Wednesday 26 December 2007

TV (Ancient Roman-style)

Where is the TV in your house?

Following my latest post about technology and askesis, a comment from Anirudh got me thinking about this. When it comes to giving up particular technologies or habits, will-power isn't always very helpful. For instance, having decided to reduce your TV habit, you can rely on your strength of will - or you can unplug the TV set and move it to the spare room. In my experience, the second method is more effective.

Though I can't find the reference, I'm sure Christopher Hitchens advises aspiring contrarians to give a bookshelf that pride of place in their living quarters commonly afforded to the TV. Visiting Alastair McIntosh a few years ago, I remember him referring to the wood stove in his front room as "our television".

There is certainly something mesmeric about an open fire: the way it holds the eye, becomes the focal point of a room. The word focus itself originally refers to the hearth, which held a central position in the Roman household, both physically and spiritually. (The journey from this meaning to its modern, technical usage probably deserves more thought.) The hearth was associated with the lares, the household gods, who had their own shrine, the lararium, around which the household would gather daily.

Thinking about all this, I came across the picture (below) of the lararium in the House of the Vetti at Pompey. To my eye, it does look rather like a precedent for the magic box around which families gather in the modern household - and whose observances are stepped up on high days and holy days.

On which note, Happy Christmas!

Friday 21 December 2007

Ten Steps To Giving Up Email

I mentioned the other day that, returning from Cuernavaca with the concepts of askesis and otium on my mind, I seemed to keep bumping into friends who were choosing to give things up or trying to spend less time with technology and get back to their bodies. Well, here's an example.

Saul Albert is an extremely smart guy, someone I've been crossing paths with for years, and whose understanding of computers is in a different league to mine. He's an artist and technologist, and (among much else) co-founder of The People Speak which develops 'Tools For The World To Take Over Itself'.

He's also just given up email.

In the spirit of Pick Me Up, he's written a ten step plan of how he's going about this. Here's a taste:

  1. I’m going to talk to all the people I’m collaborating and communicating with via email, and work out together how we can continue this relationship without email.

  2. I’m going to unsubscribe from all my mailing lists (while making sure I can follow them via RSS).

  3. I’m going to tell all my friends and family about this experiment, and make sure they know how to contact me...

You can read the rest over on his blog, along with his reasons for quitting. What struck me was the tenth step of his plan:

  1. Finally, I’m going to organise my time in a way that suits me. This is what I’m most excited about. The thought of time without email, or worrying about email accumulating is really enticing. This will include regularly being in places where I can meet people (by arrangement or randomly) - having certain times of the day for calls and voicemail, and having other parts of the day for work - but just work, as in doing things I need to do - rather than simply shovelling the top off the growing email pile.

This is precisely what askesis should mean: not self-denial, but a deliberate decision to make room for people and things that matter to us.

Thursday 20 December 2007

Cancel First World Debt!

UnLtdWorld is a new social networking site which aims to bring together people who want to "generate social impact" - in other words, change the world. I've met Alberto, who's running it, and I was impressed by his experience and the way he's approaching the project.

So this morning I sat down to create my profile on their Beta site, when I came to two questions which temporarily stumped me:

  • What issue most concerns you in the world?

  • What single issue would you change to make the world a better place?

They are entirely appropriate questions for the site, just not ones that I'm very good at answering.

In the end, I decided that what most concerns me is 'the loss of the sense of timeliness'. And the single change I would make would be to 'cancel first world debt'.

I didn't notice until afterwards, but these answers pinpoint two of the three things I would like to write about, at that distant period in my life when I finally have the time to write something more coherent than a blog. They are also connected: the effect of being in debt shapes your experience of and relationship to time. And, since the cultural and economic shifts of the 1960s, debt has become the primary mechanism of social control that keeps us bound to our untimely way of living. But that's a long story...

What prompted me to blog about this was that, having been thinking about the cancellation of debt, I stumbled across this article (via Ran):

Laws that periodically canceled debts, freed Israelite debt-servants, and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc.

Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations dating from 2400 to 1600 BCE leave no doubt that these edicts were implemented. During the Babylonian period they grew more elaborate and detailed, capped by Ammisaduqa’s Edict of 1646 BCE. Now that these edicts are understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or other-worldly ideals; they take their place in a 2,000-year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal based on freedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of access to self-support on the land...

Rome was the first society not to cancel its debts. And we all know what happened to it. Classical historians such as Plutarch, Livy, and Diodorus attributed Rome’s decline and fall to the fact that creditors got the entire economy in their debt, expropriated the land and public domain, and strangled the economy.

The author is Michael Hudson, an economist at the University of Missouri, and there's a lot more on his website. I'm very glad to have found it, because I've wondered for a long time whether the Jubilee laws of the Old Testament were more than wishful thinking, and - despite coming from a family of theologians - noone was able to tell me.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Fax Machines and the Invention of the Wheel

It's great to see Tim posting again on I Will Rush No More, one of my favourite blogs. For me, there's a definite connection between his practise of slowing down and the tradition of otium that I've been writing about. What I admire is Tim's talent for placing his reflections in medias res, reporting a conversation with a neighbour while clearing snow off his drive, or over breakfast with a friend:

I ask: "When do you think it all changed, all this speeding up stuff?"

He says: "Easy; it changed the day fax machines became available for the home-office. Then you never got away from it and it also created an expectation of urgency where you had to deal with it right away and get back to the sender."

In a comment on Tim's post, John Xenakis writes:

The fax machine? Naah. It began with the Xerox machine. No, I mean the Univac machine. Wait, no, I mean the telephone. The telegraph. The Pony Express. The carrier pigeon. The tom-tom.

Oh hell, it began when they invented the wheel.

I suppose John has a point, in that it can be worth pushing further back, recognising the extent to which the latest and most obvious source of aggravation may be less new than it seems. Often, it turns out to be an intensification of a pre-existing tendency (as I've been arguing about managerialism in the university).

One direction this can lead is to the sort of radical critique of "civilization" offered by Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan or Ran Prieur. It was Tim who first put me on to Ran's writings, while one of Ran's posts yesterday gives a nice example of how counterproductive rushing can be. He's quoting an email someone sent him about Alan G. Carter's The Programmers Stone:

"Alan Garter [sic] tried to find a reason why some programmers are 10-25 times more productive than others. He stumbled across the answer, and made a team of super-programmers. Then the rest of the organization turned on his team! His theory is that people are literally addicted to stress. Stress releases dopamine in the brain, which gives a the stressee a good buzz. When two people accustomed to different levels of stress meet, they often don't like each other because one is getting overly stressed and the other isn't getting their dopamine hit. Stress also shuts off what he calls juxtapositional thinking, a holistic, comparative mode of thinking."

Basically there are two kinds of thinking and you need both, but under stress you're limited to thinking that is narrowly focused, methodical, and not at all intuitive. And to have a productive/unstressed programming team, you first need an unstressed organization around them. Clearly this goes way beyond programming. This whole civilization is driven by stress, and has been for thousands of years.

(This reminds me, in passing, of a post a while back from JP Rangaswami, a friend of School of Everything, about the different types of laziness.)

But back to John's comment. If we have to trace the tendency to futile acceleration back from the fax machine, via the telegraph, all the way to the invention of the wheel, doesn't this just lead to paralysis? How on earth can you and me escape? ("History," Stephen said, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.")

In Illich's thinking, I can find two possible ways out from this paralysis. The first is the idea of thresholds. Particularly in his earlier work, Illich stresses the idea that technologies have a threshold beyond which they become counterproductive. So rather than the vertiginous regression that leads back from the fax machine to the wheel, we could seek to discern the point at which this happened. That's more or less what Tim and his friend seem to be doing in their conversation - though we might want to push the threshold further back.

