Monday 26 February 2007

Offset Your Infidelity 2.0

Remember Cheatcare (featured here last month), the mocked-up webpage which claimed to offset your infidelity?

Well, there's now a functioning site offering this (rather Bauman-esque) service. Cheatneutral features stories from satisfied users:

Steve and Lisa met while on holiday in Spain, and quickly fell head over heels for each other. That Christmas, at his office party, Steve got drunk and unavoidably repeatedly cheated on Lisa with Cheri, a co-worker. He paid Cheatneutral just £2.50 and we invested his money in Alex, a single man with no prospect of finding a partner. In return for the payments, Alex agreed to remain single.

Thanks to Cheatneutral, Steve was able to come clean about his cheating to Lisa, and when he presented her with the Cheatneutral certificate they realised they wanted to get married. Their wedding is taking place in the summer. Steve continues to regularly cheat on Lisa and Cheatneutral continues to fund projects like Alex with his offset payments.

As the site's founders say, Cheatneutral is a joke - but then so is carbon offsetting...

(Found via the one and only!)

Saturday 24 February 2007

Mud Maps and Long Breakfasts

Around this time last year I had the good luck to share the back seat of a car to and from a conference with a young academic called Anthony McCann. I had already read one of his articles which suggested both that he was alarmingly clever and that we had many interests in common, and so that weekend led to a friendship which grew over the following months. On Monday mornings we would meet at 8.15 at my favourite cafe and it was not unusual for us still to be there, several coffees down, as the lunchtime rush began.

That series of drawn out breakfasts offered the most sustained period of intellectual guidance I had known since leaving Oxford. Six years on, I was more committed to the ground we covered and (with no disrespect to my old tutors) had found a teacher better suited to my own ways of thinking. (Among other things, it had the effect of allaying my insecurity about never quite making it back to academic study, despite the good intentions and aborted Masters courses of my mid-twenties.)

Sadly for me, though not for him, Anthony moved on to Derry last summer, where he now lectures at the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at the University of Ulster. Around the same time, my own life became busier, and our friendship has lain fallow of late. But I was brought back tonight to one of the maxims to which he would return regularly in our conversations. "The more the words matter, the less they matter."

It seems a paradoxical saying for a pair who could talk four hours flat and barely stop for breath. (On one memorable occasion, our conversation was overheard by Sam West, who introduced himself afterwards and expressed an interest in hearing more of my ideas - an interest which sadly came to nothing...) But besides reminding me that I'm too good at hiding in words, Anthony's point was that the more you insist on the letter of what you or anyone else is saying, the less likely it is that you are paying attention to or being heard by those you are with.

Ivan Illich gets at a similar truth in his essay, 'The Eloquence of Silence'. (I quoted this at greater length on Anthony's Crafting Gentleness blog last summer.) He is reflecting on the experience of providing language training to priests, teachers and social workers:

It is... not so much the other man's words as his silences which we have to learn in order to understand him...

The man who tries to buy the language like a suit, the man who tries to conquer the language through grammar so as to speak it "better than the natives around here" a man who tries basically to rape the culture into which he is sent, and he must expect the corresponding reactions... He continues to "do things for people" and considers them ungrateful because they understand that he does these things to bolster his ego...

It requires much courage at this point to return to the patient silence of interest or to the delicacy of the silence within which words grow.

What brought me back to that passage tonight was an account (courtesy of Juliet E McKenna) of Alan Garner's appearance at last year's Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he told the story of The Stonebook Quartet, which is the story of his family:

Alan talked of childhood visits to his grandfather; of the way silence was as much a part of conversations as words, and how he absorbed knowledge of local family, history and legend by osmosis. How for him, family became something between linear time and a time beyond history, a universality. As he grew older, he realised that local stories attributed to a stone-cutting great-great grandfather couldn’t possibly be quite true. Later, he learned that this is a feature of folk-myth, where significant local features and stories are successively tied to real figures on the upper limit of local living memory. So to question the truth of such a story is to completely miss the point.

What leapt at me was the bit about the role of silence in conversation - and Garner is, by all accounts, as outstanding a linguist as was Illich - but on re-reading, I notice that the last line of that paragraph is also a version of Anthony's maxim, for to question the truth of the story is to make the words matter overly.

(These are strange things to say, for few handle words with so great a respect as Alan Garner - yet to do so is to recognise their strangeness, just as the Biblical literalist denies it. To idolise something is, by this line of thought, a form of disrespect.)

