Thursday 30 December 2010

What I Learned (2003-10)

It's the end of the year, a time for tidying up, finishing the unfinished, letting go of things.

This blog was my online home from 2006-9. By 2010, it had slipped to being a place where I occasionally plugged my latest project. There were various reasons for that slippage: Twitter became increasingly central to the way I use the internet, my life became busier than ever, as both Dark Mountain and Space Makers developed a momentum I could barely keep up with.

Besides those reasons, I began to realise that this blog had reached its natural end. Its title was a gesture to the question which guided me from as early as 2003, in the middle of the Iraq protests. That month, I turned down a staff job at the BBC and realised I'd have to make a life of my own, because the careers service didn't seem to have any that fit me.

I spent a while exploring the ground floor of the British economy, taking temp jobs in warehouses and call centres. After the pressures of the newsroom, I found the lack of responsibility a relief. Instead of using my brain at work, I could keep it fresh for evenings spent reading and thinking, starting to build my own models of how the world worked and why so much about it seemed upside down.

Working my way through the libraries of southwest London, I discovered John Berger, Alastair McIntosh, Hugh Brody and other writers who would influence me for years to come. Some weekends I'd hitch down to Havant, where my parents were living at the time. The old men at my dad's church would ask, "Any luck, yet?" In their terms, I had suffered a reverse. But it was nothing so simple: more like having one foot on dry land, the other on a dinghy that has started to drift, the gap widening and the need to jump becoming urgent. Or perhaps I had already jumped, it was just taking a while to register. I had fallen through the bottom of the beginnings of a successful career, acquiring a black mark - or, at least, a question mark - against my name, yet I felt freer and more honest than I had in years.

Anyway, there I was, with nothing to guide me but a desire to understand how you could change things about the world, and a need to find an alternative to getting "a proper job".

I got work flogging broadband for NTL, just as it went from geekily early-adopterish to something lots of people were meaning to get. I spent most of my commission on books. After three months, I quit and flew out to China, where I taught English for a few hours a week in an eccentric language school in Xinjiang. In the evenings, I'd sing Bob Marley songs in a local nightclub. In the afternoons, I would write long emails to my friend Mary who was living on a commune in Tennessee, writing a novel about gap year shamanism and Louisiana vampires.

Between the two of us, we began to piece together an improvised philosophy, a response to how our first class education had left us unprepared to resist the realities of the world it spat us into: we'd been taught to deconstruct everything, then left in pieces, like one half of an initiation. No one was offering to do the reconstruction, so we would have to do it for ourselves, along with whoever else we could find who seemed to be heading in the same direction. We'd crossed paths with the University of Openness and the psychogeographer Wilfried hou je Bek. Alastair McIntosh sent me a draft of a 'Spiritual Activism Handbook' he had written. For the first time, I had that sense of convergence which has guided much of what I've done since.

I travelled overland back from China, via Kazakhstan and days of deep conversation with someone whose family had made the journey from nomadic tradition to Soviet rationalism to postmodernity within three generations. Back in London, the first issue of Pick Me Up had just landed in a couple of hundred inboxes - the weekly DIY culture email set up by Charlie Davies after The Face went broke. Mary and I would soon join the gang of editors, but in the mean time we were plotting something called The Vortex Project, a huge half-formed scheme for "a European centre for the non-utopian cultural, political and spiritual imagination." We found an old factory in a village in Normandy and almost bought one end of it, a near miss with asbestos and the gap between our visions and reality.

In January 2005, my strangely shaped personal life gave way and I fell hard. By this stage, I was back in South Yorkshire, working off and on as a radio journalist again. Across the carpark from our newsroom was an ugly building with a curious LED sign over the door. I wandered in there one day that January - I'd just come off shift, couldn't face going home - and found myself in just the kind of den of cheerful lunatics where I feel able to relax.

Access Space was a walk-in learning centre with recycled computers, free software and an ethic of peer-learning, interspersed with long, random conversations over cups of tea. It felt like an embodiment of the ideas of Ivan Illich's 'Deschooling Society', which I'd discovered the year before. They taught me to build websites - and also that technology could be a focus for sociable, face-to-face activity. If I hadn't been feeling heartbroken that afternoon, perhaps I would have missed the turning which led to the worlds of social technology and radical education which have been such a home to me in the years since.

I threw myself into things that year. Not least, into Pick Me Up. From Charlie and the others I learned an attitude - "Think what you'd do if only you had the money, then figure out how you can do it anyway" - and a way of working that has shaped everything I've done since.

