No Stuff

My name is David Charles and I own 975 things. That figure would be comfortably over 1000, but those other bits and pieces are scattered around other people’s houses so I’m going to ignore them for the moment.

That figure does however include 12 colouring pencils, 11 batteries (mostly AAA), 10 incense cones, 9 screwdrivers, 8 magnets, 7 plants, 6 thirty inch bungee ropes, 5 souvenir coins, 4 feathers, 3 juggling balls, 2 old bits of wood and a partridge in a pear tree*.

(*Probably.)

Wait a second, wait a second. You counted all your stuff?

Oh yeah. I forget that’s a weird thing to do. I come from a family that has a proud history of counting stuff and putting the data into spreadsheets.

In my opinion, our magnum opus is my dad’s spreadsheet of everything he might want to take on holiday. Not so special, you might think, until I tell you that everything is meticulously weighed. The spreadsheet includes memorable data lines like “Credit cards: 1g”.

This means that he can, not only ensure he falls within stringent baggage weight limits, but also politely inform airport staff of any inaccuracies in their equipment when weighing his bags at check in.

Minimalist Culture

The idea for No Stuff comes not from my dad, but from the minimalist sub-culture. I don’t just mean traditional ascetics or hermit monks, but modern minimalists too, people who prioritise quality over quantity.

This minimalist culture is thriving online, where people boast at each other of how few things they have. It makes a nice counterpoint to the usual materialist urge to hunt and gather.

James Wallman’s book Stuffocation gives an excellent introduction to this new form of minimalism and suggests that we can all benefit because “memories live longer than things”. His book is a manifesto for experientialism, the doing of things, over materialism, the acquisition of things.

No Stuff: How?

Box Trial

One of the most memorable techniques for stuff reduction that I read about in Stuffocation is the box trial. According to this method, you pack all of your stuff into boxes. Over the course of the next thirty days, you can gradually repatriate your stuff into your life – but only if and when you actually need to use it. At the end of the month, everything left in the boxes gets chucked.

In lieu of boxes, I’ve done a countback on my spreadsheet instead. Of those 975 things, I estimate that I’ve actually used only 289 in the last month. By the box trial rules, I should chuck the remaining 686 unused baubles.

This is extreme. There are plenty of things that I haven’t used in the last month that I would miss heartily, like my beloved bivvy bag.

It does, however, make me ponder why I haven’t used my bivvy in the last thirty days. I have no answer to this ponder, which leads me ineluctably to the conclusion that I really should be using my bivvy bag on a monthly basis, minimum. Use it or lose it. Not a bad way to live.

The 100 Thing Challenge

But the box trial isn’t even nearly as extreme as the 100 Thing Challenge. The name gives it away really: live with 100 things or less.

Rules vary, but usually don’t include shared items like kitchenware, nor furniture or books. My count of 975, I should say, does not include kitchenware (none of which is mine), but does include 21 items of furniture and 102 books. Some people also count similar items as one, like “underwear” or “tools”, but I think that’s cheating (except for socks, which I count in pairs).

Personally, I love the idea of the challenge. I fantasise regularly about being able to fit all of my worldly possessions into a single backpack. But I’m also quite clear-sighted about the fact that this will likely never happen.

No Stuff Holidays

One alternative to grown up No Stuff is to play around, like when you’re on holiday.

Clara Benson writes about what I assume her editors at Salon forced her to call “the craziest OKCupid date ever”, which is a scandalously crass way of describing what was actually a fascinating experiment in No Stuff.

She and her date, Jeff, travelled through Europe for twenty-one days with no luggage, pretty much just a couple of credit cards, their passports and the clothes on their backs. Clara sums up the secret yearning we all have to throw caution and weight to the winds:

What would it be like to say no to heavy backpacks full of coordinating outfits, Lonely Planet travel guides, and cheap souvenirs?

I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Clara and Jeff had an absolute blast and No Holiday Stuff, far from being restrictive, was like all good positive constraints and the doorway to adventure.

The Rule of Thirds

Back in the real world, I will content myself with slimming down by one third. I will, by the end of this blog post, have got rid of 325 things, leaving me with “only” 650.

This is still, obviously, a massive numbers of things: more than twice as many as I need according to the box trial rules and nearly triple according to the 100 Thing Challenge. But it does at least mean I can lose at least two of my three bow ties. Why do even I own these things? I can’t remember the last time I wore a suit, let alone a Ferrari-red bow tie.

Why No Stuff?

Enough fun and games, here are five rock solid reasons for going on a No Stuff binge.

  1. Your environment dictates your state of mind. Less clutter in your life means less clutter in your mind.
  2. Possessing a thing causes mild anxiety about that thing. If I don’t own a car, I can’t worry about it being left out on the street and getting bumped and scratched.
  3. Why do I have a thing if I don’t use it? Why do I have 25 pencils, when I don’t use them? Could someone else be making better use of them? Yes. So give them away.
  4. Having less stuff that I don’t want means I spend more time with the stuff I actually do. In some way, you become the objects with which you surround yourself. It sounds stupid, but I would never have learnt to play the guitar if I had never gone and got myself a guitar.
  5. Likewise, the stuff you don’t use is still stuff in your possession, still stuff that is liable to become a distraction, an interruption or at the very least an irritant when you’re scrabbling around in your bottom desk drawer looking for your phone charger.

Out, out, damned wax!

So I have committed to throwing away, giving away, recycling and charitying 325 things. Some of these are easy to lose, like the empty tub of hair wax that I was mysteriously keeping for posterity. Some of these will be very hard to part with, souvenirs of far-flung adventures or gifts from long lost loved ones.

Almost four years ago, me and my friend Patrick wrote a superb Christmas song that involved various parts of the world and beer. For the video he skilfully created a “Cool Saharan Beer” out of a can of Carling and a home-printed label. Since 2011, that can has sat on top of my medicine cabinet. Now it is gone.

I know I won’t miss it, in the long run, but I cherish the memories it is attached to in my brain. I can only beg forgiveness and hope that this blog post, in some small way, is a fitting memorial.

Cool Saharan beer
Cool Saharan Beer (Limited Seasonal Edition)

No Plastic Bags

Today, October the 5th 2015, England finally caught up with the rest of the UK in trying to encourage a nationwide experiment in positive constraints: No Plastic Bags. From today, all shops and chains with more than 250 employees (in total, not per shop) will have to charge at least 5p for a plastic bag.

On the face of it, this is an excellent initiative and not a moment too soon. Plastic bags are phenomenally damaging to our natural environment. They are not biodegradable and litter the countryside and pollute our rivers for, not decades, but hundreds of years after they have been discarded.

Plastic bags are also totally unnecessary. The number of times I am automatically handed a plastic bag when I’m only buying a banana and a block of cheese is a constant source of annoyance to me. Even when I do need some sort of conveyance to transport my produce from shop to home, I’d far rather be given something I can either use again or that I can throw in the compost, like a paper bag or cardboard box.

But…

You knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you?

While I applaud any attempt to encourage us to consume less plastic, I know from experience that you can’t force people to adopt a positive constraint. In fact, that’s a contradiction in terms. The “positive” refers to the free agency of the person affected. This, effectively, is a government-imposed negative constraint – albeit one that has very noble ambitions. And negative constraints don’t work very well in the long term.

It is far more effective to freely decide yourself to stop using plastic bags than it is to allow the pain and inconvenience of a 5p charge make that decision for you.

Fascinatingly, if you take a close look at the statistics, there may already be some evidence to back up my worries. Much has been made of the 78.2% reduction in plastic bag usage in Wales since they introduced the 5p plastic bag charge in 2012. However, if you look back through the data, plastic bag usage has increased every year since the charge, from 62 million in 2012 to 73 million in 2013 and 77 million last year (you can delve deeper on the BBC here).

This is, of course, still a huge drop from the 273 million plastic bags that were used in 2011, but it does make me worry about the long-term efficacy of such a scheme. Why? Because a negative constraint (or “stick”) approach like this provides only an extrinsic motivation for No Plastic Bags. Extrinsic motivation, for example when we are motivated by money, fame or public approval, is linked with lower levels of compliance and lower satisfaction when we achieve the object of the motivation.

What we need are postive constraints, where the motivation for the behavioural change comes from within each of us, so that the motivation is intrinsic. This is how our new No Plastic Bag habits will last, not just until we forget the pain of the 5p charge, but for the rest of our lives.

(But still: No Plastic Bags, yay!)

Minimum Viable Technology

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Rather than an experiment, this blog post deals with the idea of Minimum Viable Technology, one of the most important basic concepts that governs the wider application of positive constraints. First, a little story to illustrate the principle.

I was in Boots the other morning, buying a Meal Deal for the train down to Bournemouth. I hadn’t had time for breakfast because I’d had to get up super early to appear on the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC2. But that’s another story altogether.

Boots, if you hadn’t noticed, has self-service checkout machines. You know, the ones that constantly screech about an unidentified item in the bagging area. You know, the ones where you don’t have to talk to another human being. You know, the ones where you can leave your headphones on, stay on the phone and surreptitiously put down six avocados as a kilo of onions in Asda.

I never use them.

I queue up for an actual human interaction. Except there’s no queue because everyone’s too busy screening their phones, waiting in lines for the self-service checkout machines.

