‘Toilet Territory’: A Q&A With Chris Anderson, CEO Of 3D Robotics And Former Editor Of Wired

We talk with the entrepreneur and technology journalist about the future of business and manufacturing in the 21st century

  @YannickLeJacq on February 02 2013 10:49 AM

Chris Anderson spent more than two decades rising swiftly through the ranks of the media industry before announcing late last year that he was quitting his “day job” as the editor-in-chief of Wired to focus on his DIY-drone company, 3D Robotics. Given the fact Anderson's also written a book about the “Maker Movement,” published just a month before his exit from Wired, it’s tempting to see his departure as a technology critic finally putting his money where his mouth is. But Anderson insists that, really, he just saw an incredible opportunity to “start on the ground floor of something that could be a huge industry.”

While the past few decades have given rise to a digital revolution, Anderson sees the maker movement as the first opportunity to apply these technological innovations towards what he calls “the new industrial revolution.”

"Wondrous as the Web is," Anderson writes in his book, "it doesn’t compare to the real world. Not in economic size (online commerce is less than 10 percent of all sales) and not in its place in our lives."

Given how the Economist (one of Anderson's previous employers) had recently published a long editorial wondering if the pace of human innovation was slowing, it seemed particularly appropriate to hear Anderson's thoughts on the future of technology in the 21st century. After seeing Anderson speak last month at the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, in Las Vegas, Nev., I caught up with him over the phone to talk about his work in Makers, the promise of DIY manufacturing and how we might create another game changer as profound as the toilet.

You had a long career covering business and technology for the Economist and Wired. How does it feel switching from being the person writing about this stuff to now being the person getting covered by all sorts of publications?

You know, it’s actually not exactly the way it may look. My background is as a computational physicist; I don’t have a journalism background. And I haven’t actually been doing journalism -- I was an editor for the last 12 years, so I was a manager. It’s true I wrote books, but that was the exception by and large. This is also my fourth company. I’ve been running companies of one kind or another since 1999. So it’s a pretty familiar role for me. This is just the only one that I’ve made my full-time job, as opposed to my part-time job.

So if you look at the arc of my career, I started doing geeky tech stuff -- software and computational physics -- and then took like 20 years to get back to that [laughs]. Today, I run a company of about 50 people. Wired, at least the magazine side, was about the same size. Also, we’re here in Silicon Valley. Everyone kind of lives in the world they write about; so it’s very conventional to move back and forth between media and entrepreneurship, Michael Arrington being the classic example.

It’s an interesting overlap, because one of the points that you make in "Makers" is that there’s this whole network of ideas being produced, developed and iterated upon constantly, which can now exist in a much more tangible form than they could before in human history.

And also the process of taking your ideas and passions and turning it into a business is so much more straightforward in physical goods than it is in virtual ones. The business model is pretty self-evident.

You wrote about how "atoms are the new bits" in 2010 and now seem to live by this mantra in "Makers." When did you start seriously considering leaving Wired and devoting yourself to your business full time?

Oh, that was probably early last year. Basically, my descent down the rabbit hole began with projects with my children -- Lego Mindstorms, which I write about in the book. Then it turned into a site, and then it turned into a company. I was doing my day job, and Jordi Munoz, my co-founder, was actually building the company. I actually wasn’t paying that much attention to the day-to-day of it. He was in San Diego, and I was in San Francisco. Every now and then, I’d go down and say hi.

I think it was the day that I realized we had a forklift [laughs]. Remember that we started this on our kitchen table about three years ago. So that was the day that I realized something kind of amazing had happened. I was first amazed when he went from a toaster oven to reflow ovens, stencil printers, et cetera. Then he got industrial space, and then he got bigger industrial space, then bigger industrial space. We had all these processes and procedures, inventory management, ERP systems. It was like, “Wow!” I walked in and just thought, “Holy shit, this is a real company, a real factory.” At that point, we were in the millions of dollars of revenue. We had 30 employees or so, and they were all wearing company T-shirts. They were badging in. It was just like, “This is real.” I’d been seen by venture capitalists, but this is when I finally said, “We actually have a proposition here that’s fundable.” I guess that was in early 2012. So I spent the year talking to people to find the right partners to take it forward.

I remember seeing a great comment on Twitter from Russ Pitts, who’s an editor at Polygon now, about being at one of the large industry conventions with a bunch of other video game journalists. He asked how many of them would rather be making video games than writing about them, and he said "basically everybody put up their hand." Did you have a similar urge when you were working at Wired?

