Monday 27 April 2009

How not to predict the future (or why Second Life is like video calling)

Yesterday afternoon, I was speaking on a panel at the National Digital Inclusion Conference. We'd been asked to talk about "what learning should look like in 2019, and how technology will have changed how we consume, create and collaborate to develop ideas, knowledge and skills."

That got me thinking about how bad we are predicting the future of technology - and I saw a parallel which I'd not noticed before.

My usual example of poor prediction is the mobile industry. Video calling was expected to be huge, but it turns out hardly anyone wanted it. Text messaging, on the other hand, was an unexpected success. The point is that the technology landscape is shaped not just by what we can do, but what we choose to do - and simpler, less impressive technologies may turn out to be vastly more powerful as social tools.

What struck me yesterday is that the video calling vs text messaging situation has played out all over again online in the last few years. Except that this time it wasn't video calling but virtual worlds - and it wasn't text messaging but Twitter. Again, people's demand for high-tech, highly immersive substitutes for face-to-face experience was massively exaggerated - while the real story turns out to be the social power of stripped down, simple bits of communication that weave in and out of our First Lives.

(Of course, the reason most of the recent media coverage of Twitter has been tripe is that the journalists responsible haven't used it for long enough to realise how much of its power lies in the face-to-face interactions and relationships it sparks - but that's a post for another day...)

Monday 20 April 2009

"How to Freecycle Woolworths!"

For those of us who've been arguing for the creative reuse of empty space as part of a response to the recession, there was exciting news last week. The Department for Communities and Local Government announced £3m in small grants to help people reuse empty shops for creative and socially beneficial projects. Here's what they say:

People are increasingly worried about boarded-up shops and vacant land in their towns and cities. It is vital that we do all we can to enable vacant properties to be used for temporary purposes until demand for retail premises starts to improve. Not only will this help to ensure that our towns and high streets are attractive places where people want to go, it can also stimulate a wide range of other uses such as community hubs, arts and cultural venues, and informal learning centres, which can unlock people’s talent and creativity.

This kind of temporary use of empty premises has great potential for those "real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media" that I've been writing about. (Thanks to Noel for first drawing my attention to the "slack space" movement in the comments on the original Social Media vs the Recession post.) And the turnout for the second London Alternative Third Spaces meetup at the Hub a couple of weeks ago was a sign of the amount of energy gathering around these projects.

Last week's announcement wasn't just about funding, although that was what made the headlines. Plans for encouraging temporary use also include:

  • a simpler process for local authorities to waive "change of use" planning permission requirements
  • providing specimen documents for landlords making temporary use agreements
  • a pilot project in five town centres, in which local authorities act as intermediary - agreeing a temporary lease with a landlord on behalf of a local community group
  • and, of course, funding for grants "to help with cleaning and decorating vacant premises, basic refit for temporary uses, publicity posters, and other activities that can help town centres attract and retain visitors"

It sounds like the details of how these grants will work are still being worked out, but all in all this an extremely promising set of proposals.

One further thought, prompted by a conversation with Dan Littler. Last week's announcement accompanied the launch of a guide for town centre managers on 'Looking after our town centres'. To make sure the widest range of people have access to information about the grants and other measures, though - and to contribute to the success of the projects they create - it would be great to see a practical handbook for "How to Freecycle Woolworths!" (At least, that's what we'd have called it in the days of Pick Me Up...)

Once you start looking, there are a lot of existing examples of the creative and constructive reuse of empty space, around the UK and beyond - and a lot of knowledge of what to do (and what not to do) has been accumulated by those involved. It feels like time that knowledge was tapped.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Announcing 'The Dark Mountain Project'

Today is an exciting day. After a year or so of meetings in pubs and emails backwards and forwards, it is time to announce the Dark Mountain Project - a literary and artistic movement for a time of massive global change.