I walk up to the man behind the checkout and smile. He smiles. I say good morning, he says good morning. I hand over my Meal Deal merchandise and he says there’s an unidentified item in the bagging area. We laugh.

Then it comes to the bit where I have to pay Boots some money. I whip out my debit card and ask him if I can use this. He replies in the affirmative.

“Is it contactless?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “Thank god. I never want one of those.”

“Why not?” he asks, preparing the machine to receive my contactless-less card. “They’re really handy!”

“Really?” I ask.

“Yeah! They’re so quick and easy – it takes like two seconds! Please, insert your card.”

I shove my card into the machine and wait for the invitation to enter my PIN.

“Isn’t this quick and easy enough?” I ask him. “I think there’s a certain level of technology that’s enough, you know. I don’t think we have to always make things quicker and easier. I can use this bit of plastic to pay for things without money. It takes about twenty seconds. Isn’t that quick and easy enough?”

The machine flashes that my transaction is complete.

“Yeah, I suppose.” He hands me my receipt. “I never thought about it like that.”

“And we wouldn’t have been able to have this little conversation. I like that twenty seconds!”

He laughs.

Minimum Viable Technology

Technology is there to solve the little problems of existence and support us in our lives. There’s a lot of amazing tech out there and it’s easy to get sucked into saying yes to every little advance, whether it’s needed or not.

Technology solves problems. That’s good. But when the problem is solved, I think we should stop there. Paying for something when I haven’t got any cash on me is a mild inconvenience, but my debit card solves it with little fuss. Saving a further twenty seconds at the checkout is simply not a problem that I have.

In fact, far from being a problem solved, shaving seconds from that interaction is actually a bad thing. Solving problems that aren’t problems will always have consequences. In this case, it alienates us a little further from the people who serve us our Meal Deals.

I’m far from being against all technology (he says, publishing this on the vast interconnected technologies of the internet), but I do think we should always use the minimum viable technology for a task. In other words, we should use the most basic tools that will still get the job well done.

Minimum Viable Technology: Benefits

Skills

The more basic the technology, generally speaking, the greater the skills you must learn and deploy.

For example, motorists who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s had to become semi-skilled mechanics in order to keep their cars on the road. Modern motorists have no such need. In fact, car manufacturers deliberately make their technology unhackable, so that you must go back to the approved dealer for expensive repairs.

The same is true of modern computers. You used to have to understand the fundamentals of programming to use a PC properly. Nowadays, user interfaces have evolved to the point where the internal workings of your computer are shrouded in mystery. When something goes wrong, the user is clueless and open to exploitation.

Of course, for many people, myself included, this ease of use is a good thing. But ease of use and incomprehending dependence are two completely different things.

Dependence is hierarchical and undemocratic, concentrating knowledge and power in the hands of the few. It reminds me of the worst excesses of medieval religion, where divine forgiveness was sold to the layman by a corrupt hierarchy of priests.

Hidden Benefits

Using the minimum viable technology for a task often has hidden benefits. For example, writing long hand on paper is important to cognitive development in children, helps you learn by combining visual, motor and brain processing, could make us more creative and stave off mental decline as we get older. Not bad for something that is so obviously “backward” in this screen-filled age.

These hidden benefits apply to almost every positive constraint that I’ve experimented with: No Hot Showers, No Mobile Phone, No Supermarket.

The Tool is not the Task

In our search for the most efficient technology, we forget that 99% of a task is not about the tools we use.

  • Cleaning yourself is not about power showers, hot water tanks or expensive shampoos; it’s about water and scrubbing. Jumping into a lake would do it.
  • Communication is not about 4G, wifi or GSM; it’s about talking to other human beings. Like the ones you see on the train every morning.
  • Grocery shopping isn’t about foil-packed for freshness, 138 different varieties of soup or self-service checkouts; it’s about building a strong and healthy relationship to your food and the people who supply that food. You find that at your local greengrocer, not in the aisles of a supermarket warehouse.

The Best Things in Life are Simple

Using the minimum viable technology reminds us that the best things in life are not complicated.

There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than pulling on a pair of walking shoes (my minimum viable technology for travel without blisters), slinging a small backpack over my shoulder (MVT for basic food and camping gear), walking out into the sunset, sleeping the night on a hilltop in my bivvy bag (MVT for sleeping) and waking to the warming glow of the sunrise.

I don’t need much more than that. Anything else is a luxury and distracts from the task at hand: exploring the corners of the life I have been given.

Technology is there to support us when we need it, not to be taken for granted. When the support falls away – and it will one day – will you be able to stand on your own two feet?

Coda

When I arrived home from my trip to Bournemouth, there was a letter on the mat from my building society. Inside was a letter congratulating me on my arrival in the future, attached, my new contactless debit card.

If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.

No Facebook

I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.

Why No Facebook?

I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.

  1. Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
  2. Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
  3. Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.

So let’s go through these in order.

Facebook makes you miserable

Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.

  • When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
  • When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
  • When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.

None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.

What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?

Not sure how to break this to you, but no.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.

FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.

 

Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.

This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.

This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.

The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.

Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:

  1. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
  2. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.

If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.

But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.

The only thing we can do is withdraw our product: quit Facebook. (Actually, we can do something else: we can join Europe vs Facebook and sue the parasites, but it’s probably easier to quit.)

 

Why do any of us use Facebook?

However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.

Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.

That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.

First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.

FB Profile photos
No more of this crap.

The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.

I was liberated.

Two Years Later…

I still don’t miss Facebook.

I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.

Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.

No Toilet Paper

“The fundamental problem is that the area used for releasing urine and faeces is compressed between thighs and buttocks, so we are more likely than other animals to foul ourselves.”

That, supposedly, is why we humans must use toilet paper. Other mammals, whether dogs, great apes or unicorns, walk on four legs and so have a clear passage for faeces, once the tail is raised to attention. To keep ourselves clean, we must wipe.

The obvious extrusion in the preceding paragraph is “toilet paper”. Romans used a sponge on the end of a stick. Jews used small pebbles or the smooth edges of broken pottery. French satirist François Rabelais recommends the neck of a well-downed goose.

We have seventh century China to blame for today’s proliferation of toilet papers: one-ply, two-ply, six-ply, quilted, perfumed, perforated, embossed and decorated with the colours of your football team. 83 million rolls of the stuff are produced globally every day, a daily consumption of 27,000 trees to feed our voracious appetite for smearing shit onto paper that we then flush into our rivers and oceans.

NOTE: Oh yeah, this piece might get a bit gross for some of you. Get over it.

Not Saving the Planet

A lot of people, when they hear about my experiments in positive constraints, come to the understandable, but incorrect, conclusion that I’m worried about “saving the planet”, “environmentalism” or “being green”. I’m not.

It’s not that I couldn’t give a crap (sorry) about these things, but we can only change the world by changing ourselves.

It’s impossible for me to comprehend my miniscule contribution to the fate of the planet: I am one of seven billion. What I can understand, measure and describe, however, is the individual impact on my life of changes to my personal behaviour.

That’s what I’m going for with these experiments in positive constraints. Talking of which: I’m duty-bound to remind you that, if you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments and hear first news of the how to get your hands on the book then please join my mailing list. Then come back to read the rest of this riveting instalment of positive constraints…

So the main reason for adopting a positive constraint like No Toilet Paper is not the saving of paper, trees and money, but Ockham’s Razor.

Ockham’s Razor

Ockham’s Razor was the first philosophical principle I ever came across, aged about 14, and is the number one reason why, 19 years later, I’m still such an insufferable intellectual snob. (Hey, at least I didn’t use its Latin name, lex parsimoniae.)

The principle has made a celebrity out of fourteenth century theologian William of Ockham (a village in Surrey), but the idea is as old as the hills: the simplest explanation or the simplest solution is most likely to be the best.

If I can explain why the sun appears to rise every morning with basic astronomical physics, then I probably don’t need to invoke the Egytpian Sun God Ra and his star-pulling chariot. Equally, if I can design a perfectly good dining table with four legs, then it’s probably superfluous to add a fifth (Rube Goldberg machines are a delightful exception to this rule).

It follows, therefore, that if I can live without it, then why the hell would I ever bother using toilet paper?

No Toilet Paper 2015-09-21 002
Gutted.

No Toilet Paper: The Principle

Luckily, the rest of the world isn’t quite as insane as Europe, the US and Australia. Large areas of the globe are already on a No Toilet Paper regimen. Unfortunately, Western behaviours are currently “on trend” and the utterly pointless behaviour of scraping around your anus with a patch of wood pulp is spreading.

Large swathes of the Muslim and Hindu world still use water to clean themselves after defecating. The methods vary, but the principle is the same. I’ll illustrate it with a little quiz.

You’re out fixing a new chain on your bicycle or digging up your new veg patch. You finish the job (Well done!) and go inside for dinner. You notice that your hands are covered in oil and grease or mud and worms. Do you:

a) Wash your hands with soap and water?

b) Smear the dirt around with a scrap of paper?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

No Toilet Paper: The Methods

Hopefully we’ve established that you’d be mad to continue using toilet paper. But, given our awkward self-befouling human anatomy, how exactly should we clean ourselves?

