Last week a friend sent me a link to the world’s first sub-$1000 PCR machine. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction, it’s a method of replicating a section of DNA it billions of times. This means you can now study the building blocks of life to your hearts content, in your basement, for less than the price of a top-of-the-line computer. As the announcement says: DNA is now DIY.
OpenPCR joins a list of recent technological milestones including 3D printing, cheap embedded microcontrollers, ubiquitous computing and broadband Internet connections. The technological scene is supported by social phenomena like the open source movement, coworking and hacker spaces and organizations like Kiva and Kickstarter. The rise of increasingly powerful DIY technology and the surrounding social systems is pushing us toward what can best be described as the Age of the Maker.
Going from idea or innovation to self-sustaining product doesn’t require large factories or upfront investments anymore. As projects like OpenPCR and Coffee Joulies show it’s feasible to create a truly novel, popular product combining nothing more than talented, hard-working creators and willing customers. I’d like to believe that this is the beginning of a new industrial age, one that produces a similar improvement in the quality of human life without many of the bad side-effects of the last one. This revolution focuses on the individual and the small team rather on the factory. Sure, there are businesses and there is manufacturing, but the point of it all is not just profit. Profit is important, but a lot of people and groups I just mentioned are doing it largely because it’s fun and exciting.
Technology and the means of production are becoming increasingly democratic. What can be accomplished by small groups of focussed individuals leveraging modern technology is truly amazing. The software industry has already shown that small groups of people can create products and services that change the world. Today’s generation of makers and hackers are taking that a step further – showing that such world changing innovation doesn’t have to be limited to software.
I’m not an economist, but I’d argue that in many ways we’re seeing a reinvention of capitalism. Financial capital doesn’t have to be concentrated in the hands of a few – it can be widely distributed among the masses – millions of customers around the world. What is needed are people with ideas and skills that can bring that capital together just-in-time to create a product – the makers. And we now have the services required to bring the capital in (the Internet, Kickstarter, Kiva) and the cheap infrastructure needed to get the product out (UPS, FedEx, etc.). With OpenPCR, Arduinos, 3D printers and the we’re democratizing and distributing the means of production.
If you’re someone who likes building cool, interesting things there has never been a better time to be alive. The Industrial Revolution brought about mass production and cheap commoditized goods. But it also decimated independent artisans and craftsmen. Today we’re just getting ready to put all the manufacturing power of modern industrializaton back in the hands of individuals with ideas and skills. With today’s technology Leonardo da Vinci may have been able to build his flying machines.
What have you made today?