Making trends, past and future

I spent some time in earlier this year trying to sketch some sort of Venn diagram of my interests with larger trends: within the realm of things that interest me, what the issues that have urgency, which directions are we moving in, what are the forces that I should engage with?

This was in large part to inform the work we’re doing at Lighthouse over the next few years, but also comes from a sense I have that the milieu of ‘making’ that I’ve been operating in for the last 5 or 6 years has shifted, and it’s time to explore some new frontiers.

It’s a useful exercise to look back and try to find a line through all that has interested me in the last few years, to speculate as to where might be fruitful areas to focus in the future, and to share some rough thoughts here for the purpose of working things out, and getting feedback. So here goes…

Looking back

I’ll quickly recap the territory I’ve been exploring over the last few years:

  • Mass participation in making: “anyone can make and everyone should”, Maker Faire, Maker Movement
  • DIY culture: amateurs, non-productive work, the evergreen cycles of punk, MYOG
  • Learning and sharing: mostly informally (outside of schools, universities, etc.)
  • Digital tools in making: redistributed manufacturing, rapid/accessible fabrication, online platforms
  • Making in social contexts: makerspaces, hack spaces, etc.
  • Craft, skill, physical labour, and the role of handwork in a post-industrial age
  • The relationship between making (one person in their workshop) and manufacturing (a system of people, their labour, relationships, materials and technology)
  • Technology, more broadly, and it’s role in society: surveillance, business change, new behaviours, offshoring, globalisation

There’s more, but this gives you a sense of my perspective There have been a series of forces, trends and shifts in technology, the economy and society that have led to all these things becoming possible, gaining traction in culture, and being interesting things. They fall under a few categories:

  • Work, leisure and class: social attitudes to leisure time, acceptable standards of living, signalling of status, the social and personal value of labour – all of these are strong forces acting on any kind of amateur, DIY or underground culture.
  • The physical world and our relationship to it: shifts in work from manufacturing to services, displacement of physical goods by software, the rise and fall of environmentalism.
  • Globalisation, and especially its impact on manufacturing.
  • The internet, and its impact both on incumbent media institutions and industries, and increasing access to tools for everyone else.

Looking forward

Now I want to turn 180° and look forwards. Which forces are shaping the world today? How will the existing landscapes change, and what new ground will be uncovered?

Dematerialisation and alienation from the physical world

Interest in craft and making is driven in part by a decrease in our engagement with physical things:

  • Products are increasingly sealed units that deliver software and services
  • Manufacturing happens overseas
  • For most people in the ‘creative industries’, their practice is very software-based
  • Automation and web services are removing points of contact with people, the environment and physical technology in everyday life (machinery, trains, cashiers, travel agents, the pavement, weather, etc.)
  • Urbanisation has led to a disconnect between people and the environment (natural or otherwise)

Making is in some way an antidote to this shift. A way for people to re-engage with the physical world. This trend of dematerialisation is continuing:

  • More interactions will be mediated by software (e.g. Uber, Amazon Go)
  • If manufacturing comes back home, it will be highly automated, and skilled workers will be employed only as robot operators, and in very small numbers
  • Frictionless consumerism is winning the battle against the environmental movement

So this imperative is stronger than ever. And most current approaches are lacking:

  • We have a popular interest in craft skill, but mostly within food and drink. Within making it’s still limited to the luxury market: giftware and bespoke design and manufacture. It’s not part of the everyday experience.
  • In education – if we consider that a bellwether of our priorities – craft and physical design/technology is being shut down at all levels: it’s expensive, dangerous, messy and not considered ‘productive’ enough.
  • There are interesting ways for makers to earn a living, enabled by technology (from Etsy to hardware startups) but these approaches are immature and still very problematic.
  • Making as an amateur activity continues, but could be extended in to many more areas than are currently popular.

All of these areas are places where it would be worthwhile putting energy.

Emerging models in manufacturing and mass-produced goods

Shifts in manufacturing over the last 30 years have had a larger impact on culture than the efforts of the culture sector. So if we’re interested in culture, and how that relates to people’s lives, wellbeing, and political decisions, we should engage with the world of mass manufacturing, and the production, marketing and consumption of everyday goods. Right now, there are some really interesting things happening in this space:

1. China is now more than just a cheap place to make things, but bringing it’s own culture to bear on the things that are made:

  • A different IP culture in China means products quickly become cloned and brands undifferentiated. It’s a ‘hoverboard’, not a ‘Honda’ or a ‘Samsung’ hoverboard.
  • Manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure now means that anyone can create a branded product (like VR goggles or a smartphone) using off-the-shelf components.

2. Domestic manufacturing is highly volatile, with lots of new models being tried to revive a sustainable manufacturing economy here:

  • Investment in hi-tech, high-value industries like biotech and smart cities
  • Experiments with digital and artisan manufacturing at a local scale
  • We’ve lost, skills, stability and pride in our own manufacturing capability, paying a high price for that, and there is appetite to recover some of what has gone.

This territory is largely unmapped.

Innovation in media production and consumption

It has been the web, and latterly the mobile web (enabling sharing of ideas, bringing together of distributed communities, preservation of fragmented knowledge) that has powered recent grassroots technology movements: music, media production, social media, physical making. This will continue, and has some interesting effects:

  • More cultures could be represented within ‘making’ as new people get access to the technology (ie more international, more youth-led, more kinds of practice)
  • It will become ever easier to produce media to share what you make: through smartphone photography and video, and easy upload to online platforms
  • At the same time, media consumption continues to become more distributed, meaning it’s more difficult to find an audience, and people fragment into ever more specialised niches and filter bubbles.

So this is in part about professional development for makers. Its also about owning your own platforms. Whether it’s Instructables, samizdat, or telling the story of a thing, learning DIY media skills is ever-more vital.

Consumer behaviour

And I’ll add one outlier. Most of my interest is in the amateur – in DIY culture. But years spent working for big brands has left me with a fascination for advertising and consumer culture. I’ve lived and worked through 20 years of change in this field, but it feels like we’re reaching inflection points that go beyond just generalised ‘digital transformation’:

  • From Lidl (stimulus generalisation through own brands) to Amazon (high tolerance for fake goods, even in highly visible categories), consumers are becoming accustomed to buying no-name brands. A brand is no longer a trust-mark.
  • The collapse of mass media means that mass-market advertising will continue its decline: we’re looking at niche everything: niche media, niche products, niche truth…
  • Fragmented retail makes it more difficult for mass-market brands to dominate retail space. You can’t own the aisle on Amazon.

Making is inseparable from consumption, so I think these trends are highly relevant, even if not immediately connected