Dean Bavington, who I met in Cuernavaca, gave an outstanding presentation on the technological threshold in the Newfoundland cod fishery. He illustrated this by passing around the audience a 'cod jigger', the fearsome piece of equipment which he believes represents the crossing of that particular threshold. Prior to the introduction of the jigger, cod could only be caught if they were hungry enough to take the bait; from that point on, fishing increasingly became the indiscriminate scooping up of biomass, until catastrophic collapse led to the closure of the fishery in 1992.

The second possible way out is by shifting attention from the technology itself to the qualities of relationships. What kinds of relationship does a particular technology tend to foster among those who use it and those around them? Does it tend to encourage instrumental attitudes, seeing other people or things as a resource, a means to an end or a source of exchange value? Does it decrease the amount of time and space the user has for those around them?

If we pay attention to questions like these, we may choose to go on using a particular technology, despite its general tendencies, because we see the possibility - with care - of using it in other ways. Or, as I suggested the other day, we may choose askesis - voluntary renunciation, temporary or permanent, of a particular technology, habit, or whatever - so as to allow room for otium, for time spent on the things that matter to us and with the people who matter to us.

This is where I see Anthony's thinking about gentleness leading - and it takes us back to where we are, clearing snow or talking over breakfast.

Monday 17 December 2007

The Problem with the Gentlemanly University

Dan (whose relaunched blog, Covered in Bees, is worth checking out) commented on Friday's oversized post with a link to an elegantly barbed piece from the Times Higher. The author is the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, his target the much reviled Research Assessment Exercise to which academic departments in the UK are now subject. Blackburn has an angry kind of fun with the RAE, imagining how it might have processed the greats of philosophy:

In amongst the 4* management-speak encomia for team building and research environments we also find with gratitude that "the sub-panel is aware that research of high quality is very often carried out by individual scholars". Phew! A close call then for Plato, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein and all the rest! They just squeak in, although whether in their own time they would have done so at the 1*, 2*, 3*, or 4* level might puzzle us to say... Like creative art, as often as not great and even good philosophy only slowly creates the sensibilities by which it gets recognized.

The hopeful part of me wonders whether the sheer lunacy of today's managerialism could have the effect of bringing down the whole knowledge factory?

I suggested the other day that earlier models of the university were already fundamentally "business-like" - in that a turn had already taken place away from the ancient assumption that learning requires otium (leisure), towards a model of learning as the "production of knowledge". However, their gentlemanly style of business left many of their inhabitants room to pursue something closer to the style of learning for which I care.

So, what was the problem? Well, my theory (which I'm making up as I go along - bear with me!) is that these institutions also played a critical role in producing the world as we find it - including the ways of thinking which lead to managerialism. (For example, the assumption that reality can be adequately/meaningfully/usefully treated as made up of resources, whose unique and specific qualities are wholly subordinate to their mathematical representation, or exchange value.)

If managerialism is not a barbarian invader, but the absurd heir to centuries of respectable thinking, this has implications for those who would defend learning against it.

The hope I referred to is this: there are many of us who, a generation or two ago, might have holed up comfortably in academia and who are now either sitting inside the university, feeling increasing discomfort - or already outside and improvising space for learning, thinking, reading and writing as best we can. These two groups form a pool in which I think I can make out a potential for new ways of organising learning. These may have some of the qualities I celebrate, without being bound to institutions which are antithetical to those qualities. Significantly, this pool includes people who do not share the kind of critique of the university per se which I have been trying to make.

In support of all this wishful thinking, I offer a passage from the theologian Prof Richard H Roberts which has been rattling around my head for three years now:

Given present conditions, I believe that the future survival of fundamental truth-seeking, the production of knowledge and genuinely 'owned' university teaching, together understood as part and parcel of the total way of life, may well only be assured through cultural migration, and the creation of new, subversive and marginal institutional embodiments.

Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences p.xi

'Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread' and all that... I realise I may be slashing about with a broadsword where what's required is a scalpel. Please, if you know any good surgeons trying to perform such an operation, point me towards them.

Newsflash: Capitalism Defeated!

You'd think this story (from Latin American news agency, Prenza Latina) might have got more coverage, really:


It's a headline worthy of William Boot, the accidental hero of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, which is my current bedtime reading.

Friday 14 December 2007

Why the only true schooling is a vacation (or "What I didn't do in my holidays")

It has been a week already since I got back from Mexico. I returned with all kinds of things to post about and no great desire to get posting.

Among the pleasures of the Illich colloquium, one was the almost total withdrawal from electronic communication. My reluctance to begin reporting back is partly a reluctance to complete my reintegration to the technological matrix, and partly a sense that the experiences and conversations at Cuernavaca took place not only in a different time zone, but in a different sort of time. Whilst there, they made perfect sense, but a process of careful and unrushed translation is needed, or they are in danger of becoming nonsense. (Leastways, that's my excuse for having been so inarticulate when people asked me how my trip went...)

The pleasure of withdrawing from technology would have been no surprise to Illich. One of the consistent strands in his work is a call to askesis, the discipline of freely chosen renunciation. The purpose of such renunciation is not self-punishment, nor does it imply a judgement on those who don't choose to join us in renouncing a particular habit, activity or technology. Rather, it is a way of making room for the pleasures of otium (of which, more in a moment).

All this, though, is foreign to us. When 'asceticism' is referred to today, it generally signifies a (probably perverse) religious practice. It suggests masochism - or, at least, that hatred of the body which the secular often regard as an essential feature of the religious. It is worth highlighting, then, that in Illich's writing, this aspect of asceticism is not simply downplayed, but explicitly countered. In a 1989 proposal for a five year course aimed at recovering 'the perceptions of self and other which led to the formation of ascetical disciplines,' he writes:

I will place the body rather than the mind at the center of my lectures, not because I can distinguish the two, but because I need a term, the term "body" to engage the student's interest in the traditional habits that cultivate personal centers which they might never have adverted to, such as the heart, the eyes, the limbs, the stomach, the flesh, the ears and the spirit.

'Ascetical habits' once stood in balance with 'critical habits' in the western tradition of learning, but were marginalised from 'the foundation of the University in the late Middle Ages'. Though he doesn't spell it out, I suspect Illich saw a direct connection between this and the disembodiment of knowledge characteristic of modern science. (An idea which deserves fleshing out in a post of its own.)

For now, back to the pleasures of otium, for which askesis makes room. In Latin, otium is leisure, peace and quiet, freedom from responsibility: something looked forward to in retirement or time off from worldly duties. It is the term used by Augustine to describe his calling to a life of study and contemplation, and it characterises the atmosphere required for learning in the monastic tradition. The connection is ancient: the Greek for otium is schole, from which we get 'school'. (And according to Strong's Greek Dictionary, schole is 'a vacation from physical work' and scholazo is 'to take a holiday', so the truest form of schooling really is a vacation!)

The opposite of otium is negotium, literally nec-otium, 'no-leisure'. This is business, occupation or employment - but also pains, trouble and difficulty. Such affairs may not be ultimately escapable. (For Augustine, the calling to otium is in tension with the negotium of ecclesiastical responsibilities.) Yet the value of escape, temporary or permanent, is not in doubt - and it is seen as essential for the pursuit of learning.

All this is of interest to those of us who enjoy the dance of words and ideas to the rhythm of history. The more practically minded may find it 'otiose' in the modern sense: idle, useless and a waste of time. (Mind you, those changed connotations do offer a striking measure of how values have shifted.) Yet there may be meat here for those of us who would negotiate the world of education today.

Both personally and on behalf of School of Everything, I am keen to take part in conversations about the future of the university and of higher learning in general. I share the opinion of those who see in the current crisis of Higher Education, not merely a need to defend the older professional model against managerialism (or to mourn its passing), but the hopeful possibility of new, marginal spaces in which we can explore other ways of organising learning. So I was intrigued, earlier this year, when I heard about the EduFactory project to explore the 'Conflicts and transformations of the university'.

