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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

http://callybooker.co.uk

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.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2011 5:40 pm

    There is in Freud (Beyond the Pleasure Principle?) the story of the ‘fort-da’ which Freud took to indicate the invention of symbolism in a child. This might be the case but it always struck me that it was an expression of the joy of tools and their use – here ball & sound (language?) – that we all experience.

  2. June 15, 2011 9:01 pm

    Hi David. Long time, no see.

    I haven’t read the book, nor did I hear the interview, but hopefully we’ve talked enough that I know where you’re coming from.

    The arguments here seem very sound. But on the necessity for struggle, I disagree. I think even the most casual blogger/youtuber/podcasterhas struggled with the technology, with the services available, with the limitations of the stuff they’ve got to hand. And that getting there in the end is enormously rewarding. Doing the thing is fun, but also frustrating.

    I’m writing and thinking about computer games recently and a big part of being a gamer is failing and getting pissed-off. Lots of times. Catastrophically. But maybe each time edging a little closer to success because you close off pathways that don’t work or have a spot of luck.

    Failing and frustration aren’t the opposite of fun, I suppose I mean to say, but success is even more fun. For gamers, the act fulfils a very similar role to crafting, I think, in terms of feeling that you’re alive in the world, or some world, and making a difference. though it can also be / often is solitary. Though very often nowadays, there are more social aspects.

  3. June 16, 2011 9:35 am

    Hi David, you seem to put much onus on the online ‘social’ features and what the user ‘gets out’ of the process i.e. happiness and fulfilment. Whereas Sennett treats ‘craft’ in a more serious (elitist?) manner, arguing, that craft comes about by endeavour and commitment (10,000 hours etc). It could be argued that Sennett wants to conserve and promote the notion of craft, whereas you regard craft as more populist, and he might argue are watering down the act of craftsmanship – could it be claimed that there is a comparison to be made between the views put forward on ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and the authors’ approaches to craft?

    I found Sennett to be quite reticent in giving much authority to craft in ‘the digital world’ which was surprising as in ‘The Craftsman’ he discusses programmers it the light of craft, he also didn’t give much credence to the social aspects of online craft communities…yet.

    You both obviously value craft, it just seems he is coming more from a conserving position and you from a progressive one?

  4. June 16, 2011 9:57 am

    Hi Ian. Well you are not really disagreeing with me here. Certainly, having a challenge is part of what keeps people interested in an activity, and frustration and failure, as you say, may well be part of the journey. The disagreement arose here because Sennett appeared to deny that people got pleasure from craft and creativity at all, which I thought was going a bit far! Indeed, that’s not what you would think from reading his very good book ‘The Craftsman’. Since I was talking about people doing creative things just because they want to, or because they want to express something . . . well I think overall that would be a positive experience, not a negative one, even if it involved frustrations along the way.

  5. June 16, 2011 9:58 am

    Hi Mostyn. Yes I would agree! That seems to be the case. Well put.

  6. January 5, 2012 8:28 pm

    Hi Folks

    You may or may not be aware of the current risk to practical and creative education (Art and Design & Design and Technology – CDT’s adolescent brother) are potentially at risk in the English curriculum under Michael Gove’s (Education Secretary for the ConLib coalition) traditional/independent school style philosophy with the English Baccalaureate. The EBac, which emphasises the traditional academic subjects (English, Math, Science, Languages, and Geography/History) – and must sound so laudable at the middle class dinner party – is a great concern to teachers (I’m and teacher and a teacher educator) as it will leave very little room for choice and creative/practical subjects.

    If you are passionate about design and making, can I encourage you to sign up for the Design and Technology Associations “Believe in D&T” campaign at http://www.believeindandt.org.uk. We have had a little bit of a reprieve (?) as it appears that Gove didn’t like (or realised that it was much more complicated to develop a “balanced and broad” curriculum) what the Expert Panel reported on (just before Christmas), so instead of a new curriculum being announced in the New Year (2012), it has been delayed for a year for further consultation.

    I’m a D&T teacher and passionate about designing and making. I don’t see a divide between academic and practical activity, and have been encouraged by reading Richard Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’ (sorry David, not read your book yet, but following finding this blog am minded to). Whilst I agree with many of the criticisms above, it is good to see some ontological and epistemological debate over design and making activity in the public domain.

    Kind Regards
    Matt McLain
    Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education
    Liverpool John Moores University

  7. January 6, 2012 4:41 pm

    Thanks, Matt — interesting.

  8. December 25, 2014 12:19 am

    This post offers clear idea iin support of the new people of blogging,
    thzt genuinely how to do blogging.

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  1. David Gauntlett | ‘Making is Connecting’, Richard Sennett and my dad

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