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Making Is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to Youtube and Web 2.0

Cover to cover reading – it’s rarely happening for me on anything but exciting story books. But over the Christmas hols, Sam and I read every page of ‘Making is Connecting’ by David Gauntlett. We had a really lively and stimulating discussion of the freely available extracts as part of a reading group. After that we knew we needed to read more!

Making is connecting book review

I have huge enthusiasm for this book. Why? Much of what Gauntlett had  to say really resonated with what we get up to, and our beliefs about the importance of everyday creativity. For Gauntlett, making even quite simple things, is a political act – it is important! It is a counter to “sit-back-and-be-told” culture. Making things is demanding, in the way it forces us to participate, and to make new connections. “Making is connecting” – it’s a nice phrase because it works on lots of levels:

  • making new neural connections within our brains as we undergo the necessary learning and thinking  needed to make.
  • making connections to people that can help our making endeavour
  • sharing, showing and maybe even trading our creations and meeting people that way
  • connecting to materials themselves – getting to know ‘stuff’ better

So that’s the thrust of the book: let’s do less passive consuming, and get involved in creating! Don’t just go to galleries and be told what good art is, but instead get involved in creating and defining it yourself. Don’t sit watching TV, but start participating by making videos of your own Don’t just read this blog post but comment on it at the end :p 

On the face of it that message might seem fairly patronising, but Gauntlett makes it work because instead of simply telling us to be more participatory, he argues for platforms, institutions and tools that will facilitate that kind of involvement. So while it might put you in mind of Satish Kumar telling you to make your own bread, it is quite a bit less prescriptive, and clearer in the way it links this to potential empowerment.  Our abilities and everyday opportunities to be creative, and foster creativity may individually seem inconsequential or quaint, but taken together and over lifetimes they become fantastically and brutally relevant.

Making Philosophy

William Morris (Left)  & John Ruskin (right)

William Morris (Left) & John Ruskin (right)

The book begins with John Ruskin and William Morris, two old school philosophers, social thinkers and makers.  Channelling these heroes (as he terms them – and as they surely are), Gauntlett affirms the importance of creativity for the human spirit and the consequent ethical and political dimensions. Gauntlett pulls out some lovely quotes from the pair, while working this argument –  like this one from Ruskin talking about the division of labour (try for the posh old English accent if you can)…

“We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilised invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: – Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little pieces of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail.”[1]

Both Ruskin and Morris were, in their time, makers, and they believed, like we do, that involving yourself in a project brings together thought and action – it can move people to think differently through their bodies [2]. For it is in manipulating materials to our will, with tools and our hands, that we get a sense for the effect of our actions on the world. We learn skills and expand our imaginative possibilities when we are making things!     

As such, creativity and art are too important to be left to a few elites to ‘supply’ us with.  Our public institutions and funding bodies are staffed with, and draw upon highly qualified experts who make the rules and criteria to judge what is high quality art, culture and what projects are worth funding. This is the world of privilege and gated access that is exactly NOT what creativity is all about. Creativity, as Gauntlett puts it, “is something that is felt, not something that needs external expert verification.” [3]

So the creative act needs re-taking (!) and Gauntlett’s primary way towards this is Web 2.0. Web 2.0 offers platforms where traditional boundaries to contribution do not apply. All kinds of people can and do share and collaborate on websites like YouTube and Instructables. Such sites offer an easy platform for users to contribute, comment on and show creative work. While maintaining that it is the process of “doing it that really counts”[4], Gauntlett argues convincingly that platforms like Web 2.0 have the power to foster maker spirit by bringing makers together, both on-line and in real life. In doing so they begin to give us the tools to make.

Tools 4 Creativity

bent drill bit

Individuals, and often even whole companies, don’t make things from start to finish any more, only small parts of things, which minimises possibilities for creativity. But also, because for most people everyday life has minimal access to tools for creativity (quite the opposite one might argue) what chance do we have?

In Gauntlett’s chapter ‘Tools for Change’, he draws on the work of Ivan Illich, who critiqued modern ‘education’ as something that delivers ‘people who can do well in tests, but not people who can think for themselves’, and worse ‘it leads to people who believe ‘they are unable to do things for themselves and that the big institutional solution – the ones offered by schools, hospitals, and government departments – is the only legitimate one.’ [5].

Gauntlett goes on to use Illich’s notion of the ‘tool’ (as anything that creates an effect in the world – be it hammer or school). Some tools enable, and some take power away from individuals. Tools which are ‘open’, allow the user to explore and interpret them as they wish and even to modify the tool itself to suit their purpose, offer the greatest potential for creativity.

There is a relevant critique here of some of our most recent popular ‘tools’ like the iPad, which Gauntlett sees as a step backwards. Similar to arguments made by Cory Doctorow (see for a good critique of ‘locked’ devices), Gauntlett emphasises their subtle repositioning of the user as a ‘viewer, reader, and player, but not publisher or producer’ [6]. I have to agree with the critique, we need to have care in the way we present and teach people ‘tools’. To make ‘useful’ tools openness seems key. And the willingness to be surprised by and relinquish control over what people make of existing tools is an attitude to be encouraged, particularly for those involved in education.

