Wednesday 28 January 2009

Social Media vs the Recession?

I've spent a lot of time lately talking to people about the economic crisis, how it's starting to play out in people's lives - and what the things we've learned from social media over the last few years might contribute, in regards to lessening the hardship and shaping the world that comes out the other side. Following from those conversations, it feels like it's time to start sketching some of this out in a meaningful way.

Looked at very simply: hundreds of thousands of people are finding or are about to find themselves with a lot more time and a lot less money than they are used to. The result is at least three sets of needs:

  • practical/financial (e.g. how do I pay the rent/avoid my house being repossessed?)

  • emotional/psychological (e.g. how do I face my friends? where do I get my identity from now I don't have a job?)

  • directional (e.g. what do I do with my time? how do I find work?)

With a huge wave of unemployment breaking on the system, public services are likely to be overwhelmed - and yet need to be more responsive than under normal economic circumstances:

"Time is of the essence. The newly unemployed are not usually a focus of government policy because most will find work quickly. This is not true in a recession... Decisive government action now will prevent a temporary slide in employment becoming a permanent slump." Charles Leadbeater & others, 'Attacking the Recession', NESTA

During last week's new media breakfast at the Foreign Office, I was struck by a remark from a UKTI official: if this recession is to be different to previous recessions, he said, our industry has a crucial role to play in that. I guess he may have had in mind the way Finland's tech industry pulled it out of a deep recession in the 1990s, but it also set me thinking about the way the internet has been changing society at large.

Arguably the biggest thing that has changed in countries like the UK since there was last a major recession is that most people are networked by the internet and have some experience of its potential for self-organisation (whether through a myriad of internet dating sites, or through group social interactions such as Facebook, Meetup, Bebo, MySpace, and others - all carry the potential to connect people, both in the virtual and in the physical space). There has never been a major surge in unemployment in a context where these ways of "organising without organisations" were available.

As my School of Everything co-founder Paul Miller has written, London's tech scene is distinctive for the increasing focus on applying these technologies to huge social issues - rather than throwing sheep! Agility and the ability to mobilise and gather momentum quickly are characteristics of social media and online self-organisation, in ways that government, NGOs and large corporations regard with a healthy envy.

So, with that, the conversations I've been having keep coming back to this central question: is there a way we can constructively mobilise to respond to this situation in the days and weeks ahead?

Some ideas on what this might look like

One principle to keep in mind: access to tools and provision should not be limited to the unemployed. It is possible to design tools and offer services which are open to all, but have particular value to those with more time and less money. However, if these are walled off as exclusively for that group, this is stigmatising - and, more important, will stifle creativity by artificially restricting the range of possible interactions and connections. (This valuable approach towards open access is something I experienced first-hand over several years hanging out at Access Space in Sheffield, the UK's longest-running internet learning centre, where I as a (then) BBC journalist found myself learning to build my own website alongside guys who in some cases had been on the dole for much of their adult lives, and for whom the centre offered a route to starting a business, getting a skilled job, or getting funding for their creative activities.)

What follows is not a particularly structured list, though there are a few themes. The basic idea is that we're talking about digital resource-maps for people who have lost access to the market as a source of resources, with an aim to be an enablement tool for all levels of the participant community:

  • Information sharing for dealing with practical consequences of redundancy or job insecurity. You can see this happening already on a site like the Sheffield Forum.

  • Indexes of local resources of use to the newly-unemployed - including educational and training opportunities - built up in a user-generated style.

  • Tools for reducing the cost of living. These already exist - LiftShare, Freecycle, etc. - so it's a question of more effective access and whether there are quick ways to signpost people towards these, or link together existing services better.

  • An identification of skills, not just for potential employers but so people can find each other and organise, both around each other and emergent initiatives that grow in a fertile, socially-networked context.

If the aim is to avoid this recession creating a new tranche of long-term unemployed (as happened in the 1980s), then softening the distinction between the employed and unemployed is vital. In social media, we've already seen considerable softening of the line between producer and consumer in all kinds of areas, and there must be lessons to draw from this in how we view any large-scale initiative.

