Small Streams

I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Toys
November 19, 2013, 7:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I’ve previously written about the influences craft has on industry and vice versa. This New York Times article, “Etsy’s Industrial Revolution” concentrates on industry’s reliance on craft. You want to knit a sweater; you’ll probably need some needles from China. You want to make your own needles; here, use this lathe made by Milwaukee Large and Impressive Tool Company. There is a continuum from the handmade to the cottage-scale to the industrial scale to the global scale. The mittens you get on Etsy are handmade. The t-shirt you buy from Snorg Tees made in batches of a hundreds or so, the bespoke chocolate bar, the microbrew, the model rocket: cottage scale. The Volkswagen or Ford: industrial. The micro chip, Microsoft Office, the cellphone app: global.

I imagine you could make a good pastime to sort production according to scale. Handmade: up to a hundred. Cottage: up to a thousand. Industrial: hundreds of thousands to millions. Global: more than that. I imagine there is some clustering going on. For instance the build versus buy argument is very much in play at the handmade scale. You can buy a pot holder or bookshelf for cheaper than you can make it, but there might be a number of people who make potholders and bookshelves and maybe able to make a living, and only because they loved the process of making. The next step would be a cottage scale, hire a dozen employees, execute a marketing plan, farm out the logistics of sending hundreds of items far away, and so on. You might see custom marshmallows in Williams-Sonoma, but producing them for Costco or Safeway or Walmart would be an order of magnitude higher. 

My purpose in musing about this isn’t necessarily to entertain ideas on economics, although I think the economics of marshmallows would be a worthy field of study. No, I’m personally interested in the market for toys, particularly since I read the Bill Keller article on the Rainbow Loom, a fascinating toy children use to make rubber band bracelets. There are three million Rainbow Looms out there. Definitely industrial scale. But guess what? It’s an industrial scale product dependent on the love of craft. I love this line from Keller:

Not least among the charms of [Cheong Choon Ng’s] simple device is the fact that it unplugs children for a while from the mind-sucking Matrix in favor of projects that require focus and creativity. (In fairness to the Internet, I should note that kids learn new bracelet designs from demonstration videos on YouTube.)

 How long before there are YouTubes and Pinterests and Instructables with kids hacking the Rainbow Loom, or making their own? Not. VeryLong. At. All.

I also think that looms contain multitudes. You have algorithms. You have patterns. You have sorting and searching and coding. Not to mention the idea of using punch cards for memory. Looms can be seen as an intro to computational thinking. Now we’re talking global. Toys that can make you think. Toys that can change the world.

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