Book review: Making is Connecting by David Gauntlett

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The subtitle to Making is Connecting is The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. It’s a book that should be of interest to media students, especially those about to enter their A2 year (or preparing for their A2 exams this summer), because it provides the all-important political and social dimension to an awful lot of seemingly random and unconnected stuff on the internet, some of it apparently goofy.

Although Gauntlett is interested in making and connecting beyond the internet, this book fits in well with other “impact of new media” texts such as Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Reading the opening to this immediately put me in mind of Shirky’s comment about a TV executive who scornfully exclaimed (of Wikipedia), “Where do these people find the time?” As Shirky pointed out, if you work in the TV industry, you just don’t get to ask that question.

What I like about Gauntlett’s book is that he puts all the cat videos, LOLCats, and “All your base belong to us” stuff in a context that links this everyday creativity with The Arts and Crafts movement, John Ruskin, Robert Putnam, Alexis De Tocqueville, and your gran’s needlepoint.

In fact, the book links a lot of different things together for me, from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to yesterday’s coincidental launch of “Action for Happiness“. As Gauntlett puts it in the introduction:

I feel that [everyday creativity] is incredibly important – important for society – and therefore political. And, to be frank about my motives, people don’t seem to get this.

[…]

[P]eople can survive without silly entertainment, flowers, gloves, or songs, if they have to. But it is the fact that people have a choice – to make something themselves rather than just consume what’s given by the big suppliers – that is significant. Amplified slightly, it leads to a whole new way of looking at things, and potentially to a real political shift in how we deal with the world.

Although not entirely uncritical about the likes of YouTube and Web 2.0, the book makes a powerful case for the ways in which the low to zero cost of entry makes it possible for the visions of the Arts and Crafts movement (for example) to come to fruition. Whereas the fine books printed by William Morris ended up costing a fortune, just about anybody now has access to the tools that allow you to produce high quality products. Furthermore, the act of participation (whether online or with your neighbours) acts as a social glue and leads to increased happiness.

There are questions about exploitation, however: the ways in which YouTube and Flickr, both owned by huge new media organisations, can make money from unpaid labour, for example. There have been ongoing questions about what Google and Facebook in particular do with all our personal data.

More questions should arise as you read, which is what makes this such an interesting book. One of the first questions that comes up is what is creativity? The book also ponders the difference between art and craft (I’ve often wondered about that myself). The what is creativity? question is one of the things that put me in mind of Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig discusses “Quality” and what it means and concludes that quality is an event that occurs between the subject and the object. You could say a similar thing about creativity: it’s an event or process that occurs when the subject (that’s you or me) does something new to or with an object.

I also started to wonder about what happens to all this creativity as technology develops and platforms change. A lot of us deposit our favourite photos on hard drives and other media which have no proven record of longevity. Whereas I can look in old albums at pictures of my parents and grandparents, what will my kids have to look back on in forty or fifty years time?

Making is Connecting is a good – and easy – read. It’s not written in a horrible impenetrable academic style. It’s conversational and even diffident at times, and should be accessible to ‘A’ level students and non-specialist media teachers alike. It’s packed full of inspirational ideas and very thought-provoking.

Definitely one to add to the shelf of useful research books for A2 essays.

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