Category Archives: knitting

Science and hobbies

What I did on my holiday

Sitting with some science on Brighton beach.

I co-run a regular event with the Biochemical Society exploring science online. Last week, we had one on science and hobbies, a combination that doesn’t need the web to come about, but is arguably facilitated by it. I know the word ‘hobby’ seemed a bit off-puttingly folksy for some, but I wanted to capture the difference between doing or talking about science for a living, and doing/ talking about science in one’s spare time. Fully aware that this divide isn’t clear cut, I thought the topic would generate debate. I think it did. You can listen to a podcast of the full event, but here are my three ‘take home’ questions from the debate.

What counts as value in citizen science? One of the audience members gave the example of a crowd-sourced citizen research project run by their university, where they realised that it would have been cheaper just to employ a single professional to do the work, largely because it all had to be checked by an expert anyway. One response was that this argument relies largely on the idea that the outcome being funded is purely research. If it is engagement too (and you count citizen involvement as engagement, not just free labour), then maybe it’s a false comparison.

Do we need to consider the ethics of citizen science? In many ways, this follows on from above. If a citizen research project could have just employed a professional academic, are they robbing someone of a job? One of the reasons science became professionalised was to allow people who were not independently wealthy make a living from it. We have seen similar tensions around journalism and music. We might equally ask whether citizen science projects like those run by the Zooniverse simply exploit their members for free labour (this piece on research and the Mechanical Turk is interesting). On the other side, however, it was argued why not let the public volunteer to give something to science, especially if by giving some of their time rather than just money via taxes, they learn something about the science and built relationships with each other and the scientific community in the process? Further, maybe such citizen research frees up a postdoc to do something more interesting, especially if greater public engagement leads to public support for science meaning they find it easier to keep public funding and therefore jobs in science (big ‘if’ though…). I don’t think we settled on answers either way here, but they are all good questions to keep asking. I also think we should find further ethical questions on this topic.

Does doing science as a hobby encourage or discourage social engagement? Again, this is complex question. While discussing garage-based biohackers, it was argued that this removes science from its broader social context. Not only the large networks of professional science, but what many of them are working for; it’s science for the individual, not a public good. Is hobbiest science anti-social? I thought this point was really interesting, and reminded me of Jack Stilgoe’s thoughtful post on science and the Big Society, where he stressed science as a ‘team sport’. On the other hand, a chance to have some individual relationship with science could be an invite to communities both within and around science. Indeed, the word communities was mentioned a lot. This is partly because it’s buzzword de jour in science communication, but it also reflects the ways in which many hobbies connect people to others with a similar interest (see also David Gauntlett’s ‘Making is Connecting’). As one of the attendees of the event said to me the following day, maybe instead of ‘hobbies’ we could have thought of ‘science and alternative social networks’. I also think it’s really significant that OPAL is part funded by the lottery because it works with deprived groups: it is science for social work, as well as research and public all the various possible meanings and uses of ‘public engagement with science’.

As usual at these events, we ended with more questions than answers. I’d love to hear any more thoughts on this – do leave a comment if you have further ideas, questions or even answers.

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Why Don’t You? A review of ‘Making is Connecting’

making is connecting

I’ve mentioned David Gauntlett’s new book, Making is Connecting, a few times recently: on my work blog, my knitting one, and on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories. It’s an interesting book worth talking about. It’s about the social meanings of creativity and 21st century maker cultures, be these makers of blogs, woolly cardigans, cupcakes, podcasts or physics-themed lolcats, and in particular the changing structures of making which surround what is sometimes called ‘social media’. As any seasoned media studies scholar will grump at you, all media is social, but with this thing we call web 2.0 the patterns of sociability are changing (Gauntlett has made a lovely vid on this) in ways which are wrapped up in the history of crafting.

It has, however, taken me a while to actually finish reading the book and post this review. This isn’t because it’s a hard read, or boring. Quite the opposite. For a piece of social sciences, it’s incredibly well written. Still, in a way, it is a book that inspires slow reading, because one of the many reasons why it took me so long to finish (why it takes me so long to finish most books, unless I make myself sit and read them in a go, or even watch a movie or er… finish this sentence) is that I get distracted. I stop consuming whatever other people have made – in this case Gauntlett’s book – and go and produce something for myself. I knitted, I cooked, I wrote, I gave lectures and organised events. Some of this I did myself, some of it collaboratively. Along the way, I also found stuff other people had made to consume and take part in too. And that’s why Making is Connecting might be ‘slow reading’. Because, this process of going off and doing something yourself is a lot of what the book is about.

One of the key frames of the book is a shift from the passivity of the ‘sit back’ model of what might come to be seen as the odd mid to late 20th century era of the television and towards a culture dominated by ideas of making and doing. People who watched British television at a certain point in the late 20th century may remember a show called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead. So does Gauntlett.

I wondered at times whether this shift is over-stated in the book. Or at least that I we should be careful of putting them up against each other in terms of making. I love the passivity of some TV shows because they free me to knit in front of them (just knitting on its own doesn’t catch my attention enough). Or what about TV shows that draw on crafting cultures? (food TV, especially in the USA is fascinating here). Moreover, there are ways in which that big smooth professionally oiled machine of big media acts as a material for 21st century craft. One of the striking, not always appreciated, aspects of 21st century making is how much of it is re-making. Fan fiction is the classic case study of the complexity of such remaking culture. Take, for example, Constance Penley’s book NASA/Trek where she writes about people re-working the stories of Star Trek just as they also rework the various stories surrounding NASA.

