This is a good book on an interesting topic. I run cabinet shop in Toronto and have been prattling to my wife about the remaking of the industrial revolution for a few years now. Anderson sums up many of these themes with lots of interesting stories in an easily readable style.
I think there are a few things worth adding. First while digital fabrication technology is amazing it is only as useful as the people using it. A cnc router won't make you a good cabinet maker any more that a word processor will make you a good writer or a digital synthesizer will make you a good musician. A synthesizer enables a good musician to become a whole orchestra almost instantly. But a bad musician still sounds like a bad musician and a bad writer is just as annoying as ever to read. What these technologies do is allow the talented craftsman, musician, writer to be more productive than ever, and also lower the barriers to entry for the people with talent who are not part of the established social hierarchy.
In my own shop I don't have my own cnc equipment. When I take on a project like a kitchen, I simply email lists of parts (doors, drawers, carvings) to fabricators not far from my shop and in some cases the parts come back to me the next morning. My suppliers don't stock inventory, they fabricate the parts digitally and so they can produce whatever I want in whatever sizes I want. This is the easy part of my job. The hard part getting the clients to decide on what they want, and figuring out how to fit everything they want into the space they have on their budget. To use a car analogy most clients want something like a "Hummer/Lamborghini/Porsche/Lexus/Rolls" for the price of a Focus. They often send me 3d cad drawings of their dream kitchen. It is nearly always like those famous drawings by Escher. At first glance they seem very geometrically precise, but they can't exist in 3 dimensional reality. Squaring this circle is always a challenge, and demands a combining the skills of an expert cabinet maker with those of a psychotherapist. The second hard part of my job is fitting cabinets which are always made to be regular shapes into old real houses which are never square or level. Accomplishing this task demands the skills of an expert finish carpenter, tricks that I learned from my grandfather.
In short to be a cabinet maker in the digital age you still need all the skills of a traditional cabinet maker. However what digital technology and advances in new technology in general mean is that small shops can now compete with large factories in a way they couldn't 30 years ago. I can now offer my clients anything that large factory kitchen manufacturers could in the past. For example, 30 years ago complex cabinet door styles could only be made custom at great expense using traditional cabinet shop tools or economically in large batches at big factories. Now I can order 1 door if I need it economically. And, I can beat mass production companies hands down in terms of service and speed.
In many cases I can also compete with mass producers on cost. This is because I have lower transaction costs. One of the things that frightens small scale producers is the fact that labour costs of small scale production can't compete with mass production particularly if the goods can be produced in places like China. People say "They make that thing in China for $5, how can I compete". However, if the small scale producer sells locally they don't have to compete with the $5 labour cost in China; they only have to compete with the $50 or $100 retail cost in their local market. The goods that are produced in China have a long list of transaction costs associated with them: transportation, wholesaling, retailing, packaging, inventory, obsolescence, corporate expenses and profit, mass market advertising and promotion. All these costs mean that the widget that is produced for $ 5 needs to sell for $ 50 or $ 100 to make a profit. This leaves lots of room for local artisans to make a living, as long as they keep their transaction costs down.
Anderson points out the digital crowd is rediscovering actual reality. I think he does not go far enough in this. People like actual reality. One of the things little noted in the frenzy of the digital revolution is the success of the Home Depot retail model. 30 years ago building materials was a virtual business. Materials were stored in warehouses to which customers both commercial and retail had no access. Most businesses would simply phone the supplier, say what they wanted and give an account number or use a visa and it would be delivered, much like ordering things online but over the phone. Even if you went to a lumber yard, you would usually go to a desk and order things and they would be brought out to you. Home Depot changed all this by putting everything on open shelves so people could go in a play with it. The builders supply became playground for handy people. At the height of the virtual revolution, Home Depot took over the market for home building supplies by `going actual'.
I find this in my own business. While the web is a good way to get my name out, showing people real physical samples is the best way to close a sale. After a visit I always make sure I leave a potential customer with a few samples to play with. This way my brand sits on the kitchen table while they are trying to come to a decision.
All this points to the possibility of a business model that Anderson hints at, but does not really explore; the return of the traditional neighborhood artisan. A few hundred years ago if you wanted a pair of shoes, or a coat or a piece of furniture you went to a shoemaker, or a tailor or a cabinet maker and told them what you wanted and they made it for you. There was personal contact between the producer and the consumer, you could touch and feel the materials and say what you liked. People could take pride in their work and see the smiles on the faces of happy customers.
This was a world wiped out by mass production. Huge production runs meant the artisan could not compete with mass produced goods. But mass production brought its own costs. The producer and the consumer became separated by a huge faceless corporate distribution system, which pretended to care, but most suspected really didn't. This was partially documented by Marx as worker alienation. The flipside, consumer alienation, is perhaps best documented by Monty Python. Mass production also brings with it a whole host of transaction costs, noted above, which make it not as cheap as it might at first appear.
New production technology offers the possibility of changing all this. When I go to a shoe store it is always a frustrating experience. I always want some combination of style and size that they never seem to have in the back. Imagine however if a shoe store had say 50 or 100 basic shoes that you could try on for size and fit, as well as some other samples that you could use to pick the styles. With the help of an expert shoemaker you could try on the fitting samples until you found something comfortable. Then you could use the style samples to mix and match all the colour and style details that fit your taste. This shoe store would not have a big warehouse of boxes in the back but some rolls of material as well as some cnc cutting and printing machines and specialized assembly tools. Depending on the complexity of the order you could go and have a coffee and then come back and pick up your order, or maybe come back the next day. This shoe store would give you exactly what you want as well as have some real cost benefits. There would be no packaging cost, low inventory costs, and much lower transportation costs. (Compressed rolls of material are much cheaper to transport and store than packaged finished good). Many of these cost reductions would also be environmental benefits, such as less packaging and transport. And worker and consumer alienation would be a thing of the past.
This is how I run my cabinet shop and I think it has great potential. Sign shops already work on this model. Perhaps the mall of the future could look like the high street of old, with shoemakers, tailors and furniture makers crafting what you want when you want them. The digital world provides the infrastructure and the tools, but the purchasing process would be actual and face to face. The best of both worlds maybe?
(I also wrote a doctoral dissertation at Oxford which was in large part about the relationship of the world of things to the world of symbols, so I have also been interested in these problems from a philosophical perspective. My examiners, postmodernists who don't believe in outdated concepts like `reality', didn't take kindly to it.)