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#FULLCOMMONISM

FSCONS is the Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit, an annual gathering of politically-minded hackers. Last year I gave a talk there about why “post-scarcity” is such a problematic concept. They liked that enough to ask me to put together a whole track at this year’s conference, which takes place this weekend in Gothenburg. That’s how #FULLCOMMONISM came about.

#FULLCOMMONISM is the thing I’ve been going on about for a while (like here and here), an insistence on how big the difference is between seeing a “commons” as a pool of resources to be managed and seeing a “commons” as an alternative to resources.

The moment you treat something as a resource, you’ve already commodified it. This sounds totally abstract, until you think about friendship, one of the few areas of human experience where we still have any common language for talking about the idea that not everything should be treated as a resource. When someone you thought of as a friend treats you as a resource you say, “I feel used!” – and people know what you mean.

The idea of “the commons” has been on a long journey out of the history books and into lots of areas of public discourse. I don’t mean it’s become a household word, but it is in danger of becoming a buzzword, everywhere from conservation to architecture to internet politics. One effect of this is that same word increasingly gets used in different ways, sometimes incompatibly different ways. I believe there’s a desperate need for a shared language for talking about why some things shouldn’t be “used” (and also when it might be OK to “use” things). That’s why #FULLCOMMONISM matters to me – I want to defend a way of talking about commons that helps us hold onto the possibility of other ways of treating each other and the world, rather than allowing it to be smudged into another approach to exploitation – a more sustainable and equitable way of “using” each other.

I’ve written a chapter for a book that the University of Gothenburg are putting out soon, in which I take this further, sketching out a set of connections between what I think of as the “logic” of commons – the ways of thinking and acting that go with “commonism” in its full sense – and the logic of friendship, hospitality and gift. I argue that this logic is at odds with another, dominant logic which forms the hidden consensus between the supposed opposites of “public” and “private”. But that’s more than I can go into this afternoon…

For now, this is an invitation to join us in Gothenburg on Saturday – or online, where there should be videos of Saturday’s talks appearing in the near future – as we try to flesh out the kind of commons I have in mind, the thing that Anthony McCann often calls ‘the heart of the commons’. I’ll be helped in this by a fascinating group of fellow speakers, some of them longstanding co-conspirators, others new friends, who are interested in this kind of conversation about the commons:

  • Evren Uzer von Busch will be talking about communal meals on the streets of Istanbul in the wake of the Gezi Park protests.
  • Christopher Brewster will be talking about water, friendship and conviviality, where commons and infrastructure meet.
  • Geraldine Juarez will be talking about piracy and friendship (and Piracy as Friendship).
  • Lars Noväng will be talking about trying to turn ideas into reality with The Friendly, the organisation and project space he created in Malmö.
  • And finally David Hilmer Rex and Aslak Aamot will be talking about Organisational Imaginaries, new social infrastructures and ways of thinking about what we have in common that shape the ways in which we come together and collaborate.

This is all just one track within a conference that will be full of fascinating talks and conversations – and it’s also just one step in the development of a line of inquiry around the commons that is rooted in ideas from Ivan Illich and Anthony McCann, that I hope to take forward in other ways in the years ahead.

Tickets are available through the FSCONS website – 600kr for the whole weekend.

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Remembering Uncivilisation

As you may have gathered by now, the weekend after next is Futureperfect festival – but it’s also the anniversary of the last Uncivilisation, the annual Dark Mountain gathering that we ran in the UK. There are plenty of differences between the two festivals, but what they have in common is the quality of conversation we’re bringing together – and I’m delighted to have some old friends joining us on Grinda, including Smári McCarthy and Ella Saitta, who were on the legendary Collapsonomics panel at Uncivilisation 2011.

