Let’s Do This

Posted by in Art Threat

The optimism in David Gauntlett’s Making is Connecting (published by the fantastic UK outlet polity) is difficult to escape. Much like the plethora of networks, groups, clubs and civil society manifestations he describes, the book is largely held together with positive attitudes about culture and communication combined with a philosophy that triumphs creativity over consumption.

In that he forms a very accessible and sound argument centered on creating and sharing as the cornerstones to individual happiness and healthy community in a society saturated with messages imploring and coercing us to do the exact opposite, Gauntlett’s work is deeply political.

That’s not to say the book focuses in any way on outright political activity or explores the many critiques of free market capitalism currently in circulation. These impulses are implicit: they are buried like a bone or steel framework from which the less obviously political—that is the cultural—body is given shape.

Well into his conclusion (page 233) Gauntlett says as much:

I have not focused on these more obvious centres of political activity because this book is about the idea that making and sharing is already a political act.

Indeed in an era when anything one requires can be bought, often for low prices facilitated by low wages and regressive regulations in the world’s factory, China, making it ourselves—at least in the minority, privileged world—becomes a political act by nature of resisting, denying or circumventing the Walmartization of material reality. Making becomes a tactic to offset the empty void that accompanies the privilege of unfettered access to mass-produced cheap stuff.

Gauntlett thoughtfully addresses this plenty-empty paradox of 21st Century life by upscaling DIY (Do It Yourself) and DIWO (Do It With Others) to an all-out strategy for achieving fulfillment, happiness, and, as the book’s title suggests, connectivity.

The book begins with a short and quite narrow history of craftsmaking, which is not meant to provide a comprehensive account (clearly) but to introduce readers to some concepts and ways of thinking about ‘making’ through the lens of Victorian thinkers John Ruskin and William Morris.

The happy maker - author David Gauntlett

After the introduction the volume is divided into parts that explain the meaning of making and connecting, respectively, followed by thoughts on “tools for change,” a discussion of the pros and cons of Web 2.0, and a summary of key arguments from the book and “lessons learned” in the conclusion. It is a tightly organized and keenly structured essay-manual on the confluence of productivity, creativity and connectivity.

Making do and the creative class

It’s hard to make stuff these days. Culturally, many of us privileged working and middle class folk—especially the “digital natives”—are missing the crucial hard-wiring that was inculcated in our parents from their parents – the hands-on circuitry of creation and survival.

As well, “community” is increasingly exclusively measured in the minority world by online interaction and less by way of the meeting of bodies and personalities in material reality. In short, there has been less “making do” and “coming together” in a world where everything is already made and the only doing that needs to be done is in the “communities” found floating about on Facebook and Twitter. Thankfully, this bleak outlook on culture and communication has a positive corollary – Gauntlett argues that a resurrection of DIY and DIWO is in the mix and communication technologies are actually facilitating community and creativity with material world consequences.

“Making do” was popularized by de Cerceteau’s famous essay on “poaching” – where spirited culturalists and crafties appropriate the tools of mass production to not only their own benefit (in distinction to the elite cashing cheques off the backs of labour slaves) but as a form of pure expression. In the so-called “post-industrial” epoch where writers like Richard Florida describe the new creative class with aggrandizing flare, the citizenry of certain global urban centers no longer need concern themselves with the daily grind and drudgery of shaping their material reality – what they “make” and “do” is in a kind of self-affirming bubble.

Creative workers, the inhabitants, according to Florida, of “former gritty, working-class neighborhood[s] [that are] now populated by professionals, artists and students” are mainly comfortable white men and women happily hunched over laptops in cafes working away on websites, codec and multi-media for the information age. It’s a wonderful picture if you accept a sanitized, unrealistic and completely unequal framing of modern life in the West. The ongoing valorization of latté-sipping “creatives” clacking away on keyboards among the trendy restaurants, bars and galleries of Brooklyn, Wicker Park and Queen West makes material labour invisible (as in, who is building those trendy bars and galleries, who is picking up the garbage, cleaning the floors, washing the dishes).

Ultimately, this is the overly-hyped extension of a creative and connected society that Gauntlett manages to avoid, instead opting to drill down into the resulting positivity of “average people” making all kinds of things (much of which does not require a laptop) and connecting in all kinds of ways.

After all, we can’t all be web developers. Material reality, with all its bricks and mortar, microchips and transistors, bodies and callouses, toilets and tiles, is a world of things that are made by people who experience the consequences of making said things – a simple fact that is often overlooked in the celebration of a “new creative class,” but one that is implemented in the hardwiring of Gauntlett’s book.

