Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Arts & Crafts movement alive and well in software?

I went to the International Arts & Crafts exhibition at the weekend. The items on display and outline of the Arts & Crafts movements sparked of a number of thoughts, two of which I'm going to expand on here.

A perspective

The Arts & Crafts movement (I am talking specifically about the UK movement here) feels to me very much like a 'middle class' activity. I hypothesise that the rise of an affluent urban class was a pre-requisite for the Arts & Crafts movement to have succeeded as it did. As industrialisation progressed a well off urban class started to form, a class that romanticised rural life[1]. This class's intellectuals, from an urban perspective, started to question the impact of industrialisation. Out of this Arts & Crafts was born. Urban craftsmen moved out into rural areas and learnt from country people. They applied those skills, mixed with the Arts & Crafts philosophy, to produce elegant works. The output was then imported back into the cities by the rich urbanites. These 'country designs' continued the romanticisation of the countryside by providing some of the raw material that allowed affluent city dwellers to construct a hyperreal version rural life. More cynically, they could sit in their solid practical Arts & Crafts arm chair and comfort themselves as industrialisation increased their isolation from the environment.

I could be well off the mark here since I have very little knowledge of that part of history.

Alive and well in software?

The V&A descibe the movement thus: "It was a movement born of ideals. It grew out of a concern for the effects of industrialisation: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a broad social spectrum, and it turned the home into a work of art."


"In Britain, the Arts and Crafts Movement flourished from about 1880. At its heart lay a concern for the role of the craftsman. Inspired by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, it advocated a revival of traditional handicrafts, a return to a simpler way of life and an improvement in the design of ordinary domestic objects."

Doesn't this feel a little like some parts of software at the moment? There are workshops on beauty in software, rallying cries against Taylorism and Fordism. Everyone needs to get back in touch with the craft of software, just write code, do the simplest thing, test first. Are we at the start of softwares Arts & Crafts movement? Will we stand at the shore commanding the tide of industrialisation retreat? Will some of us spend more time crafting our products and taking more pleasure in the act of creation?

Did the Arts & Crafts movement make a lasting impact on people as a whole? We can certainly buy expensive William Morris wallpaper and import Mouseman blanket boxes from the North, maybe that is it. All we are left with are these vestigial organs. Maybe we are on a hide into nothing?

This is a bit tongue in cheek (I'm a big proponent of agile methods), but it is a mildly interesting parallel. Perhaps.

[1] As industrialisation proceeded the English started to romanticise rural life. This has continued to this day.