That May, I went out to Sarajevo with some of the other PMU editors to help a group of mad Danish girls steal a concert hall from the local mafia. This was my first brush with the KaosPilots, a cross between a business school, an art college and a guerrilla training camp. I came back inspired and provoked, determined to apply their attitude to my own projects - and had my first shot at doing so, when I invited the G8 justice ministers for a picnic.

Throughout these years, I was always about to go back to university. I guess it seemed like the legitimate way to avoid getting a proper job. Courses I nearly started included an MA in Folklore at Sheffield and an MSc in Culture & Society at the LSE. Instead, I began to find academics who were happy to meet outside their institutions. In particular, I found sustained intellectual guidance in the Monday mornings I would spend with Anthony McCann, demolishing endless coffees at Cafe 22a.

After the Sheffield G8 picnic, I drove a van full of blackclad anarchists up to Scotland for the main summit. I spent that week cutting backwards and forwards between the different groups of activists, trying to understand the gap between the media and politicians' depiction of "good protestors" and "bad protestors" and the spectrum of dissent I saw on the ground. Then, in the middle of that week, the London bombings interrupted everything - and what struck me was the similarities between the treatment of British Muslims after the attacks and the treatment of the G8 protesters. Both groups were divided into moderates (whose leaders were happy to be photographed shaking hands with cabinet ministers) and extremists (a term which blurs together those with radical views and those willing to commit indiscriminate violence). In two months that summer, I wrote the draft of a book about all this and got as far as finding an agent before the project lost shape and I was pulled in other directions.

The other legacy of that summer's activism was the MATILDA centre, a huge old factory on the edge of Sheffield city centre which had been occupied as a crash space for protesters. For the year that followed, it ran as a chaotic, wonderful social centre full of parties, workshops, film nights, art, music and conversation - as well as endless meetings and intermittent factional tensions. For all the latter, it was an inspiring thing to be part of and a practical manifestation of how much people can achieve with no money but a great deal of shared passion.

By the end of 2005, Pick Me Up had thousands of readers. We'd organised mass treasure hunts, dressed as flight attendants and served cups of tea on the Tube, helped people arrange weddings and name their babies, not to mention mooning Rolf Harris from the steps of Trafalgar Square. Wondering what to do next, Charlie had been to teach at the original KaosPilot school in Aarhus. He came back with the idea of starting a school in London.

On Valentine's Day 2006, he and Bryony Henderson brought together thirty of us for the first day of the London School of Art and Business. For the first time, I experienced that palpable sense of possibility when a room full of people look around at each other and see nothing but talent, experience, energy and excitement. Later, I came to see that - with the right way of looking, the right way of opening a space - this experience can happen with almost any group of people. But there was no denying that this was an extraordinary crowd: Ansuman Biswas had flown magic carpets in the cosmonauts training programme, Wayne Hill made the world's most expensive bottle of water (then had it stolen), Antonia Grant was an artist and chef who told stories of the international statesmen she'd cooked for. Even the handful of us who had spent the weekend together, supposedly planning for the day, were unsure exactly what we were here for. My memory is of Charlie proceeding to annoy everyone until the group rebelled and took over the event. It was one of the most subversive and successful pieces of facilitation I have witnessed.

Over the next six months, while my book lost momentum, the school continued to gain it. Each month, we would spend a day together at a different location. (There were school trips, too: a group visited Tablehurst biodynamic farm to learn about cooperatives, while four of us took off for Utrecht to spend a few days teaching at a new KaosPilots school that was just starting up.)

Organisers' duties for the LSAB rotated within the group and I found myself volunteering to organise the third meeting alongside an old friend of Charlie's, Andy Gibson, who would become one of my closest collaborators. It was that day, at the Man & Eve gallery in Kennington, that Paul Miller first proposed the idea which would become School of Everything. I'd met Paul the previous autumn, at a PMU editors' meeting. He was a senior researcher at Demos, the first person I'd met from the policy world, and I remember trapping him in the corner of a pub talking at him about 'Deschooling Society'. By chance, he'd also been hearing about Illich from Charlie Leadbeater, his co-author on The Pro-Am Revolution.

Through Pick Me Up, we'd stumbled into the realisation that the best thing about the internet wasn't spending more and more of our lives in front of screens, but the new possibilities for mobilising networks and making things happen face-to-face, in the real world. (How else would you find likeminded fools with whom to moon Rolf Harris?) Now we were talking about taking this First Life approach to the web and applying it to things like how we organise education.

