Richard Sennett: Craftsmanship



this opposition of digital and craft is if I may say so a very dangerous one it assumes that the era that we're now entering digital era is a time which puts behind the the traditions and the modalities of performing a craft and basically I think that's wrong that that we have to look at the digital as a new form of craftsmanship and I came to this after my book was published because I was contacted by a group of programmers might mention very briefly in my book these were programmers for Microsoft who had started a movement called craft in code that is how do you program as a craftsman and I'd heard about them I mentioned it in my book they read the book and they invited me to come meet with them most of them by the time my book is published had left Microsoft and that's a very important data because they couldn't pursue craft as code in what is a kind of monopoly of mediocre product there's nobody here from Microsoft and we're trying different ways to work doing good quality doing good quality work as programmers in a different context and I went to see them they were in San Francisco in in Seattle where Microsoft is located in smaller firms which many of which invoked the notion of a workshop like an artisans workshop one of them was called artisanal a misspelled and I rather young and wonderful no matter in talking to them what became clear to me was that the reference for them was as code not as an object but as a performance that is that what is happening in the in the digital world is that the just production of physical code is something that is seen as neutral and for them the kind of coding which enters the realm of craft is something which has elements of display play repetition it reminded me very much of the kind of craftsmanship that's involved in playing music I am I am by training a musician and so I began to rethink a little some of the thoughts that I'd had in my own book about this relationship between what seems like a very dry technical procedure writing code and performance and that's what I'm going to describe to you a little today and that's why I'm a little worried about your title crafted the digital age it should be craft of the digital age do you understand what I'm saying this is not an opposition it's it's something that is going to happen in digital culture too to maybe make this what I'm going to say a little more concrete you need to know that in English we make a distinction between craft and craftsmanship a craft is usually thought of as a manual activity and craftsmanship is is thought of as quality of work and more than that doing good work for its own sake so craftsmanship implies a kind of degree of objectification not merely of production whereas a craft could be merely a productive activity craftsmanship is a quality that's embedded in the making and the great drama about craftsmanship is how it is that quality gradually gets built up in a productive act and I just signal three aspects of this from my book that I think are relevant to this first that do you understand what I'm saying in other words when we think about craftsmanship we're thinking about something else of good quality and how do we arrive there how does something become better in quality and here my discussions with these people in these these coders these programmers they weren't coders or programmers resonated to me with three aspects of the work that I know in the craft I know best which is a performance I used to in the days when I could play well I was a cellist is still hack it a little bit and I was reflecting that there are three ways in which there's an overlap between digital craftsmanship and traditional musical craftsmanship about becoming more skilled the first of these is that there is a rhythm of skill development in both and if I could have afforded it I would have brought you my cello to show you one activity this is it called a vibrato and it's a way of biasing reverse it up I do it this way so you can see it okay if I were holding the cello would be happening here but it's a way of coloring a note by changing the pitch very very slightly by movements of the hand or the wrist sometimes the shoulder when young cellists first or young violinists first learned vibrato they are very aware of what they're doing is a very hard movement action because you you you have to stay on the note so that it feels in tune even though you're you're introducing this minor distortion in into the sound framework and so they have to think about it very very carefully and after a while with a young musician what will happen is that they mastered one technique for for making a vibrato and they stopped thinking about it in other words a practice which began as explicit knowledge becomes tacit we use the word habit about this it's not habitual in the sense that it's routine but you no longer as a musician need to think I need to vibrate here you simply know it at a certain moment for instance when notes are long or when something needs color that that you're going to do that the problem becomes that what you have first learned is one technique for doing this at a certain moment as your skill as you the music you're playing becomes more challenging you learned that you need different kinds of vibrato I don't know how much well I just tell you it I hope you can hear it in your head the difference between the vibrato and the first measure of the Schumann cello concerto and the opening of the Dvorak cello concerto is a difference between a vibrato that's made here or a vibrato that's made here this is Schumann this is Dvorak and when you come across at a certain point in your development about learning to play and you see that the vibrato that works for Schumann is no good for Dvorak you need to do something else at that point there is a kind of explicit unpacking of the activity what was formerly tacit becomes dredged into explicit consciousness because as a resistance that is something isn't right it's not that you all divorce yeah well I'll do it this way something has to go wrong for the person cellist to think hmm I have to think about what to do here once that process happens of sort of reconsidering and re-exploring that the difference between an elbow vibrato and a wrist vibrato becomes something that then again disappears into the tacit rome as I say it's not habit in the sense that it's mechanical but it is a tip technique which has now become variegated and this is the rhythm of of a one rhythm of skill development it's a movement from pass from tacit knowledge which is inscribed as a practice to something explicit which is a practice which is reconsidered and the creation of a new practice which is added along to the own the old and which is no longer something you have to think about the reason this is so important is that much of the writing about a craftsmanship there's one right way to do something right you see a slow note you vibrate right in fact this is wrong this is a kiss it is only for the worst kind of amateur would play if they could even manage two measures of it we'd play the Dvorak and the Schumann in the same way but it applies to all kinds of craftsmanship when we say we develop a skill it is that we learn many ways to perform the same kind of activity which means there's no one right way and what that means philosophically is that something becomes an objective practice without being a truth practice you understand what I mean in other words it's by the time you can do what I used to be able to do I have lots of kinds of vibrato that the objective practice is that you can command are not this is the way I should do it but rather there are many ways to get it something and these are choices which are not something that that happens as a one right way to do something it's this is why for musicians you know we go on the road and play concert after concert I think I play the dissonant quartet I don't know maybe a hundred times it's always different because that notion of experiment with something different ways to do something is there and it's there in me without having to think let's try something different the point I'm trying to make to you about this is that there's a difference between a craft practice and a mechanical practice which is a correlation between means and ends in which there's only one correlation now when I started talking to my programmers about this they said well of course that's what all good quality programming is about I know nothing about programming I mean I can