In the course of my experimentation over the last two weeks, I’ve come across several different options. Here they are, in order of increasing complexity:

  1. Do nothing. I don’t quite mean that, of course, but often I’m remarkably clean and have no need to do anything special. After a few days using other methods, you’ll get a feeling for whether you need to clean more thoroughly or not.
    WARNING: This does depend on your diet. Since my experimentation with No Meat, I’ve noticed that I’m visiting the toilet more often (that’s fibre for you) and need to clean more thoroughly. Previously, when I was eating a simple meat and beans diet, I was a steady once-a-day man, regular as clockwork. Because I’d go in the morning, I could easily wash myself in the shower, no toilet paper required.
  2. Use your hand. Assuming you’re not having any problems with sticky poo (check your diet), you might be surprised to find that there’s never really much there to clear away. Use only one hand and make sure you wash with good soap (and a nail brush if that’s necessary).
  3. Use a wet flannel. This was suggested by one of my friends. She keeps three flannels in her room and uses them in rotation throughout the day to clean herself. At the end of the day, she boils them all in a pan of water to kill any residual germs. The only downside is you’ll have to carry a flannel with you when you go out.
  4. Use a bowl and pitcher. This is an absolute classic all across the Arab world. To be honest, I find it a little fiddly, but the technique is just to splash yourself with water. Again, this is more annoying if you’re not at home. You could carry a dedicated bottle of arse-water.
  5. Install a bidet shower, “health tap” or a purpose-built toilet. These are all ways of using water pressure to hose yourself down. Options include a basic shower head, a trigger hose or a specially designed toilet. The toilets are particularly good fun, with a little nozzle in the centre of the bowl firing water straight up your anus. Complex, expensive and slightly unnecessary.
The solution.
The solution.

Benefits to No Toilet Paper

  1. Stop worrying about public toilet paper provision. (Or at home either.)
  2. Feel cleaner after washing compared to smearing.
  3. Be more ape and feel at home in the great outdoors.
  4. Stake out your independence from the unnecessary comforts of modernity.
  5. Save money. You probably spend about £20-30 a year on toilet paper. It’s one less thing to remember in the shop too.
  6. Stop culling your share of those 27,000 trees per day.
  7. Be more rational and treat Ockham’s Razor with the respect it deserves instead of mindlessly following stupid inherited cultural habits.

Are there any downsides to living without toilet paper? I guess that some people might think I’m gross, but I stopped giving a shit about that a long time ago.

Thanks for reading – I hope it inspires you to look at your life and your habits and to peer round the curtain at what’s really going on. If you’d like to stay in touch and hear about this famous positive constraints book, then please join my mailing list or follow me on Twitter.

No Meat

After No Hot Showers and No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation, here comes a positive constraint that is, shall we say, a little more… meaty.

If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.

My Old Diet: Meat and Beans

For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.

Meat pie. Fray Bentos.
I even once ate this. Yuk.

Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.

This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.

This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:

  1. It’s simple.
  2. It’s quick.
  3. It’s filling.
  4. It’s cheap.

What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.

More time in the kitchen.
No Meat means more time staring at these. Riveting.

 

Why No Meat?

So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.

Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.

Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.

Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.

Cowspiracy is unambiguous:

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.

You can read more facts about animal agriculture on the Cowspiracy website, complete with percentages and dates, billions and millions.

But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.

No Meat

At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.

This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?

The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!

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Delicious saladiness. Spot the animal products.

Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Red pepper
  • Red onion
  • Avocados
  • Feta cheese
  • Rocket
  • Spinach
  • Chickpeas

All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.

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Well that looks gross. Sorry if you were eating while reading this.

In the scramble, I put:

  • Eggs (scrambled)
  • Mushrooms (fried)
  • Red onion (fried)
  • Black beans (boiled)
  • Lentils (boiled)

Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:

  • I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
  • To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
  • To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.

For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.

Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!

The inside of my compost bin.
Real food technology: the inside of my compost bin.

Nutritional Comparison

Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.

One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:

  • Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
  • Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
  • Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
  • Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
  • Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
  • Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
  • Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.

If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:

  • 571kcal energy.
  • 38g protein.
  • 24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
  • 48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
  • 8g fibre.
  • 1.2g salt.

This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.

Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).

Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments

Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.

  • Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
  • Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
  • It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
  • The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
  • I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
  • Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
  • The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
Too much washing up.
Too much washing up.

What’s next?

This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?

As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:

  1. I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
  2. I could reintroduce meat, but perhaps eat less. If not for the taste (my buds are really not fussed, remember), then for the wider nutritional palette. A 2011 study, for example, found that supplementation with 20g of creatine per day could enhance cognitive functioning in vegetarians. Not to put too fine a point on it, we get creatine from eating animals.
  3. I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.

Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.

Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?

I hate crisps

I hate crisps.

There. I’ve said it.

I really do hate crisps. And I don’t say that lightly or with a cheeky twinkle in my eye. I loathe crisps. I abhor crisps. I detest crisps, crisp-eaters and every aspect and association of this most deplorable variety of snack.

Do you love crisps? Then, I guarantee, I hate you. (At least I do whenever you stuff your slobbering maw with fried potato.)

It never used to be like this. I used to eat crisps when I were a lad. They would be served up as a treat once a week, or poured into bowls at parties, and I would devour them with quick-fingered crunch. Because the addict doesn’t notice the madness of their addiction.

And that explains my hatred: there is no more acerbic anti-smoker than the former-smoker. There is no more hate-filled anti-crisper than the former-crisper. (Indeed, you will occasionally witness me, in a fit of self-loathing, suffer a relapse.)

But my hatred of crisps is founded on rational principles, just as the anti-smoker is medically justified in their high-minded disgust of smoking and smokers.

Forget for a moment your addiction and your long and fond history of crisp consumption and think about the characteristics of the snack. Then decide if you still want to be what you are eating.

Just 5 Disgusting Things About Crisps

Examine the crisp with a dispassionate eye and what do we find?

1. They are noisy to consume, from the constant rustling of the foil sealed for freshness packaging, the rummaging fingers for the right crisp, through to the crunching of the snack chew, the sucking of fingers and constant mastication as the unfortunate victim digs half chewed gobbets of potatoe from between their teeth. Not to mention the scrunching of the packet when finally, mercifully, the crisps are finished.

2. They have absolutely zero nutritional value, being largely a conveyance for salt. This is unforgiveable. If you really need a snack, even a noisy snack, why not just eat a bag of almonds or an apple? Or put a fistful of sand into your fat gob?

3. They stink. There is no smell quite as toxic as the breath fumes of E-numbered crisp “flavours”. Amazed that you can find crisps in flavours like Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Pie? How do they manage that?! By poisoning you, that’s how.

Not only will you not get the stench off your breath for hours, but the whole room into which you have just opened your mouth will suffer the olfactory fog of your idiocy.

4. They are addictive. They were invented for the sole reason of making you drink more, you fool. Somehow Pringles tried to make a virtue of this: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” You could say the same for crack cocaine. Why allow a snack food to be your masochistic master?

5. They are ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere these days without having crisps foisted upon you. Sit down on any train journey and within minutes you will hear a diabolical orchestra tuning up with rustlings, crunchings and suckings, closely followed by a noxious waft of stinging fumes that will persist like a cloud of pestilance until you get to your destination.

Even restaurants insist on spoiling their food with the addition of crisps – usually before you’ve even caught sight of the menu. Poppadoms: crisps. Prawn crackers: crisps. Tacos: crisps. Meal ruined.

Why oh why oh why?

Given this cursory examination of just five hideous features of the crisp (I could go on), it is clear that they are nothing more than a successful marketing campaign.

So why do people eat crisps? Because they actually enjoy the taste? That I can’t believe. You’ll hear smokers too, talking about the glory of that first cigarette of the morning, shortly after hacking up their guts.

No. We eat crisps because we’re childishly drawn by the garish packaging, by their ubiquity in every shop around the country, because we’re told to like them by our parents and the rest of our moronic nation.

We are cursed, a crisp-obsessed society that has deluded itself into believing fried potato is the optimal snack for every occasion: at meal times, in school packed lunches, on trains, with a drink in a pub.

The only reason we eat crisps is because we are a dogmatic crisp-eating society. You could no more imagine English society without crisps than you could without tea or cricket. It’s pathetic.

But perhaps a society gets the snacks they deserve. We deserve nothing better than a throwaway, antisocial, vacuous snack food. The crisp is garish, loud and ultimately empty. Our garish, loud and ultimately empty society deserves nothing more.

Image by Alex Kwong.

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”

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Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.

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But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”

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Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”

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From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Power and “Social Gravity”

This is the twentieth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Nadim Kobeissi, creator of the encrypted chat app Cryptocat, criticises Shoshana’s argument from a different direction. “There is a kind of politics that I have grown to dislike very much, which is the politics of us versus them,” he says. “It’s very effective, when you are wanting to mobilise a political movement, to use absolute terms,” Nadim adds, taking issue with the strong language that Shoshana uses: “usurping the internet”, “they’re conquering the internet” and “they’re taking privacy rights for themselves”.

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“It was never a question whether Google was harvesting user data,” Nadim points out. “It’s not the case that they have usurped society by forcing people to sign up for Google. People were voluntarily signing up and they were, in return, receiving a legitimate service.” Nadim sees the rise of Google and the tech giants in many more shades of grey than Shoshana has perhaps shown us. “Is it really like there’s this bunch of bad guys who are conquering the internet with internet soldiers?” he asks, his voice rising with incredulity.