In September 2006, I finally walked away from newsroom journalism for good. Paul had pitched the School of Everything to Geoff Mulgan at the Young Foundation and he had offered to give us support and some initial research funding to get the project off the ground. As with just about everything I've done, if we'd known what we were getting into, I doubt if any of us would have had the courage. The research money ran out in early 2007, by which stage our initial idea had turned into a business plan for a web startup. We were all broke, I was living on Paul's sofa, the others were wondering whether they really wanted to give up their careers to make this website happen. Somehow, we came through the year of living on air, and in early 2008 we secured £350,000 of investment.

Between 2006 and 2008, School of Everything took up most of my energy, although not always to great effect. I contributed ideas, made a few breakthroughs in how we brought users to the site, had a lot of meetings with interesting organisations which we weren't quite ready to partner with. I learned a lot about pitching a business plan, raising investment and building an organisation. I also learned that starting a company with a group of friends of a very similar age, background and set of skills is a recipe for tension. That we came through with most of our friendships intact and built a site which is still going and still growing is an achievement.

Some time in 2007, I began to notice comments from Paul Kingsnorth on this blog. I'd been reading his articles for years and 'One No, Many Yeses' had been an inspiration when I was trying to write about activism, so it was exciting to find that he was now reading me back. Then, that September, he posted a magnificent rant about why he was quitting journalism and what he wanted to do next. It struck a deep chord with my own disenchantment with the news industry - and I was intrigued his hints about the new publication he wanted to start. I almost wrote to him there and then, but it was another great post he wrote that December which finally prompted me to do so.

That autumn, around the time I turned thirty, I had a series of encounters with people whose writing had deeply influenced me. Work which I had met as words on a page became embodied in the people who had written it and the conversations from which it had grown. It was startling, unnerving, like a picture coming to life. The cumulative effect was of being invited into conversations to which I had previously been a spectator. It was wonderful and daunting, and as I looked at my life, I wondered whether it lived up to these invitations.

Not least of these was the invitation to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where friends and collaborators of Illich held a colloquium to mark the fifth anniversary of his death. It was a magical week of long, deep conversations, friendships which seem to have arrived fully formed. I returned to my life in England - an ambiguous component of an internet startup, learning to speak the language of shareholders and board meetings - unsure how to weave the two worlds together.

The year that followed was an uneasy one. School of Everything was on the rise, the investment deal signed, the full site launched that September at Channel 4 and heralded by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing. At the same time, the strain of living backwards and forwards between Sheffield and London, combined with deeper emotional questions which had gone unexamined in those years, reached breaking point. That autumn was a grim time, as relationships which had meant a great deal to me broke under that strain.

Then 2009 came out of nowhere, an explosion of serendipity. The First Life power of the web was suddenly turbo-charged by Twitter, bringing dozens of new friends and collaborators into my life. The Temporary School of Thought provided an incredible crossing point through which many of these friends passed - and the artists and activists behind it seemed to embody a new spirit, more collaborative and open, less faction-ridden than the squatted social centres I had been part of a few years earlier. The immediate threat of the economic abyss which had opened the previous autumn had passed, but the social cost of the crisis was just becoming apparent, and politicians and civil servants had begun taking seriously ideas which, a year earlier, would have seemed outlandish. I was finding myself in some unexpected conversations and realising that there really were no grown-ups in charge: the world was ramshackle all the way to the top, a sea of muddle with occasional islands of competence.

That January, I met Vinay Gupta, an outrageous figure who would become another of the great collaborators of my life. I also stumbled into Tuttle Club, a kind of Friday morning job club for the self-unemployed, hosted by the inspired Lloyd Davis. Every corner I turned, I seemed to discover new excitements. I wrote a post about how the lessons we had learned from social media could help tackle the social consequences of the economic crisis, which sparked a run of events and projects. In fact, I was starting more projects than it would be possible to finish, and my one regret of the extraordinary year that followed is that I didn't do a better job of handling this.

I had begun to unplug from School of Everything. We had too many leaders and were burning through our funding too fast. Besides, I was restless and ready for something new. As I stepped back, I realised that no one - myself included - was particularly clear what I had actually done as part of SoE. When Tony Hall, one of the teachers on the site and a fellow admirer of Illich, suggested a regular face-to-face meetup, I saw that this could offer room to reflect on the ideas and the vision which I had originally brought to the project. School of Everything: Unplugged became a space of reflection, improvisation and conviviality, a gathering of likeminded souls, and an opportunity to meet people whose ideas had inspired me.