As I see it, such a softening would involve not only the kind of online tools and spaces suggested above, but the spread of real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media. Examples of such spaces already exist:

Again, if these spaces are to work, access to them should be open, not restricted to the unemployed. (If, as some are predicting, we see the return of the three day week, the value of spaces like this open to all becomes even more obvious!) In order for this to work, such spaces would need to be organised with the understanding that hanging out can be as valuable as more visibly productive activities - both because of the resilience that comes from building social connections, and because of the potential for information sharing and the sparking of new projects. There would also be a need for incubator spaces for projects that emerge from these spaces and are ready to move to the next level.

What next?

These are some ideas that have come out of conversations with Vinay, Colin, Kalam, David, Mamading, Mike, Josef and others over the last couple of weeks. I'm keen to broaden those conversations, because I'm sure we can build on and better these ideas. I'm also keen to get some action going on - so a group of us are getting together at the School of Everything offices in Bethnal Green tomorrow night (Thursday 29th) to work on a first version of a site. Get in touch if you'd like to contribute!

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Plugging tomorrow's talk

Quick plug for my next talk at the wonderful Temporary School of Thought. If you're in London and free tomorrow (Weds) at 5pm, come down to 39A Clarges Mews, where I'll be thinking out loud about 'Economic Chemotherapy'.

Erm... as in, cheap treatments for cancer? Nope. As in "What if we tried looking at economic growth as something unhealthy?"

Why would anyone want to do that? Well, some people say we need to because of climate change. Other people say we're going to have to because of Peak Oil. But what really interests me is the possibility that there might be deeper reasons, to do with the way we look at the world.

Is this going to be one of your abstract philosophical ramblings with lots of footnotes that have no relevance to the real world? Um... I hope not. I do want to talk a bit about the history of questioning growth and some of the different ideas that are out there, but that's only the background. The real action comes when we start talking about ways of thriving when the economy is shrinking. (And whatever you think about the desirability of growth, that sounds pretty relevant right now, doesn't it?) I've got several suggestions, but I'm hoping other people will have too.

OK, you've convinced me. When's this all happening, again? 5pm, Weds 21/01/09 at 39A Clarges Mews, off Curzon Street, Mayfair, London, which is about two minutes walk from Green Park tube.

And what if I've, like, got a proper job so I can't go hanging out in posh squats at five o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon? Fear not - video and podcasts will be available in due course. (Though you won't find heckling me half as satisfying.)

Within a few hours of arriving, I have been given a juggling lesson and an invitation to labyrinth building... and attended a talk on anarchy (the besuited lecturer was recording the talk for his files — apparently, even anarchists keep records). Sunday Times, 18/01/09

Sunday 18 January 2009

Celebrate the OUTauguration!

A conversation at last Wednesday's SI Camp meet-up prompted me to start a Facebook group dedicated to celebrating this week's OUTauguration - the much-anticipated departure of the 43rd President of the United States.

Obviously lots of people will be celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama - but, while I'm cautiously optimistic, I can't help thinking we should reserve judgement. The departure of George W Bush, on the other hand, is beyond doubt a positive moment in world history and calls for a party! So join the group, invite your friends and let's dance together on Dubya's grave!

(Should we need a tune to dance to, what could be more appropriate than grindcore outfit Reptiljan's Outauguration of the Chimp Zombie...?)

Temporary School of Thought - a round-up

Image courtesy of Lloyd Davies

I've had a lot of people coming here over the last few days to read about the Temporary School of Thought in Mayfair. I'm hugely inspired by what the organisers there have achieved - not least because of the contrast to the introspective factionalism of the squatted social centres I used to hang out in a few years ago. So I thought I'd do a round up of some of the great blog posts, podcasts and pictures documenting what they've achieved over the last couple of weeks.

