The revolution will be user-centred

by Philip Webb on 13 January 2012
I've been doing some thinking lately and I have come to the conclusion that the revolution that saves our economy will be a user-centred one. Not sure? It seems an unusual thing to say but have a read and let me know what you think.

The current scenario

The economic outlook could hardly be more bleak at the moment:
  • UK growth estimates revised to an anaemic 0.7% for 2012
  • £111 billion more government borrowing over the next 5 years
  • high youth unemployment, ongoing pensions disputes between public sector unions and the government
  • all this against the backdrop of struggling US and European economy
And there appears to be no solutions to this situation. The UK government is committed to austerity measures that the opposition argues will reduce growth and employment even further. That in turn will cause additional borrowing required for benefits, and casting the nation into a vicious spiral of hardship that will hit the poorest in society. With capitalism in such a woeful state for Western economies, and in the wake of the credit crunch and banking crisis, it’s not hard to understand the grievances of the Occupy movement.

What's the problem?

  • The main trouble, though, with the anti-capitalist protest movements is that despite communicating their anger effectively, they don’t offer an alternative.
  • Capitalism is so all-pervasive that removing it isn't credible.
  • Virtually every person on the planet is locked into a global system that dictates their standard of living.
  • Most people, even in relatively wealthy G7 nations, are too busy making ends meet to do anything other than look on at protest camps in bemusement. This isn't apathy. Even if they were sympathetic to the cause, they can’t simply step outside of the capitalist system.
  • Effort aimed at producing a fairer capitalism by bringing banks and global corporations to book hasn't worked in the past and won’t work now because it requires short-termist, self-interested world governments to take coordinated action.
The futility of raging against the machine is perhaps summed up by UK infrastructure improvement plans. After decades of under-investment in ports, rail and roads, the UK economy is poorly equipped to deal with changes in global trade. For example, our current ports cannot handle the vast container ships being built to leverage economies of scale in the transport of goods flowing from manufacturing powerhouses in the east. The London Gateway is a new deep-sea port being built with Middle-Eastern money in the Thames Estuary to attract trade. It’s just one of a string of infrastructure projects funded by the cash-rich economies of Asia and the Arab World aimed at getting Britain’s economy moving again. It seems the only way to patch up ailing capitalist systems is to use the tools of capitalism – to spend and invest our way out of a hole. Unfortunately for those who protest against it, flawed as it is, capitalism is the only game in town. But of course, global capitalism is ultimately unsustainable. As the population increases, the demand for resources will outstrip the planet’s ability to supply. So, what’s the answer?

Step 1. Decentralisation of information

I believe the greatest challenge to the capitalist status-quo will be the emergence of decentralisation – the handing of control to individual consumers. It has already happened to a certain extent with information. The vast quantity of instantly available content on the web makes it very difficult to monetise that content, as analysed in our report 'The future of online content'. Information will eventually become free as the cost of connection and equipment becomes lower and lower. Revolutions of this nature are rarely intended.
  • When Apple executives re-invented the way we consume music with the iPod and iTunes, they could not have foreseen the dramatic collapse of the existing business model used in the music industry. They expected the first iTunes store to sell a million songs in six months, but it sold a million songs in six days.
  • This spelled the end of music as a product, and the beginning of music as a service. The result is that music is widely available through so many different channels either at low prices or free that its monetisation is becomingly increasingly difficult.
  • Once the conditions were in place for music’s traditional business model to be turned on its head, once the barriers to change were removed and the prospect of music as a service resonated with enough people, nothing could stop it. Not legislation, not government intervention, not business.
Of course, there are a few spectacular winners in the current race to make money out of the properties of the Internet – Facebook, Google, Apple. How is that a challenge to capitalism? Because in the process of becoming wildly successful, these global giants have armed legions of people with cheap, accessible information and the means to share it. These companies have unleashed the start of a trend that will inevitably include not just information, but material and energy.

