David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd in conversation, #3: on small steps

Thursday, May 15, 2014

This is the third in the series of three conversations between David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd, which we have been posting each Thursday, during May 2014, on our respective blogs (davidgauntlett.com and keepandshare.co.uk).

Our previous two discussions were ‘On design, and systems’ and ‘On sustainability’. This third one takes as its starting point the importance of small steps, which David picked out as a key point in his talks at the Maker Faires in New York and Rome, in September and October last year. We recognised that we have both noted the importance of small steps for some time.

ATH: So to kick off, I wondered if you could describe one situation, related to making, where you feel that small steps are important?

DG: Well my main ‘small steps’ point is that any small step can be a good and powerful step! I mean, where a person is taking a small step into the world of creating and making and sharing, rather than being just a consumer of stuff. So for each person it might be different, but it’s that moment of discovery where you get that feeling of surprise and power, that you actually made something, something that wasn’t there before, and now it is, because you made it! And that it’s kind of unique, and can’t be bought, and nobody else has one quite like it, and you did it yourself.

ATH: Oh yes, that’s nice. Do you have any examples of your own ‘small steps’?

DG: Oh, well memorable ones would be, say, when I got the first box of Powercut zines back from the printer in 1991 – ‘I made this!’. A zine that I had made myself (with contributions from others too – making and connecting). That was quite a big thing rather than a small thing. Similarly, the first time I put a webpage online, where you upload it on one computer and then find it very exciting to go to a different computer – maybe one in someone else’s house! – and find that you can see it on there too! Magic! Well, a 1996 sort of magic for me anyway. Of course that was quite a big deal too. And that was both ‘I made this’ and also ‘Here I am’ – because it was visible to the world. Whereas the Powercut zine was not really visible to the world at the point when it was just a cardboard box with 800 printed copies in it. So there, I had the ‘Here I am’ moments in little bits, later on, like when it was mentioned in a tiny bit on the Guardian women’s page or in a few feminist sort of magazines, or in other people’s zines.

So it would be different for different people, but it’s that moment when you can feel the pleasure of saying ‘Here I am’, and ‘I made this’, because you took some little step into the world of making things, making ideas, rather than the world of consuming other people’s things and ideas.

ATH: Ah yes, I see. So the ‘I made this’ thought is perhaps about a personal, and possibly private, satisfaction in seeing the thing that you have made – and ‘Here I am’ is about seeing that thing existing in the wider world, and being seen by others? I can certainly think of my own versions of that!

DG: Well to be precise (!) – since you’re asking! – and let me explain – these are the points, ‘Here I am’, and ‘I made this’, which I made in my talk at the Maker Faire in Rome, 2013 (see video). I meant ‘I made this’ to be a more emphatic, outward-facing statement, a message to others that, look, I made this thing. That’s the pride in the achievement – a pride which you want to be recognised by others. That ties in with a finding from my research for Making is Connecting, where I looked at studies that had been done about why people liked to make and share things in the offline world, and other studies about why people liked to make and share things in the online world, and a common finding was about the interest in being part of a community with shared interests, but this included a desire for recognition of the contribution that the person made to their community of interest.

ATH: Oh yes, I’ve definitely seen that in my research with knitters – a big part of the satisfaction is about being able to share the story of what you’ve made, and especially with other knitters.

DG: So ‘I made this’ reflects personal satisfaction, but is also a statement to the world. And then ‘Here I am’ backs that up, saying not only that I made this but also that it contains something of myself within it. And that this deserves some recognition. So my points were slightly more outwardly demanding than in your version!

ATH: Interesting – I’m glad I asked! Another thing that I’ve realised about small steps is that one tends to lead to another – they take you on a journey. You do something, and have that feeling of surprise and power – and want to do it again. But this time, you can be a little bolder, and go a little further, because you know a little more about the world you’re stepping into. After a while, you look back and realise how far you’ve come: how much you’ve learned about crochet, or Arduino, or growing vegetables, or whatever. And with each step, you’re likely to become more engaged with a community of fellow enthusiasts, and more knowledgeable about the activity you’re doing – the subtleties of its particular challenges and opportunities for creativity. 

DG: Oh that’s nice, I like that – the steps are part of a journey. Of course they are.

ATH: Now, while it’s reasonably straightforward to see that these steps and realisations are important and positive for the individuals involved, I think lots of people would see them as insignificant in the wider scheme of things. But I think we would both agree that these steps into creating, rather than consuming, are actually very significant indeed.

DG: Yes indeed. I think you have helpfully said something we both disagree with, so that I can disagree with it! So, the thing is, it’s not a matter of saying that the small steps are actually, somehow, big steps. We are talking about small steps. But all of these small steps made by different people add up, and pile higher and higher, until you’ve got a huge amount of meaningful activity in your culture which, once it’s all piled up together, is bigger than many other big cultural things. So that’s the macro scale. But the important part is what each of those things means, back on the micro scale. It’s about people changing their sense of being within our culture – recognising that culture is a two-way street, a place for writing as well as reading, singing as well as listening, making as well as taking.

