The Gulf Between Technology and Craft

Central to the gulf between technology and craft is the frictionless quality of interacting with computers. While “dumb” tools wait mutely to be brought to life, computers hum expectantly and rush out to meet us part way. There is tremendous gratification to be had in this seeming collaboration, but it is chimerical. It is a simulation. Mute tools appear dead and intractable until we give ourselves over to the process of learning their use. Then they do come to life and provide points of contact with, and leverage to, connect and interact with our world.

This must be experienced to be perceived. As fewer and fewer of us have had contact with craft, we’ve lost sight of this process. Lacking this experience we tend to resist the initial intractability of real tools and we welcome the simulated interaction with technologies. Hackers and “appropriate technologists” are caught in this trap.

Hackers, following the instincts that led people to craft in the past, go “under the hood” with computers, but they can’t escape the fundamental problem that computers create simulacra, they don’t deal in the actual. They appear to present more or less stimulating realities, but these are merely models. These models are built upon programed input. This input is necessarily limited, clearly finite. It is another layer of conditioning we apply over the rest of our psychological and social conditioning. Since it is based on that conditioning, the translation of thought into binary code, it amplifies our conditioning by the nature of its stimulating appearance as if it were present. It makes conditioning more compelling. We loose sight of the possibility present in actual tools to resist and to exert pressure on us to challenge our conditioning.

When someone attempts to literally use a hammer on everything, because it is the only tool they have, the result is immediately apparent. Its absurdity is transparent. When we take the armorarium of computer technology and use it on everything, we don’t even notice any problem with it. The artifacts, though based on a self-limited subset of only that which we think we know, generates such compelling models. In our fear of uncertainty we are happy not to question their validity and we are caught-up in a solipsistic loop gazing in wonder at the reflections of our input noninflected by any outside checks.

The entire framework titled “Appropriate Technologies” is based on the notion that human action is limited to technologies and that we can treat this grab-bag, the result of spending money to generate codified preconceptions, as the high point and end-all of our human ability to interact with the world.

The greatest promise within a re-engagement with craft lies in weaning us away from this codified narcissism. Schools & Museums are focal points from which this change can grow. For this to happen we need to take their potential seriously and drop all the rationalizations that have enshrouded us and paralyzed these institutions as they are now formulated. Instead of seeing schools as training grounds for future technologists, they need to be recast as places where an engagement with art and craft can take all who participate; students, teachers, community past our present impasse. We can stop looking at museums as part of some “entertainment industry” and engage with them as repositories of collected wisdom, held within artifacts, tools, and within the life experiences of those who have dedicated their lives to studying and maintaining these artifacts and tools.

Schools and museums currently suffer from our trivialization of their promise. This trivialization is a symptom of the deeper trivialization we’ve come to accept concerning our lives and life itself. Our infatuation with technology and the fundamental misunderstanding of craft around us has been a driver of that trivialization. Unless we can cross what remains of a bridge back into an appreciation of the difference between technology and craft, we will lose the chance to find meaningful ways to interact with our world at a time when this is so desperately needed.

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