I've been thinking about what I was gonna say this morning for weeks. I wrote it down this morning. I didn't expect it to go where it went. Here we go.
My life is centered around the stories that we tell each other. It is centered around the products of our making, and the stories that those objects bring with them, as well as the stories they tell.
I have ignored sometimes a key aspect of what happens when we make. That aspect is generosity. Our making in and of itself is a radical and deeply generous human act. When we construct code, sew, or bake something new into existence, we are no longer passive observers or simple receivers of the realities around us. We declare ourselves participants. We are installing light on a path that others may choose to follow. Whenever we put something into the world that didn't exist, we're trying to solve a problem that we see.
It might simply be how to paint a portrait of a person in front of us, or it might be how to elicit a specific emotion with sound. It might be how to safely pull a shark from the water for tagging with $20 worth of local hardware. It might be how to turn oneself into an approximation of a favorite superhero, or how to bypass a local crumbling infrastructure to ensure the safe distribution of medicine to far flung and hard-to-serve communities.
Every time we make anything, we are identifying a problem, however trivial that it may seem, or local, or personal. We seek to solve that problem through and with what we make. In any look at human history, we'll center upon the things that we make and the stories we tell about them. When we make things, anything at all, we're asserting that we're part of that history, not simple receivers of it. We become players in the human race, making this communion with fellow humans.
Every time we make anything, we are identifying a problem, however trivial that it may seem, or local, or personal.
It's community. It's sharing and whether that's sharing ideas, aesthetics or engineering, it's an act of sharing with our fellow passengers on this delicate sphere. It turns out that our parents were right: It is so much better to share your toys. I'm here to defend sharing as a vital aspect of maker culture that is intrinsic to the underlying ethos of what it means to be a maker and by extension, in my opinion, a human being.
Some people don't want to share. I once attended a gallery show where the artist had done some fairly novel executions of portraits using common materials in a way that was really surprising. I asked them about their process. They told me they didn't want to share it with me. They wanted to keep the technique a secret. At one point, when I was working in a special effects studio, a friend of mine was making these large round forms, using a very specific set of techniques. He was doing it for a week and a half. It was fascinating, all the levels that he went through.
I asked him if I could take pictures of the process and he said, "Yes." But he would withhold key parts of the information from me, so that I could not learn how to do this. He considered it part of his job security. For years, the makers of Barbie Dolls shut down any and all Barbie themed art shows and art work. This is a grossly misguided form of copyright and trademark protection. It seems that they imagine somehow that they can dictate how people think about and discuss Barbie through their enforcement.
I disagree vehemently with this stance. I view it as antithetical to making as a practice, as a discipline, and being a member of any community. As a member of a community of humans, art is one of the key ways in which we converse about the world and what is going on around us. Human progress is made not simply because of how we make things, but also because we share what we make, and how we made it.
The first two examples I gave are examples of people mistaking the techniques that they know for a commodity. The third is based on the specious idea that one can control everything about a brand. I know that unique processes have a value and the inventor of those processes should benefit from that value. I believe that too. That's what our patent and copyright acts are built to address. Each of the three examples I gave are about treating something as a scarce commodity, when it is not scarce at all. Sharing defies the laws of physics. The more you give away, the more you have.
When Star Wars came out and changed my life, I was 11 years old. Reading the fan magazines at the time, I learned that people built that universe and decided that I wanted to do that too. Twenty years later, in 1998, I got hired at Industrial Light and Magic. One day I was making some radar dishes for the movie Space Cowboys. I had to make a dozen of them. This was gonna be really laborious. These are open frame, radio telescopes, like the one you pass on 280 on the way here. I came up with this new method of doing it: I laser cut out the wire frame and then under the heat lamp of a vacuformer, I slumped it into a very specific radar dish shape.
My friend Loren Peterson, who is one of the original Industrial Light and Magic makers from Star Wars and Empire, came by my desk. He said, "What are you doing? That looks really cool." And then he went and told some of my coworkers about it. For the rest of the day, everyone filed past my desk to learn this new technique. The institution that was the model shop was imbibing my new execution, and learning it, and keeping it in its pocket for future reference. I wasn't special in this regard at all. Every time a new process was brought in, or someone came up with a new way to do something, that procedure was repeated. The subtle institutionalization of the sharing and knowledge about building was one of the single best things about working at that model shop.
When we over-commodify around the things that we make, we mistakenly assert that we are solely responsible for this thing.