The Temporary School's curriculum has been impressively eclectic, with hands on workshops in everything from welding to treehouse-building to portrait photography. A number of the talks from the more ideas-based strand of its activities are now available online in various forms, including my talk on Deschooling Everything:

  • Vinay Gupta on Infrastructure for Anarchists - audio / lecture notes

  • Vinay Gupta on Avoiding Capitalism for the Next 4 Billion - audio / lecture notes

  • Dougald Hine on Deschooling Everything - audio (5 mins of chat before it starts)

  • Ben on Virtual Reality and the Immersive Ideal - audio

  • Mike Bennett on Setting up the Post-Capitalist Enterprise - audio

  • Vinay Gupta on Biometrics for Freedom - audio

I'll blog the video of my talk as soon as it's edited. Meanwhile, as a balance to the newspaper headlines, here are some more thoughtful accounts of the Temporary School and responses to it from around the blogosphere:

  • Londonist writes "What do you do with five floors of long-abandoned Mayfair luxury, complete with hand painted Chinese wallpaper and a warren of servants' quarters? Tidy the place up, for starters. Then launch your own school."

  • (You) Enoch has pictures which convey the full the grandeur of the place - while there are more images here.

  • Travels with my Teenager has a nice account of her visit, concluding: "This is real education. I just wish my daughter didn't have to spend so long at school."

  • Lloyd Davies tells how he ended up at the Temporary School as a result of The Tuttle Club - and has a video of the juggling workshop.

  • Dan Gould puts the Temporary School in the context of School of Everything and The School of Life (which I must go and check out soon...).

  • Badger on Fire went down for the Virtual Utopias session and ended up offering to run a Super 8 movie-making workshop.

  • Ligress focuses on the wider context of squatting and the number of empty properties in London and beyond - as well as the French book binding workshop.

  • Dave Bones reflects on how the Temporary School and squatters in general deal with the mainstream media. (For what it's worth, I agree with him about working with journalists rather than excluding them, though I understand why people are cautious about this.)

  • Speaking of the mainstream media, I was amused to discover TSoT had made The Washington Post! [Registration required.]

  • Contemporary art review site Axis has a rather snotty write-up from Josie Faure Walker, who - in true postmodernist style - seems to have difficulty remembering whether she's being ironic or not.

  • Finally, one of my favourite pieces is from the (difficult to link to) The More I [...] Blog:
    Worth observing about these schools is how much better than universities they are at promoting learning. Universities, these days – all thinkpods and co-ordinated swivel-chairs, in drab contrast to the joyfully cobbled-together Temporary School of Thought – all look much the same. The tube posters advertising higher education here in London echo this, be they intense and corporate, stressing the exact probability of a career after graduation, or trying desperately to be down-with-it. There just isn't enough be-tweeded, elbow-patched, avuncular rambling in those classrooms; nothing, in short, to hark back to a time before league tables.

    Instead, learning is miserably positioned as a means to an end. Compare, for instance, the respective websites for a leading university and the School of Life. The latter encourages a thorough flurry of clicks from the get-go, with the welcome accompaniment of intellectual whimsy. Most importantly, perhaps, it assumes a base level of scholarly curiosity. You don't get that with the university – instead, what comes across is a one-track treadmill; a site segregated immediately into department and subject, before you even get any proper sense of what the institution stands for. [see entry for Tuesday, 13 January 2009]

The organisers are finalising the programme for week 3 - and I'm back there on Wednesday at 5pm with a session on Economic Chemotherapy. (I'll be thinking out loud about the possibilities for reversing economic growth, why this might be desireable and how we could thrive in such a scenario.) Beyond that, who knows? I'm hoping the Temporary School is a sign of a renaissance of improvised, informal learning spaces across London and beyond in 2009. The London Free School folks are already organising a weekender for 20-22nd February. And there are plenty more under-used spaces around the city that could be put to use.


Jim pointed me towards his blog, The Posh Squatter, which has some great stories from the heart of the Temporary School. I particularly liked his account of the day the house's former owners, a down-at-heel aristocratic family, come round to visit:

When they left, they took my number so they could find out how we get on when the building's owners take us back to court. They wished us luck and wondered "Is there any chance you might get to keep it?"

Meanwhile, messenger-zine Moving Target has a great write-up of Jim's talk about his experiences as a bike messenger, No Fixed Ideas. It's a great example of the mixture of worlds that come into contact with each other in a temporary space like this.

Saturday 10 January 2009

Hold the front page!

