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More thoughts on writing and making

In the comments to my last post on writing as making, Peter Richardson wrote something that’s sticking with me:

“I suspect makers (and coders in particular, myself included) tend to view non-code text as an unstable, somewhat shifty medium.”

And Matt Jones later gave a similar reply to my original question about why writing isn’t Making:

"the fleshy machines you run your code on are notoriously unreliable"

Unstable. Shifty. Unreliable.

Yes please!

I love that people and our words are all those things. As I replied to Peter, and would say to Matt, I prefer the sense of potential that comes from this kind of material and making.

It’s less prescriptive. Less efficient. Less technological. Less machinic.

More space to become something, someone else.


“Here all is in life and motion; here we behold the true Poet or Maker.”

- J. Warton, Essays on Pope (1782)

Starting in the 1400s, and for four hundred-odd years, the title of “maker” (and especially the Scottish “makar”) was given to those we later called “poet.” This sense of making comes from “poiesis” or “poesis” (from the ancient Greek ποίησις creation, production, poetry, a poem; ποιεῖν to make, create, produce). We still use this sense of poetics whenever we speak of people who imaginatively synthesise existing things in order to create other, new things. Behold the Poet Hacker!

Along these lines, my friend Virginia pointed me to Robert Creeley’s essay, “From the Language Poets,” which begins:

“Whatever poetry may prove to be at last, the very word (from the Greek poiein , ‘to make’) determines a made thing, a construct, a literal system of words. We are, of course, far more likely to think of a poem as a pleasing sentiment, a lyric impulse, an expression of feeling that can engage the reader or listener in some intensive manner. But, whatever our disposition, it is well to remember that there is a diversity of ‘poetries’ in our world.”

And my friend Courtney currently has me reading Patrick Ness’ very good YA novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which has this lovely passage:

“Cuz all I know about Viola is what she says. The only truth I got is what comes outta her mouth and so for a second back there, when she said she was Hildy and I was Ben and we were from Farbranch and she spoke just like Wilf (even tho he ain’t from Farbranch) it was like all those things became true, just for an instant the world changed, just for a second it became made of Viola’s voice and it wasn’t describing a thing, it was making a thing, it was making us different just by saying it.” (emphasis in original)

Language doesn’t just make things–it assembles, cobbles together, entire worlds and all the relations within.


I don’t mean to romanticise words and writing. And I don’t mean to suggest they are divorced from technology or machines or even code.

By identifying what is included in our definitions of making or Making–and asking what is excluded–we might, as Ben Highmore writes in the introduction to The Everyday Life Reader, be able to “find new commonalities and breathe new life into old differences.”

And I’m pretty sure there’s lots more to be thought and said about what gets made, how, when and where it gets made, and by whom it gets made.

Hi. My name is Anne. I make stuff with words.

I know designers who would never agree that writing or speaking is as valuable as making things. Thinking about how much that bothered me, this afternoon I posed the following question on Twitter:

"Why is making things with words not included in the 'maker movement'? If computation/code can be material for design, why not words too?"

I got some great responses – thanks everyone! – and I’d like to round up some of them here. (The time stamps will be out of order because I didn’t put this post together in one sitting – sorry.)

Anthropunk (Sally Applin) provided an academic take:

"@annegalloway It is. See"

"@annegalloway also our talk about Meta Making, Culture Making and the Making of Making at 2011 @makerfaire…"

Many were along the lines of Kio‘s and Erin‘s comments:

"@annegalloway when I started dating Bre and hanging out at his hacker space I would intro self thusly: hi I'm Kio I make stuff with words."

"@kiostark @annegalloway I am so with you on this. Wordmakers and thingmakers unite."

Giovanni and Roberto brought up the matter of labour:

"@annegalloway Not only that, but I'll take into my grave the conviction that writing is a form of manual labour."

"@gtiso @annegalloway Word. Wordsmithery."

"@rogre @annegalloway it's also, in the vast majority of cases, literally manual labour."

Tom took up the matter of code as dialogue,  à la “how to do things with words“:

"@kissane @kiostark @annegalloway Code is just dialogue for digital actors."

And last, but certainly not least, Barry took up my question with more rigour and dedication than I think I was prepared to deal with this late on a Sunday! For example, he suggested that writing has more in common with art than design, because design is a problem-solving activity and writers don’t use design methodologies. And, if I understood correctly, he took issue with me lumping code in with making because the Maker movement deals in hardware hacking, distinguishable from general DIY. For Barry, again if I understood him, the desire (i.e. my attempt) to mush all these things together only results in making all DIY equal and flattening it all into some kind of generic creative practice.

