“An Ambling Dinner Conversation”
A review of
Making is Connecting
by David Gauntlett.
Review by Josh Mayo.
Making is Connecting
Paperback: Polity, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Most readers understand (unconsciously, if not consciously) the dual-nature of sociological studies like Making is Connecting: simply put, this kind of writer is always preoccupied with both informing and evaluating cultural trends. Occasionally, an author will reach at both goals; often, most do not.
David Gauntlett is an odd duck for media studies. Most notably, he is fun to read. His droll and accessible style makes him the curious foil to other heavier, field-related notables like Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul. This is, however, both an attractive and regrettable quality to the book. In exchange for “fun,” the project trades argument, and the result is that Making is Connecting reads much like a dinner conversation: an amble though the author’s semi-collected thoughts on favorite hobbies and intellectuals.
Throughout the text, Gauntlett argues that “making is connecting,” that artistry and craft can – and, thanks to emerging digital platforms, does today – bring people together. This social dimension of creativity, he suggests, is realized both in the process and production of making (the ways we make and things we make): for while the exchange of created goods must certainly “increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environments”, the very act of creation will also, he posits, “connect us with other people” (2). Much of the book then is a look at the “social meaning” of new, creative communities as they embody these observations.
Up to this point, his thesis is nothing controversial; in fact, it almost verges on a truism. What is hereafter troubling is the rather conjectural approach of his theoretical framework. The most glaring example of this is the way Gauntlett massages the texts of historic artists and philosophers into a speculated support for the most removed of subjects: social networking and online sharing.
The author’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of these media in the realm of making and connecting is framed by admittedly political interests “I wanted to address the broader question of ‘Why is everyday creativity important?’” he writes. “I feel that it’s incredibly important – important for society – and therefore political” (19). “Web 2.0”, he proposes, offers a developing artistic philosophy, a metaphor for cooperation, that challenges “neoliberal” or “mainstream” notions of creativity (and his somewhat quixotic phraseology turns noticeably “pastoral” around the subject):
Web 2.0 describes a particular kind of ethos and approach…In the first decade or so of the Web’s existence (from the 1990s to the early to mid-2000s), websites tended to be like separate gardens…By contrast, Web 2.0 is like a collective allotment. Instead of individuals tending their own gardens, they come together to work collaboratively in a shared space. (5)
To this end, he borrows the thought of John Ruskin, William Morris, Ivan Illich, Robert Putnam and others to construct theoretical support for Web 2.0’s collaborative potential. Often, though, this support is “tortured” out: the connections drawn and applications made are no better than guesswork. Most troubling here is the ubiquitous assumption that what culture can do with tools trumps what they actually do. Gauntlett’s stance assumes a questionable anthropology; it assumes a faith – the unconditional and unwavering trust in technology’s potential.
Though Gauntlett gives us a supremely approachable and optimistic text on trends in today’s emerging media, caution will slow our applause. Making is Connecting proves truly informative about Web 2.0, craft culture, and the rest, but its evaluative aims are sadly lacking. These theological, philosophical and methodological shortcomings make many of the author’s hopes unsupportable (if not simply untenable). Surely, in both form and content, few books will fill the reader with so many resounding “yes’s” and “no’s.”