Article categories: Issue 64
July 29th, 2009

When computers are discussed in a craft context, someone usually makes the statement that ‘technology is just a tool’. This proposition is offered as a demystifying gesture, enabling us to focus on what the technology actually does rather than the dreams we might invest in it. It asserts the primacy of the craft project, which subsumes all tools within its creative purpose.

While such pragmatism is healthy, it can prevent further thought about the matter. It leaves unanswered the question of what technology might be if it is not a tool. What were we dreaming about to begin with? It’s as though, for a delicious moment, computers exerted a seductive power that exceeded their simple utility.

“Say he’d make a solid bronze case for a minidisk unit, ebony inlays, carve the control surfaces out of fossil ivory, turquoise, rock crystal. It weighed more, sure, but it turned out a lot of people liked that, like they had their music or their memory, whatever, in something that felt like it was there… And people liked touching all that stuff: metal, a smooth stone…” William Gibson [1]

The law has a grasp of this. Software copyright distinguishes between the ‘literal elements’ of the software program, contained in the lines of code, and the ‘arrangement’ of the program, in particular its ‘look and feel’. [2] ‘Look’ relates to expressive elements, such as menus and windows. ‘Feel’ relates to how the program interacts with the user, through keystrokes and commands. The ‘techno’ feel represents a seductive aesthetic that is independent of its practical function. For instance, what colour is technology? In 1995, Sonya Shannon referred to the ‘chrome age’ [3] in reference to the ubiquitous metallised plastic 3D bevelled logo found in early computer graphics and websites. During the late nineties, it seemed the colour of technology moved towards teal.

In the 21st century, the Mac aesthetic dominated as the desktop computer was reduced first into a glowing cube and finally into the infinitesimal iPod nano. All that was left to hold onto was a piece of smooth white acrylic. There’s a logic to this clinical appearance. The iPod magically reduces the bulk of the material world—all those scratched vinyl LPs and grubby CDs—into immaterial clusters of bytes for our private delight. We’re left holding a symbol of purity in our hands. Today’s fashion for white acrylic evokes the porcelain craze of the eighteenth century, when this immaculate white ceramic became ‘an irresistible symbol of prestige, power and good taste.’ [4]

While the external shell of technology is hard, it’s ‘soft’ inside. Softness in an object reflects a tendency to bear the impressions of its use. Software is the means through which users can make a difference to their technology. Unlike CDs, where the content is fused to its material, the memory in MP3 players renders music independent of medium. Can jewellery proceed along this course? In lapidary matters, the relationship between setting and stone is analogous to hard and software, though there are more constraints in what clasps might be used for particular kinds of gems. The screen offers potential to replace the clasp with a device that enables images to be downloaded with the same ease as the iPod. Sparkling radiating digital icons could be changed as regularly as a ringtone.

It’s beginning to happen. Nokia’s Kaleidoscope I is a device worn around the neck as a pendant. This viewer receives images from devices to form an album that wearers can look at privately. A more sociable alternative displays these images to others. The Nokia RX-4 Medallion is a 96 x 96 pixel 4096 colour screen that hangs around the neck and stores eight images. The backlight varies reflecting natural light. It seems only a matter of time before the pendant becomes a brooch, eventually changing its display depending on the proximity of others. While it might be seen as yet another example of techno-fetishism, there is something refreshing in RX-4. Rather than the solipsistic iPod silhouette, jerking off to the music, screen jewellery has the promise of engaging a public. Jewellery socialises technology.

Is there anything remarkable in this? Turning  technology into adornment seems to be just another form of accessorising history – a clever marketing ploy. But it evokes something more. Our recent experience navigating through the millennium acquainted us with the idea of technology as an alternative to this world. The fascination with the virtual offered a Faustian promise that a new simulated world might emerge that was innocent of the sins of flesh (otherwise known as ‘wetware’). This was a time when the new information economy heralded a ‘friction-free capitalism’ and we believed in ‘win-win’ situations.

Technology continues to be an object of wonder. What previous generation could have imagined the capacities that we blithely take for granted now? Google Earth—done that! But as we gaze on the historical splendors of these deprived past epochs, we sense a contradiction between their seeming backwardness and the splendid treasures that they produced for us to enjoy today. In the pantheon of human achievement, the Taj Mahal stands as a pinnacle of architecture, which enjoys a transcendent status as ‘a jewel in the landscape’. The practical business of architecture evolves into the transcendent status of ornament. What might future generations enjoy of our era? What ornament might we offer in the jewel case of history? The logic of technology offers the depressing possibility that our triumphs will look amateur compared to the exponential progress of future generations. The iPod nano will seem positively clunky compared to the chromosomal music libraries flowing through our future bodies.

It’s like we’ve caught a fast train that we can’t get off. Collaborations between metalsmiths and technicians offer the promise that the restless course of technology might be stilled for a moment, arrested in a lapidary frame, to be enjoyed for itself, rather than the capacity that it promises. Technology as a jewel provides us with a brief hiatus in progress when we might behold our handiwork. For a moment, we might reflect on what we have made of the potentialities we were granted. Then we might say, along with old man Heidegger, ‘Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing.’ [5]

Kevin Murry
Kevin Murray is Director of Craft Victoria. His writings and projects can be found at


[1] William Gibson Idoru Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996, p. 138
[2] J.P. Cunard ‘Property of the mind: Software and the law’, in Derek Leebaert (Ed): The Future of Software Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1995, p. 234
[3]  Sonya Shannon ‘The chrome age: Dawn of virtual reality’ Leonardo 1995, 28: 5, pp. 369-80, p. 369
[4] Janet Gleeson Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain London: Bantam, 1998, p. x
[5]  Martin Heidegger ‘The question concerning technology’, in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (trans. William Lovitt) New York: Harper & Row, 1977 (orig. 1955), p. 12

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