16 August 02011

The Whys and Wherefores of Creativity and Sharing: Review of Making is Connecting

Making is Connecting book coverOne of the beauties of David Gauntlett's Making is Connecting is the way it develops a fundamentally simple idea with successive layers of richness and power. The cover captures the kernel of the book: the core thesis that making (with hands and brain, resourcefully) is connecting (in terms of relationships, meaning, learning); the context that extends from scissors and thread to YouTube; and the ethos of the personal, handmade artefact captured in the stylish smudge that subverts the sleek sans-serif typeface.

One of the perils of writing anything related to Web 2.0 over the last four years is being painted into a corner opposite Andrew Keen and his Cult of the Amateur broadside against the threats to the hieratic hierarchy of professional power. In this case I think the comparison is justified, because Making is Connecting is everything that The Cult of the Amateur was not. Where Keen reductively polarises and thins out the issues he addresses, Gauntlett's treatment is embodied, his points rounded out with substance and complexity. Where Keen uses "amateur" as term of haughty derision, Gauntlett gives us back a fleshed out sense of the word, capturing the care and dedication that come when people make things for love, not money.

Regular readers of this blog with good memories may remember that David Gauntlett is a friend of mine. I interviewed him a year ago when he was writing Making is Connecting. (On the same morning, as well as interviewing me for this blog, David also interviewed me about my blogging on another site for his book — you may be thinking I only review books I've been interviewed for, but I promise that's not true.)

In that 2010 interview, I complimented David on his plain speaking style and how he makes his ideas accessible. That holds true throughout Making is Connecting: it's rare for a book to cite Adorno and Horkheimer while still remaining readable, but this one does. Of Ivan Illich — one of David Gauntlett's guiding lights, along with the likes of William Morris, John Ruskin and Richard Sennett — he says "his writing feels earthy, and engaged with real things." The same could be said of David himself, and I confess I envy him in this.

Making is Connecting is about how to engage creatively with the world, using accessible tools to make things. What Gauntlett takes from Illich, he says, is that making changes everything — including, I think, people's sense of themselves, their relationships, and their capacity to effect change independent of any "external authority". The shift from sit-back to lean-forward media has been widely covered in the last decade and a half, but David Gauntlett situates it in a wider social and cultural history. Where writers like Clay Shirky and David Weinberger articulate the areas where the Net brings about a step change in public life, Gauntlett draws attention to the continuities. Over the course of a generation everything has changed; over centuries, some ideas and themes persist or recur.

This is where the knitting and the lefty artisans from the 19th century come in. Knitting, along with other craft and DIY skills, are "popularly seen as a bit boring" but are actually enablers and carriers of key attributes of society: resilience, self-expression and identity, creativity and social capital. Gauntlett is not afraid to call things as 'good' or 'bad'. He does this without becoming preachy or hectoring: the tone is mostly fraternal, occasionally avuncular.

It's Web 2.0 and the home made media like podcasts and YouTube video that give Making is Connecting its topicality. While Gauntlett clearly champions the fit-for-amateurs qualities of these media, and explains their value in depth through examples and analysis, he is not so much of an evangelist that he is blind their limitations.

Where Gauntlett is critical of Web 2.0 he draws heavily on Jaron Lanier, who offers a more nuanced and closely-informed analysis than Andrew Keen. Sometimes, though, I feel Gauntlett follows Lanier in being too hasty to dismiss some of the ideas around Web 2.0. I'm sceptical about some of the claims made for the "hive mind" (and I hope I'm not blind to Web 2.0's downsides, either), but I feel Gauntlett is too hasty and too glib in dismissing it, by taking Ray Kurzweil as its advocate. Ray Kurzweil is that rare beast, a flesh-and-blood straw man, a living, breathing (for now) caricature. Whether we call it a hive mind or not, the implications of having connections between brains almost as dense and large in scale as the connections within brains are not going to become clear for a generation or two.

If this aspect of connecting is covered too superficially for my taste, the chapter on Robert Putnam's theory of social capital feels too ponderous. This is the one part of the book where I thought I was reading a book aimed at being a staple of the media studies degree course.

