Burning Bridge has been in hibernation the past few months, breathing only on a delicious links respirator, as I wend my way through more pressing obligations. On a recent trip to Austria, however, on my way to the Salzburg Global Seminar, I went walking in the Hohe Tauern National Park with Oso and Rob:
Climbing the shoulder of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain (feet on rock and snow, breathing actual air on an undeniably real cliff face),
we began discussing our approach to work, and craft. This was spurred in large part by Oso’s pending presentation for a talk in Budapest at Internet Hungary, which you can now find here. Oso’s concern is the continuation of craft in industrial economies, and whether in the realm of digital work, we can legitimately encumber certain kinds of activity with the name “digital craftmanship.” Without bowing to the pressure to create more neologisms (slacktivists beware!), the term seems to be gathering momentum. Oso longs for:
products that are produced slowly over time. For digital goods that are both beautiful and beautifully made
He then identifies a number of digital projects that roughly fit this definition of craft, focusing on the creation of digital tools such as phone/web 2.0 applications, websites, multimedia productions, data visualization, and website design tools.
Obviously there are clear access, education, and class issues inherent in any conversation about craft economies. Those issues obtain for digital craft as well, so I’m going to lay them aside for the moment. I’m interested initially in the question of whether digital craft is in some way fundamentally different from other kinds of craft, whether it is simply another iteration of the same question, and what it means to move from the digital to the physical.
My first impulse is to think that the claim of difference is overstated. Oso writes:
Seth Godin has found that of the top 100 companies worldwide only 32 of them produce actual physical things. Material culture and materialism are transitioning into digital culture and what might become ‘digitalism’, which has a different set of rules and values.
However, every one of those companies is deeply involved in industrial processes, whether they own and produce material goods, or pay for services managed by others. Our digital culture is also rooted in industry, with associated mineral resource exploitation and global trade implications, as any coltan miner can tell you. Those companies’ profits may come from value-added activities (information access, marketing, etc.), but the industrial economy has clearly not gone away.
So digital craft? In economic terms, it looks a lot like other expressions of craft – eddies of money, resources, and time that might make our lives better and more interesting at a personal level, but is deeply problematic as a fundamental challenge to mass economies that produce abundant and cheap products (inexpensive mass products are not necessarily of poor quality).
I spend a lot of time in chemical darkrooms these days, and at the same time spend time with people who have mostly left behind chemical photography, and are turning out high-end, digital photography prints, such as Frank Day. Frank involves craft in much of what he does, whether it’s building up a road bike, knocking together a table, making large-format chemical prints out of 8×10 field camera negatives, or lately, making large digital prints on massive ink-jet printers. Watching him, I’m tempted to say that craft is an attitude of how to relate to the world, and that the artful use of tools, whether digital or physical, is a manifestation of that attitude.
However, watching digital and chemical processes of craft, I do think there’s a difference in approach. At least with photography, this is manifest in how one deals with materials. Chemical processes allow the user to experiment with the material qualities of the thing. Temperature, dilution, combination, reaction; all physically change the outcome of the image in a darkroom. The creation of a digital print, however, is a painstaking and exacting process of matching the code for color correction for each brand of paper with each printer’s software. Without the correct formula, the image is useless. It’s possible to hack the color correction code, and produce something other than intended by the manufacturers, but this is a turning away from the processes at hand, rather than using what’s inherent in them. In other words, a creative process that seeks to counter the intentions of the material – hacking as craft.
This brings us straight to the DIY world – and here I’ll let Beth Kolko speak in this talk, titled “User, Hacker, Builder, Thief – Creativity and Consumerism in a Digital Age.”
The not very slow but definitely steady flow of computer technology into far corners of everyday life has changed fundamental cultural processes and affected how people work, learn, and play. It’s also provided lots of cool stuff to buy. But by some measures there has also been a somewhat fundamental failure of imagination in envisioning what hardware, software and services can look like which has resulted in users from outside targeted demographics adapting technology in unexpected and creative ways. This talk is about diversity of design, the cult of expertise, why hackers are the good guys and lays out the argument that theories of subjectivity and axe grinders can be part of the same conversation. Encouraging users to become hackers, builders, and thieves may be the best way to ensure creative and diverse design.
Here the world of art is also instructive. See, for instance, Camille Utterback’s interactive art. Utterback describes her work as “an attempt to bridge the conceptual and the corporeal.” Among other things, she builds interactive video installations for which she writes her own code. Her projects seek to make visible the link between the abstraction of code and the world’s materiality, for the purpose of contemplation. Her work is not craft – the creation of a thing of utility that best embodies its purpose – but it does open a window into how we perceive craft, and how digital expressions of it relate to the physical world.