Yet, not for the first time, I found myself disappointed by the conversation that ensued (through the medium of an unfortunately unarchived email list). A great volume of words was produced, theoretically dense, often leading to bad-tempered exchanges, yet suggesting also a great deal of intelligence and good intentions. It was perplexing. My friend Anthony, who has the advantage over me of being a certified academic, lost patience, told the list what he thought and went elsewhere. Essentially, he told them they were suffering from collective verbal diaorrhea, and he wasn't wrong, but what I hadn't located until I sat down to write this was the source of their incontinence.

Bearing in mind the concepts of otium and negotium, the problem may be seen from the name of the project, or from the prospectus for its second round (which began last month):

The first round of discussion on the edu-factory list showed that, despite the many differences between universities and countries, it is possible to identify a global trend and common experiences in the world of the university. These stem from the pervasiveness of the market and the processes of corporatisation that universities in many parts of the world are undergoing. But they also involve the struggles and movements that have contested academic borders as well as wider power structures, claiming the free circulation of knowledge and practicing alternative forms of knowledge production.

For the radicals of the edu-factory list, just as much as their supposed enemies, the university is conceived of as a factory for 'knowledge production'. No wonder they are so industrious in the manufacture of neologisms, or such Stakhanovites in their output of emails!

Government ministers often see universities (or, to be more precise, Oxford and Cambridge) as feudal anachronisms, holding out against good, rational, business management. The truth is stranger. The very roots of the modern university, as early as the 13th century, are in the turn away from otium as the proper atmosphere for study, towards worldy negotium. So the contemporary crisis is rather more like that of an old family business, run for generations on gentlemanly terms, which finds itself suddenly under new ownership and having its assets stripped.

After going on for eight centuries, most inhabitants of the university can barely imagine it as anything other than a factory for the production of knowledge. Yet the grounds for such imagination are just what study-as-otium can offer. Illich, again:

I want to cultivate the capacity for second thoughts, by which I mean the stance and the competence that makes it feasible to inquire into the obvious. This is what I call learning.

And, in another essay, 'The Cultivation of Conspiracy':

Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.

Is there any hope for learning as a quest, rather than a production line? For these strange concepts of askesis and otium? 'The asceticism which can be practiced at the end of the 20th century,' Illich wrote, 'is something profoundly different from any previously known.'

I find hope in the company of those I met in Cuernavaca, but also in a series of encounters since I returned with some of the smartest, most technologically adept people I know. One is giving up sending email from his thirtieth birthday. Another will spend ten days over Christmas and New Year in a silent retreat. The third claimed to have spent the past few months 'shitting myself into a twelve inch screen' and to want reminding that she has a body. The possibilities are there.

Anyway, the great thing about otium is that you don't have to wait for the fulfilment of a grand project to enjoy it. You can start by switching off your computer, turning off your phone, stretching your work-cramped body and deciding to dedicate the weekend ahead to meditative idleness - which is just what I plan to do now.

Thursday 29 November 2007


In less than twelve hours time, I will be on my way to Mexico! I don't know how much internet access I'll have - or want to have - over the next week. But I'm sure I'll report back on the gathering in Cuernavaca before long.

Friday 23 November 2007

The Peter Pan Guide to Turning Thirty

All week, people have been asking me how it feels to be 30. My first answer was, "Much the same as 29, only it's a bit harder for people to patronise you on account of your youth!" (As James Wallbank pointed out, though, it's easier for them to say, "At your age, you really should have grown out of...")

Then I started to notice the difference. Perhaps it's all the other things going on around my life, but there's a sharpened sense that this is it: I'm never going to be a grown up, so it's time to get serious! (Or, as Andy put it to me, "We've avoided growing up for long enough, and now the rules have changed!")

With this, I was reminded of a passage from John Berger, which is ostensibly about the relationship between a painter and his subject, but which catches something larger about what might be called vocation:

How did you become what you visibly are? asks the painter.

I am as I am. I'm waiting, replies the mountain or the mouse or the child.

What for?

For you, if you abandon everything else.

For how long?

For as long as it takes.

There are other things in life.

Find them and be more normal.

And if I don't

I'll give you what I've given nobody else, but it's worthless, it's simply the answer to your useless question.


I am as I am.

No promise more than that?

None. I can wait for ever.

I'd like a normal life.

Live it and don't count on me.

And if I do count on you?

Forget everything and in me you'll find -- me!

The collaboration which sometimes follows is seldom based on good will: more usually on desire, rage, fear, pity or longing. The modern illusion concerning painting (which post-modernism has done nothing to correct) is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.

John Berger, Steps Towards A Small Theory Of The Visible

(I'll be back in a day or two, when I have more time, to take up some of the threads from people's responses to recent posts. For now, though, thanks for turning my monologue into a conversation! It's far more sociable that way.)

Tuesday 20 November 2007

To be AND not to be

As words must be learned by listening and by painful attempts at imitation of a native speaker, so silences must be acquired through a delicate openness to them. Silence has its pauses and hesitations, its rhythms and expressions and inflections; its durations and pitches, and times to be and not to be.

The last phrase of that passage, from Illich's reflection on 'The Eloquence of Silence', makes me sit bolt upright whenever I reach it. Let me try to explain.

'To be, or not to be?' That is the question with which we are familiar. The figure of Hamlet, like that of his creator, stands at the back of what (in the long sense) is called modern English literature. 'Modernity' is a slippery concept, but there is a certain peculiar way of thinking about the world which became dominant among the powerful and 'forward-thinking' in western Europe from the 17th century onwards.

One of the peculiarities of this way of thinking is a tendency to insist on 'either/or' answers. (Anthony - who would probably steer me away from historical narrative here - talks about 'the elimination of uncertainty' as a key characteristic of the 'dynamics of enclosure' which he critiques.) This 'either/or' tendency is itself a characteristic of a desire for once-and-for-all solutions.

One of the things which is lost, as this way of thinking becomes dominant, is the sense of timeliness. The assumption that different, seemingly opposite, things may be right at different moments gives way, for example, to the attempt to identify timeless, universal Rights. (Paradoxically, the superiority of these tends to be bound up with the non-timeless assumption that the present is necessarily superior in wisdom to the past. This, however, is a very different kind of time to that experienced by those immersed in the sense of timeliness.)

Much of this is sensed in Shakespeare, anticipated and handled with careful ambiguity. (Hamlet himself observes that 'the times are out of joint'.) Harold Bloom made the bold claim that Shakespeare 'invented the human as we know it'. In a different key, it might be said that Hamlet seems the prototype of the modern individual, the subject who feels obliged to contain a universe within his self - to reach 'either/or' answers.

So, when Illich ends his list of the properties of silence with its 'times to be and not to be', I hear an echo arcing back over the centuries, or outwards from those centres of power where Hamlet-like leaders strut and fret, to the vernacular world in which Illich was at home. In Shakespeare's England, this world was still close enough at hand to feed in and out of his writing - soon afterwards, the gap between the vernacular understandings of reality and those common among the intellectual, political and literary elites would extend to a point where, finally, high culture could rediscover 'the folk' as (more often than not) an exotic object of fascination and condescension.

Monday 19 November 2007

The Gospel According to Lego

Adam naming the animalsGenesis 2v19-20: "He brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, every bird of the sky, and every animal of the field. But no suitable helper was found for the man."

My sister, for her sins, is an RE teacher. (That's Religious Education, a subject all schools in the UK are obliged to teach.) Her attempts to keep her pupils' attention brought to my attention the revelation that is The Brick Testament.

The section on St Paul's Instructions on Marriage is particularly... instructive, shall we say. Though possibly not suitable for school. (Or church, for that matter.)

Gettin' On Planes

Rather like Mr T, I have an aversion to getting on planes. Not an actual phobia, although I never much enjoyed the experience: all the boredom of a childhood car journey, sandwiched between two halves of a rollercoaster ride...