Meanwhile, this seemed like a good time to share this essay that I wrote for the latest Dark Mountain book. Though I’m glad to say the 14-day weather forecast for the Stockholm archipelago is looking rather more encouraging…

The skies opened and all the waters in them fell at once. It was a rain so hard I remember the weight of it on my shoulders, so loud you had to shout to have a chance of being heard. Yet, uncommonly for England in summer, it was not a miserable rain. There was something triumphant about it. Perhaps because we all knew we would soon be in vehicles, heading back to the sheltered lives we had come from. Perhaps because we had already endured a weekend of hard showers, woodland mists and other watery intrusions. But also because it felt somehow like a seal of approval, a full-throated elemental roar in answer to the voices raised here in the past three days, the past four years, at the last moment of the fourth and last Uncivilisation festival.

Insist too hard on the significance of a poetic coincidence and you will make people uncomfortable. Better to recount such moments as jokes the world seemed to join in with than as some kind of revelation, but my experience of those four festivals includes several of them. The first came that first year, before we had found the site in the Meon valley that became our home, when several hundred people gathered in Llangollen, unsure what to expect. The landscape was darker, wild and splendid, but the venue itself was a converted sports hall. We had never organised anything like this, and our hosts were used to organising comedy nights and concerts for local audiences who bought their tickets, sat in their seats, enjoyed the show, applauded and went home. We were unprepared for the logistics of a festival and unprepared for the ways in which a festival comes alive. There were a hundred things wrong: plastic beer in plastic cups, a campsite too long a walk from the venue, a main hall where rows of seats faced a stage where speakers could barely see for the dazzle of the theatre lighting. Yet somehow, in spite of it all, this became a place where magic could happen.

The moment it happened for me, that year, was on the Sunday, as Jay Griffiths spoke about the shapeshifting power of language only for gremlins to take hold of the sound system so completely that the technicians could barely coax a murmur from it. After a couple of minutes of confusion, the room reassembled, people sitting in circles around Jay on the stage and on the floor. And there, the spell was broken, the face-off between speakers and spoken-to giving way to a shape as old as stories.

From there on in, the memories seem to dance with each other, as we found ways to open the circle and let others step in, until I am not sure which of the things I remember happened to me and which I only heard about. The wild figures in the fields, on the edge of sight. The late night tellings that bewitched us around the fire. The daylight stories of loss and pride, still fresh and urgent on the tellers’ faces. The music that picked up at the place where words ran out. The rhythm of rain on the roof of a marquee. Thirty people penned inside a square of rope to reenact the memory of a Russian prison cell. The sharpening of a scythe. Laughter and fooling and horns and antlers. At the end of everything, a singer’s voice going up into the night.

Someone said, one Sunday morning, almost embarrassed, that this was the closest thing they had to going to church. All along, it was there, the awkward presence of something no other language seemed fit for, the wariness of a language that so easily turns to dust on the tongue. Here is one way that I have explained it to myself. A taboo, in the full sense, is something other than a reasonable modern legal prohibition: it is a thing forbidden because it is sacred and it may, under appropriately sacred circumstances, be permitted, even required. Now, the space that we opened together, as participants, was a space in which certain taboos had been lifted: some that are strong in the kinds of society we have grown up in, some that have been stronger still in the kinds of movement many of us have been active in. Not the obvious taboos on physical gratification—most of what they covered is now not prohibited so much as required, in this postmodern economy of desire—but the taboo on darknesses and doubts, on naming our losses, failures, fears, uncertainties and exhaustions. In response to our earliest attempts to articulate what Dark Mountain might be, people we knew—good, dedicated people—would tell us, ‘OK, so you’ve burned out. It happens. But there’s no need to do it in public and encourage others to give up.’ Instead, it seemed, one should find a quiet place to be alone with the disillusionment. Perhaps become an aromatherapist. If I have any clue where the power of Dark Mountain came from—knowing that it came from somewhere other than the two of us who wrote the manifesto—then I would say it came from creating a space in which our darknesses can be spoken to each other. (From here, among much else, we may begin to question why the movements we have been involved in seem accustomed to use people as a kind of fuel.) By the second or third year of the festival, though, I found myself wondering if the sacred nature of taboo might not work both ways. If a group of people creates a space in which taboos are lifted, perhaps this in itself is enough to invoke the forms of experience for which the language of the sacred has often been used?