Bed-building and the desire to make (this is a personal aside – the review continues below)

Recently I was in a Montreal hardware store looking for some electrical tape. The manager took me to the back of the store to show me the electrical section and lo and behold I happened on an entire section of wares devoted to amateur winemaking. “Wow, very cool – you have winemaking stuff here, all of it!” I enthused. “Yes, but we’re phasing this section out. Us ‘ethnics’ [the store is owned and run by a Greek family] used to like to make our own things. The new generations just aren’t interested, ethnic or not,” the manager solemnly replied. “Yeah,” I said, then joked, “the only thing the new generations are interested in making is friends on Facebook.” The manager rewarded the comment with a hearty chortle in response to what was admittedly a pot-shot, delivered only as a supportive provocation and nothing else. But biking home, I thought about the pessimistic moment and the implications of an entire demographic uninterested in making things.

Planing the bed

I’m past university age and do know how to “make things”: I’m a trained Journeyman Carpenter, having learned a trade passed on to me from my father with a skill set I proudly tout out whenever a friend is desperately trying to hang a frame or secure a shelf.

It wasn’t always a point of pride: there was a time when I was on the construction sites of Vancouver and I walked across the building lot with self-loathing and a total grievance for everything associated with being a blue collar worker. I found the culture charged with machismo and chauvinism and desperately tried to disassociate myself by carrying out ridiculous on-site performances such as the time I brought Marx’s “Wages and Profits” to work and (pretended to) read it at lunch while all the other worker men joked about me between sexual conquest vignettes and heterosexual swan songs about “life before the wife.”

I never really read the book (but would later read my share of Marx in school), because of course it was a prop, a conspicuous compensation for my poor performance as a manly-man carpenter, the kind who didn’t give a rat’s ass about intellectual crap – we make shit goddamnit!!

Fast forward a decade and those days are long gone. A serious injury forced me out of the construction game and landed me in a dreamland that I conjured on so many miserably rain-drenched days in the high-tower construction pits of downtown Vancouver. I was in University, the place you go to become worldly, intelligent, otherly to the workers I had once eked out a living with in the filth of our society’s concrete foundations.

But alas, enough critical knowledge thrown at you and some sticks. In a film class during my Masters the professor (the inspiring Thomas Waugh) asked all the students to comment on the images they had just been shown in a film by Marxist filmmaker Joris Ivens, where men were depicted installing pilings in the mud of 1930s Holland. “Beautiful,” “captivating” – “leaves me breathless,” “makes me think of the beauty and pride of work” were some of the comments going around. When it was my turn to comment, I contrarily said: “These images, while gorgeously shot and edited, remind me of the drudgery, exploitation and awfulness of hard labour.” There was nothing romantic about any of those men, risking their lives to drive pylons for wealthy landowners into the earth for a pittance. I’m sure they were all thinking about the next coffee break, the next paycheque – in much the same way I had been preoccupied while working for many years as a carpenter on the West Coast of Canada.

And so more years later, after moving into an apartment in Montreal and removing one of the walls that separated the living room from the kitchen, I felt the need to tell people about how hard the task was, about all the dust breathed in—even through masks—about blood-shot eyeballs that needed to be washed, and about newly-worked muscles straining after more than a decade of the regal treatment of intellectual life. With this narrative came the climax, that I had removed the 90-year-old studs from the wall, planed them down, sanded them, shaped them, and built a bed for my partner and I, we who had been sleeping on the floor for seven years – the squalor and the splendour!

At social gatherings my renovation-creation story caught fire like gasoline-soaked hay. “Amazing!” “I’m so jealous!” “I wish I could MAKE something!” My triumphant tale of confronting the hardships—however brief the experience may have been—of work and making something personal, unique and useful, lit sparks in eyeballs and put spring in steps.

People were not only amazed I could do this, but then shared their lament for their lack of ability to do something similar. Everyone knew how to send an email, update Facebook, open files on a computer, copy and download media, some could even make media, but no one shared with me their ability to shape material reality with their own hands. What they did communicate was a strong yearning to do just that.

Gauntlett’s book captures this yearning, and bundles it up in a package that serves multiple functions of celebrating making, encouraging and inspiring making, and arguing for making.

Build it and they will come

Some of us make but all of us consume, most with reckless abandon. The act of making forces us to consider how things become things and how they become significant things in our lives. Gauntlett, on page 60, puts it like this:

This link with craft and making is that when one is not just a consumer, guzzling thing after thing, but also a producer, going through the necessarily slower and more thoughtful process of making something, one becomes more aware of the details and decisions which underpin everyday things and experiences, and therefore more able to gain pleasure and inspiration from the appreciation of things.

The upbeat author moves from exploring the underpinning philosophies of craftmaking to “craft today” and ultimately champions process over final product, citing initiatives like the popular fan remake projects of Star Wars – an overdone example, but one that nonetheless illustrates the ways in which makers derive pleasure through production and sharing, regardless of how far off their final product resembles a slickly polished work.