My first thought (and repeated concern) was that we were talking about separate, and maybe even incompatible, things. I mean, the main reason I asked my question in the first place was because I don’t think that Maker culture should only celebrate the creation of physical objects. There is something elitist and exclusionary about that that doesn’t sit well with me.

Alternatively, Sally Applin’s recent talk at Maker Faire focusses on making knowledge and making culture as part of, along with, the things that makers make–this is the basic premise of all social and cultural studies of science and technology (my own academic field)–and how that necessarily includes words. But my concerns go beyond this too, I think.

I’m interested in words as materials for making, and in the written word as an artefact or thing that has been made. I’m also interested in why words (or the written word as distinguished from books) are generally not considered part of “Maker culture.”

Barry’s point was that Maker culture is specifically concerned with hardware, and since I think this definition is generally accepted then words-as-materials have no place there. If Making is about problem-solving, then creative writing has no place there either.

But maybe Glen is getting closer to what the most important difference is; the goals of Making rely on language but not as an expressive force or aesthetic move:

the goals of making do not focus on expression

So, does this mean that if the primary goal of (creative) writing is expression, the only way it can be incorporated into Maker culture is to use words explicitly for problem-solving, or the production of (cultural) solutions? How, exactly, does that differ from aesthetic goals–and especially if we do not distinguish between aesthetics and ethics?

I’m afraid I’m too tired now to continue but I’d really love to hear what others think!

What have I missed? Did I get anything right? What’s next?

P.S. My favourite response to my question came from Peter. (Thanks @meetar and @kissane!) To be honest, I’m not sure how it relates to my question (something about design and repetition and stories and iteration and…) but I love this game review so much I’m going to repost the entire thing and keep thinking about it for days and days and days!

“Infinity Blade is a game about iteration, about retreading old ground, about the small changes that surface across endless repetitions.

It operates around a simple conceit: the God King, the game’s strange central figure, has seeded a bloodline of warriors. A warrior approaches the God King’s fortress, fights his way to the throne room, and dies at the God King’s blade. He never leaves the castle. His son comes to avenge him, and the process repeats.

Each repetition ends the same way: with a son, wearing his father’s armor, carrying his father’s weapon, approaching the place of his father’s death.

The gameplay is predictable. Each bloodline is a series of fights. Each fight is a series of gestures. The enemies are variations on a theme. The spells are incremental improvements. We do the same things, over and over.

Infinity Blade may be a commentary on the grind of gaming, the relentless churn of killing and harvesting to gain new equipment so that we can kill and harvest more effectively.

But to continue playing is to live the same life a little bit better, a little bit smarter, a little bit longer than the time before.”


An Internet of Animals

My presentation was the last one in the last session. I’ll put my slides online as soon as possible, but this was the set-up:

Why study animals? In an era of “smart” cities and things, Donna Haraway reminds us that “animals enrich our ignorance.”

Sheep and humans have lived together for more than 10,000 years, but sheep have rarely been “brought into the open with their people.”

(Haraway: “‘the open’ is where what is to come is not yet—is not fixed by teleology or function, whether malignant or benign— and might still be otherwise…” i.e. a space of potentiality)

Our cultural and design research explores human + animal + computer interaction, or how we (can) be/come together.

I also think it’s fair to say that the audience’s favourite image was this one, taken during last month’s Canterbury A&P Show merino judging, where I learned that flipping a merino onto its back makes it go limp like a noodle.

And, actually, the difference between this image and the majestic Icebreaker merino ram on my first slide offers a way into design fiction that I didn’t talk about in my presentation but should follow up on….

Thanks to everyone at the Critically Making the Internet of Things conference. I had a great time!

On measuring ourselves

“I demand, I insist, that everything around me shall henceforth be measured, tested, certified, mathematical, and rational. One of my tasks must be to make a full survey of the island, its distances and its contours, and incorporate all these details in an accurate surveyor’s map. I should like every plant to be labeled, every bird to be ringed, every animal to be branded. I shall not be content until this opaque and impenetrable place, filled with secret ferments and malignant stirrings, has been transformed into a calculated design, visible and intelligible to its very depths!”

–Michel Tournier, Friday; or, The Other Island (Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique), 1967

The quote above captures an attempt to stave off madness, and it’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever someone brings up data-driven science or the quantified self movement. Now I don’t mean to suggest that either of these activities is mad, but the quest to measure everything makes me nervous, even while it fascinates me.

Robert P. Crease, author of World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, wrote an interesting piece for the NYTimes this weekend on measurement and its discontents. In it he describes two different ways of measuring things:

“In one kind of measuring, we find how big or small a thing is using a scale, beginning point and unit. Something is x feet long, weighs y pounds or takes z seconds. We can call this ‘ontic’ measuring, after the word philosophers apply to existing objects or properties. But there’s another way of measuring that does not involve placing something alongside a stick or on a scale. This is the kind of measurement that Plato described as ‘fitting.’ This involves less an act than an experience: we sense that things don’t ‘measure up’ to what they could be. This is the kind of measuring that good examples invite. Aristotle, for instance, called the truly moral person a ‘measure,’ because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings. We might call this ‘ontological’ measuring, after the word philosophers use to describe how something exists.

