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.

Continue reading Join me at Futureperfect: 14-17 August, 2014

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.

Västerås Conversations: Anthony McCann

Time: Wednesday, 30 April 2014 – 18:30-20:30
Place: ABF Conference Room, CuLTUREN, Västerås
Sign up to the Facebook event and invite your friends

As spring gathers momentum here in Västerås, Anna and I seem to have started a residency programme. Over the next seven weeks or so, we have a series of wonderful people – writers, thinkers and doers – coming to stay in our apartment. And rather than keep them to ourselves, this seemed like a good excuse to start organising some informal public events locally.

So, in collaboration with the Arbetarnas Bildningsforbünd (Workers Educational Association), we present a series of Västerås Conversations, starting next Wednesday, 30th April.

This is a free event and everyone is welcome. The discussion will take place in English.

Conversation #1: Anthony McCann

If we think of power as the ability to control and manipulate others – and if we don’t want to be controlling or manipulative – then we have defined ourselves as powerless. So maybe we need another way of thinking about power?

That’s the starting point (as I understand it) of what Anthony McCann calls a ‘politics of gentleness’. Behind it lies years of thinking about the dynamics of enclosure, the patterns by which domination, oppression, coercion and violence arise within human interaction. He was led to this by his earlier research on the extension of copyright law into Irish traditional music during the 1990s, but while the enclosure of the commons provided a historical analogy for thinking about this, he became critical of the way that much of what is said about ‘the commons’ today (not least in relation to the ‘information commons’) ends up producing and reinforcing enclosure, rather than resisting it.

Something I love about Anthony’s work is his commitment to finding an everyday language in which to talk about these things. He often recalls an encounter with one of his academic heroes, bursting with ideas and a youthful desire to impress: the older man stopped him after a couple of minutes, telling him, ‘Talk to me like you were talking to your grandfather.’

I’ve known Anthony since 2006, when we were both living in Sheffield, and I’ve found his thinking hugely helpful. It is there in the background of a lot of the work I’ve done, from Spacemakers to Dark Mountain. He has worked across many academic disciplines, but I see him as a philosopher in the old sense of the word, a lover of wisdom, committed to rigorous thinking.

So I’m looking forward to having the luxury of his company here in Västerås for a week – and to sharing that with you, if you’re able to join us on the evening of the 30th. If you can’t be there, we’ll also be recording a podcast of the conversation, with the help of Joar Holtter.

Stand by for information about future Västerås Conversations on Wednesdays in May and June.

Dealing with our own shit (Dark Mtn)

In December 2012, Nick Stewart and I travelled to Oaxaca where we spent two afternoons filming with the Mexican activist and intellectual Gustavo Esteva. Among the fruits of those afternoons was a dialogue published in the fourth issue of Dark Mountain. Starting from the extraordinary turns of Gustavo’s life, we follow a thread of conversation that leads through his friendship with Ivan Illich, the political possibility of friendship itself, the way in which even the attempt to speak about climate change brings us up against our own arrogance, and the question of whether we are ready to deal with our own shit, both physically and morally.

There were eagles riding the air overhead as we took the backroad out of San Pablo Etla to the Casa Esteva. The taxi driver had left us at the crossroads: at ease in the highspeed free-for-all of the highway, he had no desire to risk his exhaust on the unpaved road ahead, so a young man from one of the neighbouring households drove down to collect us. It was three months into the dry season. We bumped across the bed of an empty stream before climbing again towards the adobe house among the trees.

After days in downtown Oaxaca, its streets clogged with fumes, the air up here was a release. Twenty-five years earlier, when Gustavo Esteva and his partner left Mexico City to settle here, they must have felt that same contrast. For Gustavo, it was a return to his grandmother’s village: the grandmother who, in his childhood, was not allowed to enter his parents’ house by the front door, nor to speak to her grandson in Zapotec.

‘For my mother,’ he told me, ‘the best thing that she could do for her children was to uproot us from any connection with our indigenous ancestry, to avoid the discrimination she had suffered.’

Read the rest of this article as a PDF (15 pages).

Black elephants & skull jackets (Dark Mtn)

Vinay Gupta is one of those characters around whom stories collect and opinions divide. He has a bulldozer of a brain and a huge sense of mischief, he is often absurd and sometimes indefensible – and between 2009 and 2012, when we both lived in London, he was one of my closest collaborators.

In this piece for the first Dark Mountain book, originally published in May 2010, we talk about how growing up half-Indian shaped his thinking about disaster management and sustainability, what it takes to become an ‘old culture’, and the origins of the Institute for Collapsonomics.

