They’re not about transparency at all, they’re about mystification. They forward the romance of the maker, titillate the viewer with the beautiful magic of making, evoke awe at evidence of passion, craft and skill. The appeal is emotional, and it has to be. The rational story of a thing made really means very little on its own. It matters only secondarily to the emotional story of a thing desired — and then a thing possessed.
The reason I find the genre uninteresting is that it tends to take as its subject matter objects for which I am not in the market. The only way I would care about a hand-made knife is if it happened to be my hand-made knife, and I was therefore in a position to tell you the story of its making, which on some level I would not merely be relating but in effect appropriating. Because what I would really be telling you is the story of me owning an object with an interesting creation story.
This sounds familiar. In fact, back in 1977, Alexander Cockburn (riffing of Barthes to some extent) remarked on similar things in relation to recipe books and gastro-porn:
The book is not actually a guide to practical cooking but rather a costly exercise ($20.00) in gastro-porn. Now it cannot escape attention that there are curious parallels between manuals on sexual techniques and manuals on the preparation of food; the same studious emphasis on leisurely technique, the same apostrophes to the ultimate, heavenly delights. True gastro-porn heightens the excitement and also the sense of the unattainable by proffering colored photographs of various completed recipes. The gastro-pornhound can, in the Bocuse book for example, moisten his lips over a color plate of fresh water crayfish au gratin à la Fernand Point. True, you cannot get fresh crayfish in the United States or indeed black truffles, three tablespoons of which, cut into julienne, are recommended by Bocuse. No matter. The delights offered in sexual pornography are equally unattainable.
I’m also reminded of a complaint by one of the judges at this year’s Interaction Design Awards: for all of the slick competition entry videos, the ones that actually did the job best were ‘two designers mumbling through their iPhone app and their design choices’. When it comes to designers talking to designers, we definitely want transparency, not mystification.