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November 20, 2006

Sometimes the Future Takes a Long Time to Come

Tim O’Reilly posted today about the significance of threadless.com, which he calls a “crowd-sourced” manufacturing business. Users submit designs for t-shirts; users vote designs up or down; the most popular ones get manufactured.  Tim continues:

“… custom fabrication devices like laser-cutters, water-jets, and 3D printers are currently at about the price points of typesetting machines back when desktop publishing took off in the early 80's. Even traditional manufacturing techniques can now be harnessed by small companies and individuals, who can hire overseas factories to make short runs of custom designs. How far off is a future in which the creative economy overflows the thin boundary that separates ‘information’ from ‘stuff’?”

Given the evidence about price points, the time probably has almost come.  But 43 years ago, I was excited by the same idea…

It was the summer of 1963.  I had a summer programming job at IBM.  I had to explain to most people what a computer was when they asked what I was doing for the summer; certainly couldn’t explain that I was working on a compiler for XTRAN, a language which would be used to write compilers.

IBM paid me overtime for attending courses and lectures at its System Research Institute subsidiary – plus an all-expenses-paid drive into NYC. One Tuesday night the lecture was on the kind of future that computers would make possible.  Those who thought about that at all thought of a Big Brother sort of world and enforced uniformity since computers liked dealing with millions of items which were all formatted just the same.

But the speaker at SRI said that computers would make mass customization possible. “Imagine,” he said, “going to a store and seeing a dress you like (nb. no online shopping in the dark ages). The clerk takes your exact measurements but then asks if you would like any changes to the design.  You say ‘I’d like the fleur de lis a little smaller, the straps a little wider, and the hem an inch higher.’ After just a short wait a machine disgorges just what you want.  Computers will make it possible to undo the uniformity and conformity that began with the industrial revolution and mass production.”

Wow! Not that I bought any dresses with or without fleur de lis in those days but I was really turned on by this.  Didn’t really have anyone to discuss it with because my co-workers at IBM were much older than me and not as given to bursts of enthusiasm and no one else knew what a computer was.  Besides, we had to get that XTRAN compiler finished and could only get a little machine time on the IBM 7090 for debugging.  But still…

Turned out the big brother predictors were right first.  Computers reinforced the trends of the industrial revolution:  “You must fill out the form exactly this way or the computer won’t accept it.”  “Our computer won’t let us do that.”  “The computer doesn’t like your credit history.”  “No more essay questions; the computer can’t grade them.”  And on, and on.

Then computers got personal.  The one you have on your desktop is many times more powerful than that 7090 whose air condition basketball-sized room I used to spend my nights in.  Hell, your cellphone has more memory than the 32K of 36 bit words that machine had; your watch probably does.  And the Internet happened and continues to happen.

And finally we’re going to get individualized and crowd-sourced production at mass production prices!  Unless I’m getting myself excited too soon again.

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» Today Is MC Day in the Blog Sphere: History, Future, and a Missed Trend from Mass Customization
Today was mass customization day in the blog sphere: Two great and one interesting post on mass customization and creative customers stroke out the mass of general postings just mentioning the term. Tim O'Reilly on Threadless and custom fabrication. Tim [Read More]


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