When we over-commodify around the things that we make, we mistakenly assert that we are solely responsible for this thing. Again, I'm not against getting paid for your good work and benefiting from your inventions. Our Congress is right at this second contemplating extending copyright to almost 140 years past the creation. This is all because Disney doesn't want Mickey Mouse to drift into the public domain. Walt Disney deserved all of the fruits of his labors. Being able to commodify a creation indefinitely is bad for culture and it's bad for the world. It's instructive to go and read the original copyright and patent acts from 1801 and 1802. They're Google-able. They're actually quite readable.
Our founding fathers state really clearly in them that a creator should totally benefit from a limited monopoly over the fruits of their labors, but that after a reasonable period, that monopoly over those efforts should expire. This is so that society can benefit from taking that idea, learning from it, tearing it apart, breaking it down and putting it back together in new and different ways. This is literally how human progress is made. The point of human progress isn't to make money forever, from every useful invention. It's to make the world a better place than we left it. It's not just to make the world better for our relatives and the people we know and the people that look like us, but for everyone.
Working together to solve our common and uncommon problems and share resources is how to do that. Share what you've got and what you've done. One of my favorite things to do when I'm building something complicated is to make more than one of them. Sometimes that's just because I'm going to screw one up. Usually at the end, I end up with at least two of the thing. That means I can trade the other one away. This is this whole new bonus. Not only do I get a new thing, but in the barter exchange, the person I've traded with and I each get a story associated with the things we've traded. Those stories become part of the lifeblood of my collection and my shop. I believe deeply in open source.
Last year I released my first product. A tool bag that addressed my issues around the idea of a tool bag. In a few weeks, I'm going to release a bunch more products and a second iteration of this bag, including a brand new design. At the same time, I'm going to release -- for literally my cost -- a set of inexpensive patterns for both bags, so that anyone who wants to make one can pay $15 and make their own.
I cannot wait to see what people do with this. I don't think of this as eating into my profit margin. I see it as investing in building and learning from a community interested in solving and benefiting from the same common problems that I have. I get to see executions of my original idea that drift untold distances from anything I could have imagined. The thing about sharing is, Paul McCartney is right at the end of Abbey Road. The love you take is equal to the love that you make.
I turned 50 last year. My sons are out of the house, making their way in the world. Now I'm one-fifth as old as America. It feels old when I put it that way. I'm not superstitious. I know that it is just a number, but it has altered the way that I see my life moving forward. I now see myself in this new phase, in which I'm no longer arriving.
I'm now in the process however long and I'm hoping for at least 40 more years. I'm in the process of leaving and preparing myself and my things for my departure. I had dinner with one of my oldest friends a few weeks ago. I told him these thoughts. Nobody knows me better than him and the three or four people that I was bouncing around New York with in the '80s. He said, "Oh buddy. It's totally true. We're all dying and we have to pass everything on."
I'm working to archive my collection, so that each and every important story about what I've collected is saved. I've brought in full-time help this year into my shop to assist in that process. I've started getting rid of the things that I don't need to hold onto anymore, giving them away. Ebay, Craigslist, family and friends. I'm looking at the things I have with a more critical eye. I seek to keep only the objects that I consciously want to be a steward of. Everything else should go to someone who can use it.
Shutting out the voices of other humans has never been a path to achieve greatness.
Mostly, I see it as incumbent on me to share what I have learned. This is the story I'm telling. Let's share what we've got and what we've learned. Let's pay respect to our teachers by being teachers, by passing on what we know and admitting what we don't, by being honest about the wrong roads we went down to get to our destination, the shameful mistakes as well as the impossible luck.
There's another super important way that we can share. We can share our ears. We can listen. We live in a time of real and dangerous social polarization. Those who seek further polarization are the enemies of a healthy culture and a healthy planet.
Shutting out the voices of other humans has never been a path to achieve greatness. It is the way we have achieved harm and death and despair. We can start to eliminate that polarization by listening. All anyone seeks from an interpersonal connection is to be seen and to be heard. We are living in a time, when it is more important than ever to listen to those whose experiences outside yours. It's also more possible, and it has never been more important to hear what their world is like, and what kind of problems they're trying to solve. Those problems might be different than yours.
By really engaging in the experience of others, and by others, I've specifically and especially mean those at the margins of society and of your experience, you'll see that at the core, we are all still similar. That's the lesson from sharing your ear, and letting others share their stories. We all love our kids and our families, and our partners and our friends. We all seek to find spots of real grace in the middle -- and around the edges -- of the noisy business of making our way in the world.
We are all here for too brief a time, and yet together we can get so much more done. Let's get started. Thank you.