But eighteen months ago, I decided to give up flying - more or less. As you've doubtless heard a million times, as an ordinary citizen, not flying is pretty much the biggest difference you can make to your carbon footprint. (And don't get me started on carbon offsetting...)

I say "more or less". I realised a while ago that it would be hard to get through the process of setting up the School of Everything without taking some flights for work purposes. It's not exactly taking EasyJet to Prague for a boozy weekend, but I'm not comfortable with the amount of "necessary" flying required for business-as-usual - whether in business or academia.

But then today, for the first time since I quit, I found myself really feeling the need to fly somewhere. What's responsible for my fall from the wagon? This:

Ivan Illich passed away in December 2002. Five years after his death, a group of friends and readers are convoking other friends and readers around the world to meet in Cuernavaca. There, more than thirty years ago, thanks to the fruitful milieu provided by the Centro Intercultural de Documantación (CIDOC) headed by Valentina Borremans, he launched a critical debate on the major institutions of industrial society and the underlying public certainties supporting them... We want to call friends and readers of Ivan to gather on Mexican soil, the country where he lived so long.

The gathering is only ten days away. I have just written to the organisers, to check that it will be possible to take part. Assuming it is, and assuming I can find a way to pay for the flight, I'll be there.

P2P Breakfast

To Islington, this morning, for a Hub Breakfast with Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives. He's a very impressive guy, from a high-level corporate background (but with a Marxist heart beating somewhere in there), who's both drawing together information on the range of peer-to-peer projects in different fields and attempting to create a narrative of how P2P production could displace capitalism-as-we-know-it.

He's very alert to the potential critiques of this - in particular, the difference between P2P knowledge production and applying the same approach to production of material goods. My favourite soundbite was this: "Today, we act as if material resources were infinite and immaterial resources [i.e. music, writing, software] were finite, when really it's the other way round!" (Easy to say, hard to change, of course.)

As I said to him afterwards, for someone who likens the movement he's involved in to 19th century socialism, he seems very optimistic. (He replied, reasonably enough, that the labour movement did much to improve the quality of life - and he's not a utopian.)

What did strike me was a certain slippage which is, perhaps, inevitable when offering narratives of successive economic eras. Just as capitalism replaced feudalism, Michel said, so P2P production will (possibly) replace capitalism "because it's better". But to what kind of "good" does this "better" refer? Economic or ethical? In fact, this kind of narrative tends to collapse the distinction. But surely we can imagine a situation in which one way of living is economically better, while ethically worse?

When challenged on his optimism, Michel said that, of course, it is possible the human race will commit collective suicide, but it seems unlikely that people will choose to do so if there are other options available. If I am (relatively speaking) a pessimist, it is because of a suspicion that our demise may come about, not as an act of suicide, but as the kind of unintended overdose to which addicts are prone.

(I'm actually a rather hopeful kind of pessimist, but I don't place my hope in narratives of progress.)

Friday 16 November 2007

The Philosophy of "As If"

Having been an enthusiastic participant in the Yahoo! Groups Alan Garner list for several years, I was delighted to discover that a similar list existed, dedicated to the work of Ivan Illich. It looks to have become rather quiet, but I'm enjoying working my way through the archives, with the intention of introducing myself and (assuming the locals are friendly!) inviting along some of the people I've met in the past year who've expressed an interest in developing a conversation about Illich's ideas and influence.

Anyway, in the context of a discussion about the roles of the individual and the state in social change, I came across this great paragraph:

I have been wrestling for a long time with context vs individual responsibility. I have concluded it is not either-or, but both that matter. Yes, of course, we must each take personal responsibility for our own situations. We must pull a Vaihinger "as-if". The only alternative is madness and depression and curling up into little shivering balls of protoplasm. At the very same time, holding two contradictory ideas all at once, context is all. Sort of a C. Wright Mills sociological imagination riff. Context is all, yet we must act as if we are in total control of everything. So, we must together work to change context, work to make the world better for all, work to drag a kicking and screaming bad tempered world together into the commons of the god of all. At the same time we must, at the individual level, work with each person and ourselves to take individual control of as much of our lives as we can grab and self-direct within the context in which we exist.

The poster's name is Dan, and what he says reminds me of conversations I've had with a different Dan. I wasn't familiar with Hans Vaihinger, the philosopher mentioned, but the importance of "as if" resonates strongly with my own experience and the approach to reality to which it has led me.


I hadn't planned to take a break from this blog, but one week stretched into another until I found I had stepped back from it (which was no bad thing). It has been a busy time! All kinds of things came to a head at once, as if to meet the deadline of my 30th birthday. Well, the day is upon me, and it seems a happy moment to return.

My main news is that I now have a place to live in London, after spending much of the past year living on Paul's sofa. I've been lucky to have such a tolerant business partner, but it is a huge relief to have a real bed - and to be reunited with my books! (And I'm sure the only person who's more relieved than me is Paul...) In practice, I will be spending about the same amount of my time in London (around 80% of it) as I have been doing for the past few months. But it will be good to have somewhere for Hannah to stay, so that she can visit me some weekends, instead of me returning to Sheffield.

Meanwhile, things have been moving fast in other areas of my life - including the School of Everything, where much is happening behind the scenes. (More news soon, in other words.) Through that, and through generally following my nose, I have met some amazing people recently. And, as I cross the threshold of this new decade, I'm feeling very lucky with my life.

So, this blog. Time out gave me the chance to pay attention to those blogs I read and enjoy, to think about what I've learned from them and from the experience of keeping my own. Writing matters to me: along with reading, spending time with people I care about, and growing stuff, it is one of the things I intend to do with myself for as long as I have any say in the matter. And for the immediate future, what writing time I get will continue to go into this blog.

My plan right now is to vary the rhythm a bit, to post more often, to be more active in directing people towards things that have caught my attention, and to let go of the habit of needing to turn every thought into an essay! Any other suggestions are very welcome.

I'll also be making an occasional radio programme for Sheffield Live, which is meant to be an extension of this blog. Hopefully it will be a chance to go deeper into those preoccupations which keep surfacing here, but fit awkwardly in the limits of a few paragraphs. It should also be a bit of fun.

The plan is for each programme to take a different question which I've been asked and use it as an excuse to talk to some interesting people. I'm starting with the question that gave this blog its name, asked years ago by a relative: "Isn't it time you got a proper job...?"

(Again, suggestions for other questions I should tackle would be great!)

Wednesday 10 October 2007

In Defence of Sweeping Statements & Anecdotal Evidence

Still thinking about Berger, I came across an interesting post from a reader who has just discovered him. Kevin Breathnach writes:

John Berger writes beautifully. Of that, there is no doubting. But he writes out of fashion, form and age. These are not essays like any I'm familiar with. At their worst, they resemble the writings of a class-conscious mind-body-spirit author; at their best, they are the work of the what Berger himself, referring to Giorgio Bassani, names the half-poet, half-historian. But poets are granted an artistic license we would not want within our historians grasp. Hold Everything Dear brims with sweeping statements and anecdotal evidence.

I responded in his comments thread, at slightly greater length than seems polite. But since I haven't had time to post anything here for a couple of days, I thought I'd reproduce my response here.

First, a quote from Mike Dibb's account of his collaboration with Berger (on a famous 1970s TV series):

Although Ways of Seeing may appear to be a succession of statements, these statements are really questions. When John speaks in conversation his sentences often end with an interrogative. "No?" he says, inviting a response, not automatic assent.

The same, I think, applies to those sweeping statements Kevin refers to. They are not made (as is conventional) from an assumed position of universal authority. (The convention of hedging one's statements in cautious terms is not a relinquishing of such authority, but a polite way of retaining it.) Rather, Berger is constantly aware of his thinking and writing as a work in progress, made from a specific, physical location, and based on what can be seen from there. (In the case of 'Hold Everything Dear', several of the essays were written from occupied Palestine and this shapes them.)