But Felix is exasperated with this perception of the exchange, which he sees as a strain of Stockholm Syndrome. “I think this is a common misunderstanding of how power works,” he says. Felix explains that there are usually two ways of exerting power: the “hard power” threat of violence and “soft power”, like Hollywood films that give you “ideas” on how to lead your life.

“The way Google exerts power is neither through one nor the other,” Felix says. “I don’t meet anyone who likes Facebook, but I also don’t meet anyone who says, Okay, I’m going to quit it,” he adds. “This is a form of power that makes you voluntarily do something you don’t want.” All these technologies enable you to do some things and constrain you from doing other things; the problem is that you must either accept it or reject it wholesale. Here Felix agrees with Shoshana. “This is not a legitimate choice because it is: Do you want to talk to your friends or do you not want to talk to your friends?”

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Felix illustrates his argument by bringing it right into the room. “We’re in a German-speaking country and we’re having an English-speaking discussion,” he says. “So the price to contribute to that debate is to learn English.” This cost, of course, has consequences. People whose first language is English will have no problem expressing themselves clearly, while people for whom English is a second or third language will find it much harder – but, remember, we’re all “free” to participate or not…

The same is true for using Facebook or Google. “We are free to operate under these conditions,” Felix says. “They don’t tell us any more what to do, but they just slant the playing field.” This exertion of power might be subtle, but it is no less effective than hard or soft power. Felix returns to Nadim’s objection: “Yes, this is not a territory that gets usurped,” he says, “but this is a territory that is getting slanted; to do certain things becomes harder, to do other things becomes easier.”

Felix calls this “social gravity” and it is changing, both online and off. You can choose to walk against the slant, but doing that will make your life more difficult and, unless you are superhuman, gravity eventually wins. I no longer have a Google account, which is annoying when I want to post or comment on YouTube videos, but I have kept my Microsoft account for email because that’s just too complicated to quit.

“We think about these things as communication platforms, but they’re not,” Felix says. “From the point of view of those who create these platforms, they don’t care what you say, as long as you produce data. They’re not about content, they’re about constraining and shaping behaviour.” Furthermore, as more and more people use these platforms, the slant gets steeper and steeper.

“A lot of people face a big dilemma,” Daniel says, “because you are drawn into these things; all your friends are there. Some people don’t even access their email any more.” This subtle social gravity is tilting us towards surveillance capitalism, whether we like it or not. “You can post every day, I hate Facebook,” Felix says, “and they like it, because you use the system!”

“I thought the analogy was interesting,” activist and cryptographer Bill Budington says. “It becomes slanted and then you lose your balance and, as time goes on, it becomes so slanted that the effect of gravity overtakes your ability to resist it.” He gives an example of the US government serving legal papers on people through Facebook because of their real name policy. “Facebook wants to become incorporated into the state apparatus,” he says. Do we want to live in a world like that?

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Participation or Privacy?

This is the nineteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The central dilemma facing the average citizen hasn’t yet been discussed: How to participate in society without accelerating this dystopian future of surveillance capitalism.

Micah gets right to the point: “I’m actually very happy about the fact that I’m never lost any more because I have a phone with GPS,” he says. “This is my first time in Austria,” he adds, “but I’m able to see where I’m staying and find directions to walk there.” But this same technology means that, everywhere he goes, his location is being tracked, not just by Google, but also by T-Mobile and all the other ways data can leak out of his phone. “Still, it’s an amazing technology,” Micah concedes. This kind of trade-off between the enabling and the terrifying aspects of technology is widespread in the tools we have today.

“Every time we use the web,” Micah explains, “there are tonnes of services that track what we’re doing and tonnes of services that make the web more rich.” YouTube videos embedded in blogs, social media or other websites are a great convenience, but mean that Google can track, not only what videos you’re watching, but where you’re watching them. “Everything that we do leaves data trails,” Micah says, “and these data trails end up in databases of a wide variety of companies and many of them we have no idea they even exist.” Say what? “Like, you go to a website and there are dozens of advertising networks tracking you,” he adds, “and you don’t even realise this.” Well, there’s a comforting thought…

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Since the Snowden revelations last year, we now know that all of this data is also accessible to governments and spy agencies, particularly skewed to favour US surveillance operations. A huge percentage of websites use Google Analytics, a great convenience for website owners managing and analysing their traffic flows. “This means that, as you go from website to website, each of these totally separate websites are all sending their information to the same Google database,” Micah explains.

These databases are stored on servers in the US and, because your data has now landed on their soil, the US government can demand to have a look too. In total secret. “There used to be a small minority of paranoid people and everyone would think they were crazy,” Micah says, “and now it turns out they were completely right.”

However, Micah is hopeful in some ways. “People are starting to wake up and finally websites are starting to use encryption,” he says. “Things are starting to go in a better direction, but there are a lot of things that are almost impossible: How can I carry a phone that has a map and GPS without being tracked by the cell networks?”

There are ways to protect yourself from certain aspects of surveillance, but, as Daniel Erlacher says, “If you really want to defend yourself, your browsing experience is not just click and go.” You can install software that blocks JavaScript or anonymises your browsing, but your web experience will be much less rich, pages will load more slowly and, in some cases, not work at all. You are left with a choice between protection and participation.

Shoshana calls this an “illegitimate choice”. For her, this is reminiscent of the illegitimate choice that women in the 1980s were forced to make between having a family or a career. Shoshana and her generation of women had to resist and overturn that illegitimacy; our generation has to resist and overturn the illegitimacies of today. We each must take Shoshana’s vow of resistance: “I will change whatever I have to change around me to not be faced with that choice.”

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The internet is as essential for effective living in the twenty-first century as balancing family and career has become for women since the 1980s. “A few months ago, Facebook had a server crash and people around the United States couldn’t get onto Facebook,” Shoshana tells us. “People were actually calling 911.” We laugh, but the point is made: to millions, these services are critical to participation in society today. “Can you imagine living without Google search, or any kind of search?” she asks. “I certainly can’t.”

This is what makes surveillance capitalism “a Faustian pact” according to Shoshana. If we want to use these services to participate in society, then we are forced to give up certain things, such as our privacy. You could argue that this is not unlike the social contract we all implicitly sign up to when we give up the daily freedom of our children in exchange for eleven long years of education.

The problem with surveillance capitalism is that we have not agreed to give up these rights through the democratic process. There is no social contract; there are only corporate terms and conditions. Privacy is taken away from us unilaterally and without discussion or debate. “It’s a completely unregulated way to do things,” Daniel says. “It’s like driving on the road without any signs or any rules.”

There is, however, some doubt over the potential of our democratic process to face down the biggest technology companies. Daniel Erlacher reels off a list of the ready cash held by the big technology corporations. Apple have one hundred and ten billion dollars on hand, Microsoft fifty-one billion, Google fifty billion – and this was in 2012. That is more cash than most nation states.

Daniel cites Julian Assange’s book When Google Met WikiLeaks: “When we talk about Google,” he says, “we talk about US policy-making.” The implication is that the US government are perfectly happy to have Google in charge, as long as the US government can influence Google. The will of the people, meanwhile, doesn’t come into it at all.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Who Will Cook Capitalism?

This is the eighteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, immediately takes issue with Shoshana’s central recommendation. “I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that the alternative is to cook capitalism again or face a wasteland,” he says. “Historically what cooked capitalism was the real competition with socialism that put pressure on capitalist institutions and states to mitigate against these tendencies that are inherent in unregulated capitalism, that they increase social inequality.”

For Felix, social inequality is not our biggest problem; it’s a side-effect of the current way we have organised ourselves. He argues that we need to extend democratic participation into the running of the economy, before society descends into anarchy. “This new capitalism,” he says, “creates surplus populations that become very unrestive, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere. And that’s very dangerous.”

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“First of all, Google is not the only problem,” says social media critic and educator Miriam Rasch, “so we have to talk about it in a broader sense.” But she argues that Google already intervene to nudge our behaviour in a particular direction, through algorithms, filter bubbles and the automatic suggestions they provide in their search, for example. “For the billions of users of Google, it looks like an objective tool,” she says. “The first step would be to explain that this is not the way it is.”

Although Miriam accepts that algorithmic interventions lead to an inequality in power and privacy between the few at Google and the many of its users, she does also suggest that Google’s automation “makes the majority into some kind of equal un-individual mass”. She means equal in a bad sense, but I suppose it does also mean that Bill Gates and Barack Obama get the same rough treatment from Google Search as I do, which is something at least.

However, like Felix, Miriam is sceptical about looking to our institutions for solutions. “It’s a problem in the whole of society that everyone is gathering all this data about you,” she says. “You can hardly live your life without going along.” In the Netherlands, where Miriam lives, they have a chip card system for the transport network, much like the London Oystercard. The card gathers data about the holder’s travel around the country.

“This is a lot of data gathered by my government about me and I don’t know what they do with it,” she says. Miriam pays for a card that allows her unlimited travel at any time throughout the Netherlands and yet, curiously, she must still scan her card for each journey. That can only be for the unknown purposes of data collection. “So it’s not only Google or the tech companies,” she says, “it’s really about our real daily lives.”

Micah Lee, chief technology officer of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, agrees. “The problem is bigger than Google,” he says. “Google really did pioneer a lot of this stuff, but, at this point, every time you do anything, there are databases logging this information.” Micah tells us about traffic cameras placed at intersections in cities in the US that log every licence plate number that passes. “This is used to catch people running red lights,” he says, “but this is just a database with a data set that can show exactly where people have been driving.”

