Open Source Design

In 2008, near the end of my time at Arcosanti, I was searching the web for some directions on how to make kombucha, a fermented tea some of my roommates were making, claiming great health benefits.  One of the first links in the search engine was a site called Instructables, a place where you could put up a short, photo-illustrated journal about a project and how someone might replicate it.  I quickly forgot about fermenting tea and delved into their furniture section, which was full of innovative, home-grown chairs, tables, and shelves.  

Instructables was cooked up at Squid Labs, a think tank that spun off of the MIT Media Lab, a famous incubator of new ideas.  Eric Wilhelm and Saul Griffith developed a number of new technologies and concepts there, one of which was a free, open-source website for sharing instructions on how to do just about anything.  In 2005, Instructables went online, crowd-sourcing innovation from swarms of tech-oriented tinkerers.  Articles there are published under a Creative Commons Copyright license, which states that the content creator allows anyone to use their work for free as long as they are credited.  This idea runs counter to the whole body of copyright law, which is primarily concerned with preserving the profitability of content creators, and therefore incentivizing innovation and artistry.

I was a perfect fit for Instructables: my projects had no value to be protected under copyright or patent as they weren’t necessarily blindingly original; none of the technology or techniques used were proprietary or new; and they served me best as a tool to publicize my work.  In other words, the product itself wasn’t as inherently valuable as the idea of the product; the value lay strictly in it being consumed as information by the world.  

My first Instructable, the Flagman Table.

The debate over copyright in the Internet age has permeated every aspect of our culture, forcing businesses to adapt or die.  Apple is a very good example – their business model is a study in contradictions, where they have leveraged both intellectual property protection and open-source development to their advantage over the years.  In 2006, Apple opened the kernel, or source code, to their operating system.  This allowed anyone to see the inner workings of their software, and develop programs for it.  While some open-source operating systems had previously existed, notably Linux, a popular, commercially successful corporation positioned at the forefront of their field releasing trade secrets was unprecedented.  It turned out to be a brilliant move, unleashing a tidal wave of innovation and choice that can be seen across the Apple platforms, from their App store in iTunes to the vast amount of free software available for Mac OS X.  They leveraged the crowd – all of us out in the world, working away on products for them for free – to make their platform denser and more heavily populated with quality programs than any of their competitors.

On the other hand, Apple is known for a zealous, almost religious protection of its hardware prototypes.  A few years ago, a pre-release iPhone was lost in a bar by a careless employee.  Speculation as to how this actually happened abounds – some say it was all just a big publicity stunt, but lawsuits flew after the tech website Gizmodo paid a hefty finder’s fee for the lost phone.  Apple has also engaged in serial patenting for even minor innovations, trying to lay claim to as much intellectual property as possible.  

I tried to copyright the Tennis Ball Chair once.  Didn't go so well.

So, why the schizophrenia? It’s all about value: iPhones, iPads, etc. are only as valuable as long as they are newer, faster, and better than their competitors, which is why they strive to keep their features and technologies secret until their release.  However, the ecosystem that supports those products is only as valuable as long as it is full of rich, diverse content – content that would cost a fortune to produce in-house and defend from rampant piracy.  So, Apple makes the smart play: making the content so meaningful, easy-to-access, and cheap that it circumvents piracy and simultaneously makes you, the consumer, covet the devices that can use that content.  Microsoft, on the other hand, has long produced dominant software in-house: Windows, Office, and, for a time, Explorer.  They spend a fortune protecting from piracy while watching their market share steadily erode in the face of better, cheaper, faster products.

The same phenomenon has followed into other tech companies following the bubble of the late nineties and early aughts. The most successful companies online are ones that ride the back of user-generated content: Facebook, eBay, EtsyFlickr, YouTube, Yelp, Twitter, and, Instructables provide a platform for you to share content instead of paying a lot of people to generate it. While the digital world is perhaps the clearest illustration of this phenomenon, it is not limited to pixels, uploads, and page views. Banksy, the British street artist, made a name for himself as a graffiti writer and political provocateur, and now sells his work for millions in galleries and has had a film made about him, Exit Through the Gift Shop. He gave his work away to convince people to buy it, and eventually they did.

My best Banksy imitation, using open-source stencils, circa 2004.
I’m not suggesting that people stop copyrighting and patenting. Protecting innovation can be a key part of profiting from it, and a key part of spurring new innovation in the future. However, as guerilla designers, profit is less of a motive towards innovation than innovation itself. The power of crowdsourcing, building community, and dropping out of the consumer culture is the most powerful way we have, as individuals, to nudge along massive change. On one level, all we’re talking about is building some chairs; on another level, we’re talking about leveraging what tools we have available to pick at the soft underbelly of the consumer-industrial complex. We can’t force corporations to act sustainably, but we can stop buying their products and make our own. We can’t force the government to fix the economy, but we can radically alter the terms of our personal economy.

My latest Instructable, the Breakdown Table.

Instructables is a vehicle for a new kind of mass production, one that subverts the dominant consumer paradigm. Free release of information has allowed me to crowdsource manufacturing -- people are making my designs, and using them, in ways I never anticipated. I've had some stabs and false starts at getting my work commercially released, all ending in failure. But, here I am, designing, building, and pushing my work into the world for nothing but the cost of an internet connection and few photos.