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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