daniel Roth at Fortune wrote a brief article on "The amazing rise of the do-it-yourself economy" (requires subscription) in the May 30, 2005 issue. His core observation:
. . . a number of factors are coming together to empower amateurs in a way never before possible, blurring the lines between those who make and those who take.
He quotes Noah Glass, the co-founder of Odeo, in a way that makes a connection to the work of Neil (although it is interesting that this article never mentions Neil's book):
Before, only the rich had access to tools and so only the rich were professionals, and the rest were amateurs. But now, as the creation tools have become easier to use and more freely distributed through open source, through the Internet, through awareness, more people have more access to more tools, so the whole amateur-professional dichotomy is dissolving.
The article also cites the launch of Tim O'Reilly's new publication, a magazine called Make, targeted to do-it-yourself technology enthusiasts. Estimating a potential circulation of 10,000 subscribers, the publishers were surprised to find they had 25,000 subscribers four months after the launch - and with virtually no advertising.
Something interesting is happening here. To paraphrase the Fortune article, the boundaries between takers to makers are blurring. The results will be profound.