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Traditional craft

I begin with craft because it is how I think of graphic design. It was, before the accessibility of personal computers, a craft that was manual, and was understood as so in that time. I'm calling traditional crafts the ones that were done with by hand, with hand tools, with no electricity, that involved learned skills to produce real objects that could be handled. I wonder what the positions of labor, making, and craft are in practices that now no longer produce tangible objects. How is craft defined? I will look into why many of the notions of traditional craft are not directly transposed to digital practices, but core elements of craft are still present, and newer, equally interesting ones, have emerged. Today's work environment has changed. It is vastly different to the places in which traditional crafts used to take place. With this I'm wondering if a historical pattern of dividing steps and sub-steps of traditional craft into specific tasks, into jobs, is not happening again. Is a new class of computer workers appearing, one that could become a digital proletariat? And if so, does it follow that the understanding of digital craft includes a guild of digital artisans and masters?

In ‘The Craftsman’, Richard Sennett1 defines craftsmanship as: « an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake ». As comforting as it is to think of craftsmanship as a basic human impulse, while 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 for the need for a social order for the development of craft. He states that an ancient ideal of craftsmanship is “joined skill in community”. Medieval workshops 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 they are part of) ensuring continuity while also allowing for creative developments through partnerships and communal participation. The medieval workshop (at least, the western understanding of) 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.(Sweeden, 2009)

At the turn of the 19th century, burgeoning industrial capitalism was built on a foundation of a combination of techniques and new scientific technologies.2 This combination enabled extremely high levels of production, by, not only, but importantly, enhancing productivity (Stiegler, 2012), 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. Industrial capitalism is followed by consumerist capitalism in the 20th century.3 In the consumer capitalism model it's not only the workers who lose their know how, the effects and the loss extends to the consumers, who don't lose knowledge, but need to consume goods as part of a new lifestyle. This historical context does not yet speak about software directly, but I believe that reviewing this trajectory is important in order to speak later about what the possibilities of craft within software are.

Malcolm McCullough4 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 craftsmanship: it works on the very basis of the redundancy of people and of traditional tools. It displaced work out of the manual and into the symbolic, with as it's users: engineers, accountants and managers.


Machines are central to industrialisation and the symbols of automation and taylorism. Sennett explores their implications (replicants and robots) for craftwork. Machines were created for large-scale production, gradually threatening the necessity for 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 they oppress and replace high-cost skilled labor. Instead of workshops, the new working communities were steel mills and factories, and as such a new social structure was adopted, carrying different assumptions of appropriate work conditions as well as knowledge and authority (Sweeden, 2009). 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. (Broeckmann, 2001)

I will now re-align these elements to delineate my 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 I earlier noted, machines have come into this harmony and detached the coordinations. A by-product of detaching and un-building coordination is that it is hard to tell experts from novices, the machine has a 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 simply appears unrelatable.

For further confusion, digital practices also seem as if they all start and end on the same virtualisation apparatus. Our computers today are general purpose tools, they are not at all dedicated to isolated 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. Such a system, a universal and immaterial tool, is good at creating confusion. Materiality within computers and software is based on analogy: a major portion of application software interface relies on analogies. Throughout the spectrum of software, we are asked to draw on our understanding of the physical world. Software design relies on resemblances to files, folders, documents, desktops, copying, pasting, paint buckets, wastebaskets, pencils which perform actions that rely on our understanding of manual actions in the real world. 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 the digital handling of craft, I believe there is a need to reevaluate the constructs in the sphere of analogy and abstraction. It is possible to rebuild appreciation by contextually and historically reviewing representations, symbols and interfaces. It is imperative do this in order to regain appreciation for digital craft. It might be that I no longer operate directly with hands, but digital craft relies on an ideological reference to manual handling. Handling things, handling tools, handling constructs, handling objects. All of these are still as interesting and skilful as ever, as long as we stay aware of them in their current abstracted states and aware of the software designers who shape their parameters.

Objects and seam(s/less)

Still, object must be mentioned. Be they physical or virtual, the core of the subject matter is the same for a crafts-person. Abstracted objects are fundamental to the making, they are the digital crafts-person's building blocks. Whether direct or indirect, what matters is manipulation. (McCullough, 1996) So it was not initially clear how Sennett's second thesis5 could be understood in the world of software. But with a more flexible notion towards the construction of the virtual objects manipulated in digital craft it can be possible to return the value of the cognitive procedures, and imagination. I used to think of a specificity of software being that it is made by people attempting to solve a problem or facilitate a specific task. The software maker building towards that unique and 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 that old 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 means for 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 virtualised practice is built, the construction model is the opposite of the manual craft. The developer must consider what the premises of 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. Even when done properly this is only half the battle, the communication that gives access to this program must then be engineered. Access to the end user. More than half of this work is 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 (McCullough, 1996). 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. He implies that I should be passive regarding the engineer's decisions in the design of 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 believe the opposite. I believe there is value in obtrusivity.6 Obtrusive procedures force the me to be aware of all the steps and required to perform a task, I becomes aware of the parameters the engineer has set up but they can set the values and balances. If I, as a user, as a maker, am reviewing digital practices, then it is also time 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 breakdown effect on craft.

Aside from this disagreement, I do think that it is necessary to widen McCulloughs thoughts regarding Computer Aided Design7 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 to rethink what craft is today, towards digital craft, where the computer is both the primary tool and environment. We have indeed lost physical tangibility, bodily actions and certain ways of imagination, but there are still enormous opportunities for the development of skills deriving from these re-imagined techniques, not to mention potential for the field itself if it could integrate computation and programmatic attitudes. McCullough calls this an ‘abstracting craft’ meaning a craft that has dependencies on its own practice, but also on capacities of abstraction. This points to the departure of craft, when it gets turned into software, it becomes something significantly different, something that needs craft-skills to be practised somewhat abstractly before they produce objects. The cognitive process is displaced.

  1. (Professor of Sociology and the Humanities, author of [non-excl] ‘Together’, ‘The Conscience of the Eye’ and ‘Practising Culture’)
  2. It's hard to know where to start any historical narrative. I'm not aiming for the following to be an exact or all encompassing one, instead, I follow a thread left by Bernard Stiegeler in an interview on a perspective of contributive economies (rough translation linked here). My interest is to study this history to understand how craft came to be, to effectively understand and contextualise the proposals I make later. I am aware that the broad aim of this first section will present the reader with omissions and unpacked notions.
  3. 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.
  4. (Professor of Architecture, author of [non-excl] ‘Digital Design Media’ and ‘Digital Ground’)
  5. « technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination »
  6. Obtrusive does not have to mean ‘pestering’, there is a balance that can be found here. Notably, the idea of ‘calm technology’ details an interaction designed to occur in the user's periphery rather than at the center of attention.
  7. CAD (Computer Aided Design) is the object of McCulloughs study. The software tools I'm talking about for graphic design used to somewhat fit into this category, but as they have developed recently, they no longer do.

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