Wednesday 17 September 2008

Call for submissions - COMMONSense

*** We've now extended the deadline for submissions till 17th October - so there's still time to contribute... ***

I fear this blog is starting to gather dust. Sorry about that! It has been a busy and exciting time - not least with the official launch of School of Everything and us getting boingboinged!

On the off-chance that anyone has been missing my ramblings, you might want to check out the post I wrote for the Everything blog last week - How I stopped worrying and learned to love the market!

Meanwhile, I'm editing a little magazine for Access Space in Sheffield - and looking for contributions from around the world on the theme of COMMONSense. Here's the details - do pass them on, as appropriate:

Collaborative Cultures // COMMONSense

A call for submissions

Access Space in Sheffield is seeking contributions for a magazine to be published this autumn. The issue will reflect a theme which connects the activities of Access Space to the wider world.

The theme of the issue is COMMONSense. Not so long ago, the only people who talked about "the commons" were historians; today, the language of the commons is central to debates around intellectual property, environmental protection, and resistance to globalisation. These international debates find their echoes here in South Yorkshire - in the activities of Access Space, recycling waste technology and promoting Open Source software, or in Grow Sheffield's efforts to build local food networks and seed city centre wasteland. Can talk of "the commons" help us find common ground between these kinds of projects? Does using the same words mean we've found a common language - or can it disguise different meanings and intentions?

We're looking for pieces of COMMONSense: prose (stories, thoughts, book reviews, bibliographies...), poetry, songs, pieces of code, photographs, cartoons, drawings, graphics or anything else you can think of. These might approach the theme in relation to green issues, land ownership, social relations, the internet, the music industry, copyright, software, or anything else that makes sense to you.

The format of the magazine means that each contribution will take up a single A5 page. With that in mind, we're looking for the following:

* written texts of up to 200 words
* or poems of up to 20 lines
* or black and white drawings, cartoons, photos or other graphics

Images should be at least 300 dpi and in JPEG, PNG or TIFF format.
Texts should be in TXT, ODT or DOC format.
We ask that your contributions be made available to us under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license (see ) The magazine will be freely accessable from the web.
Although we cannot pay for contributions, there will be a limited print edition and each contributor will receive a free copy.

The deadline for submissions is 26 September 2008 [EXTENDED TO 17 OCTOBER 2008]
Please send your contribution by email to
Attachments should be no more than 6 Mb.

The magazine will be edited by Dougald Hine and the creative direction will be by artist Anne-Marie Culhane.

It will be launched at Access Space during the Off The Shelf literary festival on 24 October 2008

Contact us at


Thursday 31 July 2008

Heretical thoughts...

When you read a story like this, does it give you hope - or does it make your heart sink?

A liquid fuel made from plants that is chemically identical to crude oil but which does not contribute to climate change when it is burned or, unlike other biofuels, need agricultural land to produce sounds too good to be true. But a company in San Diego claims to have developed exactly that – a sustainable version of oil it calls "green crude"...
For the purposes of argument, let's suspend scepticism about journalistic hype - and imagine that a technical breakthrough could allow us to continue living today's lifestyles at a "sustainable" level of CO2 emissions.

Frankly, such a prospect makes my heart sink - in a way which could only confirm the worst suspicions held by the likes of Spiked Online about the Green movement and its hidden agendas. There's a kind of truth in those suspicions: environmentalism that justifies itself in terms of scientific necessity is often underpinned by deeper convictions about the unsatisfactoriness of our ways of living.

It would be better if more of us were clear about such convictions. If we don't make the argument, we will find ourselves hostages to a version of "sustainability" which insists on attempting to sustain our current way of living at all costs. Among those costs may be:

  • The cost of going down in flames, because it turns out that this way of living couldn't be sustained - when we might have found other ways of living.
  • In the event that serious action at national and international level does achieve massive emissions reductions, the cost to our freedom of state-controlled attempts to maximise economic productivity within ecological limits.
  • Finally, in the unlikely event that a technical breakthrough saves the day, the cost of the lesson not learned. Even if we could "fix" climate change, without a change to our approach to our surroundings and our activities, we would sooner or later hit up against an even more intractable problem.
Is the answer to stop talking about climate change - and talk instead about the deeper political and ethical problems with our ways of living?

Sunday 11 May 2008

Print on Demand Conundrum

So here's a question. In the name of research, I spend a lot of time either reading articles online or printing them out to read offline. Since I spend too much of my life staring at screens, I'd rather read them offline - but stapled-together printouts aren't a great format, either, particularly for longer articles. This afternoon, I thought: what if I could use a print-on-demand service to have whole sets of articles bound as one-off books for my use?