That is how I have explained it to myself, at least, for now; and if there is any truth in such an explanation, then it bears also on the role of those who take responsibility for creating such a space. We did not know, when we agreed—rather lightly—to that original invitation to host a weekend in Llangollen, that what we were creating was nothing so safe as a programme of talks, workshops and performances. Those elements were there, but they leave out much of what mattered most to those to whom the festival came to matter. The other, harder to name elements, which seem to have something to do with the sacred, call for another order of responsibility. The hard thing is not to create a space in which taboos can be broken, but to do it without people getting broken.

I have been reading stories from the 1960s, counterculture stories, uncomfortable reading, because there are things I want to understand better about the much-mythologised moment in which all that took place. There are plenty of broken taboos in those stories, and no end of broken people. By comparison, we were weekend amateurs, going nowhere near so high or so hard or so fast, but someone who had been through those years and lived to tell the tales told me this festival was the closest he had known to a reawakening of what he knew back then. If so, then here is confirmation that the taboos in which there is power today are of a different kind, for there is more hedonistic excess on a Saturday night in any high street in England than there was in four years of our Uncivilisation.

In the end, I think we learned to carry the responsibility, to hold this kind of space with care, though it took the wisdom of others who joined us at the heart of the festival-making. Nothing in the process of writing prepares you for such work, for a writer’s responsibilities are as bounded as the binding of a book, and the space from which writing comes is a solitary one.

We didn’t set out to start a festival, a festival happened to us. From those who came to it, we learned more about what Dark Mountain might be and what it might mean than we could ever have done at our desks. It felt good to have created it—and it feels good now to have brought it to an end. After all, there are reasons why no one tries to start a publishing operation and an annual festival as part of the same small new non-profit business in the same year. Somehow, we got away with it, although the price was paid in the fraying of our wits, and also in the inevitable carelessnesses—most of them small, but none of them unimportant—that happen when you are always trying to do too much at once. There are also reasons why a journal which is increasingly international, and not exactly enthusiastic about air travel, might not want to spend half its year organising a single event in the south of England.

For the next while, then, we are going to concentrate on doing one thing and doing it with the care it deserves, the thing we thought we were doing in the first place: bringing together books like the one you hold in your hands. We brought Uncivilisation to an end while it still felt like a joy rather than a duty. But the sparks from all those late night campfires carried further and there are friends of Dark Mountain organising events in the Scottish lowlands, the former coalfields of South Yorkshire and no doubt other corners of the world.

When the horns had sounded and the thank you’s and goodbye’s had been shouted through the downpour, a circle of friends sat for a few minutes in the shelter of a yurt. We sat quietly, the silence broken after a few moments, as one after another spoke about what he or she had taken from being part of Uncivilisation. Few of us had met before that first gathering in Llangollen and our stories echoed something I have heard over and over, from people who came every year and from people who came only once. A feeling of being less alone. For all the intensity of the mountain-top moments, what stays with us, what carries us through life, is this, the quiet magic of friendship.

This piece was first published in Dark Mountain: Issue 5, along with a photo essay documenting the four years of Uncivilisation – not to mention a whole lot of amazing essays, stories, poetry and art from around the world. Meanwhile, if you can make it to the Stockholm archipelago next week, there will be the chance to pick up some of the same threads at Futureperfect festival (14-17 August). For more information, see this post – or book tickets on the festival site.

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On The Urgent Need to Slow Down

There are two weeks to go until this year’s Futureperfect festival kicks off – and every day now, I’m hearing from new people who are coming, people I’m excited to know are going to be there.

I’ve come to see gatherings like this as a necessary luxury.

A luxury because they allow us to take a couple of steps back from the day-to-day realities of our work, whatever that may be.

And a necessity because, without stepping back like this from time to time, we will drift off course, lose sight of that element within our work that is hardest to put into words, the element that was why it mattered in the first place.