Step 2. Decentralisation of material

Karl Marx famously urged the people to take control of the means of production. Communism failed because it removed the incentive to work, and the means of production was owned not by the people but by the state. But we are perhaps witnessing the humble beginnings of a technological shift that will truly move the means of production into the hands of people. What’s needed is a technology that involves the decentralisation of production, for example 3D printers.
  • On an industrial scale, the use of 3D printers is already revolutionising additive manufacturing technologies because it is now as cheap to produce single items as it is to produce thousands. The technology has advanced to the point where different materials can be used to print parts and assemblies in one build process.
  • 3D printers are available for domestic use, although we’re perhaps at the same enthusiast era we were at in the 1980s with home computing when people used to assemble their own ZX81 machines with minuscule processing power and 1KB of memory.
  • As 3D printers increase in capability and reduce in cost, people will for the first time be able to produce things according to their design or designs made available as open-source.
But will this even appeal to people? It’s hard to envisage now, when all our material goods are churned out for us on an industrial scale. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the utility of 3D printing just because our material world is mass-produced. In 1977, Ken Olson, the chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp said, ‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.’ The home computing revolution that immediately followed was the start of the most spectacular decentralisation in history – from isolated mainframes to home computers and it ushered in the Internet age. What will make 3D printing attractive is combining it with downloadable product design.
  • You can’t buy the chair below. You can only buy and download the blueprint to make it yourself from cheap locally-sourced shipping pallets.
  • The idea champions sustainability and emphasises the design of something rather than the object itself. It is an open source design, one that anyone can use to make their copy of a product.
On its own the idea of open source product design is interesting but niche – only attractive to someone with the required craft skills and inclination. Most people would ask, ‘Why would you bother to make something when you could just buy it?’ Well, with access to a 3D printer you wouldn't strictly speaking be making it.
  • You would be downloading a design, filling up a 3D printer with raw material and pressing the ‘Print’ button.
  • Logistical transport of finished goods will become obsolete.
  • Production will become trivial and static.
  • The only part of the process that will have any currency and dynamism is the bit that truly matters – the design.
Once people are freed of the need to actually make something, there will no longer be any barriers to their creativity being realised. Witness the explosion of user-generated content online now the means of production and publication have been made readily available – blogs, music, art, novels, wiki collaboration and so on. It’s meaningless to point out that some of this user-generated stuff isn't any good. It’s out there and people can choose to consume it or not as an alternative to buying the mass-produced variety. Clay Shirky once thought people wouldn’t bother to create their own web pages because the poor quality of the end result would put them off. In his book Cognitive Surplus he freely admits to being wrong about that – people are motivated by the challenge of doing it for themselves and by the control that comes from self expression. At the moment, manufacturing companies are the sole gatekeepers of design, in the same way that publishers used to be the sole gatekeepers of written content. With the advent of 3D printers, design will no longer be the exclusive preserve of professional designers. Of course, there will still be amateur and professional, free and monetised, good and bad, but design will be freed from the shackles of commercialisation and economies of scale. It can truly become open source and customisable. We are a long way from the moment when all the possessions we own and use are printed to our own specification in our own homes. It’s more likely that production would first condense into local micro-factories that compete favourably with more traditional mass production techniques. But the shift has begun. And once it takes hold it will be self-perpetuating – the demand for better quality, more versatile end-products will drive improvements in the speed and sophistication of the printers.

The consequences for capitalism

This all sounds great as a true believer in the power of design and self expression, but what will that mean for capitalism and the economy? It’s possible to envisage a situation where the cost of 3D printed products will tend to zero, reducing the value of consumer trade perhaps to the point where money is rendered obsolete. Raw materials will always be needed but the technology is a natural fit for recycling. It raises the prospect of each person having a finite amount of material stuff that just gets converted into new products when the old products wear out. Maybe in the long term 3D printing will just change capitalism, rather than eradicate it altogether. But it will perhaps offer the prospect of a lifestyle choice that simply doesn’t exist today in any practical way – to opt out of mass-produced consumer culture. Critics will argue that we are locked into global capitalism – that 3D printers can only address the things we can buy, not food and land and services and energy. But once information and products are decentralised it only makes it more likely that the rest will follow. If you could cheaply print out solar panels, instead of paying ever higher prices for fossil-fuel energy across a centralised grid why wouldn’t you? Certainly as resources become scarce with increases in global population, paradigm shifts away from capitalism will have a greater chance of success, because something will have to give. There are only two reasons why any product or service survives in a form that ignores the needs and desires of its users:
  • because those users have no alternative
  • or because those users are unaware of a better alternative
Increasingly, users do have choices – choices that have been made transparent by the decentralisation of information. And they are voting with their wallets in their droves. Capitalism is driven by consumer needs. The irony is that this very fact is what may ultimately end up mutating capitalism into something else. If I were an anti-capitalist protester, I wouldn't be camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral preaching to the converted. I’d be doing everything I could to foster the decentralisation of things and instigating a revolution through the back door. What do you think? Could it work? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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