Installed infrastructure, latent knowledge and the small-batch aesthetic

So the great Russell Davies showed this slide during his talk at dConstruct in Brighton the other day, which I wanted to riff on a little. He’s specifically talking about the existing, truly global infrastructure of newspaper printing presses – heavy iron that’s newly available in the eclipse of the business logic that underwrote its original deployment – and what might be done with that infrastructure by the sufficiently motivated.

But Russell’s talk, in the context of my experiences in San Francisco a day or two before I got to Brighton, reminds me that there’s also a sense in which latent knowledge constitutes an infrastructure to be picked up and repurposed.

Consider: over the last several years, San Francisco in particular has become a field of premium and super-premium, small-run craft production: Ice cream. Bicycles. Coffee. Spirits. Clothing. An audience primed to expect, desire and demand the provenance of the “lovingly handcrafted,” and pitch-perfect retail tuned to that demand. Especially for someone like me, whose senses have become inured to the increasingly homogenized material landscape of Manhattan, it’s hard to escape the sense that the last decade’s activity amounts to nothing less than a local renaissance of craft and technique and pride.

It’s not difficult to infer that this all happened when it did, where it did, because of the post-dotcom-crash emergence of a healthy cohort of talented (and relatively well-capitalized) folks hungry to make something with their lives just a little more tangible than some evanescent Web portal. I’m also willing to bet that the relatively low barriers to entry involved in successful push-button publishing of the early blog era convinced a whole lot of people in the Bay Area that it was safe to try their hand at other, more ambitious endeavors – that is, that blogging constituted a kind of gateway drug.

And yeah, sure, this can occasionally be a little insular and precious, a little twee: the kind of hipster-doofus affectation that makes a nice fat target for equally nitwit parody. But it’s also, hopefully, something that speaks to Russell’s more general point, and is therefore replicable elsewhere, in whatever ways are most true to those places and desires. The San Francisco resurgence would not – could not – have happened if there were not at this point literally several hundred years of insight into craft technique just lying on the ground, for just about any domain of productive activity you can imagine.

I can imagine that it’s not always easy to reacquire this knowledge. Almost by definition, it’s the kind of thing that lives in underutilized libraries and dusty used bookshops, the very existence of which is threatened by digital successors, and in heads long gone grey. What’s worse, the day-to-day praxis of a given tradition will likely have resided in particular material/semiotic networks – delicate configurations of workbenches and tools and scrawled annotations that have most likely been scattered to the four winds, and must now be painstakingly reassembled – and have found its maximum expression in the scenius of some years-gone barstool or coffeehouse community.

All of which is to say that you can’t simply pick up an 1895 copper fermentation vat at a flea market and expect to begin pumping out the craft IPA. But the knowledge is there, the networks can still (just) be recreated, and the results speak for themselves. I’m sure for some, or many, it’s just another kind of performative display, an increasingly mannered and exclusive elaboration on consumerism, but I can’t help but feeling that being able to partake of products like these on a regular basis is living in every sense a better life: locally rooted, profoundly respectful of hard-won human achievement, and sustainable in the best and truest sense. This wealth is scattered everywhere around us, lying there in plain sight just waiting to be picked up and used. What are you going to do with it?

Addendum. I don’t think it’s any accident at all that so much of the above-referenced activity is happening in the Mission, richly provisioned as it is with relatively affordable storefront retail. (As usual, Jane said it best: “Sometimes new ideas need old spaces.”) But I don’t think that’s all there is to it, and more about that in short order.

8 responses to “Installed infrastructure, latent knowledge and the small-batch aesthetic”

  1. bryan says :

    or put another way… we’re witnessing (and benefiting, I agree) from a massive re-investment in material culture. all that brain power that has been occupied with the manipulation of abstract systems *cough*internet* is coming crashing back onto land.

    finding ways to combine the mutability of those dear abstract systems with the essential fact of matter’s mutual exclusivity… well, that’s going to be exciting stuff. Forget computational wood, I want to time-shift my plants!

    at any rate, I’m on board with Davies and hope that this resurgence of craft in our city centers is less an end unto itself and more an indicator of a larger cultural shift towards valuing the link between ideas and things.

