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<nettime> The Digital Artisan is Dead! Long Live the New Product!
Micz Flor on Tue, 9 Oct 2001 20:24:27 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> The Digital Artisan is Dead! Long Live the New Product!


THE DIGITAL ARTISAN IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE NEW PRODUCT!
Agreeing on Standards as a Strategy for Independence

     ---

     New economic models of collaboration such as the Digital 
     Artisan are still built on a conventional understanding 
     of the product. If we move attention away from the 
     product and towards the spaces in-between, literally 
     nothing seems to stand in our way. It is the interfacing 
     of products which best describes the new reality. This, 
     not collaboration per se, holds the strategic key for 
     independent development.

     Micz Flor, Berlin Aug2001 (written for ASU 2)

     ---

A few years ago, the sudden surge of a revolutionary scent took hold of
the developed world. The 'Digital' had arrived and melted into all kinds
of discourse. The 'Digital' seemed to bring together the social and the
economic, the information and the product, the communicative and the
competitive. Enthused by the digital era's utopian powers and its free
floating potential of the shockingly new, many alternative economic and
social models were formulated.

Many such models responded to the dramatic changes perceived in the way we
work and the way we exchange goods and labour. Collaboration became a
central tenet in getting things done. A prominent sign of the time was the
Digital Artisan, originally conceived, conceptualised and implemented by
Richard Barbrook.

Today, the Digital Artisan is dying. At the time of birth, much effort was
spent formulating the differences between the work process involved in
digital media and the conveyor-belt factory. During this process, one
crucial phenomenon did not receive much attention, namely the gradual
disappearance of the product itself.

The downfall of the Digital Artisan might be used to outline the profound
ways in which the concept of collaboration is being restructured. Today,
efficient collaboration has little to do with making products.  Instead,
successful collaboration focuses on the interfaces between products: these
invisible, almost non- existent, but immensely powerful and strategic
in-between spaces.

THE RISE OF THE DIGITAL ARTISAN

The 'Digital Artisan' was born in the mid 90s, the last decade of the 20th
century. This was the decade in which the depressing, economic slide
downward was suddenly overturned by the arrival of the 'there's-no-limit'
digital world, which was vast and as globally networked as locally
possible. The 90s offered us an endless sea of interactive experience and
mind-expansion and, along with them, a desire for tools and solutions -
the key to success for the Digital Artisan.

In those days, CDs weighed heavier than gold. There was a belief that the
economic logic of the digital world would ultimately supersede the
restraints and repression of the factory-based conveyor-belt slavery of
Fordism. The effect digitised formats and networks had on day-to-day life
influenced not only the hard structure of markets and products, but also
the soft reality of the way we live and work. Based on such experiences
and realities, the Digital Artisan was invented as an alternative model to
embrace this change. In fact, further developments of the concept
attempted to postulate all requirements of a scientific theory: describe
the existing structure sufficiently, expose points of potential
intervention to control the reality of the market, and predict a future
development or - at least - allow a qualified guess.

THE DIGITAL ARTISAN IN A NUTSHELL

In one sentence, within the digital world modes of working underwent
dramatic change, which in turn generated a new social and economic
structure of 'work', which in turn triggered the emergence of
socio-cultural work structures, then described in Richard Barbrook's
Digital Artisan Manifesto.

But, the most significant change is implied by the product itself. It is
digital. This means that the existence of a working prototype is all that
is required.  Then you can go and launch global distribution. This is very
different from other product cycles. Imagine the reproduction of the
prototype of a car (probably from Ford). In comparison, the digital
prototype is re- produced at next to no costs. The car, on the other hand,
requires the factory, the conveyor-belt, the workers, the material, the
logistics. When the Digital Artisan is at work, very little of that is
needed. Once the first Tomb Raider game is burnt onto a CD, the costs of
reproduction are laughable.

More importantly, not only is the product different, but the production
process is a different one entirely. The Digital Artisan locates himself
(mostly him, sometimes her) in a quintessentially different working
environment.  When working in the field of digital media, your skills are
situated at the centre of production. Your skills will get you a job.
Additionally, when a task needs to be done, you form workgroups which come
together to solve the problem, and everyone chips in their skills. This
means that your work is self-determined and your learning is too.
Workgroups are also project oriented, a distant cry from the
organisational structures of ancient factories. In other words: it's your
decision if you want to work on weekends or stay in the office late.

THE FALL OF THE DIGITAL ARTISAN

Many factors contributed to the end of the Digital Artisan. To name but a
few, the Internet - which had played such an important role in his rise -
accelerated his death. Instead of passing work to the skilful Digital
Artisan from the West, the Internet turned out to be a brute tool of
capitalism, buying into cheap HTML and Flash labour camps in the East and
beyond.

Not only was the exquisite position of the Digital Artisan at risk from
cheap competition outside of his/her cultural region. Even within its own
habitat it became the victim of vicious competition. The implicit irony:
an alternative economic model which positioned itself centre-left and
outside of the old economy would be suffocated by the most fundamental
equation of capitalism: supply and demand.