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If Felix, Miriam and Micah are sceptical about trusting government institutions with protecting us from the worst ravages of capitalism, Nafeez Ahmed is downright scathing of Shoshana’s proposal. He describes institutionising as a “totally banal response to the scale and systematic nature of the crisis”. Nafeez wants us to be more ambitious: “Surely we should reclaim the commons,” he says, “reclaim public ownership and break the monopoly of the corporations.”

Shoshana takes the opportunity to respond. “I’m not suggesting that we recreate the institutions of the twentieth century,” she explains. “We’re not going back to those social conditions.” She draws on the writing of George Orwell, where he defines cowardice as taking whatever is happening now and assuming it will continue to happen in the future. To make that assumption is to subjugate yourself to the power structure of the moment and that is cowardice.

“The future is not a straight line from the present,” Shoshana says. “The real challenge,” she adds, “is taking the challenges we face now and understanding how we create the new institutions that reflect our conditions of existence today.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing: Keynote

This is the seventeenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. Shoshana begins her keynote speech with a simple question: “Why does Google matter?” But her answer penetrates far beyond the company’s profit and loss, share price or market capture to address the root existential threats Google poses to our society and democracy.

(Shoshana explains later that she is “focusing on Google as emblematic of a new mode of practice and a new mode of capitalism”. It’s not just Google, as demonstrated this summer by the revelations that Facebook have been manipulating the emotions of their users without permission.)

Shoshana starts her analysis by describing the new business model that she and her colleagues have seen rising since the 1970s. “You can call it neo-liberalism, financial capitalism, shareholder capitalism,” she says. “The label is less important than understanding its consequences.” And the consequences have included, not only social exclusion, stratification and inequality, but also reactions to those consequences – fundamentalism, despair, violence – and the reactions to those reactions – repression, resistance and extremism. “This is a business model that I consider to be contemptuous,” Shoshana says. “Contemptuous of humanity and contemptuous of our planet.”

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Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has written an incomprehensible modern classic critique of twenty-first century capitalism, called, not incomprehensibly, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Shoshana is one of the few people who have read past the introduction and she reports back from the trenches. “I’ve been able to reduce this very thick book to one sentence,” Shoshana says, snuggling up to the microphone like a magician. “Ready? Okay: Capitalism is not intended to be eaten raw.” There’s a titter in the audience.

She elaborates: “Piketty demonstrates that the problem we’re facing is not capitalism per se, but rather what happens to our societies when capitalism is allowed to develop without any social constraints.” According to Piketty, that’s the kind of raw capitalism that produces such pernicious inequality. The solution is therefore simple: “We need laws, we need social institutions and we need the collaboration amongst us in a democratic spirit in order to cook capitalism and make it edible,” Shoshana explains. “And that’s the stuff we have lost in the last thirty years.”

While neo-liberalism (or whatever you want to call it) has been merrily dismantling the laws, social institutions and collaboration that made capitalism palatable, many people took refuge in this new thing called the internet, which promised autonomy, freedom and creativity. “But the thing we need to understand now,” Shoshana warns, “is that the online world, which used to be our world, is now where capitalism is developing in new ways.” By which she means the capitalism of, among others, Google. The critical question for us is: Will these new forms of capitalism, developing in the networked world, solve the problems that we face today – or are they going to make them worse?

Although Shoshana sees some positive developments for capitalism online, she also sees some really dangerous developments, “developments,” she says, “that are really hard to grasp because they have been designed to be undetectable”.

This is the context in which Google matters. Now back to the original question: Why does Google matter? Google matters because they have pioneered a wholly new business logic, new in the history of capitalism. This new logic, Shoshana says, has already become the model for most new online businesses, applications and start-ups. If the Google model is already the dominant model in the online world, then, assuming that the current rush from offline to online commerce continues, it follows that the Google model will become the dominant model of the entire capitalist system. And that, says Shoshana, is a very dangerous prospect indeed.

In what way is Google’s business logic so innovative? In order to understand the answer to this, we have to first understand that capitalism has always depended on its populations for two things: customers and employees. This is no longer true. We, the service users, are not Google’s customers. Google’s customers are the advertisers and others who purchase its data analyses. As users, we are simply the source of the data that it analyses for its customers. We are not needed as customers.

Google, the third most valuable company in the world, employs less than 48,000 people. For comparison, the largest private employer on the planet today is Walmart with 2.2m employees. The success of twentieth century capitalism was founded its employees; at the height of its power in 1958, General Motors was also the largest private employer on the planet. “That gives you an idea of how we’ve flipped this model,” Shoshana says. Google and its dominant business model simply does not require many workers. Most of us are not needed as employees.
So if the people are not Google’s customers and they are not Google’s employees, then what does Google need people for? Only one thing: data.

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“Data is becoming everything,” Shoshana says. “The ugly truth here is that this so-called big data is actually plucked from our lives without our knowledge and without our informed consent.” This big data, which Shoshana calls big contraband or big stolen goods, is sucked from our social media, from our smartphones, from our every networked click, type and touch. “I call it the poisoned fruit of a rich array of surveillance practices,” she says, “designed to be invisible and undetectable as we make our way across the virtual, but now also the real world.”

These practices are complicated by collaboration between corporations and state security services in the surveillance of citizens, and further complicated by the accelerating pace of these practices. “Google is now investing in drones,” Shoshana points out, “in wearable technologies, in the smart devices for our homes, the internet of everything.” This is creating a massive infrastructure of big contraband collection.

This new economic logic, where we are not required as customers or employees, but only as data sets, has created a new asset class, which Shoshana calls surveillance assets. They attract a lot of investment: surveillance capital. What we’ve created in Google, she explains, is a new logic of accumulation: accumulation by surveillance. And this new economic model is, of course, called surveillance capitalism. “What is key to understand is that populations, that is all of us, no longer exist to be employed and served,” Shoshana says. “We exist to be harvested, harvested for behavioural data.”

These developments are moving very quickly. Google have already progressed from collecting the data of things we have done, through the data of things we are doing, to making predictions of things we might do. Now, according to Shoshana, they are “actually intervening, in thousands and thousands of very subtle ways, to modify our behaviour, to shape our behaviour, in order to try and determine what we will do next”. No, wait, there’s more good news.

“Every single point in that process is going to be monetised and marketised,” Shoshana says, “turned into revenue streams for Google, for its advertisers, for the others who are bidding on opportunities to modify our behaviour to serve their financial interest.” This is becoming the new economic model, this is becoming the new reality of our lives. “Reality is being turned into a new commodity class called behaviour,” Shoshana says. Reality is the next big thing.

You might think this would hail the end of privacy. Far from it. There is actually a lot of privacy, but it has been redistributed. “Instead of everybody having some privacy,” Shoshana says, “the surveillance capitalists have usurped our privacy rights: they have all the privacy and we are left with no privacy.” The surveillance capitalists use their privacy power to prevent us from being able to inspect or control their behaviour.

Shoshana sees this unilateral usurpation of our rights as going far beyond simple business; this is now serious politics. “Google represents a revolutionary new politics,” she says. “It’s a revolution from above. It’s not a coup d’état, it’s a coup des gens – it’s an overthrowing of the people, not of the state.” This is a remarkable reappraisal for a company whose company slogan is Don’t be evil. “That’s why Google,” Shoshana continues, “which began as something that intended to empower us, has become something that represents one of the darkest threats for our future.”

This overthrowing of the people, Shoshana says, is caused by an “automated passivity, that attempts to reduce us to our animal condition of stimulus and response”. Shoshana compares what Google is doing to behaviourist researchers who put rats in a maze and give them rewards and electric shocks in order to determine their behaviour. “That’s the direction that surveillance capitalism is taking us,” she says.

Shoshana now returns, somewhat sardonically, to the question of whether surveillance capitalism will solve our socio-ecological problems or make them worse. “Is this going to fix our problems of income and social inequality?” she asks, rhetorically. “Is this going to fix the divisions in our society? Is this going to fix the problems that a contemptuous capitalism has produced?” The questions hang, hopelessly. “My answer to that is no. Instead, it’s going to institutionalise these problems in a universal digital infrastructure to which people must submit if they want to participate.”

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Must this be our destiny?

Shoshana urges us to turn and make eye contact with the person sitting next to us. “When you look at the people beside you,” she says, “you are not seeing illiterate serfs. This is not the fourteenth century. What you see is an educated, thinking, critical, opinionated individual.” I’m flattered. “That’s who we are,” she adds, “and people like us are not going to let Dark Google be our future.”

Staying positive, we have to remember that surveillance capitalism is still very young. “We are only at the beginning of this new information civilisation that will dominate the twenty-first century,” Shoshana says. In 1914, the Ford Model T car had only been in production for six years and General Motors was a small start up company; both became giants of twentieth century industry and neither destroyed democracy. Shoshana puts this success down to “the gradual development of legal and social institutions that amplified capitalism’s social benefits and tamed its excesses”.

In other words: we cooked twentieth century capitalism. “Just what Piketty was talking about,” Shoshana says. Capitalism in the nineteenth century was very raw and great political battles were fought for the social welfare state that made capitalism fit for human consumption in the twentieth century.

