ABSTRACTING CRAFT: The Practiced Digital Hand

ABSTRACTING CRAFT: The Practiced Digital Hand

James Carman

By Malcolm McCullough. M.I.T. Press.250 pp. $25

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ABSTRACTING CRAFT: The Practiced Digital Hand.

By Malcolm McCullough. M.I.T. Press. 250 pp. $25

"Between the morning news and your bedtime reading there will be road signs, billboards, computer screens, junk mail, posters, photo prints, presentation slides, pictures on people’s shirts, snippets of television shows, maybe a movie, a computer game, maybe a couple of downloads from the Internet, a videotape...." As described by McCullough, a professor of architecture at Harvard University, the visual explosion ignited by the computer age is both sinister and inspiring.

McCullough is concerned about the computer’s ability not only to multiply images but (with advances in digital technology) to alter them as well. "Bits replace atoms," he writes, "and digital signal processing undermines the very physicality of reproduction." Armed with keyboard, mouse, and staggeringly sophisticated graphics software, the computer artisan can experiment endlessly on a single base image, the untouched original on a disk. Were he alive today, Leonardo da Vinci could spawn a myriad of Mona Lisas, each with her own enigmatic smile.

Yet what about creating the Mona Lisa in the first place? Admitting that "computers’ incontestable practicality gives rise to an astonishing amount of banal and cheaply executed work," McCullough makes the seemingly commonplace observation that the computer is a tool, not a substitute for the vision of the artist or the thinker. In effect, he denies the claims of most software marketers. Buying a copy of Adobe Illustrator will not magically transform someone into, say, Maurice Sendak.

Such conclusions may not be astounding, but they do illuminate matters that can be overlooked or misunderstood in today’s workplace.Too often, writes McCullough, "left over industrial-era attitudes about technology" lead managers to employ armies of workers with only modest computer skills to perform simple drafting and other applications, rather than hire highly skilled people capable of a variety of functions. Such "task automation" overlooks that "the computer is not a tool so much as hundreds of tools."

Further, McCullough urges people with artistic ability not to turn their backs on computers. In his brave new world, the digital artisan will use a computer just as a stone carver wields a pneumatic drill to sculpt, or a skilled potter operates a motorized wheel to create an exquisite vase: as an aid, not an adversary.

—James Carman


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