That summer, Paul Kingsnorth and I launched The Dark Mountain Project. This was the culmination of long conversations, over email and in the corners of pubs, since my first email to him eighteen months earlier. We published a manifesto, a wild call for the unravelling of our deep cultural assumptions, for us to meet the global disruption ahead of and around us with imagination and a willingness to let go of much we grew up taking for granted. We expected the call to be heard by writers and artists, but its reach went wider, to musicians and mathematicians, engineers and gardeners, and brought back all kinds of responses and invitations.

Among the projects springing from the first months of that year, I found myself organising a monthly meetup called Space Makers, a convergence of artists, activists, social entrepreneurs, architects, squatters and policy-makers interested in rethinking the spaces in which we live, work and play. Thanks to the growth of our online network and the drive of Julia Shalet, that original meetup spawned an agency through which we could collaborate on practical projects. In October 2009, we announced our first major project, to fill twenty empty shops in Brixton Village indoor market with temporary creative projects and new local businesses. Once again, if we'd known the scale of what we were talking about, I doubt I would have had the courage. We were naive, insufficiently prepared and always on the edge of being overwhelmed, and yet somehow something special happened over the year that followed, something which thousands of people have valued and been part of.

Meanwhile, as Space Makers took off, so did Dark Mountain: at the invitation of Michael Hughes, we organised a three-day festival in Llangollen, a chaotic weekend of talks, debates, workshops, wonderful music and theatre. What made it special was the coming together of people, the conversations that happened around the edges, as well as the moments of magic from the likes of Jay Griffiths and Alastair McIntosh who transcended the unfitting formality of the venue. I would not gladly repeat the hour I spent on stage going head to head with George Monbiot, though perhaps it helped him find his vocation as a prize-fighter. But the value of Dark Mountain has not been in the Punch and Judy debates, but in the deeper, convivial, conspiratorial conversations like the one I filmed with David Abram in September 2010.

Lessons Learned

There's little more dangerous than taking yourself too seriously. Anyone who sets out to "change the world" will make a fool of themselves, so the only wisdom is to go about it foolishly.

Still, "changing the world" seemed like a description which connected the ambitions of the people I went looking for in the years after I abandoned any pretence of getting a "proper job". Activists, artists, inventors, policy-makers, entrepreneurs, designers, politicians and "social innovators" - all of them were out to change the way things worked, in one way or another, some for more considered reasons than others. And I was sceptical about the boundaries between these different roles, suspecting that problems one group were stuck with might already be solved by another. This was the same suspicion which guided Charlie to start a "school of art and business".

Over time, I came to think of the connection between these groups in terms of "bringing new things into social reality". This was how the world changed, not by the repetition of familiar arguments, but by the shifting of the boundaries of what people saw as possible. There was a craft to this, but it was a craft of observation, of working with what the world threw at you. It required the exercise of will, but in relationship with reality, not in stubborn opposition to it.

Looking back from here, clear patterns seem to run through the past eight years. It seldom felt like that at the time. Decisions were shaped by luck, opportunity, gut feeling, and sometimes simply the need to keep busy. There was always an element of vocation, of being tugged in certain directions, but only in the last year or two have I had a strong sense of focus and momentum.

One theme stands out, though, as I look back. Again and again, the lesson I learned was to avoid allowing situations to be defined by the oppositions and boundaries present within them:

* From Alastair McIntosh, I learned that our attempts to bring about change are always in danger of becoming a projection of our own psychological shadows onto those we define as the enemy. Unless we look after our emotional needs and those of our companions, we cannot act effectively.

* In those long breakfasts with Anthony McCann, I learned that when we define ourselves in opposition to something, we tend to find ourselves replicating the behaviours of those we oppose.

* Charlie Davies encouraged me not to be satisfied with creating cool, countercultural alternatives, but to aim to shape tomorrow's mainstream, to come up with things that work for all kinds of people, not just those who look or think like us.

* Vinay Gupta demonstrated that you could teach infrastructure to anarchists and work for the US Department of Defense, without contradiction, if you were willing to publish everything you worked on, think through the possible consequences of your work to the Nth degree and learn from the Open Source community's ability to build means without needing agreement over ends.

* The KaosPilots showed me the power of sitting ambiguously on the edge between business, art and activism - that it was possible to do this without sinking into the mire of "the cultural industries".

* Reading Bruce Sterling, I found a name for this boundary-crossing way of working: he called it "speculative culture".

* The Temporary School of Thought taught me that if people are having fun, they forget to disagree with each other - and I wondered how much of the factionalism I'd seen elsewhere was a result of the means-to-an-end, self-sacrificing culture of many attempts to "change the world".

