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‘Making is Connecting’ on Thinking Allowed: What the listeners said – including my dad

May 10, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I was on ‘Thinking Allowed’, the BBC Radio 4 (also BBC World Service) discussion programme presented by Laurie Taylor. The subject was my new book ‘Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0’, and I was very happy to be joined by Richard Sennett, the former LSE professor who wrote the excellent book, ‘The Craftsman’ (2008).

You can listen to or download the MP3 podcast of the programme via this page (scroll to ‘Craft and Community’, 27 April 2011), or see the website of the book which includes videos, events, and extracts.

Richard Sennett was very nice, and supportive, in person, but when the microphones were turned on he took on a more combative edge, which made for, I hope, a lively discussion.

I did not anticipate that our differences would be very substantial, but Sennett seemed to argue that people do not do craft and making activities because it gives them feelings of pleasure and pride – rather, he emphasised the pain and struggle, and the time it takes to master a craft.

This stems, I suppose, from our different approaches to craft. I’m interested in what I call ‘everyday creativity’: activities by anyone where they make and share things – online or offline – because they want to. Whereas Sennett seemed to be thinking of the more professional or virtuoso type of ‘craftsmanship’.

In the contexts I’m talking about – people making YouTube videos, blogs, music, knitting, craft projects or fun robots – it doesn’t really make any sense to say that people don’t enjoy what they do, for the straightforward reason that if they didn’t like it they simply wouldn’t bother doing it.

He also said that people had not yet done very imaginative things online – a point which I should have argued with more forcefully, but we were running out of time.

In any case, I thought the discussion went okay, although we didn’t seem to cover very much ground.

Unsurprisingly, the programme was listened to by a few people I know, plus some people I half-know from Twitter, and around 1.5 million others. Also listening in were my parents.

I hadn’t really thought about it in advance, but of course my dad had a particular interest in the subject, having been a woodwork teacher (later ‘craft, design, technology’) at a state school for almost all of his working life. It’s nice to have your dad on your side, obviously, and in this case I was very pleased that he turned out to be, in our weekly phone call, both irritated and indignant about Sennett’s argument.

I asked him to write it down for the sake of this blog post, and this is what he sent:

In his opening comments, David defined one of the contributors to happiness as having the opportunity to express oneself through making, and being able to see a project through from inception to fruition. Also there is happiness and satisfaction in creating.

Children get immense satisfaction and happiness from the process of creating with their hands and the sense of achievement with the finished object, however modest. For some pupils who fail in most academic subjects, to find opportunities for self-expression and satisfaction, craftwork is their best chance of achieving satisfaction and ‘joy’ (to use that contentious expression) in learning.

I take issue with Richard Sennett’s view that the only joy comes, or should come, with the final achievement of near perfection. He said more or less that commitment and keeping going were what mattered, and if you aim to get pleasure from the making process then the first time you come to a difficulty ‘you have a problem’. This sentence in itself does not make sense; of course a difficulty is a problem. However if you have enjoyed the making process you will have gained knowledge and confidence to tackle the difficulty, as well as joy from the process of small achievements along the way.

When we say ‘making is connecting’ we should not be thinking of thousands of hours to achieve top craftsmanship, but the joy of small successes, and satisfaction in modest achievements.

The programme led me to think about the reasons why adults came to craft evening classes. Some came for social contact, others just to use the equipment and facilities. Others pursued a particular interest (such as a dentist who renovated old furniture), or to learn to use tools and create. But all felt the need to express themselves in a craft. Local authorities have killed off most of these opportunities by insisting only on courses that lead to NVQs [National Vocational Qualifications] or some other piece of paper. School craft and design seem to ‘dabble’ instead of giving real opportunities for achievement. And so other outlets have been sought, privately funded art or craft groups for example. Perhaps the internet may provide new opportunities, and new awareness.

