Makers (by Doctorow)
Book: Cory Doctorow. Makers. 2009.
Makers is a novel by Cory Doctorow. It was released in October 2009. The novel is available free on the author's website, as a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA download. It is also published in traditional paper form by HarperVoyager.
The book focuses on a near-future imagining of members of the Maker subculture, a group Doctorow characterizes as being composed of "people who hack hardware, business-models, and living arrangements to discover ways of staying alive and happy even when the economy is falling down the toilet."
The UK hardcover is 416 pages long.
"this is a major plot element of my science fiction novel Makers, coming from Tor next October: microcredit-funded open source hardware hackers laboring in dead malls (the first third of the book was syndicated on Salon as "Themepunks"). (http://www.boingboing.net/2009/03/18/open-source-hardware.html)
‘The serialized portion, the first third of the book, was excellent. It was an account of an explosion of desktop manufacturing, set against the background of an imploding corporate economy. He gave hints in the online chapters that things would go badly for the homebrew production movement, which I’m sure will be a letdown, but I still look forward to how it turns out.’
By Kevin Carson:
"Cory Doctorow. Makers (Tor, 2009).
The first part of the book, the most interesting to me as a writer on decentralized production technology, takes the lead characters through the rise and fall of the New Work (a sort of micromanufacturing boom on the same pattern as the dotcom boom and bust).
The story begins sometime in the second decade of this century. Although the material was originally written in essentially its present form in 2005, the economic meltdown which forms the backdrop for the story probably looks more familiar than the average reader in 2009 would like.
Doctorow’s near-future scenario is the culmination of a long trend that began in the 1970s. According to Charles Sabel and Michael Piore, there has always been a cyclical tendency for mass-production industry to shift output into the craft periphery during economic downturns. The reason, as J. K. Galbraith explained in The New Industrial State, is that investment in the monstrously expensive product-specific machinery used in mass-production industry requires a high degree of certainty that demand will be sufficient to utilize something close to full capacity, so the capital outlays can be amortized without excessive unit costs.
What changed in the 1970s was that the world capital markets became saturated, ending a grace period of twenty-five years or so following the destruction of most plant and equipment outside the U.S. The 1970s, as a result, were the beginning of a period of long-term stagnation and declining profit. With recurring energy shocks thrown in, Galbraith's “technostructure” was faced with exactly the kind of uncertainty it likes to avoid in making long-term capital investments. According to Sabel and Piore, this was the beginning of a long-term structural (as opposed to cyclical) trend of shifting production from the mass-production core to the craft periphery. The technical possibilities for doing so were enhanced by Japan’s development, at about the same time, of cheap CNC machine tools scaled to the needs of the garage factory and job-shop.
So from the 1980s on we’ve seen progressively larger shares of total industrial production shifted to flexible manufacturing networks like those of Emilia-Romagna and Shenzhen, and the growing shift of contract production to independent supplier networks (e.g. the auto parts suppliers that work for both GM and Toyota on a contract basis). By 2000, a majority of transnational corporations’ industrial production took place not in their own facilities, but in the job-shops of Asia.
The rise of the micromanufacturing and Fab Lab movements in recent years has taken things an order of magnitude further in the same direction.
According to Douglas Rushkoff, the destructive effect of the desktop computer on the old information and culture industries resulted from the imploding cost of the means of production. As Yochai Benkler described it, in a few decades we went from printing presses costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, to desktop “printing presses” two or more orders of magnitude cheaper. Desktop sound editing, publishing and podcasting capabilities have all resulted in similar cost reductions. When the initial capital outlays for information and cultural production fall by a factor of a hundred, Rushkoff argues, all the capital previously absorbed by those industries becomes superfluous.