The World Changes

I didn't recognise it at the time, but the last substantial post I wrote on this blog - in November 2009 - marked a turn away from this line of enquiry:

'Changing the world' has become an anachronism: the world is changing so fast, the best we can do is to become a little more observant, more agile, better able to move with it or to spot the places where a subtle shift may set something on a less-worse course than it was on. And you know, that's OK – because what makes life worth living was never striving for, let alone reaching, utopias. It always has come down to the simple things: being with people you care about, helping each other through, telling stories, piecing together bits of meaning, noticing something for the first time and sharing it with someone, eating together, doing work which meets your own needs and those of the people around you, getting a good night's sleep.

Earlier in that post, I wrote about a sense of crossing a threshold, something like the completion of an apprenticeship. The focus on my own learning, characteristic of my twenties, had given way to greater outward responsibility. There was also the beginning of a personal turning, thinking for the first time about what the responsibilities of family might mean, as I started to see friends and collaborators becoming parents.

I'm still some way off from that, as far as I know, but I'm also aware that I can't go on for many more years living quite as precariously as I have done. When I reposted my guide to "How To Make Something Happen", someone commented on the need for a version that "takes more care of the initiator." I feel that, having pushed myself hard and often survived on the kindness and generosity of friends over these years. The cost to myself has been a cost to those closest to me, in many ways.

I'm still working on becoming more observant, taking time out to slow down and reflect - but lately I've realised that the problem is less my inability to do so, more a side-effect of precariousness. Though there is a need, too, to choose carefully. There are many things I can get excited about and throw myself into, but it's time to focus on those which call most deeply to me, and get better at saying no to the rest. ("You're the kind of person who needs to be careful that you are selfish enough," a friend told me. "Selfish enough that you don't get distracted from what you are here to do.")

The end of this year is also the end of a decade, strictly speaking. Years have existed since the earth began orbiting the sun; decades are an invention of a particular human calendar, but that doesn't mean we can't use them as a vantage point.

There's no seeing the future, but there is every reason to expect that the next decade will be a difficult one for many people, a time of deepening social, economic and ecological crises. In that context, perhaps it is foolish to set intentions which involve making one's own life easier, yet those "simple things" I wrote about last year are remarkably resilient.

So, in the next decade, I intend to make more room in my life for simple things. I intend to spend more time with children. I intend to make a living by the things I'm best at doing, to put my ideas into writing, to be responsible for making space and time for deep conviviality and for kinds of learning neglected by institutions. I intend to spend less time in front of screens, to be more aware of my body and the bodies of those around me. And I intend to make more room for acknowledging in everyday ways the immeasurable value I put on the rich web of friendships by which I feel constantly supported.

I say all of this fully aware that next month will probably see me pitched into some new frenzy of activity. Recent Januaries have resembled being fired out of a cannon, and 2011 looks likely to be a rocky year for everyone. So these are not resolutions to be implemented tomorrow and broken before the month is out. This is more like setting a course, pointing myself loosely in a direction, as I did when I walked away from that job at the BBC.

How it all works out, I'll continue to write about elsewhere - in the new personal blog I started earlier this year, and in the other places signposted on my website.

If you are still reading this, thank you for your persistence, and I hope to see you somewhere along the way.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

UNCIVILISED London: Starting Tomorrow!

We live in dark, mountainous days...

Some might say that London is UNCIVILISED at the best of times, but we thought it needed some help.

So in the run up to UNCIVILISATION 2010, we're running a season of events around the capital, starting tomorrow night (Weds 21st April) in Kings Cross.

UNCIVILISATION is part music festival, part literary festival, part training camp for an uncertain future. Organised by me and my Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth, it brings together voices like Jay Griffiths, George Monbiot and Alastair McIntosh - along with a new generation of radical thinkers and doers - to explore two big questions:

What do we do after we stop pretending the way of living we grew up with can be made "sustainable"?

And if the stories our society tells itself are part of how we got into this mess, where do we start to find new stories?

The London events will be a taste of the festival itself. Tomorrow's guests include Briony Greenhill (The Blended Lifestyle) and Lottie Child (Street Training), as well as music from Lloyd Davis and others. Come down to the Centre for Creative Collaboration, 16 Acton Rd, Kings Cross to dip your toe in the waters of UNCIVILISATION. The natives are friendly, we promise...

Full details here:

PS - watch out for our UNCIVILISED ELECTION party on May 6th - more details soon!

