Bot breeder and connected objects specialist, Matt Webb is a tireless creative person who refuses the maker label. His latest project: a book distributor based on recommendations. Meeting.
London, from our correspondent
We meet at the Book Club, in the Shoreditch district, in London. Roughly once a month, Matt Webb organizes there “hardware-ish coffee mornings”. “Sometimes we are 5, sometimes 25. There’s no structure, no presentation. I just make sure people talk to each other.” Some come with the prototype they are working on to get opinions, others are looking for partners and a network or are, more rarely, simple amateurs. An exercise both “terrifying and very informal”, says the initiator of these meetings and creator of Machine Supply, a distributor of recommended books.
A photo posted by Matt W (@genmon) on
Today, there are only two of us to bring up with Matt Webb his book distributor, of which we saw an example at Machines Room, the East London makerspace. There, he sells books recommended by Internet users, including science-fiction with 1984 or Ready Player One, and electronic object kits from Technology Will Save Us. Webb is a loquacious type: he has also created two bots on Twitter, held several blogs, some of which are collaborative, and has written a book, Mind Hacks. After having co-founded studio Berg, specialized in connected objects, that incidentally has been closed for two years, he is now the general manager of the connected objects incubator R/GA Internet of Things that will begin its programs in London in February.
“Hardware is today what the Web was yesterday”
Matt Webb discovered the Web in high school, he tells us, aged 16. Today he is 38. In his native New Forest, region in the south of England, (that “is neither new, nor a forest”, he specifies), he was already making fanzines where he was “mainly taking the piss out of my mate and writing fake news.” With Internet he sees the opportunity of “making something and getting it out to people immediately”. At 18, he decided to work on the Web for a summer job. “I didn’t know what to do, I just phoned companies and they would tell me ‘we need a programmer’. I bought a book to learn and program in a language. Phoned back a week later and they said ‘we are looking for this other language’. I was really annoyed I’d put in so much effort”.
Never mind, if he can’t work there, he’ll have fun there, in particular with the website glassdog.net (closed since) and his community of creative Internet users. He develops a contributive online game. In order to communicate with a friend in Australia, he develops an ancestor of the mobile phone: when his friend writes a message on his website, the text is read out loud via the speakers of Webb’s computer. “I could then get up and talk to him via email. It was before mobile phones or instant messaging!”
Today, Matt Webb doesn’t find this playing field anymore on the multimedia part of Internet, but instead with hardware. “I discovered you could create fun things, that this artistic playing field existed. Today, the Web has become a place to write and socialize, it isn’t for creating and making anymore. Hardware is today what the Web was yesterday.”
Little Printer, a connected object developed by Berg, 2012:
For his latest project, Machine Supply, Matt Webb got hold of a second hand distributor on Ebay. Then he opened the beast. “Inside the vending machine, all the different bits are plugged a bit like speakers to your computer. The protocol was designed by Coca Cola Japan in the 1960s. They were the ones to define how vending machines would work.”
With help from an engineer, he created a tool capable of understanding this protocol and linking the machine to Internet. From now on, when the machine sells a book, it sends the information to his website and tweets it. For the time being, @MachineSupply is not very talkative. That’s because the project is in the “pre-pre alpha, hobby” stage.
Matt Webb has however already set up a partnership with the distributor Gardners to get his books at low cost, despite his small orders. In order for the business to be profitable, “It literally needs people walking up to the machine in a line”, he calculated. Or multiplying the machines, hopes Webb, who says “having always wanted a bookstore”.
A photo posted by Matt W (@genmon) on
In the meantime, he is taking it on tour on the London Campus of Google, in the English offices of the publisher Hachette (interested in the concept), then to Machines Room, where he is continuing the development. “I would like it to communicate more easily with other machines, do more things, such as offer a discount.”
Does Webb consider himself as a maker? “I wouldn’t put a label on it”, he replies. An artist, then? For the exhibition The Art of Bots, in April 2016, he presented @5point9billion, a bot that tweets the distance travelled by light since your birth. Next to his art work, his “artist biography” was presented, he remembers. “It was the first time I was introduced as artist. I’m not kidding, I didn’t stop laughing for two weeks.” Creative, then? “I reckon that everyone has creativity. It’s important to interact with the real world.”
New feature! Now when you reach a new star, you'll get a GIF that shows where it is. Something like this pic.twitter.com/ZOCEypnQ04
— 5,880,000,000,000 (@5point9billion) April 15, 2016