Perpetual Churn at Kickstarter

Perpetual Churn at Kickstarter
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The classic Escher “Waterfall” faked using camera trickery

Almost exactly two years ago now Kickstarter changed its rules around hardware projects, making it much harder for them to gain approval. Among the changes was a ban on simulations or renderings—creators could show only actual prototypes—and a ban on “bulk selling.”

At the time these changes caused a bit of a kerfuffle. However, despite the changes being generally viewed a big deal, especially for makers, and generating a long list of big name projects—not least of which was the Pebble smart watch—which would never have been approved, they were cautiously greeted with approval by most.

However two years later, in June this year, the world was a different place and Kickstarter reversed their decision and undertook a huge simplification of their rules, with their “Launch Now” initiative. Suddenly Kickstarter was a much friendlier place for makers, and great place for project creators with the right intentions.

Whether these new rule changes happened because the team at Kickstarter thought it was too hard for makers and other project creators to seek the support of their peers, or whether—as some have argued—they were due to the increased competition Kickstarter is now facing in an increasingly crowded crowdfunding marketplace, actually makes very little difference.

Because not everyone has the right intentions. Projects that used to have to pass basic checks are now going live on Kickstarter without them. In the last two weeks we’ve had two different perpetual motion, or free energy, machines appear on the crowdfunding site.

The first is a classic “free energy” dodge with all the hallmarks of Tesla-referencing crazyness that working scientists used to get in their pigeon holes every few months—and now get in their email inbox once or twice a week—just like spam email, the immediate give away that you’ve just received some crazyness is the over use of capitol letters, bold font, and often the highly lurid colours used by the authors.

In the old days the better letters, often handwritten and hand illustrated on thick expensive paper—as if the weight of the paper makes it less crazy—got passed around at departmental coffee times. I had one colleague that used to keep a list of the senders of these tomes, and then put the most persistent in touch with one another to argue amongst themselves. These days it all just goes in the spam folder along with the “Make Money Fast!” and the Nigerian 419 scams.

The second is, again, classic crazyness. Like most purveyors of perpetual motion machines, the project creator is careful to not call it a perpetual motion machine—instead this one is a “self-sustaining electrical turbine generator“—however it doesn’t make it any less a perpetual motion machine.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not Kickstarters job to test the limits of a design. There are all sorts of un-possible things, or at least un-likely things, that attempt to raise money through crowdfunding—I think we all have a responsibility to look out for those projects and alert Kickstarter that perhaps something isn’t quite right.

We asked David Gallagher from Kickstarter about the projects, how or why they got approved, and how Kickstarter deals with things that push the boundaries of feasibility,

As you note, given the wide array of projects on Kickstarter, many of them involving new technologies, it would be difficult to evaluate the technical merits of each one. Kickstarter is a platform, and we aim to be as open as we can while making sure projects adhere to a few simple rules. It’s up to backers to decide whether a project has merit and whether it should come to life.

It’s important to note a unique aspect of the Kickstarter system: backers are not charged until the project’s funding period expires, and then only if the project has reached its funding goal. So the funding period can really be a kind of vetting period.

Our creators have an amazing track record, but there is always risk involved in backing a project, and we encourage backers to do some research before pledging. This is explained on our Trust & Safety page.

To me these two projects—while at the far end of the cazyness scale—are outliers in an increasingly dense and hard to navigate jungle of crowdfunding projects where, even with the best of intentions, 84% of projects ship late.

In fact that you have to ask yourself where crowdfunding sits on the hype cycle? While I don’t think we’ve got to the Peak of Inflated Expectations quite yet, I think it’s close, and projects like these will only contribute to the Trough of Disillusionment.

As makers, it’s hard to imagine a world without Kickstarter, as it has totally changed the way raising capital works. However the site launched just five years ago—back in 2009—and with perpetual motion machines it’s showing its lack of maturity as a platform. Increasingly curation of projects on Kickstarter, and the other crowdfunding platforms, is going to become important and you have to wonder how that’s going to affect the egalitarian nature of the beast?

After all, there are some things that can be changed, and some things that can’t, and, in the immortal words of Montgomery Scott, “Ye canna change the laws of physics…

Update: After reading this article (we had only asked them to comment on the perpetual motion machines), Kickstarter gave us some more food for thought. This should serve to clarify how these machines are passing without functional prototypes.

Projects to make hardware that will be distributed to backers must still comply with quite specific rules: they must show a prototype, and they can’t use photorealistic renderings. The projects you’ve pointed out are not seeking to distribute working devices to backers, so they are in compliance with our rules, both old and new. Our mission is to help bring creative projects to life, so it’s important to us that we keep our platform open, easy to use, and yes, egalitarian. It’s a system that has worked remarkably well over the last five years and produced so many amazing things.

Of course for every one of these crazy instances we do also see a veritable smorgasboard of cool projects that appear to be completely legitimate and quite interesting.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan


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