Now, the copyright status of these articles varies, but all have been freely published online - often in PDF or on sites which offer a "Print" version with most of the non-text content stripped out. So they have been made available for me to print a personal copy. If I compile a PDF of a dozen articles and order a single copy of it from a print-on-demand service, bound as a paperback, it doesn't feel like I'd be crossing a line in terms of my use of the material. But I suspect the print-on-demand provider wouldn't see it as acceptable use of their service.

Any thoughts, anyone?

Monday 14 April 2008

Monday 7 April 2008

Three Bodies Boiled for the Price of Two

In any place and time, the customs surrounding death say a lot about people's shared beliefs. Do I mean 'beliefs'? What I have in mind is not the consciously-chosen or stubbornly-clung-to position which that word may suggest. Rather, these customs reveal the deeper fabric of assumptions, usually taken for granted, which make up our understanding of reality.

What prompted this thought was a report in yesterday's Independent on Sunday that the British government is "considering radical solutions for disposing of the dead":

With options shrinking, the Government has turned its attention to the possibility of "boiling" bodies down to a handful of dust.

What I found most revealing was a comment from the company promoting this technique. Sandy Sullivan, managing director of Water Resomation Ltd, told the paper:

Cremation takes up to two hours to dispose of one body. We think we can do it in two hours, but we are telling people we can do it in three hours. Anything better than that will be a bonus – it would amount to three for the price of two.

What times we live in.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Money for Everything

A year ago, School of Everything was still basically a group of friends kicking an idea around. Today, we took an important step closer to making that idea a reality, as we announced that we've succeeded in raising the angel investment we've been looking for. As Paul (who's led our fundraising) says, it's been quite an adventure:

There are all kinds of funny stories associated with our hunt for the right investors. 10 Downing Street, wearing the wrong kind of trousers, facebook stalking and a tank just for starters. I can’t begin to tell you how much we’ve learned. The overall lesson for me though is that if you have a good idea, a good team and can show you’re serious about making the idea reality, there’s no shortage of people willing to back you.

We're all really excited, not just about the money, but about the people and organisations who have chosen to invest. It feels like we've found a group of backers who share the values behind what we're doing. JP Rangaswami, one of our investors and our new chairman, writes:

Since 1987, the only stakes I’ve held have been in the companies I worked for, and they’ve been acquired while I worked for them. That’s been a Rule for me.

Rules, however, are proven by exception. And I’ve made an exception.

School of Everything...

I have a passion for education, in many forms and shapes. One of my goals in life has always been to set up a school, from scratch...

I met the founders many months ago, and they have a passion about them, an excitement about them, an excitement that bodes well for the future.

The other investors are Esther Dyson, Rocco Pelligrenelli, and the educational wing of UK broadcaster Channel 4 - as well as the Young Foundation, who've supported us from the earliest stages.

I never planned on being an entrepreneur. I was writing a book about my own and other people's attempts to change the world - or at least avoid getting a proper job. Then one of those attempts took on a life of its own. I still can't quite take it seriously when I see myself listed as a "Chief Strategy Officer" - but I'm convinced that School of Everything matters and that I've got an important part to play in making it happen.

Now we have to get on with spreading the word and developing the community of people learning and teaching through the site.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Recommended Listening

Somebody I've mentioned a couple of times on this blog is Dean Bavington, one of the friends I made in Mexico at last December's Illich colloquium. It was an amazing week, bringing together a bunch of thinkers from around the world who are working in Illich's tradition, as well as a mixture of Mexican students, activists and friends of the man himself.

With such a gathering, there's always the potential for people to be talking at crossed purposes or over each other's heads, but the one talk which really seemed to cross the barriers of language and culture was Dean's. When he spoke of the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery, he drew on all his academic discipline and insight, but he did so to tell the story of the place where he grew up and its people. As he spoke, he passed a cod jigger out into the audience, so that each of us could feel the cold weight of the object at the centre of his story.

I wish I could hand that weight to you - or even pass on a recording which caught a little of the atmosphere in the room that evening. Failing that, though, I was delighted to get an email from Dean a couple of weeks ago alerting me to a programme David Cayley had made with him for CBC, in which he tells much of the story. You can get a podcast of it here.

The interview, done several months before the colloquium, doesn't quite reach the emotional depth of the story as I heard it in Cuernavaca - but it is a great piece of radio, nonetheless. And it reminded me how much I look forward to getting to hang out with Dean again some time soon.

