This article was originally published in No.1 of the print magazine I co-edited, The Alpine Review. Since the magazine is now on deep freeze in hiatus, I’m archiving some of my own pieces here.
The distance has been breached. The physical world we inhabit and the digital world we created are now touching and becoming one. Where the overlap is most pronounced, on the foremost edges, people are making things, rekindling the old, creating the new, all enabled by an interconnected world.
The online and offline domains are merging. If you squint just right, it’s actually already done. One world: a mixture of the network and the physical.
In an article for The New York Times, William Gibson (author of Spook Country), explained that “Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical.” Companies, people, services, devices and ‘things’ are connecting to and through the network; data is surfacing into our world. The Internet couldn’t simply be turned off anymore—not without huge repercussions—and the Net without its tendrils into the physical wouldn’t be complete.
We can expand on this by folding in another tightly related shift: atoms are becoming bits. Music, movies and books have gone from physical objects to digital. Virtually all products now start their life as a design file on a computer and then go through a process to make them physical. The latter, for the most part, is still highly industrialized—but things are changing quickly. The process of making a thing—or at least some things—is becoming more accessible, both in terms of expense and in terms of actually having access to a machine capable of making things in part or in entirety.
London-based designer, Russell Davies, expressed something like eversion, filing it under ‘post digital’.
Post Digital was intended as a possible condition we might get to. A place where we’re able to evaluate digital and analogue tools equally and fairly, from a position of equal familiarity and expertise.
This is important. One world is not supplanting the other, as we said earlier, the two are splicing into each other. It’s vital for practitioners whose field of expertise is affected (which is soon to be all of them) to start considering both types of tools. No more ‘digital infatuation’ and no more ‘analogue nostalgia’ in the choice of tools and solutions, people are liberated and empowered to focus on what is appropriate for each problem.
In this setting, technology—we mean things like software, data, screens and hardware—is used not only as a tool but also as a material. As Tom Armitage put it:
Materials have desires, affordances and textures; they have grains. We can work with that grain, understanding what the material wishes to be, wishes to do—or we can deliberately choose to work against it. We must understand that grain and make a deliberate choice.
Just like wood or paper or glass or steel, technology has restrictions, prefers certain shapes and can be twisted in some ways but not others.
People are making things again
Opinions are varied as to the ‘why’: The economy? Uncertainty? Atemporality? Fear of the future? Just plain having fun? Greater access to tools and learning? Greater opportunities to connect with others? Or perhaps it’s people rediscovering the joy and pride that comes with creating something with your hands?
Actual reasons are likely even more numerous than the unending theories and opinions, but one thing’s for sure: people are making things again. Sure, they (we) never fully stopped but there is a very real resurgence of people of all ages picking up the soldering iron, the glue gun, the power drill, the sewing machine, the code, the axe and the wrench to repair, create, remix and repurpose.
The maker movement as a whole is getting its fair share of media coverage, and with good reason: the huge Maker Faire gatherings are a sight to behold and the variety of projects and realizations are astonishing. Under the ‘maker’ label you’ll find everything from Brooklynites making huge crocheted scarves, to groups designing and making cars, to Open Source Hardware computers and devices, to knives, to single origin chocolates, to drones and rockets, to old school ‘out in the boonies’ log cabins.
It’s inspiring, it’s old, it’s new. People are having fun, playing and even tackling important problems.
Bits to atoms workshops
One particularly relevant trend connecting to our earlier eversion talk encompasses Open Source Hardware, Fab Labs, hackerspaces and makerspaces.
Open Source Hardware (OSHW) is a term for tangible artifacts—machines, devices or other physical things— whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute and use those things.
OSHW makes it possible for groups to collaborate and to build on each other’s ideas and accomplishments. Entirely different from the patent system, it fosters the exchange of ideas and the sharing of designs, making it easier to start making things, to use what others have made and to get started on the next stage or the next component without the need to reinvent the wheel every time.
Hackerspaces/makerspaces “can be viewed as open community labs incorporating elements of machine shops, workshops and/or studios where hackers can come together to share resources and knowledge to build and make things.”
Fab Labs are a more formalized form of space. The concept was initiated by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and must include a specific set of tools. The spaces offer support within (and of course outside) the community of labs, acting as a kind of official subculture.
Such spaces—from the more formal to just a few people pooling resources in a garage— usually include tools like laser cutters, 3D Printers (additive manufacturing), soldering stations, vinyl cutters, CNC machines (a tool controlled by computer and used to ‘carve’ parts and shapes) and a variety of electronic components.
Since the majority of those tools are computer controlled, they are basically workshops to turn bits into atoms. To make physical things out of digital ideas and data.
We have a new environment in eversion with the merging of the network and the physical world. We have energized people enthusiastic about making things and we have workshops to turn bits into atoms Made possible by the ingredients we just went over, here are three kinds of opportunities to make things:
Things made of Internet/data
Select some words, images or any kind of data you like online and recast that data into some form that interests you like a book, a newspaper, a poster or maybe a necklace. Then use your makerspace tools, home tools if you’re lucky, or an online service and make it real.