I wouldn’t read too much into it [laughs]. More than 50 percent of Wired’s profits are digital -- website and tablet. I am proud of how we migrated past purely print. This was much more jumping toward something that I was very keen on than jumping away from something. I mean, Wired had its best year in history last year by all measures. The company is doing really well, the digital strategy is working really well, circulation was at an all-time high. The tablet is really a brave new world for media, and we were one of the pioneers there. So it was actually quite an exciting time to be in the media business, or at least that part of the business, because we really had an opportunity to invent a new medium on tablets.

It was really one of those follow-your-heart moments. These opportunities don’t come along very often, where you have the ability to start on the ground floor of something that could be a huge industry. Through complete luck -- just having discovered sensors at the right time, met Jordi -- I found myself in one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. It’s already big enough to jump to, and it could be huge. And this isn’t gonna come along again!

So the fact that it was making tangible stuff versus media was not a big driver for me. I mean, at the end of the day, when you’re a manager, it’s all sort of virtual anyway. You don’t do anything; you just manage people. Magazines ship a physical product, and companies ship a physical product. You have similar QA processes and production processes. When I say similar, obviously they’re completely different in the nature of the product. But they’re both shipping cultures! What we call R&D, other people call writing and reporting [laughs]. What we call QA other people call copyediting. So it’s much more similar than one might think, the only difference being that I didn’t run the printing plant at Wired and I do run the factories at 3D Robotics.

I was speaking to P.W. Singer recently for a story about 3-D printed guns, and he said, "There are always two sides to these emerging technologies: There’s the tinkerer at home -- the gadget-friendly geek who’s pushing the boundaries of what they can make and supporting it all on their own. But there’s also these massive military defense contractors who are using very similar, if not the same, kind of research and development process in their work." How do you see these larger industrial forces using the technology as it continues to emerge, outside of the DIY movement?

I think there’s probably a meta-question there that I’m missing, but I’ll answer the straightforward one. 3-D printing technolgies has been used by industries by 20, 30 years. Sure, Boeing today 3-D prints turbine blades, as does everybody else. It’s kind of a standard tool in the industrial toolkit. The only thing that has changed is that the words “desktop” and “personal” have been introduced. If we use a historical analysis, it’s exactly like the mainframe in a personal computer. Mainframes have been around for a long time. The personal computer wasn’t the first computer, it wasn’t the best computer, it was just the first personal computer. The fact that you could take an inferior technology and change the world by putting it in the hands of regular people is the sort of social lesson of the PC, the Internet and everything else that came after.

Today, the 3-D printer I have on my desktop, or the ones that I have kind of all over the place now, are not good! They’re not as good as the ones we have in the office, not as good as the ones Boeing has, not as good as the ones you can access through ShapeSpace. But they’re mine. These are on my desktop. I’m empowered to use them in ways that I’m not going to be able to use the titanium printer at Boeing. The only real change there is that you’re expanding the user base from professionals using them in a limited range to amateurs using them for anything. Using history as a guide, those amateurs will reveal the true potential of that technology. It will be in their random and shambolic experiments that we will discover what this technology is really for.

You cite Marx throughout your book to say that DIY manufacturing is finally going to return ownership over the means of production to individuals themselves. But a prominent critique of Marxism argues that power will always ultimately re-inscribe itself. As an emerging technology continues to, well, emerge, I wonder how entrenched businesses or industries are going to notice them and use them to their advantage. So how “disruptive” could it truly be?

I get that question a lot from Europe [laughs]. I would just say that we have 40 years of experience here. We have the PC in '80s; we have the Internet in the '90s. Did that create big businesses? Absolutely. Do those businesses control the technology in any meaningful way? No! Yes, there’s Google, but Google doesn’t control the Internet; it just dominates search. Yes, there’s Facebook; yes, there’s Microsoft; yes, there’s Apple. The difference between the 1800s, when Marx was writing, and today is that the barriers to entry are so low and the marketplace is so varied that monopolists tend to have very narrow domains. So if you think the PC survived the scenario you described, and you think the Internet survived the scenario you described, I think we have good reason to believe that digital manufacturing will survive that scenario too. 

With regulation, there’s something to be said for the entire industrial manufacturing process when it comes to protecting against failure rates, universalizing certain product standards, things like that. But as far as I can tell, it seems like governments and industries still have very little idea how to regulate what you call the “world of bits.” So how do you go about regulating this new field as bits carry back into atoms?

