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Malcolm McCullough

Notes on Abstracting Craft — The Practised Digital Hand

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. 309 pages

Please note that these notes are from a small set of reviews, as I have not been able to put my hands on a copy, physically (abebooks has listings but all above 60€s) or digitally (epub costs price of new printed book, which is sold out, but 30€ for an epub is simply out of my budget.)

Andreas Broeckmann review

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Is the new class of computer workers turning into a digital proletariat, or will it be a guild of digital artisans? Though not oblivious to the spectre of the first, Malcolm McCullough is in favour of the second [...].

In three sections, McCullough deals first with physiological and cognitive issues (hands, eyes, tools), moves on to representational and technological questions (symbols, interfaces, constructions) and ends with aspects of the practical usage of computers (medium, play, practice).

Aims to reroot digital work in physical human agency and to develop a critical understanding of the ways in which the computer as a medium requires a new set of creative skills, especially regarding the handling of complex symbolic abstractions and the ability to construct mental models of objects and processes.

Changes in that field have to happen, it seems, purely through engineers with whom the designers -and thus the readers of this book- have no direct relation. Abstracting Craft contains no call to arms for designers to learn to build their own tools.

Instead, 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.

[...] a breviary for the digital artisan. Throughout the book, he reiterates- the claim that computer-aided design practice is an "abstracting craft" that is not ruled by automation but by inventive, playful artistry, following not the model of the factory work, but the ideal of pre-modern craftsmanship.

McCullough is, much like the often, cited William J. Mitchell, an optimist who believes that the new economy and social ecology brought about by the Internet will lead to a less hierarchical regime of creative participation that will in fact be close to the ideals of pre-modern craftsmanship, populated not by digital proletarians disguised as artists, but by true digital artisans.

A. Aneesh review

The book expectidly begins with human hands, reminding us of the virtues of physical aspects of skills and the feel of objects and bodily movement at work. In modern technology, “hands are underrated. Eyes are in charge”.

In craft, manual and conceptual skills —a certain coordination of hands, eyes and the mind— were harmoniously combined in direct manipulation of real objects. Modern technology succeeded only in reducing the skilful, productive work of human hands.

[an interesting note on the personal scale, out of my scope for this research]

[...] recent advances in information technology, McCullough claims, transcend the hand-mind split engendered by industrialism and continued by computation-based technologies. The first sign of digital craft —the direct manipulation of the object of work usually associated with traditional craft— is reflected in our ability to point at our work with a mouse. In the mid-1980s, MacPaint and MacDraw were the first direct manipulation programs requiring hand-eye coordination instead of typing number on a keyboard.

[...] the industrial age introduced an unprecedented abstraction of work, in which tools' motion became machine powered and their manipulation became indirect. Soon the means of production became too extensive to be handled by the individual craftsman.

Automation sounded the death-knell of artisanship because it furthered the abstraction of work reflected in the redundancy of traditional tool users and the emergence of creative symbols users —engineers, accountants, and managers.

However, the author claims that with the rise of such tools as Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems, along with a number of other software such as paint programs, a new technology is born with old roots. [...] we have regained some aspects in what may be called indirect manipulation. "Whether direct or indirect, what matters is manipulation" (p.80)

Software, should be understood as a mechanism in our endeavour to produce digital artifacts. CAD/CAM as mechanisms seem to converge with traditional artisanship in terms of creating 3-dimensional things in a tightened loop between design and fabrication.

Just as in traditional craft, a good design was grounded in fabrication and vice versa; in a CAD/CAM system, both design variations and fabrication-process criteria drive one another. In this coupling "input to physical fabrication operation is symbolic, and the output from geometric derivations is tangible... Thus, after two centuries of separation, the conception and the execution of everyday objects are one again in the same hands".

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