Through Craft.

The main thesis consists of three parts. It started with a passion for crafts and an examination of the value of craft making, moving on to further develop crafts into a preservation methodology. The process of this research is considered open-ended, exploring different aspects of digital preservation through a series of design experiments.

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Craft is a technology that has been passed down through history. It is an art form that communicates ideas, a form of expression of the maker, and  a documentation of values, norms, and civilizations of human society.

The long-lasting characteristics of crafts enable people to revisit the work and its message over and over again. Because of this physicality and materiality, identities and values can be formed, preserved, and passed on through craft. We learn from studying artifacts, then preserve and exhibit them in museums and cultural institutions for educational purposes as well as community solidarity.

Craft has always been a reflection of culture and identity. As our lives transitioned from physical activities to virtual interactions, new needs and forms of engagement with our surroundings were prompted. And such change not only exhibits via the object and the technology, but also the whole culture at large. This thesis aims to look at the transition between the physical and virtual, material and data, user engagement and experience from the perspective of craft. I will investigate how crafts continue to document our current society and preserve our identities along with the environment.



Definition of Craft

To begin this investigation, it is necessary to clarify the definition of craft. Contemporary craft is no longer limited to its physical form and association with nostalgia and romanticism. Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines craft as an activity, job, or object that involves making in a skillful way by using human hands. The idea of craft is so deeply associated with hand-making that we automatically connect it with traditional techniques or obsolete production methods that require human operation. What I found fundamentally wrong with such a stereotype is that craft comes with history but is not only about the past, but rather its process. What distinguishes crafts from pure technology is its requirement for specific skill sets and its unique characteristics that transfer uniqueness from the maker to the product. Sennett defines craftsmen as those who dedicate their time and effort to good work for its own sake.” (20-23) This idea can be applied to any profession, such as lab technicians who conduct perfect experiments, conductors who pursue the best performance, or cooks who seek precision in taste. The maker’s diligence and caring for the product is what makes an ordinary act extraordinary. To have a satisfying result, even machines also have to run through a series of evaluations and tests to generate the one that meets the criteria. This process of curating and selecting can also be seen as an act of care.

Crafts, including coding, physical computation, and 3D printing, can be done both by humans and machines. Amit Zoran proposes that digital technology is not an enemy against creative making. Instead, it can be a set of design tools that stimulate imaginations and break through the limitation of contemporary making practices, enriching creative thinkers and makers’ capabilities of innovation. (384) Digital fabrication can be seen as a method and procedure of making, which does not equal mass automatic production. It simply suggests the involvement of machines and technologies in the creative process in which the product can still retain its own characteristics and innovative features; while mass production pursues quality control on making every product exactly the same.

Stop motion is also considered craft.
The craftsmanship lies in the construction of the larger system,
not necessarily in the individual product.

Additionally, craft is a practice that requires skills from the maker. This idea can be interpreted both from the perspective of makers as humans and makers as machines. For humans, skills can be developed over time by absorbing knowledge, repeating actions, and practicing; and the performance of skills in crafts reflects the value of time, effort, and hard work. When the activity is purely a choice for the sake of the object’s own good, it is deeply appreciated and valued. The definition of skills for machines is different. Skills can be interpreted as a highly specific procedure, workflow, or process that is particularly designed and programmed for the making. By running through the flow and process, analyzing collected information, altering possible outcomes, and performing the codes and demands, machines can also “learn” a skill, even though the “learning” process might only be less than seconds. For example, the Drawing Machine created by Damien Borowik is programmed through codes to draw patterns in a certain way. The machine could not do it until it learned the skill of pattern making by running the data given by the artist.

One of the most important core concepts of crafts is the demonstration of uniqueness. The process of making must demonstrate creativity, and it can be in any kind of form. Sennett believes that the perfect model done flawlessly in a certain standard by machines is only a proposal instead of a command. The perfect model can be an option or a tool, but it is over-promoted in the age of mass production. (101-104) In other words, if the products are all required to meet a standard, none of them will be special or unique. The variations and individuality are the key values in crafts.

Manifesto of Craft

Craft, a technique, an art form, a documentation.
A reflection of civilization.
It includes the past, and it extends to the future.
Human hands or machines, that’s not relevant anymore.
Creativity, skills, and care. That’s all it takes.

