I guess I never really explained the backstory of why I’ve been so obsessed about “digital craftsmanship” over the past few months. I had reached a point in my career where I wasn’t sure if I could keep doing this ‘computer thing’. Increasingly my work felt less like passion and fun, and more like … well, work. Either I was ready to give up on it completely and move to a farm with a crate of old books, or I needed to find a new point of view to wipe clean the lenses of my fogged glasses. That led to my exploration of craftsmanship as an ideal to give more meaning to my work whether it is on a computer, in a factory, or in a classroom. I have since received a lot of great feedback, and Jose Murilo kindly invited me to the Brazilian Digital Culture Forum to give an updated version of the talk.

“The better they do it the more satisfaction they get out of it.”

I want to talk about two different, though related, concepts. The first is craftsmanship, which I define as a desire to do something well for its own sake. And second, I want to talk about virtuosity, which I define as a desire to do something better than anyone else. My personal opinion is that craftsmanship is a set of values and a way of looking at the world that we should all aspire to. Virtuosity, I believe, is something that we should always avoid.

A great meditation on craftsmanship comes from Kenya Hara, creative director of MUJI, my all-time favorite store. He was asked by the New York Times why it seems that “Japan is more attuned to the appreciation of beauty”.

When coming back to Tokyo from abroad, my first impression usually is: What a dull airport! And yet it’s clean, neat and the floors deeply polished. To the Japanese eye, there’s a particular sense of beauty in the work of the cleaning staff. It’s in the craftman’s spirit — “shokunin kishitsu” — which applies to all Japanese professionals, be they street construction workers, electricians or cooks.

A Japanese cleaning team finds satisfaction in diligently doing its job. The better they do it the more satisfaction they get out of it.

There is a similar craftman’s spirit (“shokunin kishitsu” or “shokunin katagi”) in Europe. Yet in Europe I can see it coming alive only from a certain level of sophistication. In Japan, even ordinary jobs such as cleaning and cooking are filled with this craftman’s spirit. It is is common sense in Japan.

Homer, in his celebration of Hephaestus, the god of craft, referred to craftsmen as demioergos – from ‘public’ (demios) and ‘productive’ (ergon). Notably, he used the term to refer to more than just blacksmiths, coppersmiths, and potters; for Homer the demioergos referred to the relatively thin slice of Greek society that was neither aristocracy, living a life of luxury and laziness, or slave, living under the command of the master. It was the demioergos, according to the Iliad, that kept society functioning and progressing.

Today we hear echoes of this same celebration of the “productive public” when Clay Shirky talks about “cognitive surplus:”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Homer celebrated the craftsman who works with his hands ands and muscles to create objects of beauty. Shirky is celebrating the amateur encyclopedist who works with his brain and keyboard to construct the largest repository of knowledge ever created. They both found meaning in life by working toward creating something that is both useful and beautiful.

“The rise of the virtuoso on stage coincided with silence and immobility in the concert hall.”

Last month on the blog of what seems to be a young though well-known photography collection agency in New York, an anonymous author asked his/her readers how to distinguish between “superior” and “average” photography in the digital era. Underlying this question of “how to evaluate digital craftsmanship” is an anxiety on both the part of the collector and the photographer that there is no longer a noticeable difference in quality between the photographs hung in New York galleries with $10,000 price tags and the photographs featured everyday on the Flickr Blog.

In the analog era of photography only an extremely small percentage of society had 1) the money to buy tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, film, and chemicals, and 2) the time to spend hours and hours each day in a studio and darkroom. Therefore it was important for those photographers to distinguish themselves from the ‘mere amateur’ in order to sell their photographs for thousands of dollars to support their continuing work. Today anyone with a $2,000 camera and a pirated copy of Photoshop has the same access to creating “superior” photography as a professional. This anonymous photo collector doesn’t know how to distinguish between “superior” and “average” because there no longer is a marked distinction between superior and average. Rather, there are differences in taste and aesthetic, and those are formulated by each individual viewer, not by galleries, collectors, and curators.

It is no secret that I am an unrepentant advocate of amateurs and amateurism. I even admit to taking delight in watching the professional class squirm and fret over how to regard themselves as “superior” and “undeniably head and shoulders above” the mere “average” work produced by those pestering amateurs on Flickr. If you label yourself as a “professional photographer” rather than an amateur photographer I will likely have an instinctive bias against your work. Perhaps that is unfair, but let me try to explain. For me, it all has to do with the social dynamic which forms around any given craft or artform.

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman has a brief section on the rise of – and John Ruskin’s opposition to – the virtuoso in 18th century Europe:

In music, the virtuoso obsessed by technique took to the public stage in the mid-eighteenth century. Sheer finger dexterity became a display that audiences paid to hear in the new realm of public concert performances; the amateur listener began to applaud – as an inferior.

