A long time ago I promised David Gauntlett that I would review his latest book, Making is Connecting. It is in many ways an excellent book, and one that I was very glad to read as it treats the question of creativity with the focus I think that it deserves.
Essentially, the book invites us to focus on making as opposed to consuming, and it links the expansion of interactive Web technologies to a reinvigoration of making culture.
I’ve had the book long enough that it’s wended its way into my thinking. So this review is going to talk about how I tried to use some of the ideas of the in a ‘critical making’ workshop I ran with the lovely Aleks Krotoski. We worked with students in my postgrad Digital Media Futures course to investigate making as a way of thinking. The goal: to “build Google” and distill a few weeks of heavy theoretical thinking on the role of technology, behavior, and expectations about social media.
Why Making? Craft history
David’s book starts by situating ‘making’ as part of the counterculture – pointing out how the arts and crafts movement in US in 1960s was connected with radical resistance against commercialization. Craft and handmade in general are connected to mindfulness and also to claiming power in “doing” and not just in consuming. This history connects with ideas about self-sufficiency and community living. My parents, for exampe, were enthusiastic home bakers, home renovators and gardeners – representing their generation’s interest in escaping mainstream consumption. But it’s important to note that this subcultural interest in ‘making’ positioned craft and homemade stuff in a very particular gender and class context. For a very long time, ‘making’ work was women’s work or working men’s work – and not something considered very valuable. This doesn’t come across in David’s book, which is a pity, because perceptions about making are still linked up with gender and class. When I work with electronics hackers, I meet mostly men, with lots of formal education. This is a different demographic and culture than the knitters whose online network at Ravelry.com David describes.
Feminine vs Masculine making?
The book moves on from the culture of making to a discussion of the new opportunities for making provided by more inexpensive electronics and more interactive media, both in terms of sharing media and in terms of building online community: he is particularly taken by YouTube as an example of a platform for both creativity and engagement, inviting people “to add data as files, comments, tags and links between people” (p. 89). For my students, though, this kind of making was pretty alien. Among my class, very few people described themselves as makers – before writing on our class wiki, only a handful had ever posted online anything that they had made or created, with the exception of status updates (and sometimes Twitter messages). This is a somewhat sobering tempering of David’s optimism about digital creativity as a positive force for social change.
Is Creativity Enough? Teaching “thinking differently”
One of the central pillars of David’s argument is that creativity is best defined as doing something that is novel in the world, and which produces joy in the do-er. The creation of this joy is part of what makes creativity – especially shared creativity, potentially transformative. David argues that by learning to create things with other people we can create a society in which we are better at sharing what we know, respecting what others know, and feeling that we can change things.
One of my initial criticisms of this position was that it seemed both too general and fuzzy (doing nice things makes the world a better place) and that it didn’t very clearly specify how the collective transformation of society could be linked to the expression of individual creativity. After all, Garnet Hertz’s work on DIY cultures has identified that a strong current of ‘hedonistic DIY’ in which people make things for fun and to scratch their own itches, not necessarily as forms of social intervention.
So when Aleks and I were coming up with our workshop activitiy project, we wanted to use a period of controlled (classroom-based) making as a form of practiced thinking, to see how students responded to the idea of making and sharing. This was especially important since students weren’t accustomed to making things themselves, or sharing them with others.
These are some of the photographs that Aleks took of the resulting “Googles”.
One thing I noticed about the process was that my students, who are highly driven sorts, spent a lot of time just playing around with the objects they used – folding paper, fiddling with PlayDoh, attaching elastic bands to things. While they did this they talked about what they were doing and, more loosely, about some of the ideas they had. One group accidentally spilled an entire container of glitter over their creation, and had to rush to create a rationale for its appearance in their ‘finished’ product – which I think is a great reflection of how the academic research process often works.
Another thing I noticed is that more than the other activities that I contrived to do in the course (seminar discussions, activities, report-backs) this activity let me hear more ideas from more people. I’ll certainly think about how to use making again as a way of engaging people who don’t always speak in public. This was a surprise to me and a good example of David’s argument that making things gives people a capacity to express their ideas and to feel that they are being heard.
The workshop, and the book, still leave me with some questions that are again mostly related to David’s eternal optimism. In the face of economic instability, environmental devastation (and the rest) is creativity enough? Or, put another way, what’s the link between collective and expressive creative endeavors and the other kinds of collective endeavors we now see as resisting neoliberalism? Obviously we are not going to knit our way out of a financial crisis.
Too Rosy For Creativity?
One drawback to the book was, I thought, that it might have come across as too positive and thus, superficial. It’s an accessible book, but it still attempts to seriously engage with the history and future of ‘making’ culture. Its blindspots are, to a large extent, a result of the overwhelming optimism that David brings to this discussion. He’s optimistic that making culture can bring people together, he’s optimistic that the technical capacity built by the Web can help to do this, and he even argues that the culture of making and connecting can challenge neoliberal market-based society by giving us other ways of relating to each other. From a teaching and learning perspective, it’s true that ‘making’ creates a different environment, where people talk and experiment and enjoy putting together pieces. But one thing I noticed about our workshop was that the process of making was actually a very strong (and somewhat pessimistic) critique of the digital environment. The “Googles” that the students built reflected their concerns about divides of access, knowledge of how to use new media, and passivity on the part of users of the services. So physical making was a good way of thinking about the constraints and complexities of digital making, which David also mentions in his book, in a chapter about how critical perspectives on the digital world are always caught between excessive optimism, and the fear of technological determinism.
One of my research and teaching goals is to understand how we can use critique to design a better set of futures. And while I may not be as optimistic as David about digital creativitity, I share his committment to a way of thinking, and connecting, through making.