We’re seeing now, in the realm of physical production, the same economic consequences that Rushkoff described for the information industries. Homebrew CNC (computer numeric controlled) cutting tables, routers and 3-D printers that can be built for a few hundred bucks, compared to many thousands of dollars for their proprietary commercial counteparts. A Fab Lab with homebrew machine tools and the RepRap 3-D printer — essentially a factory — can be built for $5000. The desktop manufacturing revolution is in the process of making the majority of investment capital superfluous, the same way the desktop computer revolution has destroyed the information and entertainment industries. If there’s an analogue of Moore’s Law for industrial hardware, you can stand it on its head and get a general rule: if capital outlays for micromanufacturing fall exponentially, then every so many years the amount of stuff that requires mass production industry to make will be reduced by half.
Marcin Jakubowski of Factor e Farm (a demonstration project attempting to create a set of replicable open-source tools for a village economy) put it this way:
Friends and family still harass me. They still keep telling me to ‘get a real job.’ I’ve got a good response now. It is:
1. Take a look at the last post on the soil pulverizer [for Factor e Farm's compressed earth block press]
2. Consider ‘getting a real job at $100k,’ a well-paid gig in The System. Tax and expense take it down to $50k, saved, if you’re frugal.
Ok. I can ‘get a real job’, work for 6 months, and then buy a Soil Pulverizer for $25k. Or, I make my own in 2 weeks at $200 cost, and save the world while I’m at it.
Which one makes more sense to you? You can see which one makes more sense to me. It’s just economics.
In other words, how ya gonna keep ‘em down in the factory when the cost of a factory of your own is two months' wages?
For half a century the neo-Marxists of the Monthly Review group, people like Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Harry Magdoff, have been writing on capitalism’s chronic tendencies toward overinvestment and excess capacity. The exacerbation of those crisis tendencies that’s being brought about by current technological developments is like a mild case of the sniffles turning into double pneumonia.
The implosion of capital outlay requirements, overhead, and production costs, and the unenforceability of the “intellectual property” laws from which artificial scarcity rents are derived, mean that all the traditional sources of monetized value are collapsing. Today, in 2009, we see an economy awash in surplus capacity and surplus investment capital, with no plausible scenario by which that capacity can be utilized or productive outlets for that capital can be found; the idea that some combination of debt-fueled consumption and planned obsolescence can get the factories back to churning out eighteen million cars a year is a joke. What we’re left with is the near certainty of long-term unemployment gradually creeping into the teens, and idle plant and equipment turning to dust, as an underemployed workforce produces growing shares of the value it consumes in the informal economy, and a growing share of physical production takes place in small shops and garages
Take these trends a few years further, and you get the scenario at the outset of Makers.
The story begins with a press conference by Landon Kettlewell, frontman and CEO for the newly-formed Kodacell (a merger of Kodak and Duracell). He begins by summing up the current changes in physical production: “Capitalism is eating itself…. The days of companies with names like General Electric and General Mills and General Motors are over.” There are, in other words, no longer any surviving forms of capital-intensive, large-batch production sufficient to gobble up enormous amounts of investment capital.
Later in the story, Kettlewell splurges with travel on the seven Kodacell corporate jets with something of an “apres moi, le deluge” air. He mentions that the company can’t even unload them at fire sale prices, because there just aren’t any companies out there willing to spend money on jets any more. Not even Saudi princes. And an accountant says “In ten years, if we do our jobs, there won’t be five companies on earth that can afford this kind of thing — it’ll be like building a cathedral after the Protestant Reformation.”
Kodacell’s new business model, in that environment, is to ruthlessly liquidate most of its surplus manufacturing capability, and use its cash on hand as something like a Grameen bank for hardware hackers, to fund thousands of micromanufacturing startups. “The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.”
100kGarages, an ambitious networked micromanufacturing project, takes its name from a remark by Tom Brokaw in last year's presidential debates. He asked whether the country’s manufacturing future would best be served by “funding a Manhattan-style project or by supporting 100,000 garages across America to encourage the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley…”
That’s a perfect summary for Kodacell’s investment program, and those of other like-minded corporations. The dying Fortune 500 companies at the outset of Makers are in the process of liquidating what's left of their old mass-production facilities, and using their remaining liquid assets to fund as many micromanufacturing startups as they could find. Almost before Kettlewell's press conference is finished, this becomes the dominant investment model for dozens and dozens of corporations that were finding 90% of their plant and equipment was superfluous with no idea what they could spend their capital on. Before long Westinghouse had shut down its appliances division and started its own multi-billion dollar microcredit operation, looking for garage startups to fund. By the end of Part One, the list of organizations with their own New Work microfinance organizations include not only a major part of the Fortune 500, but the investment arms of the AFL-CIO and major industrial unions.
