Essay 3


Alan Willey

Where there is interaction we have creation. We have the ability to create art and consume and it is from this we create tools to fulfil this desire. What is the motivation? Profit? Growth? Or a genuine desire to make life better for our fellow humans? The apocryphal actions of Ned Ludd were ostensibly born of fear that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste because of technology.

Did Joseph Jacquard destroy or create a new industry? A new art form? His Jacquard loom design was patented in 1805. It must be said that he was standing on the shoulders of those before him who had already developed the concept of using punch cards to store pattern information. His creation did not go well with the Lyon silk weavers. In protest, these master weavers who had spent many years honing their craft feared for their livelihood slipping away. The word ‘sabotage’ comes from the shoe worn by the weavers called a sabot; after they threw them into the looms rendering them useless.

When Ada Lovelace observed, ‘We many say most aptly that the Analytical Engine (Charles Babbage) weaves algebraic along patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves’, she laid the foundations for some of the more celebrated codebreaking and papers on artificial intelligence, a century before Alan Turing was born.

The Digital Thread: From Silk to Silicon

Babbage asked Ada to translate the work by Luigi Menabrea (1809-1896), a commentary on the Analytical Engine. Her notes were published in 1843. She made the following comment: ‘Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’. Ada, the first ever programmer, could be describing a synthesiser, 100 years before Harry Olson and Herbert Belar in created it 1955. Her visionary observation predicted a digital revolution.

Digital revolution in the print industry in 1986 saw the demise of compositors and typesetters. Was this profit-motivated, or was it to minimise the health risk of workers exposure to lead? In October 2020 France introduced laws to provide YouTube child stars with the same legal protection as child actors and models. Why? To prevent exploitation by parents and others, because digital-based media had made this possible from the comfort and privacy of their homes - and now reaches audiences that previous forms of media could only dream of. Social media platforms have disrupted the flow of information and reality. ‘The digital thread’ affects all of society, including so-called Luddites.

In other arenas, we see disruption to previous norms, the pathway there has been trodden with many little digital steps. Will the current debate over health versus wealth in the way we learn to live with COVID-19 see new ways of working? We could be in the midst of a biological revolution. Working practices have already changed. The video conferencing software Zoom had 12 million subscribers in December 2019; by April 2020 there were over 300 million. If the planet allows us to continue consuming at our current rates, how will these times be looked at with the benefit of hindsight?

Ada Lovelace
The Digital Thread: From Silk to Silicon

Making something new is always exciting. The image of Ned Ludd woven on the digital thread controller (TC2 from Tronrud Engineering Norway), was created on a loom that in some ways closes the circle (loom to computer and back again) as it places the power of the Jacquard loom in the hands of an individual designer/maker/weaver – a thought that might have chimed well with Ned.

Hand weavers have always been resourceful. They have to be, since hand weaving is historically a solitary craft and the weaver’s main tool, the loom, has been referred to as ‘the four posts of poverty’.

Back in 2006, Alice Schlein and Bhakti Ziek collaborated on a publication called the Woven Pixel. The book was the culmination of a number of weavers starting to investigate the possibilities of utilising the then-fledgling home computing systems and software to develop weave designs that could also instruct the digital loom. This ‘new way,’ where an intersection of threads could be related to the binary nature of black or white pixels, required no less knowledge of cloth and weave drafting conventions – but the techniques employed opened up a whole range of fresh possibilities for textile artists no longer restricted by analogue systems. So, we have an ancient tool reimagined, bringing ever more possibilities to the ancient craft of hand weaving. This digital thread connects the past with the present and no doubt will continue to weave through
to future history.