So I liked that response, unsurprisingly. I was also sent, by the producer of the radio programme, this interesting email from a listener, Cally Booker (who has subsequently given permission for it to be reproduced here). I didn’t previously know Cally – she is not even a distant relative. This is the email she sent to the programme:

From: Cally Booker
Sent: 04 May 2011 17:27
To: Thinking Allowed
Subject: online craft communities

Dear Laurie

I have just been catching up with some podcasts and have been belatedly listening to your Thinking Allowed episode on crafts and community. I’m motivated to write to you because I wanted to support David Gauntlett’s optimism regarding online craft communities.

My own craft discipline is weaving. It is by no means as mainstream (or portable) an activity as knitting and so my ‘local’ community is somewhat limited. However, weavers have been networking online for many years. There are groups varying from simple email lists, through Yahoo! groups, to specially designed weaving sites such as Weavolution. Similarly, online resources range from historic weaving drafts to YouTube demonstration videos to downloadable and print-on-demand monographs. The UK Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers includes a guild which was founded nine years ago and operates entirely online. Many weavers maintain their own blogs as well as using Twitter, Facebook etc. etc.

Personally I like the blogs best. I have been maintaining my own for the last four years and think of it as my home space. When I visit other weavers’ blogs it is like popping in for a cup of tea while they show me round their studio or hold up their latest piece of work. I often get to see a little bit of their private life as well – how much is entirely up to the blogger, so (probably unsurprisingly, though maybe there is some research to be done there) the blogs I read the most are the ones where the privacy values are most similar to my own. When we meet in online groups it is more like a guild meeting: more focused on a common task or interest. Using Twitter is more like being at an enormous party, where loads of topics are thrown in the air all at once.

However, the main point I wanted to make was this: the thing I especially value about this community is that there are participants at every level of skill and experience. From my position ‘somewhere in the middle’ I can find advice from expert practitioners and offer a helping hand to beginners. I can rejoice at weaver A’s work being selected for a prestigious show and at weaver B’s completion of her first solo project. I can also talk frankly with people who are at a similar point to me in their weaving lives – an enormous benefit which is just not available to me offline because the pool of local weavers is not large enough.

Thank you for another interesting programme.

Kind regards

Cally Booker

So of course I was pleased with that feedback too. These two ‘reviews’ of our radio discussion, from Cally and from my dad, are centred on handmade crafts – with, in Cally’s case, an emphasis on how the Web can connect practitioners and amplify their collective creative efforts. In the book I also look at research studies of people who make and share things online, as well as those who enjoy real-world making and crafts, and draw together some shared themes. In fact, we find 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; to be an active participant in dialogues and communities.
  • Individuals also like to be recognised within a community of interesting (like-minded) people.

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. We also, of course, need to foster the creative capacity of society in order to deal with climate change and adapting to a world beyond oil, amongst other huge challenges.

Another connection I’ve made from the programme, helped by Twitter in this case, is with the author Pat Kane (from the 1980s hit band Hue and Cry, now also a journalist and author of ‘The Play Ethic’). He has got a new project which, as he noted, has a number of connections with ‘Making is Connecting’. It’s called ‘Radical Animal’ and you can read about it on this website.

BBC accused of planning “the death of local radio

March 15, 2011

The BBC is said to be planning to downgrade their local radio stations.

The proposal – to use the national station 5 live to replace most original programmes on local radio, retaining only the breakfast and drivetime output – is one of a number of options being considered as part of the BBC’s ‘Delivering Quality First’ savings review.

But listeners, employees and the broadcasting unions are already predicting this would mean the ultimate closure of many stations and the destruction of the local service as a whole.

As with other recent cost-cutting proposals at the BBC, such as the move to axe the digital station 6Music, this might just be a kite-flying exercise to gauge public reaction. To move any further the BBC would need a full public consultation and the approval of the BBC Trust.

These are nevertheless worrying times for local radio staff. The service has fought off extinction before. A new Conservative government in 1970 wanted to close the BBC stations and hand local radio to commercial operators; Lord Annan’s Committee proposed merging Independent Local Radio and BBC Local Radio under a separate authority, and the BBC faced difficult decisions about cutting back, again during a financial crisis in the late 70s.

Despite these challenges, BBC Local Radio, which now numbers around 40 stations in England, plus those in the Nations, amounts to a considerable success story over its 43-year history.