I am fascinated by the kind of common ground which is invisible to the categories into which writers and thinkers are conventionally sorted. So that I find resonances again and again between Garner and Illich, or between either and John Berger, Hugh Brody, Rowan Williams and so on. (You are unlikely to spot such resonances if you place importance on the labels which attach to a writer, so that Garner is a children's novelist, Berger an old Marxist art critic and Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury - another case of letting the words matter too much.)

sMary tells me that I go about constructing subterranean canons - which is fine, so long as it's clear that these alignments of names and texts are improvised to fit the moment, not presented as an alternative pantheon. (A moment may be a single conversation or a life's work.) If they are helpful, it is in the way that a map sketched in the mud may help:

A mud map is the map a farmer draws on the ground for a passing traveller. It is rough and ready, not very detailed, and lacks nuance. The scale may be inaccurate. But the map has on it the details needed for the journey.

(Thanks to Jan Thomas for the 'mud map' analogy, which I find very helpful.)

Monday 19 February 2007

Reading the Signs of Sheffield...

I've been a strange mood recently. I couldn't shake it off - not by getting on with the things I should be getting on with, and not by sitting around waiting for it to change. So this afternoon I decided to distract myself by walking home from town through the back streets, looking out for all the signs and symbols I wouldn't usually notice:

animated gif slideshow of signs and symbols

Some of them are really strange.

For example, it was only when I stopped to take a picture of the bent round signpost under the Bramall Lane roundabout that I noticed someone had changed all the wording - one way pointed to "Big Fish" and "Bigger Fish", another to "Bottom Feeders". What's the story there?

And who are the "Army of the Flying Robots"?

Others just amused me. Like the banner advertising a romantic Valentine's dinner at the football ground, which sounded like the perfect solution for a man torn between two loves - the Blades and his other half.

But if any fellow Sheffielders know the stories behind the signs, I'd be really interested to know.

Thursday 15 February 2007

The Hippo, the Tortoise and the Possibility of Change

It seems to have been all doominess on here lately, so I'm grateful to Anthony for reminding me of a more hopeful story. Maybe you heard about Owen the baby hippo, orphaned in the tsunami disaster of December 2004, who was adopted by an ancient giant tortoise.

owen and mzee pictures

As soon as he was placed in his enclosure, the orphaned youngster immediately ran to the giant tortoise also housed in that space. The tortoise, named Mzee (Swahili for "old man") and estimated to be between 100 and 130 years old, was not immediately taken with the brash newcomer — he turned and hissed, forcing the hippo to back away. Yet Owen persisted in following the tortoise around the park (and even into a pool), and within days the pair had forged a friendship, eating and sleeping together. Owen has even been seen to lick the tortoise, whom he regards as his new mother.

What stuck with me was a report one year on that the pair had developed a way of communicating. "We discovered that somebody was making a sound in the pen, we'd never heard it before, not even from other hippos. And then we realised it was coming from both Owen and Mzee... It's just very unusual."

Set against the devastation of the tsunami disaster, you might write this story off as a piece of kitsch. But I think it matters more than that, and here's why. We are always hearing stories about how our behaviour is shaped by our genetic code. Bookshop shelves heave under titles explaining our everyday actions as the replaying of scripts laid down by the survival needs of our cave-dwelling ancestors.

Now, I'm all for seeking a deeper understanding of the many ways in which the past plays itself out through the present, but this kind of pop science often has the opposite effect. By projecting today's supermarket or nightclub behaviour onto the almost blank canvas of prehistory, it masks the strangeness of the past. In my experience, it is by becoming familiar with that strangeness, with how differently people have lived in other times and places, that we can begin to become aware of how strange our current ways of living are.

When, as in much popular science and media coverage, the focus is all on the role of evolution in shaping our behaviour, the effect is to eternalise the present and make it seem inevitable - simply a more "developed" version of the way people have always lived. With such a perspective, there is little point in challenging anything, because it's just "human nature".

What I love about the story of Owen and Mzee is that it illustrates how much room for manoeuvre nature leaves us. If a hippo and a tortoise can learn to talk to one another, how wide a range of possibilities there are besides the ones we take for granted.

Tuesday 13 February 2007

Looking for the Signs of the Times

The rarely seen frilled (above) and goblin sharks which have appeared in shallow water (and distress!) off Japan in recent weeks may be no more than the kind of freak catch of which fishermen have always told stories. Yet, as a friend said the other day, there is just the chance that they are the canaries of the ocean - alerting us to a sudden acceleration of climate change in deep-sea ecosystems. And, even if this isn't the case, we know that rapid climate change is a real possibility, which makes it reasonable to look for such omens.