Arts and Crafts table designed by
William Morris, wood, 1865 (London,
Victoria and Albert Museum); photo
credit of Victoria and Albert Museum,
London/Art Resource, NY

Morehshin Allahyari: Material
Speculations: ISIS (2015-2016)
Image source:

Crafts and Preservation

“Is craft safeguarding the past or protecting a different type of future?” (Loewe Foundation) This question strikes the heart of today’s practice of creative making. It implies that crafts hold the connection between the past and the future. Alan Crawford adds on this idea in his article “Arts and Crafts Movement”: “The Arts and Crafts Movement looked both to the past and to the future, and the objects reflect this. The ‘old work’ that Arts and Crafts people sketched in the countryside and studied in museums provided them with models and meanings for their designs.” (3) Artisans and Designers tended to draw inspiration from the past and follow traditions as a way to preserve meanings. He points out that certain decorative techniques are revived and reapplied on houses such as luster painting and Limoges enameling.

Crafts is believed to be a carrier of time and history, not only simply as an extension of the past, but also as a force to unite people and strengthen communities. Paul Greenhalgh ties crafts with the symbolic meaning of “places.” He discusses this idea in his book The Persistence of Craft, stating that “A ‘space’ filled with such objects has the potential to become a “place.” He explains that crafts can be seen as “the consumption and display of ornamental objects, as a reflection and memorial of our traces”, and its ultimate goal is to create meaningful “places.” (10) With such “places” constituted by physical crafts, objects, and artifacts with the idea of preservation and permanence, an intangible force that represents the local culture and collective memory emerges, which unites the local with their past, present, and future, as well as their environment. Morehshin Allahyari is an Irian artist, activist, writer, and educator who also conducted a series of 3D modeling and printing series called Material Speculations: ISIS (2015-2016.) Allahyari not only reconstructed 12 selected statues from the Roman period that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015 but embedded a hard drive into each statue which includes videos, maps, images, and information about the original artifacts and the sites. Such a multimedia approach comprehensively preserves different aspects of the culture and enables a more secure future for these artifacts to pass on. Another great example is the rebuilding  of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan using 3D light projection. The history of the statues goes back to the 6th century, but it ended in 2001 March when the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered their destruction. In 2015, a Chinese couple Janson Yu and Liyan Hu offered a gift to the local community — a 3D light projection of the giant Buddha on the destroyed site. It brought huge relief to the local residents and enabled them to once again embrace their religious treasure and beliefs.

Such force can be extremely potent not only in defining common cultural roots and identities but also empowering and thriving the local social and economic development. During  the Depression in the 1930s, craft has been a way to alleviate rural poverty, according to Imogen Racz’s Contemporary Crafts. As the economy at the time collapsed  and people lost faith, craft was a solution for lifting the rural economy by empowering the local communities to learn and produce products on their own. In another article, “Preservation of Cultural Heritage Embodied in Traditional Crafts in the Developing Countries: A Case Study of Pakistani Handicraft Industry,” researchers from China also support a similar  idea. They studied  the rich history and heritage of crafts in Pakistan. “The handicraft industry is significantly contributing to income and employment generation as well as the economic and social sustainability of the country. The recent statistics indicate that as much as 13.54% of all employees nationally are accounted for in the crafts and related services sector alone,” according to their research.

A 3D light projection of a destroyed Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times.
Image source:


Crafting Data

Online Archive

As there are museums and libraries for crafts in physical forms, there are also digital archives to store data and digital crafts. Artefacts possess a variety of properties and formats, including GIFs, videos, audios, websites, software, and user experience. These artefacts and products as communication mediums possess characteristics similar to the way physical crafts do, offering experience and interaction different from physical crafts. To preserve the data and its circulating nature, the online archive is considered one of the most efficient and accessible ways.

