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Goings on at the Because We Cannery

To the so-called 'new industrial revolution' boosters and its critics...

So with all the talk recently both in favor of and the rather cynical counter-take on the 'new industrial revolution' I figure that it might be good for someone who's personally involved to share their thoughts as well. Take it for what you will, for this is just my view, but so far most of what I've seen written about it hasn't come from anyone directly involved with it.

So then who am I to talk about it? Well, a few years ago my wife and I bought a CNC routing table without much idea for what to do with it beyond making cool stuff. As a matter of fact, it's the very first blog post on this blog. We'd never even used a CNC machine before, actually never even seen one before in person. But we figured that we could figure it out, and with help from others online and the company we bought it from we got it running. We started making stuff for ourselves. Then friends. Then friend's friends. It blossomed into a business. Pretty soon we quit our day jobs, and now we're even hiring people. We were the first ones to bring a CNC router to Maker Faire. Hell, my wife and business co-founder's picture was on the poster for the first two years of Maker faire. So we're smack in the middle of this 'movement' I think.

Everyone seems to be having a hard time figuring out exactly what to call what we're doing. We've had this problem too. In fact, I have yet to hear anything that really nails it. But this guy comes close with the thought of calling it 'punk manufacturing'.

Let's take a brief look at punk rock then. OK, so just before punk, let's say the mid 70's, to be in a great rock band you'd need to be either a big rock star or a talented virtuoso (or both). Get signed by a big label and all that. Rock music was mostly about big production, big ideas, big marketing, and 15 minute guitar solos.

But then along comes punk. Suddenly, anyone with passion and good ideas can have a great band. Get rich? Probably not. But at least have a chance to be something more than whatever they were before. Have some great stories. Maybe even make enough money to just play music and not have to work some crap job.

And for most that was enough. I mean, heck, leisure for half the people on this planet is a full stomach, so getting to play music for a living, even if it's a lower middle class living, sounds like a hell of a deal to me. Sure, by the second or third wave you had punk bands like Green Day making a killing, and all that big media stuff getting back into it, but even those Green Day guys were starving teenage punks at one point, just playing music because they loved it, and riding that for as long as they could.

So now we've got the 'Makers Movement'. The new industrial revolution. But honestly, it's just a bunch of folks that via new possibilities can do what they have always wanted to do: make stuff. I think that both extremes of the Wired article and Gizmodo's response totally miss the fundamental point: it's really about freedom. Freedom for those of us who have only wanted to make things, to be able to do so, and make enough of a living that we can spend all our time doing what we love.

The sad reality that I have seen today is that anyone interested in making things goes to school for many years with the hope of being able to make fantastic things. Then they graduate, only to work on soul depraving things for years on end. Either pushing lines around in a CAD program drawing bathrooms, or designing headlights to purposely break in around five years. Only after working for a very long time, or playing well at political games, or becoming an academic to support themselves, or being really, really lucky, only then do they even have a chance of being in a leadership role; deciding what's getting made. I know many disheartened engineers, architects, and industrial designers. Once in the real world, they've found that no matter how good their ideas are, or how much passion they have, or how hard they work, it simply doesn't matter. Until they fight their way to the top they aren't going to be doing much other than making someone else's ideas real.

We all went into this wanting to make stuff, and came out not making much of anything.

So along comes cheap hardware, cheap CNC machines, and the Internet. Suddenly, we can all make stuff. All the stuff we've always wanted. And, hopefully, we can find lots of people to make it for. People who love it. Heck, maybe we can even keep our day jobs, and make stuff on the side. Or we can start our own business 100% and see if our ideas will really fly. We can make the stuff that our friends will love. We can make the stuff that we love. It opens up vast new areas. Just like with punk rock, all it takes is an instrument and an idea and you're on your way. Are you going to be a rock star? Get rich? Probably not, but who cares about all that corny self-centered stuff when you're having this much fun simply doing it?

So will it change the world? You know what, us Makers really don't care. We're having too much fun doing what we love. We're free to simply follow whatever idea we've got as far as we can. If you think for a second I'm not going to ride that for all I can, when all I've ever wanted to do in my life is make great things, then you've got a strange idea of how people work.

Honestly, I wonder if the cynical counter-response is partially from someone who's bitter at being stuck at a desk job. What's wrong with a bunch of new small business sprouting up all over America? Small business built this country, small business are the backbone of this country, and frankly, big business have little interest in a lot of local issues. Small businesses are all about local issues. If this movement launches a slew of new small businesses, I think it will indeed have an impact on our world, every bit as much as the Internet has.

The Gizmodo article does raise one very valid point: not everyone is going to be part of this thing. Which is fine, really. Everyone having access to guitars didn't make us all punk rockers. Everyone having access to a computer didn't turn us all into programmers. Everyone having access to a worldwide publishing system didn't make us all interesting bloggers. So everyone having access to manufacturing capability isn't going to make everyone suddenly a professional Maker. And that's OK.

Let's look at it this way: I'm now a small business owner, making a middle-class life for myself, and starting to employ others. While over the last three years the world famous Architecture firm I used to work for has laid off almost half it's staff. Working for a big company is no more stable than what we're doing, and heck, what we're doing seems to be working pretty well so far. It's certainly a lot more fun. I'm adding a lot more value to the overall GDP and my local community now then I was when I was working for that big firm. I'm creating real value, here, in my backyard. And while I loved working at that big firm, and running our own thing is terribly stressful at times, man, I wouldn't go back unless I had absolutely no other choice.

In other words life isn't just about profit, nor is that the only meter one should measure a business with. I feel both Wired and Gizmodo missed the point here: it's about freedom and happiness, plain and simple.

Jeffrey McGrew