Friday, February 28, 2014

Adios Underwood Street and building culture from the ground up

Yesterday was the last working day at Friends of the Earth's London office in Underwood Street, before moving into the new place south of the river on Monday morning. I got to see the office one last time on Wednesday evening and bid it farewell. I didn't hold the building in any particular affection - unlike my respect for the people working within it - but it ticks all the boxes for the end of an era.

A phrase that's been kicking round in my head a while is building culture from the ground up - the idea in moving to the new office in Stockwell is that my colleagues in London have a chance to do just that. Yes, pure physical space matters, but space and how you use it also has a knock-on effect on ways of working. 

Moving gives them a chance to declare a do-over - to ask and answer all those questions about establishing a creative, dynamic and mutually supportive culture, in a space which hopefully fosters all of this.

A timely question for local campaign groups might be: does the space where you meet, work and play together foster a culture like that? Rare is the group who can create their space - but even the smallest town offers a choice of venues.

Brain permitting, I might run through my Top 5 favourite local group meeting venues with you in the coming days.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pulp with depth: Roger Zelazny's This Immortal

What I like about Zelazny's This Immortal – and I'm wondering if this is characteristic of his work as a whole (see Lord of Light) – is that it's about mind games. Below its post-apocalyptic pulp setting lives a very clever long con being played on the protagonist. And it's all the better for not telling you just how many of the supporting characters are complicit in it.

The plot is deceptively simple – one of Zelazny's usual Ubermenschen is detailled to give an alien a tour of a shattered Earth, its real estate effectively up for the sale to the highest bidder. They are joined by assorted friends, enemies and frenemies, against a backdrop of monuments and mutants. It being pulp – there is a lot of conflict. It being Zelazny – a most conversational author – most of is verbal.

This Immortal (which I keep wanting to call My Immortal, after the notorious Harry Potter fanfic) has its faults. The novel is short to the point of being brusque in its set-up and execution. Were it not for the con coming to fruition at the end would feel as if Zelazny simply tired of the conceit. The superimposition of Greek mythology onto the mutants feels like a crude dry-run for the greater sophistication he was to employ in adapting the Hindu pantheon for Lord of Light. And while pretty good by the standards of the time, This Immortal still presents a fairly masculinist view of the future and the people who inhabit it.

But Zelazny also uses this little puzzle box of a book to nod to colonialism and anti-colonial resistance, to the complicity of native culture with the former as well as its underpinning of the latter. There's a wonderful comic scene covering all these bases in which the tour party witness the dismantling of the Great Pyramid, which is ostensibly being done so that the film can be played in reverse to recreate its construction.

This, I think, illustrates why it bagged a Hugo back in the late sixties. This Immortal might be pulp, but it's pulp with depth.

Monday, February 24, 2014

March mission: no book left unread on my shelves

I worked out today I have a good dozen books at least which are still wholly or partly unread. As I am running out of shelf space I have set myself a March mission of either reading them or moving them on.

To anyone who bought me any of these as presents, I'm sorry. At least I'm going to give them a good (if belated) read now. And they could be awesome! [hopeful look]

Here are that dusty dozen:

Made it half-way through... but deserves a second chance

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game
Geoff Ryman, Was
Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Busman's Holiday

Della Porta and Diani, Social Movements
Fritz, InExActArt - The Autopoietic Theatre of Augusto Boal: A Handbook of Theatre of the Oppressed Practice
Kamer, The Faciliatator's Guide To Participatory Decision Making
Nichols & Jenkinson, Leading A Support Group

Was worried it'd be too grim

Maggie Gee, The White Family
Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Wandering lonely in search of muse

The Chatto Book of Love Poetry

Wildly ambitious (version francaise)

Paul Verlaine, Poems Saturniens

Frighteningly thick

Stephen Inwood, A History of London

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wonderwoman alive, well and working as a local journalist in Devon?

The Mask Scene

The Mask Scene hit the party.
The mark of Legion on each face.
The Mask Scene take to the dancefloor.
Strike one down and two more take their place.