Now we must fight those political battles all over again. To avoid the risks of slipping back into a nineteenth century world of inequality, where raw surveillance capitalism gives us all bellyache, we all must now don our aprons, our oven gloves and our toques and become economic chefs. Google’s raw economic model must be made palatable through a reassertion of democratic rights, oversight and law.

Our future depends on us finding alternative, pro-social forms of information capitalism that, as Shoshana says with passion, “do not subjugate us, but serve us, that align with our needs for effective life and do not try to usurp our rights, but rather allow us to flourish”.

For Shoshana, it is essential that we develop our solutions through our democratic process. “In the shadow, in the gloom of today’s Dark Googles, it has become fashionable to mourn the passing of the democratic era,” she says. “But I want to say that democracy is the best that our species has developed so far and woe to us if we abandon it now.” Shoshana’s support for state democracy seems to be less a warm endorsement and more a cold fear of likely alternatives: despotism, oligarchy or military junta.

“The real road to serfdom,” she continues, “is to allow ourselves to be persuaded that these declarations of democracy that we have inherited are no longer relevant to our digital future, that they will be overwhelmed by these powers of surveillance capitalism.”

Having raised the spectre of a future where democracy has been obliterated by surveillance capitalism, Shoshana tries to reassure us. “This is the wasteland,” she says, “but I do not fear it because I do not anticipate it and I do not anticipate it because I believe in you.” She jabs a finger at us and smiles. “My hope for the future rests in you, in each one of you.” She leans back into her leather padded chair on the other side of the planet. “That’s the promise of today. So go, do.”

Shoshana beams into her web cam, sending the smile down the fibre optic cables, patiently watched by the NSA and Google.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate the Commons

This is the eighth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Addressing the oft-repeated accusation from the mainstream that alternative thinkers have no practical proposals for a replacement to capitalism, I hereby present Exhibit A: the commons. In an echo of John Holloway’s opening speech, Silke Helfrich characterises the commons as “putting hope into practice”.

The idea of commoning is that there are certain things that all of humanity holds “in common” and that responsibility for and access to those things should be shared equally among us all. Examples might include the air we breathe, the languages we speak and the water we drink. Commoners seek to extend and protect these basic shared resources; while capitalists seek to privatise and profit from them. Unless you happen to live right beside a fresh water spring, the water you drink has already been turned into a commodity that you pay for. Perhaps you believe that the air you breathe is a more genuine commons, free of commodification and profiteering. But would you say that you had an equal share in its pollution? Does this pollution make its way onto the balance sheets of industry in a way that reflects the damage done to your lungs?

What other resources should we have in common? Perhaps you might think the seeds that grow our food should be a common resource, provided by Mother Nature herself. But genetically modified “terminator” seeds that die after harvest have already been developed, so that farmers are reliant on buying more from the supplier. What about life-saving drugs? Private pharmaceutical companies using patent protection are systematically withholding life-saving drugs from the people who need them most. Or the internet, should that be a commons? According to a 2013 study, a quarter of all US internet traffic goes through Google’s privately owned servers; in 2011, that figure was just six percent. What about democracy, surely that must always be a commons? The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently being negotiated behind closed doors by the US and the EU, threatens to extend intellectual property rights and could clear away the national regulatory rights of individual EU countries, raising the prospect of the corporate imposition of genetically modified organisms and shale gas fracking. In return for this gift from our commons, TTIP promises the average household an increase in earnings of about fifty dollars per year by 2027. Not exactly win-win.

Silke Helfrich is so obsessed with commoning that she has, quite literally, written the book (well, co-edited it, at least). “The definition of the commons is a commons itself,” she says, slyly. “It is always developing. Commons are a process, another state of being.” As a process, Silke explains that it takes hard work to maintain the commons; they have to be made over and over again.

Michel Bauwens, the founder of the P2P Foundation, describes the commons as “any shared resource which is governed and owned by its community”. He also makes the distinction between material and immaterial commons; the distinction between common land and common language, for example, or between open hardware and open software. Michel sees a problem in that the material world is still governed by the old world, the corporations. “Capitalism destroyed the old commons,” he says, “and the socialist state was even worse!” While there are organisations working for the immaterial commons, like Mozilla and Wikimedia for the open software and knowledge commons, there are no organisations working for the material commons.

Silke Helfrich sees no such distinction between material and immaterial commons. “I’m convinced there are no immaterial commons that do not grow out of material,” she says. “Programmers need to eat.” She prefers to look at what these different commons have in common. “It’s about sharing resources that aren’t owned by any one person and never will be owned by any one person,” she says. Michel Bauwens responds by agreeing that, although the material and the immaterial are inseparable, the nature of the differing goods demand different rules. “The immaterial,” he says by way of example, “doesn’t mind freeloaders.” For Michel, this means that we have to create new forms of governance, new forms of ownership, “to create a seed from which something new can grow”.

Michel Bauwens is excited about the potential for commons production to help us move, as he says, “from anti-capitalism to post-capitalism construction”. He would like to combine open source knowledge and distributed machinery to create a new means of production that will not bear the hallmarks of capitalism, such as planned obsolescence. “If we add green – cradle to cradle design, shared resources – to the hacker mentality,” Michel says, “then we have a revolution.”

One obvious question suggests itself: If the commons are such a great idea, then why don’t we have more? What are the threats facing the commons?

“The value capture,” Michel answers, simply. “More and more people are creating commons, but the use value is created and the market value is captured almost exclusively by capital.” For Michel, this is a real problem in our society. “As a commoner,” he says, “I can’t make money from it unless I become labour for capital.”

This is an obvious contradiction and one that makes a commoning life currently unsustainable; under the economic conditions of today it is not possible to remake the new world in the shell of the old. For Michel Bauwens, we need to build commoning institutions and regulatory frameworks that allow us to make a living from our commoning work. This work, trying to move from theory to reality, is exactly what John Holloway meant when he talked about hopeability. Hope needs to find an echo in the world; there needs to be potential in the old world for the new, fertile ground for the seeds.

For Silke Helfrich, another threat to commoning comes from what she calls the “monoculture of thinking”, meaning classical economics, taught in universities and parroted in the media, which restricts what people are able to imagine as possible. For many years, classical economics has almost ignored the commons because it does not produce financial capital. A monoculture of thinking such as this returns us to the idea that change is not possible if you can imagine the end of humanity more easily than you can imagine the end of capitalism.

Talking of the end of humanity, Silke Helfrich raises a more serious threat to the commons: the ongoing depletion of natural resources. “At a global level we have little time,” she says. “Natural resources are becoming scarce.” And, without natural resources, there will be no material basis for the commons; without anything to share, there can be no commons. “This, in my opinion, is the bigger threat,” she says. “But I’m really enthusiastic about the opportunities.”

Silke Helfrich’s enthusiasm for the commons shines through in her optimism for the future. In 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, Silke was studying in Leipzig, East Germany. “We didn’t know in the summer what would happen in the autumn,” she says. “We didn’t know what the world would look like.” She sees a similar potential for radical, overnight transformation in the commons. “Technology means we can get the commons idea out into the world,” she says. “Big infrastructures and investment are not needed. We are in a transition where people are taking things into their own hands. We have to redefine what work means in terms of commons, what infrastructure means, what a unified state means.”

Michel Bauwens, however, sounds a warning note. “The only reason we have a welfare state is because we have a labour movement,” he says. “But that is weakened and can no longer defend the welfare state.” His solution you should be able to guess by now: “We need to change from labour to commons. We need to rethink politics around the commons.” Michel is hopeful, not for the labour parties, but for the new transformative political parties springing from the wreckage of European austerity: the various European Pirate Parties, Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece.
“Everything is connected,” Silke Helfrich says, in conclusion. “The commons are older than every state in the world and they have a future,” she adds. “The commons are the basis of an emancipatory society.”

From Wikipedia and Mozilla to urban gardening and food cooperatives, we can help build this emancipatory society by joining our local commons movement. Let’s continue putting that hope into practice.

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Question Time with John Holloway

This is the seventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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During the course of the workshop, John Holloway invited interruptions, interventions and interrogations. Once called for, they came in an abundant torrent of curiosity and enthusiasm. Here are some of the questions and comments, with elements of John’s responses.

Who is “we”?

“We” is a question in the first place. I don’t know who “we” are. The fact that you’re here, and that some of you are nodding along, makes me think we are a “we” in the first place.

“We” is also an attack on the third person. To talk in the third person is to create a barrier. I don’t know how far that “we” goes; it is an open “we”. “We” is increasingly the way anti-capitalist movements are talking about themselves. It’s not a dogmatic “we”, in the sense that “we” all agree with “me”. It’s an open “we”.

I hear a clear antagonism in your talk, but in reality it is very unclear who is working against whom.

Lenin said the question of revolution is “who” against “whom”. I think that’s completely wrong; it’s “how” against “how”. Capitalism is a “how”, it’s a way of organising. We’re all involved in it. The world we want to create is a world that moves against capitalism – and we’re all involved in that as well. The “how” against “how” cuts straight through us. Some people benefit from the “how” of capitalism, but the issue is not “who” against “whom”. The issue is “how” against “how”.

Why should we think that after the end of this capitalism there will be something different?

Maybe we shouldn’t. I think there are millions of reasons for saying there is no hope, no way out of capitalism. There are millions of reasons to say we are stupid for being here this morning. But even if there’s only a tiny chance, then my humanity depends on my exploring that possibility.

