one man's journey into creating gibblybits

Friday, January 18, 2013

The next chapter...

Changes 2.0? I've lost count. Life is change.

There's a reason I didn't go into technical writing. My writing has to be expressive. I spent two years in journalism and they never once taught us how to conduct an interview! I've learned what I know largely through experimenting, analyzing, and correcting. By playing around and making stuff. At CES I told the story about how I once made an iPod case out of a milk jug, and that wound up on Engadget.

I love that stuff, the design, the creation... It's time I got back to it.


Long ago in the dawn of the Web 2.0 age, when podcasts were new, I produced a single episode called Da Vinci's Notebooks. It was to be about creativity, learning and invention. At the time I taught classes at a for-profit school. It was a means to an end, and afforded me the luxury of studying game design online (formally I was working towards a bachelor's, but only needed the credits to teach the classes). It also allowed me to start blogging, and I wound up being a launch blogger for the now-mothballed later I joined TUAW as a writer.

Fast forward to now, and I look upon last year with a raised eyebrow. Somewhere between teaching kids who were tough to train and fighting with our CMS I lost some passion for what I was doing. That culminated in my brief departure from TUAW to join TNW, where I gained that all-important perspective so few of us so rarely get to experience. That was the beginning of something that created a series of inflection points for me at CES.

At CES I met Bre Pettis, creator of Makerbot. I met a lot of other people at CES, but I met Bre at a meetup of robotics folks, and realized "these are my people." I had been out of robotics for so long (I was a hobbyist as a kid), I no longer knew the lingo, the people or the current state-of-the-art. This made me sad. It was a powerful "aha" moment. Same when I met the people who created walls360, a company which seems frivolous but has a serious mission.

Later I spoke briefly with Bre and, of course, he's friends with Phillip Torrone. Not a lot of people know this, but I read Phil's blog about hacking Flash ages ago. He's the person I credit for inspiring me to get back into writing by starting a blog. At the time, he also briefly wrote for Engadget. And that's how I found them and all of Weblogs, Inc. (I have come to discover that Phillip has touched many, many lives, and I am eternally grateful that he even knows who I am).

Anyway, my chat with Bre, the gadgets I'd seen that week, the news from LEGO... All of it was swirling around in my head, plus a project I'd been working on here in Knoxville... and now it comes to this.

Go Big Or Go Home

In a few days I'm going to give a presentation. But before that presentation, and all this week, I've been thinking about our culture. We are a consumer culture, the likes of which have never been seen before. Vegas only needs a vomitorium* to completely outdo the ancient Romans in their peak of decadence. I want to change this. And here's how.

First, on TUAW, we're going to be shifting more to "how to do things" -- with guides, tips, how-to's and a lot of detailing what we do every day with tech. After all, these are our roots. Personally I'm going to dive more into the fun stuff of hobbling together a security system, or making a robot powered by an iOS device, or just the myriad ways you can fill your house with sound. All of these are worthy projects, all of them are DOING things. If we relegate news of patent litigation to a sidebar, I will be a happy man. You can get news from anyone. You only get the good, how-to-do-something-awesome from hardcore enthusiasts like our TUAW crew. So expect a doubling-down on that type of content in 2013.

Second, about that presentation. Knoxville is a weird town. There's a lot of money here, but it's not very fluid, especially when it comes to new business. Contrast this with Chattanooga, where people just seem to get together and make things happen all the time. Perhaps it's the smaller, tighter community. Maybe it's the hippies who like the mountains. I don't know what it is, but Knoxville has a tougher time of getting together for the sole purpose of moving the ball down the field, as opposed to opening up another chain restaurant (which we truly excel at).

So my presentation will not address the obstacles of prying money from conservative investors' hands. It will not focus on how people need to check their egos at the door so we can all move the ball down the field. It will focus, like a laser, on this: Let's change our culture from a consumer-centric one to a maker-centric one. Lets go from consumers to creators. That's exactly what made our country awesome (that and a dash of bravado, so those egos are welcome once they prove themselves!).

Changing the Culture

My proposal, as a bit of a spoiler, is to build a sort of mall. Not a mall where people only go to consume things, however. A mall that is an intersection of technology and the liberal arts, business and performance, where people can be found making things and cooking food... a Nexus for creation, if you will.

The space I propose will house several independent businesses, like a venue, a bar, a co-working space, a production facility, a maker space, and more. Almost every space is designed around the idea of a flex space -- one that may have a daytime purpose and a nighttime purpose. The goal is to get MBA's and artists eating together, working together, or just running into each other at the bar before a cool show, and exchanging ideas. That's how human progress happens.

Not only that, but every business will be in the business of MAKING something, be it a performance, a great new dish, or the next amazing business. Rapid prototyping, large format printing, test kitchens and meeting spaces will allow access to resources like nothing in this area. Perhaps like nothing in this region.

At the core of all this will be a co-op management force to coordinate marketing and building usage and scheduling. Working as a cohesive unit, we'll be able to coordinate something like this imaginary scenario:

Bob's 3-man startup team has been using the cohort group workspace on the second floor, and has been working on a new special-purpose kitchen robot. They've been using the maker shop downstairs to rapidly prototype the design, and have used the cohort room to talk to Chinese manufacturers at night, making sure the first batch of Kickstarter-backed 'bots will come out right.

Meanwhile, the weekend robotics club meetings downstairs in the restaurant/meeting space have been planning a big robot show in the venue space at the end of the month. The team leader, Janet, ran into Bob at the food court after seeing a blog post on the media wall in the foyer (this is the local message board that showcases local businesses and startups). Bob's team is now working hard to get a prototype ready for the show at the end of the month. He also comes down to chat with the students once in a while, and share advice (not to mention learn something himself).

At the end of the month Bob's team gets a fully-functional prototype from China, but it's missing a part! No worries, an order to the maker shop has one fabricated and ready for the show that night. Before the show, the food court opens late and the foyer hosts a meet-and-greet for the robotics club. 

The group take a tour of the maker shop, and Bob's team has prepared a special preview video in their workspace to show small groups who are interested in their work. It just so happens that night that an artist is working late on her robot paintings, and she invites some onlookers to come into the art studio and have a look.

After the reception, guests are escorted to the venue space, where the walls project a video (produced earlier that week by the club, there at the venue) promoting robotics in general, and teaching a bit of robotics history.

As the light dim and the show begins -- it's a sort of show and tell of each type of robot made by the students, plus special guest Bob and his team -- the livestream starts broadcasting the event to the world...

Sure, we could do all of this at 3 or 4 different places dotted around downtown. But I'm hoping that people will see how this mini-mall of creative forces and business forces will lead to unexpected, delightful discoveries and innovation. It's all about making something amazing. That's what I'm into now.

[Note: My role in this is vision keeper and coordinator. Like serving on a board of directors, I plan to use my knowledge from TUAW to help, and likewise the things we learn as we build this will be reported on TUAW. It's a beautifully balanced thing, this life.]

*Note that I speak of the imaginary vomitoriums, where supposedly the Romans would purge before binging again. But as Stephen points out, this term's supposed meaning isn't based on fact. It's based on a turn of phrase surrounding the halls of the Senate, where people would "spew out," and a vomitoria is a well-designed passage to allow people to get in and out of large spaces quickly. What I love about this is that the word is gross, but the design was great. I love good design! Funny that we turned it into something else.

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