I am reminded of the joy of making tools that can themselves be used to make other things (I’m thinking of the lathe from scrap and sewing machine scroll saw right now) – perhaps the ideal example of tools for creativity? People can also find a lot of joy in making tools their own by, moding, hacking and re-making, but not so much in consuming pre-made in ever increasing volumes. Indeed, Gauntlett devotes a whole chapter to  ‘happiness research’ which can sorta be summed up by saying modern culture has taught us to quest after a lie. “Money and consumption don’t make us happy” says the science’ bods. No big surprises for us here, but still interesting…


The Future of Making

After affirming the importance of Youtube and similar hosts and hubs of creative content, but highlighting their not invulnerable existence as market entities, Gauntlett makes the argument for “…a global on-line repository and community for digital creative works of all kinds, run by independent non-profit foundation. Like Youtube and other such platforms, it should have no gatekeepers and a minimum amount of restrictions. “[7] This would be funded by a number of progressive governments. I have to admit to chuckling at this point… The unlikelihood of it made the statement seem almost absurd. In reflection, that probably says a lot about our culture: I can imagine a British politician sagely nodding along with a lot of the book, but coming to a whisky spraying coughing fit when reading that (when reading, politicians all drink whisky by an open fire right?). We’re not accustomed even to the idea of a relatively uncontrolled, open access, free-for-all-to-contribute, publicly funded service. But as Gauntlett points out, such a service (like YouTube) would ‘cost less than 8% of the operating costs of the BBC’ [8].  

So what seems absurd, on reflection, seems like a creative, unique, and for me, attractive suggestion. Out there suggestions like this, that come from a deep engagement (in this case Gauntlett’s obvious use and love of YouTube)  are another thing the maker movement have to offer mainstream politics.  

“Criticizing present realities is important but insufficient. It can be hard to picture what a future would look like, and so to be making things, as examples of future creative diversity, in the here and now, offers a powerful and tangible form of inspiration to others – and challenges the apparent inevitability of the present.”[9]

While cuttingly critical in places the book still manages a freshly optimistic tone which I really dig. And at the end of the book Gauntlett, takes his own advice and paints us a vision of what things might look like in his ‘Making is connecting’ future scenarios. I wont spoil the ending by outlining them here, enough to say I think this is really brave, welcome and important – there are too many books full of critique and no attempt to affirm a vision or make something great – his does.

  1. [1]John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic p87 in Gauntlett, Making is Connecting p32.
  2. [2]Matthew Crawford 2010 The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good”
  3. [3]Gauntlett, Making is connecting  p79
  4. [4]p70
  5. [5]p164
  6. [6]p175
  7. [7]p226
  8. [8]p215
  9. [9]p219

Responses to Thoughts on ‘Making is connecting’

  1. Papillon Noir

    Morris, Ruskin, Gauntlett … bring it!

    Yes, making is political. Deeply so I think. Self reliance is rad, right? Less shops, right? Or, maybe different connections to materials bought from shops, right? Contrasting an Ian Cook et al. inspired ‘Follow the Things’ between an acrylic jumper bought from Primark and a handmade woolen jumper made using British yarn = very different results!

    Follow the things here:

    I read Ruskin’s essay, ‘The Nature of Gothic’ way back when and it has continued to motivate and inform my creative endeavours ever since. He argues for ‘roughness’. I doubt that I would have made a thing had I not read that, since my creations are so inherently wonky and unpolished! ;)

    I’m super excited that yourself and Sam have been reading Gauntlett’s book- I haven’t yet but he’s been on my reading list ever since I spent two massively fulfilling and exciting days at the Creative Research Methods workshops hosted by Dave and Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd.

    Prof Gauntlett is indeed: brave and also: cool. He’s like some Generation X professor. Much respect.

    On my other blog:

    And the official Creative Research Methods blog:

    Half sorry that my creative response right here is more of a spewy plug but connectivity is needed, yes. Thus links. Opportunistic. Could say that. Possibly helpful? Hope so.

    But the biggest secret about making things might be that it is generally unbelievably fulfilling (and even the frustration is quite good),to be able to say, ‘I made that’.

  2. Bongo

    Hi Katherine, glad you made the first comment! Not much to disagree about there. Get reading Gauntlett, it’s great!

    It’s always cool to hear that essays can change the course of peoples lives for the better. I can see how the ‘roughness’ thing could be an inspiration/give people confidence. That’s kinda one of the main things we’re trying to do with flowering elbow I think: having a space where people can fail, and it’s ok, or even good, because they are learning and making! Using junk to experiment on seems like the obvious choice too – as it’s usually free and mucking up isn’t usually a big deal :)

    Seems to me if your not skirting the edge and trying to fail a little bit on some projects you miss a lot of potential because you never get to learn the limits and potentials of materials…

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