Maybe now is the time to improve conditions within capitalism, not fight against it.

The question is how do we reconcile our dreams with the reproduction of capital? And that way danger lies. We can all do amazing things within the system, but at a certain point we have to raise a red flag and get rid of the system that is destroying us.

Can we give up? I don’t think we’re capable of giving up. Lots of things can be done within capitalism. Capitalism suffers from constant inadequacy; it has to become more aggressive to survive. Even with all the possibility of reform, we’ll still face constant attack. I think we have to say that, yes, we must work for reforms, but also we have to stop the aggression.

How do you deal with the daily hypocrisies of capitalism? For example, accepting that child labour is used to sew the cheapest clothes.

Become aware of it. I think we have to give up the notion of purity. There used to be this notion of revolutionary purity. We need to think in terms not of “who” against “whom”, but “how” against “how”. That antagonism cuts through us; we are all schizophrenic, in the sense of self-divided.

Capitalism needs our labour, but capitalism also needs us as consumers.

We can fight as consumers, but that’s passive. We have to take as our basis that we are creators, doers. Doers whose doings are perverted into the form of a labour which creates capital and creates value.

What will this new society look like? Exploitation will always exist; it’s impossible to have a society that will keep everyone happy.

We don’t know what it would be like. To devise a solution that goes ahead of the movement is hypothetical. At the moment we don’t even have the possibility. A post-capitalist society would be one where we come together in some way and take decisions about what it would be, to create a society that would be self-determining.

I don’t agree that there would always be exploitation; do you exploit your friends? Who is it that you want to exploit? I don’t see that we have this built-in decision to exploit other people.

For me, we would no longer have money. Now, money is the way in which we relate to one another. It is not the only way we relate; you don’t relate with me through money. You have different forms of relationships that push against money.

What is the role of the state?

The state is, for me, so inextricably bound into the reproduction of capital that it doesn’t make sense to attempt to use it for social change.

Institutions are not the answer either. I just don’t think they help very much. I am in an institution; I like it a lot. I’m also against the state, but I receive my salary from the state. We are all in contradictory circumstances, but does it help to think in institutional terms? I think not. If the institution where I work has an energy, it’s almost in spite of the institution.

The state itself is a contradictory place. Elevate is funded largely by the local state, but is an event where we can discuss exciting things like anti-statism.

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Think Crisis, Think Hope

This is the sixth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Think Hope

“Hope explodes, volcanically, with rage.” It just so happens that John Holloway lives next door to a volcano in Mexico, and can contemplate the aptness of his metaphor every day. “Revolutions for me are volcanic,” he says, “the burning lava is always just beneath the surface.”

It’s early Friday morning and John Holloway, Professor of Sociology at Puebla University, is sharing his ideas of hope and crisis. Two extra banks of chairs are pulled out, students perch on the floor, the balcony door is opened for ventilation, someone is sent to copy another thirty sets of workshop notes. The people of Elevate are eager for hope, it seems.

John begins by recalling recent expressions of popular revolution and rage, in Oacaxa 2006, Athens 2008, Cairo 2011, Istanbul 2012, Rio and Sao Paulo 2013. “Explosions of anger are at the same time explosions of hope,” he says. “People go out on the street and break windows because they actually believe things can be different.” This is a remarkable statement to make in a society where it seems that any form of protest is dismissed by government and media as “looters… criminals”, “the same game, the same trap, the same aim” and “wanton vandalism”. “These expressions of hope are expressed,” John explains, “not in the long term building up of the Party, but in these volcanic expressions of rage.”

But before you drop this book and rush out to smash some windows, you might want to ponder Greece.

Greece has suffered the most terrible consequences of the crisis of capitalism; at the same time it has the most militant anti-capitalist tradition in Europe. In Greece over the past few years, there has been action after action, protest after protest, against the imposition of austerity. And it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the imposition of capitalist aggression on the people.

“We need to re-learn hope, we need to think rage into hope,” John says. “It doesn’t make any sense to say you shouldn’t be angry – of course we should be angry!” But, starting from this rage, how do we think this rage into hope? The question reminds me of Deanna Rodger and the channelling power of her teenage creative writing workshop. For John, the answer is the Zapatista concept of digna rabia, dignified rage. Even this dignified rage, however, must find an echo within the world, as Ernst Bloch writes in The Principle of Hope. For us to have true hope, the world must at least be able to respond to our hope. Or, as John says, “We have to find the hopeability of the world.”
“Across the world,” John says, “we’re getting the sense that we’re banging our heads against the wall and we’re getting no response.”

I have felt this frustration myself, as one of millions of citizens who participated in the global anti-war demonstrations of 2003: no response, only the endless bombing of Iraq. And again in 2011, as one of millions of Occupiers around the world trying to find an alternative to the excesses of capitalism: no response, only a multi-trillion dollar bail out of the richest in society. This total lack of response to democratic protest is an enormous challenge for hope and our struggle. “When governments are so distant from society that there is no response there at all,” John asks, “how do we think about the hopeability of the world?” The question is open and increasingly urgent: Can we even imagine the possibility of change in the world?

Hope explodes volcanically, but hope also ebbs – or is commodified and religionised. This ebbing of hope in the last twenty-five years, John calls The Great Disillusion. “The Soviet Union was horrible,” he says. “But it was, in spite of that, and paradoxically, a symbol of hope for many people.” Even if no one would want an alternative society like the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was at least proof that we could create something that was different. “Over the last years, there hasn’t been a reduction in anger, but there’s been a shrinking of horizons,” John says. “People no longer think of how to get rid of capitalism and this narrows our mind.”

John’s generation, anti-capitalist hippies in the sixties, over the course of the Reagan and Thatcher eras, became disillusioned with the possibility that capitalism could be opposed. This culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall and “the end of history”. Their view, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, has become: “Capitalism is the worst form of economy except for all those others that have been tried.” This disillusion was passed on as blind acceptance to their children. For their children, the question of questioning capitalism was never considered until the 2008 economic crisis and, more specifically, until the Occupy movement brought the idea that “capitalism is crisis” to the mainstream.

For most, however, the question is once again creeping away under the every day threat of austerity and poverty.

Chart of Inequality

Hope and Historicity

This generational difference hints at the basic Marxist point that capitalism is a historically specific form of organisation. “Marxists believed that we were able to go beyond capitalism and have a happy ending,” John says. “I think we can no longer believe that.” Instead, John follows German philosopher Walter Benjamin in characterising history as an express train rushing us towards our doom: “We are locked inside and we don’t know how to get out.”

But capitalism has only been around for a few centuries. “There is no reason to assume that capitalism will go on forever,” John says. “And yet, it is easier to think of the end of humanity than the end of capitalism.” With the newspapers full of runaway climate change, the Mayan apocalypse and nuclear holocaust, people talk a lot about the end of humanity. What they don’t do is talk about the end of capitalism.

Unlike the Marxists, John believes that the hope of a happy ending is not inevitable, but only possible. “To think hope is to feel the push of the world that is not yet,” John says, before adding, “this is Bloch or my Bloch.” Ernst Bloch wrote that hope depends upon the push of the world that does not yet exist. John’s been doing some hopeability research while here in Austria. “In the last ten years in Graz,” he says, “there are five social centres that did not exist before, there are the urban gardening projects – these are the pushes of a world that is struggling to be born.”

But, despite these nascent struggles and despite the fact that capitalism is proving itself over and over to be a disaster, we continue to lose the battles for hopeability. We get no response from government, or from the media or from broader society and, as John says, “we think of ourselves as the eternal losers, morally justified – perhaps there’s no way out”.

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Think Crisis

Marx was in exactly the same situation, in a world of struggle. What Marx wanted to ask was how to go beyond hope and ground that hope in reality. “If we can only see that the system is weak or mortally wounded, then that will help us think how we can go beyond it,” John says. “What we want to find is some sort of fragility in the system that we can latch on to and think: We are not the losers in all this.”

John argues that crisis is a category of hope: only through crisis can we find a new way of doing things. The crisis of Fukushima led to the end of nuclear power in Germany, something that had been fought for by activists for decades. The economic crisis in Iceland resulted in a popular assembly to re-write the constitution. But, at first blush, the crisis of capitalism doesn’t seem very hopeful. Austerity disproportionately hurts the poorest in society, we are not “all in it together” and our protests are violently put down.

If we are the ones who suffer from crisis, then perhaps there is no way out, no way of turning crisis into hopeability.

But John has found a way out. “Capitalism is a system of domination and we refuse that,” he says. “Therefore we are the crisis of capitalism.” Our suffering is only apparent if we externalise the crisis. We must instead internalise the crisis and embrace the fact that, by being human and wanting to be free of this system of domination, we are throwing the spanner in the works. “Once we say that the banks caused the crisis, we’ve lost,” John says. “No: we are the crisis of capitalism, that is our pride.”

Huh? I don’t feel much like a crisis, John. But that’s just my perspective. John has other ideas.

I don’t wake up in the morning and look forward to a productive day of creating value as part of a capitalist economy; I wake up in the morning and start working on this book. But, according to John, I’m deluding myself; there is another way to look at my day’s work. “We create capital,” he says, “But because of the thingification of social relations, we don’t recognise that is what we’re doing.” Even this book creates capital value for someone out there, if only the printing and recycling companies.

