The Means of Consumption

PC sales are down. Way, way down.

What’s to blame? Zero Hedge says that in addition to lackluster sales and poor reception for Windows *, we are, after all, still in a pretty severely depressed economy and that there’s just no end-user demand for new OSes or new computers in general. None of which is wrong. Windows 8, in particular, severly hamstrings Windows as an operating system, forcing it to suffer from the same limitations as a phone (which is just silly, especially when Windows 7 was a solid OS).

But the comments point out that we’ve really reached a point in modern computing power where most people just don’t need it. The rise of mobile and tablet devices has only compounded that. If the average person uses a machine just to tweet or surf the internet or check email or even just watch a movie, what’s the point of having several cubic powers worth of CPUs and RAM capacity greater than that of hard drives less than a decade ago? The smaller devices speak to that and obviate a need for real “computing” devices.

But two comments in particular caught my eye. The first:

[M]ost people don’t do physics simulations, train neural nets, backtest stock trading strategies and so on.

In tight times – why upgrade something that’s already better than most need?  Even I still use some  2 core relative clunkers (that were the hottest thing going when bought).  Because they do their job and are dead-reliable.

And the second:

[E]very manuf [sic] caught the disease it seems.  They don’t give a shit about their installed base, only new sales, and are just slavishly following the migration of most people to crap mobiles – crap if you need any real computing power and flexibility and multi-tasking.

I recently got a Nexus 10 – it’s cute, sometimes handy and so on.  But solve any real problem on it?  You must be joking, it’s just not there.  It’s great for consuming content, sucks for creating anything real – it’s a toy that probably does match the mainstream mentality – the “average guy” who half of people are even dumber than.  That ain’t me.  I’m a maker…I need real tools.

This is just the digital embodiment of a long-time trend. We don’t shape our environments how we used to – we don’t create; we only consume. We refine what exists without thinking bigger. And the sad part about something like the news about PC sales, which could conceivably serve as a wakeup call, is that it won’t matter. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that Windows 7 was fine and why should we bother iterating new versions. But the lesson is that there is at least some segment of humanity that’s trying to create and only needs the proper tools to do it. Possessing the means of consumption allows one only to consume (the Apple model); if we can repopularize “dual-use” technologies that don’t restrict content distribution but also enable its creation, well, now we might see innovation for all the right reasons.

“I want my enviroment to be a product of me.”

Yesterday I fixed the toilet.

The handle had been giving us trouble for  a while; it used some antiquated metal contraption to connect to the flush valve. The handle bar was connected to the pull rod by Christmas ribbon. But finally the rod completely separated from the flush valve, leaving things awkward for a couple days.

I wasn’t sure if I knew what I was doing. My handiwork has been limited to cutting pieces of wood and putting nails into them. One time I cut some pipe for a home garden, though I’m pretty sure I just held the pipes so they wouldn’t fall to the ground. But the toilet was in need of assistance.

My girlfriend suggested we just tell the landlord and get him to fix it. “Nonsense,” I said, “it will be $20 at most, and we should figure out how it works anyways.” Translation: I should figure that out. But off I went to Home Depot, and found the flush valve assembly I needed for just over $5. Rather serendipitously, when I got home the City of Chicago had shut off water to our block because of a frozen pipe and burst main up the street. So the tank drained, I bent the existing assembly out of the way (having no pliers), and installed the new flapper.

The object of my designs.

When the water came back on eight hours later, I was finally able to test the repaired toilet. It worked! It was better than before, too; the handle never seemed to stick in the down position.

Whenever that toilet gets a flushed, I crack a little smile. I did this. Not the landlord, not my dad, not a friend – me. And that feeling, that sense of triumph and accomplishment – however fleeting – is something that has been conspicuously absent from my life. I would imagine it’s been absent from others’, as well.

I mean, how often do we get the chance to do anything that ends with tangible, visible results? When are we able to contribute, even in small fashion, to our everyday surroundings? We’re convinced, nay, compelled to sit back and let others do everything for us. To not assist bystanders in lieu of those with “professional” qualifications. To “vote” in elections where no one responds to us and nothing ever changes.

The agency has been revoked from our lives. For a brief moment I was able to improve one tiny aspect of my own. If only there was a way to exercise that power at all times.

Ah, Recursion

It’s a synthesis of everything I love: a makerbot made of LEGO, printing… more things made of LEGO.

The recursiveness is great. But so is the premise. Is that potentially the tipping point for the Maker Revolution? When 3D printers can create copies of themselves? Think about how much easier it would be to get started: a whole community just has to pitch in for one machine. It’ll either revolutionize the already-revolutionary concept, or bring about the singularity. Either way, though.

Africa Takes Flight

Nigerian Mubarak Muhammad Abdullahi's homemade working helicopter.

In a delightful example of the DIY ethos, and bearing more than a slight resemblance to the John Robb school (not to mention Cory Doctorow), amateur engineers in Kenya, Somaliland, and Nigeria are cobbling together their own aircraft out of spare parts and discarded hulks.

And that includes both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The above helicopter was crafted from “scrap aluminum and parts of a Honda Civic, a Toyota, and a Boeing 747.” And it actually flies, too – at an altitude of 7 feet.

Via io9.

Making and Doing

For anyone currently in London (and by currently, I mean in early May), Cory Doctorow is giving a free talk at Nettlefold Hall in West Norwood on May 8. RSVPs are required, though – send an email to

Along similar Doctorovian lines, I read a post in The Art of Manliness, of all places, bemoaning the “modern immaturity” of men, and encouraging us to “create more, consume less.” Consumerism is, after all, a passive activity that reduces all willpower to an illusory choice – “the weakening of man’s free agency.” It’s an indictment both of consumerism and of any kind of forward thinking:

The problem with consumerism is that it heavily emphasizes choice, to the complete exclusion of the idea of living with that choice. Choose, choose, choose. But what happens after your make that choice?

Definitely worth reading and considering in all contexts – be it manliness, resilience, or otherwise.

Just Do It Yourself

Rapidly spreading around the internet right now is Chris Anderson’s article in Wired, “Atoms Are the New Bits.” Anderson talks about the spread of small-scale garage manufacturing, thanks to the advent, miniaturization, and drastically falling prices of 3D printers and the like. Works on the level of resilience, decentralization, sustainability… a win-win for everyone.

It’s definitely got me excited for the coming microindustrial revolution (or is it an industrial microrevolution?). I may very well need to invest in a MakerBot.

A garage renaissance is spilling over into such phenomena as the booming Maker Faires and local “hackerspaces.” Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content — all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world.

In short, atoms are the new bits.

Not everyone is quite so excited. But Joel Johnson might be the only naysayer. He does have a slight point – outsourcing some manufacturing to China is nothing new. Shlok Vaidya likes it except for the emphasis on China, and has further reading for you. John Robb loves it, of course (and is even more concerned with the business implications). Bostonist is proud of local Local Motors.

I know what I want for Christmas.