The Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Power of Making‘ exhibition highlighted the intricate and creative skills required to build experiences in the physical form. The pre-requisites for the exhibition’s most successful items seemed to be knowledge of materials, patience to iterate and willingness to subvert processes and raw ingredients from their original purpose.
These same techniques are equally applicable to creating experiences in the virtual sphere.
Semantics make pedants of us all, but it is intriguing to see the term ‘digital craftsperson’ on the cusp of acceptance. ‘Craft’ is a term ripe with connotations of tradition and leisurely beauty, grounded in local customs. It would seem contradictory to group together practitioners of a novel, immediate and globalising art with those whose work may be built on centuries of accumulated wisdom, but pioneers of digital design are poised to make their own contributions to the library of crafted experience.
Walking around the exhibition at the V&A, I was reminded again of the prescience of Franco Papeschi’s session at the May 2011 MEX, in which he called upon the MEX community to equip themselves with the same detailed knowledge of ‘digital materials’ as carpenters possess of wood and masons possess of stone.
Where these physical craftspeople rely on familiarity with grains, knots, fractures and faults, their digital equals must become intimate with the varied interactions, connectivity and behaviours which define virtual experience. By understanding the technical composition of these elements, by embracing a willingness to subvert them and by constantly refining the experience, the resulting designer is more capable of the alchemy of memorable digital craft.
The range of exhibits reminded visitors that craft is not a single category of objects but rather an approach and, indeed, a way of life, espoused by its practitioners. David Mach’s enormous gorilla fashioned from coat hangers sat alongside a section of dry stone walling. Woven coffins were placed next to MakerBot 3D printers. Each showed a different, but no less valid, manifestation of craft principles.
It was delightful to see Sugru, a physical hacking material used for a creative exercise at a previous MEX, representing the concept of user-driven refinements. There was also a dress where a QR code was woven into the fabric and linked to the wearer’s social networking profile, prompting questions about fashion, identity and digital presence – all issues raised by Ramona Liberoff in her previous MEX session. Perhaps identity, limited today to an impersonal username and password combination, is a characteristic of the virtual sphere most in need of a more crafted experience?
The book accompanying the exhibition, sub-titled ‘The importance of being skilled‘, contained several essays, including Ele Carpenter’s on ‘Social Making’. Carpenter correctly identifies the roots of today’s open source movement in the age old sharing of craft skills in families, local communities and guilds. She makes a persuasive argument for the enhancement of all forms of craft through the ability to digitally share knowledge with the widest possible constituency. Instead of crushing traditional craft, the web has the power to enhance it, as well as encouraging new outlets for craft principles in the virtual sphere.
Carpenter also finds an interesting comparison between ’round robbin’ quilting communities and open source collaboration. Makers have been creating quilts in individual sections for generations, with the overall product enhanced by the individuality of the respective squares. It is tempting to think open source software could achieve a result similarly greater than the sum of its parts, but experience would suggest otherwise.
The difference is that the construction of a quilt is inherently a defined framework, where the final utility is a known quantity and one which is unlikely to be damaged by giving participants free choice over the construction of their individual components. In contrast, the lack of a defined framework for achieving a utility adapted to the target user is the most common cause of open source software failing to gain mainstream acceptance.
However, Carpenter’s most useful message is an encouragement to continue blurring the line between users and makers, particularly in areas – such as digital – where this has traditionally been difficult.
She cites the example of Dorkbot, ‘an international community of people doing strange things with electricity’, as a place where electronics and software are seen as ‘materials to be re-worked’ rather than simply end user products. For those who’ve traditionally shouldered the maker’s responsibility, there are clear benefits in getting closer to users and building designs open to user refinement. For those who’ve traditionally consumed, the opportunity is to influence designs so they become better suited to their needs and, eventually, to become elevated to the status of makers themselves.