The Mask Scene got will to power
Say they've got shoes to fill.
They reassure the host, whose smile's a ghost.
They're only here with time to kill

The Mask Scene got culture of change.
And you can hear them say.
On our way.

The Mask Scene beckon to the belles and beaux
An offer they dare not refuse
They slow dance while they wait for the capture of the state
The Mask Scene are making the news.

The scenesters are rolling the drunks down the hill.
Their masks are starting to fall.
From the commanding heights they bid us goodnight.
That damn mask scene is running it all.

The Mask Scene got culture to change
And you can hear them say.
On our way.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Elegiac-critical conservativism

It's an uncomfortable truth that Tradition sometimes has alternative, sometimes more effective ammunition against society than Radical alternatives.

Consider the interests and powers inevitably aligned behind the status quo. Regard
also the emotional appeal of what is and what was – of things endangered by the exorable trudge of progress – and what may have been - the half re-constructed, half imagined past of Downton Abbeyland.

You can come across this kind of discourse on both sides of the political spectrum, especially now the democratic Left have something to be nostalgic about, but its exponents can often be found among a certain kind of more or less thoughtful, civic-minded, small-c conservativism.

What I want to suggest, however, is that this discourse's prevailing relation to society is elegiac-critical. Elegiac, for they mourn the past, engage in nostalgic reconstruction, or at least find no faith in the modern.

Critical, because at their satirical best, the middle-class small c-conservative is clear-sighted enough to expose the foundations of present folly, even if he or she sees no ultimate solution. Even at their most apolitical, each look back in languour or existential crisis allows the reading that 'things were once better.' 

And that gives us space to have a conversation.To understand what they value. And to discuss how to preserve what they value in a better now.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"If I can't dance - it's not my revolution." Emma Goldman

Note - this is an adapted version of an address I used at Lewisham Unitarian Meeting for a service back in 2010. I came across it again recently and decided it was worth sharing. I didn't use the Emma Goldman quote at the time but it expresses the general thought of the piece well.

When I was 18, I went to my first outdoor music festival. Back then, for a quiet, bookish kid who was just getting into music seriously, this was a real adventure. And as I look back, the impressions I received are still surprisngly clear in my mind. Not just the endless array of different musics over the four days, but the tailbacks on the tiny country roads leading to the festival site; the cheap plastic sunglasses I bought at the festival stall; the weather, which in the fine English tradition ranged from bakingly hot to sudden downpours.

Above all, it is the dancing that I remember. In full-to-the-brim tents, on stages, in small circles – it was everywhere. I remember throwing myself around one lunchtime alongside a small but ecstatic crowd to Underworld on the main stage as the rain came down, the frontman of the band pogoing from left to right across the stage, urging his bandmates and ourselves onto greater heights.

That weekend remains one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Apart from perhaps the contemplation of nature, listening to music, dancing and singing are still the closest I've come to a sense of overpowering joy. A religious feeling, if you like, where emotion temporarily surpasses logic, where all that matters is the moment and celebrating the moment with others. I doubt I'm the only person to have experienced this as one of the times when they've felt most alive.

So, my starting point is that joy – an active, participatory joy – is not only tremendously important for us as human beings, but that spiritual practice ignores it at its peril. And my question is – what does this mean for us as people gathered here for worship in that very temple of rationalism, a Unitarian meeting house?

Performance, and participation in performance, has been a key part of religion around the world. Let's look at the Christian tradition. You can find sanction for letting your hair down and having a good time in the Bible; from that old time joyful singer and dancer King David of Israel to the parties which Jesus and his disciples attended in the New Testament. Both the Catholic and Protestant traditions – each in their own way – build space for joy and participation into their services, whether that's the timeless ritual of mass or the call and response script of a modern high-tempo evangelical service.

