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Good and bad times for making and thinking

knit dinosaur image supplied by D Gauntlett

Author: David Gauntlett
Institution: University of Westminster

Keywords: Everyday creativity, Web 2.0, DIY media, craft, internet


Readers of A Tale of Two Cities, possibly the greatest novel by Charles Dickens, or viewers of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, almost certainly the best film starring William Shatner, will remember the line: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. This bittersweet phrase seems to sum up the landscape for art, design and media learning in the UK at present.

On the one hand, this is an exciting time for people who like to make and share things – which is one way of expressing what art, design and media are all about – and who are interested in the fusion of ideas and practice. The rise of social media gives those of us interested in the social implications of popular media a whole new (or new-ish) set of practices, exchanges, and institutions to study. And I used the word ‘learning’ just above for good reason: we now see fascinating developments in informal learning, as it is sometimes called, where people are creating and organising their own communities of practice, and helping to develop each others’ skills and critical reflections, around their passion for knitting, guerrilla gardening, printing, robotics, creative activism (sometimes called ‘craftivism’), and a hundred other areas.

Here we see everyday people working out how to make and do things for themselves; and interestingly, the best commentators on digital media tend to be those who combine a hands-on practical understanding of how things work with the more traditional thinking-and-writing toolkit of the political philosopher. Last year’s You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, for instance, was a much more powerful critique of some ‘Web 2.0’ ideologies because its author was one of the internet pioneers, with a tangible understanding of technologies as well as his own take on creativity, individualism, and the politics of Google and Facebook. It was also substantially helped by his experience as a maker of music, which provided some memorable analogies.

The worlds of DIY media and everyday creativity, then, seem to be rather thriving. But on the ‘worst of times’ side of the account, the arts, humanities and social sciences in UK Higher Education have been punched hard by government cuts, and will suffer more under the terrible new fees system, under which student-consumers will pay – and expect – much more, while getting less. (This situation, of course, is a source of general woe, and has been discussed in previous issues of Networks).

At the same time, the study of developments in networked digital media has also been attacked from within the subject area, by conservative voices that seem to wish everything could stay the same. In the previous issue of Networks, for instance, Dan Laughey offered a random platter of arguments in an attempt to shoot down the concept of ‘Media Studies 2.0,’ and the interest in online media more generally. The creative individuals who contribute to thriving online communities, producing and sharing videos and other material about their passions, were cruelly dismissed by Laughey as thousands of ‘nobodies’ – whereas the millions of people watching The X Factor on ITV were found to be somehow more reassuring, presumably because it is easier to work out what old-fashioned media studies would have to say about them.

The elements of critical media-studies thinking that Laughey said he supports – such as the importance of methodologies, an international perspective, and the application of established or neglected theorists to the changed media landscape to see where they have insights to offer – are typically also supported by the proponents of a ‘Media Studies 2.0’, so his remarks generally miss their targets, and seem merely nostalgic for the good old days when it was easier to tell what the ‘media’ in ‘media studies’ meant.

The happier news, I think, is that these kinds of arguments are irritating but inconsequential, because what really counts is the development of thoughtful and fruitful theoretical analyses, innovative methods, and creative practice which challenges us to think about the discipline in new ways. This is happening across our field in a number of exciting forms. My own attempt to make a book-sized contribution, which Networks invited me to write about here, is entitled: Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, just published by Polity (see www.makingisconnecting.org).

Rather than seeing people’s activity on Web 2.0 platforms (such as YouTube, Flickr, and AudioBoo) as representing an entirely unprecedented explosion of human creativity, as some of the most ‘evangelical’ technology writers can seem to suggest, Making is Connecting is careful to show the connections between online and offline creativity, and to connect contemporary expressions of self and personal interests with what people have said about creativity, community and self-expression in previous centuries. The internet is certainly good for amplifying the reach of communications, and for connecting people, but human creativity obviously preceded the internet by several thousand years.