barely do not turn on my computer but they said look it's the same sort of thing you can arrive at the programming for instance one one activity on a computer by many roots that is there many ways to do the same thing but the process of getting to that for the for the computer programmer to learn that is a trial and error method in which resistance is the most important thing in making people think about what they're doing so do you understand what I mean that to them that's music that you encounter resistance you think about what you do it when you rien you go back to programming in another way so that is a rhythm of skill development which takes us out of the notion that there's one right way to do something and that a technique is getting better at doing the same thing over and over again in music the way that translates is if you can't do love I keep wanting to show you if you can't do lots of different kinds of vibrato if you don't learn that detect any particular way of vibrating goes stale because it's just a monochromatic phenomenon implicit in this is the second thing that I want to tell you about how a skill development occurs and that is a relation between problem finding and problem solving in the mechanical view of craft that when you encounter a problem you solve it end of story in other words that the the attributes often used to describe craftsmanship mastery you know stratovarius knew exactly what to do this is garbage because in solving a problem new kinds of problems emerge simply because you can't do it if any of you are pianists you will know that solving the problem of tucking a thumb as we move in the scale produces at the end of an octave a whole different problem which is how then to move from octave to octave because the thumb has tucked itself under one finger so if you think about a C major scale it's tucked itself under this figure but when it gets to the end of that scale it has to do it has to do a different kind of motion and multiplied a thousand times this is the problem that we that we face in craftsmanship which is that is because we can do one thing other things become problematic for us and when we cut off this relationship between problem solving and problem finding we kill our technical abilities I've often thought about this in academic life with these multiple-choice tests you know where you you put in the right answer and I've often thought that the really intelligent people taking those multiple-choice tests on the ones who get the wrong answer because it's interesting there's a problem there there's something intriguing whereas the ones who you know two two plus two equals four end of end of story are never going to think about non-euclidean geometries or a non-euclidean added additive excuse me non-euclidean forms of addition you know why would you you've solved a problem and it's the same thing I think in all good craft work and it's again one of the reasons that we repeat over and over and over again because as we get better I'm sure this is true for Potter's for or for painters for that reason we learn how to do something and that means a new terrain has opened up to us now what's interesting to me and talking to these computer programmers was something I don't understand that I will report to you maybe some of you understand this much better they say there is the difference between a Linux open-source program and the Microsoft program that a Microsoft program closes so that when you solve a problem it doesn't open a new terrain to you but with an open soft source programming kernel like a Linux when you learn how to do one thing you see other things that need to be explored so again this is something where there's craft in the digital the craft of the digital rather rather than craft being inserted within a kind of digital envelope which is antithesis to it and I think it's a basic rhythm for all kinds of development that you know but again it's a taking away of the in in mathematical terms of the boolean notion that there's truth you know you arrive at something you have closure two plus two is four end of story that's a boolean way of thinking saying where is in a Bayesian way of thinking you would think that well if that's true then what follows from that maybe it's not entirely true maybe there are some conditions in which two plus two dozen equal four that is how mental life in general develops but it's certainly true in the craft world that I know best in in music and I just say enter audio about that that when I when I teach young cellists how to play when I see that they're really happy with something that is a moment when I him a very nice teacher but when I see that they're really self-satisfied they've finally taped it you know that's when I pounce because that is a point to say you can do that but that only opens up a whole other set of problems that you now are equipped to address the idea about this psychologically is that catharsis in a craft is a very very partial thing you have to feel I'm getting better I can do it but the notion that there is complete catharsis is something that is paralyzing to the this process of using problem-solving as a way to find problem-solving the third thing I want to say to you about the development of craft skill is it's time the essential thing about all craft work is its slow and I mean it seems simple stupid to say this but slow is something that you have to learn to do that is to do something incredibly slowly it's often be flat anyhow if any of you have been forced to do piano scales I hope that you have learned what I'm going to say to you about this which is the only way to learn a scale right is to slow it down slower and slower and slower the faster you do something the less even the scale is going to be there's a mental reason for this which is that when you slow or practice down you what you are doing is allowing a break a slight break in which the consciousness of the activities in in a sequence comes to the fore it's a mini version of this tacit explicit the explicit is also always in slower time than it is in fest time so again to come come back to the example of taking a multiple-choice test we reward people who can give all the answers in a multiple-choice test which means they go as fast as as possible which means that there's no actual consideration of how an activity is constituted now slow time has a philosophical aspect to it and I should say also the thing about slow time is that the instant hit is something that is is the privilege of that is is diminished by an instant yet I mean sometimes when you're reading a piece of music you know you get you done done it all right you know you're just got there you or fast you've got you read the whole thing's what we do in insight reading but instant hits are things that people tend not to be able to repeat and the experience we have is often that there are exceptions to what I'm going to say but the general experience we have is that people who are very facile cite readers aren't very good at practicing because they got there too fast it's difficult for them to practice over and over again and actually dwell in the things they do thus the time of slow is incredibly important there is a philosophical side to this and that is to do well in something means not what Heidegger thinks of as dwelling as a form of immersion in which ultimately there's a release you know this famous part of it site on site where he talks about the notion that when you're slow finally there's a kind of surrender in a practice it's much more the kind of slow time that back soul okay back song imagine which is the space of do a in which things can be looked at and can be considered consciously I mean it's a big difference between them for Heidegger there's there is a kind of there's a kind of catharsis when you dwell in something slowly we're gradually become absorbed and you you are at peace for Brett sorrow when things are slow you're less at peace the slower they are the less are you confident about what you're doing and that I think is true for most artists when were practicing and we're getting better that we inhabit the time of do a rather than the time of a surrender to be to being this also is something believe it or not that matters in the computer world one of the reasons my craft encode programmers left Microsoft was that Microsoft wants to get the most code written in the shortest space of time it can that's it's productive imperative you know produce code fast and then you can correct the code through