Islam, often associated with austerity, gives us festivals in Egypt where the very recitation of the verses of the Qu'ran has been elevated to an art form, where the best performers are lauded for their work. And dancing is a part of religious celebration wherever you go, from the South London wedding to Diwali to Sufi whirling dervishes.

Here in this Meeting House, singing is a central part of what we have in Sunday worship. We're also fortunate to have not one but two very skilled organists, and our young people are also musically talented. The luckiest meetings have whole choirs of their own.

However, there's been another side to religious practice which looks upon art and joyous practice as a threat, a distraction or a 'barrier to God'. Most of the successive divisions in established religions have been accompanied by new lists of things to disapprove of, whether seventeenth century Puritans, nineteenth century American fundamentalists, or the extremists of all faiths of today. Music and dancing have and continue to feature highly on these blacklists.

It may surprise you to hear I have on the one hand some understanding of this position. I think of what I call the Wizard of Oz argument – if you take away the song and dance show from life and religion then ultimately what's left behind the curtain has to stand and fall on its own merits. When I was dancing in a field, I wasn't thinking about anything other than dancing – it is not a particularly rational experience, and the nearest thing to an ethic of dancing is not to stand on your partners feet or to jostle the other dancers!

On the other hand, I side firmly with those who see in joyous practice, music, art, ritual and dancing – part of what makes human life and sprituality so richly rewarding. As someone who comes at life from a cerebral, rationalist point of view – one of life's right brainers – I think I value it all the more because it doesn't come easy to me. As with indiviudal human beings, I don't think the solution to the mind/body problem in religion is to deny either but to try and reconicle both.

Now, you'll be relieved to hear I'm not going to play loud four-to-the-floor techno music at you, nor am I going to suggest that suddenly all get out of our seats and start dancing. But what I am going to do is close by answering my question: what does talking about joy, about music and dancing mean for us here as people gathered here this morning .

One, is that I believe that as individuals finding ways to connect with joy through - music, dance, art, singing – whatever works for you – is really important.

Second, as I've suggested, we can have our cake and eat it in these services. In other words, we can have all the ethical discussions, rationalism and contemplation we need and also connect with joy through singing, music and art . To express this in terms John (our lay leader) used last week, joyous communion is what we do and what we should be aiming for.

Third, and finally, I do want to issue a gentle challenge to us all – including myself. making time to connect with art and joy takes more time and effort than you might think. Let's all make some time in the coming days to remind ourselves why these things matter and make time for them in our lives.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Self-affirmation of cultural stereotype alert!

Seen from a bus in Crumpsall, Manchester.

I'm assuming the owner's Scottish - if not that's just even wierder...

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Resolutions and revolutions - a reflecting, visioning and team-building exercise

Here's a home-brewed networking tool I ran at the North East Regional Gathering for Friends of the Earth last month. It aims to give people a chance to:

  • Chat informally with each other about what they've achieved
  • Share their plans, campaigns, and challenges for the coming year with each other and with staff
  • Identify points of commonality 
  • Expand on issues and ideas
  • Find out what skills and knowledge they can share with each other and the support they would need to seek from outside (like staff).

I think it works as well with a mixed group of people from different organisations who are sharing ideas and inspiration as it would in a single group when you're trying to build a team and a sense of common purpose. 

The live test suggested it worked best with two facilitators. Depending on numbers it could take between 45 and 75 minutes, so in the outline plan that follows I've gone for the middle ground of 1 hour.

0.00 – Introduction and float time

00.05 – Ask people to get up and talk with someone 

(preferably someone they don't know that well or someone from another group)

1.Introductions (if needed)
2.High points from last year’s actions and campaigns
3.What you (and your group) hope to be campaigning on this year
4.Where you’d like you (and your group) to be by the end of 2014

00.20  Ask people to add the other person's answers to questions 2 to 4 on post-its to three flip-charts on the wall and look at each others' thoughts. Don't forget to put your partner's name on their post-its. 

00.30 – Discuss each of 2 to 4 in the round

Encourage people to talk about their answers - get feedback, identify connections and commonalities.