Thursday 20 March 2008

Worse than Patriotism

On today's anniversary, I want to share a passage which I read around the time of the invasion of Iraq and which has stayed with me over the five years since. I don't agree with it all or claim that it is all relevant, but at its heart is a distinction which pinpoints what made Tony Blair's justification of the war so repulsive. What makes this more striking is that the book from which it is taken was first published in 1960:

Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for 'their country' they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country's cause was just; but it was still their country's cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds - wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine - I become insufferable. The pretence that when England's cause is just we are on England's side - as some neutral Don Quixote might be - for that reason alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it.

The author is CS Lewis, the book 'The Four Loves'. I am not sure that I can resign myself to the necessity of war or patriotism, but I suspect that Lewis is right when he says that what has replaced patriotism is worse. In the case of Iraq, Britain did not need to defend itself, but nor was the decision to join the invasion made without self-interest. The pious justifications were, indeed, insufferable.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

School of Everywhere!

I've been really grateful for all the enthusiasm from regular readers for my work on School of Everything - the internet startup I started with friends in late 2006. If this blog has gone a bit quiet lately, it is because things are really getting busy over there. And today we've got some news: is now officially global!

Until yesterday, you could only show up on the map if you were based in the UK - but last night, my colleague Paul Miller presented at the NY Tech Meetup. To coincide with this, we were able to open up the site to teachers around the world. Already, we have teachers in New York, Montreal, Berlin and San Francisco (hi, Nick!).

There's still loads we want to do to finetune things and make the site truly global, but we know there are already people connecting with each other and meeting up as a result of using it. And we've got work underway to take us closer to the vision that drove us to start this:

Our current education system was designed in the industrial revolution to prepare people for factory work. The world has changed a lot since then - and the time has come to rethink education from the bottom to the top.

At School of Everything, we believe that learning is personal, and starts not with what you 'should' learn but with what you're interested in. So we're building a tool to help anyone in the world learn what they want, when, where and in a way which suits them. Putting people in touch with each other, not with institutions.

This isn't about e-learning. There are lots of great online tools, but not much beats being in a room with someone who wants to teach you the thing you want to learn...

Read the rest here.

The most helpful thing for us at the moment is to have people using the site and telling us what would make it more useful for them. So if you know anyone with skills or knowledge that they would enjoy passing on, whether as a paid teacher or just for the love of it, do tell them what we're up to. And keep sending me your thoughts and ideas for directions we might go or people and projects with similar values.

I will try to get back to some regular blogging soon - and Anirudh, I'm aware I owe you a post about liberalism.

Friday 29 February 2008

An Embarrassment of Gap Year Blogs

The stories of Max Gogarty and Mark Boyle (aka "Saoirse") prompted the thought how lucky I am that blogs weren't around when I was a gap year teenager.

In case you've missed their misadventures, Max is the son of a British travel journalist and got a high profile gig blogging for the Guardian, whose editorial staff failed to notice that his first post was embarrasing and bound to be ripped to shreds by their sharp-minded and sharp-clawed readers. Here's a taste:

Hello. I'm Max Gogarty. I'm 19 and live on top of a hill in north London.

At the minute, I'm working in a restaurant with a bunch of lovely, funny people; writing a play; writing bits for Skins; spending any sort of money I earn on food and skinny jeans, and drinking my way to a financially blighted two-month trip to India and Thailand. Clichéd I know, but clichés are there for a reason.

I'm kinda shitting myself about travelling. Well not so much the travelling part. It's India that scares me. The heat, the roads, the snakes, Australian travellers. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited. But shitting myself. And I just know that when I step off that plane and into the maelstrom of Mumbai - well, actually, I don't know how I'll react...

You get the picture.

Saoirse is a bit older and set off with good intentions and considerable media coverage on a walk from Bristol to India, which he would complete without the use of money. As reported on the Today programme this morning, his "pilgrimage" ground to a halt at Calais, because he couldn't speak French. His Freeconomy project has its heart in the right place, but my sympathy wore thin when I got to bits like this:

All I can say is that the decision I make will be the one I believe will be of the best service to humanity in my very humble opinion.

I'm just glad blogs hadn't been invented when I was eighteen. I only got my first hotmail account two months after setting off on a chaotic gap year of busking and hitching around Europe. I made it from Norway to Turkey and back, with plenty of adventures along the way, and came back with no shortage of stories. (Like Saoirse, I benefited greatly from the kindness of strangers, which grew my faith in human nature.) I was, however, a terribly serious sort of teenager and had a long way to go to make sense of myself. Throughout my travels, I would tell people about the book I planned on writing. When I arrived at university, however, my beatnik affectations were subject to enough mockery to persuade me to shelve this project for a while.

