The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Mod Society

This is some of the best news I’ve read in a long time:

So this enterprising young man, comedian Bob Kerr, started a Facebook group pithily entitled, “Bring Paul F. Tompkins to Toronto!” He asked for people to join the group if they were committed to seeing me perform. He asked that folks not join for “support,” that they not join just because they like joining groups, but that they only join if they were serious about wanting to come see me live in Toronto. Bob said, “You should only join if you’re actually going to be there.”

Within a few weeks, the group’s ranks had swelled to 305. I checked it out. It seemed legit! I booked a show.

A couple months later, I was in Toronto, performing two sold out shows on a Sunday night for two smart, respectful, appreciative audiences. These people didn’t come to “party.” They came to see a show. It was a magical night for me.

And it tasted like more.

I’ve become fed up with the comedy club system for reasons that would cause you to self-murder should I elaborate. I don’t want that to happen. I have long thought, There’s got to be a better way than this. But I had no idea what that way could be until my experience in Toronto.

So here it is: you provide the audience, I’ll provide the show.

This is the way the internet should work.  Making it possible to do what you want to do, in ways which which couldn’t have occurred before the internet.  Even if there were enough people in a local geographic cluster to support what you wanted to do, finding them was hard, often essentially impossible.

And while Tompkins needs a geographic cluster to give a show, the internet allows really thinly spread groups to connect: people who would never have been able to connect before.

One of my baseline “possible” models for the future is what I call the Mod Society or the Fab Society.  A fabricator is a manufacturing unit which can manufacture almost anything.  Get the plans, download into a fabricator, add raw materials to the fabricator, and it’ll make whatever the plans dictate.

Well, if they worked well, which they don’t.  But that’s the idea, and there are folks working hard on making them work and making them small enough and cheap enough that you can have one in your home, with larger ones in the equivalent of corner manufacturing stores.

Imagine you want a new toaster.  Go online, find one you like, download the specs to your fabricator, insert the necessary plastics and metals, let it churn for a while, and voila: new toaster!  Transportation of manufactured goods drops significantly, but more importantly, design opens up.  Think you can make a better toaster?  Great, upload it!  Add a payment system, and voila—the Fab Society.  Which is, more importantly, a design society where people make things.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, up through the 50’s and 60’s, you could make a lot of things yourself, and if you couldn’t make them yourself, you could at least repair them.  The mindset of people who do that is miles different from people who are pure consumers.  And, I would argue, far more healthy.

This can be extended to large goods.  I would love to see very basic cars manufactured which are designed explicitly with user modification in mind.  Make everything in a fashion that people can pull it out and install something new.  Sell the chasis, but in effect, let people create modules for it just like applications created for the iPhone.

But all of this requires not just technological change, but a world in which you can find your customers.  If there are only a 1,000 people in the entire world who want your design, your application, your mod, well, in old style industrial production, that’s worthless.  But in a Mod society backed up with the internet, that might well be enough.


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  1. There was actually a recent attempt to design a smartphone on exactly this basis: the OpenMoko/Neo Freerunner project.

    What you’re saying in general is slowly becoming reality.

  2. S Brennan

    I like what you write 98% of the time Ian, but….

    A manufacturer reads Ian’s piece…ughhh, he says…staggering, he runs from the the room screaming.

    Ian, there far too much wrong with your thought to give useful criticism. I don’t know why people think up manufacturing schemes without ever having engaged in the activity.

    Further, I will remind you that Obama used the medium [internet] to attack Hillary anonymously through paid shills. You can do the same thing with products and services, the internet is a two edged sword, anybody who thinks a competing model is going to stand still while you try to flank them…well…it is not realistic.

  3. anonymous

    Mod schmod. You might as well be talking about George Jetson flying cars. How are we gonna get custom toasters when 90% of people can’t even find shoes that fit them?