The network has championed local communities and neighbourhood needs, given airtime to minority groups and good causes and provided comprehensive coverage of news stories in each area. It’s been a platform for debate and discussion and attracts most attention when the weather turns bad, providing valuable information on travel conditions and school closures. Audiences are healthy, though there has been some contraction in listening of late, but hardly a terminal decline.

Why then is the BBC taking a serious look at its future?

Part of the problem is the lack of a clear direction of what local radio is intended to be. Once upon a time there were firm roots in the community aspirations of local radio, with significant amounts of airtime available for interested amateurs and dedicated enthusiasts to get involved and make radio.

These slots have largely disappeared, apart from some specialist music and ethnic minority shows. One Managing Editor of a local station told me that they didn’t care about ratings in the evenings any longer: what mattered was the daytime audience.

The claim to be a community champion has been stolen from under their nose by the new community radio sector, licenced by OFCOM to serve small geographic areas and definable interest groups.

BBC Local Radio has gradually homogenised in recent years, turning over its output to the ubiquitous phone-in, dubbed by one former BBC executive as ‘5 live lite’.

The move away from a truely local focus went to another level last year, with the syndication of programmes between stations as with the south east of England sharing one drivetime show across Surrey, Sussex and Kent; a step back to the old regional concept which petered out in the early 1970s.

The other operator in this field, commercial radio, has already ceased being local, with the re-branding of many stations as part of the Heart, Smooth and Capital networks.

Each time it has faced the threat of closure in the past, BBC Local Radio has fought back and survived, gathering a powerful and vocal alliance of supporters from amongst politicians, community groups and listeners.

A most useful ally has been the Local Radio Advisory Councils, a board of volunteers recruited to monitor output and advise on local issues. But the councils were abolished in 2007,  replaced by larger Regional Audience Councils: perhaps the loss of such an appreciative lobby will be felt in the months to come.

One thing is for certain: once you start dismantling this kind of local radio network, it is unlikely it’ll ever be built again in this form. Perhaps the BBC should consider opening up their local radio stations for partnership arrangements with universities and other public bodies, or merge them with community stations?

Matthew Linfoot

Matthew is the Principal Lecturer in Radio at the University of Westminster. A Sony Award winner he is currently writing PhD on the history of local radio.

UK politics expert podcast determines how Spin and PR undermines UK politics

March 4, 2011

UK experts from politics, PR and Journalism gathered at the University of Westminster to examine whether British politics has been undermined by spin and PR.

The debate recorded and down loadable as a podcast, is part of a hugely anticipated event every year  lasting around an hour which brings together some of the UK’s most respected media, PR and political figures for stimulating debates.

If you’re a journalism, politics or PR professional or student, or take an active interest in the aforementioned, the University of Westminster’s PR debate provides professional and rigorous debate to understanding contemporary politics and media.

The Experts
This year’s experts were: Laura Sandys, a Conservative MP and former political consultant  to PM John Major;  and  Kevin Maguire  the Associate and Political Editor of Daily Mirror who vigorously claimed it had. Maguire intoned, today we don’t have a Prime Minister today but a Prime Spinner.

Lance Price- previously addressed Masters students at the university

Lance Price, a Former Labour ‘spin doctor’, now author and commentator;  and Francis Ingham, Chief Executive, Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) argued differently.

Lance claimed without spin the Labour party stood little chance against a well-oiled conservative machinery under Margaret Thatcher whom mastered political communications.

He added whilst spin is nothing new, politicians require professional help to deliver their message and that the public are much more discerning, capable of seeing through spin that constitutes rhetoric and that which explains a government’s stalled message.

The perennial subject of spin and PR in politics has led to some choice aphorisms in British Politics. Fomer Labour cabinet minister Peter Mandelson said:  “Crude clumsy handling of the media by overly controlling and politicised press officers causes more problems than no handling at all, because it undermines trust”.

Whilst that doyen of British journalism, the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman took the position interviewing politicians: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?

