Once upon a time, anyone could make anything, because everything was made of sticks and rocks. Then came more advanced technology, and with it, specialization. Bakers baked bread and wheelwrights built wheels, but only because they were better at it--the average farmer's family could probably bake their own bread if it came down to it. In the past couple of centuries, that's been going away, because things get more complex, and while baking bread requires patience and practice, engineering an airplane requires a college degree.
But running alongside all of that have been the tinkers; the ones who may not be able to build complex objects from scratch, but through enough messing with them have figured out how to fix, modify, rebuild, and maybe even improve on them. Think HAM radio geeks, think home-built computers, think Anthony Hopkins in The World's Fastest Indian.
G. Pascal Zachary at the New York Times thinks that's going away too, and that it might be the fault of The Design Elite and their stranglehold on the process of innovation. In this article from July 29, Zachary investigates websites like Instructables that encourage hi-tech tomfoolery, and mourns the growing legion of common consumer goods that resist their pokings and probings. The iPod is once again the poster child for highly designed desirables, this time in a somewhat negative light which it shares with other products that are "dominated by a top-down, elite innovation model that doesn't allow for customization."It's a pity that the article so quickly veers off into an iffy but intriguing comparison between user-generated innovation and democracy, because the top-down vs. bottom-up innovation debate raises some good questions. Is innovation really just the purview of those who get paid to innovate these days, or do we just think that because it improves our job security? Is the snatching of The Next Big Thing out of the hands of the enthusiast in his or her garage a necessary result of higher technology?
What's absent in the analysis is a discussion of how many more "innovation elites" there are now than at any time in history. It may no longer be possible for the lone brilliant crackpot to change the world alone, but plenty of advances with broad social value have come from small companies started by a handful of smart people and some adventurous backers. Tiny "elites" of this sort are in fact the ones primarily responsible for the bulk of advancement in areas the article laments are receiving too little funding from government and large corporate sources, such as cheap solar power and malaria cures. While it's certainly true that Western governments and multinationals are more focused on their bottom lines than on saving the planet, there are now alternative means to do the saving that don't rely on such sources. It might not be true democracy, but on the other hand, it often works.