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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:

Map of the Grossglockner

Photo of map of our route up the Grossglockner

Climbing the shoulder of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain (feet on rock and snow, breathing actual air on an undeniably real cliff face),

easier than blogging well?

easier than blogging?

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.

Berlin dyptych, ripped from his website. I can put it back if you want, Frank

Berlin diptych, ripped from his website. I can put it back if you want, Frank

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.

Insightful story in the NYTimes on the effectiveness of the U.S. military’s censorship of images of dead and dying US military personnel. The story leads with the case of Zoriah Miller, a photographer expelled from his embed with the Marines for publishing images of dead soldiers. See his site for this recounting of the event, and see his images here. Zoriah’s case encapsulates the U.S. military’s attitude toward control of images. The Times says:

And while publishing photos of American dead is not barred under the “embed” rules in which journalists travel with military units, the Miller case underscores what is apparently one reality of the Iraq war: that doing so, even under the rules, can result in expulsion from covering the war with the military.

But what really stands out for me is the data. Specifically, these two statements, from the same article:

after five years and more than 4,000 American combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers.

By a recent count, only half a dozen Western photographers were covering a war in which 150,000 American troops are engaged.

Given the ubiquity of the camera and video player in Iraq today, not only in the hands of professional journalists recording the conflict for over five years, but also in the hands of soldiers, Iraqi citizens, and insurgents, it’s downright startling that so few images of American dead have surfaced in public. If it were only a matter of the US military censors in action, it would be simply unbelievable. Of course, there are other dynamics in play, such as self-censorship, or editorial discretion, of news publications. It’s also likely the case the numbers in the NYTimes article aren’t completely accurate, or apply only to mainstream US news sources. A casual google search turns up a story of Iraq TV showing 5 dead U.S. soldiers in just one story. There is also rumor, difficult to substantiate, of online trade of death images from the war. A google search turns up a number of sites claim to trade images of both U.S. and Iraqi war dead. While it’s hard to tell whether this  it is eerily reminiscent of photos and films that I saw in Chechnya in 1996, and certainly possible to imagine this kind of trade existing.

This academic article and an LA Times story treat the subject from a more mainstream point of view.

We’ve come along way from the original US documentary treatment of war dead: Matthew Brady’s and Alexander Gardner’s treatment of Civil War battlefields, as presented by the Library of Congress. Ubiquity of images, but a degree of U.S. military selection, and self-selection by mass media, that keeps them out of the hands of the public.

digital file from original neg. of left half

Photo:Gettysburg, PA, dead confederate soldiers in the “devil’s den”, Alexander Gardner, 1863.

Incredible, painful, moving site on the Myanmar disaster. http://komyo.burmachannel.com/.

A friend, K, writes:

Its not great journalism as such but it’s also, sadly, important testimonial work at this point – the gathering and reporting for the record and for family tracing purposes as well. Difficult work for Burmese, by Burmese about what has happened, and how it looks almost 7 days later.

The site contains many graphic images of death, and in a newspaper would be controversial material. I’m in the camp that generally supports publishing such images, whether in natural disasters or war, and regardless of the nationality of the victims.

US newspapers rarely show images of death so directly, though its tendency is to do so more frequently in the developing world than for images of US victims, and especially, war victims. A friend at the NY Times says that there’s no hard and fast editorial policy for showing such pictures, but rather, that it’s based on a judgment about newsworthiness, and includes concerns such as overexposure and consequent numbing of the effects of such images, and a concern over gratuitous graphics. Different cultures also apply different standards to the depiction of death. In the former Soviet Union, for instance, intensely graphic images are commonplace. Read Barbie Zelizer, “Death in Wartime: Photographs and the ‘Other War’ in Afghanistan” for an interesting analysis of this. Barbie also writes more broadly about visual culture and war, especially on the Holocaust, and is a useful starting point for a broader investigation into the subject.

One of the more devastating images:

Komyo also has good links to other Burma blogs, mostly political. Komyo is in Burmese, but a few links have English-language sections. See Freedom for Burma: Burmese Bloggers w/o Borders as an example.

Note for this site, for the most part I’m using Burma or Myanmar depending on whether the sources uses one or the other. I’m tempted to say that this disaster is occurring in Myanmar, but to Burma. The human elements are driven by the facts of the state of Myanmar, but the affected have been people with no real enfranchisement or say in the direction of their governance. Now, it looks as if the south will be disenfranchised from the upcoming constitutional referendum.

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