This situation marked a contrast to the performances in courts which Frederick the Great, for instance, played the flute parts in the compositions he commissioned from his hired musicians or, earlier, the role as lead dancer Louis XIV frequently took in the spectacles mounted at Versailles. Both kinds were highly skilled performers, but in courts the line between performer and audience, technical master and amateur, was blurred.

By the 1850s the musical virtuoso appeared to be someone whose technical skill had developed to such perfection that amateur players in an audience felt small, almost worthless in comparison. The rise of the virtuoso on stage coincided with silence and immobility in the concert hall, the audience paying fealty to the artist through its passivity. The virtuoso shocks and awes. In exchange, the virtuoso unleashed in listeners passions they could not produce using their own skills.

Ruskin loathed this ethos of the Romantic virtuoso. The craftsman’s hesitations and mistakes have nothing in common with such a performance; the musical analogue to Ruskin’s celebration of the craftsman would be haus-musik, in which amateurs learned the classics on their own terms.

That passivity continued for the next 250 years and we’re only beginning to escape its shadow today with a refreshing return to amateurism. The so-called ‘professionals’ had much to gain from a passive audience. They hung their work in costly museums while the rest of us wandered around scratching our chins in silence. They created cults of personality which led to magazine profiles and advertising contracts. They benefited from a structure in which the vast majority of society paid attention to just a few celebrities. We tend to think of “participatory culture” as something that came about recently thanks to the internet. But, in fact, participation was the norm before the rise of the virtuoso in the 18th century.

A couple of weeks ago I was in a hostel in Ukraine and a group of us were playing guitar and singing along to songs that most of us barely knew the words to. We were having fun, laughing and smiling as we sang. But then someone came into the room, picked up a guitar, and began playing with far more skill than the rest of us. Rather than playing along, everyone stopped to listen. His playing was impressive, but it also became boring very quickly. People started to trickle out of the room and soon he was playing to himself, superior and alone. This is why we have more fun at karaoke than at the opera, right? We like to participate, we like to be involved. Virtuosity can shock and awe, but it also quickly puts us to sleep.

From the mid-eighteenth century until the end of the twentieth century virtuosity was a societal ideal. In business, intellectual thinking, sports, art, music, design, and craftsmanship we built hierarchical structures in which a large support staff – rather than working toward their own aspirations – catered to the needs of just a few special virtuosos who were seen as manifestations of the ultimate abilities of communities and nations. Today – at least in some fields – we see an entropy of expertise in which the virtuoso can not so easily distinguish him and herself from the great mass of ordinary citizens.

About damn time.

An Antidote to Virtuosity: 10,000 Hours of Mentorship

What creates a good craftsman? I won’t deny that natural talent has something to do with it. There are some people who are simply better suited to learn how to edit a photograph, for example, using Photoshop. But, more than anything else, good craftsmanship has to do with experience.

A lot of research lately has gone into studying so-called virtuosos and geniuses to better understand how they reached such high levels of performance. The research was popularized last year by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers where he argues that what “geniuses” and “virtuosos” all tend to have in common is that they invested 10,000 hours in perfecting their craft. Perhaps even more than talent, what seems to distinguish the virtuoso from the mere amateur is how much time she has been able to invest in a given craft.

This realization led Jon Gosier, the founder of Appfrica Labs in Uganda, to launch the 10,000 Hour Initiative “aimed at offering a space for younger people to pursue their passions alongside professionals working in the field.”

The concept is very much inspired by the 826 National Project, which offers kids in the U.S. an after school hours community center where they can work alongside professionals who act as tutors and mentors. The name comes from Malcom Gladwell’s OUTLIERS, where he theorizes that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice for anyone to become truly exceptional at doing something. Of course we want to help offer those hours.

John is a talented artist, programmer, and writer. At such a young age he could easily become a virtuoso. But rather than using his time to become better than everyone else, he is using it to help others further develop their own talents. In my opinion, that is the true spirit of the craftsman.

The antidote to virtuosity is mentorship. We each have a certain amount of hours in our life until we breath our last breath. We can – and we should – use them to develop our own skills, to take pride in our work. But we should also help others discover the same opportunity to find meaning through craft.

What is touted as professionalism is often nothing more than a veneer of marketing over otherwise mediocre work. Amateurism evokes humility, participation, and engagement. It relies on a do-it-yourself ethic to do more with less. Yes, amateurism creates a lot of crap, but it creates crap that is always improving, and that process is transformational for each and every amateur. It’s a fun thing to be a part of.

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