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WTF is M.I.T. Doing at SNAG?

(With Crowdsourced Q&A)

I am currently writing a longish essay on new media, and two of the three themes of this year’s SNAG program[1]—“Social impact” and “innovation”—held a special appeal for me: There, in the same room, in the course of a mere three days, my education regarding crafters’ involvement with new media would be done. Yee-ha!

I just used the words “new media” without defining them: New media can mean a lot of things and, at SNAG, they encompassed modes of fabrication (M.I.T.’s FabLab and Nadya Peek’s machines to make machines), modes of computation (Nervous System’s growth algorithms), and methods of circulation, as enabled by IT (Michael Strand and Gabriel Craig). I intentionally bundled these aspects of new media together, because I wanted to look at how their narratives overlap.

The thing I found remarkable—and this informs the structure of my micro-report—is that building participatory platforms is key to the success of three very different models: Michael Strand’s social projects (Bowls around Town), Neil Gershenfeld’s vision of personal fabrication, and Nervous System’s grow-it-yourself jewelry.

Michael Strand described[2] how his practice shifted away from the traditional pursuit of design toward community building as the value he is ultimately interested in. There are “diminishing returns on improving the design of a cup,” he said. His Bowls around Town project is about “harvesting recipes and images from people, using bowls as activators,” and the model he implicitly refers to is that of user-generated, user-organized knowledge. Strand is an initiator, organizer, and promoter: He provides the scenario and, most importantly, insures that the modes of participation, the implementation, and the results of the projects widely circulate. (Gabriel Craig, another craft activist, says about his own projects that it is “rare [for me] to develop a project independent of the mechanism that would distribute it.”[3])

Neil Gershenfeld (M.I.T.) and Stuart Kestenbaum (Haystack) talked[4] about having installed a mini Fab Lab at Haystack and of the difficulties of selling a dream of techno-driven self-sufficiency to a bunch of self-sufficient crafters. M.I.T.’s Gershenfeld was trying very hard not to evoke the specter of craft-killing techno-fear, and he managed, in tandem with Kestenbaum, to present his Fab Lab as a space for instructive errors, accidents, and ruse (in short, as an experimental space for making). The question of competence loomed large in the discussion: Gershenfeld (and later, Nervous System) spoke about “low technological barriers,” but it is quite clear that mastering digital softwares—if one is to go beyond the simple tweaking of given parameters—requires time and experimentation. How the general public can actually access personal fabrication, and what crafters must learn and unlearn to appropriate the Fab Lab tools, are two very different challenges. Some aspects of this unusual and successful joint venture were not fully discussed—in particular, where the agendas of professionalized hand-making and amateur production come in conflict. But by and large the mood in the room (if I gauged it correctly) is that the Fab Lab’s promise of “personal production” as an exciting alternative to industrial production is just too close to crafters’ own ideals of self-sufficiency to be dismissed.

James Coleman and Nadya Peek, Cardboard Construction Kit for a Modular Machine t
James Coleman and Nadya Peek, Cardboard Construction Kit for a Modular Machine that Makes, 2014, photo: artists

Nervous System discussed[5] the different apps that allow users to manipulate growth or structural parameters to create individual models in terms of “co-creation,” and bullet-pointed their vision for the future as one where “complexity is free,” “variation is free,” and they have “lowered the barrier to creation.” They talked of “disseminating their research through affordable jewelry,” and, in effect, the objects they sell are one-offs at the price of mass-produced objects.

Nadya Peek, finally, managed to weave[6] several of those strands (accessibility, community building, co-creation, self-sufficiency) in her cool video-based presentation of laptop-sized machines that make machines. This, for me, was the clincher: Surely the revolution is nigh?

The happy narrative about the beauty of the participatory model and/or of the consumer as producer—and the attendant idea of user empowerment—is a very difficult one to resist, for crafters. It suggests that the community-centered paradigm of craft aligns with several of the sexier aspects of new media: the fact that knowledge is user-generated, that relations between people (not products) are today’s hot currency, that the modes of production, distribution, and exchange ushered in by online networks allow niche markets (and niche projects) to exist. In short: the hippie-ness of Silicon Valley is high-fiving the hippie-ness of craft’s social and human project.