The debate was chaired by Trevor Morris, Visiting Professor of Public Relations, University of Westminster, and co-author of ‘PR- A Persuasive Industry?’

Listen to the  debate recorded as a  podcast here.

This debate is hosted by the University of Westminster and organised by the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, part of the School of Media, Arts and Design. A leader in its field, the department hosts the Communication and Media Research Institute – CAMRI – the UK’s top-rated media research unit, according to the Research Assessment Exercise 2008.

Situated in one of the world’s great cities, the school has close connections with leading businesses and media and a strong reputation for professional and practice-based education, matched by a distinguished record in academic teaching and scholarly research.

Following the debate the drinks reception was kindly sponsored by Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

Social creativity

July 27, 2010
Tessy Britton book pages

Some pages from 'Hand Made'

A very brilliant person who I have collaborated with on some projects, Tessy Britton, is just about to publish a wonderful book that she has edited, entitled Hand Made – Portraits of Emergent New Culture. It includes contributions from Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, Tracey Todhunter from Low Carbon Communities, Tim Smit who runs the Eden project, and many others. It’s a lovely and inspirational book.

Tessy invited me to do a chapter as well. She has very kindly given me permission to plonk an edited extract from my contribution here:

Social creativity is the heart of a strong and happy society

I’ve always enjoyed the process of making something – designing, creating, putting things together, to make something that previously didn’t exist. When I was 9, it was Lego spaceships. When I was 20, it was making and sharing zines: printed little magazines, fun to make, but tiresomely difficult to distribute. When I was 26, I realised that the World Wide Web had solved that distribution problem, so I’ve been making and sharing online ever since.

When I was 34, I found I could delight my inner 9-year old by bringing Lego back into my work life: using it as a tool to explore people’s aspirations, memories, and self-identity, through asking them to build metaphors in Lego bricks and pieces. This was not just to be novel, or to do something different to traditional interviews. Making things with the hands stimulates the brain in unusual ways – putting knowledge together, and creating something solid that you can explore, review and remake.

All of this unnecessary biographical information leads us to now, where I’m finishing writing a book called Making is Connecting. For rather a long time I’ve been writing stuff about people making things, and people connecting and communicating, but it was only quite recently that I realised you could squish all those messages together to say what I wanted to say, more or less, in three words. People create, and communicate, and form social bonds, and this works best of all when these are one and the same process: making is connecting.

I mean this in three main 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;
  • And making is connecting because through making things and sharing them in the world, we increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environments.

This book, the one you’re reading now, is full of inspiring accounts of amazing projects which brilliant people have done in their communities. Each one may justifiably bring a tear to your eye. Now, I don’t have an amazing community project to tell you about, and am unlikely to leave you sobbing. So what am I doing here?

What I can usefully do, I guess, is to show how crucial this kind of activity is for the very life and spirit of a society. I say ‘crucial’ because we’re not just talking about ‘a nice thing’ than can give individuals a little extra bit of pleasure; and we’re not looking at self-starting creative and community activity as a public-money-saving alternative to local council spending. Rather, the point is that doing things for yourself, and making things with others – making the world your own, and making your mark on the world, rather than merely receiving a manufactured environment assembled by external others – is absolutely central to our health and our well-being, as individuals, as families, and as a society. We can’t have a worthwhile future existence without it.

Meaningful everyday creativity doesn’t have to be manifested in those big projects that transform the experience of a whole community – although those are great, of course, and can really help to inspire people. But in fact any kind of creativity is significant and valuable, and it can make a difference in all kinds of tiny ways in everyone’s everyday lives and relationships.

The rise of contemporary crafts and knitting, hands-on community projects, and the ‘maker scene’, seems to have come hand-in-hand with Web 2.0 – simple tools that enable people to share their ideas and creative stuff online, and to make fruitful connections with others both on the internet and in real life. The sources of inspiration for Making is Connecting go back much further, though – to the Victorian thinkers and makers, John Ruskin and William Morris, and a radical philosopher most famous in the 1970s, Ivan Illich. You can’t really pigeonhole these guys. Ruskin was a conservationist, Morris a revolutionary socialist, and Illich shoots off in a direction which cannot be tied to any conventional political map. Add to this mix some of the feminist philosophers of craft, such as Rozsika Parker, plus some radical knitters and guerrilla gardeners, and it all starts to ferment nicely.