Actually, my inspiration was less Kerouac, more the English literature of tramping. Laurie Lee's 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' and George Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London', both classics of the genre, benefit from being emotion recollected in tranquillity. For there is nothing like being in medias res to make one lose perspective. Had either author documented their ups and downs blow by blow, with media attention and comments at the bottom, I suspect - even with their undoubted talents - they would have been punished for it.

As for me, I don't regret the year I spent bumming around Europe, but I'm glad the intermittent and self-absorbed diaries I brought back remain deeply buried in my parents' loft. Not that any blog I wrote would have been likely to attract the attention Max and Saoirse have received - but at least I've saved all that material to make use of some day with a little more self-awareness and a whole lot of hindsight.

Thursday 28 February 2008

openDemocracy article

Not much time for blogging at the moment, but I do have an article on openDemocracy. This was prompted by a British government proposal (reported in the Guardian) to make it compulsory for parents of school-age children to provide broadband access in the home.

The government's schools minister, Jim Knight, argues that this is no different to the expectation that families provide pupils with a school-uniform, pencil-case and gym-kit. Yet such comparisons serve only to highlight the unprecedented nature of the proposed requirement. When governments begin to oblige people to instal a communications technology in their own homes, this raises serious questions about the role of the state...

You can read the full article here.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Is Obama "Blair 2.0"?

Paul's comment on last week's Anarchists for Obama? post really got me thinking. I'd quoted a fairly lengthy chunk from one of Ran's posts about Obama, in which he imagines how the different presidential candidates might react to a major economic crisis. Paul responded:

For me it sums up the whole curious enigma of Obama: how everyone invests their hopes in him and sees what he wants to see. [Ran] actually has no idea what Obama would do in such a situation; neither do any of us. Neither, probably, does Obama. But he knows what he hopes for.

In this sense, Obamania reminds me of the attitude to Tony Blair circa 1996. Hard to credit it now but we invested extremely high hopes in him too. And look what happened.

Interesting that Clinton supporters keep complaining that Obama has 'no policies.' They don't understand that no-one cares; no-one wants 'policies'. They want hope after a period of darkness and Obama offers it because people have decided he is the right vessel for their expectations at this moment in time.

Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, there certainly seem to be parallels between the Obama phenomenon and what we saw in 1997. A charismatic, youthful leader captures the mood of a significant part of the public, promising a fresh start after an unpopular and discredited regime, while offering very little in terms of specifics. Blair famously managed to leave just about everyone who met him in the run up to the election convinced that he stood for their particular cause, while committing himself to almost nothing.

So, is Obama simply Blair 2.0?

I want to hold that (admittedly scary) thought, and go back to Ran's posts, because the passage I quoted before was slightly unfair. From a British perspective, right now, it's hard to imagine getting that excited about a politician - and when Ran admits that American politics is pretty 'cult-like', I'm guessing he recognises how that applies to him. But the following passage catches both the cult-like element and something more nuanced:

Barack Obama's candidacy is the kind of opportunity that only comes along once or twice a century. He has honesty, courage, intelligence, charisma, and great political instincts, but most important, he shows a willingness and ability to channel bottom-up energy, to challenge the people to act, and to serve as a focus for public passion, where the Clintons would go in the back room and flush it down the toilet. It doesn't matter where he is on the issues! That's gearhead thinking. When you look on the level of human spirit, Obama represents our only chance to renew America without passing through really horrific violence.

Admittedly, it's not much of a chance. Even if he manages to overcome the ruthlessness of the Clintons, and then not get assassinated, we can't just sit back and expect him to take care of us. That's the kind of thinking that ruined America in the first place, and Clinton supporters are trying to keep it going, answering Obama's "Yes we can" with "Yes she can." We're going to have to organize boycotts and strikes and local currencies and secession movements and illegal mutual aid networks and mass physical actions that are tactical and not merely symbolic. We'll have one, or four, or maybe eight years with Obama in office, and we should think of him not as a leader but as a weapon, a lever big enough to move the country. And the elite are going to have to stand down, to allow painful moderate changes instead of violent big ones. In the last hours before the French Revolution, the lawmakers relented and passed a bunch of huge reforms, but by the time anyone found out, it was too late -- they were already burning the chateaus.