Back when I interviewed David Gauntlett I asked if the connection he was making between 19th century craft and 21st technology was in some a repudiation of what much of the 20th century stood for. He replied,

In terms of "rolling back 150 years", it's not really about that, but maybe it is about re-connecting with the kind of everyday creativity which may have flourished more in the past, and which doesn't flourish in a consumerist, TV-watching society.

Point taken, and it's possible to argue that people of my generation have spent all our careers trying to repeal the excesses of Fordist mass production and one-way mass media (cf my last book review again). Still, I'm uneasy about whether we're throwing out a baby with the bathwater. I also want to unpick David Gauntlett's assertion that "[Stewart] Brand's work helps us trace a direct path from William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, to its heir, the countercultural movement, and on to the internet and Web 2.0" (page 52-53). From my reading of Stewart Brand and the counterculture, this connection feels post-hoc and partial — though perhaps that's just because Brand feels, culturally, so deeply embedded in the postwar US Beats-and-Buckminster-Fuller context that feels so distant from Morris in Victorian Britain.

At one level this doesn't matter: Gauntlett is perfectly at liberty to cherry pick the elements that help build his Making is Connecting agenda. At another level, I think perhaps it does. Are we getting the whole story about creativity here? I want to say Yes to William Morris and John Ruskin. But Yes, too, to Andy Warhol, who put a frame around images of mass produced soup cans, while also effacing craft and personality in the making of these images, and challenged to say that these were not creative and worth celebrating.

Making is Connecting puts the case for a virtuous circle of co-creation, self-expression, self-reliance, sharing, formation of meaning and identity and community bonding. I don't argue with David Gauntlett that this is a good thing, and that we should be thinking in our work, online and offline, how to create the conditions where this circle of creativity can flourish.

To the extent that I have any reservation about this, it may be a purely intellectual one, of little or no practical consequence. It hinges on the models of making/creating and of sharing/connecting that seem to underpin, tacitly, this prescription for embodied wholesomeness. Firstly there's the idea that creating something imbues it, if not with the essence of your soul as in the full-on Romantic ideal, then at least with a little bit of your identity, your unique touch. Secondly, there's the idea that, when you share the thing you made, it communicates something of you, or carries some intended message — and in the reciprocity of sharing you forge this connection out of which resilient communities emerge.

What of unintended message and unconscious slips? What of disembodied or impersonal creativity where what the thing make slips loose from the mooring of your self? This is where I thought of Andy Warhol — and also of John Cage. Consider Cage's epiphany when he realised, after hearing the sounds of his own nervous system and blood circulation in an anechoic chamber, that he could create sound and music without intention. He realised he was at a crossroads where he could make music he intended or music that was unintended, and he chose the latter path for the rest of his career. "My work became an exploration of non-intention", he wrote using chance mechanisms as a way of trying to keep his ego out of the creative process.

That making and creativity without human subjectivity is the norm, not the exception, is nowhere more evident than in the example of evolution. Evolution demonstrates how random mutations, completely free from the designs of a Ruskinian craftsperson, have generated profound creativity, when combined with the challenges of survival. Yet these mutations are themselves "failures" or imperfections in the "uncreative" process of copying genetic information.

So what? As I say, I'm not myself sure whether this reservation matters at all. Perhaps it is simply orthogonal to the message of David Gauntlett's book. I don't think it takes away from the book's prescription for taking part in creative, playful activities that engage our bodies and minds physically at the same time as they situate our identities socially. Making is Connecting practises what it preaches in being a straightforward, practical argument for that. (And it still leaves scope for more discursively-minded readers to wander off down random rabbit holes.)

[Disclosure: I showed David Gauntlett a draft of this review. While declining to argue with my more critical points, he corrected a misquotation, flagged a couple of points of interpretation and emphasis, and alerted me to just how shabby my original ending was. I made changes to try to address each of these.]

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Reviews, Social Software on 16 August 02011 | TrackBack
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