It Takes a Hidden Village

I love Kevin Kelly's work and life, and had a great talk with him months ago for my podcast, The New Disruptors. But during his talk at the 2014 XOXO festival a week ago, I felt a distinct chill when, in describing his book Cool Tools, he said it was the work of two people over a few months, and then went on to note their use of Elance and other distributed work tools.

Tim Maly felt the same chill, and wrote a very interesting essay riffing on that and related issue: independent creators are dependent on the work of so many others, most of whom aren't afforded the same opportunities at advancement and independence. Tim followed the thread of labor down to the Chinese workers referenced in another talk by the creators of the NeoLucida; the two guys behind that project traveled to China and spent two weeks in the factory that was making their gear.

I know that Kevin didn't mean to disparage or denigrate the work of the hundreds of people who put in minutes or hours through various freelance/contract aggregation services. In fact, in our podcast, he spoke specifically about these folks (full transcript):

In the end, I probably redesigned at least 90 percent of the pages, but they were delivered at such a stage that it was possible for me to refine them. We were generating I forget how many pages a day from all the freelancers. They were first class. They were really great.

He also noted:

What it is doing is arbitrage. It’s matching the needs of one person with the abilities of the other in a very low friction way. I think that’s what really comes forward. Sometimes you don’t need necessarily the design power. You want something a bit more modest, and this is a way to kind of connect with that person very directly, very quickly within a matter of hours. I think that’s really the beauty of this system.

He can speak for himself, but from a similar position, I know what he meant: it only required a couple of dedicated people, not working exclusively on the project, to coordinate and bring it into being; something that not long ago would have required a team of several and a year and maybe an order of magnitude or factors above that in cost. He was the motive force; without his interest, energy, and money, the book would never have come to pass.

When I created The Magazine: The Book (Year One) earlier this year, it was my idea. I came up with it, coordinated it, raised the funds, hired people, and handled nearly all the details. But, of course, dozens of people were involved in it directly, tens of thousands at one remove, and millions at another.

The book required the expertise of a graphic design and production team of three and my contract editorial team of two (managing editor and proofreader); a few dozen writers, artists, and photographers; paper and ink, printing presses, postal and shipping services. You can crank the aperture wide or small about how many people were involved depending on what level of detail you want to discuss. Someone had to mine ore, smelt it, refine it, and stamp out machine parts for the equipment that embossed the covers of the hardback edition.

We are ourselves often cogs in someone else's machine. The lower level the task, the less likelihood we have to control our own destiny. I don't think Kevin has lost sight of that at all — he began his life's work by traveling the world to find disappearing societies and met people forgotten by everyone else. But our independence is always positional, relying on the constraints of others to make the raw stuff on which we depend.