One of the most popular and widely circulated formats of artefacts is memes. Taking images, news, videos, phrases, and slams from all over the world and compressing them into a single GIF or image, the memes became a specific use of sarcastic and jokes about everyday life, as well as critical responses to certain topics in current days. The website Know Your Meme, founded in December of 2008, has documented all these memes, categorizing them based on topics and formats, providing context and history. The Mini Keanu Reeves is a popular meme in which the actor’s body is disproportionately short and accompanied by different annotations such as “Me waiting for my mum to stop fighting with dad so I can tell her I ate the lemon-scented soap.” The website tracks the image back to Microsoft's E3 2019 Xbox press conference of a video game called Cyberpunk 2077. A Twitter user @KojiMads released this picture on the same day and it started to go viral. In the following days, the image was re-edited and reposted on different platforms. The website listed the history of different versions of the meme and their creators. Know Your Meme is considered a digital archive that preserves, chronicles and documents memes, enabling us to trace back any particular iteration  and learn about its background, cultural references and impact.

Wayback Machine is a repository of websites' configurations that automatically detects and captures their changes through its own algorithm. It provides a timeline of every version of a website and allows users to view them. Take Pratt Institute’s website for example. Analysing the history of its website enables us to see the transformation in branding, positioning, and communication the institute portrays  to its audience throughout time. Wayback Machine allows access to every revision of Pratt’s website from 1996 to 2019 and organizes them chronically in incredible detail with their dates, time, and content revised. The entire process of making, editing, and iterating is documented and preserved. This is an extraordinary aspect of digital artefacts as usually only the final outcome of an object is ever presented to the audience.

The Internet has allowed people to access and share open-source projects, enabled users to collect and store data voluntarily. One of the most popular open-source platforms for preserving and sharing is GitHub, a powerful online archive to study, review, and share codes. Even the codes for launching the spaceship of the first Lunar Landing Mission Apollo 11 in 1969 can be found there.


Pratt Institute's website on Wayback Machine on 2/8/1997 and 4/8/2020.

Heritage and Data Preservation

The study of heritage preservation analyzes the artifact’s properties and qualities with certain criteria to examine its value. “Understanding and articulating the values and significance of the heritage are crucial for statutory designation and regulation for the development of protection and management policies,” according to The Guidelines on Cultural Heritage which was implemented by the Council of Europe. (51) The team suggests four main categories to identify the heritage significance: Historic significance, Aesthetic Significance, Scientific or Research Significance, and Social and Spiritual Significance, which can be seen as the heritage’s contribution to society. To further investigate the value of the heritage and broaden the evaluation of the asset, there are other three comparative criteria on top of the previous four: Intrinsic Significance, Contextual Significance, and Associative Significance. These are more specific in discovering the heritage’s own property and quality within the same category. (51-54)

On the other hand, the study of data preservation takes on a different approach. Unlike the preservation for the materials, data preservation is free from the limitation of storage spaces and the amount of artifacts. Information could be compressed into microscopic units that take far less space and maintenance than papers or other physical forms of preservation. However, it is still almost impossible to preserve everything in digital. The problem here is not necessarily the quantity of the information, but the efficiency. The composition of digital artefacts is a network interconnected with different sets of data that can only be accessed through their own specific platforms, which complicates the situation from preserving one artefacts to preserving several massive networks and systems. There is growing research about how to sustainably store and manage data, emphasizing the different levels of preservation. The Software Sustainability Institute proposes the “Sustainability and Preservation Framework” to analyze different types of data and apply preservation methods accordingly. There are seven levels of preservation and sustainability: Technical Preservation (techno-centric), Emulation (data-centric), Migration (functionality-centric), Cultivation (process-centric), Hibernation (knowledge-centric), Deprecation, and Procrastination. (2-5) These concepts are more in-depth discussed in Significant Properties of Software (2008.) The book introduces the study of Digital Curation, which mainly focuses on the caring and preservation of the artefacts to ensure its replayability and usefulness in the future. (9)

Compared to the study of heritage preservation that selects the most valuable among all the work, data preservation selects the most important function within individual work. However, to understand the meaning of the data, it is necessary to preserve the context as well. As data and codes being a digital language, it would be hard to interpret it if without a system or background knowledge that translates its meaning. In this sense, the relativity of data to its background system is similar to the preservation of heritage to the larger social and cultural background, both data and heritage require a context to demonstrate value. The difference between the two is that each data comes with its background, each of them is in a different context. And to fully preserve the message, such a context should also be addressed in the preservation.