user feedback I don't think I want to go any farther and to tell you the level of mediocrity that these what are called premature releases reduce actually I do I mean the reason why because it's why many of these people quit working for Microsoft and firms like it because the pressure to go fast diminishes the whole attentiveness to what's being produced the feedback from customers is something that puts a burden on the customer of explaining something that's going wrong but at a very minimal level the craftsman isn't dealing with that but the consumer is and if I said to you you know well you found it suddenly you you know you erased a document what were you doing to erase it you could only give me the most Impressionist ik view of that and so that the whole process of feedback mechanism breaks down through this through this system of production the feedback is of low quality and the products remain therefore of low quality and this is most dramatic in Microsoft 10 a version which is according to my informants is absolutely dysfunctional because it was produced like that you know they needed the money they needed to sell a new version and we know what the result was so in other words what I described to you is three practices which make a kind of parallel between the musical and the digital the first of them is this rhythm of tacit explicit tacit in in performance the second is the relation of problem-solving to problem finding in other words the notion that this is not a boolean system of closure and not a system of one-to-one correspondence and finally the time of craftsmanship which is a slow time and slow is what produces quality um Guttenberg I'm very long-winded on this subject can I say that I think one of the reasons that if you think about this this correspondence between these two things that it's that people have an intuitive idea that this is not an age of craftsmanship is not that craftsmanship is unproductive or that you know baking bread by hand is going to be replaced by breaking baking bread by machine that I think is a trivial way to look at the problem the problem is that capitalism as we know it increasingly today has no interest in craftsmanship that is it has it it is a productive activity which has fixed which has fixed products which do not invite the user to become ever more skilled in their use when you think about for instance a user friendly program you know as an invitation to buy a piece of digital software you're thinking about something which is stupefying you don't have to think about it the analogy and it's a perfect analogy is somebody to play the violin or the piano or any other musical instrument when the Suzuki method which is a tells you exactly what to do it's kids love it because you could right away you can play all that music but you can never get better and in the so called digital revolution what we're seeing is the fact that simplicity is as a draw for use means that the objects themselves contain a rather mediocre level of functioning which cannot be enhanced by the user the user cannot become a craftsman do you found me with what I'm saying about this and what my my new colleagues my new friends in the digital world have said to me about this is that the kinds of open-source things like Linux which invite the user to become more skilled are something that our niche markets for certain users that the massification of use has meant a kind of stasis in the performance of the digital both on the side of the programmers and on the side of the users so that to me is the big issue here that this digital revolution is something that once we think of it as a problem in craftsmanship looks a lot different than the notion that you you know you can make a pot by hand it is that it is disempowering of craftsmanship in that sense of a practice of a performance so that's what I would like to talk to you about I'd like to end this talk with something that doesn't really have to do with the digital and the physical but is since I wrote my book a big issue about this and that is a relation of art and craft and I made the argument in my book that if you wanted to weigh up the ethical value of artistic work and craftsmanship the craftsmanship is far more important than artistic activity that seemed for some odd reason to bring people out in hives and make them very unhappy I seem to be very self-evident so I'd like to just explain although this is slightly off the topic but I'm swearing an hour in a museum of craft rather than hour I want to show you whether why I think this is this is where you should be focusing your energies rather than in a picture gallery the notion of the 19th century notion of the cult of the artist was somebody who made something where before there was nothing that is that the work of art was something new unique and that derives from the idea that you know in in Latin in Greek the origins word poetry poesis to make and the notion the the derivative that was that if in that original thing that there was you made something which before there was nothing that's what the pole ayan means that became in the 19th century the notion that an artist is stepping out of the tradition of a workshop an established practice and doing something different and gradually that became the notion that a work of art is something that breaks the conventions of practice that is that it's something that's that is makes an epistemic break that's gotten into the into the digital world actually this is related to what I was thankful for take it back that's gotten into the digital world in the notion the the incredible emphasis put on innovation that is that something is good because it's an innovation it's new that's a reflection of sort of 19th century bourgeois ideas about making art and it means that an innovation you have to have it you have to get that iPad Pro even though it really doesn't do anything different than then the first then the first IMAX because it looks so good it looks so different you must get an iPhone six-plus right that's a kind of commercialization of a bourgeois in my view of a bourgeois notion about art that begins in the 19th century and the reason why I say that's less that's less light or no it weighs less in the scales than Kraftwerk is because Kraftwerk is about additive skill craftsmanship it's about building on what you know rather than throwing it out do you understand what I mean everything I've described to you in this little talk is about something which is not progressive in the sense of progress with a big P but it's additive that you build on your skills but the capitalist logic of having you throw it out and buy something new is that what was there before is used up all right when you learn how to use it it's dead almost it's the same reason people buy ever new models of automobiles you know you can well I don't drive but even though you know you get around perfectly well on a Vespa but the logic of this is a logic that privileges the creative acts over the act craftsmen's Act it also has a sociological dimension because innovation is something that separates the innovator from the mass whereas craftsmanship is a collective activity you don't do it alone you learn it from other people most craftsmen work in workshops whether the Silicon Valley offices that reek of pizza and six people they're spending 18 hours a day or on something but it's a collective activity I'm always put in mind of this by a statement by Franz Liszt which was the the epitome of what I'm talking about who said the concert is myself it's an amazing statement that is that what your dramatizing is this single extraordinary performer now I say all of this because I I feel that we have particularly in I mean they're a wonderful artists I'm not putting it down well I am but that's all that's alright but what we've done is given the notion of innovation of creating something new the value of the epistemic break right we've given in our culture this of value that slights the work that's collective additive and I think non capitalistic of craft craftsmanship and crafts labor and to really recover that that social world of craftsmanship I think we have to break an attitude that is really resonated on the other side about creativity being a form of individuation or separation because everything I've described to you today is not a form of creativity it's not creativity in the sense of something where before there was nothing it's a different way of making quality in a building quality into practices and in two objects

