Late in 2007, Ayah Bdeir was working in a plush office in Midtown Manhattan, making a lot of money and feeling miserable. She was a financial-software consultant for a technology company. One of her specialties was peddling software for credit-default swaps - among the many complex financial instruments that would soon wreak havoc on the planet. Somewhere there was a thing from which these derivatives were derived, but Bdeir, atop countless layers of transacting, was too far away to see it, much less touch it.
Bdeir is 28, a petite and round-faced woman, gregarious and combustible. As she describes it now, the virtuality of her working life was deeply upsetting; she felt surrounded by the inconsequential, the endless conversation about how to display the nominal on PowerPoints that called for the making of future PowerPoints. Just before year's end, Bdeir quit. She secured a fellowship, for considerably lower pay, from an art and technology center in Chelsea. She knew that she wanted her next project to be the opposite of a credit-default swap - tangible, constructive. And then it hit her: the opposite of her make-believe transacting would be to make things. A few years earlier, as a graduate student at the M.I.T. Media Lab, she fell in with a community that was trying to transform manufacturing - a new kind of small-scale, local manufacturing that could be done in the home, with machines no bigger than a microwave. Bdeir now resolved, over the strenuous objection of her mother and several friends, to become a new-age manufacturer.
At first, she pursued the idea as a financial-industry software executive might: she researched making, made plans to make and made PowerPoints about making. Meanwhile, she made nothing. Then, while earning some money by training not-very-tech-savvy designers in the use of electronics, Bdeir had the idea, in collaboration with a colleague, of making electronics components into Lego-like bricks that could be used by anybody, even the technically ungifted. She would make sets of self-contained bricks, filled with circuits, sensors, solar panels and motors that could be snapped together to create basic machines - for instance, a battery connected to a bulb and a pressure sensor that can illuminate or dim it. She would make things and allow others to make other things.
She would eventually turn the brick project into a business, selling $99 kits, called littleBits, for people to make their own crude gadgets. She wagered her career on the belief that in her resistance to the virtual, in her longing to make something actual, she was not alone.
David Fuller's view The USA has an inventive culture and everything to gain from a revival in manufacturing.
Interestingly, when I addressed the National Association of Energy Traders last month (PowerPoint in the 'Presentations' section, upper left), they had two very smart and useful promotional gifts. One was an excellent torch (flashlight). The other was a Victorinox Flash, a small Swiss Army knife with a LED light and memory stick. To my astonishment, both of these products were manufactured in the USA.