XOXO: crafty makers from the future

September 17, 2012 | 3 comments

XOXO Festival 2012

I know these things:

The mass market will be obsolete.

New kinds of enabling technology – including, but not limited to, the Internet – are changing the way people make things, the way they sell them, and the entire mechanics of how marketplaces work.

We’ve been able to create software very easily since the beginning. In fact, the very reason you’re reading this now is that I decided, as a kid, that programming languages were my fastest route to building the things I had in my head and sharing them with other people.

But here’s the thing. Atoms are the new bits. The MakerBot Replicator, a full-blown 3D printer, retails for upwards of $1,749. That might sound like a lot, but it isn’t. Each one is a mini factory: you feed in a digital 3D model, and the printer makes the real thing. Suddenly, objects are as easy to create as apps.

Need a marketplace to sell the things you create? Etsy is an amazing portal to consumers all over the world. (And the single best place to buy this year’s Christmas presents.) Need a little more startup capital? Kickstarter lets you raise money without losing control, as well as test the water to gauge interest in your idea.

And of course, the Internet allows you to reach a huge audience of billions of people. The makers of Indie Game: The Movie – a must-see, very emotional film about makers – didn’t need to get their film distributed by a traditional media company. You can buy and watch it from their website (as well as iTunes and Steam), and they organized their own theater tour.

For many of us, the mass market is already obsolete. We’re not all the same demographic, and there’s no need for us to be homogenized so we can be sold to more efficiently. There’s no need to succumb to the MTV American Idol Fast and the Furious lowest common denominator morass (unless we want to). All a creator needs to live is 1000 true fans who will reliably pay for their work. And all a consumer needs to find art and products catering for their niche is to look for it.

Portland is amazing.

Exactly my kind of town: progressive, smart, optimistic, skeptical and with more breweries than any other city on Earth. It’s got the world’s largest independent bookstore, which is like a city dedicated to the written word, filled with miles of shelving meticulously curated and individually arranged in a way that corporate chains like Barnes and Noble can’t match. (It reminded me a little of my hometown’s Blackwell’s, which, while much smaller, is still home to the largest room of books for sale in the world.) Organic, locally produced food is everywhere. And the people are fun and friendly. Art is everywhere. The only sour mark is the weather, which people consistently tell me is poor. (My reply: I lived in Scotland. Cry me a river.)

XOXO is the best tech-related event I have ever been to.

Andy Baio and Andy McMillan are superheroes. When I saw the announcement for the Kickstarter project that started it off, I knew it would be an event worth attending, and bought my ticket immediately. (Later, I acquired one for Celia, too.) I wasn’t, however, prepared for how good it was.

I think we’re going to be talking about this for years.

Rather than book out the Oregon Convention Center, the Andys rented YU Contemporary, an arts space in one of the coolest parts of the city. (It was between exhibitions, but there was actually an Ian Hamilton Finlay collection in a closed room, which Celia convinced the space staff to sneak her into.) They convinced individual, independent food carts like Cheese and Crack and PDX671 to set up shop outside. They filled the downstairs with local artists and makers, including printmakers, photographers and a group who were collaboratively building boats. And then they booked some of the most inspiring, individually creative speakers they could find, pinned around a central theme of empowering creators with technology.

The talks were incredibly inspiring, in a very unintimidating “get excited and make stuff” sort of way. Among others, Etsy’s Chad Dickerson, 20×200′s Jen Bekman, Diesel Sweeties’s R Stevens, the writer/filmmaker Dan Harmon and the musician Julia Nunes all held forth on making it on your own. If you’re interested, Anil Dash did incredible work liveblogging them all, and you can pre-order videos from the main site. But the attendees (here’s an unofficial directory courtesy of Tantek Çelik) were every bit as motivating, educational and interesting. I’m excited by the people I already knew; I’m excited by the people I met for the first time and might never see again. The conversations stretched past midnight every night. Everyone was an equal participant, and the meaning of XOXO – literally, hugs and kisses – was evident from the opening party through to the closing moments, as the conversation spilled over into an entire street in the middle of the night.

More than anything else, this was an uncynical, hopeful event that celebrated humanity and individual creativity. This is the promise of technology. Let’s make things and connect.

Photo: XOXO Festival 2012 by Erin Jo Richey, released under a Creative Commons license.