In these spaces, we get to stretch out our minds and our souls a little – to have the conversations we never quite find time for among the rhythms of everyday life, or at more goal-oriented events and conferences. We step into festive time, a time of leisure in the deeper, older senses of the word: the kind of leisure that was long understood to be the precondition for learning. The leisure that allows us to attend to what matters.

I believe that such spaces matter all the more, given the tangle of crises around and ahead of us. I’ll say what I mean by this in a moment – but as I work my way around to doing so, you might like to put on a little music from one of the artists who’ll be creating the kind of leisurely atmosphere I’m looking forward to at Futureperfect…

Over the last few weeks, with some of my new collaborators here in Sweden, we’ve been starting to put words to the kind of work we want to do together in the name of The Västerås Group: the organisation that has been growing of the conversation series I hosted here in Västerås earlier in the summer. (Recordings of the first five conversations are available to download here, the rest are coming soon.)

There’s a question we’ve found ourselves circling around, which goes something like this: What do we do when our maps no longer fit the territory?

We seem to be living in a time of disorientation. A time of people who feel lost and confused, who followed the route they were given, but didn’t get to the lives they were expecting. Institutions whose levers no longer seem to work. At the root of this are a set of entangled crises: among them, the unravelling of the promise of economic progress, of the structures and culture of democracy, of the ecological fabric on which all of this rests.

These crises are still only starting to poke through the collective map by which our societies steer, the collection of models and stories that make up what I often think of as ‘official reality’. Politicians and the media struggle to incorporate them into their ways of talking about the world. But the lurching sense of disorientation is a product of the gap between that rapidly-dating map and the realities of everyday life.

And so, as we’ve been talking about what The Västerås Group might actually do together, we’ve started to sketch out what it might mean to build a practice around the redrawing of our maps. Taking account of the unmarked obstacles, resisting the illusion of a return to the way things once worked, learning to spot the unexpected paths where we had been told there was only a dead end.

Just now, for me, all of this comes around to Futureperfect. For the obvious reason that this is the first project we’ve undertaken as The Västerås Group: to host the festival’s Cocreation Space, a huge tent at the centre of the festival site, full of cushions and comfy sofas and conversations, where our Festival Faculty will be inviting people back from the more formal sessions going on over the four days, picking up the loose ends and unanswered questions, trying to draw each other beyond our preformed ideas, into the process of thinking together.

And for the larger reason that the space of necessary luxury and leisurely conversation seems to be a precondition for the kinds of work that we’ve started to identify as belonging to the process of redrawing. Gatherings like this are one form of such a space, there are others. They respond to a need that grows stronger in times of disorientation: the urgent need to slow down.

So here is my work-in-progress, back-of-an-envelope map of some kinds of work that make sense, when our maps no longer fit the territory. (I suspect it will be a while before we distill all this into a simple explanation of what it is we’re doing, but I hope the conversations on Grinda in two weeks’ time will help that process on its way.)

  1. Acknowledge the scale and significance of the gap that has opened up: the discomfort of losing our bearings, the attachment we have to how we thought the world worked and how we thought our lives would work out. Make room for this loss, and for the doubts and fears and darknesses that come with it. Wait for your eyes to adjust, without rushing to answers or to action. Allow it to pass from the level of information and facts, into the kind of knowledge we feel in our bodies, the kind that leaves us changed. (If I had to sum up why Dark Mountain has mattered to people, I would say it was because without fully realising what we were doing, we made room for this kind of process – a theme Paul and I talked about in the Five Years on a Mountain video.)
  2. Give attention to the maps, models and stories we grew up taking for reality. Take a step back and allow them to come into focus. Notice them, name them together, so that we can recognise the moments when they slip back in to our thinking, uninvited. This is the kind of attention I associate with what Cat Lupton calls ‘the place between stories’ (which always reminds me of ‘the Wood between the Worlds’ in The Magicians Nephew). It’s a process I talk about in this short video with Ākāśa Innovation.
  3. Give attention to the elements within people’s everyday experience that are left out of the maps and models we inherited. If loosening the hold of our existing maps means stepping back to the in-between place where we can reflect on the maps themselves, the counterweight to this – the guard against getting lost in our reflections – is to step closer to the unmapped texture of experience. Look for the places where things no longer work the way they used to, and also for the huge areas where people’s experience was never reflected in the map. There is pain here, exclusion and damage, but this is never the whole story: there are clues also, pockets of life that may have endured precisely because they went unmapped, possibilities that we had missed. I think of those lines of Eugenio Montale:
  4. History isn’t
    the devastating bulldozer they say it is.
    It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes
    and hiding places…