Gosh... That's been quite a week! And not over yet, by a long shot.

For starters, it's not often one of my talks gets a plug on the front page of the London Lite...

Article about Temporary School of Thought

From column 4: 'The squat's website, lists sessions including "labyrinth building with Steph" tomorrow followed by "deschooling society".' Guess I'd better get on with writing that talk, then!

The Temporary School of Thought also featured in Friday's Guardian, while Vinay's video of it has been picked up by the Evening Standard. Check it out:

Congratulations to the organisers on successfully getting the court case adjourned! Another two weeks in the building is going to be huge, if the amount of exciting stuff that's gone on in the past few days is anything to go by. I know they have mixed feelings about all this media interest - and particularly the focus on the property value, which is a bit of a distraction - but as an ex-journalist, I've got to say the coverage is really about as positive as I've ever seen for a story about a squat, once you get past the headlines. And most of the comments on the Standard site are very positive.

Speaking of comments, thanks for all the thoughtful responses to my questions about meditation. I'll take some time to think about them and come back to the subject. (I'm feeling a lot clearer about the "radio in your head" stuff after the Meditation & Magic session at TSoT the other night - thanks, Bad Swami!)

Had a brilliant time this morning at the Tuttle Club. It was my first time at this regular Friday gathering, which you get to by turning up at the back door of the ICA. Met some fascinating people and had three hours of back-to-back great conversation. For example, I spent ages chatting to Chris Unitt who runs the Created in Birmingham blog - exactly the kind of thing I wish had existed for the Creative Industries Quarter in Sheffield in my days there. (Oh, and if you find Melanie Phillips as unpleasant as I do, please vote for Created in Birmingham in the 2008 Weblog Awards - they've just overtaken her in the running for Best UK Blog, but it's a close run thing!)

Finally, I couldn't put the week to bed without mentioning the amazing morris men and women who swarmed through School of Everything over the last few days! We started out responding to the news stories about the gloomy prognosis for this most English of traditions - but soon discovered that reports of its death had been greatly exaggerated. The energy, enthusiasm and sense of fun that Claire and I found in the response to our little campaign made it one of my favourite weeks since School of Everything launched.

Right, time to start writing that talk. If you're in London and free, then I hope to see you at 5pm tomorrow at 39A Clarges Mews, off Curzon Street, Mayfair. There may be some surprises. (For those out of town/busy/lazy, video will be available next week.)

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Listening to the radio in your head

Some of my blogging friends are pretty serious about their meditation - I'm thinking of Nick and Dan, in particular - whereas I am a complete beginner. Our office is round the corner from London's Buddhist Village and Pete, our Chief Technology Officer, has been encouraging other members of the School of Everything team to come along with him to lunchtime meditation a couple of days a week. Today was my second time - and I definitely have a long way to go.

The first time I went, I was quite nervous beforehand, but really enjoyed it. Today was harder - I struggled to focus, even for a few moments, partly because I kept thinking about something the teacher had said at the beginning of the session. The meditation we were doing was the Mindfulness of Breathing, and he was talking about avoiding thinking about one thing whilst doing another. "For example," he said, "I try not to listen to the radio while I'm washing the dishes, because then my mind would be elsewhere."

I grew up in a home where the radio was nearly always on and the habit stuck. A housemate in my early 20s, when I was less well domesticated, once famously ended a rant to another housemate about my misdeeds with "...and he listens to Radio 4 in the bath!" I even had a career as a radio journalist for a while (you can hear the evidence on the Internet Archive...). And, where I can happily live without TV, I've always thought of radio as mind-expanding.

Then I remembered a metaphor I used to use during my summers selling books door-to-door as a student. It was the toughest job most of us would ever do, not least in terms of the mental and emotional strain, and I learned a lot about mental self-discipline along the way. Training other students for their first summer knocking doors, I used to encourage them to tune in to the radio in their heads and listen to the things they were saying to themselves all day. "There are things you say to yourself," I told them, "which if anyone else said to you, you'd probably punch them."

