2017_01_02-thesis-chapter1.md 18.7 KB
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Title: Chapter 1 — Defining ‘craft’
Date: 2017/01/02

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# Defining ‘craft’

### Traditional craft

When was the last time you gave form to something? Were you proud of it? If you had to start it over, would you do it differently? I suppose we would have to agree on what is understood by forming. We can also have different understandings and degrees of pride. What would you think of me being very proud of a dish, if it looked exactly like the picture in the recipe I followed? What would you think if it didn't look anything like the photograph, but I was still proud of it. I wonder how long we'd spend on the dish, before we could talk about cooking? As much as I enjoy talking about food, my question here is about the understanding of labor, making, and craft, and what their positions are in practices that no longer produce tangible matter. In order to establish a proper basis of vocabulary to talk about software, tools and their function, I feel that winding back to traditional crafts is necessary to distil what our considerations for work and practice are. What makes craftsmanship perceivable as a craft, and have the transformations that affect traditional crafts also affect computer practice? It is clear that a lot of the basis for the notions of traditional craft are not directly transposable to digital practices, but core elements of craft are still present, and others have emerged. We must highlight these. Meanwhile, today's work environment has changed. It is vastly different from the places in which traditional crafts used to take place. With this we must wonder if the splitting of craft into labor, as it has in the past, is not happening again. Is there new class of computer workers appearing, one that could become a digital proletariat? We must adjust our ways and understandings of digital craft to allow for a guild of new digital artisans.

In ‘The Craftsman’, Richard Sennett (Professor of Sociology and the Humanities, author of [non-excl] ‘Together’, ‘The Conscience of the Eye’ and ‘Practicing Culture’) gives a definition of craftsmanship: « an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake ». As comforting as it is for me to think craftsmanship as a basic human impulse, still in the prologue, he states his two main theses: firstly « all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; » secondly « technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination ». Aside from these, Sennett's major argument is of the need of social order for the development of craft. He states that an ancient ideal of craftsmanship is “joined skill in community”. Medieval Workshops, in particular, provided a communal atmosphere and social structure that guided the development of skill through “authority in the flesh” as opposed to knowledge “set down on paper”. There is an implicit authority in the workshop, a social order that values the “quality of skill” over “occupation of a place of honor”. The workshop binds people together as it forms a community of masters and apprentices. Quality and ethical codes of work are transmitted through such communities (and the guilds in which they participate) ensuring continuity while also allowing for creative developments through partnerships and communal participation. The medieval workshop began its demise with the Renaissance separation of art and craft. This separation emphasised the individual and her/his creation of “art” over communal development. The workshop became an inferior social space reserved for a lower class of society.<sup id="a1">[1](#f1)</sup>

By the end of the 18th century / start of the 19th, the Renaissance is behind us, and see appearance of industrial capitalism. A capitalism of investments, that rests on a tight combination of technique and science. This will eventually enable very high levels of production, by, not only, but importantly, enhancing productivity,<sup id="a2">[2](#f2)</sup> something we will come back to in chapter 2. History shows how in this change, peasants become proletarian, and brought class separation into the working sphere. In the 20th century something new happens; consumerist capitalism. The notion of consumerism, is likened to Fordism at first, not to be confused with productivity capitalism which supposes the proletarisation of the producers<!--—the workers, that then become proletarian, who then would lose all of their professional know how-->. In the consumerist capitalism model it's not only the workers that lose their know how, the effects and effects on mentality extend to the consumers, who don't lose knowledge, but certainly lose their savoir vivre. This historical context can't speak about software directly yet, but I believe that reviewing these facts is important to later be able to speak about the possibilities of craft within what software is.

Malcolm McCullough (Professor of Architecture, author of [non-excl] ‘Digital Design Media’ and ‘Digital Ground’) has a more involved perspective on the transformation of craft. He does not insist on social order, in fact, without contradicting Sennett, he speaks about the individual, the personal scale and the skills. In craft, manual and conceptual skills are combined in a direct handling of real objects, depending on a certain coordination of hands, eyes and the mind. But industrialism started the split between hand and mind, and made for indirect actions. We left handling and manipulations inside of other systems. Automation as a consequence of industrialism, but also as an idea itself, could be pointed to as a serious factor for the disappearance of traditional artisanship: it works on the very basis of the redundancy of people and therefor of traditional tools. It displaced work out of the manual and into the symbolic, with as it's users: engineers, accountants and managers.

