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The Napster Moment of Manufacturing

*These are my outline notes from my talk at the Me Craft/You Industry symposium in Enkhuizen, Netherlands, today. The conversation afterwards, at the end, to a large degree revolved around the questions of whether we are ready for a “Napster moment”, whether it will ever come, and whether it’s actually a question of industrial paradigms or economic waveforms. I’m tempted to think that the fact that the symposium is called “Me Craft/You Industry” rather than “Me Kondratiev Wave/You Faddish Harmonic” suggests that this is actually a question of underlying paradigms much rather than simply economic fluctuations. *

The topic is craft production and its relationship to industrial production, and by and large humanity consists of people who think that industry is great but it needs more craft, people who think craft is great but it needs more industry, and, in some edge cases – you know who you are – people that think both craft and industry are completely unteneble as production paradigms and we need something different.

There’s a way everybody can come happy out of this, but in order to get there we need to talk about something radically different from manufacturing for a moment and talk about something far more contentious. Then we’ll swing back at it at the end and have a go at centralization, just because we can and because it’ll be fun.

Now. Anybody who grew up in the late 1990′s used Napster, or at least heard of it. You know. The evil file sharing system which allowed lots of people to copy the work of Britney Spears and spread it all over the Internet.

Most of the time, when we look back at Napster, we see it as a failed attempt at liberation of the cultural output of humanity at best and a thoroughly illegal system for violating intellectual monopolies and threatening the hegemony over culture at worst. But regardless of where one stands on filesharing, it’s a fun metaphor that Cory Doctorow pointed out the relevance of: Very rarely do we think of Napster as a system by which a few million teenagers reinvented the music industry over the course of roughly 6 months – the leading edge of the Napster adoption curve – and during that time they built the largest database of human creativity that has ever existed, and they did it for free.

The cultural significance of this is massive. It is hard to imagine the world as it is today without the Napster moment. It turned the tables in many ways, both legal and illegal, ethical and unethical, and wherever you stand on any of those, at least your Internet connection is alarmingly fast now. The advent of Napster and its many successors produced massive upwards pressure towards faster Internet connections, more consumer control over cultural output, and a shift from passive consumption of culture to an active consumer culture. In fact, that variate alone is enough to explain most of the change in the structure of the music industry since then, although they will never admit it. In 1989 Stephan Weiswasser of ABC predicted that “you aren’t going to turn passive consumers into active trollers on the Internet.” How wrong he was.

The Napster moment, for music, was simply the democratisation of music – the moment at which it was ripped away from corporate interests and structurally enforced state protectionism and spread around all of the streets.

But the key here is not directly that of cultural liberation, because that had already been going on since the very day that culture became enshackled. However, the technology to record and distribute things like music had been incredibly terrible for a very long time then. Back when wax rollers were used to store music, in order to make 10 copies, the artist needed to perform the music 10 times – the concept of mastering did not exist. Slowly we moved from there to a digital age, but even then, prior to Napster, although it was possible to share files online, but it was difficult and required a lot of technical knowledge. Further, it was subject to scaling constraints – whether it was a musician encoding a song onto a wax roller or an FTP server providing the latest tunes, there was only so many requests they could service. So in that sense, “the Napster moment” is the large-scale democratization of filesharing through P2P technology.

But this isn’t about Music. Metaphor complete. Now let’s think about this in terms of industry, craft, and manufacturing.

The beginning of the Industrial revolution marked the beginning of a process by which the ability to craft and subsist was made economically unviable by massive improvements in productive capacity. This led many farmers, homesteaders and others to relocate to towns and cities, which started to grow. Eventually this led to a disenfranchised urbanized working class which had no control over any productive capacity to speak of. Formerly crucial crafts such as knitting were outcompeted by industrial methods and pushed into the realm of hobbyism, while the new class of industrialists owned more and more, produced more and more, yet contributed less and less to the process themselves. Some of the craftsmen rebelled against this trend in England between 1811 and 1815, but sure enough those of them that didn’t get hung got sent ot Australia.

This trend is still going on. Now that human intervention has been minimized and trivialized in factories, the same is happening in retail. Salespeople are being replaced by artificial autonomous agents. Modern capitalism is an existence whereby humans compete against indefatigable machines on a free market.

