Beki Grinter

The Digital-Physical Divide, Blue Collar Work and Hobbies as domains for Interactive Computing

In computer science, crafts and craftiness, discipline, research, social media on May 24, 2009 at 8:38 pm

An interesting post,

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24labor-t.html?emc=eta1&pagewanted=all

accompanied with a charge, how might this be relevant for the field I work in, Interactive Computing.  I was going to mail an answer, but when I saw the length of my answer, I thought here’s a use for my blog.

He sets up a dichotomy between paid blue collar and white collar work, which is one way to look at the relationship between the physical and the virtual but I don’t think it’s the only way.  And in this way he sort of pushes a split that is physical = blue collar and virtual = white collar.  But surely, if the latter was true then wouldn’t we have achieved the paperless office by now?  I think there’s plenty of physical in the white collar environment, and that efforts that called for the elimination of paper have been naive. But, what drives the way that we think about the relationship between the physical and the virtual are values of productivity, efficiency, information management, etc…

But, he also misses other opportunities that also speak (at least to me) to IC because of this dichotomy.  Hobbies. Steve Gelber has a great book on hobbies. One argument he makes is that they came into the home as a means of replacing the gap that was left when paid labor moved out of the home. Another argument he makes is very cultural, that hobbies were positioned as being a counter-measure against idleness and the corruption that that would bring. That’s a very cultural view, and culture is very much at the bottom of some of the values that we could associate with hobby and the physical-digital that could be explored here.

Hobbies are interesting because they are on the rise, particularly the physical ones (attributed to the recessive economy (e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/23/business/23craft.html?_r=1). Hobbies have the same type of physicality but represent design opportunities not entirely focused on efficiency (if efficiency was important, no-one would hand knit surely?).  Instead it seems like an opportunity to explore values associated with things like creativity and accomplishment and of course the arts, since it is also the case that crafts are expressive.

Hobbies though also allow us to explore another dimension of individuality and collaboration.  Presumably some hobbies are collaborative in their making.  Others though appearing individualistic are I think also opportunities to explore collaboration and to take a wider eye to what that means. I wrote about this years ago with respect to photography, while image making is essentially individualistic, for amateur photographers its also collaborative through processes of sharing, mutual reading of each others images, sorting and classifying. So the artifacts are individual produced but collaboratively consumed, and even in production the consumption drives what is produced (this is of course true of many/all of the arts, Howard Becker writes very compellingly).

Another type of collaboration is very visible in knitting. People do sometimes knit things together, like an entire village (oh wait that’s just my mad countrymen). But, there are also a lot of opportunities to get together around individual knitting projects. I live near a boutique knitting shop that has regular knit-togethers where people bring their wool and work and talk, perhaps about what they are knitting, but likely so much more also. At least that’s been the case when I have watched as an outsider. FWIW I want to be an insider, but I lack the courage, because hobbies are also about talent, about mastery, and I have yet to believe that I can publicly “show” my work.

So hobbies to me emphasize different aspects of the physical process than physicality in the paid labor case. Not to say that the process is not important in the paid labor case, but as a livelihood it likely has to attend to questions of timeliness and quality that can be a part of the hobby process, but not necessarily.

I also think that hobbies/physicality raises interesting questions when you consider where it is done.  Some types of crafts have very specialized spaces, the shed, the garage, etc… while others are highly mobile and portable, which might be part of their attractiveness (as a knitter myself, I like the fact that I can take a project to the cinema, tougher if I was doing something like making a robot right 😉

And finally I think there are questions about gender. Hobbies and blue collar work have very strong gender associations. All sorts of questions.

So perhaps in the end, while I appreciate the blue collar work opportunities, I think the space is broadened and deepened by a consideration of hobbies.  Hobbies allow for the pursuit of a significant number of questions that are being addressed across the field of Interactive Computing, and indeed hobbies require particular attention because of the breadth of opportunities that they bring. So they require the best of empirical research, what are the values in play, what is, and could be the relationship of the physical to the virtual, and then the construction of carefully considered systems. Indeed, hobbies likely allow for the exploration of every single possible value that Interactive Computing might contend with in the construction of systems that continue to expand and deepen our understanding of the human-machine relationship

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  1. I had a similar response to this article. It seemed to me that the real issue was more about the rarity of really satisfying white-collar work (management, accounting, administration, etc.) than about the awesomeness of blue-collar work (go tell an appalachian coal miner how great physical labor is). So white-collar vs blue-collar seemed to be a red herring: it’s work that lets you learn and apply creative solutions (whether fixing cars or setting up a new web service) that is gratifying for many people. Those who don’t just want to watch TV, that is.

    In some sense this is consistent with the hobby comments above. Hobbies exist even in subsistence economies, though. So they’re not reactions to the industrial revolution or the IT revolution or somesuch. Where did they come from?

    The answer might be the intersection of what you talk about above wrt hobbies and what others have said about play. There is a non-trivial literature on games and play, touching on learning, culture and sociability aspects as well as the surface entertainment/amusement aspects.

  2. Thanks Paul!

    I find your comment about hobbies in subsistence economies very curious, I too wonder why? Seems to suggest something very human in hobbies… good thought about the play literature.

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