Let people ask questions about each other's ideas, learn together about the issues, campaigns etc

Capture challenges as they come up - the purpose of the session is not to dwell on them at this stage but ensure they are properly acknowledged..

00.45 - Encourage people to complete a skills and knowledge audit over the break 

To make all this amazing campaigning happen:
  • What do we have in the room that we can share? Skills/knowledge/other? 
  • What do we want in terms of staff support? 
  • What would we need to overcome any challenges identified.

For an example of a proper skills audit see this excellent Navca exercise. I tend to go for a more rough and ready approach using two flipcharts - one for skills/knowledge/resources/contacts the group can share and the other for what they want (same four categories).

1.00 - Wrap-up 

Don't forget to be suggest and collect ideas as to how you will share and all will follow up on these ideas!

Monday, February 10, 2014

To the frontier! A new project for the blog

As Axl Rose once memorably asked
Where do we go? Where do we go now? Where do we go? 
To the frontier, Brother Rose, to the frontier! 

Photo from אליבאבא made available under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

In the coming months this blog is going to focus - in between the usual digressions and diversions - on people who are changing the world in ways big and small

People who are
  • Changing the nature of community action and activism
  • Debating the kind of future we want 
  • Putting the word justice between social and media
  • Practicing the kind of extrovert geekery we can all learn from

People, in short, who are on the frontier of making life kinder. More exciting. More meaningful. Plain better.

Whether you're working inside or outside the late-capitalist borg, I want to interview you, write about what you do, review your books or other artistic product. 

If this feels a little bit like the mini-me version of Friends of the Earth's The Big Ideas Project, that's because I've taken some of my inspiration from that. But the kind of things I'll be looking at might often fly under the radar of something like TBIP - partly because I don't operate at the same level and partly because my range of interests is slightly different.  

Maybe we should all be keeping a record of what inspires us to move towards a better future. This project is certainly intended to do so.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Social science fiction: how story-telling games can help us dream our green future

Last weekend we played a story-telling game called Shock for the first time (available free for download here). Billing itself as social science-fiction, the idea is a simple one: the players decide on a shock – the big idea that changes the world as we know it. They jointly create a world that reflects that shock, then pick lead characters and collaborate in telling a tale which explores it further.

Science-fiction is a literature of ideas – even if some of it is in the business of recycling old tropes – so gamifying science-fiction story-building makes a lot of sense. You could go high-brow, looking at, say, identity loss in a world of uploaded consciousness. You could use it to give space opera an infusion of purpose. Or you could do what we did after several glasses of wine on Saturday night and decide that what the pulp end of the genre was really missing was a  a Nazi hollow-earth empire hidden beneath the earth's crust. With giant mechs. :-)

We really liked Shock, although the conflict-resolution mechanism needs a bit of practice. But it got me to thinking that the game might have value outside the tabletop hobby. Its rules would work well for group story-telling online, such as via a shared blog or discussion forum. And its ability to imagine possible futures could be a great creative tool for those seeking to achieve them.

Like environmental activists, for instance.

As speculative fiction is to literature, so environmentalism is to politics – even at it's most nostalgic it's a discourse of change and of big ideas. The kind of stuff that Friends of the Earth are calling for - renewable energy, the closed loop of resource use, the localisation of food supply and economy – these are big ideas that would change the world as we know it.

These are as much science-fictional ideas as they are green ones.

What story-telling can give environmental activism is a way of imagining that future and giving us hope that it can be realised. It makes impersonal social forces personal through plot and characterisation. It dramatises both conflict and resolution. It makes the future feel real, however briefly.

Story-telling also matters because we know that when seeking to persuade people that a big idea is worth reaching for, facts are necessary but not enough. We know that positive campaigns fare better when we're inviting someone to share a narrative – The Big Ask and The Bee Cause have both met that need well.

Story-telling as collective ownership

And contributing to the creation of that narrative can be very powerful. I have found that volunteers and activists respond much more positively to a national campaign when we create a space where they can explore and take ownership of it. Then they take it to places which its creators never thought about. 