  5. Find different ways of having conversations. The situation is too messy and too serious to spend our time acting out the kinds of point-scoring debate that have too often passed for grown-up public discourse. With nice timing, a deck of Group Works cards arrived in the post this week from Dave Pollard, offering ‘a pattern language for bringing life to meetings and gatherings’, while Mark left a comment pointing me towards the example of Council Practice. Willow Brugh, one of the other members of the Festival Faculty, is working on a ‘recipe box’ of different flavours of conversation for the Cocreation Space. How do we move beyond these as ‘alternative’ techniques? How could we help parts of the mainstream media out of the dead-end of pointless backward-and-forward arguments that pass for intelligent discussion? That might sound naïve, but it’s what Per Johansson, one of our Festival Faculty, has been doing with his series for Swedish Radio’s P1, Människan och Maskinen (Man and the Machine) – and the response they’ve experienced suggests there is a hunger for this kind of media. Much closer to the hard end of broadcast news, I see something related in the way in which Paul Mason bridges between the networked conversations of social media, intellectual analysis and reporting for a mainstream TV channel.
  6. Recognise the role of culture and the imagination. Not to be pressed into service as a means to an end, a delivery mechanism for a message we want to communicate – but a place where the wilder sides of ourselves come to life, where the familiar can be thrown into question and new shapes can arrive from no-one knows quite where. Here, again, we meet a necessary luxury. I’m getting particularly interested in the role of theatre in this – not least, for some of the reasons that Paul Mason touched on in his review of the National Theatre’s Great Britain – so I’m excited to be bringing to Futureperfect the founders of the young Swedish theatre company Troja Scenkonst, currently working on a project called The History of Swedish Democracy, along with the remarkable Bembo Davies of the Institute for Non-Toxic Propaganda and the Society for the Promotion of Human Rites.
  7. Aim to create projects and experiments that continue to make sense in the widest range of possible futures. There is a criterion here, to be worked out further, which might start to help us shape practical work. Perhaps the unMonastery, which both Bembo Davies and Ben Vickers (Curator of Digital at the Serpentine Gallery and another of our Festival Faculty) have been involved with, is an example of this kind of experiment? I’m looking forward to hearing more about how its first phase in Matera has gone.
  8. Create pockets within our organisations and institutions that have permission to experiment with other maps. To operate according to other assumptions and other scenarios. And to exercise judgement as well as measurement, to take seriously things that don’t show up in the criteria other parts of the organisation are accountable to. (Christopher Brewster and I discussed ‘The Limits to Measurement’ as part of the Västerås Conversations – and he’ll also be joining us at the festival.) Again, this is something that needs working out, but it feels like there could be a rationale for a small part of an organisation’s resources to be used in this way, as a hedge against “map failure”. This is a conversation I’ve had a few times over the years with Ella Saitta, one of the hacker-thinkers who’ll be joining us at Futureperfect.

I don’t know if these kind of reflections are what the Futureperfect guys expected, when they appointed me as their Festival Professor.

As a model, it is a work in progress, a sketch of some of what’s been bubbling up in our conversations – and I owe a particular debt to Lucas Grind, who has spent the most time grinding through these ideas together with me. (He’ll be at the core of our Cocreation Space crew – as well as DJing on the Saturday night…)

But hopefully it’s also a taste of what to expect, if you’re thinking about joining us in two weeks’ time. Meanwhile, I’m going to take my own advice and slow down for awhile. I look forward to seeing some of you on Grinda!