How is this different to the most strident sort of universalism? Only (I think) in that the statements truly are intended as questions. Other, contradictory statements may be made from elsewhere - and the assumption is that this should lead to a conversation, rather than a conflict over who is right. (Clearly, in the one-way medium of a book, this must be taken on trust - though accounts of his many collaborations appear to bear it out.)

Secondly, concerning the reliance on "anecdotal evidence", this is not a weakness but fundamental to his method. Berger's writing returns again and again to the theme of "incommensurability" - the claim that things cannot be measured satisfactorily against each other, except in certain limited domains, without losing what matters. The inadmissibility of "anecdotal evidence" is a tenet of a worldview in which everything that matters is capable of being reduced to statistical representation (in terms of money, or in terms of SI units) - a worldview whose limitations he seeks to challenge. But if we baulk at this, it may at least be entered in his defence that he describes himself first and foremost as a storyteller.

The first episode of that TV series ended with Berger addressing his audience: "Consider what I say," he told them, "but be sceptical..."

Sunday 7 October 2007

Stilted Conversations

The event was a screening of Pasolini's 'La Rabbia', but the lights above the entrance to the Curzon cinema spelt out the main attraction: JOHN BERGER IN CONVERSATION. Inside the foyer, the weight of expectation was uncomfortable. For many of us, this was a rare - perhaps a once-only - chance to be in the same room as someone whose life and work had mattered to us deeply. In such situations, the asymmetry between reader and writer always reminds me of a teenage crush.

He looked uncomfortable, too - escorted by the organisers, seated on a stage, enduring our applause. There are writers who seem to relish these occasions, the literary festival or the staged conversation, as if it is payment in fame for the loneliness of their trade. These are not, generally, my kind of writer.

And yet he looked very much himself. Unimpressed with the sound of his own voice, answering slowly as if all his thoughts were work in progress rather than polished objects, and politely declining to answer where he felt he had nothing to add, which was often. It was good to hear him speak. Yet there was little flow to the conversation, the questions or comments from the audience, the host's rephrasing and Berger's response or lack of it. There seemed on many sides a desire for something more or other.

His most animated response was to a questioner who wanted the film to have been more explicitly a call to action (of a dogmatically socialist sort?). His response was to defend the room for imagination and less explicitly political work, yet there was a greater sense of a shared energy between him and the questioner than when others asked about Pasolini's technique or the film's place in the history of cinema.

I should mention his voice. It was not a surprise to me, because I have heard or watched a number of interviews with him, but it is still strange. After thirty-some years in France, he no longer speaks like an Englishman, but with foreign cadences. (He says that nearly all the contemporary poetry which has mattered to him he has read in translation. Now, at this end of a long life, he speaks his native language as if translating himself.)

The other extraordinary thing is his age. There is no way that anyone who didn't know would guess that he is eighty. Physically, he could be twenty years younger, and even then his vigour would be remarkable. (Having been with my elderly grandmother a few days earlier, I struggle to reconcile the fact that they were born in the same year.)

It was a strange evening, too short, but lengthening it would not have helped much. How would I organise it differently? A different venue, for a start, and a different format - one in which the fact that we were gathered around this man and his work was acknowledged, but also the possibility that this shared focus meant we had much to learn from each other. I am sure there were many people present who I would have gained from meeting. What if we had been gathered into smaller groups, to talk with each other, with John joining each group for a while, then moving on to the next?

That's only a thought. There was another meeting the next night, organised by the Institute for Race Relations and held at the London School of Economics. Perhaps it came closer to my idea of how a writer like Berger could be "in conversation" with his readers. I don't know, because the organisers informed me that they had run out of places - and, on the night, I wasn't feeling up to gatecrashing.

Has anyone else had the same experience of the awkwardness of these kind of events? Is it inevitable? Is there, I wonder, something unhealthy about the intensity of the relationship some of us develop with a writer like Berger? Have you been at events which worked better? Or am I being unrealistic? Let me know.

(Berger's essay on La Rabbia is published in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. A version of it is available online here.)

Wednesday 3 October 2007

I'm very excited!

Tonight I'm going to see John Berger speaking at a cinema in London. The event is a screening of Pasolini's La Rabbia, a little-known film which was the subject of one of Berger's most recent essays.

Regular readers will know that Berger's writing has had a great influence on my life and ideas. This will be the first time I have seen him speak in person - three years ago he was due to address a conference that I was at, but had to cancel (and sent Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicité in his place).

Further excitement, if that were needed, comes with the rumour of a new Berger novel, From A to X. I can't find much information about the book and its publication schedule, but it is only a few months since his most recent essay collection came out.

I hope that I'm still that active, creative and engaged when I'm eighty!

Tuesday 2 October 2007

School of Everything Goes Live!

When a new school opens in the UK, it's customary for a member of the royal family to cut a ribbon or unveil a plaque.

Adam asked me the other day if we had something similar planned for the opening of the School of Everything. I said it would probably be less an opening, more a case of leaving the door unlocked and seeing who wanders in...

Well, that's what we did! The site went live some time last Friday afternoon. (I missed the historic moment, as I was driving a van up the M1 at the time.) It's still very early days and there's a lot we need to fix, but it's exciting to see teachers starting to add themselves to the site.

So go and check it out, list something that you could teach, pass it on to your friends - and let us know what you think!

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Bureaucracy, Care & Attention

(There will be some examples of Plan B coming up soon - meanwhile, this started as an over-sized comment elsewhere, so I decided to post here instead...)

I've been thinking a lot about "attention" lately. Then I read Andy's post about Factory Records, Products that don't care if you buy them:

I love the Factory story. Not only did they produce some of my all-time favourite music, but I also find their anarchic approach really inspiring. It's a great example of a particular kind of story: the "we didn't care, and that's why it worked" story.

Anthony commented on this:

I was glad that the documentary on Factory didn't completely ignore the way that the members of Joy Division/New Order got completely shafted by Factory's ad hoc way of working. They didn't seem too bitter about it, but they did lose hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. Ad hoc is fine, but not so much if people get harmed by it in the process?

This all got me thinking...

The Factory approach feels like an antidote to the standard "managerial" approach to running an organisation/etc. It seems to me that managerialism is (among other things) a way of keeping an organisation/project/whatever running in a relatively stable way with the minimum amount of attention to the personal.

By structuring processes to be as rational, predictable and defined as possible, you limit the consequences of not paying attention to the personal (i.e. the fact that your organisation is actually made up of people).

Of course, you also limit things like autonomy and creativity and meaningfulness. If you want a more creative organisation, you can try to dispense with managerial processes, etc. But unless this is accompanied by a much greater level of attention to the personal, this will tend to increase the extent to which people get harmed.

I can see three kinds of response to this:

(1) A tendency to treat the people getting hurt as "collateral damage" - unfortunate, but a price worth paying. (This kind of attitude is in keeping with a lot of the messages we get - from politicians, the media, the education industry - about what life is like.)

(2) A nostalgia for older, more hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of running organisations. There's a cluster of thinkers and writers on the left who exhibit this - people like Richard Sennett, Zygmunt Bauman, Madeleine Bunting and Barbara Ehrenreich. (Sennett in particular recants his earlier enthusiasm for the New Left and its desire for more autonomous ways of living.) While this is motivated by a proper recognition of how people get hurt by newer, anti-bureaucratic organisational styles, I think it leads to an unnecessarily bleak position.

(3) A deeper, practical critique of our organisations and workplaces. If doing things together in a creative, autonomous and meaningful way requires greater attention to the personal, then maybe we need to lower our prized "productivity" and spend more time attending to each other as people? Maybe in addition to "doing things badly", The New Sociablism should encourage us to "do things slowly" and "do less".

