You may call them “hoverboards,” or “smart balance wheels,” or another catchy name – whatever they are, on my last foray into downtown Toronto I witnessed a flock of people wheeling up the sidewalk on these colourful, seemingly physics-defying things as though they had been born wearing them. I was so astonished at the futuristic sight I stopped dead!
At the time, I attributed my lack of familiarity with these hoverboards to my simple country living. But, as this report from Cory Doctorow indicates, even in jaded urban centres folks are gobsmacked at this technology’s overnight appearance — and subsequently diving into purchases, especially for the holidays. Doctorow theorizes that hoverboards — popular with Chinese youth and Vine and Youtube celebrities worldwide — are an early real-world example of a brand new manufacturing model: one that we are going to see a lot more of in the developing economic climate.
Tech reporter Joseph Bernstein dubs the process “memeufacturing,” which speaks to the almost biological propagation of these items and the idea behind them. The manufacturing infrastructure and social network in southern China (and mostly in Shenzhen) is so responsive that, as soon as a new media star features a novel piece of technology on, say, Instagram, thousands of factories can convert almost instantly to produce that item, using components of the products they used to make. And, most interestingly to Doctorow, they are using the format of “copying” — without an original to copy. This leads to infinite variation, and a quick overwhelming of the market:
“ I remember visiting China in 2007 and seeing a million bizarre variants on Ipods, which were the hot category at the time. That story was easy to understand: Apple spent a fortune opening a market for music players of a certain size and shape. China’s entrepreneurs, living in a bubble where Apple’s patents and trademarks were largely unenforceable, set to copying that design, and (this is the important part) varying it. […]
But hoverboards are different: they are knockoffs without an original. The copies of the ‘original’ hoverboard (if anyone can ever agree on what that was) created the market, and they were already varied and mutated. There was never a moment at which all the bus-shelters and billboards touted an ideal, original hoverboard that the bottom-feeders started to nibble away at. […]
They’re part of a new category of hyperspeed gadgets — like ecigs and LED lightbulbs — that have no authoritative version. Products that start life as commodities.
A fun science fiction exercise is to imagine things that are hard and formalized and regulated being replaced with things that are fluid and bottom up. Imagine what a car would look like if it were made this way. Imagine prefab buildings.
It’s a funny old, new, world.”
Over the course of the last six months the supply chain in China has completely flooded; and with hoverboards that retail in North America, Australia, and Europe for the equivalent of $1000 per unit, who knows how long the demand will last? But, it is central to Doctorow’s and Bernstein’s arguments that this method of trade is not going away. When the new hot item makes itself known, the infrastructure will turn on a dime again, and the hoverboard will be left in. I’ll be keeping that in mind this shopping season!