Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Softness of Trees

Sitting here watching footage of Typhoon Mangkhut hit Hong Kong. The water gets everywhere, swept into the sky and through lobbies and down alleys. The street floor becomes a swamp. Walls become perilous sandcastles, ready to wash away in the tide. Bins and cars scatter the space we hold sacred - human space with its ordained purposes, holding fast to a belief in functional order.

The shots of trees and grass, willowing in the storm, get into me. A few trees fall, of course, but there is beauty in this softness - the branches twist and turn, almost like they're playing. The water refreshes their roots. The earth will become muddy and comfortable. The forest sways as one, and is a thousand miles away from bushfires and drought.

There are ways of dealing with climate change that are more to do with attitude than technology. The softness of trees is not the sole preserve of plants, and the way of nature is not separate to the way of people. That softness is a part of us. We build it into buildings to survive earthquakes. Can we build it into human processes? Human structures?


Engineering as an artform, drawing from inspirations found all over the world, in front of our eyes, under our noses. We observe before we design. We learn to work with physics, with chemistry. Engineering is alchemical, still a natural science.

What if we started thinking of democracy as an engineering process, only applying this inspired art to the way that we interact and resolve conflicts? If capitalism supposedly came out of an evolutionist 'survival of the fittest', then what would it take to re-imagine an approach/system/structure that drew from trees? To build resilience into our communities - local through to global - can we make comparisons to greater, older ecosystems?

Perhaps the structures of Twitter, Facebook, Google et al are the social engineering equivalents of giant, monolithic skyscrapers. The aim for a single building, incorporating everything and everyone. The view from one point to everywhere else. The uniform, laser-like geometry of "pure" lines and metal and glass, promoting strength and control. Everything is ready to be shattered. Survival of the most strident, the most surveilling.

To distribute, to churn through, to allow decay. Perhaps the fediverses of the net are seeking the forest nature of society again. The ability to create and destroy identities reflects the constant lifecycle of the mayfly. Fleeting and temporary, constant life and death - but more than this: a reactive swarm, brought in as needed, in the same way that cloud computing allows. Seasonal, opportunistic, and interdependent - never the end of the food chain.


Our politics has become solid and immovable like brittle warehouses, and the network is not helping but solidifying this. What was once a public sphere populated by newspapers -  but limited to this scope - has now become intertwined with 'verified' (or rigid) identities, a single global forum, and the ability to spread words quite separately from context, like expecting a polar bear to live in a desert.

We have a melting pot, but one with no direction or coherence. Through single identities and linked histories, people are forced to 'delete their account', because there are no other places or ways in which to engage, or to evolve. There is no public sphere any more, or perhaps it has got smaller while the public itself has got bigger. There is nothing forest-like here.

Seeds of inspiration do not thrive in a cooking pot - the heat kills them instantly, and they become what they are - shells, without potential,used only for their immediate physical attributes. Words make democracy palatable, like spices in cooking, but ultimately, there will be no seeds left if the trees and bushes cannot grow elsewhere.

The seeds must travel - on the wind, in the air, through animals. The forest of democracy needs re-planting, in places it has long been forgotten.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Some symbols are embedded in the land

A discarded shoe beside a line in the road

2011. Resident tourist. Homeless, with family and car. That feeling of travelling, of being somewhere new and strange, even within a few miles of where you’ve lived for a decade. The neighbourhood presents unknown corners at every turn. That feeling of being alone - or rather, of everything you’ve ever known suddenly becoming minuscule - just by moving place. Space is time, but also culture, also identity.

Travel, that viral economic disease and past-time spreading out from the 19th century, technology merrily transplanting us from one context to another, making everything familiar seem out of kilter. From majority to minority. From routine and mundane, to novel, bizarre - we become either intriguing or bizarre, only these, never anything in between.

We are torn in two by this! This backdrop of norms, shredded into an individual of unnaturalness, carried purely by displacement. We carry our homeland and our family line with us, safely wrapped up in the swaddling of DNA, a ticking seed that has the power to sooth difference, to disrupt communities, to bring rare life spices down biological trade routes, into the arms of waiting future generations. Nothing will ever be the same again.

A photo looking down at my feet, with squiggly chalk lines coming out from them

Some symbols are embedded in the land, so obvious that we have no choice but to ignore them until the time comes. 

The Long Man stands with his - maybe her - arms holding on to two lines. Poles perhaps. Up until now, I've deliberately chosen to see them as a door frame, a gateway with the figure on the threshold. I see the outline as a sign of entering, of moving from one state to another. 