Leaving aside the hyperbole, where here's where I think Ran is on the right track: the most important question we can ask about our politicians today and tomorrow is how far they are prepared to hold open the space for bottom-up alternatives. There are various complications to this:

  • The whole 'bottom-up' idea may be at risk of becoming diluted to the point where that language loses its meaning - not least through the hype around Web 2.0.
  • In policy-think, 'bottom-up alternatives' can easily translate as 'doing things on the cheap'. Governments, by default as much as by design, are likely to pervert bottom-up initiatives by seeing them as a way to outsource the cost while retaining control (in the name of "setting standards", etc).
  • Judging politicians by their willingness to hold open the space for genuine bottom-up alternatives may or may not map coherently onto our existing frames of reference ("left" and "right", "liberal", "conservative", etc). In particular - and this is a topic I want to return to in a future post - 'liberalism', in all its varying senses, may turn out to be less of a friend to the bottom-up approach than some of us expect.
  • It may or may not be possible to make meaningful judgements about how candidates will actually behave in office. (Paul gives the pessimistic take on this when he says that none of us - up to and possibly including the man himself - have any idea how Obama would behave in the scenario Ran imagines.)

Two thoughts on all of this, for now, before I go to bed!

There is every chance of Obama turning out to be Blair 2.0 - but there seems to be a difference in the hopes being invested in him. Ran may not be the most representative voice, but the significance of the "yes we can" slogan which he points to is larger. Part of Obama's appeal does seem to be connected to a bottom-up message, however deep or shallow that turns out to be. By contrast, whatever hopes were invested in Blair in 1997, people already knew that he was a control freak - we had watched him establish an iron grip over the Labour party over the previous three years. Inside and outside the party, the hope was that the ends would justify the means. Blair's message was "trust me", not "trust yourselves".

Secondly, a thought on the question of whether it is possible to make meaningful judgements about how a candidate will behave in office - particularly, whether they will hold open the space for bottom-up alternatives or allow them to be crushed (or crush them directly). It seems to me that we make judgements like this about people we meet in our daily lives - friends, colleagues, dates... - and most of us trust our own judgement to be more right than wrong. My guess is we can make similar judgements about candidates for office, but that this gets less reliable the greater the distance from our lives. In other words, Obama notwithstanding, I hold out more hope for the chances of electing candidates at a local level who we can trust to hold open that space - and less hope for the more remote layers of government, where politics is more bound up with the operations of the media.

Richard Sennett & the Art of Dating

Nick sent me this nice little article on 'The Art of Being Present', specifically with reference to dating! Rather improbably, it reminded me of a lunchtime seminar I went to the other week with Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology at LSE and someone whose books have intrigued me for years.

His latest book, just out, is 'The Craftsman', and he spoke about both craft skills and craft as an attitude to relationships. One of his most striking points was that perfectionism is the sign of a bad craftsman. A good craftsman is capable of letting go - both in the sense of losing himself in his work, and in the sense of knowing when to stop, being able to recognise the point beyond which more time spent on a piece of work will be counterproductive.

Moving to the sphere of relationships, he talked about two different attitudes to parenting, advocated by two different eighteenth century figures. Rousseau presented an ideal model of how children should be brought up. Madame D'Epinay saw this as a dangerous step - and instead connected parenting to craft, emphasising the importance of not being a perfectionist. Only when the parent is willing to be 'good enough', rather than needing to be 'right', does the child have room for autonomy. Like a bad craftsman, a perfectionist parent doesn't know when to let go.

The same basic wisdom, without the historical footnotes, comes through in the article by Matt:

Even now, staying present is something I have to practice; It is an art form, and like many activities, it is something I do well at when I accept that I am not perfect at it.

He gives the example of catching himself thinking about what to say next, instead of listening to the person he's with - 'the antithesis of being present'.

To get back to being present in this context, I remind myself that sometimes I do not have perfect responses. I remind myself that it is fine that I am an occasional dork. It is a part of me, and I dig it. The person I'm interacting with can take it or leave it. Ironically, losing the need for a perfect response often yields great responses: By accepting my quirk - too much interest in attracting someone, or some result - I find myself no longer trying to impress. Trying is the antithesis of being present.

Though I'm no longer in the dating game, I find it very helpful to be reminded of this stuff - and of my own counterproductive tendencies. I also find it helpful to have those tendencies set in the kind of historical context Sennett offers. If we struggle to stay present, it's partly because modern society has privileged the doomed attempt at perfection over the attitude of the craftsman. (A lesson I first began to learn from Anthony.)

Thursday 14 February 2008

The Low-tech Early Warning System

This is a fascinating example of how oral traditions carry practical knowledge about how to live safely in a particular place. Researchers studying the level of fatalities in tsunamis report that they are far higher in areas where the population is made up of recent migrants, compared to those with longstanding traditional communities:

It became apparent that oral traditions were going back 500 years ... The stories contained information about how to recognize when a tsunami was about to come, such as falling sea levels, and told how people should take action.

Read the whole article here - and the press release from UC Santa Cruz on which it's based.

(Hat tip to Tom.)

