My first opportunity to see the connection between handcraft and new technology was in the summer of 1999. I remember the moment clearly because, in retrospect, my perception of what was possible was so far off the mark.
I was standing on the deck by the main office of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, and had just been introduced to Mitchel Resnick, who was visiting the island. Resnick is a professor and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group of the Media Lab at MIT. As soon as I heard “MIT,” my response was that an intensive craft workshop program and one of the nation’s preeminent technology centers didn’t have much in common. Although we were still in a pre-smartphone era, it was clear that digital technology had already begun making rapid advances in our culture. For me, Haystack—where we emphasized the process of discovery through working with materials—was an antidote to technological changes that were replacing human touch.
I commented to Resnick that our institutions were pretty far apart in how we looked at the world. He said that he thought we actually had a lot in common. I was skeptical. MIT represented the latest technology, all wired intensity driving technological innovation in the heart of Cambridge; Haystack, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes and built in 1960 on a spectacular sloping site overlooking Jericho Bay, was a place of retreat, where time seemed to slow down as makers experimented with clay, glass, metals, textiles, wood, and other materials. This doesn’t mean that Haystack wasn’t contemporary. Francis Merritt, its founding director, was an innovative programmer who brought in craftspeople from Asia, Africa, and Europe and partnered with makers from other fields—including visionary architect Paolo Soleri at Arcosanti. But all our work had been connected with what we perceived as what made us human, and that centered on an intimate relationship between maker and material.
Still, I realized that Haystack should begin to examine this uneasy relationship between the analog and digital worlds and initiated conversations with Resnick and others at MIT about a symposium that would bring the two together.
In 2002, Digital Dialogues: Technology and the Hand, convened 60 or so makers, thinkers, designers, and educators for lectures and hands-on activities. Half the group was selected by Haystack, the other half, by MIT. In each of our six studios, we created impromptu labs and selected one craft representative and one new technology representative to develop projects together.
It was a bit overwhelming to see the arrival of the MIT contingent—loaded down with computers. It felt like two mismatched families gathering for a wedding or a visiting sports team from a much bigger school coming to play.
In our blacksmithing shop we paired MacArthur Award–winning blacksmith and sculptor Tom Joyce with Justine Cassell, at the time a professor in the Gesture and Narrative Language Group at the Media Lab. They decided to make a vessel in forged steel that would “tell” the story of its own making by placing sensors in the finished vessel. This involved recording audio and video during the making of the piece. I visited the studio late one evening. Joyce and others were working at the glowing red coal fires while grad students from MIT were working in the cool blue light of their laptops, creating the computer program needed for the project. It was at that moment that I made a connection to humans as inventors and makers—beginning with the mythic fires of the forge and continuing on to a digital world. What connected our two groups were ingenuity and a relationship with materials—a human story that is ancient and new at the same time.