Against craft

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Art and science are inadequate labels for both design and technology, but that doesn’t stop the odd skirmish.

UX people generally profit from scientism, disparaging aesthetics in favour of carefully dosed phrases like ‘cognitive load’. The development community has embraced comp-sci whiteboard abstraction and rejected the low barriers of the early web. Meanwhile, the UI crowd often prefers to align with art. 2017’s wave of Weird Consumer-Tech Illustration at least echoes Bruno Munari’s idea of design ‘re-establishing the long-lost contact between art and the public’, albeit in a misshapen way. These are the extremes. However, many technologists now outflank these two concepts and pledge allegiance to a third label: craft.

 Photo by  Philip Swinburn  on Unsplash

Photo by Philip Swinburn on Unsplash

Calling yourself a craftsperson affords status. Craft bespeaks skill and autonomy. In the face of creeping automation, a craftsperson is sovereign and irreplaceable. No mere production worker, labour to be organised – she chooses how the work should be done, which of course helps to justify her fees.

Deb Chachra’s piece Why I Am Not a Maker nails the negative connotations that surround making, craft’s central activity: its implied gendering, its conviction that the only valuable human activity is the production of capitalist goods. A shot of undiluted Californian Ideology.

But I also worry about how shallow the tech community’s interpretation of craft is; how aesthetic and performative we’ve made it. We buy handmade holsters for our Sharpies. Our conferences offer wood-turning workshops. Our dress code somehow blends hipster fetishisation of a blue-collar past with the minimalism of the urban rich: we yearn to connect with a handmade, physical world (perhaps to compensate for the ephemerality of our materials), but above all we must display our appreciation of quality, and hence our taste. Craft underpins how we dress and even behave. It’s easy to see where this leads: these identity performances become acts of gatekeeping. Those who look the part and fit the groove are given attention, hired, and respected. The rest are filtered out. Craft as class warfare.

Clinging too tightly to the craft identity also makes us arrogant. Craftspeople generally aren’t renowned multidisciplinarians: sadly, some believe their expertise separates them from less capable people. Those tawdry marketers, those frantic project managers – they don’t understand what it means to truly build. Academics? All talk. Can’t even fucking code, man. This maker-primacy, as Chachra points out, is anti-intellectual and discriminatory, undermining the important roles of education, care-giving, and other such feminised functions. To the craft ideologue, output is everything, and outcomes extraneous. To the world’s hungry, we offer the most exquisite wooden apples.

I’ve been thinking about how we reached our current ethical mess. I don’t think it’s because we ignored ethics; instead, we framed it too narrowly thanks in part to our distorted notions of craft. Until perhaps eighteen months ago, much of the tech community appeared to see ethics as a matter of competence, not impact. An ethical technologist had proper contracts and got paid on time; he commented his code diligently; he knew all the keyboard shortcuts and none of the politics. Nathaniel Borenstein’s old joke fits well:

“No ethically-trained software engineer would ever consent to write a DestroyBaghdad procedure. Basic professional ethics would instead require him to write a DestroyCity procedure, to which Baghdad could be given as a parameter.”

We’ve only recently started to tease apart ‘can’ and ‘should’, and to scrutinise our social and political responsibilities. We’re making progress, but from a standing start. To hasten this journey I think we should loosen our grip on the notion of craft, or at least look beyond its seductive aesthetics. Besides, craft has become fully hijacked by the mass market anyway. It has become commoditised and sanitised: an empty marketing label. On a recent economy-class flight I was served ‘artisanal craft coffee’: granulated, wettened by a tepid kettle, served with UHT milk and a plastic stirrer.

Let’s discard craft’s harmful identities, and instead explore craft, science, and art alike as domains to learn from and play in, not ways to shore up our status. Let’s dress worse, talk more, and get weirder.