The book starts from the point that making is connecting in three significant ways:

  • Making is connecting because you have to connect things together (materials, ideas, or both) to make something new;
  • Making is connecting because acts of creativity usually involve, at some point, a social dimension, and connect us with other people;
  • Making is connecting because through making things and sharing them, we increase our engagement with the world, and connection with social and physical environments.

One strand of the book highlights how the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris – the Victorian critics who both combined art and design practice with cultural and political commentary, and inspired the Arts and Crafts movement – can illuminate what people are doing on Web 2.0 platforms today. For instance, Ruskin loved the gargoyles on medieval cathedrals, even though they are often quirky and rather roughly-done, precisely because you could see in them the spirit of a thinking, creative human being: you could sense the presence of the maker. For the same reason, I would argue that we should cherish the very broad diversity of things on YouTube, no matter how eccentric or unprofessional their execution, because what you see in them is the vibrancy of human life and imagination. Here we see people making things, and sharing them with others, not typically because it’s their job, or duty, or because they have to earn a qualification, but simply because they want to. That phenomenon is inevitably, I would say, much more powerful, and indeed moving, than any number of highly polished television programmes.

That doesn’t mean that television programmes and other ‘traditional media’ are suddenly all pointless and a waste of time, of course, but I’m talking about what makes an interesting social phenomenon, and what has the potential for social change. I am not one of those people who think that blog posts and Tweets constitute social change in themselves (if anyone does think that). My point is rather than we need to embrace those things which may help to foster and build the creative capacity of the population. We face ever bigger threats, in particular around climate change, sustainability and resilience, as well as questions such as how to organise education in the twenty-first century. I don’t know the ‘answers’ to the big challenges that we face, but I do know that we will need people who have developed the ability to make and think in creative ways. The test-driven education system does not seem to be making this a priority, so instead (or, optimistically, as well) we should engage with those tools and services which people are using as places of creative communication and exchange, just because they want to, because this is one of the best sites of hope that we have got.

Again, this represents not newfangled ‘technological determinism,’ but rather an enquiring approach which seeks to explore whether critical perspectives from the past can make sense in the context of new media technologies. For instance, returning to the Arts and Crafts movement, we see that William Morris built on Ruskin’s work with a vision of communities connected through the things that they make – people filling their lives with the fruits of their own creative labour, positively embodied in their role as creators, rather than consumers. Morris himself mastered all kinds of creative techniques during the course of his lifetime, moving on from painting and drawing to embrace embroidery, woodcuts, calligraphy and book printing, tapestry weaving, and textile printing. He clearly felt that a hands-on engagement with a craft was the only way to truly understand it. His writings and the things he made can be seen as parts of the same project: ‘visionary accounts of an ideal world’. Morris understood ‘genuine art’ to be ‘the expression of [a person]’s pleasure in [their] handiwork’, and deplored the separation between the ‘professional’ world and the everyday things that people make. True art, he felt, was things that people make because they want to.

However, the twentieth century was a time when the production of culture became dominated by professional elite producers. We’ve got used to that now, so it seems normal. But things don’t have to be that way. The role of individual as consumer is now so well established that it is being imported wholesale into other spheres, such as higher education, where it has no sensible place, as we have seen. But there is no reason to think that that’s a good move. In Making is Connecting I argue that we could be seeing the start of a shift from a ‘sit-back-and-be-told culture’ to a ‘making-and-doing culture’: people rejecting traditional teaching and television, and making their own learning and entertainment instead. This connects with the ideas of 1970s philosopher Ivan Illich, who argued that people need tools to create, to express themselves, to make their mark, and to shape the environments in which they live. Illich argued that we need ‘convivial tools’, which we can use to do what we want, rather than ‘industrial tools’, which are one-size-fits-all solutions which expect us to fit in with what they want. In this context, I tend to think of television as an ‘industrial tool’ – a take-it-or-leave-it delivery system for readymade content – whereas Web 2.0 platforms, at their best, can be closer to Illich’s ‘convivial tools’, enabling people to contribute to their own spread of media material, and to ‘make their mark’ on that landscape rather than merely being able to look at it.