  2. Mentifex says :

    So you were in San Francisco recently, Adam? I have not been there since I was in U Cal Berkeley graduate school many years ago. Our mutual friend (codename) Odna Mona recently moved from New York to San Francisco and has sent me some U Cal SF tote-bags in which to carry around my New York Times and Mentifex AI writing materials. (She’s the one who tried to talk you into moving into the Montlake student house where she and the other students needed an Army psy-ops guy to help pay the rent :-)

  3. AG says :

    Yeah, for a few days last week, between a sixteen-hour layover in NYC and three days in England’s green and pleasant land.

    I’ve got to stop doing this.

  4. leftsider says :

    The short of it: the supply for information generators has currently surpassed the demand. In addition to bringing the filterer to the forefront of desirability, it has also inversely affected the demand for generators of tangible things. Combined with the urban habit of transaction and necessity of distinction. It is not at all surprising that this evolution occurs.

    I do wonder, though, about the “expiration date” or latent knowledge. Would it be best used by a certain time? Is that time based on inherent or contextual (discoveries of a dying people with no written code) constraints? And can that knowledge be recycled/repurposed when its expiration date has passed?

  5. Peter says :

    It takes a generation to forget how to do something and two generations to forget that they forgot how to do something. Once you reach that point, it becomes infinitely more difficult to recreate a certain skillset.

  6. AG says :

    A generation? It only takes me about twenty minutes to forget how to do something.

  7. John Merryman says :

    After linking to this discussion through Klint Finley’s site and reading a few other posts, I thought I might offer a theory to leverage the current monetary bubble into a model for economic localism.

    The powers that be are leaving no stone unturned in salvaging the current model, but are only creating the Everest of bubbles. When it implodes, there will be an opportunity to rethink the economic model. Given the circumstances, though, it will have to be a fairly simple and logical solution.

    The problem with our current system and the response to its demise, lays in a reconsideration of the nature of money. Today most people think of money as a form of stored wealth and don’t give it much thought beyond that.

    The fact is that it really isn’t. Money is entirely a publicly supported medium of exchange. It’s like a road system. It’s based on the ability to tax and the copyright is federal property. You own your house, car, business etc, but not the roads connecting them, which are a form of public commons. Money is a drawing right on community productivity, for which we exchange our surplus resources.

    When private banking was first developed by the Rothschilds, they were responsible for maintaining its value, but with the central banking system, this responsibility has been made a public commitment, while the private banking system retains the profit from managing it. The next step is to make banking a public function, which like democratic political systems, would be distributed as broadly as possible and people would bank with those which funded the public services they use. Competition would be a function of communities trying to provide the best services in order to attract business and people. Banking would necessarily be a separate branch of government, since elected politicians would find it irresistible to inflate the supply to pay for the promises which keep them in office.

    One of the main problems with treating money as private property is that it encourages hoarding, which is destructive, since whatever might be withdrawn from circulation needs to be replaced. Otherwise, saving it by investing it means loaning it to someone else, so that the laws of supply and demand require sufficient demand for debt to maintain the value of supply. A credit bubble, such as we have now, occurs when superficial and unsustainable demand is manufactured to sustain an oversupply of notational wealth. When the loans are defaulted on, this illusion of wealth disappears. This destruction of economic security is going to require a re-examination of the situation, no matter how much people may want to avoid doing so, whether due to ideology or personal advantage.

    If people understand that money constitutes a form of public wealth, they will be more reluctant to drain value out of communal relationships and environmental resources to store in a bank. This would be healthy for both and would open the space for other avenues of exchange to evolve, from local currencies to basic good will.

    Basically the idea of a publicly funded form of notational wealth being considered private property allows those controlling the process to siphon value out of all aspects of society that depend on it and this is proving manifestly destructive to society and the monetary system. It might seem impossible to change this circumstance, but it is the banking fraternity that is destroying their golden goose. Sometimes what seems the most solid is simply the most brittle.

    Edited to add paragraph breaks – ag

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