Background

Digital technology creates new opportunities for the exercise of craftsmanship. Technological capabilities extend the possibilities of existing expressive mediums and allow for the creation of new ones. In Abstracting Craft, Malcolm McCullough provides an evocative description of one such medium, computer-aided design (CAD). Similar opportunities exist in other areas, like the integration of electronics with physical handicrafts, the algorithmic generation of visual forms, and hybrid human/computer control of digital fabrication machines. We use the term “digital craftsmanship” to refer generally to this use of digital technology for the crafting of artifacts, whether physical or digital, and the term “expressive medium” to refer to a particular instance of this combination (such as computer-aided design). Integrating digital technology and craftsmanship isn’t easy. The complexity, abstractness, brittleness, and rapid change of digital technology make it difficult to use as an expressive medium.

The field of human-computer interaction has much to offer in overcoming these difficulties and in supporting digital craftsmanship. HCI excels both at investigating the ways that people engage with digital technology and at proposing novel interfaces and systems for making use of technology. Applying HCI to the domain of digital craftsmanship, however, requires a different focus than traditional HCI goals of efficiency and ease-of-use. Craftsmanship involves diversity, iteration, risk, personal taste, mastery, and respect for materials. Bringing these qualities to digital technology requires an understanding of the nature of creative practice, something that isn’t discussed in many areas of HCI research. On the other hand, the forms of investigation we’re interested in are different from creative practice itself. Rather than using technology to produce aesthetic or useful artifacts, we question how technology and craftsmanship can be reconciled to enable diverse forms of expressive practice by many different people. For example, how can we build interfaces to allow the direct manipulation of algorithmic processes?  What does it mean to treat microcontrollers as a craft material? How can a computer guide, but not determine, the movement of a sculptor’s hand? These questions call for research along multiple dimensions, many of which we would place in the purview of HCI.