The poles are on either side, sinister dexter. What if they are simply opposites, two extremes that the figure is caught between, or trying to hold on to? Two different directions, both equal in size and stature, but separated in space, with our figure caught - our catching them - in the middle. A figure formed by opposites. 

The opposites become the doorway. The difference becomes the gateway and the agent of change. 

A black woman buried in white cliffs. Black inside white, yin inside yang. The female hidden within the male. The soft within the strong. A shadow inside the light, like an echo within a sound. 

The earth records the difference and breeds flowers and stories alike. 

Sunday, September 02, 2018

'Here lies Tatters - not that it much Matters'

A lovely bit of history detective work looking into Tatters, the least-known (or loved?) dog at Preston Manor's pet cemetary

I love this use of archive material to draw out a new story - perhaps there is a secret qualitative researcher in me after all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Why I'm getting less political on the net

Reading through the Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee in 2003, and struck by just the sheer shallowness of political engagement the net has brought about. (My own engagement included.)

Consuming content every waking hour has left us with no time to explore an issue, let alone think about it properly, and/or deliberate about it in order to come to an in-depth, considered decision. The whole political process has been industrialised into a series of clicks, and the metrics we store in social media databases, such as number of re-amplifications, has somehow turned into votes. We bypassed political thought in an age of symbols, just as action is most needed. Consider why Trump sticks to Twitter - it instantly allows for 'broadcast' publicity, with absolutely zero deeper engagement as a follow-on. It's nothing close to a conversation, even though, on the surface, he appears to be 'accessible' by gasp actually posting his own tweets.

Once you get your head round just how shallow politics is at the 'net' level (ie Internet-first politics), you want to scream first, and then just get out and not look back. It's a dead-end direction - so long as convenient symbols are allowed to dictate powers and influence, at a societal level, then richer conversation will always get pushed out. We're so used to it now - a rapid adaptation based on tech companies doing huge work to understand our addictions - that even small shifts back in the other direction feel momentous. Moving to Mastodon, for example, and escaping a restrictive character limit, is still just a sticking plaster on a intractable problem. Identity-led services that encourage rapid context-switching, a network-effect approach that capitalist tech thrives on, are fundamentally 'shallow'. Everything you do is temporary to the point of instant forgetfulness. That's not 'wisdom', that's just... instant disposability.

Every time someone sets up a new Facebook group to address some political aim, I scream a little bit more. I don't want too discuss things that I care about in a privately-owned forum designed to addict you to as much content as possible. On the flip side, I know I now have to make an effort to escape the new default model of engagement. Once you have a smartphone, or a social media account, that's it - you're locked into a way of participating with the world. The network effect makes not doing that so much harder. But we have to try.

On the plus side, it's useful to remember that power is not totally captured by the networked symbols paradigm. As David Boyle points out, the correlation between use of symbols and network technologies is a fairly liberal thing - the outcasts can employ symbols powerfully, but they are still only one side of a battle for power, and the system as a whole has plenty of oh her methods of wielding power. Cypherpunks write code. Activists get on with effecting change.

So I'm tempted to ignore the political side of social media even more than I do. I use Twitter to ask questions and stay in touch with people. I read news to get a sense of events, not to form opinions. I try not to be swayed emotionally or politically by either, because it's too easy and too shallow.

This leaves me free to return to an alternative set of questions. What do I care about enough to engage with, what methods are effectively at doing so, and who else is working in the same overlaps of content and process?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Support me with your money!

Oh god, I hate writing post titles like that. And I haven't quite got the energy to write something here that's hugely inspirational and oh-so-gushy, like you're supposed to do these days. But I'm also massively intrigued about the opportunities that the net opens up for micro-crowd-funded efforts and rapid, small-scale finance iterations. Or in other words, it's now possible to tap the world to see if it thinks your idea if any good.

My two main ideas I'd like to get focused funding around are 1) my solarpunk efforts, as now seen in the 6suns blog, and which I'm starting to invest more funds in, and 2) my new Taopunk effort, which is aiming to bring more Eastern thought to the West. To save it, or something. Running a newsletter is free, but distributing free books isn't. I've also already had a couple of donations from friends, so it felt like a natural thing to open up a bit.

Anyway, I've been looking at Patreon for a while, and support a few people at a low level. If you'd like to support either or both of the projects above, and maybe even get a postcard/zine/book out of it, then head over to my new Patreon page. There are rewards, but really, any small vote of support is an overwhelming token to keep me going...

Otherwise, if you would just loooooove to send a one-off thing, or prefer other methods, either get in touch, or have a look at some alternative methods I'm also looking at. I'm intending to set up with LIberaPay if I can (it seems very Euro-focused), just to try it out.