Thesis Contextual Framework




Data Materiality

Living through the early information age, we redefined old standards as our expectations for technology soared. Online shopping and delivery become dominant; online banking is considered more accessible; facial or fingerprint recognition is replacing passwords. This transition is obvious as Carruthers quoted Tome Goodwin: “We’ve taken what we knew before and pulled it through a digital frame.” Carruthers explains further with examples of e-commerce replacing catalogues, Instagram adds updating printed ads, and celebrity endorsement transforming into influencer marketing. It is safe to say that a huge part of human civilization is digitized, and data is no doubt becoming the most precious asset to the market as well as each individual. However, the gap between physical activities and virtual interactivity is expected. This gap can be seen as the distance between human eyes and the screen, the control panel and the data, the code in the system and the well-designed interface. As we learn to control information through screens and complex systems, we distance ourselves from the scene. The culture of screens and digital spaces is disparate from traditional mediums. Unlike books, we could not fold, rip, flip, or make marks on the screen. But in order to access and interact with the complex digital world, we developed universal gestures and actions around the use of devices. We scroll all pages up and down and we swipe interfaces left and right. Our engagement with these tools is no longer personal or intimate, but universal, just like how the devices are mass produced. With this new dominant medium, how do we preserve identities? How do crafts continue to document modern culture and values?

Bringing in the study of crafts and preservation inspires a postdigital approach to preserve culture and identity in the information age. Postdigital is a term proposed by Melvin L. Alexenberg, defined as an attitude that emphases being human rather than being digital in artistic practice, concerning our dynamic relationships with digital technology and art forms. (9-10) Instead of looking at data and codes of digital artefacts, this investigation is more concerned with the intimacy between the data and the user, retaining the current digital culture in a more human and individualized way.

I translated the physical actions for paper: cutting, pasting, drawing, tearing, folding, and crumpling into a mimic computer instruction to demonstrate the different context in the digital system.

In one of my design experiments, I attempted to communicate information through the recreation of texture. Textures are easily associated with objects when a context is given. In this project, the context is the supermarket. This project is to test how people interpret these textures based on their own experience. The participants were asked to interact with a texture panel with their eyes closed and tried to guess what food in the supermarket that these textures represent. I chose five common things that are easy to find in the store: raw meat, vegetable, pasta, rice, and bottled water (from left to right). In this exercise, participants can only rely on the context I provided and the textures they interacted with. Without their vision, the only reference they had was the association between their own experience and the texture, and it varied when each person had a different background, preference, habit, and lifestyle. For example, one of them was not a big fan of meat, therefore she could not connect the texture of the water bag with raw meat; another participant also could not recognize the water bottle lid and thought it was some kind of candy. The outcome of this exercise was interesting as each participant interpreted the information differently based on their own lifestyles and preferences. Selecting and feeling the texture of food when shopping for groceries is an ordinary thing to do and people might not even realize it, but such experience is unique every time and could not be replaced by online grocery shopping.

Craft is a medium that could record human traces and processes. Through the creative making process, stories could be told in a more engaging and personalized way. This project aims to materialize data, transferring digital existences into interactive artifacts that manifest itself as a story instead of flat data. I developed a toolkit that contains nine different materials and a canvas. The project consists of two parts: first, I sent out a survey to nine participants, obtaining baseline information about the preservation of their digital existences. I then asked six of them to use the toolkit that I prepared to materialize their identities, specifically, their Instagram profiles, as if it is a physical artifact that would tell the story of them in the future. The result of this project shows how the process of making and interacting could unfold a narrative and add depth to flat data, communicating visions that could not be revealed solely by looking at Instagram profiles.

First part:
A survey regarding the preservation of their digital identities and what they would like to retain as a representation of them for the future. The purpose of this survey is to collect a general understanding of what it means to each individual  to preserve one’s digital identity. Many of the participants responded that their digital profiles are considered their proof of existance, and show the trend and culture of this particular time.

Second part: A material toolkit for crafting an artifact that represents their digital identities.
This making exercise is not asking them to visually recreate their feeds, rather is to communicate their
thoughts on  how they curate their profiles, how they interact with their digital identities, and how they
would like to present themselves.

