(This essay was excerpted from Chapter One of Chris Anderson’s book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, and was prominently featured in The Daily Reckoning on July 23, 2013.)
The great inventors/ businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up a corner grocery shop or some other sort of modest local business or, more rarely, a total pie-in-the-sky crapshoot around an idea that is more likely to bring ruination than riches.
Today we are spoiled by the easy pickings of the Web. Any kid with an idea and a laptop can create the seeds of a world-changing company—just look at Mark Zuckerburg and Facebook or any one of thousands of other Web startups hoping to follow his path. Sure, they may fail, but the cost is measured in overdue credit-card payments, not lifelong disgrace and a pauper’s prison.
The beauty of the Web is that it democratized the tools both of invention and of production. Anyone with an idea for a service can turn it into a product with some software cost (these days it hardly even requires much programming skill, and what you need you can learn online)—no patent required. Then, with a keystroke, you can “ship it” to a global market of billions of people.
Maybe lots of people will notice and like it, or maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a business model attached, or maybe there won’t. Maybe riches lie at the end of this rainbow, or maybe they don’t. But the point is that the path from “inventor” to “entrepreneur” is so foreshortened it hardly exists at all anymore.
Indeed, startup factories such as Y Combinator now coin entrepreneurs first and ideas later. Their “startup schools” admit smart young people on the basis of little more than a PowerPoint presentation. Once admitted, the would-be entrepreneurs are given spending money, whiteboards and desk space and told to dream up something worth funding in three weeks.
Most do, which says as much about the Web’s ankle-high barriers to entry as it does about the genius of the participants. Over the past six years, Y Combinator has funded three hundred such companies with such names as Loopt, Wufoo, Xobni, Heroku, Heyzap, and Bump. Incredibly, some of the (such as DropBox and Airbnb) are now worth billions of dollars. Indeed, the company I work for, Conde Nast, even bought one of them, Reddit, which now gets more than 2 billion pageviews a month. It’s on its third team of twenty something genius managers; for some of them, this is their first job and they’ve never known anything but stratospheric professional success.
But that is the world of bits, those elemental units of the digital world. The Web Age has liberated bits; they are cheaply created and travel cheaply, too. This is fantastic; the weightless economics of bits has reshaped everything from culture to economics. It is perhaps the defining characteristic of the twenty-first century (I’ve written a couple of books on that, too). Bits have changed the world.
We, however, live mostly in the world of atoms, also known as the Real World of Places and Stuff. Huge as information industries have become, they’re still a sideshow in the world economy. To put a ballpark figure on it, the digital economy, broadly defined, represents $20 trillion of revenues, according to Citibank and Oxford Economics. The economy beyond the Web, by the same estimate, is about $130 trillion. In short, the world of atoms is at least five times larger than the world of bits.
We’ve seen what the Web’s model of democratized innovation has done to spur entrepreneurship and economic growth. Just imagine what a similar model could do in the larger economy of Real Stuff. More to the point, there’s no need to imagine—it’s already starting to happen. That’s what this book is about. There are thousands of entrepreneurs emerging from the maker Movement who are industrializing the do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit…
We are all Makers. We are born Makers (just watch a child’s fascination with drawing, blocks, Lego, or crafts), and many of us train that love in our hobbies and passions. It’s not just about workshops, garages, and man caves. If you love to cook, you’re a kitchen Maker and your stove is your workbench (homemade food is best, right?). If you love to plant, you’re a garden Maker. Knitting and sewing, scrapbooking, beading, and cross-stitching–all Making.
These projects represent the ideas, dreams, and passions of millions of people. Most never leave the home, and that’s probably no bad thing. But one of the most profound shifts of the Web Age is that there is a new default of sharing online. If you do something, video it. If you video something, post it. If you post something, promote it to your friends. Projects shared online become inspiration for others and opportunities for collaboration. Individual Makers, globally connected this way become a movement. Millions of DIYers, once working alone, suddenly start working together.
Thus ideas, shared, turn into bigger ideas. Projects, shared, become group projects and more ambitious than any one person would attempt alone. And those projects can become the seeds of products, movements, even industries. The simple act of “making in public” can become the engine of innovation, even if that was not the intent. It is simply what ideas do: spread when shared.
We’ve seen this play out on the Web many times. The first generation of Silicon Valley giants got their start in a garage, but they took decades to get big. Now companies start in dorm rooms and get big before their founders can graduate. You know why. Computers amplify human potential: they not only give people the power to create but can also spread their ideas quickly, creating communities, markets, even movements.
Now the same is happening with physical stuff. Despite our fascination with screens, we still live in the real world. It’s the food we eat, our homes, the clothes we wear, and the cars we drive. Our cities and gardens; our offices and our backyards. That’s all atoms, not bits.
This construction–“atoms” versus “bits”–originated with the work of a number of thinkers from the MIT Media Lab, starting with its founder, Nicholas Negroponte, and today most prominently exemplified by Neal Gershenfeld and the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. It is shorthand for the distinction between software and hardware, or information technology and Everything Else. Today the two are increasingly blurring as more everyday objects contain electronics and are connected to other objects, the so-called Internet of Things. That’s what we’ll be talking about here. But even more, we’ll look at how it’s changing manufacturing, otherwise known and the flippin’ Engine of the World Economy.
The idea of a “factory” is, in a word, changing. Just as the web democratized innovation in bits, a new class of “rapid prototyping” technologies, from 3-D printers to laser cutters, is democratizing innovation in atoms. You think the last two decades were amazing? Just wait.
Excerpted from Chris Anderson’s book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution
Ed. Note: This essay is featured prominently in the Daily Reckoning email edition, which offers a more in-depth analysis of the ideas and themes we feature in our interactive website. Sign up for free, right here, to start getting the full story, sent straight to your inbox every day around 4PM.