It seems that every day, I hear something that tells me the world is getting smaller. The global media, the advances in technology, cheaper air travel, mobile phones, the internet – it all adds up to a new world community of interconnected people and businesses. But while this is in many ways exciting and energising, it does have its downside too.
Globalisation brings with it a homogenous approach – the points of difference are eroded and soon every city starts to look much like the next and even the people start to look the same. In fashion this has been the case as “must have” items have created fashion ubiquity. There has been a relentless march of fashion as product and people as consumers.
It was about three or four years ago now that I began to notice an increasing desire among some of my best clients for a more personalised approach. I received many more special requests for items to be customised. I saw this as evidence of a reaction against the road to homogenisation. It was at that moment that I decided to set up my own atelier in Milan in order to be able to create my own couture collection, which I called Giorgio Armani Privé. Couture is the ultimate definition of customisation, where the handcraftsmanship and skills of generations of seamstresses are applied to the creation of unique garments. It is the closest fashion gets to art.
Then just over a year ago, I established a Hand Made to Measure collection for men, bringing the same level of craftsmanship to the production of customised apparel
The desire for individuality has now manifested itself in all aspects of lifestyle and there has been a remarkable trickle- down effect with customisation being offered at all levels of the marketplace: from Nike’s design-your-own sneakers website service to the multi-personality Mini Coopers, and from Starbucks’ make-your-own CD to the New York Times’ create-your-own newspaper.
Customisation has also become integral to the home environment, where every room now offers a challenge and an opportunity for that personal touch. Consequently, I have established an interior design service as part of my Armani/Casa home furnishings division offering made-to-measure solutions.
In this special section of icon we see how technology can help millions more fulfil this desire for self-expression. In the following pages, MoMA’s Paola Antonelli and BMW’s Chris Bangle look at customisation from a specifically design perspective, while Dr Geoffrey Miller explains why we customise, and how our choices display who we are, and Dr Adrian Bowyer predicts a future of home manufacturing.
Armani showed that the top consumers want couture. What about the rest of us?
Couture means custom made. It is the antithesis of the mass-produced products of our age. To have something made to one’s unique needs and tastes is time consuming and labour intensive – a couture dress, for instance, takes ten to 12 weeks of skilled work. Therefore, couture is both exclusive and expensive – and, beyond being things that many desire and few can have, couture items are tailored and non-transferable, adding a layer of speciality that even the most rare and prestigious limited editions lack.
In launching his couture range in 2004, Giorgio Armani has again demonstrated the appeal of customisation at the very top end of the market. For Privé, he has shown the great appeal of what might be the ultimate fashion label, reading “Giorgio Armani for…” and the name of the buyer. Privé was a counter-intuitive move, as the big fashion houses were moving away from couture. And Armani, with a typically shrewd eye for brand extension, has also shown that what works for fashion also applies to jewellery and interiors. In the Privé jewellery range, customers can select their own stones. For the Armani/Casa home collection, even more radical customisation is possible. “One can choose fabrics, one can have fabric specially made, you can extend products,” says Robert Triefus, senior spokesman for Armani. “For example, if there’s a table or a sofa that one likes that one wants to have made in a different way, that can be done.”
But Armani is a luxury label, and these are luxury goods and services, prohibitively expensive for most of the population – even though Privé clothing is actually relatively modest in price for couture, starting at £15,000 and rising to £70,000. As the availability of a product or service broadens, its worth as a status-signal for the rich diminishes – precisely the effect that Armani saw and exploited in 2004. So what happens when the availability of customisation rises, and most, if not all, people can own things exclusively made for them?
The customisation age has been enabled by technology – the confluence of the internet, innovations in traditional manufacturing and supply-chain management, and the new field of rapid prototyping. Bring these changes together and, in theory, consumers will be able to tailor nearly every product they buy. Ultimately, however, the possibilities are near unlimited, because if you can’t get what you want from a manufacturer, rapid prototyping means you’ll be able to make it at home.
