For a long time now, I’ve believed that technology is making everything old new again. Well, not everything, but a lot of pre-industrial things.
Working at Home
Let’s take blogs. When I first saw people actually making money off of blogs, I began to think, here’s a return to cottage industry (a social studies word for “people working at home”). No mediator between them and the public that consumes their product. (Unless you count the platform – WordPress, Blogger – as a mediator.) I thought, gee, that’s interesting, and good for the few folks who know how to build an audience, and thought it would stop there.
It really didn’t.
People who produce digitally at home didn’t end with blogging. It grew to include video production and audio. Only a thin slice of a thin slice could afford to make a living doing this, but those who did were entering that cottage industry paradigm. But it didn’t stop with digital products.
There are now people who can produce physical products at home and make a living off of it. (Or, more to the point, a lot more than there used to be post-Industrial Revolution.) Whether it’s someone selling their wares on Etsy or someone 3D fabricating prosthetic limbs, the ability now exists to produce physical objects in a cost structure that makes it viable to not have to build a factory or go to work in a factory.
The other cottage-y element of that though, isn’t just the locus of production, but the uniqueness of it. Time was, when someone produced a chair for you it really was just for you. No other chair was like it because this one dude built it this one time to your specifications. Along came the Industrial Revolution and blam every chair is alike. If you see a chair, you can have a near perfect copy of that exact same chair. Pretty much anything you see when you look around you is utterly reproducable—and probably already has been.
Now we’re going back to being able to acquire custom-made things at low cost (for the producer as well as the consumer). Here’s the twist. We can also produce things that look exactly alike at the same cost. 3D fabrication means I can produce one prosthetic limb that’s just for one person and never make it again. Or I can make three exactly alike. Or 1,000. The cost isn’t exactly the same in all three scenarios, but it’s surprisingly close because I don’t have to retool to do it. The process to create the design is the only true effort. A machine takes care of the rest. The only scaling at that point has to do with materials (and, to some extent, distribution). But now we’re getting uniqueness and sameness for basically the same cost.
Living at Home
Used to be that living with your parents until they died wasn’t a mark of failure so much as it was the norm. The whole idea of living far away from family when you grow up is fairly recent in human history.
While technology isn’t exactly bringing that back, it is bringing back some of the cross-generational familiarity that proximity could engender. Almost every day, my three-year-old son video chats with his grandparents over Skype. He has a familiarity with them that I only had with my grandmother because I lived with her, and that few members of my generation have with their grandparents. The ability to be in frequent visual contact with multiple generations of family members is growing more common, and I suspect it’s shifting some family dynamics back towards the way they were when three generations or more lived under one roof. Not all the way, but definitely in a way that looks more pre-industrial than post.
Creating at Home
Time was, if you wanted to hear music, you either went to where it was being played or you got the sheet music and played it at home (the production of sheet music being something the music industry fought tooth and nail). Then came the player piano and if you had the means you could have one of those in your home and not need to know how to play the piano (something else fought by the music industry). Eventually you get to the record player and you don’t need skill or the room for a player piano (something fought by…you get the picture). The player gets smaller and smaller to the point where you can put it in your pocket and the physical media itself disappears (all of which are, you know) and now, you don’t really need anything more than ears and some kind of playing device (not even storage since the music itself is in the cloud).
Then Beck went and did something retro.
This isn’t so much pre-industrial as smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-industrial, but it’s definitely a throwback. But it’s one that acknowledges the collaborative (or individual) production (of art) processes that are becoming more possible and common. The retro part really is the let’s give everyone sheet music aspect. That really was what you’d have to do to “own” a copy of a new song back in the day. The player was you. The 21st century twist is that (a) the distribution of the sheet music happens instantaneously and (potentially) simultaneously and always on-demand and (b) those performances can now be aggregated and shared.
Which is the point. These new technologies aren’t about abandoning industrial features like mass production and uniformity; they’re about enhancing them with micro-production and uniqueness.
Get Out of the Home Already
The ways in which Cottage Industry 2.0 workers gather is also pre-industrial. Rather than unions, a natural outgrowth of industrial models of working for the same person under the same roof and therefore being treated with the same contempt and having a common enemy, you now have something that looks more like an old school guild system (but less snooty). User groups, which focus around commonality of individual practice, not shared opression, resemble the “You’re a cobbler? So am I! Let’s talk cobbling! Let’s find ways to make it easier for us all to cobble!” model of gathering.
Old school guilds tended to get more exclusionary and downright mean about their craft, whereas this new batch tends to be more open and collaborative. But the idea of using a tool-centered focus as a gathering principle has new life thanks to (a) the growing pool of cottage industrialists and (b) technology that allows mass numbers of them in an area self-identify as such.
So, anyone who knows actually knows anything about history care to weigh in?