This could sound like the kind of impractical proposal that requires a different world to the one we currently live and work in. But my experience is that other worlds already exist in the gaps and cracks and folds of the World towards which our attention is generally directed...

Finally, to go back to "We didn't care, and that's why it worked" - I remember my singing teacher telling me at 17, "A lot of people in this school think that you don't care, but I think you do." (By which I understood her to mean that I really wanted to be good and obedient and was putting on a show of rebellion in order to be cool.) I was silently incandescent and would still like to go back and tell her that I did and do care - just not about the things she thought were worth caring about.

So rather than celebrating not caring, let's celebrate choosing what to care about. (And don't "care" and "attention" refer to more or less the same thing?)

Saturday 15 September 2007

Plan B

After Thursday's lengthy post, I remembered another stand-out passage from that Ran Prieur essay, one that relates to a lot of conversations I've had over the last couple of years. He's talking about the motives for what policy-makers call "behaviour change":

We think we're turning off the air conditioner and bicycling to work to save the Earth. In fact, other people and other economies will just take our place at the Earth-gobbling table and eat it just as fast. What we're really saving is our future sanity, by practicing for the day when we're forced to reduce consumption...

This is the honest answer when someone asks, "What's the point?" But it's an answer that even the greenest mainstream companies and politicians are unlikely to give you - because it involves imagining a world in which they lose their current dominance.

Here in the UK, the upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer has been running a campaign to change its behaviour, under the banner: 'Plan A - Because There Is No Plan B'. I find that a really disturbing message, because personally I can imagine a world in which people live well without much of the current retail apparatus. So while there may be no Plan B for a company like Marks & Spencer, that's not an argument for putting all our eggs in one (supermarket) basket...*

In fact, over the last two years I've met all kinds of people who are developing something that looks a lot like a Plan B. It doesn't look much like a plan, more like a great distributed research project with no overseeing structure. For months now, I've been intending to write a longer article about this - something I may still do. But in the mean time, I've decided to dedicate most of my blogging for the next little while to writing about examples of this kind of 'action research' - people who are practicing for the day when we're forced to change our ways of living.

* Just to be clear, I'm not saying Marks & Spencer shouldn't be doing what they're doing - reducing their carbon footprint, stocking fair trade products, encouraging people to use less plastic bags. But the slogan they've chosen provides an unusually clear statement of a far more widespread approach to 'sustainability', the subtext of which is that we must preserve our current lifestyles at all costs.

Thursday 13 September 2007

All Fall Down: Jared Diamond and Ran Prieur

Not long ago, I finally got around to reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I can see why it has attracted such acclaim - and yet I couldn't help feeling slightly short-changed. Then, last week (via Laura and Tim), I discovered another writer who thinks deeply and practically about the fall of civilisations, past and present. His essays helped bring into focus my disappointment with Diamond's book.

Let's get the praise out of the way first! I learned a great deal from the descriptive material in Collapse. The chapters on Easter Island and Norse Greenland are fascinating - as are the modern case studies on countries such as Rwanda and the Dominican Republic/Haiti. It was also a relief to read a popular non-fiction book which isn't flogging a single Theory of Everything (a trend Will Davies was decrying recently). In fact, I could pick out several theoretical strands in Collapse, and the two which get most emphasis from Diamond are both valid and important. To paraphrase*:

  • Critical to the survival or extinction of groups of humans living in a particular place are the choices they make about their way of life - and how those choices interact with ecological factors.
  • Where an elite has become isolated from the sources of its material wealth, people are less likely to make timely changes to their way of life which might avert ecological disaster.

So far, so much to agree with. So why do I feel short-changed?

Let's start with the ending. Having illustrated how quickly societies can tumble from their peak of material wealth to catastrophic collapse, and suggested that this scenario may be playing out today on a global scale, Diamond leaves us with a picture of the forces of good and evil in a race to the finish - and, buried in the 'Further Reading' section, a rather feeble list of positive actions and ways that consumers can put pressure on big business to save the world.

What is missing here is any sense of just how different our ways of life would have to be to escape the kind of collapse that may already be underway. Having conjured such powerful scenes of ancient worlds and how they fell apart, Diamond's imagination seems to desert him.

I would trace this back to some of the book's background assumptions - assumptions which prevent Diamond achieving any real perspective on our current way of living. The kind of perspective I'm referring to is not the lidless vision of a satellite looking down on the earth - but that sense of our own strangeness which comes from sitting quietly with others who do not see the world as we do, until we begin to glimpse ourselves through their eyes. This may be through direct contact with people who live very differently to us, or through a deep and sensitive familiarity with the writings of other eras.

Despite his best intentions and the thoroughness of his research, Diamond lacks this kind of perspective - and so he tends to read others through our ways of approaching reality. Consider, for example, the book's subtitle: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. What if approaching life in terms of "failure" and "success" is actually part of the ways of thinking which are accelerating us towards collapse?

That is certainly what Ran Prieur reckons. A section of his essay How to Survive the Crash and Save the Earth is headed 'You are here to help':

We are trained to think of ourselves as here to "succeed," to build wealth and status and walls around ourselves, to get what we desire, to win in games where winning is given meaning by others losing. It is a simple and profound shift to think of ourselves instead as here to help -- to serve the greatest good that we can perceive in whatever way is right in front of us...

In the real world, being here to help is easier and less stressful, because you will frequently be in a situation where you can't win, but you will almost never be in a situation where there's nothing you can do to help. Being here to win only makes sense in an artificial world rigged so you can win all the time. Thousands of years ago only kings were in that position, and they reacted by massacring all enemies and bathing in blood. Now, through a perfect conjunction of Empire and oil energy, we just put the entire American middle class in that position for 50 years. No one should be surprised that we're so stupid, selfish, cowardly, and irresponsible...

Where Diamond sees us caught up in a horse race between the environmental movement and the forces of destruction, Prieur suggests we walk away from the winner-takes-all mentality. Instead, start learning skills and adapting in preparation for what happens when our current ways of living become impossible. Easily said! But I'm more convinced by his approach than by one which can't imagine any alternative to the perpetuation - through some magic of "sustainability" - of the status quo.

I could go on at greater length about the other assumptions and vaguenesses constraining Diamond's imagination - or about Prieur's clearer-sighted visions of how our civilisation might collapse, and of the possibilities on the far side of such a collapse. But you'd be better off reading his latest essay, How to Save Civilisation.

To give you a taste, here's the closing paragraph - which made me think of my low-tech, computer-recycling friends at Access Space:

I don't think we'll have any technology in 2100 that can't be done in 2050 in a garage -- or in a network of garages and scrap collections. If there's anything we want to save, we need to begin adapting it now so it can be done on that level, bottom to top. Garage industry doesn't have to profit or die. It doesn't require wage laborers who will quit when money no longer buys food. Technology will be carried through industrial collapse by dedicated amateurs, and then, whether the next world is stable or unstable, they will plant the seeds of a new tech system... which is very likely to make another epic mistake.

* I should probably add that I wrote this several months after reading Collapse, without a copy to hand. Apologies, therefore, for the lack of close reference to the text. On the other hand, with such a large and wide-ranging book, perhaps there's something to be said for focusing on those elements which stick in the mind at such a distance?

Wednesday 12 September 2007

Space Hijackers: They Did It!

The Space Hijackers pulled a classic bait-and-switch on the police yesterday, to achieve their goal of auctioning a tank outside the front doors of the DSEi arms fair! The Met had spent all weekend following the Saracen Mk 1 which the Hijackers bought last week, finally pouncing as it left its storage location - when they pulled it over on the grounds that the suspension was dodgy.

At this point, a member of the crew climbed on top of the vehicle to announce that it was in fact a decoy! Round the corner, a rather larger tank (complete with tracks and gun turret) was rolling off the back of a low loader and up to the venue!