I did not want to be asserting that certain kinds of practices would be ‘good’ for people, or society, without empirical support. Statements about the importance of ‘creativity’ and ‘community’ are often offered as aspirational platitudes, but those who are not already convinced tend to protest that these notions are warm, fuzzy, and meaningless. Therefore I drew on the extensive social science research into happiness, and social capital. This data shows emphatically that people who are most satisfied with their lives are those who have a network of positive relationships. It also shows that people’s satisfaction with life rises when they have a project – something to work towards – which is within their full control, and within which they can express themselves in some way. As the economist Richard Layard puts it: ‘Prod any happy person and you will find a project’.

Furthermore, conscious of the need to use real-world evidence to support the ‘making is connecting’ thesis, the book draws together research studies of people who make and share things online, and those who enjoy real-world making and crafts. We find that they have much in common:

  • Making in itself offers pleasure, thought and reflection, and helps to cultivate a sense of the self as an active, creative agent.
  • People spend time creating things because they want to feel alive in the world, and to be an active participant in dialogues and communities.
  • Individuals also like to be recognised within a community of interesting (like-minded) people.

So people like to make things for their own sake, but also get something from participating in conversations and relationships connected with their activity, and also desire some kind of recognition for this. The important thing here is that the recognition has to come from ‘your people’: as an avid bee-keeper, you don’t really care too much about what non-enthusiasts think, but you do like to get a sense of friendly exchange and mutual respect from fellow beekeepers.

Overall the book argues that creative activity is not just ‘a nice thing’ for the individual, but is absolutely crucial for a healthy and thriving society. A society which does not offer citizens opportunities to express themselves and make their mark is like a tree cut off from its roots; with no nutrients, it soon becomes dull, and fails. This is not simply the kind of point that governments would make – that we need creative people to drive the economy forward – because you could achieve that pretty well with a smallish number of super-creative people. Rather, the point here is that everyone needs creative opportunities and connections, if they are to flourish.

This therefore means, amongst other things, that there is an urgent political need to change our school-level education system to embrace a much more exploratory approach, learning through investigating and making, rather than just memorising material to regurgitate in tests. It also arguably means that the creativity-fostering potential of Web 2.0 platforms should not be left to unpredictable and profit-seeking corporations, but should be supported by something a bit more reliable: a consortium, perhaps, of public institutions, such as the British Library and the BBC in the UK, and the Library of Congress and the Guggenheim Foundation in the US. This is an entirely speculative proposal, of course, and is unlikely to happen while the commercial companies seem to be providing useful platforms perfectly well – even though the questions about long-term stability, and what those companies might be doing with our data, are real ones.

While things may not be going well in the education system, I nevertheless think that – as Dale Dougherty, editor-in-chief of Make magazine, likes to say – now is the time of the makers. That doesn’t signal the triumph of making over thinking, or – in terms of some higher education silos – that ‘production’ has beaten ‘theory’. As every maker knows, thinking is central to making, and making is a process of thinking. And everyone is a maker of something. One part of the process of moving to a healthier, more imaginative, and more environmentally sustainable world in the twenty-first century will be that we need more and more making, and, through that, connecting.


Biography

David Gauntlett is Professor of Media and Communications at the School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster. He has produced books, websites and online videos, and conducted collaborative research with some of the world’s leading creative organisations, including the BBC, Lego, and Tate.

Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 was published by Polity in April 2011. The website with videos and extracts is at: www.makingisconnecting.org.

 

References
Gauntlett, D. (2011) Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, Cambridge, Polity.
                                                          
Lanier, J. (2010) You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, London, Allen Lane.
 
Layard, R (2006) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, London, Penguin.
 
Illich, I. (1973) Tools for Conviviality, London, Calder & Boyars.
 
Morris, W. (2004) News from Nowhere and Other Writings, edited by Clive Wilmer, London, Penguin.
 
Ruskin, J. (1997) Unto This Last and Other Writings, edited by Clive Wilmer, London, Penguin.
 

Photos: D Gauntlett
Listing image photo: Starfish
Main photo: Knit dinosaur