From the press conference, we follow tech reporter Suzanne Church to one of these startups, a Fab Lab run out of an unfinished mall cum salvage yard by a couple of hardware hackers named Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks. In a direct parallel to the creation of Web 2.0 by unemployed or underemployed veterans of the dotcom bust, Gibbons and Banks are both former tech industry employees who started by (if I may borrow a phrase from neo-Marxist James O’Connor) hoarding their labor-power and working outside the cash nexus.
“He [Banks] was the sysadmin at a company that was making three-D printers, and I was a tech at a company that was buying them, and the products didn’t work, and I spent a lot of time on the phone with him troubleshooting them. We’d get together in our off-hours and hack around with neat little workbench projects, stuff we’d come up with at work. When both companies went under, we got a bunch of their equipment at bankruptcy auctions. Lester’s uncle owned the junkyard and he offered us space to set up our workshop and the rest is history.”
Lester’s and Perry’s garage micromanufacturing outfit is a perfect illustration of the principles of agility inherent in open-source peer production and networked organization; low-capitalization, low-overhead microenterprises are like rats in the corporate dinosaurs' nests.
The nimbleness of small, bottom-up, ad hoc organizations, in comparison with conventional bureaucratic hierarchies (with their dedicated buildings, job descriptions, prestige salaries, and Weberian procedural rules), and the tendency of the latter to create an artificial 400% markup to do anything, has been a recurring theme in the work of decentralist thinkers like Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich. Until recently, the state’s subsidies to the dinosaurs have been enough — barely — to tip the balance in favor of the dinosaurs and against the rats in their nests. Today they no longer are, and the state’s bankrupting itself in the process of even trying to prop them up.
Jeff Vail raised the question of when micromanufacturers would switch from producing trinkets and doodads to producing the kinds of primary goods — necessities — that are currently produced by conventional manufacturers. That concern is paralleled in Doctorow’s narrative. The stuff Perry and Lester were churning out in the early part of the story was exactly the kind of trivia and ephemera that Vail dismisses.
But after Perry is injured in a tussle with cops over the legal status of the neighboring shantytown, and the shantytown itself is half burnt down, they become increasingly radicalized. They shift to an emphasis very much like that of Vinay Gupta: producing cheap necessities of daily life for shantytown residents and the homeless. At first, that means intensive R&D on unconventional building technologies, followed by various “technologies for living” like composting toilets. At the close of Part One, Perry is talking — with the fervor of a Captain Ahab — of giving favela residents the tools they need to make any kind of tools: cheap Fabbing machinery that can produce more cheap Fabbing machinery at almost no cost, expanding garage manufacturing into every shantytown into the country and allowing the squatter communities to manufacture products of their own choice.
That probably had something to do with why the New Work boom collapsed.
Reconstructing exactly why it happened, though, requires a bit of reading between the lines, because Doctorow provides little more than hints.
The “New Work” boom, apparently, went bust for the same reason as the dotcom boom. In the 2000 bust network technologies, far from showing themselves to be overrated or a fad, became the fundamental building blocks of the new post-bust economy. But it was precisely this fundamental status, and their associated ubiquity and abundance, that put them beyond the ability of a small class of capitalists and other rentiers to monetize. It’s frequently argued that the dotcom bust gave rise to Web 2.0; this piece by Michel Bauwens is a good example. Web 2.0 was created by unemployed or underemployed knowledge workers working outside the cash nexus.