It’s obvious which kind of measurement is preferred or privileged in the examples I provided above, and Crease explains:

“As the modern world has perfected its ontic measures, our ability to measure ourselves ontologically seems to have diminished. We look away from what we are measuring, and why we are measuring, and fixate on the measuring itself … [But] in our increasingly quantified world, we have to determine precisely where and how our measurements fail to deliver. Now that we have succeeded in defining the kilogram by an absolute universal standard, we still have to remind ourselves of the human purposes that led us to create the kilogram in the first place, and always to make sure that the kilogram is serving us, and not the other way around.”

So why do we measure ourselves? The Quantified Self website tagline is “self knowledge through numbers” but the purpose or benefit of this knowledge is less clear. Ethan Zuckerman, who attended the recent Quantified Self Conference, notes that people self-track in order to “test the effectiveness of an intervention” or “monitor and understand the dynamics of a particular indicator,” and that one of the benefits might be that a “personal science could help a much broader range of people.” However, he also points out that “most self-trackers aren’t sharing their data very widely, both due to privacy concerns (will my health insurance provider cut me off if they discover I’m a restless sleeper? That I only walk 3000 steps a day?) and in part because sharing and aggregating data may not have easily apparent benefits.” This seems to suggest that if the data collected are mostly useful to the person collecting them, then the primary benefit is self-improvement or self-management. Zuckerman distinguishes this from surveillance data that are useful to others, but in my mind, self-surveillance is still surveillance. And, honestly, I’m really not a fan of self-improvement if it seeks to make people as efficient and productive as industrial machinery, or if it is considered to be a direct path to moral righteousness.

The quantified self, especially as a form of citizen science, is most often presented in terms of increased or improved agency. But I wonder what this agency actually allows people to do or be? How does it differ from what Foucault described as disciplinary power, and a relation of docility and utility with our bodies? (In the scenarios he described, internalised discipline removes the need for externalised force and violence because monitoring and regulation are self-imposed.) Put more bluntly, if our bodies are still just cogs in a machine then being the machine operator is surely only a limited improvement, or lateral shift in power, rather than a revolutionary change in the order of things.

For that kind of wholesale change to occur, I think we need to recapture our “ontological” measuring capacities and capabilities. Of course it’s ludicrous to claim that ontic measurements and quantifiable data are useless, but as I’ve argued before, “by implicitly supporting the notion that scientific data are the [most] appropriate types of evidence a citizen can collect, political action relies on conformity to existing structures of knowledge and power.” And the potential for action is also further complicated by “the capacity (or incapacity) of people to make sense of the data collected, not to mention their willingness (or unwillingness) to act as data collectors in the first place.” What I want to suggest is that we also need other ways of measuring that are equally valued. Ways that are more experiential, more qualitative and more ambiguous–and therefore more inviting of critical interpretation and debate.

What do others think?

Update: Ken Anderson left a comment that points to an interesting paper that includes a quote that nicely sums up some of my concerns:

“Where are the visualization tools that allow the contradictory and controversial nature of matters of concern to be represented? … What is needed … are tools that capture what have always been the hidden practices of modernist innovations: objects have always been projects; matters of fact have always been matters of concern. … What I am pressing for is a means for drawing things together – gods, non-humans, and mortals included.”

- Bruno Latour – keynote lecture for the Network of Design meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3 September 2008.

Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture

Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture

Antennae 9: Mechanical Animals (pdf)

“The main theme gathers together the work of a number of artists, scientists, and academics who over the past decade have relentlessly contributed to the creating, researching, and theorising of the cross-fields between nature and robotics. The issue resembles a journey of discovery into a fascinating alternative reality where the boundaries nature and technology are deceptively and at times disturbingly blurred.”

Antennae 13: Interspecies (pdf)

“Through the propelling enthusiasm and deep anxieties characteristic of recent post-humanism approaches, interspecies communication has become something of a chimerical entity. We all, in one way or another, communicate to animals, especially with our closest pets. The cat and the dog have co-habited with us long enough to allow the development of a shared syntax made of body language, sounds, habits and rituals which enable a bi-lateral communication. Anthropomorphism plays, of course, a part in our communicational exchanges with animals. When do we really see the real animal, or when do we just see ourselves reflected in it?”


Antennae 6: Rogue Taxidermy (pdf)
Antennae 7: Botched Taxidermy (pdf)
Antennae 12: Pig (pdf)

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