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snap Hands On — Ponoko

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, 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 spin good?

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 new strut.

JEFF:     You can get all the pieces separately?

JANE:     Oh sure. Zillions. Many as I want.

JEFF:     And they’re cheap?

JANE:     (Scoffing) What’s cheaper than plywood? And I got a laser cutter right next to my laser printer.

JEFF:     (Gazing at ceiling) That’s a new lamp up there, isn’t it?

JANE:     (Preening) You like it?

JEFF:     It’s a giant fanfold thing made out of your face.

JANE:     Yeah, that’s called “profile cutting.” The barriers to entry are so low! I just downloaded the starter kit, put my face against my scanner sideways, then kinda rotated myself. So now the lamplight shines out of my eyes, but in a tasteful rose-colored shade of Perspex.

JEFF:     You sell any of those?

JANE:     My mom bought one.

JEFF:     My mom’s my best customer, too. How is Aunt Susan? I haven’t seen your mom around much lately.

JANE:     That’s because Mom’s gotten so deep into the post-consumer alteration of all her IKEA goods. It’s not just about the community sharing of furniture plans — she is much more into the remixing, the mashup scene, you know, surface glossing, alternate parts. I keep telling her, “Mom, that’s close to piracy!

You need to really master the tolerances and the material behaviors!” But, you know, my mom’s old-fashioned.

JEFF:     She’s still way into Second Life, huh?

JANE:     They call it “Second Retirement.”

Ponoko is super-friendly to makers, and one naturally wishes them well. But my greater concern is Ponoko’s cousin: that visibly heaving groundswell of entities that are all trying to make real-world, nonvirtual objects. It’s like there’s a kind of gnawing hunger upon the land because all the heavy industry has fled to China.
So we’re seeing a whole panoply of innovative efforts, arising in a haze of neologisms. They might once have been websites or think tanks, but now they are “think-and-do labs,” “patching zones,” “creative industries,” a “laboratelier” (I really love that one, though it’s almost impossible to pronounce), “unconferences”, “skunkwork foo-camps,” “practice-based research,” “transdisciplinary collaboratories,” “commons-based peer production,” and (as Ponoko might slot it all together) a “place-tool-market platform.” None of those seem to me to hit the mark yet. But boy, they sure are suggestive.

They are a set of shaded Venn diagrams: overlapping conceptual circles. And at the core of that overlap, there is a lot of white light. In 2008, it’s still a hobbyist thing, a fringe activity, a prototype and/or experiment. That’s where it’s gestating now and sucking up its energies. When it emerges from those verbal mists, it’s going to be strong, fast, world-scale, and deadly serious.

Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and part-time design professor.


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