Likewise, Doctorow’s New Work boom went bust, not because it was a failure, but because it was too successful. We see in Part Two, set in the 2020s roughly a decade later, that the micromanufacturing technologies of the New Work, if anything, are even more ubiquitous than in Part One. If the toys went in the trash, the technology itself remained as the basis of the physical production economy.
The U.S., one of the characters says in Part Two, is a “post-manufacturing” economy. The economy of Makers may be “post-manufacturing” in the sense that there are no longer “jobs” in “factories,” but if so it seems to be the kind of post-manufacturing economy in which every shantytown in America has a collection of microfactories, operating out of abandoned storefronts and garages, that can make anything a conventional factory used to make in the 20th century. The collapse of the New Work boom didn’t mean the micromanufacturing technology it was based on disappeared; rather, the technology became so cheap and common that it was impossible for venture capitalists to make money off it. The New Work and the micromanufacturing technology associated with it had the same destructive effect, in the realm of physical production, that Rushkoff described in the information and culture industries. The “post-manufacturing” economy of Part Two is an economy in which manufacturing is no longer an issue for the same reason that water’s not an issue for fish.
The failure of Doctorow’s New Work boom is a brilliant fictional illustration of how conventional economies are wrecked by abundance: micromanufacturing is so productive it destroys all the opportunities to make money off it.
The key to why the failure of the New Work boom is the contradiction inherent in Kettlewell’s investment strategy, and that of the other big corporate venture capital funds. There was a fallacy of composition implicit in his “straining a billion bits of krill” investment model. Those hundreds of thousands and even millions of ventures, cumulatively, weren’t enough to soak up even a large fraction of all the capital lying around waiting to be invested. What he described was an excellent model for a single small venture capitalist with several thousand dollars to invest. And that’s just how it worked, at the level of the individual product: he put fifty grand into bankrolling one of Perry’s and Lester’s product lines, and got seventy grand out three months later. But despite those astronomical ROIs, the abslute quantities of capital required for such startups was quite small. A corporation with fifty billion can’t repeat the same process a million times — especially when the entire Fortune 100 is doing the same thing, looking for opportunities to unload all their idle cash on whatever terms are available. As Kettlewell later complained,
“Our business units have an industry-high return on investment, but there’s not enough of them. We’ve only signed a thousand teams and we wanted ten thousand, so ninety percent of the money we had to spend is sitting in the bank at garbage interest rates. We need to soak up that money with big projects—the Hoover Dam, Hong Kong Disneyland, the Big Dig. All we’ve got are little projects.”
So the overwhelming majority of available capital still sat idle without any productive outlet.
What’s more, those enormous ROIs were as unstable as a uranium atom. They depended on individual startups being sufficiently agile to switch rapidly to new products as returns collapsed on the old ones. The problem was that with the initial capital outlays required so small, and entry barriers so low, the period of entrepreneurial rents from being first to market kept getting shorter and shorter, until the investors were barely staying ahead of the shock wave of competitive price implosion. My tentative post mortem on the boom is that that shock wave overtook the investors, the spectacular rates of return reached their saturation point; and by the time the wave of entrepreneurial profit exhausted itself, with store front Fab Labs equivalent to a Shenzhen in every favela, 90% of the corporate investment funds still sat gathering dust.
The America in which all this is taking place is a logical extrapolation from the one we’re living in, in more ways than one. For example, Doctorow furnishes his story with the full quota of a favorite cyberpunk staple, the shantytown, in thousands of abandoned malls and similar habitats across the country. It’s a country in which real estate values never came back from the collapse: deteriorating condos and apartments are available for dirt-cheap rents to the marginally employed and the working poor; and for those too poor to meet even those standards, millions of units of residential and commercial real estate sit abandoned because their value has collapsed beyond the point at which it was no longer worthwhile even to do basic maintenance or pay taxes. At one point a character mentions that some thirty million Americans live in “marginal housing,” i.e. are technically homeless squatters, without formal title to their place of residence. The property arrangements are informal, but in most places cops don’t even bother with issues of legal title where there’s no obvious owner actively challenging squatter occupancy.