<!-- ### Machines -->
Machines are key, for industrialism, but also as symbols of automation and taylorism. Sennett explores their implications (replicants and robots) for craftwork. Machines were created for large-scale production, gradually threatening the standing of the most skilled laborers and increased the number of semi- or unskilled workers. Machinery exists for the sake of eliminating unskilled, noisome tasks, but problems arise when it oppresses or even replaces high-cost skilled labor, which machines are getting increasingly better at. Instead of workshops, the new working communities were steel mills and factories, and as such a new social structure are adopted, carrying different assumptions of appropriate work conditions as well as knowledge and authority.<sup id="a1">[1](#f1)</sup> The industrial age introduced an unprecedented abstraction of work, in which the motion of tools was powered by machines, and their manipulation became indirect. Soon, the means of production became too extensive to be handled by the individual craftsman.<sup id="a3">[3](#f3)</sup>

We can now re-align these elements to rebuild an understanding of machine / computer practices as craft. A first point of interest is the hand, the movement and the manual action. In traditional craft, manual and conceptual skills, in a *certain coordination of hands, eyes and mind*, are brought together, combined to directly manipulate real objects. As we noted, machines have come into this harmony and detached the coordinations. A by-product of detaching and unbuilding coordination is that it is hard to tell experts from novices, the machine has one single way of doing. This de-coordinating is a key element that explains why it is complicated to view digital practice as a craft; it's making and it's result can never be put in hand, it is intangible therefor it appears unrelatable.

For further confusion, digital practices also seem as if they all start and end on the same virtualisation apparatus, machines that sees all sorts of other information and media. It's the same tool that a lot of people use today, for very many other tasks. Our computers today are universal tools, they are not at all dedicated to specific tasks, they attempt to do everything, to handle everything. In this universality, we can't easily consider any specific objects or matters if we are not ourselves familiar with them. Universal and immaterial tools are quite good at creating confusion. The only basis for materiality within on computers and software is analogy: a major portion of application software interface (which, although we know that interface is not all of the computer, it is the only one that speaks to us, so it is from there that we build comprehensions of them) relies on analogies. Resemblances such as files, folders, documents, desktops, copying, pasting, ... All through the spectrum of software, from the seemingly simple to the complex and specific, we're asked to draw upon understandings of the physical world: paint buckets, wastebaskets, pencils perform actions that are going to be like what using them in the real world would be like, but not really. McCullough is more generous than I am, in his view of materiality, and moves from hands, eyes and (hand-held) tools to representational and technological questions of symbols, interfaces and constructions. But to undo the complexity of understanding digital handling as crafts, we need to reevaluate the constructs in the sphere of analogy and abstraction. We can rebuild appreciation by contextually and historically reviewing representations, symbols and interfaces. We must do this in order to regain appreciation for digital craft. We may no longer operate with our hands, but we do depend on the idea of manual handling. Handling things, handling tools, handling constructs, handling objects. All of these are still as interesting and skilful as ever, so long as we can understand them in their current abstracted states.

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<!-- ### Objects and seam(s/less) -->
Still, we must talk about objects. Be they physical or virtual, the core of the subject matter is the same for a crafts-person. Objects are the construction, the making, small or big, the building blocks for the practitioner. Just as they are in manual practices, they are as present (if not more if programming is considered) in digital practices. *Whether direct or indirect, what matters is manipulation.* (McCullough, 1996) So it was not initially clear how Sennett's second thesis (« technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination ») was to be projected in the world of software. But with a more flexible notion of objects and constructs, towards virtual objects, virtual constructs, we can regain the values of the cognitive procedures, and imagination. I used to think of a specificity of software being that is is made by people attempting to bring a solution to a problem, facilitate a specific task. The software maker building towards that unique task, very specific task, rarely crossing other fields or lines of work, making for an ultra tailored solution that, theoretically I did not imagine to be an interesting stimulus for imagination. The notion of object though, and Sennett's second thesis indirectly infirms my though, places the emphasis on the software maker needing not only to communicate the solution that was imagined, but the methods and constructs that this solution depended on. If and when this communication happens, then I believe that software can be a great lead toward applicable imagination.

I see software as a space for work that is extremely tailored. If I can imagine computer programming as a sort of building by adding, manual craft is in opposition, which I tend to think of more as a sculpting of pre-existing materials. When an program that enables a virtual practice is made, the construction model is the other way around to the manual craft. The developer must consider what the premises for the practice are. She/he must develop an understanding of what the craft is, and how it can be interpreted by a computer. Then, by building, begin to answer all the needs of the (interpreted) craft. I would add that this, even when done properly, is only half the battle, the other half being the building of the communication devices that will give access to all that has been engineered. Access to the end user. Half of the job (probably even more) is in the interface.