But yet, this is changing. A persistant interest in reversing the trend of centralization has slowly pushed the boundaries. Free Software has pushed the boundaries. Increasingly, open manufacturing models are pushing the boundaries.

We currently have the early P2P industrial tools, such as Repraps, laser cutters, CNC mills. We have Fab Labs and hackerspaces, but they’re still somewhat hard to use and they are by no stretch of the imagination widespread or democratized. Hackerspaces and maker labs are still geeky and artsy and hackish, and that’s fine for now, but we still need a Napster moment in manufacturing.

Now, to speculate on what that moment will look like is as impossible as it would have been for Stephan Weiswasser to speculate on Napster in 1989. I’d love to try, though. Despite that we don’t know what that moment will look like, in terms of technology, there are a few things we can assume based on previous examples:

  1. It will suck. It’ll be slow and buggy, it’ll suffer from all sorts of scaling issues, it’ll look like crap, and it won’t actually be very good, but it’ll get better.
  2. It will be good enough. It won’t be pretty but it’ll get the job done and everybody who uses it will have countless suggestions for its improvement. As Vinay Gupta has pointed out, “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing badly.”
  3. It will have a precipice-adoption curve: massive exponent on the leading edge, mostly by young people, suddenly empowered. The emphasis on young people is important. Most people probably won’t “get it”. I’m sure a lot of the people who attend conferences like this will, but there’s not enough of us. There are however lots of bored kids in suburbs.
  4. It will have a P2P social structure, rather than a hierarchical command-and-control structure as we’re used to from industry. In that sense, it will have more in common with craft production, despite retaining industrial output levels. That factor also means that there will be a much higher dynamic range for production – it is less likely that Sloanist economies of scale will apply.
  5. It will be attacked massively by entrenched interests. The attacks will range from smear campaigns (“You wouldn’t download a chicken sandwich!”) to legal actions based on existing laws to the creation of new draconic legal instruments to protect existing industrial production methods. Historical examples of this include the Frame Breaking and Malicious Damage Acts of 1812 in England, from the historical perspective, whereas the more modern ACTA treaty and things like SOPA.
  6. There will be martyrs. People like Peter Sunde and the other founders of the Pirate Bay, people like Aaron Swartz and Pablo Soto. People who, for one reason or another, the various industries decide to make an example of.

[Note: I ran out of time at the talk-equivalent of here. It’s hard to fit a fully formed argument into 10 minutes!]

One foreseeable difference between the Democratization of Industry compared to the Democratization of Culture is the scope of severity. Giving everybody access to all the music in the world changes music but it doesn’t change the world. People still need to eat and have shelter, they still need clothes and other essentials. Therefore, social exclusion from the capacity to use BitTorrent will stifle culture, but it won’t necessarily create a dangerous “societal badlands” situation. In short: poor people will not suffer too much.

However, when the Napster Moment happens for manufactured goods, we’re talking about a rather severe situation where the chasm between rich and poor (or rather, the haves and the have-nots, in terms of access to this technology) grows exponentially forever. In terms of political economy, everybody who has not the ability to download (and eat) the chicken sandwich stands to be eternally disenfranchised.

There are solutions to this problem:

First, we can try to make sure that the technology, when it comes into existence, is of a nature that it is inherently copyable. This is a design feature of RepRap – people are thankfully already thinking this way, and Von Neumann showed some pretty convincing maths that suggested that any Universal Constructor must necessarily be able to construct a Universal Constructor. But more importantly, these devices need to be legally unencumbered so that it is socially and legally possible to replicate the devices.

Second, we can try to give as many people in the world access to the existing technology and the knowledge of how to use it and what to expect in the future, such that when such a technology comes along, they’ll not only be less surprised by it but inherently acclimatised to it.

Which gives us the very weird result that the piracy-oriented file-sharing part of culture may be requisite to social justice in a P2P manufacturing world. There might be lots of other ways, but considering the last few hundred years of history and the fact that we have only managed to come up with craft, industry, and P2P, it’s fairly ovious that in any direction where the result is not an open and free peer-to-peer result there lies madness.