We are faced with so mysterious a process, so full of unknowns, that it plunges us back into something very like an eschatological relationship to the world: looking for the signs of the times that could augur a rapid overturning of the ways of life we take for granted. For those of us who have grown up in stable, relatively secular countries, surrounded by the assumption that we are the beneficiaries of progress (political and technological), this is psychologically disorientating.

In the early summer of 2004, I returned from China, travelling overland across the former Soviet Union. While living in Xinjiang, I had enjoyed an extended online correspondence with Sebastian Mary, who was then in rural Kentucky, working on a novel. We both arrived back in London that August with a feeling that Europe was sleepwalking: even the fundamentalist visions of the American end-timers seemed, by comparison, a better preparation for the changes we might live to see - though not, unfortunately, for the kinds of action needed to mitigate them.

I was reminded of this by Mark Dowd's documentary, God is Green, which aired in the UK last night. It was heartening to hear about the shift of attitudes in the American heartland being achieved by the Evangelical Climate Initiative. It reminded me of a story Steve Hayes told recently of the theologian Karl Barth. Speaking of the "Doppers", the most conservative and fundamentalist of the Dutch Reformed Churches in Apartheid era South Africa, Barth commented that "one should not worry too much about them, because they believed that the Bible was the Word of God, and so one day God would speak to them through the Bible." Similarly, there is more hope in middle America turning green from within than of it being convinced of the errors of its ways by secular liberals.

For all of us, whether or not we expect to be spoken to by God, climate change poses an eschatological challenge. How do we live in the knowledge that the world as we have known it is in a deeply precarious position and that our small, everyday actions may bring about a future which is unrecognisably different? How do we hold onto that knowledge when day to day life gives most of us an experience of continuity - and, often, of the insignificance of our individual actions? For those of us involved in running businesses or organisations, how do we incorporate that knowledge into our decisions? For all of us, how do we live as if our actions are going to catch up with us, rather than in the hope that they won't?

Sunday 11 February 2007

Superpowers, Snowflakes and Silicon Chips

My colleague and co-founder at the School of Everything, the code-artist Greenman (left), tells me that if he could choose any superpower it would be the power to give people surprise holidays. A few mornings a year, just as you're about to leave the house, you would get an unexpected call from him to let you know you don't have to come in to work. (Maybe you would decide to have a walkabout day instead...)

Anyway, that's exactly what the snow in England did for lots of people last week. They woke up and found they couldn't get to work. Cue the predictable made-up statistics from "Industry Chiefs". David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, ignored the irony of his name to tell the BBC: "It is expected that the lateness and loss of work hours caused by transport disruptions will cost the British economy up to £400 million."

Well, our Greenman is having none of this:

In all my time spent working for organizations, it was only in the few days after a holiday that most people actually tried a bit harder at their job.

The idea that productivity is about how many hours you are working needs to be consigned to the grave. It comes from the world of smokestacks and sweatshops. I suppose it is only in that stale, polluted world that Industry Chiefs can really matter. The same probably applies to most of the politicians. Unfortunately, there are still enough smokestacks and sweatshops (of all forms) for these points of view to have their place, but, luckily we wont have to worry about them for too much longer.

Now, I'm with him all the way on the benefits of holidays, but where I do get a little cautious is on the next bit:

(Here comes a big generalisation, that may not apply everywhere yet, but I do feel that it is valid in the UK)
We no longer live in a world where human time is simply a matter of quantity. When most of the economy operates on a service and information level, the quality of human effort is vital.

When I hear people talking about the "shift to an information economy", it usually seems like they're caught up in a rhetoric which obscures lived experience. Such a shift is neither as real nor as desireable nor as irreversible as they make it sound.

Certainly, countries like mine have outsourced much of the making of stuff to poorer parts of the world, and this makes it both less expensive and less visible to us. This is not the same as having arrived at a way of living which is less dependent on people making stuff.

Nor is the idea of stuff being made without the involvement of people necessarily attractive. "Untouched by human hand" is a cliché from the advertising of another era. It is also, more or less, the logic of Bernard Matthews and his like - and we've seen this week where that can lead. (This, I sincerely hope, stands as a reductio ad absurdum and not a prototype.)

Leaving meat behind - as the techno-gnostic devout aspire to do! - even the tools on which the information economy depends depend in turn on the "old economy" whose obsolescence its rhetoric seems to propose. My friend Dan challenges people from time to time to think about where their computers were made and what they were made from. Last week, he blogged a Google Earth link to the Export Processing Zone in the Philippines where Intel chips are made. The manufacturing of computers is by no means a clean industry. And then there are the extractive industries at the back of the process.

