Digital Writing as Handicraft

Tanya Sasser‘s interests include social media, digital humanities, and hacking educational paradigms and systems. She is also the author of the Remixing College English blog. In this guest post, Tanya explores the ways in which digital writing can be considered a handicraft, along with the likes of woodworking, knitting, ceramics, and more.

Digital Writing as Handicraft

by Tanya Sasser

Digital writing is political. It democratizes the act of writing in the sense that it both allows open participation in the creation of cultural content and redefines public writing as work that anyone–not just professional writers or academics–can do. From blogs to mashups to Twitter, to the greatest extent ever, we have the tools and the opportunity to write our own story, rather than suffering someone else to write it for us.

Some mistakenly correlate digital environments with a virtualism (i.e., artificiality) that diminishes the real (i.e., human). Such a belief understandably engenders a nihilistic attitude towards all things digital. The mindless banality of late-20th century white collar work, such as that depicted in Dilbert and Office Space, is often seen as the outcome of an over-reliance and over-emphasis on the technological over the human. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford argues that one effective cure for the existential malaise of postindustrial society is the practical act of making: “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely [as opposed to virtually] in the world through manual [as opposed to informational] competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth” (15). Instead, the craftsman finds himself subsumed by what he is trying to create: “Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right” (19). Such a relationship with our material culture, Crawford points out, empowers rather than enslaves us, as it repositions us from passive, dependent consumer to spirited creator and curator.

But the digital is not necessarily devoid of or antithetical to craftsmanship. Crawford’s theory of the value of making and doing as both a practical and intellectual endeavor can be seen in action in the maker movement, which seeks to marry the hands-on with the virtual, balancing both the anatomical and the technological definitions of the term “digital.” Technology Quarterly defines the maker movement as “both a response to and an outgrowth of digital culture, made possible by the convergence of several trends. New tools and electronic components let people integrate the physical and digital worlds simply and cheaply.. . . And many people who spend all day manipulating bits on computer screens are rediscovering the pleasure of making physical objects.” Analogous to (digital) quilting bees, Maker Faires recognize and respond to several aspects of 21st century socioeconomics and the attendant cultural shifts: the need/desire to collaborate, co-op, share, create, and connect with each other and available resources in both new (digital) and old (humanist) ways. In a hyperdigitalized world, authenticity has become a scarce–or at least more difficult to locate–resource, so it seems only natural that people have begun to value the work of making something both beautiful and useful from raw materials (this, of course, is not the first time such a movement has developed; William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement comes immediately to mind).

And what is more beautiful and useful than the written word? In fact, writing has a long history of being referred to as a craft and we often use terms associated with more utilitarian handiwork when talking about writing: we construct sentences and paragraphs, we weave stories, we workshop pieces of writing, we provide blueprints of our ideas. In his seminal book On Writing Well, William Zinsser explicitly uses the metaphor of carpentry to describe the process of “framing” a piece of writing with good, solid sentences and reminds us that writing is “a craft that’s based on certain principles” (18). Similarly, in the aptly titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King dedicates an entire section to describing the importance of the writer’s toolbox–which he models upon his Uncle Oren’s carpenter’s toolbox–and encourages writers to carefully stock their own toolbox with all of the tools that they might have need of for any given writing task.

The older forms of writing were indeed a marriage of art and craft. I’m thinking specifically of the illuminated manuscripts laboriously hand-crafted by medieval monks and the engraved poetry of William Blake. During the past century, the mechanical instruments of writing have made the work of writing easier, quicker, and more automated. But as Crawford argues, easier, quicker, and automated often produces feelings of alienation from the material components of our lives and the intellectually problematic aspects of interacting with those materials. As writers have graduated from quill and parchment to pen and paper to typewriter to word processing software, both the act and material culture of writing have become more pedestrian. I by no means believe that the words themselves are not still beautiful or useful, but think of the difference between the Book of Kells and the manuscript I am currently typing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which makes the handicraft of writing more explicit and aesthetically pleasing?

I believe that what digital writing does at its best is to allow writers to return to the roots of writing as both an art and a craft. Take the lowly blog. Here are a few examples featured on Hongkiat.com:

                

As these examples demonstrate, blogs allow writers a kind of aesthetically intimate relationship with their material that they have not had since medieval monks embedded doodles in the margins of their illuminated manuscripts. More than ever, writers have the ability to hand craft their work, from the codes they use to manipulate and build their own manuscripts to the hyperlinks and media they embed in them, rendering the made nature of the work overt and politic.

As the limits on who can create and publish digital media have broken down, and as those media have become part of an open collective commons, the ability to create, use, hack, remix, and hybridize cultural products has made manifest William S. Burroughs’ redefinition of the work of creating as a “process that occurs in collaboration with others” (emphasis added). Blogs are not the only form of digital writing that makes such a process possible. Twitter, for example, mimics the kind of mechanically juxtaposed form of composition that Burroughs emphasizes in his cut-up method. Like the cut-up method, Twitter encourages a mixed-media style of writing, as authors integrate images, hyperlinks, hashtags, and the tweets of others into their 140-character compositions–sometimes randomly, sometimes strategically, but always, like Burroughs’ scissors, “render(ing) the process explicit.” As Burroughs sought to highlight the collage-like nature of all writing by introducing spontaneity via manually cutting, folding, and re-assembling texts, Twitter encourages an organic style of composition that renders its coded mechanical limits ironically liberating. And just as “anyone can make cut-ups,” anyone can participate in the organic, collaborative work of digital composition.

I see the rise and proliferation of digital writing as just one among many markers of a shift away from the postindustrial clerkdom to which Crawford and others fear we are doomed and towards what Chris Anderson sees as the new industrial revolution, in which both the revolution and the ability to co-opt and adapt the technology it produces are democratic in nature. If the late-20th century was our era’s Dark Ages, then digital writing may well usher in our Renaissance.

So what will you make today?

8 thoughts on “Digital Writing as Handicraft”

  1. I appreciate the optimism of the last lines of your post and hope it rings true. Part of me — the part that scorns the pillaging of private data for profit — wonders whether technology as a business won’t trump technology as a means of expression. (I’m talking to you, Facebook). Still, I appreciate the thoughtful post.
    Kevin

    1. Yes, that conflict is a concern. But I think it’s just as easy (if not easier) for people to bypass/hack the profit industry. Remix is a good example. At one time if you wanted to remix cultural products, you had to have access to expensive audiovisual equipment; once computers became ubiquitous, anyone could practice remix. The technology industry will always be about profit (it is, after all, a business), but people have access to the same technology (or can now learn how to hack/build the technology themselves), so they can use it however they wish, whether it’s for profit (as David’s comment highlights), political/community activism, or self-expression (or all of the above). I think we’re seeing all of those uses in action right now and to me, that’s why the revolution is democratic. The ability to “make” frees us from the oppressions of the profit complex (though it can give us access to it as well).

      1. I agree that the hurdles are low and getting lower, and that is a good thing, Tanya. More tools and options in more hands makes for some chaotic voices in the mix but overall, that is a good thing for society steeped in freedom of expression. I wish we taught more programming as a language/experience at a younger age so that people would have a better understanding of the remix options. Don’t you find that many people just get comfortable in the tools and experiences that others have designed for them? (Not talking about folks in the digital writing crowd — who no doubt are always pushing — but I am talking about most people who log in, share everything, log out, and don’t reflect much on the experience beyond — did it work? What we want the question to be is: did it work for me and my purpose, and if not, what can I do about it? :)

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