The project grew out of a conversation with Paul Kingsnorth, started by a blog post in which he proposed:

a new publication: not a magazine, exactly, not quite a journal either, but something between the two and somewhere else as well. A publication which will match the beauty of its writing with the beauty of its design. A publication whose mission will be to reclaim beauty and truth in writing, but without sounding too pompous about it. A publication which will reject both celebrity culture and consumer society with equal vehemence. A publication which will celebrate our true place in nature in prose, poetry and art; which will hunt down ancient truths for modern consumption.

Gradually, that idea has taken a fuller form, and between us we have written a pamphlet which is intended as a first step towards that magazine. Over the next three weeks, we aim to raise £1000 in donations towards the costs of publishing that pamphlet as the Dark Mountain Manifesto and building a website to support the movement.

Why are we doing this? Because of the times in which we find ourselves. Because a collapsing economy and a collapsing environment are turning all our assumptions on their heads. Because nothing that we currently take for granted seems likely to come through the 21st century unscathed. Because civilisation as we have known it is coming apart at the seams.

We don't believe that anyone - not politicians, not environmentalists, not writers - is really facing up to the magnitude of this. We are all still wedded to the idea that the future will be an upgraded version of the present. It is in our cultural DNA. Perhaps this is why, as the warning signs flash out ever more urgently, we still go shopping, or plan for more economic growth, or campaign for new energy technologies, or write novels about the country house or the inner city.

A civilisation is built not on oil, steel or bullets, but on stories; on the myths that shore it up and the tales it tells itself about its origins and destiny. We believe that we have herded ourselves to the edge of a precipice with the stories we have told ourselves about who we are: the story of 'progress', of the conquest of 'nature', of the centrality and supremacy of the human species.

We believe it is time for new stories. The Dark Mountain project aims to foster a new movement of writers, artists and creative thinkers, a new school of writing and art for an age of massive global disruption. We are calling it Uncivilisation.

Very soon, we will be launching the Dark Mountain Manifesto, as a hand-crafted pamphlet and online. At the same time, we will launch our website. If enough people seem interested, we then plan to begin publishing a journal of Uncivilised art and writing. And if that takes off, there is much more that this nascent movement can be doing to help create the stories that will define these new times.

For the moment, though, we are looking for help. The Dark Mountain Project is not a prescriptive attempt to tell people how to write or think, but the raising of a flag around which we hope like-minded people will gather. So we are looking for people who might want to be involved: writers, artists, illustrators, designers, thinkers - anyone with whom this strikes a chord.

The other kind of help we need is money. Zac Goldsmith has already generously donated £1000 towards the cost of publishing the manifesto and launching the full Dark Mountain website. We are looking to raise the same amount again in donations over the next three weeks. If you can afford to contribute towards getting this project off the ground, please visit our fundraising page on (Everyone who donates $20 or more will receive a copy of the manifesto and an invitation to our launch event.)

The challenges of the 21st century are too often framed only as technical problems requiring solutions. I believe that this is a form of denial. What we face is a challenge to the imagination - the challenge of imagining a liveable future in a changed world. I hope that the Dark Mountain Project can help place the imagination at the heart of our response.

Monday 6 April 2009

London "Alternative Third Spaces" Meeting

Last month, a group of us met at the London offices of UnLtd (the foundation for social entrepreneurs) to talk about alternative third spaces. This Wednesday we're holding a follow-up meeting at the Hub, Islington.

Alternative third spaces are facilities which are neither office nor cafe nor workshop, but have elements of all three and more. This includes co-working spaces, hack labs, arts spaces, social centres, community cafes and similar uses of space. There is a lot of interest and activity around these in London at the moment - and the potential for them to play a significant role in the response to the social consequences of the recession.

This meetup is for people interested in starting such projects, or who are already involved with them, to discuss ideas, funding models and legal structures, and to learn from the success of ventures like the Hub. We hope a network of people involved in alternative third spaces will emerge.

The meeting will take place from 6.30 till 8.00pm, Wednesday 8th April
at The Hub Islington, 5 Torrens Street, London EC1V 1NQ.

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