On the face of it, this ability to tailor everything will be desirable to everyone. As Geoffrey Miller explains on pages 88-95, we want to show off our better traits in order to succeed in sex, work and life in general, and customisation helps us to do this.
But will that really be the case? Designers think of volume production as democratic, but compared to the rapid-prototyping age, mass-produced design is hegemonic, and homebrew manufacturing is where emancipation lies. Manufacturers offer choice from the products they choose to manufacture; homebrew offers unlimited choice. But people lust after Giorgio Armani suits and Ron Arad furniture not only because the products themselves are beautiful and well made, but also because they bear the name of the designer. A home-customised version – say a Ron Arad chair with a cupholder added, an Armani shirt dyed a different colour – loses status, rather than gains it.
The irony of the mass-customisation age might be the inversion of our present value system. While the man in the street owns customised home-manufactured furniture downloaded from wikiArad, the rich will value the increasingly rare, relatively expensive and strikingly undifferentiated items bought from a disappearing workplace called a factory.
A new era of mass customisation is coming, and it will revolutionise human sexual attraction and social interaction. It will expand the range of personal traits that we can display to potential mates and friends through our product choices. It will allow each consumer to put their intelligence, creativity, personality traits and moral virtues much more conspicuously and distinctively into each product they acquire. It will transform our bodies, appliances, vehicles, houses and social-network websites into visible displays of our most invisible qualities. In 21st-century design, runaway uniqueness will replace runaway luxury. Here’s how this will work.
Under current consumerist capitalism, people buy goods and services to advertise a limited range of personal traits: mostly wealth, virtue and taste. Thorstein Veblen understood this a century ago, and called it conspicuous consumption. Throughout the 20th century, status-seeking consumers sought ever more sophisticated pseudo-useful techno-features (to advertise their wealth), semi-moral provenances (to advertise their virtue) and quasi-aesthetic designs (to advertise their taste). For example: coffee with extra guarana and ginseng (pseudo-useful energy boosters), Fairtrade imported from shade-grown organic plantations (semi-moral provenance), in a Starbucks cup with the fetchingly split-tailed Nereid logo (quasi-aesthetic in a nautical-bestial-fetish way).
The consumer can acquire the product without having to demonstrate any personal qualities beyond an ability to pay. From a strictly economic viewpoint, this is very efficient – the medium of exchange (cash, debit, or credit) suffices to yield the mutual benefits of exchange (revenues for Starbucks, caffeine for the customer). Value flows, the GDP grows.
However, products are much more than clusters of rational features that yield consumer utility. They are also, usually, signals of the consumer’s personal traits. We are social primates with complex sex lives, so we want to choose our friends and mates carefully. Therefore, we want to know about other people’s personal traits – and I mean “traits” in the full-blown biological sense of genetically-rooted stable, individual differences.
General intelligence is one key human trait. It differs markedly across individuals, but is fairly stable within each individual. It is highly heritable, highly valued in social and sexual partners, and highly predictive of success across almost every domain of life (education, employment, mental health, physical health, marital stability, social sensitivity, aesthetic creativity). When we meet people, we want to assess how bright they are, and we are surprisingly accurate at doing so from just a few minutes of conversation. Given the importance of educational credentialism, intelligence is by far the most important predictor of wealth in our cognitive meritocracy.
So, the acquisition and display of premium-brand products with avant-garde design becomes mainly a signal of general intelligence – an intelligence indicator.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but there are two big problems with thoughtfully designed but mass-produced products as indicators of personal traits. First, mass-produced products are largely redundant as intelligence indicators. We can assess people’s intelligence indirectly, through the products they display, which reveal the native intelligence that allowed them to excel in school and work. Yet, as recent social psychology research shows, we can also assess people’s intelligence directly, and more accurately, by just talking with them for a few minutes. We don’t need someone’s conspicuous consumption to tell that they are bright; we can just chat.
