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June 12, 2016

Beyond bricolage

In 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss brought the concept of bricolage into the anthropological and philosophical lexicons. It has to do with thinking with one’s hands, putting together new things by repurposing old things. It has since been applied to the Internet (including, apparently, by me, thanks to a tip from Rageboy). The term “bricolage” uncovers something important about the Net, but it also covers up something fundamental about the Net that has been growing even more important.

In The Savage Mind (relevant excerpt), CLS argued against the prevailing view that “primitive” peoples were unable to form abstract concepts. After showing that they often in have extensive sets of concepts for flora and fauna, he maintains that these concepts go beyond what they pragmatically need to know:

…animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known.

It may be objected that science of this kind can scarcely be of much practical effect. The answer to this is that its main purpose is not a practical one. It meets intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs.

It meets, in short, a “demand for order.”

CLS wants us to see the mythopoeic world as being as rich, complex, and detailed as the modern scientific world, while still drawing the relevant distinctions. He uses bricolage as a bridge for our understanding. A bricoleur scavenges the environment for items that can be reused, getting their heft, trying them out, fitting them together and then giving them a twist. The mythopoeic mind engages in this bricolage rather than in the scientific or engineering enterprise of letting a desired project assemble the “raw materials.” A bricoleur has what s/he has and shapes projects around that. And what the bricoleur has generally has been fashioned for some other purpose.

Bricolage is a very useful concept for understanding the Internet’s mashup culture, its culture of re-use. It expresses the way in which one thing inspires another, and the power of re-contextualization. It evokes the sense of invention and play that is dominant on so much of the Net. While the Engineer is King (and, all too rarely, Queen) of this age, the bricoleurs have kept the Net weird, and bless them for it.

But there are at least two ways in which this metaphor is inapt.

First, traditional bricoleurs don’t have search engines that let them in a single glance look across the universe for what they need. Search engines let materials assemble around projects, rather than projects be shaped by the available materials. (Yes, this distinction is too strong. Yes, it’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s some truth to it.)

Second, we have been moving with some consistency toward a Net that at its topmost layers replicates the interoperability of its lower layers. Those low levels specify the rules — protocols — by which networks can join together to move data packets to their destinations. Those packets are designed so they can be correctly interpreted as data by any recipient applications. As you move up the stack, you start to lose this interoperability: Microsoft Word can’t make sense of the data output by Pages, and a graphics program may not be able to make sense of the layer information output by Photoshop.

But, over time, we’re getting better at this:

Applications add import and export services as the market requires. More consequentially, more and richer standards for interoperability continue to emerge, as they have from the very beginning: FTP, HTML, XML, Dublin Core, Schema.org, the many Semantic Web vocabularies, ontologies, and schema, etc.

More important, we are now taking steps to make sure that what we create is available for re-use in ways we have not imagined. We do this by working within standards and protocols. We do it by putting our work into the sphere of reusable items, whether that’s by applying the Creative Commons license, putting our work into a public archive, , or even just paying attention to what will make our work more findable.

This is very different from the bricoleur’s world in which objects are designed for one use, and it takes the ingenuity of the bricoleur to find a new use for it.

This movement continues the initial work of the Internet. From the beginning the Net has been predicated on providing an environment with the fewest possible assumptions about how it will be used. The Net was designed to move anyone’s information no matter what it’s about, what it’s for, where it’s going, or who owns it. The higher levels of the stack are increasingly realizing that vision. The Net is thus more than ever becoming a universe of objects explicitly designed for reuse in unexpected ways. (An important corrective to this sunny point of view: Christian Sandvig’s brilliant description of how the Net has incrementally become designed for delivering video above all else.)

Insofar as we are explicitly creating works designed for unexpected reuse, the bricolage metaphor is flawed, as all metaphors are. It usefully highlights the “found” nature of so much of Internet culture. It puts into the shadows, however, the truly transformative movement we are now living through in which we are explicitly designing objects for uses that we cannot anticipate.

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