Interestingly, McCullough posits that *it is the task of engineers to abolish the existing limitations of technology —in so far as they do not form necessary creative constraints— and to develop less obtrusive and increasingly transparent technical tools for the creative designer*. In this instance, it is important to understand ‘transparent’ is meant as making tools invisible and seamless, trusting their entire build, settings and attitudes to engineers. This is something I wholeheartedly disagree with. His view goes along with an observatory, barely reactionary position of the users towards their tools. I do not believe that engineers are to be dismissed from developments, not at all, but it is not an engineers task to develop transparent tools, or less obtrusive methods, in fact, I will argue the opposite. I believe there is longterm gain to be had from obtrusivity. Obtrusive procedures force me to be aware of all the steps and requirements for a task to perform, and mean that the engineer has set up parameters, but I set the values, I manage the balances. If I, as a user, as a maker, am asking to review digital practices in the perspective of craft, then it is imperative that I adopt attitudes of a (traditional) crafts-person for my own self, and for my work. Having the perspective of an engineer and a user in the way that the former aims for transparency to better the latter's practice is a tangent that makes way for more proletarisation, and continues history's effect on craft.

I believe that *imagination is stimulated by technical understanding*, so we need for engineers to be *more legible* in their proceedings. When I say that I must take on attitudes of a traditional crafts-person, I mean that I need to take interest in all the ebbs and flows of my practice, and each of the tools that it involves. I believe that it is my task to take interest in all of the objects and constructs that build my digital environment. I do not mean with this that I must become prolific in the handling of all of them, but having knowledge of their presence and workings can only better my understanding of my work environment, and my practice.

My belief is that we need less transparency between engineering layers. More ways of understanding the constructs of our programs, more ways of seeing how our files, designs, creations, makings are recorded and understood by our computers. I find McCullough saying ‘increasingly transparent’ to be fundamentally contradictory to his thesis, and extremely problematic. When I read ‘increasingly transparent’, I hear *less visible* — something which is clearly happening across the board in software at the moment— but absolutely not something we need more of, or call for, especially in the desire for new craft recognition. I think that if there were to be a greater visibility of the granularity that is clearly present in programming, we would not only become better at what we are given access to, but we would gradually gain broader understanding of what we are working with, undoing the layers of abstractions of the virtual practice, and gain more ways of conveying our practice as objects, and not abstract intangible inexplicable things that simply got made.

Aside from this disagreement, I do think that it is necessary to widen McCulloughs thoughts of Computer Aided Design to other spheres of software action. I struggle to think of utilitarian —as opposed to design oriented— software that does not have a type of root in some sort of craft. Even the most mundane computer tasks like file sorting, can have ways of doing that are the result of *the desire to do a job well for its own sake*. If it didn't then we would have to ask operating system makers for alphabetical sorting, date sorting, logical directory structures, etc. There is a need for us to rethink what craft is today, towards digital craft, where the computer is both primary tool and environment. We have indeed lost physical tangibility, bodily actions and certain ways of imagination, but there is still enormous quantities of skill to be derived from the —re-imagined— techniques. McCullough calls this an ‘abstracting craft’ meaning a craft that has dependencies on it's own practice, but also on capacities of abstraction.

<!--Logical as it might be that software made itself discreet and utilitarian, it is up to me as a user to keep in mind what is going on ‘behind the screen’ or ‘under the hood’, during the actions on screen. Whether I know and understand it all or not, it's presence is not to be neglected. If we can keep in mind how amazing the ideas and sciences are that make abstraction possible in order to permit, allow and better the ways of doing on screen, then we are one step closer to the build of widespread computation culture that I believe to be needed for all of us that use connected IT devices today. -->

<!-- One remaining aspect to address in this chapter is the perception of quality within craft. Quality is important here because it can be the key to appreciation. Quality is important because it is debatable. Perception of quality is important because digital culture needs discussion that spread to all that it touches, not only to the small portion of people that builds it's inputs. Quality is as complex in manual craft as it is in digital craft. It is not the object of this study to attempt an explanation of what quality is, instead, to acknowledge it's complexity. I think that the embrace of an adversarial attitude to all the understandings and views of quality would be healthy. The fact that contemporary philosophy is still in discourse about how to distinguish certain kinds of qualities from one another, points to large diversity, range, needs, desires, morals, and cultures of different people. This same multiplicity is involved in digital cultures, so I can not pronounce on what quality digital craft is for all of it's realms. However the presence of —albeit differently understood— good and bad quality objects is beneficial to the understanding of digital craft. The discussion of what makes a quality software product is, in itself, helpful to highlight the granularity and ‘social’ layers I call for above. -->

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<b id="f1">1 </b>Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. student in Practical Theology on ‘The Craftsman’, by Richard Sennett: http://www.bu.edu/cpt/resources/book-reviews/craftsman-by-richard-sennett/ [](#a1)

<b id="f2">2 </b>Transcribed extracts from a Bernard Stiegler interview on Contributive economies: https://vimeo.com/32540487 [](#a2)

<b id="f3">3 </b>Extracts from reviews: http://tangible.tools/notes-on-abstracting-craft-the-practised-digital-hand.html [](#a3)