I would not be able to make sense of all of this—or in fact know that I don’t know much about networks—were it not for reading The Alchemy of Multitudes, a remarkable book that explains how the web is changing the way we interact with things, people, information. I learned about the idea that niche markets become viable in the digital age in that book (specifically, from a reference to the notion of the “long tail” developed by Chris Anderson), and about the paradigmatic shift from links to relations, and about the potential of crowdsourcing intelligence. (You know: when you create or gather information, and post it on a proprietary platform, like Facebook, or Wikipedia, or CDDB?)

What SNAG made evident—at least to me—is that a number of these technological changes (whether they have to do with information or production) “look like” things that are very much part of craft’s past tenets (self-sufficiency, mutualization of production tools, lateral transmission of knowledge), and of its current interests (community building/social practice, self-management of information about one’s or others’ projects, craft’s accessibility to the wider public). So if it was surprising to see M.I.T. at SNAG, my sense is that we will want to play around with them a lot more in the future.

I would like to conclude my report by taking a page out of The Alchemy of Multitudes: I will assume that “my readers together know more than I do,”[7] and ask you what you think about these four questions:

1. What is a good network?

2. Is easier access to personal production technology a good thing for humans?

3. Should knowledge be monetized; should it be considered a commons?

4: What should the next question be?

The comments area below—though restrictive-looking—is where you can play, but you can also express yourself on FB or, if you really insist, by email.


[1] The organization of SNAG was an obscure affair to me, until I asked Monica Hampton, who played a very big part in putting SNAG Boston together. Her answer: “The Conference Coordinating Committee (3C) for the Boston conference was comprised of Gwynne Rukenbrod Smith, Monica Hampton, Pam Robinson (SNAG’s Board Liaison for Conferences), Tedd McDonah (incoming SNAG Board Liaison for Conferences), and Grace Hilliard Koshinsky (our local representative conference coordinator). This group was responsible for ensuring that SNAG’s overarching goals for conferences was being met as well as for creating any themes and decisions about pacing, schedule, and ultimately the general direction for this particular conference. Under my direction and guidance and the Board Liaison for SNAG, the Conference Planning Committee (CPC) is responsible for shaping the core content of the conference, vetting calls for proposals and nominating and selecting any speakers presenting at the conference. This year’s CPC consisted of Stephen Yusko, Carissa Hussong, and Anne Bulmer Brewer. Grace Hilliard Koshinsky also worked with me on the CPC to form the particular themes and conversations for the Boston conference.

SNAG typically plans three conferences at a time in overlapping order with each conference taking between 3 years – 18 months to come to fruition. Boston took three solid years to plan.” Monica Hampton, in email interview with the author, May-June 2015.

[2] Michael Strand, At Human Scale, lecture, May 21, 2015, SNAG Boston

[3] Gabriel Craig, during a Face 2 Face discussion (with Sam Aquillano, and Jason Talbott), May 22, 2015, SNAG Boston

[4] Neil Gershenfeld and Stuart Kestenbaum, In Conversation: High-Tech at Haystack, May 23, 2015, SNAG Boston.

[5] Nervous System, Rapid Fire Presentations, Innovation (alongside Nadya Peek, and Arthur Ganson), May 23, 2015, SNAG Boston.

[6] Nadya Peek, Face 2 Face discussion (with Nervous System, Arthur Ganson, and Stuart Kestenbaum), May 23, 2015, SNAG Boston.

[7] Dan Gillmor, We the Media, Grassroots Journalism by the People for the People (2004), as quoted in Francis Pisani and Dominique Piotet, Comment le Web Change le Monde, l’Alchimie des Multitudes (Paris: Pierson, 2008), 216.



  • Benjamin Lignel

    An art historian (BA) and furniture designer (MA) by training, Benjamin Lignel veered toward jewelry design just after earning his master's degree. Lignel describes himself as a designer, writer, and curator. In 2007, he co-founded la garantie, association pour le bijou, a French association with a mission to study and promote jewelry. He became a member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts, in 2009, and was a guest teacher at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Nuremberg, Germany) in 2013. Lignel was appointed editor of Art Jewelry Forum in January of the same year. In 2015, he edited the first book-length study of jewelry exhibition-making, "Shows and Tales." 

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