The auction took place, with bids of bodily organs and first-born children being turned down in favour of $50 in cash - money being worth more than human lives, when it comes to the arms trade...

Will it make any difference to anything? Who knows! On the whole, if you want to "change the world", I believe your time is better spent growing good things than protesting against bad things. But if you're going to make a protest that might well turn out to have been futile, you can at least make sure you have fun - and that's one thing you can count on with the Space Hijackers.

Monday 10 September 2007

Illich - where to start?

Since I started this blog, I've name-checked Ivan Illich fairly regularly. His writing style takes a little getting used to, but his books and the various uncollected essays scattered across the web are pretty much all worth tracking down.

One question I get asked a lot is where someone who's new to his work should start. The long answer is, it depends on where you're coming from and what it is that most troubles you about the world in which we find ourselves - whether it is education or energy, health or work. Those looking for policy recipes were dismayed by his increasing withdrawal from that game, and mistake this for despair - but I find later texts, such as 'The Cultivation of Conspiracy', to be among the most genuinely (unillusionedly) hopeful responses to our times.

That's the long answer! The short answer is to try this little film, a reflection on 'Deschooling Society', which I discovered via Bricoleuse.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Space Hijackers: Tank Update

You might remember the Space Hijackers and their quest for a tank, which I flagged up earlier in the summer. Well, they did it!

The Saracen Mk 1 was delivered last week and received its number plates from the DVLA on Friday. Apparently the owners of the venue where it was initially parked were put under a certain amount of pressure by the authorities - and the hijacker team has spent the rest of the weekend playing cat and mouse with the Met.

According to their press release, the plan is to drive the tank to the DSEi Arms Fair - taking place, rather tastefully, on September 11th - and auction it to the highest bidder:

If this so happens to be an angry teenager in a balaclava, then so be it. We don't see how destruction caused with our tank can possibly be our responsibility.

Several people have got in touch with us claiming that this kind of behavior is slightly reckless "what if someone drives over a police car in your tank?" Our response is simple: we are simply looking to make a profit, it's just business transaction. As with the arms dealers and their weapons, once the goods are out of our hands, how can we be held accountable for how they are used?

It's the kind of stunt that's bound to draw a certain amount of criticism - and given the trigger-happy track record of London's finest, I'd personally think twice about playing with military equipment in their vicinity...

But with organisers Reed Elsevier already quitting the arms fair business as a result of some impressive campaigning, it feels like, if enough attention is drawn to this year's event, there's just the scent of a chance that local politicians will decide it's more trouble than it's worth - and we could see this festival of death kicked out of London for good.

Thursday 30 August 2007

Exciting times for The School of Everything

When I moved to Sheffield a few years ago, I soon discovered that the city's newsagents were more likely to stock the Morning Star than the Financial Times. If you're interested in stories with long-term consequences rather than short-term news value, either paper generally beats the rest of the British press. But when I stepped out this morning, it was in search of the distinctive salmon pink pages of the FT. At the third shop, I found a copy.

Why this urgent quest? Because today's the day the paper was to announce the finalists for Seedcamp. In fact, the article inside was mostly about Seedcamp itself - a week-long masterclass for Europe's most promising high-tech startups, with coaching from many of the leading figures in the internet scene. You had to visit for the rundown of the 20 finalists, picked from 270 applicants to participate in next week's event.

But what matters - or, at least, the reason for my trek around Sheffield's newsagents - is that The School of Everything made the list! (We'd known for a few days, but there's nothing like seeing it in print - or hypertext, as it happens...)

It's been an amazing year for Team Everything, since we quit our "proper jobs" to work on this - and the excitement has been growing over the past few weeks. We're still a little way off having a public version of the site, but making progress fast. I believe what we're building has the potential to bridge between the long-standing networks of informal learning which sit on the edge of today's education system - in areas such as music teaching or driving instruction - and the vision which many people have been reaching towards of a society in which learning is no longer thought of primarily in terms of schools, classrooms, curricula and the other structures of industrialised education.

It's a pretty grand project! You might even say we're trying to "change the world" - though that doesn't mean much until we actually do it. I wouldn't believe we had a chance, if I wasn't working with four people I trust to be good at the stuff I'm not good at. Not to mention an incredible network of older and wiser heads who've been lending us their support and credibility along the way.

Things are certainly getting exciting - but there's still a hell of a way to go before we've achieved anything substantial. Roll on next week, though. I'm looking forward to meeting all the other teams, learning from each other - and from the amazing range of mentors the Seedcamp organisers have drawn in to work with us over the week!

(Meanwhile, I'm off to spend the weekend singing folk songs and drinking good beer in a cowshed on the North York Moors...)

Tuesday 21 August 2007

In case you wondered where I've been...

Anthony and Dougald make headlinesAnthony and I spotted this outside Holborn tube while we were waiting for Andy. It was too tempting to resist.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Separated at Birth?

This blog has been lacking a sense of humour lately, I fear. Blame it on the unfunny amounts of time I currently spend living on friends' sofas. (I'm lucky to have some very tolerant friends...) Normal service should resume when I finally move to London properly.

Meanwhile, relief arrives in the form of a rather random email from a reader at KPMG (who clearly has too little work on at the moment):


I hope you are well. You bear a striking resemblance to Jordan Collier from USA cult sci-fi series 'the 4400'. Are you in fact the same person?



He even goes to the trouble of attaching pictures of us both.

Now, I must expose a lacuna in my frame of cultural reference - I've never seen an episode of The 4400. So if anyone has any insight as to how flattered/alarmed I should be at the comparison, do please share it!

Sunday 12 August 2007

Do Have Nightmares!

A couple of weeks ago, I was musing about the impact of TV on the elderly. "If I were frail and lonely and reliant on BBC news for my picture of the world, I think I'd soon be too afraid to leave the house..."

Well, my friend Lucy just drew my attention to this post from the American political reporter Rick Perlstein (via the excellent Making Light):

Shortly before she died, my grandmother — one of the people, naturally, I loved the most in the world — broke my heart. Celia Perlstein, like most of our grandparents, didn't get out much in her final years; in fact, for the last few years of her life, I'm not sure she got out of her old folks home at all. I don't think she really wanted to. She was sure that beyond its threshold lay dragons: far-far-far leftists out to steal her Social Security; turbaned terrorists just itching to fly a jet into the First Wisconsin tower a few blocks to the south; quisling Democrats itching to help them do it; grandma-gutting criminal marauders just outside her door.

I'd look out of her eighth floor picture window, down at the scene she saw every day, half expecting to find that nightmare landscape before me. Nope: same as always, the brightly colored sailboats on Lake Michigan, kids and their parents feeding the ducks (Grandma used to take me to feed the ducks), happy, strolling Milwaukee couples—paradise. Where was she getting these fantasies?

One evening's visit, all became clear. She gestured at the blaring TV set. The excruciating grandma-volume was even more excruciating than usual, because she was visiting with her best TV friend. She told me how much she adored Bill O'Reilly. My wife and I cringed. Watching our latter-day Joe McCarthy on TV every night, she had learned, late in life—for this development was entirely new—how to hate her fellow Americans. I almost cried, because one of the people she was learning how to hate was me.

Over here in the UK, broadcasting regulations mean we have (thankfully) no equivalent to Fox News. So for me to pick on the BBC may be a case of not knowing how lucky you are. (It was also kind of a self-criticism, since I used to be a BBC journalist - albeit a fairly lowly one.)

Yet, powerful as I found his post, I wonder whether Perlstein isn't merging two issues? Bad journalism and outright propaganda deserve censure. One consequence of this, however, can be to present "good journalism" in an uncritical light - and overlook those structural issues which affect the news industry as a whole.

I suspect that even in the UK there are elderly people afraid to leave home because of the picture of the world they get from the news. Maybe we can blame this on the Daily Mail - or the influence that papers like the Mail have over the news agenda of the broadcast media. But can we imagine a sort of "news" which did not consist largely of the misfortunes of people we do not know - misfortunes which affect us little, except (by their retelling) to raise our general level of anxiety?