Futureperfect is happening from 14-17 August on the island of Grinda in the Stockholm archipelago. Tickets are available from the festival website.

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Friendship is a Commons

Two different ways of thinking go under the banner of the commons, today. One speaks of the management of shared resources; the other struggles to remember a form of social relations in which the world is not seen as made up of resources. The law of the commons was unwritten, according to Ivan Illich, because it protected ‘a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.’ In our commodity-intensive societies, where do we find the traces of that unwritten reality?

Out of my conversations with Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca in late 2012, there was one thread that wouldn’t be left alone. Two or three times over those afternoons, Gustavo had returned to the theme of friendship: as the starting point for the new commons, the category for the reconstruction of society.

The following spring I was invited at a few days’ notice to speak at the Commoning the City conference at Stockholm’s Architecture Museum. It was a chance to pull on that loose thread, to try to make sense of why friendship might be a good starting point from which to think about the commons and about political possibility today.

I went on to write about the experience of the conference and the thoughts it prompted in an article for STIR magazine – and I still have unfinished business with this tangle of themes. Until I find another way back to them, though, here’s the video of that talk.

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Needs, Desires and Spires: Some Bits of ‘Lean Logic’

Over the past two issues of Dark Mountain, we published extracts from Dr David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It. It’s an extraordinary book, uncategorisable, a ‘community of essays’ – or, as John Thackara puts it, ‘half encyclopedia, half commonplace book, half a secular bible, half survival guide’. Fleming worked on it for thirty years, completing it shortly before his death in 2010.

I’m grateful to his friend Shaun Chamberlin (of Dark Optimism) who approached us about publishing the extracts. I’ve been rereading them in preparation for next month’s Futureperfect festival – and this afternoon I decided it was time to splash out on the full thing, all cloth-bound hardback 736 pages of it.

Fleming’s voice belongs to another generation – there are traces of a desire for an overarching model or plan, a desire which belongs to that generation – yet there is a great rolling intellectual curiosity and range of reference that is unsatisfied with the kinds of closed answers to which that desire often leads. Two passages in particular from among the extracts stuck with me for weeks, and I want to share them as food for the conversations I’m looking forward to on Grinda next month. Continue reading

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London Talk: 27th June

London feels a long way away, these days, and the years that I spent there are starting to feel like a long time ago. But I’ll be back briefly at the end of next week – and the good people at Impact Hub Islington have invited me to give a talk on Friday night (27th).

I want to take this as an opportunity to look back on the years I spent within London’s ‘social innovation’ scene, to share some stories, as a well as a few reflections made with the (possible) benefit of hindsight.

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Improvising the Future

“Let’s not get rid of Shakespeare!” I found myself saying.

Part way through this fifth Västerås Conversation, after Alex Fradera and I had been enthusing for some time about improvisation – and after he had led the group, with much laughter, through a couple of exercises to give them a taste of what it means in theatrical practice – we hit up against something familiar.

Throughout this series, we have often relied on oppositions, in which one side of the opposition is being critiqued, either explicitly or by implication. In such a situation, it is easy to sound like you’re saying that the thing under critique should be eliminated. To speak up for the unmeasurable can be taken as a denunciation of measurement. To bring into question the idea of history, as it came into being in the 19th century, can be heard as a suggestion that we shouldn’t teach or study the past. Enthuse about the importance of improvisation and it can sound like you want to get rid of Shakespeare!

To make strong arguments in areas like these requires a particular kind of subtlety, and perhaps that is the common theme to the series – a theme which, once more, taps into Anthony McCann’s reflections back in April on the dangers of the desire for ‘the elimination of uncertainty’. To speak up for the unmeasurable can also be to speak on behalf of measurement – to ask that it is treated with respect, rather than required to do more (or other) than it is capable of doing.