For Illich, making is connecting, but also making changes everything. It is only through the individual (and local collaborative) exercise of creativity that we can feel alive in the world, and enjoy our capacity to make a difference.

This argument has been given an extra boost by the recent research on happiness and social capital. Happiness sounds like a vague concept, but social scientists have found that you can measure it like anything else – you just ask people how happy they are. The reported levels of happiness can be aggregated and compared, and patterns emerge.

We learn, for instance, that strong social ties, and good health, contribute significantly to happiness. People who think that money will make them happy, however, are often wrong. Evidence shows that people adapt quickly to a new level of wealth, so unless you started out in poverty, having more money doesn’t make much difference.

The studies show that there is a way that individuals can choose to be happier, though: get a project. Research shows that people need something to strive towards. Leading happiness researcher Richard Layard reports: ‘Prod any happy person and you will find a project’. Human happiness, it seems, stems from having meaningful connections with others, and meaningful things to do.

The initiatives highlighted in this book really show the power of people coming together, in shared projects, to build something – something that previously just wasn’t there, and something that makes a difference. And, as I’ve said, we should also remember the importance of everyday acts of social creativity, however small. What makes these things important is not so much that they are useful, but that they are joyful. As people are increasingly starting to notice, life is just more vibrant and interesting when you make a change in the world for yourself.

Journalism’s Next Top Model

June 14, 2010

The University of Westminster held it’s second annual journalism conference on June 8/9 entitled “Journalism’s Next Top Model”. The event also hosted the Charles Wheeler Award for Broadcasting, given by the British Journalism Review, this year awarded to BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen. The event also featured a speech by London Mayor Boris Johnson.

The conference was focussed around the current state of journalism and particularly the funding. A keynote speech by Prof Robert Picard reviewed he current state of the newspaper industry. Other speakers looked at how the internet has affected sales and the who would pay for news in the future. A good commentary on the conference was written by

Jeremy Bowen’s speech where he criticised the BBC Trust was reported in  The Guardian

Video of the conference speakers has been posted on YouTube as jntmwmin by students from the University, including the speech by Boris Johnson (in two parts   one and two ). Additional material is available here.

We are all in PR now

June 5, 2010

As journalism flounders, public relations continues to thrive. But that’s good news for both sides of the divide, argues Trish Evans, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations.

It is time to admit that the two disciplines of journalism and PR are two sides of the same coin and that there is now complete freedom of movement between them. What’s more, with PR generally being better remunerated and flourishing, whereas journalism – print and broadcast – seems to be in a constant state of crisis, has public relations emerged from being seen by journalism as a poor and distant relation to taking on the role of a rich and powerful cousin?

To read more of Trish’s article go to The British Journalism Review

British radio coverage of the “Integration Struggle” in America in 1964

April 22, 2010

In 1964, BBC Radio mounted one of its biggest and most expensive series ever, “The Negro in America.”

For three months it broadcast to a national audience 17 programs of documentary, music, poetry, and debate designed to give a “coherent view of the integration struggle” to the British people. The leading poet Langston Hughes was invited to be the series’ co-editor, working alongside the long-serving BBC producer Geoffrey Bridson. This talk by Dr. David Hendy explores the origin of the series in the two men’s relationship as well as the critical and popular reaction to the series in Britain. What, it asks, did Hughes – or indeed the BBC – seek to get out of this historic, trans-Atlantic co-production?

David Hendy a Visiting Fellow at Beinecke Library. He has been teaching media history at the University of Westminster in London for the past 16 years. He studied history at the universities of St Andrews and Oxford, before joining the BBC as a trainee reporter in 1987. During his time at the BBC he produced news programs and documentaries for the Corporation’s main radio channel, Radio 4, covering the collapse of the Soviet Union and a range of European and British political events.

Full details of the lecture at the Beinecke Library, Yale University, click here.