I'm reminded of a programme I haven't seen for years, but which is still a regular in the BBC1 schedules. 'Crimewatch' specialises in reconstructions of unsolved crimes, while a team stands by to field calls from viewers who think they may have information that will solve them. In a sense, this is the rebuttal of my argument - some, at least, of the misfortunes that make up our news diet are retold because someone out there might be able to help.

What comes back to me, though, is the catchphrase with which the presenter would end each show, as if to counteract the effect of the preceding 29 minutes. "Remember, the crimes featured here are rare," he'd say as he turned to the camera, "so sleep well - and don't have nightmares!"

And I wonder, isn't that just what the news industry does to us all - makes us sleep less soundly in our beds?

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

What did you learn today? It's a question plenty of kids get asked when they come home from school - but maybe one we don't ask ourselves so often as grown-ups...

Well, in the past twenty four hours I learned at least two things. One is that the word 'serendipity' comes from an old name for Sri Lanka - Serendip. For a word of such a vintage, its origins can be dated with unusual precision, to the 28th of January, 1754. It was coined by Horace Walpole in a letter, referring to a fairy tale called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'. These princes 'were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'. Hence, serendipity.

My second learning of the day was that serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) 'Zemblanity' is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina - which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design" is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when "learning outcomes" are specified in advance.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Will Davies is concerned that "Web 2.0" threatens to eliminate serendipity from whole areas of our lives, in the pursuit of more efficient ways of finding music we'll like or people to whom we're indirectly connected:

Outside of the economy - and very often within the economy too - we find that the constraints and accidents of everyday life are the basis for enjoyable and meaningful activities. They don't necessarily connect us to the people we most want to speak to or the music we most want to listen to. Sometimes they even frustrate us.

But this shouldn't lead to business process re-engineering. ...when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable.

That reminded me of an experiment by Matt Jones (who's on our advisory board for the School of Everything). A few years ago, he asked the readers of his blog to help him make contact with Brian Eno - a quest in which he succeeded within two days. Afterwards, he reflected (in a less apocalyptic tone than Will) on the unsatisfactoriness of social networking tools which leave no room for serendipity:

...the goal of all the 'Sters is to collapse our social web to a surveyable size, bringing our friends and connections close enough to see beyond them to new people. A little like glancing over the shoulder of someone you’re talking to at a party in order to see who’s coming through the door.

The picturesque and playful exploring of our social connections is sacrificed. The mathematics of coincidence are intruding on the delusions we enjoyed every time we exclaimed to a new acquaintance the reassuring cliche “what a small world!”.

Where’s the business model in social networks? The same as email and other generators of information overload: the new luxury of meaning. I will pay to sustain the space, the silence and the signal. Give me privacy and anonymity, but also possibility. Extend my connections, but don’t collapse them.

I share Will's concern about the ways in which the tools we use shape us - deform us, even. There is too much hype about Web 2.0 and that means not only that its strengths are over-rated, but that its more troubling aspects are overlooked. Yet compared to the compulsory zemblanity of the education system, my meanderings across the internet continue to be spiced with serendipity...

Friday 27 July 2007

Good news is no news...

It's always good to discover thoughtful voices in the blogosphere - so I'm grateful to Tom for pointing me towards Andrew Brown's Helmintholog.

Brown used to be religious affairs correspondent for the Independent - and seems to have written intelligently about an intimidating range of other subjects. On the blog, he makes neat work of the "new atheism", but I was particularly struck by another post about the effect of reporting on religion:

I don’t myself know any religious correspondent whose faith has survived writing about it — possibly some of the more radically pessimistic Catholics, but even there I am not sure... The most one can believe is that some of these deluded people are doing better, both for themselves and for the world, than they would be without their delusions. This is quite enough to keep me from full-on pharyngular atheism. I don’t think human nature is modular enough that you can simply swap out the delusional bits, and leave the rest intact. Believing fewer false things is a very long struggle. Journalism teaches you that, too, if you want to learn it.

I like the way he explains his position, even if I don't share it. But the thought which came to me was that the loss of faith he describes sounds like a variant of the general tendency to cynicism among journalists. It's an occupational hazard (and one of the reasons I was glad to quit the newsroom): an understandable response to prolonged, close-quarters exposure to "news", skewed as it is towards the worst in life. Most of the things which make life worth living aren't remotely newsworthy.

This leads to another thought. Once upon a time, people used to worry about the influence of TV on young people. What I worry about is its influence on the elderly. If I were frail and lonely and reliant on BBC news for my picture of the world, I think I'd soon be too afraid to leave the house...

(Other suggestions for blogs I should check out gratefully received, by the way.)

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Wounded and Hopeful

There's something rather wonderful about discovering that John Berger, whose books more or less changed my life, also happens to share my taste in music!

I mean, as man born the same year as my grandmother, it would be understandable if he had paid little attention to the popular song of recent decades. But in his new book, 'Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance', there is an essay on erotic desire which quotes Nick Cave.

Then I came across this radio broadcast from the BBC World Service. (Be quick, it's only available till Saturday - the interview is about two thirds of the way through the programme.) Here he elaborates on his appreciation of Cave. "It's to do with the way that desperation and... not exactly pleasure, but fulfillment, are two profiles of the same face. Black beside gold, if you want to put it into colours."

He goes on to enthuse about Johnny Cash's final album, tracks from which have been haunting my playlist for months.

I've felt for a long time that there is a common theme, an attitude, which links the work of those artists and writers I admire - setting it apart from much else that you read or hear. It is touched on by the title of Berger's collected poems, 'Pages of the Wound'. What I am talking about is an attitude to brokenness which is quite at odds with the assumptions of our society - a recognition that the place of brokenness, the wound, is also the place of hope. In fact, the only place at which hope - which is quite different to optimism, or faith in Progress - can begin.

By contrast, most of our culture proclaims the desirability of unbroken perfection, fulfillment, satisfaction - so the wounds which we all carry become a source of shame, something to be evaded, or fixed with quack cures.

As I see it - and I suspect Berger and Cave might agree on this - the connection between brokenness and hope is the great, though often mislaid, insight of Christian theology.

In another key, the denial of brokenness characteristic of our culture may be connected to the categorisation of reality which Berger has always challenged. Years ago, he wrote about the last day in the life of his friend, the Austrian philosopher Ernst Fischer. A quote from Fischer has stuck with me:

The categories we make between different aspects of experience - so that, for instance, some people say I should not have spoken about love and about the Comintern in the same book - these categories are mostly there for the convenience of liars.

These categories are broken things presented as wholes. By challenging that presentation, by acknowledging the (damaged) connections between them, we may do something to limit the damage they continue to do.

In the World Service interview, Berger returns to this theme, when asked about the way he writes about Palestine, Iraq and the War on Terror alongside poetry, art and desire:

One of the reasons why we all can, at times, have a feeling of really being lost... is the way that - and this often begins at school, but now it goes on an enormous amount in the media - the way that subjects are divided up into special categories. [My understanding of this] may have something to do with the fact that I never went to a university - and universities are where all those categories and the walls between them... they are strongholds of those kinds of divisions. I never went to university, I left school when I was sixteen and that's all the formal education I ever had. After that I went to art school, but what did I do, I looked at films and drew naked models. Maybe it was something to do with that - maybe there was an advantage of feeling free to go from category to category...

I discovered Berger's books as I was beginning to recover from the disorienting experience of three years as an Oxford undergraduate. I learned from them a new way of learning, which was really an old way - led playfully, by curiosity, through conversations and encounters, across categories, wounded and hopeful. I don't know that any of my colleagues would realise this, but for me the vision of the School of Everything owes a great deal to John Berger.

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