Critical making

"One does not simply put a book into a browser."

At Books in Browsers last week, John Maxwell and Haig Armen delivered a brief talk about "The craft of the book in the age of the web". In it, they explored what might become of the book as its form merges with that of the web. I found their talk to be a useful reminder, not an elegy, as they asked and tried to answer some basic questions:'

Have we lost sight of the craft tradition of the book in the age of the web? If so, what happens to that wealth of knowledge and wisdom? Or is that tradition migrating to new contexts—in which case, what is lost and what is gained in translation?

As it happened, I'd already been reading a separate paper, also written by Maxwell and Armen, on "Index cards and the handcraft of creative thinking". Their work, first presented at an academic meeting in June, explores a bit of the history and implications of card-based writing and reading. They see three modes of use for these cards:

  • As textual documents, read in linear or other manners
  • As indexes, a representation of another object
  • As a visual cue and a vehicle for engagement and manipulation

Toward the last point, Maxwell and Armen invoke "a laboratory for teaching object-oriented thinking", a paper published in 1989. At the time its authors noted:

[W]e were surprised at the value of physically moving the cards around. When learners pick up an object they seem to more readily identify with it, and are prepared to deal with the remainder of the design from its perspective. It is the value of this physical interaction that has led us to resist a computerization of the cards.

By concidence, the value of manipulatives - of interacting with something physical as part of an act of creation - was a common theme at two very different meetings I attended on consective weekends earlier this month. At the first, a reunion of my business-school class, Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano argued that U.S. manufacturing was losing access to a range of technologies considered critical to sustained innovation. With a colleague, Pisano explained how a Kindle could not be made in the United States, because we no longer maintain the equipment and skill bases required for its core technologies.

A week later, I attended a parents' weekend at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The university president, John Maeda, and the school's provost, Rosanne Somerson, discussed a new book, The Art of Critical Making, written by RISD faculty and staff. The book explores the school's "culture of 'critical making', in which the hand and mind combine to envision and create essential objects, experiences and meanings."

The books describes an approach to "critical making" that is at once academic and intuitive to anyone interested in innovation (presented here verbatim):

  • Frame critical questions through an iterative process
  • Apply hands-on, embodied approaches to problems
  • Enhance seeing through closer looking
  • Meet uncertainty with flexibility
  • Evaluate and articulate the significance of one's work
  • Generate ethical responses to global needs

This is a list that both Maxwell and Armen would likely embrace. Less nostalgic for the past than most, they are also mindful that the present and future can benefit from a careful consideration of what made the past so darn good for so darn long.

Books in Browsers attendees were rewarded this year with a tee shirt that featured the conference logo surrounded by a bit of a manifesto: "One does not simply put a book into a browser." That gets to the point in a couple of ways.

Publishing books on the web remains a work in progress, and the form of the book will evolve with it. Borrowing from Pisano, Maeda and Somerson: if we're not hands-on, we're potentially critical steps removed from the tools and insights we need to continue to innovate. 


Posted by John Maxwell
Oct 31, 2013  at  03:59 PM

Brian, thanks for the excellent coverage!

I’m impressed by the RISD book you mention here (ordering a copy presently); the list you’ve quoted above would serve very well as the basis for a set of criteria for my courses at SFU. “Critical Making” is a great reference… Thanks for making such excellent connections!

Posted by Brian O'Leary
Oct 31, 2013  at  06:40 PM

I’m glad you liked the post. I really appreciate the work that you and Haig are doing to advance a discussion of the craft component of book creation, management and maybe even dissemination. I think you’ll like the RISD book a lot ... it’s challenging and at the same time encouraging.

Posted by Carolyn Jewel
Nov 01, 2013  at  10:27 PM

Hmm. I have several reactions to this. First, I agree that “one does not simply book a book into a browser.” But it’s also true that one does not simply attach one’s car key to a buggy whip.

The container of a story is not the same as consumption of the story. All a story needs is that a given container not interfere with enjoyment of the story.

What this really means is that someone who is skilled at creating the printed container is not automatically skilled at creating the digital container.

A web-based medium requires different skills, both presentation and structure.

And while it’s true we have lost (almost entirely) the beauty and art of carriage making, we have also gained the beauty and art of writing elegant code and creating a presentation layer that is both beautiful and effective in the medium.

I have a second and somewhat unrelated comment about learning, which I will add as a second comment because this is already in danger of tl;dnr

Nov 01, 2013  at  10:45 PM

This quote gave me chills, and not in a good way:

::It is the value of this physical interaction that has led us to resist a computerization of the cards.::

I get tense whenever I read someone say “We felt this worked well for us and so everyone should do this!” That’s just not true. Not in any endeavor of creation.

How much was lost, one wonders, by this resistance to computerization of cards? It’s not zero-sum. It’s an additional tool.

I can lay out printed out book chapters and physically rearrange them and that can be quite effective. It’s equally true there are tasks where physical manipulation is not efficient and not helpful at all.

The question isn’t what is lost. The question is how many tools can we give learners to achieve an end.

:: what made the past so darn good for so darn long.::

Respectfully, there are a lot of people who can make a strong case that the past was in fact not good for a darn long time. 100 years ago I would not have had the right to vote. 50 years ago it was legal to refuse to hire me for a job for which I was in all respects qualified to hold.



Posted by Brian O'Leary
Nov 02, 2013  at  06:47 PM

To your first comment, I agree. The post is a call for maintaining the skills required to make something elegant. Some of those skills can be adapted from prior practice; others are new. I have argued before that publishers have walked away from learning many of the newer skills, and that’s one of the reasons that putting a book into a browser is more complicated than it needs to be.

On the second comment, I was talking about the past as a function of book publishing. The formats have held steady for a century or more, and markets have grown up around the form and the substance. There is something to be learned in that. I am not idyllic about the past as a proxy for the future, and I certainly don’t want to return to a time when women could not vote or work in a variety of professions.

Posted by John Maxwell
Nov 04, 2013  at  01:54 PM

Carolyn, a clarification: the point about “resisting a computerization” of index cards is a key piece in our index card research. The intriguing fact is that despite hundreds of attempts over the years to computerize index cards and card-sorting (some of them wildly successful), the “vehicle for engagement and manipulation” aspect” has never been convincingly achieved in digital form. The quote in question comes from a pioneering paper in agile software methodology. Twenty three years later, cardplay (on paper) is still a cornerstone of software development and UX design methods. Why is that? I don’t believe it is about conservatism; rather, it speaks to the subtler characteristics of the medium—where the interesting parts of the craft reside.

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