Second, mass-produced products are weak at displaying other personal traits that we care about. For example, recent personality psychology research shows that there are five main personality traits that differ across people, aside from intelligence. These “Big Five” personality traits can be remembered by the acronym OCEAN:
- Openness = imaginative, creative, novelty-seeking, aesthetically responsive (vs practical, conventional, closed-minded)
- Conscientiousness = persistent, reliable, goal-oriented, ambitious, perfectionist (vs impulsive, fun, zany, flaky)
- Extraversion = energetic, engaged, gregarious, action-oriented (vs passive, shy, deliberate, dreamy)
- Agreeableness = kind, considerate, friendly, generous, cooperative (vs assertive, self-interested, suspicious)
- Neuroticism = worried, anxious, depressed (vs calm, emotionally stable, resilient)
These Big Five traits are hugely important in getting along with families, friends, mates, co-workers, and oneself. Low agreeableness and high neuroticism predict miserable marriages. High extraversion and low conscientiousness predict sexual infidelity. Each of the Big Five traits is a moral virtue and a basis for assortative socialising and mating: extraverts think gregariousness is morally good and desirable in friends and mates; introverts think reticence is morally good and desirable. We want to assess these personality traits almost as much as we want to assess intelligence – but modern products are poor at conveying reliable information about one’s personality traits and moral virtues.
For example, people high in openness tend to be more interested in art, design and culture. One can display such interests by, for example, reading this issue of icon while commuting on the Victoria line. However, a low-openness faker seeking to impress a high-openness potential mate could do the same. The magazine is
rather indiscriminate and unreliable as an indicator of openness.
The new era of mass customisation will make it easier to display one’s true personality traits, by allowing consumers to take a more active role in designing their products. The key is to put the customer’s tastes and preferences – which reflect their personalities – into the product-design loop. This was very hard to do until recently, because most people are poor at articulating their preferences in ways that can be cashed out in specific product designs. The common run of consumer has trouble describing the forms, colours, textures and features they would find most appealing. (This is why verbally based market research and focus groups don’t work.) However, consumers can often recognise what they like when they see it. This opens the possibility of interactive product evolution through a software interface, in the following way.
In the early-1990s, artists Karl Sims, William Latham and Stephen Todd were already developing “genetic algorithms” – a type of computer software that mimics natural selection – that could allow design-naïve consumers to interactively evolve rather beautiful computer graphic images. In the first “generation”, the software generated a “population” of random “genotypes” – computer-graphic elements and equations that specified the brightness and hue of every pixel in a 2D image. Consumers simply looked at the resulting array of images and picked the one they liked best. That “fittest” image would then be copied by the computer, with various random mutations added to its underlying genotype, resulting in a new generation of images displayed on the computer screen. Again, consumers would pick the image they liked best, and it would be copied with some mutations. Thus we have the basic elements of Darwinian natural selection: selection (of the images by the consumer), replication (copying of the image genotypes by the computer) and mutation (random errors in the image genotypes introduced by the computer). Sims, Latham and Todd found that this sort of interactive evolution empowered consumers to evolve complex images that they liked, but that they could never have produced themselves using paint and canvas. They just needed a good eye, not a talented hand.
So far, this sort of interactive consumer-driven evolution remains a minor research theme in computer science, but it could revolutionise mass customisation, and make products much more accurate indicators of personal traits. For this to happen, designers must shift from specifying particular design prototypes, to specifying the basic design “genes” that could underlie a whole grammar of possible, manufacturable designs. The consumer would take some time at the point of sale (an interactive evolution kiosk in a retail store, or a website) to evolve their own most-favoured, unique design for a particular type of product. Then, the product would be created to the consumer’s specifications through standard methods of computer-controlled manufacturing, robotic assembly, and rapid prototyping.
