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.

The History of History

This series of Västerås Conversations came about by accident. A series of friends had invited themselves to stay with Anna and me over the weeks in which spring gathers momentum towards summer. Because I have a tendency to play with the possibilities of how things are framed, the thought struck me, almost as a joke, ‘What if, instead of it just being lots of people coming to stay in our spare room, we decided to call it a residency programme?’*

Once I started joking with people that we’d started a residency programme, it suddenly seemed obvious that we shouldn’t keep all these interesting guests to ourselves. Someone gave me an email address for Erica at ABF, the Workers Learning Association, and she responded with immediate enthusiasm to my suggestion of a Wednesday night series of open conversations.

It seems worth explaining the haphazard and unfunded nature of this series, not least because I’m conscious that it has ended up being almost exclusively male – and if Anna, Joar and I had set out to organise a series, rather than it being a serendipitous byproduct of the people who happened to be visiting, there’s no way that we would have allowed this to happen.

It was a different piece of serendipity that brought us last week’s guest, however. If Anthony McCann, who opened the series, is something of an old friend, then Johan Redin is definitely a new friend. He has also travelled the shortest distance of any of our guests this series.

As we explain at the beginning, I first heard from Johan less than a month ago, just after the Dark Mountain Project had made an appearance in the New York Times – and we were both slightly stunned to discover that we had ended up living in the same small city in Sweden. We soon discovered that we had arrived at a great deal of common ground, particularly around the theme of this week’s conversation, the question of how we relate to the past and how that allows us to make sense of the present.

Apologies for the poorer sound quality of this week’s recording, by the way – I hope you’ll enjoy it, nonetheless. Normal service should be resumed shortly, when we meet this Wednesday to discuss ‘The Limits to Measurement’ with Christopher Brewster.

* I realised afterwards that the idea of a spare room residency programme was one that I first picked up from Lottie Child, who was doing something similar in her flat in London a few years ago.

Conversations that Matter

Part way into this week’s Västerås Conversation, one of the Syrian members of the group told us how different this was to anything he knew from the country he has had to leave. Back home, no-one would think of getting together to have a conversation about what makes a good conversation. On the other hand, there were plenty of people having good conversations.

It reminded me of a line I heard from my friend Andrew Taggart, a philosopher and a man who has many good conversations. Philosophy, he says, starts at the point where something isn’t working. I may be misquoting, and Andrew is probably quoting someone older and deader than both of us, but the point stands: if we lived in a culture where the art of conversation was thriving, we probably wouldn’t be having a conversation like this.

This thought led into a metaphor that came up several times on Wednesday night, the metaphor of breathing: you don’t have to think about breathing, until you start to think about it. Conversation is almost as central to human life as breathing. Perhaps it is even older than words? (If you listen all the way to the end of the recording, you’ll see that we tried a spell of conversational silence…)

Breathing came up as well in the old sense of the word ‘conspiracy’, ‘breathing together’. It was Johan Redin, next week’s guest, who brought this word into the conversation, but it had already been whispering in my mind. Earlier in the day I had copied out two lines from one of my favourite pieces of writing, Ivan Illich’s ‘The Cultivation of Conspiracy’:

Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.

In a small way, this is what we are trying to create a space for on a Wednesday evening. There was another text that came to visit us during the conversation, the text of a talk given the night before in Paris by John Thackara (who I’m looking forward to working with in this summer’s Future Perfect festival). ‘How We Meet is as Important as Why’, reads the title of John’s talk, and many of his thoughts were echoed among ours. ‘Conversation,’ he says, ‘more than any other form of human interaction, is the place where we learn.’

There are lots more themes we touched on, from the contrast between conversation and debate as spaces of thinking in public, to the difficulty northern Europeans have in starting conversations with strangers, even though we mostly enjoy them when they happen.

This conversation took place in English. The main reason for this* was the surprising number of people outside of Sweden who listened and responded to last week’s recording with Anthony McCann. We like the idea that the conversation taking place in a physical space on a particular evening is also surrounded by another conversation, drifting across the technosphere.

Join us next Wednesday, when I’ll be talking to the philosopher and Västerås resident Johan Redin about ‘The History of History’. More information in the Västerås Conversations Facebook group.

* Although it’s fair to say that, had we been in Swedish, I would have done rather less of the talking.

The Politics of Gentleness

A few years ago, some people I knew were setting up a collaborative workspace in London. They asked three of us to spend an evening helping them think about how this space could be and what kind of things might go on there. At some point in the evening, I said, “I’d like it to be a space where people have really great conversations.” At this, a look of horror passed across the face of one of the others. “That’s the last thing we need, another talking shop!”

I found myself remembering that moment when I gave a talk at KonstFack (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design) in Stockholm this February. I was speaking as part of a series on ‘Organising Discourse’, and I chose to interpret this as ‘How to bring together conversations’. In particular, I wanted to talk about the difference between conversations that come alive and the kind of experience that people rightly dread as ‘another talking shop’.

There are few things I enjoy more than a good conversation and pretty much all the work I’ve done that has felt worthwhile grew out of conversations. So it feels great to be starting a series of public conversations here in Västerås, my new hometown, and it was particularly good to start this with a visit from Anthony McCann.

As we say at the start of this recording, our friendship began with several months of regular conversations on a Monday morning in our favourite cafe in Sheffield, back in 2006, and in many ways these provided me with a model for the kind of conversation that I’ve looked to bring together in my work ever since.

Compared to a formal talk, a conversation is unstructured and it involves more things that can’t be captured in a recording. There’s an obvious case in the opening minutes here, when the lights in the ABF (Workers Educational Association) foyer where we are sitting unexpectedly dim. For those of you who weren’t with us on Wednesday, perhaps this will act as a reminder of the other less obvious elements that go missing in a recording. But hopefully there is enough here to enjoy some of what we enjoyed together over the couple of hours we all spent together.

Anthony McCann is a social philosopher, a contemplative scholar and the founder of The Hummingbird Workshop for Ordinary Ethics in Belfast.

Check out the Facebook group for news about future Västerås Conversations.

Photograph by Irja Holtter.