With Meshu you make a selection of points on the map (favourite cities in the world for example), they generate a meshu (a mesh of lines connecting the dots), then fabricate it in the form of a necklace and ship it to you.
Better Nouveau offers a collection of prints based on spam(!) [Ed. note: site has disappeared]. “Spamghetto is the inappropriate, intriguing, irresistible spam-based pattern that turns the bad ideas flooding your inbox into patterns of insight into the human nature.” They make wallpaper and laptop sleeves printed with those patterns.
James Bridle, a publisher, writer and technologist part of RIG in London, used the geolocation data collected from his iPhone over months, created maps of his comings and goings and using the print-on-demand service, Lulu to print a book—a kind of souvenir or artefact of that year.
Without making a physical object, the Internet can also come closer to the surface of the physical, using what can be called the ‘superabundance of screens’. With idle screens like an iPad laying around or an old iPhone hooked on a wall and fullscreen web applications built for that purpose, users can display a type of data which they just glance at once in a while and pay attention to when it draws their interest. Mostly experimental web versions exist for Twitter feeds, Flickr photos, Google Street View, a pixelized fireplace and bus schedules. Screenfeeder is a paid iPhone/iPad app that displays Twitter, Instagram and Foursquare information.
In this grouping we also include all of the devices which might be called hybrids, mixing within themselves the digital and the analogue, at which point we delve into the world of the Internet of Things and Ubicomp (Ubiquitous Computing), also covered in this issue. Here we will only mention one of our favourites, the Ugle from Voy, a design studio out of Oslo. Ugle is a beautiful wooden owl which can be controlled by an iPhone app. As they say, “it might be slightly nonsensical to use a wooden owl to send messages like this, but it is quite charming.” It doesn’t matter, what draws us to these experiments is how we learn about this space, not whether or not each piece is especially marketable.
Things oscillating between bits and atoms
With the new tools we have, it is now possible to go from a digital creation, to a physical version of the same and back again. Alternating, or oscillating, between the two forms.
Robin Sloan, a writer and ‘media inventor’ in San Francisco, calls it “the flip-flop (n): the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again—maybe more than once.” One of his examples goes like this:
1. Carve a statue out of stone. PHYSICAL
2. Digitize your statue with a 3D scanner. DIGITAL
3. Make some edits. Shrink it down. Add wings. STILL DIGITAL
4. Print the edited sculpture in plastic with a 3D printer. PHYSICAL AGAIN
An idea which relates to Bruce Sterling’s ‘spimes’, devices he sees as “beginning and ending as data, and things only occasionally”. Which is only one aspect of those theoretical objects he presented in his book Shaping Things. Objects which could be tracked through space and time throughout their lifetime.
A somewhat simple but telling and currently in use example of a flip-flop is Mike Migursky’s Walking Papers [Ed. note: site has disappeared] which provides a simple way of participating in improving OpenStreetMaps’ (OSM) coverage. OSM is an online, open, “worldwide mapping effort that includes more than half a million volunteers around the globe”. It is now used by the likes of Apple and Foursquare. In this example the flips are thus:
1. Original OpenStreetMap area. DIGITAL
2. Print it out, add details and annotations by hand. PHYSICAL
3. Scan it back in and trace the new information. DIGITAL
Artisans re-enabled by the net
Finally, the fact we are ‘soaking’ in the network also creates opportunities for some less technological types of making. A sizable chunk of the makers we referred to earlier are not using the most advanced doodads or exploring new frontiers, they are going back to earlier times, to handcrafted, small batch making. Perfecting old techniques, bringing back old methods.
Look at what they produce, the aesthetic they embrace (sometimes all the way down to their beard, headdress or choice of bicycle) and you might think you have gone back in time. Dig deeper however and you often find that they researched their craft in person but also widely on the Internet. They might have taken a workshop in person but they’ve also viewed hours upon hours of tutorials on YouTube. They meetup and discuss details of the craft in person with their peers but they also participate in online communities or exchange long emails with far away kindred spirits. They have a local fanbase but couldn’t make a living without their Etsy shop or the products they sell through their website. They find clients/patrons day to day but they also discover niches to work in through blogs and blogger meetups, through online groups and Facebook events.
Looking at this resurgence of craft itself is interesting, but what is fascinating is finding and understanding the networks they are part of, how their carefully-crafted and bespoke world is enabled by a global and connected community.
In the end, as we mentioned earlier, the point of most of these experiments is not about making money—although some are already doing so and creating new industries, like Makerbot 16 to name one—it is to have fun, to discover and to enjoy the process of creating. Our new everted world offers new playgrounds for the bold and curious who are sketching out new frontiers, new ways of operating and collaborating. The makers at this edge are creating an energized space where we can catch a glimpse of the future.
The ‘post digital’ era and makers are two important elements in the makeup of The Alpine Review. One of the focal points for our attention is how artisans are re-enabled by the net, how it opens avenues for innovation in creating and marketing products. It’s also part of what seems to be a natural approach many founders / artisans / makers are using, a mixture of connectedness, design awareness and sensibility to provenance and story. They are not only more fun to discover and follow but also a great way forward in product and services development and how to find a market - AR.