4 Comments

  • 코코몽

    April 12, 2019

    Certain kinds of disorder need to be increased in city life so that men can pass into a full adulthood……..?

    Reply
  • Jason Bennett

    April 12, 2019

    I'd watched some of Sennett's other lectures on YT recently, which lead me here. I fully subscribe to the problem of the technology economy devaluing human labor in a way that orients toward "simplifying problems" as the only solution to problems of usage. I think this is simultaneously a bigger and smaller problem than he can describe. Bigger in that capitalism as was practiced 100-200 years ago is not capitalism that is by and large practiced today. We seem to have (bigger but) fewer tools to improve products, driven by not by craft but by shifts of capital. The volatility of these shifts require so much more speed to market. This undermines the craft in favor of speed to accomplish the necessary market penetration. Finance itself used to be a craft, but has become a bludgeon of debt and ROI such that fewer good ideas seem possible.

    Smaller in that the solutions he proposes around Open Source and Linux is that those products do not touch actual product consumers. They touch only other writers of code. Access to the design language is not transparent to the consumers. This disconnect ultimately dooms the utility of the craft to others who can speak the same language.

    The followup questions I have is: Does Sennett sees specific culture-wide benefit to code literacy. If so, how we might build that into the current educational curriculum without simply replicating all of the current woes with code writing? And from a macro level, what changes might be needed in government and corporate policy to address the problems of corporate finance as a craft?

    Reply
  • Misha _

    April 12, 2019

    Thanks a lot!

    Reply
  • Aykut Yaman

    April 12, 2019

    Very inspiring, thank you!

    Reply

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