So is your implication that we should have regulation? Because the Internet has done pretty well without it. I mean, would you like the Internet to be more like it is in China? There’s a way to do that, but I think we’d lose something in the process. I think, again, that we have history on our side here. The world of telecoms was very very tightly regulated back in the '80s. You go to countries like China where it is still tightly regulated, and what you’ll find is that it’s probably not a world you want to live in. The great thing about the Internet is that it kind of broke through all the regulatory barriers, the monopolies, the AT&Ts and such and created a better experience for everybody by operating in a more marketplace-based scenario. And that means that sometimes Twitter goes down, you know? The electric company is highly regulated and almost never goes down, but it’s a monopoly. Twitter is not regulated and sometimes goes down. But then, hey, you have others!

When I first asked you about the problem of 3-D printed guns at CES, you said that you saw it "primarily as a social issue." But I wonder where the risks fall for something like 3-D printing. Especially because, as you said, regulation in this new type of economy is going to become increasingly difficult. How do you start the very tenuous process of bringing the government back to this emerging technology, which lawmakers may not understand very well or even most people may not understand very well?

We have centuries of practice with this. The founding fathers did not envision the Internet. And typically what we do -- when I say we I mean the United States, though other countries are similar -- tends to regulate the use and not the technology. We have laws about stealing, we have laws about breaking and entering, we have laws about hurting people, we have laws about privacy. And largely, we don’t try to lock down your PC or lock down your Internet connection. What we do is say: “This is a general purpose tool. If you use it to violate the laws of the land, we will prosecute you for that use.” We’re not gonna criminalize the ownership of the Internet; we’re gonna criminalize the abuse of that ownership to break the law. So we have laws! If you build a bomb in this country, we’re gonna get you for building a bomb. We don’t actually care how you built the bomb -- the point is that you did it. So I think, in general, results-oriented legislation is the best way to adapt or keep up with fast-moving technology.

The Economist had a recent article asking if we could ever invent something as useful as the toilet again. In your work, you also speak about the human costs of the industrial revolution that were very quickly outweighed by the incredible benefits to human development that were made possible.

Yeah, I don’t think we’re gonna double the human lifespan in the next 10 years. Though I’m sitting here in Berkeley surrounded by synthetic biology companies, maybe I’m wrong! But I think that was a once-in-history kind of moment [laughs].

At CES, I kept thinking of that question of when something even remotely as useful as the toilet would be invented again. Talking to you and Singer, I get the sense that it’s hard to say what, exactly, is going to come out of any emerging technology like 3-D printing. But can you even try to say what something like, say, the next toilet might be?

If you asked Steve Jobs or Wozniak why the personal computer was so important, they wouldn’t point to any particular application. They would simply say that it empowers individuals, and we believe that empowered people change the world. And they were right. If you asked Tim Berners-Lee in 1993, he would say the exact same thing. I don’t really have a better answer for you than that, only that we have 40 years of history showing that when you put powerful tools in the hands of regular people, the pace of innovation accelerates. They tend to invent things that become the next billion-dollar industries.

Now whether you consider Facebook the equivalent of the toilet is a somewhat subtle question [laughs]. But I would argue that Google is, on some level, as important as the toilet in terms of our societal advancement. God, I can’t believe I’m saying this -- you’ve forced me into this construct! Google has basically made us all smarter. And the toilet, you’ll recall, was a modest improvement over the outhouse. It simply allowed us to be warm when we poo [laughs]. The Economist, as you might imagine, is my intellectual touchstone. Any clever thoughts I’ve ever had come from there, so I hugely respect their construct and think it’s the right one to ask. But I do believe that innovation is not over, that game changers lie ahead of us. Largely, those innovations are going to come from left field. And I think that people like Peter Thiel, Larry Page and others like them are right that we need to be thinking big.

People like Elon Musk who are simultaneously attacking the climate and transportation with electric cars, energy with solar power and space -- that’s the kind of innovative thinking we like to see. And remember he came out of the Internet. I’m hoping that the maker movement has the potential to scale to more substantive products than apps and websites, ones that are more likely to generate those kind of society-changing innovations than pure digital ones.

Because it’s not all coming from the screen anymore.

Exactly. The maker movement is more likely to generate Elon Musks than the Internet. I mean, the Internet was wonderful, the Internet was plenty! And now when you can extend that same model of grassroots innovation to physical stuff, then you’re talking about toilet territory! 

Join the Discussion