[ExI] Fwd: [Open Manufacturing] ToolBook and The Missing Link

Bryan Bishop kanzure at gmail.com
Sat Jan 31 00:30:48 UTC 2009

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Eric Hunting <erichunting at gmail.com>
Date: Fri, Jan 30, 2009 at 2:26 PM
Subject: [Open Manufacturing] ToolBook and The Missing Link
To: openmanufacturing at googlegroups.com

In following and participating in the discussions on open
manufacturing and peer-to-peer organization and as a result of
exploring the possibilities of local New Mexico Fab Lab development as
well as my own personal project ideas, I've started to notice
something. There seem to be a number of re-occurring questions that
come up -openly or in the back of peoples minds- seeming to represent
key obstacles or stumbling blocks in the progress of open
manufacturing or Maker culture. And it seems that they share something
in common. A 'missing link', if you will, in the mechanisms of
cultural development. Here are a few of these questions that stand out
for me;

Why are Makers still fooling around with toys and mash-ups and not
making serious things? (short answer; like early computer hackers
lacking off-the-shelf media to study, they're still stuck reverse-
engineering the off-the-shelf products of existing industry to learn
how the technology works and hacking is easier than making something
from scratch)

Why are Makers rarely employing many of the modular building systems
that have been around since the start of the 20th century? Why do so
few tech-savvy people seem to know what T-slot is when it's ubiquitous
in industrial automation? Why little use of Box Beam/ Grid Beam when
its cheap, easy, and has been around since the 1960s? Why does no one
in the world seem to know the origin and name of the rod and clamp
framing system used in the RepRap? (short answer: no definitive
sources of information)

Why are 'recipes' in places like Make and Instructibles most about
artifacts and rarely about tools and techniques? (short answer;
knowledge of these are being disseminated ad hoc)

Why is it so hard to collectivize support and interest for open source
artifact projects and why are forums like Open Manufacture spending
more time in discussion of theory rather than nuts & bolts making?
(short answer; no equivalent of Source Forge for a formal definition
of hardware projects -though this is tentatively being developed- and
no generally acknowledged definitive channel of communication about
open manufacturing activity)

Why are Fab Labs not self-replicating their own tools? (short answer;
no comprehensive body of open source designs for those tools and no
organized effort to reverse-engineer off-the-shelf tools to create
those open source versions)

Why is there no definitive 'users manual' for the Fab Lab, its tools,
and common techniques? (short answer; no one has bothered to write it

Why is there no Fab Lab in my neighborhood? Why so few university Fab
Labs so far? Why is it so hard to find support for Fab Lab in certain
places even in the western world? (short answer; 99% of even the
educated population still doesn't know what the hell a Fab Lab is or
what the tools it's based on are)

Why do key Post-Industrial cultural concepts remain nascent in the
contemporary culture, failing to coalesce into a cultural critical
mass? Why are entrepreneurship, cooperative entrepreneurship, and
community support networks still left largely out of the popular
discussion on recovery from the current economic crash? Why do
advocates of Post-Industrial culture and economics still often hang
their hopes on nanotechnology when so much could be done with the
technology at-hand? (short answer; no complete or documented working
models to demonstrate potential with)

Are you, as I am, starting to see a pattern here? It seems like
there's a Missing Link in the form of a kind of communications or
media gap. There is Maker media -thanks largely to the cultural
phenomenon triggered by Make magazine. But it's dominated by ad hoc
individual media produced and published on-line to communicate the
designs for individual artifacts while largely ignoring the tools.
People are learning by making, but they never seem to get the whole
picture of what they potentially could make because they aren't
getting the complete picture of what the tools are and what they're
capable of.

We seem to basically be in the MITS Altair, Computer Shack, Computer
Faire, Creative Computing, 2600 era of independent industry. A Hacker
era. Remember the early days of the personal computer? You had these
fairs, users groups, and computer stores like Computer Shack basically
acting like ad hoc ashrams of the new technology because there were no
other definitive sources of knowledge. This is exactly what Maker
fairs, Fab Labs, and forums like this one are doing. And the magazine-
dominated media for personal computing at the time was all about DIY
programming in BASIC or Pascal and hacking compared to the
contemporary computing media which is all about new products and the
elites and corporations who make them. Again, this is just like Make
magazine. As yet there is no media yet showcasing and reviewing
fabrication tools the way PC Magazine does PCs or 'market' magazines
like Computer Shopper collecting small dealers of stuff, but this is a
readily anticipated future development. And you had visionary books
like Computer Lib evangelizing the technology, culture, and it's
future potential. And that's exactly what Neil Gershenfeld's book FAB