At first, interactive consumer-driven design evolution would be most appropriate for fairly low-tech products that can be assembled flexibly from basic elements (for instance, textiles, clothes, furniture, holiday packages, mortgages), or cast in homogenous materials from rapid-prototyped 3D printer designs (jewellery, eyeglass frames, plastic toys, ceramics), or printed directly on surfaces (wallpaper, printed fabrics, bumper stickers). The designer’s challenge would be to ensure that any design that the consumer evolves can be manufactured and delivered, at a profit, without violating laws concerning intellectual property or consumer safety. This method would be less suitable for producing complex, dangerous, high-tech products such as automobile engines, cardiac pacemakers, or aircraft landing gear.
Bringing consumers into the design loop as agents of interactive evolution could hugely increase the diversity, originality and richness of human material culture. It would also make it much easier for consumers to design, customise and acquire products that reflect their own personalities, values and tastes. For example, suppose that book-buyers could use an interactive evolution kiosk in their local Blackwell’s to design a custom leather cover for their new Harry Potter book, which would be manufactured on-site by a computer-controlled leather-tooling machine. Aggressive teenage boys might end up with spiky black covers depicting the horrific face of Voldemort, whereas agreeable older women might end up with art nouveau pastel covers depicting the fey Luna Lovegood. In each case, the cover would more clearly reveal the reader’s personality.
This is a whimsical example, but the general point is serious. Designers need to accept that most products in developed societies are bought as signals of the consumer’s own intelligence and personality traits – not as signals of the designer’s creativity and taste. Designer narcissism needs to make way for consumer narcissism – which is where the money has always been, anyway. Designers of the future will no longer produce collections of specific product designs from which consumers select their favourite. Nor will they add a few superficially customisable features to such limited product ranges. Rather, designers will develop complex design vocabularies and grammars that consumers can explore, probably through interactive evolutionary software, to realise products that best express their personal “identities” and “styles” – that is, their intelligence, Big Five personality traits and other biological traits that matter to their social audience. This will be the deepest form of mass customisation, and the most radical manifestation of mass creativity.
In The Analytical Language of John Wilkins (El idioma analítico de John Wilkins), Jorge Luis Borges describes “a certain Chinese encyclopedia”, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which it is written that “animals can be divided into: those belonging to the Emperor; those that are embalmed; those that are tame; suckling pigs; sirens; mythical beasts; stray dogs; those included in this classification; those that lash out like madmen; those that are innumerable; those drawn with a fine camelhair brush; miscellaneous; those having just broken a vase; those that from a distance resemble flies.”
If you think that everything in the world could be categorised completely differently then it makes you incredibly curious. There’s always another way of looking at things, and studying is a time to experiment with that. Our studio at the RCA is full of stuff, as if the students are squirrels constantly gathering, and that disorder is a special environment where you can make unexpected connections between things.
For me it’s very important that you create a world that is not like the real world. The studio shouldn’t be too orderly. In Dutch, “clean” and “beautiful” are the same word, but of course there are other ways of finding beauty.
Globalised supply chains and automated production lines are not holding back customisation in car design – they’re driving it
Group design director, BMW, Munich
What do you imagine the number of customer-ordered variations in a BMW X5 is? It’s ten to the power of 17. Now, most of them you’d never see. But if you add up the number of things you can change – from the wheels and the colour to the trim and the electric options – and then multiply that by itself, the result is the number of potential variations that the factory has to deal with.
You can change an X5 up to six days before it’s delivered. The reason for that is that the electric cable comes from the southern end of Mexico. It takes three days for a truck to get it to the factory, where it has to arrive in a two-hour window when your car’s being made, as they unload the truck in the order that the cars are built. And that logistic chain has to match that number of potential variations.
We at BMW probably allow more customisation than any other car company in the world today. The difference between a high-end, customised X5 and a low-end one is about nine kilos of copper wire, and every one of those coils is hand woven in Mexico. So there are about 80 families dependent on you ordering your car the way you want it. Isn’t that special? I think that’s wonderful. You know, these are the kind of things that make cars human, and give us our place in the world to employ people, which is the idea – it’s not just about filling the world with automation.
