A LONG-TAIL, PRO-AM, DIGITAL MAKER THING.
By Bruce Sterling
PONOKO, WHICH IS PRONOUNCED
po-NO-ko with a New Zealand accent, is a
Web 2.0 startup that makes physical objects.
Ponoko’s plans are deep and limpid and philosophical, but they break so many 20th-century
paradigms that they’re hard to parse. For instance,
so far, Ponoko makes mostly plastic jewelry and
furniture. But Ponoko’s not an industrial factory
or an artist’s atelier.
It’s a “platform,” which means that Ponoko’s a
“place” (the ponoko.com website), a “tool” (a bunch
of laser cutters), a “marketplace” (to buy and sell
objects, or to buy and sell files for the objects), and
an “online community” (to get all chummy with
customers and/or attempt to befriend designers).
It’s also an informal trade school, because it attempts
to recruit people who are just floating by and turn
them into helpful Ponoko producers. Yeah, kind of
a long-tail, pro-am, digital maker thing!
But wait, there’s so much more! It’s also a promotional service, and it’s a blog. Ponoko is also a
mashup, because you can’t create with Ponoko
unless you already use design software.
Still, I don’t want to describe Ponoko in this tech-centric geek way. Let me approach this subject
from the point of view of the material differences
potentially made in the real world. So let’s imagine
a hands-on encounter with Ponoko products, in a
future scenario where web-based “personal manufacturing platforms” are as big a deal as, say,
Facebook, Wikipedia, or Amazon are today.
Scene: A hipster’s living room somewhere in
Iowa, during the late 20-teens. There’s a Goodwill
couch, some hand-crocheted clothes, a third-hand
plywood Eames chair held together with shoe glue,
and a wi-fi repeater sitting on a checkerboard table.
JANE WEBGEEK is idly playing with a shiny toy
when her country cousin, JEFF NEWBIE, comes in,
20 Make: Volume 13
banging the screen door behind him.
JEFF: What’s that thing?
JANE: (Mesmerized) It’s a spinning top.
JEFF: (Sitting on the busted couch) Does it
JANE: It’s OK. Yeah. Try it yourself.
JEFF: (Bug-eyed) Hey, wait a minute. When it spins,
this little top has got your face engraved on it.
JANE: Yeah, I was gonna give it to my niece, but
see this? (She deftly pops the plastic top
into separate gleaming tab-and-slot components). You think little Vicky might swallow
this pointy part? She’s 3, you know.
JEFF: Is it from China?
JANE: It’s from New Zealand.
JEFF: Well, then at least it’s not poisonous. (With
some small effort, he reassembles the toy.)
It doesn’t spin as good now.
JANE: You gotta push hard till that little bump
clicks and locks right in there. Yeah, that’s it.
You gotta really work those slot affordances.
JEFF: Yeah, it’s real pretty, but it’s, uh, pretty slotty.
JANE: Well, when you’ve got pieces lasered from
laminar sheets, they’re plenty stout on the
x and y axes, but the z — where you kinda
stress it orthogonally to the grain of the
material — you gotta watch that.
JEFF: (Putting his feet up) Say again?
JANE: It’s like my coffee table here. See how it’s
waxed sustainable plywood all mitered along
the edges? My boyfriend fell over this while
we were drunk last night, and it kinda tooth-chipped right here on the vertex. Knocked
that strut clean loose.
JEFF: Your table’s from New Zealand, too?
JANE: The plans for my table are stored in New
Zealand, but they cut this one with a water-saw down at the local Kinko’s. I gotta get a