There are a lot of parallels here to the early personal computer era,
except for a couple of things; there's no equivalent of Apple (yet..),
no equivalent of the O'Reily Nutshell book series, no "##### For
Dummies" books. Now, I'm not exactly sure that having an Apple in this
field would be a good thing. Apple and companies like it then were key
to opening the door to a very open and personal Information Age. The
nature of personal computing the industry was pointing toward before
Apple was one that looked like MiniTel and laptop Videotext keyboard
terminals plugged into TVs. Apple came out of the sub-culture and
turned it mainstream, making its technology socally relevant and
ubiquitous, even if ultimately doing so for the sake of creating a
'mainstream market' to exploit for profit. But it also helped
establish a traditional Industrial Age hegemony based on turning
personal computers from tools people understood into mass-produced
appliances the public used and yet never really came to comprehend and
so remains dependent upon a corporate hegemony for. One might argue
that this was a necessary evil by virtue of the complexity of the
technology and the failure of public education to embrace and
disseminate new knowledge effectively. But the end result was that the
promise of social liberation information technology originally
promised was superseded and forgotten. I think this is cautionary
history. Do we want a Fabber that no one ever opens up or truly
understands the working of? Or is this, on some level, still a
necessary evil for the sake of realizing ubiquity? 40 years later,
Grandma still isn't writing code and still has trouble finding the on-
switch. What exactly does that mean for these new tools?

Then as now, there was this gap in the parallel dissemination of
knowledge with the technology. Disseminating the power of computing
very quickly went from being about disseminating knowledge to putting
mass produced products in people's hands at a 'reasonable' cost,
largely because the communication of knowledge proved so much more
difficult for an increasingly exclusive sub-culture composed largely
of misanthropic nerds to pull-off than selling the technology by the
novelties of its turn-key applications and 'style'. (pay no attention
to that man behind the stylish ABS clamshell case...) But the end
result of that strategy is clear; Silicon Detroit. Real progress in
personal computer development is now reduced to a snail's-pace because
of the drag of hegemonies. Moore's Law isn't translating into
productivity gains, let alone social liberation.

I think the folks at MIT may have clued into this issue early on in
devising the concept of the Fab Lab. But their solution is typically
academic-minded. The Fab Lab is an ashram. There's nothing wrong with
that. It's a good model. However, it's ability to communicate is
limited by proximity. So you have to make a lot of them to spread the
message. And that is limited by the population of experts since it
doesn't leverage their accumulated knowledge that well. This is being
done remarkably swiftly for what it is, but if it was in competition
with an Apple Fabber -and it may soon be- it would lose to PC style
market cultivation over true education. The key limitation here is
that Fab Labs don't don't network their own knowledge coherently and
they don't publish.

The Make magazine and blog publishes. Thing is, they don't quite know
what they're doing or where it's going. They're surfing a meme with a
YouTube model, letting it carry them rather than directing it in any
particular way. It works extremely well as a medium for the exchange
of incoherent hacker-style knowledge and it's much more culturally
accessible because of its visual media, but it's not that good at
communicating knowledge in an organized way and as the sub-culture it
embodies becomes more technically sophisticated, it will inadvertently
produce barriers to its own accessibility. Eventually, fewer and fewer
articles and recipes will make any sense to John Q. Public. But take
note of something. Who is their parent publishing company? O'Reily.
Someone upstairs may be watching and waiting for some sign that it's
time for some strategic partnerships and "Epilog Laser in a Nutshell"...

Thinking on this, I'm struck by the question of what, then, is the
functional role of an open manufacturing movement in the context of
all this? What's the Missing Link? What collectively should the
activities of this movement coalesce around for maximum cultural
impact? The answer seems to be organized knowledge. If we are to
preclude the outcome of an Apple Fabber degenerating the movement into
another Silicon Detroit the key is in the effective dissemination of
knowledge over and ahead of the dissemination of products. And that
would suggest that what's missing in this movement is publishing. The
systematic creation and dissemination of a large body of knowledge in
the most accessible forms possible. Fab Labs have lead the way in this
task, but they don't publish and so they don't leverage their
dissemination potential that broadly. Make and the like publish, but
they don't publish much that's coherent. They're 2600 for Makers.