I agree that the popular perception of cars is that they are very standardised. We’re not helping that from the design side at all. In the very early years, the bodywork of cars was made from wood. Henry Ford’s expression “any colour as long as it’s black” set the tone for conformity. There is a misperception that he did that because black paint was cheaper. That wasn’t really the case. The case was that back then, cars were hand enamelled, and took weeks to dry, and black dried fastest. So it was cheaper, but not for the reasons you would think. Again, that was the supply line dictating design.
There is a very interesting book called A Century of Automotive Style, by Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, where they discuss in detail how many millions of feet of lumber were on hand at all times in Detroit to make car bodies – and this was hard wood, we’re not talking about soft wood – and how many thousands of cars were drying at any one time, something like 20,000. In the meantime, BMW has created a culture of buying and using cars that allows you to assert your personal identity, without deferring that into risk. That’s why very few of those 1017 things that I’m talking about in the X5 have to do with changing the eight basic cars – they’re mostly tiny radio options which you never know about.
This is because, as Chris Dercon, director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, told me, “colour is the new gold”, meaning that if you choose a car in a particular colour, it’s because you can afford it; not because the colour per se is expensive, but for the risk that no one else will buy the car. And it is so with all things in life. You have to have so much self-confidence –“I don’t have to worry about what other people think about this”. The fact that the rest of the world has gone into this grey mode in design has to do with not feeling economically stable enough to make this self-expression happen. Now we in design, we make great colours for cars, and we ask, “why didn’t anyone order those?”
Robots put in the lines in the hood of that M-class. And that’s the first step towards fully individually customised design. We made the first digital tool [for this], back in the 1990s. You know those little nail boxes that show an impression of your hand – we made a tool that works on the same principle and stamps metal. The metal is a bit funky looking, like the surface of a golf ball. But you have to bear in mind that you never see 90 per cent of the sheet metal in a car. It is all inside, inside reinforcements or welding things,
so what do you care if it’s all dimply? And at the same time, that billion-euro barrier to making a car, a lot of that has to do with the investment in the tools.
The distance between idea and building, between thought and action, has given pause to architects ever since architecture was born. Until the industrial revolution, designers were somehow spared this torture because they were still craftsmen and the ideas flowed directly from their mind to their hands and tools, kept in check only by the economy of function and by technical considerations. The introduction of industrial manufacturing in the 19th century condemned them, too, to a longer and fretful gestation. Standardisation required simplification and abstraction,
and the prototype-to-series model left considerably less margin for error because of the investment of capital and labour that it required. Rapid manufacturing and 3D printing have obliterated that suspense, and computational design has allowed architects and designers to surpass their creative limits and get closer to the organic ideal, to forms and structures that are as complex as they seem effortless, and whose exquisite and turbulent beauty comes from their scientific rationality.
The computer has touched and liberated all forms of design. It started with graphics, with the first typefaces designed by Emigre in 1984 on their Mac, and soon thereafter with the explosion of desktop publishing. No more cut-and-paste, from design to product in one sweeping action. Soon, designers and architects could draw on the screen, roughly at first – some of them still count on napkin sketches scanned and perfected by assistants – and then masterfully, initiating algorithmic flights and creating new languages. 3D printing followed suit. When it was introduced, the best 3D printing could do was sculpted, brittle foam models. With better materials, more reliable techniques, and ever bigger vats of resins to catalyse, the solid CT scans of objects made to order that were the dream of sci-fi writers are becoming reality. Today, Rapid Manufacturing (RM) machines take seven days to print a chair, but in a few years they will take seven hours, and in a few more, seven minutes. It is plausible to think that, in the future, anybody will be able to access, via the internet, the matrix design of a chair, a radiator, even a car, and customise it not according to a catalogue of prefixed options, but rather more freely within set parameters dictated by functionality, safety and branding. The consequences will transform design, production, distribution and shopping in radical ways.
