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Craft Industry: the blogosphere as a Guild?

April 9, 2007

It is a cliché to say that the internet opens up possibilities for new forms of organisations, but cliché or not, it is true. One of the ways this works is to transform what used to be known as the craft industry. If you walk around the streets of London you will encounter the various Guild Halls, such as that of the Leatherworkers (I have chose that example for reasons that will become self evident). A key part of the transition from Feudalism to a Merchant based society, the guilds providing a mechanism for apprenticeship and quality control that existing independently from land owning aristocrats. Like all human systems power could corrupt, but the progress from apprentice through journeyman to master provided a route to a better future that was not really rivaled in Britain until my generation, when University education through a grant system became available to all, not just to the privileged and the rare individuals who could earn scholarships.

During the early days of the Guilds there was a direct relationship between the craftsman (they were nearly all male) and the end customer. The guild provided a quality control, the guild stamp but the relationship was direct. Now the growth the the mercantile class increasingly divorced the creators of artifacts form the users of artifacts. One of the major changes offered by our connected age is for this separation to be removed, and for a direct relationship to be created again. Because any individual craftsperson (the sexism is going) can market themselves on the web the intimacy of a direct relationship and the customisation that goes with that relationship can be res-established.

I was struck by this on a recent Singapore visit when I joined Steve and Stacy for a meal. They have converted an old Shophouse, to create a home which avoids the anonymity of the flats which are the norm in the city state. They have taken a minimalist approach, but with a use of access to the open air that reminds of Bali in parts. The conversion has rightly featured in a few design and architecture magazines. As you come through the front door, you see on your left the giant mirror that features in the photograph above. As you go closer you realise that the border is composed on hundreds of inch square pieces of leather, arranged to maximise the impact of texture and colour. A form of mosaic using regularity and natural materials rather than tiles. I have placed a blow up of this below so you can see what I mean.

Now it turned out that Stacy had made this, and has created a cottage industry (well a Shophouse industry I suppose I should say) of creating such mirrors to order. It takes between three and twelve days to complete depending on the complexity and the resultant artifact is a work of art. There is a sense of symmetry in that this activity is taking place in a Shophouse, but it also illustrates the point I made above. In a connected world you can create direct relationships without disintermediation . Stacy can sell her mirrors over the web sell her mirrors over the web anywhere in the world, not as a commodity distributed through merchants, but with the same creative relationship that existed between the craftsperson and their patrons. Validation and linkages, courtesy of the blogosphere – maybe a modern form of the Guild?

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