This brings me to the notion that, perhaps, the effective role of the
movement is that of a knowledge generating and publishing engine with
the objective being to use the generation of media as a means of
achieving ubiquitous accessibility for the technology through the
accessibility of the knowledge in parallel with the technology. in
other words, technology disseminated merely through the dissemination
of products is a process of encryption that limits limits its
liberating potential. But technology disseminated through the
dissemination of knowledge through media is a process of decryption
that enables its liberating potential. We need to think not just about
the cultivation of the technology itself but the forms -media forms-
in which we disseminate it and what cultural impact that has. So lets
imagine a Fab Lab -or the Fab Labs collectively- as an ashram that
publishes. A movement as an engineering laboratory whose output isn't
products but media about the technology it cultivates.

This is sort of what I was thinking about with the Vajra Maker
Incubator concept. It might run an open Fab shop, but it's key job is
to gather and cultivate open technology -and the people who invent it-
while producing media about what its doing and how its doing it -which
would be how its residents earn a living. The community creates a
haven for this intellectual activity -distributing the high cost of
tools- and pays for itself on the publishing royalties -which is much
the same model as the traditional artists commune which pays for
itself by creating an environment conducive to those artists'
creativity and then gets a cut on the sale of what they produce to
keep going. Corporate industrial research laboratories do much the
same thing, only they're objective is to output patents -an
intellectual and technological real estate scam. This community would
be outputting the same thing, intellectually, only it's in the form of
open technology which people make a living from based on the sale of
the media that conveys it rather than controlling and exploiting the
use of it -which is one of the common ways Linux and other open
software is 'monetized'. This seems to parallel Cory Doctorow's and
others vision of the Maker Monastery as a bastion of EcoTech and heart
of an Outquisition movement. (though I'm liking the ashram analogy
much better. Much less Gothic in aspect) Self sufficiency isn't
possible for such a haven early on given the available technology. So
it either needs a lot of extremely wealthy sugar daddies to support it
indefinitely as a gift -and life preserver- to future generations,
bootstraps from a very low-tech agrarian model, or it plugs-into and
exploits the outside economy in a way their least interferes with its
social objectives -and publishing seems to suit that. Maybe any
combination of all three would work.

Now this notion isn't necessarily limited to some community in one
place. As Make demonstrates, thanks to the Internet our ashrams can be
virtual. Living in proximity to tools one can't afford alone is a big
help, of course, but the key here is the community network and the
development and publishing models. Not all makers are particularly
good writers, illustrators, photographers, and videographers. The
production of marketable media will likely often demand collaboration.
And not all these people need continuous access to workshops. Also,
some people will personally invest more in personal workshop
facilities simply because they need more privacy for the sake of their
own productivity. And, of course, for this to be effective as a
movement it has to be able to function across many locations around
the globe.

This is where that word ToolBook comes in. This is my imagined 'brand'
for the publishing cooperative that this community would coalesce
around. It would be like the 'Nutshell' and 'Dummies' books series
name but would also be the publishing co-op company's name, ultimately
a multi-national corporation. The basic 'deal' of the community is
that, collectively, it owns a series of resources -workshops, live-in
villages, data centers for web hosting and such, media production
facilities, supplies warehouses, etc., under the ToolBook Publishing
company name with individuals sharing ownership through stock in that
company -much like a Kelsonian Community Investment Corporation. The
individual maker in this community applies for facilities for any
particular development project which is intended to culminate in the
production of one or more forms of media whose sales -or ad revenue-
will recoup the expense of development. Now some things might be
really small and simple so all the maker is looking for would be
publishing assistance akin to LuLu.com, for which he receives a
royalty on unit sales. If he must collaborate with writers or artists,
they too would share those royalties. Other projects may require a lot
of facilities and thus represent a greater investment decision based
on the maker's reputation and the collective opinion on the value and
importance of the project among the whole community. So here is where
peer-to-peer organization an social credit come in with projects
needing increasing communal support and collaboration the more
elaborate they are and a formal community-wide project submission,
evaluation, and management scheme, web based. And if the community
member is living in a community-owned village then they are sharing
some portion their royalties with that local community by way of
'rent' relative to their other forms of input to the local economy of
that village. A diverse collection of media would be produced by this
co-op; print and eBook media in casual to college-level forms,
streaming and packaged video, blogs, events, talks, etc. And it would
go beyond media to include project kits, small production or made on
demand products, one-of-a-kind pieces, and so on. Individual community
member activities could also split-off into industrial production -
with both an external for-profit component and an internal community
support component- particular with the production of stock materials
for other makers to use. Villages might also generate products for
their local economy, such as surplus produce from small farm operations.

How does this model seem? Nonsense, or maybe feasible?

Eric Hunting
erichunting at gmail.com

You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google
Groups "Open Manufacturing" group.
To post to this group, send email to openmanufacturing at googlegroups.com
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to
openmanufacturing+unsubscribe at googlegroups.com
For more options, visit this group at

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list