By transmitting data directly from a computer file to the manufacturing machine, RM allows for countless modifications of the original design. The difference between prototype and mass production will become moot, as every object will be at the same time a prototype and an element of a diversified series. Some designers will choose to retain their traditional role and delete the original file after a few prints or lock in most of the variables, but others will instead graduate to a new important position as design tutors. They will be working not on single objects, but rather on whole families of objects and on design systems. Manufacturers will host forums in which people will send their ideas for improvement and will base their redrawn business plans on their capacity to communicate with and learn from their customers. Some of them might invest in chains of RM stores where the customers’ orders are printed just in time, thus eliminating the need for trucking and warehousing – with sensible gain also for the environment. Since objects will be manufactured upon demand, there will be no waste of resources and space, but unfortunately also fewer end-of-season sales. It will empower people that have been left out of the production – and profit – cycle, as already tested by physicist Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and founder of the Fab Lab initiative (Fab Labs, popping up all over the world and already open in India, Norway, Ghana and Costa Rica, are educational offsprings of MIT. Pupils can learn practical engineering with the support of the appropriate software and hardware, including precision tooling and rapid manufacturing machines, and apply it to everyday problems).
In architecture, ever since the advent of the computer, buildings have been more and more designed as objects, or a collection of objects. In some cases, the only information that reveals them as buildings is the scale, whenever their creators deem it convenient to indicate it. By objects I do not mean toasters and lightbulbs, but more exactly any kind of autonomous entity that does not need an architectural context, not even ground to stand on. Rather than toasters, architects are drawn either to pure form or to biological metaphors that best take advantage of the algorithmic and self-generative capabilities of ad-hoc software programs. Computational design and RM have set architects’ sculptural ambitions free, with results ranging from the sublime to
the disgraceful, just as it has happened in graphics and product design – that is the price of freedom, and it is always worth it.
The thoughts and some of the words in this essay anticipate those featured in the upcoming exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind, which will open at The Museum of Modern Art in February 2008.
Rapid prototyping will do for designers what MP3 downloads did for musicians, and “real” and “fake” will cease to have meaning
Consider the wolves that you see being led down the street every day. Their appearance ranges from the whimsical to the grotesque, and their adult body size covers a span unmatched by any other species. This virtuoso and antic variety was created by one of humanity’s oldest and grandest technologies: genetic engineering. We have been customising plants and animals since before the invention of agriculture in Mesopotamia around 9500 BC.
However, because of the repetitive nature of industrial production, bought goods are less easy to customise than living organisms. Clothes come in different sizes and cars come in different colours, but, in general, variety is hard to achieve when the parameters of a well-tuned production line need to be altered to achieve it. Consequently, the customisation of bought goods is often done by craft companies. These add value by altering standard products, or produce original goods in limited quantities to elevate their price by rarity.
We customise for two reasons: to make things more useful, or to show off. If a garage takes a car and gives it hands-only controls for an amputee, then that is strictly for utility; if instead it wires blue lights under the sills, then that is strictly for showing off.
All the showing-off kinds of customisation that we consider stylish have at least one of the following characteristics: they are expensive, they are time consuming, or they are limited editions; if they didn’t, everyone could own them. My ten-quid Casio from Argos is as accurate as a Rolex, but it doesn’t let me do a lot of showing off. People don’t buy Rolexes so they can see the time, they buy them so others can see their money.
Even customisation for utility requires some effort and expense, of course. In contrast, breeding customised plants or animals is cheap and easy, and it doesn’t take a lot of the breeder’s active time (though the elapsed time from start to finish can be long). The reason for this ease is that organisms copy and assemble themselves. Unlike the Casio, they don’t need a $50m production facility to make them.
Suppose we could make industrial manufacturing copy itself just as plants and animals do?
This idea may be radical, but it is not new. Samuel Butler put self-copying machines in his novel Erewhon in the 19th century. And in the middle of the 20th century, John von Neumann did extensive theoretical studies of a device he called a “universal constructor”: a computer linked to a manufacturing robot that would be able to copy itself. His studies were theoretical because he didn’t have the technology to make a universal constructor then.