And likewise, to speak up for improvisation, as we do in this conversation – improvisation as something more than a specialist performance skill, as an attitude to the situation in which we find ourselves, an attitude which has been marginalised in a world of directed, controlled and managed processes, processes planned in advance – need not mean speaking against direction, control or planning in all circumstances. I think it would be possible to follow the course we start out on here and come to an account of such things which has more respect for their difficulty, for the scale of the achievement when they work, than we have generally had in societies where they have been taken for granted as the norm.

Because, at a basic level, improvisation is the norm – the thing we start doing without thinking about it when we come together as humans, as sociable animals, sitting around a campfire or a table in the pub. And this is one thing that comes out strongly in the work of Keith Johnstone, the improvisation teacher who Alex and I discuss in this conversation, that the challenge is not to learn techniques that equip us to improvise, but to unlearn the habits that get in the way of an ability which we already have.

I’ve got behind in posting these conversations – there is another recording to come soon from last week’s fascinating discussion with Hassan and Seliman on being an immigrant in Sweden. This Wednesday (18 June), we have the last in the current series, when I’ll be joined by Steve Wheeler to talk about what he calls ‘The Depth Hypothesis’, the gap between the rational surface of our debates (including over issues like climate change) and the depths hidden beneath that surface, not least the biological depths of the bodies and brains within which our rational thinking takes place. We’ll also be inviting everyone to join us in the comfort of The Bishops’ Arms, afterwards, to celebrate the end of the series.

If you’re not able to join us on Wednesday, or even if you are, you might also be interested in the conversations taking place over 14-17 August at Futureperfect festival, where The Västerås Group (hopefully including several of the contributors to this series) will be hosting the Cocreation Space and, with the help of our Festival Faculty, aiming to bring the spirit of the Västerås Conversations to a festival environment.

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Join me at Futureperfect: 14-17 August, 2014

Four days on an island in the Stockholm archipelago in the middle of August, with a gang of the most interesting people I know, thinking together about the future.

If that sounds good, then you should consider coming to this year’s Futureperfect festival.

When the organisers of Futureperfect asked me if I’d take on the role of Festival Professor, it was the most intriguing proposition I’d had in a while. Especially when they explained that they didn’t know exactly what being a festival professor meant, but they were sure I was the person to figure it out.

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The Limits to Measurement

To a computer, the world is made of numbers; to a human being, it isn’t, although we sometimes fall into thinking of it that way.

This was the starting point for the fourth in this series of Västerås Conversations. Our guest was Christopher Brewster, senior lecturer in Information Technology at Aston Business School, Birmingham, whose interests span linguistics and the philosophy of language, the history of human attempts to measure and model the world, and the application of information systems to areas such as infrastructure and food supply.

As came out in the discussion, our theme was ‘the limits to measurement’ and not ‘why measurement is a bad thing’. We were in search of a vocabulary for talking about ‘the threshold of counterproductivity’, a concept taken from Ivan Illich: the point at which measurement goes from being helpful to being unhelpful.

Following this search, we found ourselves picking up threads from earlier weeks: the urge for legibility, as described by the geographer Peter C Scott in his book ‘Seeing Like A State’, parallels the desire to ‘see from above’ which Johan Redin spoke about in relation to the invention of history, with its timelines and periods, during the 19th century. Meanwhile, the inability of language to achieve precision – which Christopher talked about as ‘a feature, not a bug’ – took us back to Anthony McCann’s reflections on ‘the heart of the commons’ within Irish traditional music, the element that tends to go missing from the legible or transcribable version on which collectors have tended to focus.

We also got onto the internet of things – including the internet of toilets! – and why customer unfriendliness is the one element of a real local coffee shop that Starbucks can’t simulate. How do we create spaces where we can bring more of ourselves to work (or study, or play) than we are used to? And how do we do so safely, without simply assisting the deepening exploitation of more and more aspects of ourselves in the pursuit of the ultimate measurable goal of profit?

The next Västerås Conversation is ‘Improvising the Future’ with Alex Fradera this Wednesday, 6.30pm at ABF Västerås in CuLTUREN. For information about future events, there’s now a Västerås Group page on Facebook.