    What’s the deal with that? Every style and color imaginable and more selection each year – but still 15 or so sizes fit all, regardless of the huge varieties in human foot size, shape and structure. Are your feet wider than average? Then buy your shoes one or two even three sizes up (and you might even score with a size queen who might otherwise have written you off!). Is one foot half a size or more larger than the other? Rent Sophie’s Choice on Netflix and quitcherbitching. Greek foot or Egyptian foot? Pronator or suppinator? High and rigid arches, or flat and flexible? You’ll just have to take some shoe salesperson’s word about which brands might be slightly better for you (or go on the internet and try to find some unbiased but equally unscientific reviews – that is if you don’t mind having to sift thru endless amounts of useless internet advertising to find one speck of useful information). Or you can spend hundreds of dollars on orthotics which may or may not be practical to put in all of the different kinds of shoes you need to wear. The easiest thing in the world would be to let people buy their left and right shoes separately (as long as you buy them in the same model), but every check out cashier is trained to make sure that nobody gets away with that trick. There is a huge market niche available to the first company that tries to provide customized shoes that don’t cost hudreds or thousands of dollars, but all the internet “revolution” has done is to provide a glorified mail order catalogue. That was the internet “revolution” that gave us (and to be fair, Amazon). Who the hell buys shoes without trying them on first? At best you can sell shoes to repeat customers that way.

    The problem is that business is all about getting the most from customers while providing the least, so the slightly less profitable customer base at the margins of the bell curve just have to make do or go barefoot. Even if the cost of designing and producing shoes to fit a greater variety of feet was very small, the retailers will not stock them because they would rather stock 10 sizes of 500 shoes than 100 varieties of 50 shoes. If you there was a standardized system of analysing foot structure and gait so that you could try on the styles you like and then special order a pair to your custom specs, that would be ideal, but it’s still too George Jetson.

    The masters of industry and the universe claimed to have concocted such brilliant financial products, but all they were was some combinantion of much older, much simpler financial instruments that used complexity to hide risk and a ton of BS hucksterism on the captive financial media. I.e. they made a prettier pea, but hid it among many more shells. That complexity was entirely created for their own benefit. Beyond surface characteristics like color or style, they do not have the capacity or inclination to provide complexity or greater choice for the benefit of consumers.

    As for my own decades long maddening search for comfortable shoes, I finally found the Nike Free Sparqs this summer (I found them after 2 weeks of searching, despite Nike’s incredibly bad marketing that makes these shoes very hard to find at a brick and mortar store). Despite having to dislodge pepples from the grooves in the soles, and besides not being the best looking shoes, I can’t go back to any other shoes I’ve ever worn. I even wear them to the office, although it looks bad. Other shoes feel like wearing casts on my feet. I should probably stock up on them now, before the whole Nike Free line is abandonned due to Nike’s horrible handling of it, which I assume must not be very successful.

  4. Well, at least we can order custom mugs via zazzle and cafepress.

    Also, there are cars where that kind of mod culture exists (Subaru WRX for instance), but they aren’t usually the cheapest model sold.

  5. Ian Welsh


  6. Um, I’m assuming that’s an impersonator? The Ian I know would never say just say “lol”.

  7. Oh, wait, it has moderator shading. Who knew you had succumbed to Internet lollery?

  8. Ian Welsh

    I was amused by Brennan’s comment. What can I say, I’m in a good mood today. I’m sure it won’t last so you shan’t be surprised by too much lollery. 😉

  9. There’s clearly a new Arts & Crafts movement (look it up) in the offing. But…well, first off, all these new technologies depend on serious computing power and, ultimately, on the mass production of integrated circuits and their associated support technologies. The original Arts & Crafts movement failed due to economic ignorance–it was literally out-produced by mass production. This one is more competitive, but mass production isn’t going away.

    Except perhaps in places whose industrial base is gone and whose currency has gotten so low in value that they can no longer afford quality mass-produced goods. This stuff is fun for luxuries, but I think it’s going to be a lot less fun when we realize that we have to do it–that we have to spend way more of our time on new craft production of necessity because we don’t have the industrial capabilities to mass-manufacture any more.

  10. David

    Cory Doctorow has just written a novel titled “Makers”
    which deals with fabrication. The novel is also being serialized
    at and read it for free in installments.

  11. David, more useful URL: Makers Index Page.

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