Tuesday 27 December 2011

Digital Artisans

"Digital Artisans" was published in Luxury Briefing in December 2011.


Digital Artisans
by Alexander Gallé

This month sees two interesting acts being debated in the US Congress, called the SOPA (which stands for "Stop Online Piracy Act") and the Protect IP Act. While they're still being debated, it turns out a judge in Nevada has already taken it upon himself to start the most radical repossession of internet domains to date, acting upon Chanel's request to divert 600 domain names from their owners, who are suspected of either selling counterfeits or linking to sites selling counterfeits.

I won't go into the details to describe the futility and absurdity of such actions, since I already covered the subject in great depth in a previous article called "Countering the counterfeits". Needless to say, however, that - whilst they will do some damage to our online freedoms, as well as increase the barriers of entry for perfectly legal new market entrants (thus jeopardising the great contributions to the world that will be made by the next Google or the next Twitter) - these acts, whether right or wrong, will do nothing to stem the tsunami of transformation which started in the early 90s and is very far from seeing its peak...

Indeed, the digital flow is soon going to be a much bigger flow than the one between buyers and sellers of products and services. This is not just a simple rewiring of product distribution networks: the very products themselves which our customers are buying online will soon be nothing more than "embodied data", thanks primarily to the exponentially increasing capabilities of 3D-printing.

3D-printing has yet to receive the amount of mediatic exposure it deserves, considering the huge impact it will have on manufacturing. Simply put, it is the technology that enables 3D object files created on a computer to be "printed" into real, physical objects. This printing can happen at a prototype developer's end, or at a manufacturer's end, or at a final consumer end. There may be a difference in scale, but all 3D-printing processes effectively work as follows: a printer spurts out tiny amounts of raw material, say, a plastic paste or a metal powder onto a base, aggregating more and more material until the object has been created into the shape it is supposed to be. You could think of it like a computerised pottery wheel, only instead of clay pots, the 3D-printer creates anything from furniture to tableware to automobile parts. Need a new lampshade to match your new dining table? 3D-print it. Need a new cylinder or brake pad for your car? Email the part's 3D file to your mechanic and get him to print it out.

Now, it may not be immediately obvious how this will impact the sector. The first result is, of course, that it will open the gates for low-cost prototyping and product development. However, that would just be scratching the surface.

You may remember, in a previous column, I described Belgium as the YouTube of beer: thousands of small producers watching each other's products and methods, looking for ways to improve their own, in constant dialogue with their audience the way music bands are with their fanclubs, without the constricting denomination system you have in, say, Champagne, where the rules of wine production have been set in stone, a protectionist system that is clearly to the long-term detriment of the producers themselves as the rest of the world continues to evolve new and better methods. The result, for Belgian beer, is a constantly evolving, constantly improving aggregate product.

With this in mind, imagine an online space, similar to YouTube, in which producers get to upload 3D files they have created or "mashed up" from other people's designs, and viewers get to comment and enter into a direct dialogue with creators and with each other. After a while, you would get the same kind of memes and internet phenomena we have seen on YouTube and Reddit, only instead of movies, they would be files that are at any moment able to be turned into real, physical objects!

Just as you have very popular creators of video content on YouTube today, who do not need any kind of television deal to "make it big", so you will have a worldwide popular designers creating the kind of products which today require the economies of scale of large established companies to be produced at an affordable cost. In many sectors of manufacturing, the effect will be similar to that witnessed in the music sector, where the direct connection between bands and fans is increasingly turning the big labels into a thing of the past. Here again, the digital medium will have made possible a "retour aux sources" for the luxury sector: a return to the values of individualism and craftsmanship. The digital revolution will have brought about the return of the craftsman, the digital artisan.

Visit the Gallé website at www.galle.com.