One of the recurring themes on the O’Reilly Radar is that of “news from the future,” the idea that, as William Gibson put it, “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” We look for events and people that give us signals about what is to come. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about threadless.com in this vein, and working them into my talks about Web 2.0 as a stunning extension of the principle of “harnessing collective intelligence” into the design of physical goods.
If you’re not familiar with it, threadless.com might be described as a digg for t-shirt designs. Users submit ideas for t-shirts, which other users vote up, till the most popular are manufactured and sold. The site would be cool enough just as a social networking site. There’s a rich community, and everyone is having a blast. (Kathy Sierra ought to give it a shout out on Creating Passionate Users!) But think about it for a moment: This is a “crowd-sourced” manufacturing business.
Right now, threadless is just making t-shirts. But 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”?
We’ve been fascinated with this idea since Marshall Burns and James Howison gave a talk entitled Napster Fabbing at our first P2P Conference in 2001. They pointed out, quite rightly, that in a world of personal fabrication machines, stuff could be shared as easily as music is shared today. But what would the mechanisms be by which new designs first come into play? Will they merely be copied from traditional manufacturing and brands, or will there be a new economy in which users compete in creative abandon? We’ve watched sites like shouldexist.org [which seems to be down] and kancept.com as lazyweb precursors to threadless. But to my knowledge, threadless is the first to have put all the pieces together.
It seems to me that this is one more step towards the reputation based economy that Cory Doctorow described in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. And of course, it’s an important next step in the re-engagement between computer technology and the physical world that we’ve been so eagerly chronicling in Make.