Monday 12 April 2010

Looking forward to UNCIVILISATION!

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly playing at the Dark Mountain Project launch last July

(Photograph by Andy Broomfield)

Organising a festival is rather like playing "fantasy dinner party", where you imagine what it would be like to have Oscar Wilde, Germaine Greer and Christopher Marlowe round for tea. At least, that's how it feels when I realise that I'm getting to put my oldest friend Bill Harbottle's band on stage, hours after I'll be up there myself grilling George Monbiot.

UNCIVILISATION: The Dark Mountain Festival is only seven weeks away now - so it's time to book your tickets, if you haven't already! I'll post more soon about the ideas behind the festival, but for now I just wanted to share my excitement about the combination of people we're bringing together.

There's Alastair McIntosh, whose Soil & Soul is the only book I've ever read that made such a direct impression I immediately sat down and wrote to the author.

And I'm delighted to be putting together Anthony McCann, who I used to hang out with every Monday in Sheffield over breakfasts that often lasted till mid-afternoon, with Vinay Gupta, the inventor of the Hexayurt, who I first met in a squat in London last January.

Lottie Child is an artist who asks deep, simple questions which change the way people look at the world. Briony Greenhill has been searching for a blended lifestyle, with a netbook in one hand and a spade in the other. Both of them have inspired me to ground my thinking in practical questions of how we make lives which work for us as individuals and communities, in a world that faces massive disruption.

Anton Shelupanov is a Russian polymath who rewrites the penal codes of Central Asian countries in his spare time, and his band Bleak make me think of Birthday Party-era Nick Cave. Get Cape Wear Cape Fly is a very nice bloke who got in touch with my Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth after reading his first book, One No, Many Yeses, and has been a friend of this project from the start.

I first met Marmaduke Dando when I was editing the Pick Me Up email zine. He runs Power Down - a zero-electricity club night with wind-up gramophones, candles and totally unplugged music - and he'll be running one for us on the Friday night.

I've never met Jay Griffiths, but I've been a fan of hers for years and she's written a great piece for the first Dark Mountain book, which is being launched at the festival. She's one of a range of writers we've invited to talk about how we find new stories for difficult times.

To be honest, I could go on all day about the wonderful collection of people who'll be joining us in Wales - but the most important thing to say is, I'd like you to be part of it.

UNCIVILISATION is happening in Llangollen, over the bank holiday weekend of 28-30th May. Tickets cost £60 (including camping) and you can buy them here. (The venue itself is indoors, so if the Welsh weather turns against us, it won't be miserable.)

It's the first time Paul and I have done anything like this - although Michael and the team who are running things at the Llangollen end know what they're doing. The idea is to create a space in which the conversations started by the Dark Mountain manifesto can continue face-to-face. Part literary festival, part music festival, part training camp for an uncertain future... It should be a chance to talk honestly about serious questions, but also a lot of fun - with time to catch up with old friends, make new ones and hang out with some people whose books and ideas have inspired and challenged many of us.

Someone described it the other day as "a kind of intellectual Burning Man". That's a lot to live up to, but we're excited about the energy that's gathering around the festival - and I'm certain it'll be a weekend to remember.

Monday 22 February 2010

Come to our booklaunch on Thursday!

COMMONSense is a small book I edited a couple of years ago exploring themes around "the commons" and "common sense". It was an Arts Council-funded project, organised by Access Space, Sheffield.

The wheels of publishing grind slowly, but the collection is now in print and we're having a London launch this Thursday evening at SPACE studios, Mare Street, Hackney. Please come and join us for what should be a fun evening!

Here's what I wrote for the back cover:

"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?"

It's happening 6 till 8pm - and here's a map to help you find SPACE. Nearest transport options are London Fields overground station (two stops from Liverpool Street) or a short bus ride from Bethnal Green tube or Hackney Central overground (254, 106 and D6 run between the two stations).

Friday 5 February 2010

A Beginner's Guide to Twitter

So you just signed up to Twitter - and right now you're totally confused!

One reason is that 95% of what you've read in the newspaper or seen on TV about it is wrong. (Why Journalists Write So Much Rubbish About Twitter is a subject I wrote a whole other post on...)

The tricky thing with Twitter is it's very, very simple - you write 140 characters - and everything that makes it interesting is about using it smartly.

What is Twitter for?

Despite what you've probably read, it's not true that Twitter is about telling people what you had for breakfast. Only stupid people (and celebrities) do that - with the exception of people who are capable of making you laugh by the way they write about their breakfast.