Anarchists for Obama?

A couple of weeks ago, Paul Kingsnorth posted his interior monologue about Barack Obama:

Wow, this is really quite exciting. I wonder if he could be the next JFK?

Hang on: JFK started the Vietnam war.

And then he got assassinated.

Say what you like though, the guy has charisma.

And he does have a nice smile. And he used to write poetry and smoke weed, so he can't be all bad.

I wonder what his policies are.

I really hate Hillary Clinton; vile little plastic goldfish. I hope she loses.

I really hate myself for being taken in by this admittedly impressive PR.

Imagine Obama in the White House though. Wouldn't that be something?

Why do people keep calling him 'black? He's mixed race, but no one calls him 'white'?

Humans have an apparently limitless need to believe in leaders who will liberate them from the drudgery of reality. Idiots.

It's quite exciting though.

Then this week Ran Prieur - someone I'd have assumed to be even more opted out of electoral politics than Paul - has made a series of fascinating posts about why he's campaigning for Obama. This really got my attention. (I'm posting a big chunk, because Ran hasn't given this post a permalink yet):

By January 2009, when the next president takes office, it will be obvious that we are in a Greater Depression. Tens of millions of Americans will be angry and desperate and uncomfortably awakened and confused. People will be losing their homes, their incomes, their ability to buy food and fuel and health care. And giant predators, from banks and corporations to foreign property owners to Blackwater, will be trying to exploit the crisis for selfish gain.

Now imagine that you are part of an organized movement that's technically against the law. Maybe a few hundred people have occupied an abandoned suburb and you are tearing down houses and making gardens. Or some farmers are refusing to leave land that the banks claim to own, and they've blockaded the roads with tractors and pulled out their hunting rifles. Or some truck drivers have gridlocked a major port to protest fuel prices. Or the people in one poor neighborhood have run out of food, and they march to the Whole Foods in a rich neighborhood and take what they need. Or half a million people march to protest the Iraq war, and because they don't have jobs or health insurance to lose, they don't go home, but occupy the center of a major city for days.

Now, what would President McCain do? He would send in the fucking military and smoke your ass, and if you weren't killed, you would be shipped to a "detention facility," and never heard from again.

What would President Clinton do? She would talk to all her big donors and neocon advisers, and do whatever they told her to do. And then she would talk to all her pollsters and spinners and focus groupers, and go on TV and say whatever bullshit they told her to say. We could do worse, but we could also do much better, because the elite will be too removed from reality to make good decisions, and her words would be so different from her actions that people would just get more cynical and angry.

What would President Obama do? I could be wrong, but I think he would go in person and listen to you, ask you what you needed and how he could help. Then he would go back to the big money people, and explain your position to them, and ask them what they needed. Then he would work out a compromise, and he would go on TV and explain the whole situation and how he resolved it and why. Nobody would be completely happy, but we would avoid a big disaster and gain in understanding.

The main thing we would understand is that we are powerful, that we can illegally threaten the status quo and win concessions. Tactical organized mass actions would break out all over. It would be anarchy! And I mean that in mostly a good way. One way or another, energy from below will take apart the system and build a new one, because that's the end of all empires. I really can't see the future clearly enough to be more specific. But with Clinton or especially McCain, it would be a much worse kind of anarchy.

Friday 1 February 2008

Explaining Everything

You can spend months looking for a really simple way to explain something, and then one day the answer just pops into your head. It happened to us last week in the School of Everything office. We've been through dozens of versions of the About pages for the site, explaining it from different angles, and then Paul and Kris had an idea.

Here's the result:

There's lots of other exciting stuff happening for School of Everything - and there'll be more news over the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, if you (or anyone you know) has something they could teach, it's definitely time to create a profile on the site!

Thursday 24 January 2008


* Some restrictions apply

(Hat tip to Aaron at Villageblog)

Friday 18 January 2008

Where Things Get Lost Alphabetically...

Spotted at last night's Soirée Micronomique. (More over at the School of Everything blog.)

Why Don't You (Just Stop Reading This Blog and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead)?

Following all the discussion of how to spend less time with technology, I've been thinking about the contrast between attitudes to TV in my childhood and attitudes to the internet today. Lots more to say about this, but for now I'm just glad to have tracked down a clip of 'Why Don't You?'

For non-Brits, this was a programme shown in the school holidays by the BBC, the full title of which was 'Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead?'

I don't know what other influences it had, but 'Why Don't You?' was certainly a reference point for us at Pick Me Up - and, for that matter, at School of Everything.

Anyone else got any memories of it?