ATH: In my PhD research, I was looking at how homemade clothes could contribute to sustainability. I remember acknowledging in my thesis that this approach could be seen as both over-ambitious and naïve: to think that you can change something as huge and complex as the fashion industry through such personal and individual acts as making and mending clothes. But I honestly feel like it’s potentially more powerful, and certainly more subversive and exciting, to think about change in this way.

DG: Yes exactly – that’s the only way real change works, I think. That’s similar to my wee rant about the ‘critical’ media studies scholars – which appears in this article – who seem satisfied to have come up with a complex theoretical account of what’s wrong with things, but are unable to tell you how this might actually be changed. I think change happens, step by step, little step by little step, as people do things differently. That’s the only way it makes sense. People on the ground start to do things a bit differently, and start to expect things to happen a bit differently, and then this gets absorbed into the more macro-level context of how people in government, or visible in the media, do things, and what they expect things to be like, and then this macro level sets the tone of what is then assumed and expected down at the micro level, which then means the envelope can be pushed a tiny bit more, and so on, and the whole thing goes on in a cycle. This is, in fact, Giddens’s structuration theory in action, sociology fans. Giddens is a sort of middling-left figure politically, not a fully signed up Marxist, but he’s the one who has the theory of how things can actually be changed in modern societies. And it shows the significance of the small steps. As long as there are quite a lot of them.

ATH: Oh yes, that’s a really useful theory, and one that makes a lot of real-world sense. It’s an important reminder to step back and see that macro view, that things really can change – that tides can turn. To share my own current rant, I’ve been frustrated recently by people who seem to think that behaviour only ever moves in one direction – more specifically, that because in recent years, clothes have become cheaper and cheaper, and (on average) people wear them for a much shorter time before disposing of them – that it’s impossible to conceive of any future in which people are happy to keep their clothes for longer, and to pay more for them. Now, this is obviously a very crude view, as it lumps everyone together, as if we all think and behave in the same way – but it’s also depressingly fatalistic. Whereas I think, well if things can change in one direction, surely they can change in another! So, this structuration theory helps me to remember that. 

There are so many examples, though, where people feel that any change they might make would be insignificant, compared to the bigger things going on in the world. Like in terms of environmental stuff, and sustainability – that pessimistic view that there’s no point us making little changes to how we live, to reduce our energy usage or carbon emissions or whatever, when however-many coal-fired power stations are being built every year in China. It’s quite hard to challenge that mindset, I think.

But there are a couple of things about small steps in making, in particular, that are different and exciting. Often, the little lifestyle changes that might reduce energy use are worthwhile collectively, but don’t bring any personal benefit (beyond the altruistic satisfaction of ‘doing your bit’, perhaps) – so it’s easy to see why people sometimes feel they are pretty pointless. Making, creating and sharing, though, are personally satisfying – very much so – so there’s the potential for a ‘double dividend’ scenario, where people feel happier, and collectively, their activities become more sustainable.

And the other thing is that – as we discussed in our second blog post – these activities don’t just contribute to environmental and social benefits in a purely technical and pragmatic way, but (surely more powerfully) they start to change how people relate and respond to other people, and the world. So, as you say, these are small steps – but with a potentially big impact in terms of people’s attitudes and perceptions, I think.

DG: Exactly. And it’s like the feminist notion that ‘the personal is political’, which I take to mean a number of things. One is the point that the small stuff of everyday life is important, and if you change that – and other people start to change it too – then you really are changing the world. You actually are. People think they can’t change things, but they can – by changing things, on an everyday level. It’s like the title of the new book by Rob Hopkins: ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. Talking about what’s wrong with the world can play some role – raising awareness, and so on, which is a necessary step – but just doing stuff is much more powerful in the obvious way – it’s tangible, it’s visible, people can experience it and hopefully like it and want to do more of it.

Now – ha – I say this as an exhausted father-of-two who doesn’t visibly do much big world-changing stuff. But thankfully we’re talking about small steps. Small steps make a difference and they’re not too hard. So, being a vegetarian counts – that’s doing something I believe in and it takes precisely no effort at all really. And being enthusiastic about a hands-on approach to creativity and play and learning just amongst the kids and the students that I am directly involved with – that’s something too, because it’s about fostering engagement with the world around us (as we’ve discussed before). And it’s all those choices you make in what you support and don’t support. All those kinds of things.

Anyway, a second meaning of ‘the personal is political’, for me, is I suppose the inverse version of the same thing – so it’s saying that you can’t do political pontification if you don’t try to live up to those ideals in your personal life. 

And a third one is that personal stories and experiences are meaningful political things. They’re not trivia. There’s not a hierarchy where people dealing with the things we call ‘politics’ are doing more important stuff than the people who are making their own efforts in different ways. Personal things are just as vital to social change as well.

That might just be three ways of saying the same thing, I don’t know. But it shows that the feminist notion that ‘the personal is political’ was, and is, full of rich meanings, I think!

ATH: Absolutely! 

DG: So, I think that’s about it. I have really enjoyed these conversations.

ATH: Yes, me too. Let’s remind blog readers to make any comments or observations in the comments bit below.

DG: Yes, it would be great to hear absolutely anything that anyone would like to say. Continuing the conversation on the blog with others, below, would be really nice.

[Tiny shoes image by Flickr user Carolina (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.]

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