In the golden years of the Digital Artisan, there were very few skilled in
quite the same way she was. This potential was immediately discovered by
all sectors of society, and to reshape society as a whole. 'Digital'
became desirable not only for education and economy, even art and culture,
but also ex-convict rehab programmes, adult education courses, training
centres, weekend public library courses. You name it, it discovered the
Digital.  In the end of this intense and short period of development, the
Digital Artisan lost its exclusive status and became cheap.

But was the Digital Artisan all that new in the first place? Despite his
futuristic and utopian assumptions, the Digital Artisan's concept of work,
products and resources was astonishingly closely to those of times prior
to the industrial revolution - which is not that surprising given the name
'artisan'. The pre-modern artisan would contribute his specific skill and
artistry to a project, let's say building a gate. One would be the
blacksmith doing the iron work, another artisan would contribute the
masonry. By combining their skills, they would build the gate. In theory
and practice, the Digital Artisan would do the same. Together they would
build the CD, the software, the website, the trailer. Following the same
principle, collaboration meant working on a product together. The fact
that it was digital is more or less secondary.

AWAY FROM THE PRODUCT AND BETWEEN THE PRODUCTS

The concept of the Digital Artisan so clearly illustrated a contrast to
the Fordist model of factory production that it ended up proposing
something new by doing the same... only differently.

Modelled on pre-industrial concepts, the Digital Artisan failed to give
full credit to the dramatic change of the developmental Process, while
pondering the product.  Collaboration would still be measured by the
outcome, functionality and/or acceptance of a product. This product would
be the result of a more flexile work process, but it was still oriented
towards deadlines and budgets.

True, collaboration is a mighty strategy for developing products in the
networked world. Looking at successful collaborations today, the Linux OS
is most commonly held up as a shining example. And rightfully so. But what
is most striking about successful products in the Open Source community is
not the product itself, but the process by which such collaborations
become powerful.

Prior to product development, yet another process of collaboration lays
the most essential foundation for any larger development: the invention
and agreement on standards and interfaces. The key to new modes of working
in the digital age is the collaborative decision making on standards,
rather than combined efforts of developing applications.

THE WIN-WIN SCENARIO OF COLLABORATIVE DECISION MAKING

One prominent example of the powers of standardised interfaces is the
development of the Apache webserver.  And for good reason, since this
example is rooted in the Open Source community. Standards require two
things:  clarity and transparency - not necessarily key objectives of most
software developers aiming to own code and patent algorithms.

What the Apache webserver does is hand out required files using the
Hypertext Transfer Protocol HTTP. There are many applications which do
exactly that. What makes Apache so interesting however is the clear
definitions by which third parties can produce plug-ins to be used by
Apache before returning HTML to the users. Such applications are called
Apache Modules.

Running a module on Apache means little to the Apache application. It
simply means passing a piece of text onto the module before sending it
back through the Internet.  All the work is done by the module. One very
successful example is the module for PHP, which allows the creation of
flexible and dynamic webpages. Many similar modules exist which allow the
expansion of the Apache webserver into a powerful tool, interacting with
many different applications or data formats on the server.

Once interface standards have been established, this co- evolutionary
development becomes like a chicken and egg race (if there is such a
thing). Media Players are a very good example of this process. If you want
a player to become very prominent, it should support many types of media.
And if you develop a new codec for playing video or audio, you would want
it to be compatible with as many players as possible. The Player is little
more than a shell in which codecs can be placed. And the strength of that
shell is the clarity and transparency by which the interface standards are
defined.

AGREEING ON STANDARDS AS A STRATEGY FOR INDEPENDENCE

Agreeing on standards is not exactly new, in fact it is one of the
foundations of the industrial revolution (following artisanship...). What
is new though is the strategic use of such standards to remain independent
and flexible, not unlike the initial goals of the Digital Artisan.

We can observe such a process today in the field of streaming media. In
terms of market presence, Microsoft and RealMedia are in a neck-to-neck
race. Sticking to their very corporate policy, neither would release their
property (i.e. codecs) openly. Quite the opposite.  Smaller developers who
are trying to establish themselves on the market are increasingly going
for alternative solutions.

In the case of video streaming, this seems to be MPEG-4 - instead of
Windows- or RealMedia. With such a mutual agreement in place, independent
developers can work on their individual products while still ensuring a
cross- compatibility between products. If you are working on motion
tracking for MPEG-4 or live streaming for MPEG-4, it seems obvious that in
the end your motion tracking software can be used for a live video stream
as well, as long as both systems are based on the MPEG-4 standard.  Such
common denominators, i.e. standards and interfaces, might well break the
backs of larger corporations with a less developer-friendly attitude.

STANDARDS WANT TO BE FREE

The Digital Artisan was conjured up to describe a new mode of
collaborative working. Its shortcomings are twofold: its failure to
provide an accompanying redefinition of the outcome (i.e. product) of its
collaborations and a thorough understanding of the qualitative changes in
collaboration itself.

It could be argued that by proclaiming the necessity of generalised
standards and interfaces between products, we seem to be re-entering the
first phase of the industrial revolution all over again: re-confirming the
rule of standards as the key to mass-market conveyor-belt production.

In which case, it seems even more significant to stress the importance of
collaborative work on standards and interfaces, as well as demanding that
such standards and interfaces should exist in the Public Domain by
default, thus resisting the 'destiny' of private property.

Micz Flor - micz {AT} mi.cz

content and media development                       http://mi.cz
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