Now we do, and I am developing such a machine. It is called RepRap (which is short for Replicating Rapid Prototyper). If you want technical details, see the RepRap website at https://reprap.org. Suffice to say here that the machine will be sufficiently versatile to make almost all of its own components. (The few that it can’t make for itself are cheaply available all over the world.) It will also be able to make virtually anything else that is about the same complexity as itself or simpler.
I am giving the RepRap machine away free as open-source technology. There are two reasons for this. The first is that a good way to make bad things happen with any powerful technology is for it to be exclusively controlled by a few people (even if they include me…), and the only real alternative to control by a few is democratic access by everyone. The second is that, if one patents a machine that copies itself, one is deciding to spend the rest of one’s life in court trying to stop people doing with the machine the one thing that it was designed to do. Lastly, one can’t sell it either: with a self-copying machine, the total sales figures would be one.
The target cost for the materials to have the RepRap machine copy itself is about £300. This would put it well within the reach of any private individual in the developed world. And if your friends have a RepRap machine, you can ask them to copy one for you…
The intention of RepRap is to breed the means of industrial production in just the same way as we breed organisms. Anyone can change the machine’s design, which means that not only will private individuals be able to customise and make for themselves any product that the machine can create, they can also customise the machine itself to widen its range of products.
What is more, no conventional industry – no matter how vast its economies of scale – can beat its production rate. All current industrial processes make goods in an arithmetic progression. But a self-copying machine makes itself and the goods it produces in a geometric progression. And any geometric progression (no matter how slow initially) overtakes every arithmetic progression (no matter how fast) eventually.
So we have the prospect of a world in which conventional industry is much reduced and in which everyone customises and makes the goods they want for themselves, just as today we each run our own printing works, our own photographic laboratory and our own CD-pressing plant.
And those CDs are a harbinger of something else: the MP3 file format means that there is, de facto, no copyright in recorded music any more. The resulting death of creativity predicted by the music industry has been conspicuous by its failure to happen. Instead, the same technology that killed music copyright has led to a worldwide flowering of composition unseen since early-19th-century Vienna because now musicians connect directly with their audience without the intervening impediments of marketing decisions, production costs, or geographical distance. If individuals have the ability to make most goods for themselves then the ideas of patents, registered designs and trademarks will go the same way as music copyright. There will be no distinction between the fake and the real Versace sunglasses and Prada handbags, because everyone will be making them for themselves. The only way for Versace and Prada to make money at all will be for them to put their designs on the net – iDesigns aping iTunes. And the actual sunglasses and handbags will all cost only pence.
As a consequence, the balance between the two types of customisation will change: the showing-off kind will atrophy because anyone will be able to do it; it will become the realm of hobbyists, of gardeners trying to breed a black rose. But the utility-improving kind will become ubiquitous, because – if you are both the producer and the consumer – there will be no point in your making anything that is not perfectly aligned to your personal requirements.
However, people will not so easily abandon showing off. After all, it is built in, it is our peacock’s tail – one of our mating strategies. And no animal gets to populate the planet from the equator to the poles without having a robust set of mating strategies.
To show off, you either need a talent that is rare, or the money to buy the products of such a talent. An artist starving in a garret is a cliche, and – like all cliches – it is founded in a truth. The associated cliche, also true, is that artists starving in garrets still do quite well romantically, unlike ordinary people starving in garrets. People rich enough to buy the canvases also do quite well.
If we are all both producers and consumers, then you can’t show off with an object that anyone can produce, just as you don’t get a reputation for being a great painter or a talented pianist because you own a print of the Arnolfini Wedding or a recording of the Hammerklavier Sonata.
As now, you will still be able to show off if you can buy original works of art. But the new way to show off will be to create an object that every consumer wants to produce. If it was you who put the must-have house-decorating robot free online that all the world is downloading, then you will be as successful a show-off as Charles Saatchi or Timbaland are today.