Finally, the precariousness of a way of living is hard to take seriously until something happens to destabilise it. In many of the decisions we make day to day, sanity is best maintained by assuming that things will go on roughly the way they're going right now (whatever that seems to be). But that's not a good way of predicting the future. So even the swelling value of information and service industries, in proportion to the making of stuff, probably shouldn't be taken as an irreversible trend.

So what am I saying? Well, to go back to Greenman's surprise holidays, I'd like to decouple the celebration of "play" time from the idea that we're evolving from a grim-but-necessary era of industrialisation into a post-industrial world where all manual work will be done by machines. I know Greenman doesn't subscribe to that idea any more than I do, but it's one which I think is implicit in the language of the "shift to an information economy".

Friday 9 February 2007

Climate Change is keeping me up at night...

It is ten past five in the morning and I have finally completed a draft of the first of the articles on climate change and democracy that I'm working on. In the process, I came across a couple of interesting accounts of speeches by Al Gore - and given that I spent most of my last post whining about getting thrown out of his presentation, I thought I'd show a little maturity and post some of the passages that caught my attention.

For one thing, I was impressed to find a politician namechecking Habermas and Adorno. Gore has a whole theory about the corruption of American democracy, which he sees as echoing Adorno's characterisation of the rise of the Third Reich as "the reconfiguration of all questions of truth into those of power". Alastair McKay provides an edited version of his remarks at the Edinburgh International Film Festival:

In order to solve the climate crisis we have to address the democracy crisis. Especially in the US... I believe that a campaign that’s based on a very large set of ideas focused on the future and the public interest now faces such a withering headwind that a higher priority is to change democracy and open it up again to citizens – to air it out – and to democratise the dominant medium of television, which has been a form omf information flow that has stultified modern life.

On the same trip, he told the Edinburgh International TV Festival, "What is needed is to reverse the flow and find ways to use the Internet to give individuals access to the public forum, which is television." (Some video clips here - though they rather give the lie to the idea that he's metamorphosed into a brilliant public speaker...)

Also, I'd had the impression from seeing 'An Inconvenient Truth' and watching the Guardian webcast from the Hay Festival last year that he was strong on selling the urgency of the crisis, but soft on the detail of what action it's going to take. But this policy speech he gave at NYU School of Law last September is a lot more detailed. There's stuff in there which needs challenging - for example, the implications for world food supply of the big growth in biofuels he's proposing. But he's clearly thinking in some detail about the technical challenges - as well as the political ones:

This debate over solutions has been slow to start in earnest not only because some of our leaders still find it more convenient to deny the reality of the crisis, but also because the hard truth for the rest of us is that the maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the crisis. This no-man’s land - or no politician zone - falling between the farthest reaches of political feasibility and the first beginnings of truly effective change is the area that I would like to explore...

Finally, I was really interested to read Serge de Gheldere's account of travelling to Nashville to train in Gore's Climate Project. (For any other ex-Southwesterners, there's just a shade of déja vu!)

Thursday 8 February 2007

The Inconvenient Journalists

Yesterday, I was thrown out of Al Gore's climate change presentation.

Before you ask, I hadn't returned to my direct action roots and interrupted the slideshow by splashing black paint across the stage to symbolize the million air miles he and Tipper offset annually. (Though that is a lot of oil.)

I was there as a journalist and I was ejected along with the rest of the media after the first five minutes. All we got to see was the "My name's Al Gore and I used to be the next president of the United States" stand-up routine. So I can confirm that he delivers his punchlines with an impressive feel for comic timing. But that's it.

Afterwards, in the lobby, I wasted more energy than it was worth telling the PR team what I thought. As one of the newspaper reporters put it, "How are we meant to report that?" All they could tell us was that they had negotiated on our behalf with Gore's people to get us in even for five minutes. Apparently he doesn't allow media in his presentations.

Given how much Gore has done to shift attitudes over climate change, it seems petty to gripe. Anyway, having calmed down, I'm actually interested in what's going on here. When he says that the "conversation of democracy is broken", Gore has the US media in his sights, so I guess the "no journalists" policy is part of this. Although he doesn't flesh out its implications, his emphasis on the importance of democratic renewal to tackling climate change is reassuring, in comparison to the authoritarian tone of some prominent campaigners here in the UK. But that's exactly what I'm writing an article about - and it would have been good to be able to see him in action at first hand, rather than being told by a press officer that the content of his presentation would "probably be not much different to the DVD".

As it was, I went to the coffee shop round the corner and wrote up half of the article, then went to the pub with James and Tom who (as members of the invited audience) had been in for the whole presentation and were able to fill me in on what I'd missed.

(From what they told me, it really wasn't much different to the DVD. But that's not quite the point.)

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