Some months ago, Chris Anderson wrote to me to let me know that he was working on a book called Makers, and given that I'd written a well-known novel on similar themes with the same title, did I mind? Of course I didn't — for one thing, having already published many stories with the same title as famous stories that came before them, I was hardly in a position to object! But more importantly, I was interested in Anderson's take on the subject.
I've thoroughly enjoyed Anderson's two earlier works on economics in the Internet age (The Long Tail and Free). Anderson — formerly a tech editor for The Economist — has got a very good grasp of economics and business; but as the long-time editor-in-chief at Wired, he wasn't afraid of visionary pronouncements about technology either. He's also got a background as an indie rocker, and has a good grasp of the rewards and challenges of a life in the arts. Though I've disagreed pretty vociferously with some of the things he's had to say in the past, his work has provoked more nods from me than head-shakes, and when I've disagreed with him, it's been for chewy, substantive reasons that were worth exploring.
I've just finished a copy of (Anderson's) Makers — having come to the book a bit late due to my own book-tour for Pirate Cinema — and it delivered on all the promise of Anderson's earlier work, and then blew past them. Simply put, Makers is a thrilling manifesto, a call to arms to quit your day job, pick up your tools, and change the future of manufacturing and business forever. It's a recipe for a heady cocktail of open business; free software; low-cost, global coordination; and community cooperation that Anderson credibly suggests will forever change the world.
Anderson's Makers is a tour through all the different ways that manufacturing in quantities of 1-10,000 units has been transformed, and how this changes the very nature of entrepreneurship and creativity. Using diverse example from modern times — and comparing them with manufacturing stories from the past century — Anderson shows how 3D printing, laser-cutting, Internet-based custom fabrication, free and open development models, and crowdfunding have made it possible to make something, make it better, sell it, make it better still through co-development with customers, scale up and up, and serve your needs and the needs of your community.
He doesn't gloss over the challenges of this sort of thing, but he does show how a world where hardware is (nearly) as cheap to prototype and share as software means that the traditional gatekeepers to creativity — established manufacturing giants, retail titans, and massive distributors — are losing their stranglehold on the market. This means that you can do something that makes your life better, you can turn it into a business, and others can turn it into a business, too.
Because this is Anderson, this is firmly a business book, and that's probably a good thing. Anderson's bottom-line practicality is likely to lend the idea of making a certain boardroom credibility that other, wider-eyed literature on the movement lacks. That said, this, more than any of Anderson's books, acknowledges the role that passion, love, community spirit and personal satisfaction play in the world of innovation. I was a little disappointed that Free glossed over the ethical and personal reasons that people worked on free and open systems, but in this volume Anderson's much more in touch with his indie-rock history than in previous outings, and it's a very welcome addition.
For all that, there's still a wide streak of makerish practicality here, and the chapters are only a few steps away from being full-blown HOWTOs for doing it yourself (or, more importantly, doing it with everyone else who cares about the same stuff as you). And Anderson certainly practices as he preaches: not long after the book's publication, he quit his job at Wired to run his DIY Drone business full-time.
This is really Anderson at his finest: a blend of economic big-picture stuff and nitty-gritty, hands-dirty making. I can see it being a perfect kick in the bum for any number of frustrated makers struggling in a crappy economy and wondering where to take their lives.