Preface to Abstracting Craft

Summer 1995



Unless the distinction vanishes in some cyborg future, people will always be more interesting than machines.  People have talents and practices that machines may serve, and ultimately these are more important than autonomous technology. Here at the close of this very technological century, even the most hard-nosed technologists have begun to admit this. For example, the computer industry now advertises not computers, but human-computer partnerships. They typically suggest that it matters less what the technology can do alone than what you want to do with it.

This is especially true in design. Consider how antiquated the philosophy of automatic design computing has become. Back in the space-age 1960s, high modern thinking actually sought to expunge any recourse to personal or habitual knowledge in design. Amid the headstrong 1980s many researchers seemed to believe in a completely formalized artificial intelligence. But by now these positivistic endeavors have achieved the quality of self-caricature. By now it is absurd to ignore the role of talent, of inarticulable knowledge, and of dedicated practice. Of course, these are some of the most interesting qualities of people.

Nevertheless, machines are more intriguing than ever. As computers have expanded their roles from business automation into personal communication and visual arts, and as the internet has suddenly connected so many of us into a veritable ecology of talents, clearly the experience of technology has improved. Clearly we have escaped that industrial age in which technology and talent were so directly opposed. In the process, we are reuniting skill and intellect.

Early in the 1990s, I began hearing references to some of my skillful intellectual colleagues as craftsmen. This seemed quite odd because these people worked in the abstract realm of computers. Yet somehow this linguistic turn made sense, as if it filled a gap in our understanding. It was a big gap—one worth a book.

Virtual craft seems like an oxymoron; any fool can tell you that a craftsperson needs to touch his or her work. This touch can be indirect—indeed no glassblower lays a hand on molten material—but it must be physical and continual, and it must provide control of whole processes. Although more abstract endeavors such as conducting an orchestra or composing elegant software have often been referred to as crafts, this has always been in a more distant sense of the word. Relative to these notational crafts, our nascent digital practices seem more akin to traditional handicrafts, where a master continuously coaxes a material. This new work is increasingly continuous, visual, and productive of singular form; yet it has no material.

Unwrapping this contradiction calls for a creative approach. In writing this book, I have tried to avoid the academic traps of scientific overspecialization and cultural deconstruction, and yet come away with something more than just palliative folk psychology. I have pursued comprehensiveness over certainty with the knowledge that unmeasurables and interdisciplinary insights often evade empirical proof in any event. So may you find enough unanticipated juxtapositions and fortunate inclusions to offset any assumptions and oversimplifications necessitated by the book's range. May you find some resonance with practices of your own. Finally, may you also share some joy in a variety of humane viewpoints, as if that alone can make scholarship worthwhile.