So, we know story-telling has a great deal to offer campaigning. And I'm suggesting in particular that science-fiction could provide a great framework for making our near-futures of environmental (and thus political, economic, social) change more tangible to ourselves and to those we want to reach.

But there's only one way to test this...

and that's to suggest running a game of Shock online with an environmental theme, perhaps via another blog or on Campaign Hubs, where others can see it and (hopefully) be inspired. Looking at Friends of the Earth's next major campaign, could we perhaps tell a story about what might happen 1, 10, 50 years from now when community-driven renewable energy comes to Anytown, England?

Thoughts? Players, even?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Tweeting in a Trolling Paradise - the problem with Twitter culture and what we can all do about it

One of Twitter's greatest achievements – alongside the Arab Spring, the Inigo Montoya bot and getting the Pope to tweet – is being an incubator of trolls on an grand scale. It has such low barriers to entry and participation (including anonymity and its 140 character input limit) and weak normative cohesion (translation: no-one on Twitter agrees on how Twitter should be used) and limited ground-rules that it's an asshat's paradise.

Sometimes, as high-profile news stories of the past year have demonstrated, it's a misogynist, racist asshat's paradise. No-one should have to fight so hard as Cristina Criado-Perez to ensure that murder and rape threats should result in police charges, for example, but we seem to have gotten there in the end. 

One positive side-effect of this is we now seem to be having a long-delayed conversation about the kind of Twitter we want. Putting criminal threats and acknowledged hate speech to one side – a clear cut issue, or at least it ought to be - I think the rest of the debate revolves around two questions:

  • Where you draw the line between a troll and someone exercising their self-declared right to free speech / be an opinionated jerk on the internet.
  • Is there a better solution to trollish abuse than the block/ignore/suck it up advocated by the champions of the status quo.

For what it's worth, I don't believe the block and ignore strategy is sufficient, not least because it places all responsibility squarely on the individual, rather than the community or Twitter themselves. I think there is at least one easy, uncontroversial thing both could do which would make it a safer, less troll-infested space without impinging on freedom of speech.

Start talking about the kind of Twitter we want

One important thing the community could do is start taking collective responsibility for Twitter-space. For me, that means:

  • Talking about the kind of minimal social rules for the conversation the majority of users are prepared to accept.
  • Promoting positive norms for Twitter – if the user base can embed Follow Fridays for example, why not others?

One example of such a norm could be found in non-violent communication: don't just block; tell users when you feel offended by what they say (e.g. ad hominem attacks, rudeness) and ask them not to do it again. At present, there is an assumption in favour of not appearing to be upset - this needs to be challenged for change to occur and people to reflect on their behaviour.

We all have a role in shaping – even by tacitly condoning through inaction – Twitter's ground-rules, ideas of what is acceptable discourse, exactly as we do in any other social situation. Some of Twitter's defaults facilitate trolling – fine – we need to be taking steps together to redress that balance.

Twitter should support this conversation

I think it's unhelpful for Twitter to keep to the virtual equivalent of laying cable and only intervening when local law would probably require it anyway (e.g. for threats of violence or persistent harassment). I understand they don't want to set themselves up as moderators. This would be a commitment beyond their reach, nor does the infrastructure of Twitter enable this to be devolved to volunteers.

But they could support the kind of conversation among their users we're talking about in this post. Whether that's a forum, releasing their own positive memes into the wild or incentivising good Twitter citizenship, or something else as yet unthought of remains to be seen. 

The point for Twitter is to get past the false choice presented to them of sheriff or bystander and play a positive role in community building.

Kum ba yah, anyone?

I want to be very clear that I don't think embedding community-generated norms in Twitter is an alternative to intervening properly in cases of threat or repeated verbal abuse. That would be extremely naive.

But owning the conversation together is something we can all do to contribute to making Twitter a safer space without impeding free speech.