Craft and the combinatorial

This is the first of an (as of yet) undefined number of posts about craft and its meaning in the realm of the material and the immaterial / informational. These posts draw on insights from philosophy, science and technology studies (STS), and empirical observations made during my work for various organizations in the areas of engineering and software development. Photo credits: ‘Craftsmanship’ by Fred Veenkamp.

The allure of craft

‘Craft’ concerns activities that involve dexterity and artistic skill. The widespread interest in craft and artisanal modes of production echoes the appreciation of craft advanced by Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, all of whom described craft as a just and virtuous activity that weds knowledge and experience-based practice. Craft indeed appears to appeal on an immediate level – one cannot help but admire the artistry of the well-produced artisanal item, be it an elegantly painted porcelain bowl or a fine hand-crafted peanut butter.

Numerous videos online suggest a more general fascination with craft and skilful labour, be it an ice cream salesman, basket weaver, or cook. Such videos show craftsmen and –women performing tasks with varying degrees of complexity almost effortlessly. An aesthetically appealing example is Phil Niblock’s ‘Movement of people working’, which explores the aforementioned aspects of work against the long durée of drone music. But what exactly is so alluring about craft?

AV Festival 12: Phill Niblock: The Movement of People Working from AV Festival on Vimeo.

First, craft reconnects mind and hand by intertwining intellectual capacities with the ability to tease out properties afforded by materials. For example, a bowl is not merely formed by imposing a form on clay by hand, but involves interactions between matter and the potter’s intent. The latter brings out properties intrinsic to clay and interacts with this crude ingredient. Thus, mind becomes complicit in the world by acting in collaboration with it rather than imposing its form on it.

As Matthew Crawford’s work examines beautifully, craftsmen and -women need to have a certain humility in approaching the subjects of their work, since imposing a form or concept on matter precludes making use of the potentialities embedded within it. Failing to understand this world outside one’s head does not bode well for reaching the state of mind that can make use of the intrinsic properties of matter that endow craft with its beauty and elegance.

Second, craft is lauded due to its potential to challenge currently dominant and often lamented Taylorist modes of mass production. Such modes of production reduce work to a series of compartmentalized actions, which remove skill from the workplace and replace it by the efficiency driven forward by the monotonous hum of the factory belt. Craft problematizes existing modes of production and poses socially more inclusive forms of labour, such as guilds and other more sustainable forms of knowledge transfer that will be a welcome change for the precariat and the transient professional relationships on which it depends.

Craft questions hegemonic modes of production by leading to output that is considered ‘authentic’. Or so it seems… Hipsterism has (inevitably) polluted craft and the production of artisanal goods by acting as a poisonous conduit between rebel subculture and the dominant class (as illustrated eloquently by Mark Greif). Take for example Microfactories, a book that explores the capacity of artisanal practices to undermine Taylorist modes of production. After an introductory essay on the aforementioned modes of production and the benefits of craft in terms of sustainability and increased fulfilment from work, the book fails to expose how exactly the enterprises discussed undermine hegemonic modes of production. Rather, dreams and hopes, as well as fears and ‘hiccups’ of various craftsmen and -women are presented. Why did they set out to do what they are doing? How do they run their business? How have they maintained a competitive edge that allows them to stand out and survive in the marketplace?

Microfactories by Maša and John Kleinhample.

The reader is presented with various portraits of people and their studios, but relatively little information is provided about the products they craft and broader ramifications of these activities. As a result, ‘Microfactories’ becomes more like a lifestyle book that praises luxury consumer goods intended for the happy few. This reminded me of the famous ‘where do I buy a 300-pound worker jacket and what are the happening places to have lunch in Shinjuku this fall?’ journal Monocle. The danger with such analyses of craft is that they culminate in a celebration of artisanal modes production that is politically naive and reaffirms the hegemony of capital and its ability to persistently redefine itself – now as a tailor-made mode of production that holds the individual and his/her entrepreneurial ability to stand out in high regard. Such a celebration of craft implies the subsuming of aesthetic and economic values under late-capitalist values, which require that existing modes of production acquire a friendly façade to justify economic activity that’s ultimately socially exclusive and ecologically destructive – much like the modes of production it supposedly criticizes. However, rather than dwelling on the problem of the hipster, I prefer to problematize prevalent notions of craft and offer vistas of thought to salvage its potential from the brakeless bicycle and artisanal coffee-ridden rubble.

Craft and the immaterial

Scholars of craft would be remiss to restrict their appreciation of craft to the material realm (e.g. artisanal products such as food, furniture and other household items, bikes, surfing boards, etc.). The meaning of craft I intend to advance also pertains to ‘knowledge production’ – the creation of text, software, and other forms of output that characterize the bulk of activities in today’s workplace. Craft has the potential to enable more inclusive and responsible forms of technological innovation – for example when it comes to writing software. I would even claim software engineers are the craftsmen and -women of the imminent future.

My take on this is informed by what I call the ‘combinatorial’, a term mentioned in the title of this post, which is a term loosely coupled with Manuel DeLanda’s notion of the ‘machinic phylum’:


I defined the machinic phylum as the set of all the singularities at the onset of processes of self-organization — the critical points in the flow of matter and energy, points at which these flows spontaneously acquire a new form or pattern.” (DeLanda, War In The Age Of Intelligent Machines, p. 132

The combinatorial denotes the possibilities enables by the digitization of a rapidly increasing number of events, phenomena, things, and people, which is informed by today’s norm of quantification as the means to enable measurement and control. As Adam Greenfield has illustrated eloquently in his book Radical Technologies, technologies are becoming more and more ubiquitous, and provide not only the very lens through which we experience the world, but also colonize the everyday by making it amenable to information processing. Indeed, work, leisure, architecture, governance, and various other aspects of existence are becoming more and more saturated with and dependent on technologies. These technologies quantify a plethora of processes based on an ideological trust in numbers: the complex can be tamed, the uncertain can be predicted, and data may even come to surpass other explanatory methods and devices when it comes to making knowledge claims about a world characterized by wicked problems.

Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield.

This produces a world in which digital information is becoming more and more pervasive, leading to a seemingly endless amount of combinatorial possibilities: data can be coupled to other data almost effortlessly, which can be seen in the combinations of data sets to yield new insights about, for example, various types of consumer behaviour. Digital information and the various ways in which it’s intertwined with the world thus become ‘the combinatorial’, a physical-virtual reality in which the status of digital objects, such as software and databases, is indefinite, provisional, and persistently on the cusp of becoming. However, digital objects are not free floating and their development may be stratified. Yet the potential of digital objects is never exhausted by the particular form they may have at a certain moment in time. The combinatorial warrants more explanation (more specifically by elaborating on the work of Heidegger and Simondon), but these remarks will have to do for now.

Looking ahead

In a second post on craft, I’d like to explore craft vis à vis the combinatorial: what does craft mean when information can be combined and recombined with great ease? In addition, the increasing opacity of the output of knowledge work does not bode well for practitioners to remain critical of the fruits of their labour. How does the combinatorial impact the ability of practitioners to fully engage with the subjects of their activities? As I’ve argued elsewhere, practitioners still devise strategies to engage their work in most ingenious and inquisitive ways. Such craft-like modes of engagement are of crucial importance in engaging with the combinatorial, as the alternative is to grow increasingly ignorant of the various ways in which technologies shape the everyday and make us more and more dependent on technological infrastructures that may at some point malfunction and profoundly disrupt our lives.