Chris Anderson, 51, is editor-in-chief of Wired magazine in the US and one of the world's leading thinkers on the digital world. His 2006 book, The Long Tail, showed how the internet had turned retailing on its head, creating a huge market for niche goods. His second book, Free, described how businesses can sometimes profit by giving their products away. Now he has written Makers, in which he heralds a "new industrial revolution".
As technologies such as 3D printing become cheaper and widely available, he says, we can all turn our entrepreneurial dreams into reality.
I was a really bad student and barely graduated from high school. I bailed out of college and spent my 20s playing in punk bands. One of the great things about punk was that you didn't need talent. It was a democratisation of rock. Suddenly an industry that had been inaccessible to most people became open to everyone. The DIY spirit of punk rock was a great lesson — that anybody can do anything.
I ended up in a band called REM. When we were making
our first record, the studio manager said, "There's
another band called REM, but don't worry, they're from this boondocks town called Athens, Georgia, no one will have heard of them." Our tour promoter thought it would be amusing to have a battle of the REMs, where the winner would get to rename the loser. We went first and played our set. It went well and we went to the bar to toast our victory. Then they came on and the first song they played was Radio Free Europe, their first single. I don't think
I finished my beer, my jaw was on the floor. They left the venue pretty quickly and the bass player stuck around long enough to rename us Egoslavia.
If there's a lesson to be learnt from that, I guess it's don't discount people who come from Athens, Georgia!
I went back to college and studied physics, then went to work for Nature and Science. It was the early 90s and in
the science world we were using this new thing called the internet. At that time it was simply a tool designed to connect scientific laboratories. Then in 1993 people started talking about a digital superhighway and this crazy magazine called Wired came out. It was Day-Glo and it was saying, "This is
not technology, it's a revolution. Power to the people!" Oh my God, who knew? This thing I was using every day was much bigger than I realised.
I got a call from Condé Nast, which had bought Wired,
and was asked if I wanted to edit it. I was working for The Economist at the time. I'd never been an editor, so I had
to learn the hard way. It was July 2001. The NASDAQ
had crashed and the internet was considered the subprime mortgage of its day, somewhere between a hoax and a fraud. But in retrospect it turned out to be the best time to take over. There was such a huge headwind that everyone was failing, so my failures were cloaked by the marketplace's. If you're going to figure out how to do your job, do it in a crazy recession.
In 1978, when Jobs and Wozniak brought out the Apple II,
it would have been fair to ask, "What's it for? What does
it lead to?" Everything that computer is being used for today had yet to be invented. It was only because those two guys had made computers cheap and easy and ultimately ubiquitous that the idea of what they were for came out of the user base. The computer guys invented the hardware but they didn't invent the software and the content that gets put on it. In the same way, the computer guys invented the internet but they didn't invent the web. We the people took it and used it to project our own ideas. So that's kind of where we are right now with 3D printing.
In our house right now the killer app for our 3D printer is doll's house furniture. Is that ultimately going to be the killer app? No, I suspect there will be a better one. At this point we've done it twice: the personal computer revolution and the web revolution. I think we have some confidence in saying we can see how this picture comes together. You take a technology that is formerly an industrial technology, you add the words 'desktop' and 'personal', you make it cheap and easy and ubiquitous and then we find out what it's for.
I spent my summers as a kid with my grandpa making stuff. He was an inventor and he had this great workshop. He would put a block of metal on a lathe and out of it would come a cylinder or a crankshaft. But it didn't feel like it was a path
I could take. He had skills and I didn't have skills. But now all the tricky stuff is digital and in the cloud. You don't need those skills, you only need the idea. I feel this is the third chapter of the digital revolution that has changed the world.
Interview by Tim Hulse. Makers by Chris Anderson is published by Random House, £20.00.
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