A smaller topic, but equally interesting I thought, was that of mess. Gauntlett mentions this first when he is introducing web the notion of web2.0 and mentions a video from Chris Anderson, and then comes back to later when discussing the Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. It reminded me of my friend Felix’s great idea (a few years back now) of ‘messy Tuesdays’. Inspired by the ways in which some knitting and cooking bloggers seemed to be self-consciously styling their domestic lives to look like a glossy lifestyle magazine, Felix wrote up a manifesto (currently offline): ‘You are not your flawless surfaces. You are not your orderly laundry-pile. You are not the seamlessness of your Finished Objects. You are not your risen cakes. You are not your sewn-in ends’. As another blogger, Lara put it, ‘as someone who spent her teenager years wrapped in teenage angst about not being clever enough, pretty enough or thin enough, the idea that my home won’t be beautiful enough, my craft not so well executed or my knitting up to speed has been at times quite tough’. They confidently posted about the less tidied-up bits of their lives, celebrating the beauty and reality of the mess that surrounds us all.

I sometimes think we should bring that back: #messytues has something on a twitter meme about it, no? I also think there’s potential for some research here. John Law is good on this topic, as a post on the ‘serendipity engine’  reminded me recently. Although I’ve just quoted a couple of knit-bloggers, I think this idea of the reality, necessity and even beauty of mess has something to say about the way we tell science stories too (as the reference to Law may signal).

The point that most interested me about this book, however, was the way that Gauntlett, as a professor of media studies, is interested in people making media and mediating making. It’s all very popular culture orientated, with some nods to domestic life. The hand crafting of pharmaceuticals, for example, doesn’t get much of a look in. I wondered if this would have brought something else to the debate.

That’s one of the reasons why I referred to NASA/Trek. There are many other better works on fanfiction (e.g.) but I think Penley’s discussion of something as intrinsically ‘big science’ as the space race says something about the social arrangement of makers in late modern society. There is a danger that by focusing on the ways people make and remake some objects we further ‘black-box’ others. For example, I learnt how to knit from reading knit blogs. I can make a jumper. I can also blog about this on the super clever iPhone I carry around with me. I don’t know how to make an iPhone though, or even spin my own wool to make that jumper from. The latter is largely a matter of choice (I do at least know some blogs that’d teach me to spin and even what plants to grow to make my own dyes from, as well as a few people who have access to sheep for wool, or possibly even a llama). For the former though, I have no clue where to even start teaching myself, even if I did, the manufacture of an iphone is not exactly opensource. Most of the time, I’m ok with that cluelessness, it frees me up to be knowledgeable about other things, but it does also disempower me.

There are key ways in which most of us do not have the means to (media) production – from our inability to understand how to do anything but use (as in use as a consumer) the shiny computers so many of us carry around in our pockets, to more economic or legal issues like the one Martin Robbins recently flagged up on his post about web hosts as the Achilles heel of online journalism.

None of that is necessarily a criticism of the book. We all have to focus somewhere, and Gauntlett does touch on these issues a bit in his final chapter ‘Web 2.0 – not all rosy?’ Still, I was surprised not to see more on the sociologies of work, expertise and technology and finished the book wanting to hear more about anti-social aspects of DIY culture. I also suspect Gauntlett would get an intellectual kick out of the various aesthetics of steampunk maker culture (old post I wrote on an exhibition of such work).

To conclude, I do want to stress that Making is Connecting is a lovely book, not least because of Gauntlett realistically optimistic approach. Though he’ll happily call ‘rubbish!’ (his 10 things wrong with the media ‘effects’ model is justifiably a classic), he doesn’t wear an ability to be ‘critical’ like it’s some sort of pin badge to show membership of the ‘very clever thinkers club’. Academics should be able to say they like things, and I like this book. I’ll end on a positive note, an honest one, and say if you are a maker of any sort, I can wholehearted recommend Making is Connecting. It’ll give you a chance to think about the history and philosophies of crafting cultures. It’ll lift you out of your own maker microculture to help you ponder your wider context. It inspired me to make this post, and others, and to think more about my making. So do read it, even if it does take you a few months to get around to finishing it because you keep putting it down to do something else instead.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

Student Sci-Art

Some examples of the interpretive practical group project we set our MSc students every year. They work in groups or three or four to produce something (and it can be about anything…) which reflects on some of the history, philosophy and social studies of science they study in the first term.

Four Scientists 2 Mendel's peas
Science Comic - inside Enlightenment Edward - close up

From the top-left clockwise, four scientists of the televisual age argue over how they see “the public”, Mendel’s pea (part of a knitted history of genetics), a philosophy of science influenced comic book, and “Enlightenment Edward” (part of a collection of history of science action men).

Each of the photos are links to flickr, where you can find more notes. You’ll also see further examples of this year’s group projects, including: bottles of cider which they actually brewed (or rather sci-der), some clever photography, an experiment in Romantic Scientific painting, and a mashup of the Large Hadron Collider with Cologne Cathedral.