These experiments show the core value of a postdigital approach: the journey of decoding, understanding, and relating. This environment built around the data can be seen as the “materiality of data”. The concept Data materiality refers to the supporting material and quality that forms a context that helps to interpret the meaning of data. The idea is similar to the value of currency. One dollar worths different things in different times depending on the social and economic context at the time. Data materiality plays a crucial role in postdigital preservation as the digital culture tends to leave out the process and only showcase the result. The digital technology is developed for extreme precision and efficiency. It is designd for the perfect outcome and total control. However, technology is eventually a tool. The perfect outcome do not just come with the machine but through a series of calculations and tests. Although in super speed, machines also have to go through a learning process to achieve perfection, just like humans. The process of learning, doing, and mastering creates meaning for everything we do. Our daily life is constitute of numerous little journeys and experiences. From the perspective of preservation, these processes are what we want to know from ancient artifacts, from medieval paintings, from monuments in memory of historic battles, and from pieces of software. The outcome is meaningless as it is already displayed in front of us, while the process is the real story that has so much more to tell.


Craft is ubiquitous; it is recording the history and fermenting human civilization. Contemporary craft is not to be defined solely by its form or material, but rather includes all kinds of study performed with an attitude of dedicating and mastering. The superior ability of craft to preserve civilizations reveals the strong connection between humans and their surroundings including tools, materials, and social norms. Through craft, these values and culture are naturally manifested in the most authentic way.

Looking at the current information age from the lens of craft, it becomes clear that our engagement with tools and technology is taking over a huge part of our interaction with surroundings. Expanding craft as a postdigital preservation methodology, the goal is to bridge the gap between the real world and the digital world, shortening the distance between the physical and the virtual. By translating data and information into a more engaging work of craft, the unique digital culture could be preserved and further examined. Craft as a time capsule not only capture the present but also records the process, reaching to the past and extending to the future.

In response to my research on postdigital preservation, I compiled a collection of crafts and artifacts that comments on the current digital culture, documenting our unique relationship with the technology. This archive serves as an on-going exploration on the intertranslation and preservation of the digital culture.

Bibliography & Reference

“Big Bamboo,” “It’s All Design,” “A Different Feather,” and “Tools, Retooled.” American Craft. December/January 2019.

Borowik, Damien. Drawing Machine.

Center for Craft: Building a Future for Craft.

Crawford, Alan. “Arts and Crafts Movement.” Grove Art Online, 2003.

Cubitt, Sean. The Practice of Light: A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels (Leonardo Book Series).  Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press,  2014, 354 pp.

Digital Preservation Coalition. “Digital Preservation Handbook: Preservation Issues.”

Durrant, Abigail C., Vines, John, Wallace, Jayne, Yee, Joyce S. R. “Research Through Design: Twenty-First Century Makers and Materialities.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. DesignIssues: Volume 33, Number 3, Summer 2017.

Greenhalgh, Paul. The Persistence of Craft. Rutgers University Press, 2003

Hong, Neil Chue. “Sustainability and Preservation Framework.” Software Sustainability Institute.

Loewe Foundation.

Loshin, David. Enterprise Knowledge Management: The Data Quality Approach (Chapter 2). Morgan Kaufmann, 2001.

Matthews, Brian, McIlwrath, Brian, Giaretta, David, Conway, Esther. Significant Properties of Software. STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, 2008.

Promotion of Cultural Diversity in Kosovo. Guidelines on Cultural Heritage. 2012.

Racz, Imogen. Contemporary Crafts.Oxford: Berg, 2009.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press, 2008.

TechCrunch. “Programming as Craft: Can Well-crafted Code Ever Be Permanent?”

Vera, Debbie J., Jozwiak, Melissa M., Castilleja, Michelle L. “‘The Computer is Broke!’ Could Technology Be Affecting Fine Motor Development in Tech Savvy Pre-School Children or Could It Be Something Else?” Schooling Volume 7, No. 1, 2016.

Warshaw, Jack. “Voysey’s buildings and the Arts & Crafts movement.”

Yang, Yongzhong, Shafi, Mohsin, Song, Xiaoting, Yang, Ruo. “Preservation of Cultural Heritage Embodied in Traditional Crafts in the Developing Countries: A Case Study of Pakistani Handicraft Industry” Business School, Sichuan University, Chengdu 610065, China. Sustainability 2018, 10, 1336; doi:10.3390/su10051336.

Zoran, Amit. “Hybrid Craft: Showcase of Physical and Digital Integration of Design and Craft Skills” Leonardo, Vol. 48, No. 4, p. 384-398, 2015.