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.