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Tom Hodgkinson on Unplugging

I've already blogged about one piece from Tom Hodgkinson today - but several people have sent me the article about Facebook he wrote for yesterday's Guardian. There have been plenty of conspiracy theories doing the rounds about Facebook. Personally, I think the CIA and neo-con connections, brought up again in Tom's article, are exaggerated.

The thing about capitalism is that you can explain a lot of what goes on without reference to conspiracies, by virtue of the desire of people who already have money to use it to make more of the same. At least, that's what I would have said a few months ago. Actually, having come through the process of raising funding for School of Everything, it's fair to say that - particularly with early-stage startups - there are investors who make decisions based on their values and their desire to change the world, rather than simply the returns on offer. Is that a bad thing? You might say it depends on the values in question.

One of the things we decided when we founded School of Everything was that we didn't want to encourage people to spend more time sat at computers. Our focus has always been on using the internet in smart ways, so as to spend more time doing interesting stuff in the real world.

Conspiracies aside, I think Tom puts his finger on a genuine difference of vision between those who see a future in which humans have transcended nature and those who are profoundly troubled by this vision. I'm certainly in the latter camp - and the final paragraph of his article does a wonderful job of summing up the positive reasons why:

For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my time on Facebook when I still haven't read Keats' Endymion? And when there are seeds to be sown in my own back yard? I don't want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it's called talking.

The Criminalisation of Uncommodified Food

People often mistake me for a vegetarian. (Maybe it's the beard?) I'm not, but thinking about where our food - and in particular our meat - comes from is something which brings home to me how sick the world is right now. In particular, the juxtaposition of factory farming, in all its obscenity, with the criminalisation of older and more respectful ways of rearing and killing animals.

This short piece from Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler, is the kind of thing I have in mind:

Yesterday morning we had a knock at the door from our local environmental health officer. He had come round to tell us that according to a law that was brought in two years ago, what we had done with our pigs—that is to say, have them killed at home— was illegal. You are not allowed to kill and eat your own pigs. The law says that you have to take them to the slaughterhouse. This is, they say, so they can be checked by the slaughterhouse for disease. We argued that it is surely more humane to have them killed at home, because the pig does not suffer the stress of being bundled into a van and then lined up on the racks in an unfamiliar place and killed. He actually agreed that meat that has been killed at home, stress-free, tastes better than meat that has gone through the abattoir. So that is why our meat tasted so good: because it was killed at home. But that is illegal now.

One of the friends I gained through the Illich colloquium in Cuernavaca is Dean Bavington. I've already mentioned his powerful presentation on the history of the Newfoundland cod fishery. At the core of Dean's argument is the distinction between treating fish as food and treating it as a commodity.

Certain processes, certain laws, even certain well-intentioned environmental measures, only become thinkable* once you have stopped thinking about things that you can actually experience (taste, smell, touch...) and started treating the world as made up of interchangeable units and mathematical patterns.

* For 'become thinkable', I almost wrote 'make sense' - but the issue here is precisely the absence of 'sense'.

Thursday 10 January 2008

Don't blame the Arctic Monkeys

Another very interesting comment from Dan on my post about the sixties. He suggests that there's a 'law of crowds' involved:

both culturally and knowledge-wise, the world has becoming increasingly crowded, and increasingly connected.

In terms of learning and knowledge, this has meant that (and I can't remember where I heard this quote, but I paraphrase) it was last possible to be a generalist at the turn of the 20th century. Now you're either a tiny ant helping maintain the academic hive (walking in journal stacks *really* brings this home to me!) or you're accepting the loss of meaning and pissing about with symbology.

I have to confess to being quite sceptical about the idea that the sum of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. The size of academic journal stacks has a lot to do with a particular way of framing learning as the production of knowledge, where "knowledge" has become a commodity. (As I've been arguing, this goes a long way back into the history of the university.)

Even if we accept that knowledge is something which can be meaningfully counted - and I don't - it would seem clear that vast amounts of knowledge have been destroyed in the last few centuries. The loss of languages, and therefore of much of the local ways of seeing and the stories which went with them, is only one of the more obvious examples.

In my own case, I find it humbling to think about how illiterate I am when walking in the countryside, compared to my ancestors of only two or three generations back. I can give you my take on the differing trajectories of Keats' nightingale and Shelley's skylark, but I couldn't tell the song of one from the other.

There's another point which comes through from Dan's post:

Culturally, the same problem exists. There's a loss of belief in the whole point of creating culture because there's just so much of the stuff: archaeological layers, vast fields stretching as far as the eye can see. One can imagine how the Arctic Monkeys might think picking up titles from old movies and music from old artists was just the way the game's done now. I hate the word, but, um, its all pastiche, and that's maybe OK.

