Andreas Broeckmann on Wed, 12 Apr 2000 09:07:14 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] review: Abstracting Craft by McCullough

[Originally published in Leonardo Digital Reviews for ISAST at MITPress,
3/28/2000. Rights reserved by the author & LDR.]

Abstracting Craft. The Practiced Digital Hand.
by Malcolm McCullough. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996. 309 pp., illus.
Trade, paper $17.50. ISBN: 0-262-13326-1; ISBN: 0-262-63189-X (pb, 1998).

Reviewed by Andreas Broeckmann <>

Is the new class of computer workers turning into a digital proletariat, or
will it be a guild of digital artisans? Though not oblivious of the specter
of the first, Malcolm McCullough is in favour of the second and has written
a book that offers a rich theoretical discourse about the practical,
cognitive and technological conditions of 'creative computing'. He
primarily talks from the perspective of computer-aided design, and although
large parts of the book are also interesting for understanding
computer-based work in general, designers will probably benefit most from
studying it.

The book offers a detailed analysis of the technical and psychological
aspects of digital interfaces. In three sections, McCullough deals first
with physiological and cognitive issues (hands, eyes, tools), moves on to
representational and technological questions (symbols, interfaces,
constructions), and ends with aspects of the practical usage of computers
(medium, play, practice). The professed aim of the study is to re-root
digital work in physical human agency and to develop a critical
understanding for the ways in which the computer as a medium requires a new
set of creative skills, especially regarding the handling of complex
symbolic abstractions, and the ability to construct mental models of
objects and processes.

McCullough talks about basic aspects of current computer usage that one
does not find in the software manuals but that form part of the foundation
of any digital design practice. Without doubt, this is a book for curious
computer workers who want not only to be good routine users, but reflective
and conscious practitioners for whom the computer is not a neutral tool,
but a complex medium whose dimensions and degrees of freedom ought to be
well understood.

The focus of the book lies entirely on human-computer interfacing, not on
programming or interface design. Although McCullough does make a
distinction between good and bad technical engineering, technology both in
the form of software and of interfaces is presented as a given. Changes in
that field have to happen, it seems, purely through engineers with whom the
designers - and thus the readers of this book - have no direct relation.
Abstracting Craft contains no call to arms for designers to learn to build
their own tools. Instead, McCullough posits that it is the task of
engineers to abolish the existing limitations of technology - in so far as
they do not form necessary creative constraints - and to develop less
obtrusive and increasingly transparent technical tools for the creative

More than anything else, McCullough has striven to write a breviary for the
digital artisan. Throughout the book, he reiterates the claim that
computer-aided design practice is an 'abstracting craft' which is not ruled
by automation but by inventive, playful artistry, following not the model
of the factory work, but the ideal of pre-modern craftsmanship. Implicit
and explicit references are made to the late-nineteenth century Arts and
Craft movement which sought to reverse the ills of industrial mass
manufacture through a reappraisal of the 'aura' of material, work and

The romanticism of McCullough's approach is understandable on a strategic
level, in the sense that it seeks to foster a professional identity through
which designers can recognise the subjective and creative potentials of
their work. Politically, however, this approach is as problematic as the
Arts and Crafts movement was, in that it fails to talk about the material
conditions and the economic context which determine the work of most
designers. We find no critical word about Hollywood's computer-aided design
factories, nothing about the relationship between interface design and
Taylorist ergonomics. Instead of the economics of digital labour,
McCullough talks about an idealised sphere of play, craft, beauty, ethics,
and praxis.

McCullough is, much like the oft-cited William J. Mitchell, an optimist who
believes that the new economy and social ecology brought about by the
internet will lead to a less hierarchical regime of creative participation
that will in fact be close to the ideals of pre-modern craftsmanship,
populated not by digital proletarians disguised as artists, but by true
digital artisans. Those who share this optimism will enjoy this book more
than those who, while learning from the minute descriptions of
computer-based design practice, will be scratching their heads about how
their own working conditions relate to the ideals that form the backdrop
for McCullough's discourse.

(Berlin, 12.03.2000)

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