Some making/connecting sites mentioned in the book:
School of Everything

Gauntlett, on page 107, sees digital technological advancements optimistically as well, arguing digital communication enables and facilitates making via sharing or connectivity:

In other words, for centuries people have liked to make things, and share them with others, in order to communicate, to be part of a conversation, and to receive support or recognition; but the internet has given us a forum where people can do this without gatekeepers, without geographical restrictions, and in an organized way that means we can find like-minded people easily – so that we can share ideas and enthusiasms with people who actually care about the things that we care about, and are likely to have meaningful, informed responses.

This is the process of fomenting interpretative and active community where the act of making has meaning multiplied through networked communication with others. Want to make or have you just made a gas mask for the next big protest? Hop on line and find others who have or who are interested in that particular project. If gas masks aren’t your thing, you can also try bird feeders…After all:

The internet gives such people [those who may otherwise feel isolated] a simple way of hearing about – and developing a sense of comfort and familiarity with – groups, activities, meetings, and projects, making it considerably easier to overcome the emotional and psychological hurdles to participation. (page 114)

Gauntlett spends a meaty chapter discussing the notion of “social capital” and looks at how this theory can support an argument for making as a positive force of happiness, community and communication. Moving from indexes of personal happiness and the relationship to making, he expands the conversation to “activities within the social fabric more generally” (page 127). Social capital, or the accumulation of social networks and relationships, is all about links between individuals and the ways in which these relationships build and maintain communities and society in general.

In communication studies Pierre Bourdieu is studied for his advancement of the social capital concept, but Gauntlett is more interested in exploring Robert Putnam and his study of the effects of lack of social capital, as published in his book Bowling Alone. The linkages are very clear: when social capital breaks down, people become isolated and happiness indexes are lowered. Making things and networking the culture of making things builds social capital, and can help reverse or at least combat the process of atomization that industrial free market capitalism has aggressively charted.

The last 6o pages of the book look at tools for connecting and the Web 2.0. While there is a section entertaining Jason Lanier’s grumpy criticisms of the “new” interactive web, Gauntlett remains steadfastly optimistic. Gadgets, gizmos and digital communication aren’t the answer – especially while corporate gatekeepers loom large – but they continue to facilitate a renaissance of ordinary people creating and communicating, and that’s a good thing. Gauntlett is wary of the commodification and commercialization of all things web, and offers what will ultimately be a weak argument for paying for services like YouTube. He doesn’t argue, as I would, that the internet should be free to all citizens, paid for by taxpayers, and accessible to everyone at no cost.

Web 2.0’s usual suspects

It is in his discussion of internet sharing sites like YouTube that Gauntlett could have broadened his scope. In a book about making, connecting and sharing that delves into the web, how could Vimeo not be mentioned, for instance? YouTube is a catch-all holding tank for the mundane, where the odd shiny jewel’s glow is obscured by so much detritus – i.e., between cute puppies and corporate co-optations, the excellent, earnest and unique expressions of a DIY and DIWO culture are difficult to find.

Missing: Vimeo

Missing: Vimeo

Yet there is a vibrant alternative called Vimeo – a video sharing site that is artist focused, that activists use, and that has strict guidelines limiting a lot of Youtube-type content from cramping out the good stuff. That Gauntlett overlooks this wonderful site is a curiosity, and instead YouTube is the main focus—as in so many other books—at the cost of Vimeo and many, many other independent, alternative, non-profit and non-corporate video-sharing sites.

Another largely overlooked aspect of this book is female makers and connectors. Aside from a couple of isolated examples, Gauntlett’s volume is a lengthy engagement with a long list of male thinkers, writers, intellectuals, philosophers, cultural icons, and innovators. I’m not contesting their credibility, but the weight of their monolithic gender renders women invisible in the discussion of making and connecting.

From scholars to authors to cultural stars to innovators, when it comes to technology and communication men may be dominating the reference points but women are there – any google search or Amazon book search will lift them out of the ether and bring them into needed focus. Aside from Betsy Greer, Amy Spencer and some radical knitters, there isn’t much space for women in Making is Connecting.

Criticisms aside, this book was one of the most enjoyable reads I have come across in a long time. Celebrating creativity is nothing new, and it’s perhaps obvious to most that meaningful involvement in shaping our material (and virtual) reality results in increased happiness, but this book connects the obvious dots to the otherwise oblique historic, philosophic and intellectual points that support the notion. Academic but accessible, fun with serious supportive argumentation, full of life and exploding with optimism, I’m certain David Gauntlett’s Making is Connecting will inspire in you the fire to make, connect, and do!

Gauntlett continues the conversation, with a ton of goodies, at the site for the book here.