Having said that, in the realm of the acoustic guitar singer-songwriter, I'd never think there'd be anything able to move me much again, but then I saw the Channel 4 funded film Once, and now have the music, and by God its wonderful.

The anxiety over the sheer amount of culture easily becomes entangled with the anxiety for constant, radical innovation, generally recognised as a feature of the arts in western societies since the Romantic era. Again with the scepticism, I don't see why something should have to be new to be great - so it's good to hear Dan's example of being moved by something that isn't necessarily pushing at any boundaries.

My observation that the sixties have an unusual hold on our imagination is not intended to damn the unimaginativeness of the Arctic Monkeys, or anyone else. Rather, I'm interested in whether this is evidence for the significance of the years between 1958 and 1974 as a historical moment, the like of which we haven't seen since. Perhaps there's no great need to look for evidence. The claim is hardly controversial - but I'm curious about the conflicting accounts of that moment, and some of the less explored possibilities underlying them.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Have we ever really left the sixties?

I've been reading Arthur Marwick's The Sixties: an enormous, fascinating, one volume cultural history. For most of his career, Marwick was Professor of History at the Open University, itself a product of that decade (which, by his generous definition, stretched from 1958 to 1974). His book argues, convincingly, that those years saw a lasting cultural revolution.

There is another story to be told about the significance of that revolution, but what is striking is the sense that we are still living in the sixties. This is a suggestion I've come across in all sorts of places recently. A recent issue of Newsweek, dedicated to 1968: The Year That Changed Everything, claimed that "all of us, young and old, are stuck in the '60s, hostages to a decade we define ourselves as for or against."

Meanwhile, at Radio 3's Free Thinking festival, the film director Mike Figgis argued that our culture is stagnating because modern technologies of film and sound recording have preserved too well the icons of the era, beginning in the late fifties, in which they first reached their zenith. Rock stars, film makers and fashion designers today are all, according to Figgis, too aware of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix for their own good. (You can listen to his lecture here.)

There's something in this, though again I don't think it's the whole story. But I do keep coming across more examples of the long reach of Marwick's long decade. I knew, for example, that The Smiths' albums which I discovered as a teenager were full of deliberate echoes of the films of the British New Wave. What made me sit up, though, half way through watching Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), was when Arthur Seaton tells himself, "Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not." I could have told you that the Arctic Monkeys owed their line-up (two guitars, bass and drums) to the sixties, but I hadn't realised it was where they got their album titles.

So, have we ever really left the sixties?

Monday 7 January 2008

Roald Dahl on Television

Following the last few posts, I've been thinking about the similarities and differences between the way we relate to television and the internet - and the way that both technologies have been represented. Along the way, I discovered this wonderful piece of doggerel of Roald Dahl's from 1964:

The most important thing we've learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set -
Or better still, just don't install
The idiotic thing at all.

In almost every house we've been,
We've watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone's place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they're hypnotised by it,
Until they're absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.

Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don't climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink --
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?


There's lots more of it.

(From another site, I discovered that it's actually a song sung by the Oompa-Lumpas in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'.)

Thursday 3 January 2008

Education as "being us-and-no-one-else"

I've been writing about giving up television, but it's really a rather easy example for me, since I'm seldom tempted to watch more than a couple of hours a week. (Spending less time online is more of a challenge.)

My friend Anthony has been more of a TV watcher - though he could always give you a fascinating critical analysis of whatever he'd been watching, just in case you thought his brain switched off as the box switched on. Anyway, he posted the other day that he's unplugged his TV and is getting back to reading and writing, instead. Long may it last, because I'd love to see more of his thinking in print.

He's just republished, on his blog, some notes on the term 'tradition'. Reading these, I came across a passage on education which relates to some of my thinking-out-loud last month, about what an alternative to learning as 'knowledge production' (or teaching as 'information transmission') might look like:

Speaking as an educator, I find that approaching education as information transmission, protection, and/or preservation can easily lead me to ignore the richness of educational encounter, the personal, present, affectual dimensions of how education can work. Education in face-to-face contexts can be understood to be predominantly about being with, about living 'withness', about the attitudes of the people in the room, about the respect or lack of it within the interactions. When education or 'tradition' are understood as entity-transfer of some sort, it is very hard to even have discussions about respect, attitude, presence, or, dare I say it, gentleness. It's all too easy to default to those attitudes that facilitate the most efficient transaction of resources, those attitudes that allow us to distance ourselves from being us-and-no-one-else and instead allow us to play the roles of 'providers' in an exchange relationship (if you're lucky).

Do read the rest of his post - there's a lot of food for thought in it.

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