Before I know who he is, Vinay Gupta has started telling me about his plan to start a small African country. The drug factory is the important part, apparently – that and the Gurkha mercenaries.

We’re sitting on the bare floorboards of a townhouse in Mayfair: five storeys of gilded mirrors, marble hallways, handpainted Chinese wallpaper and furniture that looks like it just came out of a skip. In one corner, a large bracket fungus is growing out of the wall, about two feet below the ceiling. It’s the kind of scene that makes you think the world as we know it already ended, you just weren’t paying attention.

It is January 2009. For months now, the world economy has been visibly in chaos, and even the politicians are starting to acknowledge that the consequences of this won’t be confined to the financial markets. Gupta seems like a man who relishes chaos.

You can download the rest of the article as a PDF – or order Dark Mountain: Issue 1 which also includes new writing from Jay Griffiths, Alastair McIntosh, Paul Kingsnorth and many others.


Image: Vinay Gupta by Mark Charmer

The fairly Big Society (Closer)

For those who don’t follow British politics, the ‘Big Society’ was supposed to be David Cameron’s vision for running the country. It started out as an attempt to distance the Conservatives from Margaret Thatcher’s infamous remark, ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ By 2013, when I wrote this, it had all but vanished from view. This piece was written for Closer, a one-off newspaper of ideas for an independent Scotland.

Whatever became of the Big Society? It still gets mentioned, sometimes, as a joke: its humourless punchline, the lengthening queues at volunteer-run food banks. At Westminster, the Tories forgot their flirtation with social capital, localism, community organising and got down to the business of cutting, privatising, outsourcing, fracking and inflating a new housing bubble. So David Cameron’s one-time big idea gets written off as a warm fuzzy makeover for the Thatcherite desire to shrink the state, the kind of neoliberalism from which an independent Scotland might hope to liberate itself. Yet this obituary misses what is worst about the mess that was the Big Society. The Tories did not simply invent a half-baked cover story, they took other people’s ideas for a joyride, then smashed them into the dead end of their own ideology. The challenge now is to salvage what is worth saving of those ideas from the wreckage.

Read the rest on Bella Caledonia.


Image: Front cover of Closer, designed by Kieran McCann.

Haunted by Shadows of the Future

On Sunday 30 March, I’ll be travelling through time and space to be part of HORIZONS at the Tensta Konsthall.

Twenty minutes ride on the Blue Line from downtown Stockholm, Tensta is one of the ‘million programme’ suburbs, concrete estates thrown up at an alarming speed in the late 1960s. Over the past six months, the Konsthall has been hosting exhibitions, conversations and events under the banner of Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden.

As part of this, STEALTH.unlimited are bringing together what they describe as ‘a jam session on future scenarios for Tensta’:

HORIZONS is an attempt to
 re-set Tensta into probable, speculative, or perhaps rather unseemly futures in the year 2030. Will this, yet unknown Tensta be an autonomous zone, where the residents of this disregarded part of Stockholm have successfully taken their destiny into their own hands? Or 
will its multi-faceted society prove so vital that this ‘new Sweden’ comes to dominate the entire country by 2030? Or will Tensta’s original but unfulfilled mission – of creating an environment that acknowledges and gives space to a fully liberated and democratic model citizen – ultimately be re-created? And what would such a citizens’ liberation and equality mean if we could live it today?

When Ana and Marc from STEALTH invited me to be one of the four contributors creating scenarios for the event, I asked if they were sure they had the right person.

But while I don’t know Tensta as a place, I do have some sense of the new Sweden, because I’ve spent much of the past year surrounded by fellow immigrants, learning the language and working out how to make a life in this country. Without giving too much away, my scenario for 2030 is about the difference that the New Swedes – my classmates included – could make to this country’s ability to adapt to a future in which the age of mass prosperity has become a distant memory.

Having checked out the other contributors, it promises to be an exciting event:

Adam Tensta (hip-hop artist, challenger of vested cultural norms and laborious creator of one’s own realities, born and based in Tensta)

Gunilla Lundahl (cultural journalist, writer and editor with a long-standing commitment to urban culture and discourse since her start at newspaper The Worker in 1955)

Tor Lindstrand (architect, assistant professor at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH-A), and a cross-disciplinary performer, editor and thinker).

HORIZONS is free and open to all. It’s happening at 14.00 on Sunday 30 March, 2014. You can read all about it on the Tensta Konsthall site – and there’s also a Facebook event.