The best way to think about Twitter is to see it as a giant, endless pub conversation. In fact, this is why I love Twitter: it's like having a little part of you that's always down the pub.

This also means it's hard to write about how to use Twitter in a way that doesn't sound stupid. Imagine a User's Guide to Pub Conversation. But here goes...

You could say there are two levels to good conversation: the content of individual statements and the flow of interaction. So let's think about Twitter in those terms.

Content - some types of Tweet

The longer I use Twitter, the more different ways of using those 140 characters I begin to recognise. Here are a few types of message I see a lot on Twitter and which seem to work well (the examples are from my own recent tweets):

- a thought, idea or observation:

I keep thinking we must have hit Peak Leopard Print, then I see more...

- something odd that just happened to you:

Starting the day with a random prog rock conversation with a chap in the Gallery cafe. He told me I looked like Mike Rutherford circa 1969.

- a good quote:

"Reality is such that both language and imagination have to exaggerate, in order to confront it truly." John Berger

- a gentle plug for something you're involved in:

Looking forward to running the RIBA/@spacemkrs mapping workshops with @monkeytreepro!

- a link with enough information that people know why to click on it:

"It may be the most honest attempt at literature we've seen." High praise for @darkmtn from Sharon Astyk -

There are lots more ways of using 140 characters - we could collect a whole Twitter typology for a future post - but those are enough to be going on with.

Three ways to get more out of Twitter

There are a few basic pieces of shorthand that people use on Twitter which make it much more interesting and useful, but which aren't obvious to the uninitiated.

1. At messages - if you start a tweet with someone's Twitter name (including the @ symbol), that's like addressing your message to them, e.g.:

@marcovanbelle You should meet @lloyddavis one of these days.

Just like in a pub conversation, other people can still overhear what you're saying - and may well join in. (If you really need to whisper, use a Direct Message - though you can only send these to people who are following you.)

Every time someone uses your name in a tweet, their message will appear in your 'Mentions', even if you're not following them. When you're logged in to Twitter, your @name appears in the right hand column, below Home and above Direct Messages. If you click on this, you can see all your Mentions.

(In the example above, the message would also apppear in Lloyd's Mentions, so this is a good way to introduce two people - or to get the attention of someone who's not following you.)

2. Hash tags - add a # to the front of a word and it becomes a 'hashtag'.

People use this to make it easy to find messages relating to a certain event or topic. For example, search for #tuttle and you'll see lots of conversations about the Tuttle club, a weekly coffee morning that brings together lots of the most interesting people using Twitter in London.

Again, this is a good way to start interacting with people you haven't
met/aren't following yet.

3. Retweets - if you like something someone else has posted, post it yourself, adding RT @username to the front. (Sometimes you have to sub down the original to fit 140chars.) This is how things travel virally through Twitter.

(Recently, Twitter have added an automatic version of this, but a lot of us still do it by hand - maybe because this gives you more control, maybe because we're old stick-in-the-muds.)

Flow: interaction is as important as content

Going back to the kinds of message that work, it's as much about interactions and conversations as the individual message. Here's a late night exchange with a couple of people:

[@dougald] Just been complimented on my trousers by woman on night bus. Well, they are very nice trousers, if I say so myself!

[@andybroomfield] @dougald Are they sparkly?

[@dougald] @andybroomfield No, but they have a rusty post-industrial sheen.

[@leashless] @Dougald #needsleatherpants

[@dougald] @leashless Can you please clarify that you're talking pants (US) not pants (GB)? You'll give people nightmares!

[@andybroomfield] @leashless @dougald only if they are leopard skin

[@leashless] @dougald "No. Foucalt wears leather underwear" - anon grad student.

This is all obviously silly nonsense! (It's also riffing off a previous exchange in which I'd been told I needed leather trousers, as well as the whole leopard print thing...) But it's like pub conversation, and besides passing the time, it builds the kind of connections that mean people can call on each other for help in professional situations, on the basis that people are much more willing to help someone they've had fun with...

The general point behind this was summed up for me by Ze Frank, who makes the most fantastic, silly toys and jokes out of the internet, at the end of his TED talk:

If you come home and your spouse, or whoever it is, says "Let's talk" - that, like, chills you to the very core! It's peripheral activities like these that allow people to get together, doing fun things, and actually get to know each other. It is low-threshold, peripheral activities that I think are the key to bringing up some of the bonding social capital that I think we're lacking.

