Studying Creativity in the Age of Web 2.0: An interview with David Gauntlett (Part Two)

One of the real revelations in the book for many readers will be in how directly the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris speak to contemporary issues in the Web 2.0 era. What do you see as the key value of re-examining their work now? What do you see as the most important continuities and discontinuities between their conception of craft and contemporary DIY culture?

I’m glad you liked that part. Thank you. I just thought it was very striking that these English Victorian critics, whose philosophy inspired the Arts and Crafts movement, who were writing 120-160 years ago, seemed to really chime with the spirit of Web 2.0, or at least the best part of it. By which I mean: fostering and encouraging everyday creativity, and giving people tools which enable them to share, communicate, and connect. And seeing the importance of things being made by everyday, non-professional people – and the power of making, in itself – rather than us all being mere consumers of stuff made by other people. That’s what Ruskin and Morris’s most exciting writings are all about.

And, of course, I like making these connections between things that at first look very different. What, for instance, could medieval cathedrals have to teach us about the ecology of YouTube? Well: John Ruskin was passionate about the gargoyles that you find on medieval cathedrals. They are often quite quirky and ugly, and rather roughly-done – not at all like ‘fine art’ – but that’s precisely why Ruskin cherishes them: because you can see in them the lively spirit of a creative human being. And you can sense the presence of the person who spent time making it.

Then if you carry that way of seeing over to YouTube: there again you have quite a lot of quirky things, often roughly-done, and not like the kind of professional stuff you would see on TV; but that is what makes them so special, and exciting, because what you see there is people making things, and sharing them with others, just because they want to. They’ve got something they want to communicate. You can often sense that personal presence, and enthusiasm. So Ruskin’s passion for one kind of craft really helped me to build an argument about the importance of another.

Then if you look at what William Morris did with Ruskin’s ideas – Morris was more concerned with societies and communities than Ruskin, and he added a vision of communities connected through the things that they make: people filling their lives with the fruits of their own creative labour. It was especially important to him that people should be creators, not (only) consumers.

Morris felt you had to make things to understand them fully, which is part of the Make magazine positive-hacker ethos that is enjoying a revival today. Morris was a maker himself, and mastered a dazzling number of craft and construction techniques. So he was both a writer and a maker, but these were not two separate tracks in his life; rather, his writings and the things he made can be seen as two sides of the same project: ‘visionary accounts of an ideal world’.

In ways that seem very relevant today, Morris argued that the route to pleasure and fulfilment was through the collection and dissemination of knowledge; communication between people; and creating and sharing expressive material. That’s like a manifesto for Web 2.0 right there. So I think the continuities between these old arguments and our present situation are strong; and the discontinuities are the things that put us in a stronger position today, because today we have much wider access to tools to make and share things, which were denied to non-elite people in the past. Not everyone, of course, has access or the necessary skills, and the tools are often owned by big powerful companies, as we will discuss below; it’s not perfect.

But I hope these ideas from Ruskin and Morris are therefore shown not to be just some kind of nostalgia, which just shines a little light upon our present situation; rather, they offer very relevant manifestos for what we should be doing today.

You write at several places about the “messiness” of everyday creativity as in part a virtue and not a flaw – the point which begins with Ruskin’s gargoyles. Yet, our classic notions of crafts include the “value of a job well done.” How might we reconcile these two claims about craft?

Well I’m less concerned about the approach to craft which is about doing the same thing repeatedly until you can achieve a very high level of ‘polish’. But I think a lot of makers are very concerned to make something to the best of their ability. And I think the ‘value of a job well done’ can refer to how well something connects with others, or how effectively it communicates a message or an idea. The ‘value of a job well done’ can be about the self-esteem that comes from having made something which has touched someone else. So you could have something quite ‘messy’ which is still very successful in this other sense.

Some of your examples come from very traditional kinds of craft production, such as weaving, stitching, etc. How has the introduction of new media changed the practices of such communities? What has remained the same?

Craft people have taken to the Web with great enthusiasm. The essence of what they do often remains unchanged, but today they talk more, share more, and find it much easier to find other people who share their passions. So they get more feedback, encouragement, and inspiration. Often in the past, individuals had to be quite resilient to stick with their craft or maker interests, because their families and friends tended not to understand or be very sympathetic to their strange ‘hobby’. Being able to find others who share their interests, online, has been an extraordinary source of support and encouragement for many of these people.

David Gauntlett is Professor of Media and Communications at the School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster, UK. His teaching and research concerns people’s use of media in their everyday lives, with a particular focus on creative uses of digital media. He is the author of several books, including Creative Explorations (2007) and Making is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 (2011). He has made several popular YouTube videos, and produces the website about media and identities, Theory.org.uk. He has conducted collaborative research with a number of the world’s leading creative organisations, including the BBC, Lego, and Tate.

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