I don’t know if Doctorow is a fan of Colin Ward, but the flavor of his shantytowns is very much like that of the British “informal housing” Ward describes in Talking Houses. The squatter communities started out as tents and lean-tos surrounding nuclei of homeless retirees in RVs and trailers (”the military wing of the AARP,” one character calls them). The residents over time picked up skills for carpentry and masonry, made creative use of scavenged materials, and gradually replaced ad hoc shelters with concrete and rebar one wall at a time. “None of them had mortgages, but they had neat vegetable gardens and walkways spelled out in white stones with garden gnomes standing guard.” The jury-rigged electrical power and communications infrastructure reminds me a bit of Neil Gershenfeld’s description, in Fab, of Indian village cable systems with reverse-engineered satellite receivers. Shantytown businesses included tea rooms, barbecue houses, microbreweries, and the like, and eventually Fab Labs. Crops were raised in vacant lots, and chickens and pigs in abandoned buildings.
The atmosphere of Doctorow's shantytowns reminds me a bit of the early towns of late medieval Europe, as described by Pyotr Kropotkin. Like Kropotkin's early towns, starting out as large villages at favorably situated crossroads and fords and filling up with runaway serfs, Doctorow's shantytowns are growing up outside the legal boundaries of the old system—and may well be the building blocks of the new one.
Their main weaknesses are the uncertainty of property titles (a matter covered masterfully by Hernando de Soto in The Mystery of Capital), and the undeveloped social support network. Doctorow's favelas are in the process of remedying the latter failing, in ways that the same Mr. Kropotkin would have no trouble recognizing. The biggest gap in the social support network is probably healthcare. But in an economy where the collapse of employer-based health insurance has probably led to a crisis of excess capacity in hospitals, and the average shantytown has a Fab Lab capable of producing its own IV pumps and syringes (and may even have a storefront biotech lab), what's the logical next step? For unemployed MDs to undertake a form of revised lodge practice out of cooperative clinics in the favelas, exchanging their services on the shantytown credit-clearing network in return for the food, services, and industrial output of their neighbors.
My main quibble with Doctorow is his overemphasis on the 3-D printer as the centerpiece technology of the New Work—to the point of equating “Fabbing” with printing. 3-D printers are good primarily for making casting molds for forging parts out of conventional materials. They're good for making plastic knick-knacks, when durability isn't a concern. In a few years, they may be good for printing out circuit boards. But in my opinion most of the heavy lifting in the garage manufacturing movement will be done with more conventional subtractive technologies like lathes, laser cutters and routers.
 Charles Sabel and Michael Piore, The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity (New York: HarperCollins, 1984).
 Douglas Rushkoff, “How the Tech Boom Terminated California's Economy,” Fast Company, July 10, 2009 <http://www.fastcompany.com/article/how-tech-boom-terminated-californias-economy>.
 Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1006), pp. 179, 188.
 Marcin Jakubowski, “Get a Real Job!” Factor e Farm Weblog, September 7, 2009 <http://openfarmtech.org/weblog/?p=1067>. The Factor e Farm's list of projects includes the CEB press, a sawmill, a solar steam-powered generator, a light tractor, and a Fab Lab with CNC multi-machine (a combination lathe-drill-mill), torch table and 3-D printer. Most of the product designs are intended to be replicable via the Fab Lab, with the Fab Lab itself also being self-replicable. The CEB press, tractor and sawmill have already been prototyped.
 Jeff Vail, “Distributed Manufacturing Beyond Geek,” JeffVail.Net, September 28, 2009 <http://www.jeffvail.net/2009/09/distributed-manufacturing-beyond.html>.
 Gupta's work focuses on life support technologies for Third World refugees, like the hexayurt (a low-cost emergency shelter), cheap solar cookers, etc. <http://vinay.howtolivewiki.com/blog/>.
 Colin Ward. Talking Houses: Ten Essays by Colin Ward (London: Freedom Press, 1990).
For an older SF treatment of the theme, see Theodore Sturgeon’s Skills of Xanadu.