The trouble is, I was remembering all this instead of concentrating on my breathing, which doesn't say a great deal for my mental self-discipline these days. But it did all make me more curious about developing mindfulness - and I'd be interested to hear more from those of you who have more experience of meditation. I'm so used to my mind being full of words and ideas and a constant stream of connections, much of the time very enjoyably so, that I find it a real challenge to get out of my head, as it were. Also, I'm curious about where the limits to mindfulness might lie - is it really better to wash up mindfully than to do it absent-mindedly while listening to Melvin Bragg talk about Charles Darwin?

What I do know is that I could definitely benefit from becoming more mindful, so I'll be persisting with the lunchtime sessions. And I'm looking forward to Vinay's workshop on Meditation and Magic tomorrow at the Temporary School of Thought.

Monday 5 January 2009

"The world wasn't made to be bettered..." Discuss.

Whenever I catch myself pronouncing in self-important tones on the state of the world - in other words, about three times a week - I should really go back and re-read this passage from one of Herman Hesse's pamphlets:

Friends, we must learn to desist from judging whether the world is good or bad, and we must forgo the strange pretension that it is up to us to better it.

The world has often been denounced as bad, because the denouncer had slept badly or had too much to eat. The world has often been praised as a paradise, because the praiser had just kissed a girl.

The world wasn't made to be bettered. Nor were you made to be bettered. You were made to be yourselves.

That's from Zarathustra's Return, first published anonymously in 1919, when "world betterment" was apparently something of a buzzword. I found it in a collection of his anti-war writings, 'If This War Goes On', picked up from a bookswap in a backpackers hostel years ago. Since then, two copies of the book have slipped through my fingers, but I just discovered that you can download the full text via this site - together with those of thirteen of Hesse's other works.

What's struck me lately is how difficult and/or irrelevant it seems to talk about the changes currently going on in terms of things getting better or worse. Today, for example, Ran Prieur reposted an article suggesting "the only way to save the economy is to stop printing money and allow defaults on all the bad debts. Of course the owners of debt will never agree to that, and the big money economy will crash and burn. I'm not sure that's a bad thing."

Meanwhile, my colleague Paul had a nice piece on the Guardian's PDA blog, talking about how the internet industry is changing:

My prediction for 2009 is that startups that matter will matter more. By 'matter', I mean the ones which have an explicit goal to improve the world whether that's socially or environmentally... The outlook for 2009 if you're trying to change the world is pretty good. If you're trying to get people to throw virtual sheep at each other, it's going to be a lot tougher than 2008.

I'm closer to Hesse when it comes to talk of "improving the world", but I do think that we're living in a time that is full of possibilities, and where precisely the events which are presented as the end of the world as we know it can open up a space for hope.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Back (and looking forwards)

Gosh, is it 2009 already? As you might have noticed, this blog went a bit Trappist for the last few months. I've been busy with School of Everything, as well as editing magazines and generally dealing with life stuff. But I'm back - and looking forward to a year which I suspect will be less about changing the world, more about keeping up with the speed at which the world is changing...

If so, yesterday was a good start. I spent a fascinating evening hanging out with Josef Davies-Coates, a one-man serendipity machine and digital Johnny Appleseed (planting world-changing videos and PDFs from his portable hard drive), and Vinay Gupta, the inventor of the Hexayurt, who advises the Pentagon and anarchist squatters alike on how to build autonomous, open source infrastructures. (Last night was inspiring on plenty of levels - not least, it inspired me to make more use of my Twitter, since that was how our meet-up came about.)

Vinay's blogged a bit more about our conversation. If you're in London and free on Wednesday afternoon, I highly recommend coming down to the workshops he's running at the Temporary School of Thought, a week-long Free School event at the most palatial squat I've ever visited. (Think gilded mirrors, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper and a Sound of Music staircase, then add dry rot and a gang of enthusiastic artists and activists.) I'll be there on Wednesday - and also on Saturday afternoon, when I'm giving a talk about Ivan Illich and 'Deschooling Society'. (There's a full timetable here.)

Plenty of other exciting things coming up - not least, the publication of Collaborative Cultures: COMMONSense, which I gather should be out later this month. (Oh, and if you read Spanish, there's an interview with me in the New Media section of this Mexican magazine.)

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