I'm clear from my own experience that using Twitter has led to a huge increase in my "social capital" and that of my friends - though I'm also clear that talking about "social capital" is a bit like writing a User's Guide to Pub Conversation, it's only useful as long as you realise that it's, um, totally missing the point.

So now it's time to get started...

Actually, it's time I went to the offline kind of pub, but if this has been helpful, I suggest the next thing you do is start following (and interacting with) some interesting people.

If you have friends or colleagues who are into Twitter, ask them to recommend people you should follow. (Try using an @ message to ask them...)

Failing that, try using a service like LocaFollow to find people with interests in common, in your area or around the world.

The final word...

Like I say, the thing to remember is it's all a big rambling conversation. People are willing to give help and advice freely, like they would in the pub, and sometimes you get into pub arguments with people you hardly know.

And, of course, no one ever gets the final word, because the conversation just keeps rolling on.

Have fun with it - and let me know how you get on.

(This was originally written as an email to @marcovanbelle. Thanks to @marmadukedando, @jackcabnory, @sctv and @tinich for encouraging me to turn it into a blog post.)

Sunday 31 January 2010

Bringing Together The Conversations

It's not often I feel like reposting something across multiple blogs, but the latest piece I've put up on the Dark Mountain blog feels worth flagging up here.

There are two parts to it - the first takes on a question posed to us by Matt Sellwood from the Green Party. He goes along with much of what Paul and I have written, including our attack on environmentalism which perpetuates false hope. But, he asks, how do we avoid the renunciation of false hope becoming "an excuse for having given up on any change being possible at all"? This feels like a question it's time to get stuck into.

Which brings me to the second half of my post - a video dialogue with Vinay Gupta of the Hexayurt Project. Those who've followed what I've been up to over the past year will know that Vinay and I have collaborated on all sorts of stuff - not least, the Institute for Collapsonomics - but this is the first time we've put ourselves in front of the camera for any length of time. The 35 minute discussion ranges around the relationship between villages and cities, taking in John Berger, Alan Garner, Ivan Illich and many other of the writers and thinkers I bang on about - as well as the relationship between culture and technology, the future of science fiction and much more.

So I invite you to head over to the Dark Mountain blog, read the post, watch the video and join in the conversation.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Temporary School Reunion

Remember the Temporary School of Thought?

A year ago, an amazing collection of people gathered in a huge squatted townhouse in Mayfair and held a three-week long free university, with classes in everything from welding to maze-making to how to think about infrastructure and the case for and against art school.

If I hadn't gone down to the Temporary School, most of the things I did in 2009 would never have happened.

It was there that I met Vinay, Mike and the rest of the crew that became the Institute for Collapsonomics. Conversations during those weeks led me to start writing Social Media vs the Recession and The Future of Unemployment, and from there to the beginnings of Signpostr and Space Makers. And it was Steph, one of the organisers of the Temporary School, who co-piloted the Treehouse Gallery in Regents Park, where I spent much of last summer.

The Temporary School was a magical time and space - so when I realised, earlier this week, that we'd reached its first anniversary, it seemed like a good idea to organise a Temporary School Reunion.

This has been thrown together very quickly - but then, that was the spirit that made the original Mayfair school work. It's all happening this Saturday - 9 January down in Brixton.

In keeping with the Temporary School spirit, the reunion will make temporary use of an empty space - this time, one of the shops at Brixton Village/Granville Arcade - the indoor market where Julia and I have been running the Space Makers project over the last few months. We'll be in Unit 40, on the back row of the market, kicking off at 11am on Saturday and running until the market closes at 6pm.

The schedule is still coming together - but Vinay will be giving an updated version of his famous Infrastructure for Anarchists talk at 3pm. And I'll be on at 4.30, giving a very long perspective on the crisis of the university, inspired by the later writings of Ivan Illich. If you want to offer a workshop or lead a discussion, leave a comment here - or just turn up before 11am on Saturday morning and we'll find you a slot.

Next door in Units 41/42, there will be public rehearsals of masked improvisation from theatre collective Firstborn, as part of the Space Station festival - with a performance at 4.30. While a few doors down, the Okido Doodle Shop will be running events for kids.

Whether you were part of the Mayfair School, or only read about it in the papers, come along and help us rekindle some of that spirit. Hopefully it will burn as brightly through 2010 as it has over the past twelve months.

Speaking of keeping warm - we recommend you wear warm clothes and, if you can, bring a cushion or a folding seat! Some seating will be provided...

* For more on the history of the Temporary School, check out this post.

* For directions to Brixton Village/Granville Arcade, go here - it's only three minutes from Brixton tube.

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