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.

About Me

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This blog was my online home between 2006 and 2009. Today, you'll find me scattered across the internet. To start looking, go to my personal website:

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