As John says, the fact that we are the ones creating capital, “has to be understood as capital’s weakness”. All systems of dominance suffer from the dependence of the rulers upon the activity of the ruled, and capitalism is no different. If we can find a way to refuse capitalism, then we do become the crisis.

Furthermore, this dependence of capitalism on our labour is only sustainable through constantly renewed aggression. Constantly renewed aggression, however, will inevitably only provoke more of us into becoming the embodiment of crisis: strikes, protests, riots, occupations, refusals. “The class struggle,” John jokes, “is the struggle of the alarm clock – get up out of bed and create some value!”

I suppose the question now is why shouldn’t we just surrender to the aggression and the dictates of capitalism? After all, isn’t it the “worst form of economy, except for all those others that have been tried”?

The critical problem with capitalism is that, as John says, it is driven by its own inadequacy. A profit is never enough; capitalism demands greater and greater profits, as measured in economic growth. This demand drives a process of what John calls “totalisation”, the integration of all human activity into the pursuit of profit. Driven by its own inbuilt sense of inadequacy, capitalism will not rest until all human life and all planetary resources are funnelled through its profit motive. And then it still won’t be happy. The more capitalism dominates, the more capitalism must dominate. This is a basic factor of the way capitalism measures itself: in growth. Capitalism never says “that’s enough now”; economic growth of 0%, where things stay the same, is a disaster for capitalism. The aim of capitalism is growth on growth, year on year; the more capitalism dominates, the more it must dominate. And that economic growth represents another portion of the world funnelled into the totality of capitalism and swallowed up.

Debt is another expression of the incapacity of capitalism and the inadequacy of its domination. “We don’t generate enough surplus value for the system,” John explains, “so we create it in the hope that tomorrow we will.” The vertiginous rise of what economists call “consumer debt” in the last two decades is little more than a bribe or a white lie to cover the broken promise of capital growth. Most people simply don’t benefit from capitalism, but it can’t be seen to be that way, so we give them interest-free credit cards and zero deposit mortgages. “Debt expansion is the basis of an increasingly fictitious world,” John says. “This world is volatile, aggressive, fragile, random.” Debt is one of capital’s tools of totalisation, sucking more and more people down the funnel. If capitalism was a success on its own terms, then why do we have government stimulus packages, bank bailouts and subsidies for the automobile industry?

“We are pushing against the process of totalisation,” John says. “In universities, students don’t just want to learn; they want to think. Farmers don’t just want to use pesticides; they want a good relationship with their animals.” Revolution, therefore, can be seen as a process of “de-totalisation”, a movement against the centralising aggression of capital. To borrow a line from the Zapatistas: How can we create a world where many worlds fit?
Not without a fight is the answer. Remember the example of Greece? If you don’t do what capitalism wants, then be prepared for a fight. “The chronic inadequacy of domination,” John says, “pushes capital into fiercer, more violent measures to control human activity.” This aggression will naturally provoke a defensive reaction in us, the victims. “This defence is usually conservative defence,” John explains. “We want to go on living the way we were living before, even if we weren’t enjoying it much.” But this conservative defence can overflow into something else: the Zapatista movement grew out of a conservative defence against the Mexican government selling off communal land, for example. Now, the Zapatistas self-govern their entire region, almost independent from the government.

“The growing aggression of capital is something that that will go on for a long time,” John warns, “but capital is unable to subordinate us sufficiently; most people at some point will say no.” Indeed, John argues that capitalism, at some level, is antithetical to our very humanity. Capitalism’s drive of inadequacy bleeds into our every day lives as an insidious neuroticism, a feeling that we ourselves are inadequate: We are not beautiful enough, we are not intelligent enough, we are not working hard enough, we are not rich enough, we are not happy enough, we are not enough.

That might sound like reductive pop psychology, but one recent study among many has shown that an intervention as tiny as using the word “consumer” to describe ourselves instead of “citizen” is enough to make us more selfish, more miserable and less concerned about the welfare of our fellow human beings and the state of our planet. As the authors of the study say, “the costs of materialism are not localized only in particularly materialistic people, but can also be found in individuals who happen to be exposed to environmental cues that activate consumerism – cues that are commonplace in contemporary society”.

In other words, if such a small change to our discourse can have such a large impact on our well-being and our politics, then what kind of an effect will living completely submerged in the logic of capitalism have? What kind of effect is the impossible aspirational logic of advertising having on our natural altruism? What kind of effect is the acquisitive logic of consumerism having on our treatment of the planet’s resources? What kind of effect is the transactional logic of money having on our human relationships?

But the very toxicity of capitalism to humanity is a cause for optimism for John. “Our desire for love is the obstacle for capitalism,” he says. “We are the crisis of capitalism and that is the basis for hope.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Dr Vandana Shiva: We Need to Elevate

This is the fourth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dr Vandana Shiva fills the screen, a fifteen foot pixilated message from India. Vandana was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel prize”, in 1993 for her work on the social and environmental costs of development, particularly the violence of India’s Green Revolution.

“We are facing multiple crises,” Vandana Shiva says with a slight smile, “crises of planetary dimensions.” We face a climate crisis. Over five hundred people were killed and over eighty thousand evacuated from their homes in Kashmir during September’s disastrous floods, making it impossible to argue when Vandana says that “climate change is not about the future; it is happening today”.

We also face an economic crisis, which has brought about a widening divide between rich and poor. Perhaps more significantly, however, this crisis is the crisis of a system. This modern capitalist economy has left half the population of the world redundant. Echoing John Holloway’s earlier remarks, Vandana says that, in this economy, “there is no place for small farmers, no place for future generations”. She describes it as “a world of corporations and oligarchs, extracting the last bit of profits from the earth”.

Finally, we face a political crisis and the erosion of democracy. “What we now have,” Vandana Shiva says, “is not a public state, working for democracy in terms of of the people, by the people, for the people. It is a corporate state, working for the interest of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.”

For Vandana, these crises arise from a particular way of thinking about the world: the scientific capitalist paradigm that describes the universe as solely mechanistic. This viewpoint encourages division and separation between ourselves and the resources of the planet. “The reality of our lives,” she says, “is that there is an earth that gives us everything and we are co-creators and co-producers with the earth, to produce our food, to harness the water, to make sure all our human needs are met.” Gandhi’s words are never more appropriate than today: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for some people’s greed.”

Vandana Shiva states her anti-capitalist thesis explicitly: “The economic model that turns nature into land and a commodity, people into labour and a commodity, and capital as the creator of value, is at the root of both the exploitation of nature as well as injustice.” She goes further. “Capitalism is a system that was wrong to start with,” she says. “It has been held in place for a few centuries by shifting every policy to make the false assumptions of capitalism work for a while.”

There is much evidence to support this view. Were it not for agricultural subsidies, the industrial-scale farming of capitalism wouldn’t be able to survive. “That is why half of Europe’s budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy,” Vandana explains. By 2011, the US alone had lent, spent or guaranteed twenty-nine trillion dollars to keep capitalism alive after the economic crisis of 2008. Vandana describes the current negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) as “another artificial measure to keep a dead system afloat”.

In its most terrifying garb, TTIP will hand corporations the power to sue governments for “loss of profits”. This could ensure that our common goods, such as the National Health Service, our genetically modified organism-free fields and the data we’d like to keep private on the internet, are open to commercial exploitation.

If you think that this sounds like a lot of balony, then consider the fact that these kind of bizarre legal agreements are already in place. One Swedish energy firm is currently suing the German government for billions of dollars of “lost profits”. Why? Because, having seen what happened in Japan when the Fukushima nuclear power station exploded, the German government took what would appear to be a perfectly reasonable public health decision to stop using nuclear power. The final cost to the German tax-payer of this ghoulish pursuit of profit will not be settled democratically either: the matter will be decided through an arbitration tribunal, as if the needs and desires of profiteers and of the people bore equal weight. TTIP threatens to give unelected corporations the power to force policy on elected governments, and you can be sure, as Vandana Shiva says, that corporations “will make decisions for themselves, to keep raping the earth and to keep ripping off from society”.

All of these examples of policy manipulation are described by Vandana as “life support systems for a dying order”.

The insecurities caused by the failures of capitalism create social polarisation. “Insecurity deepens divides,” Vandana says, “so we have the rise of politics of exclusion.” This politics of exclusion leads to a rise in fundamentalism, pitting people against each other on the grounds of religion, sect and ethnicity. “Diversity has been turned into a major problem,” Vandana says, before turning the whole argument on its head. “But diversity is the solution for the future.”

Vandana Shiva believes that the crises of capitalism also represent an opportunity to create a new paradigm, one that puts humanity to work, not in the service of exploiting the earth, but in healing her, by saving seeds, planting trees and rejuvenating water resources. “It’s limitless how much work needs to be done,” she says. “Regenerating the earth needs our hands and our hearts and our minds.”

Who will lead this regeneration? “Every worker fighting for justice. Every unemployed youth demanding a place in the scheme of things. Every small farmer telling the world that it is small farms who feed the world.” The UN estimates that 70% of the world’s food production comes from the work of small farms, rather than from industrial production. Vandana Shiva singles out women for special responsibility. “Women,” she explains, “through having looked after the economy of care and the economy of sharing and an economy of responsibility, can shift to make the entire economy based on these principles of caring and sharing, not exploitation and destruction.” These shall be the leaders of our regeneration, but, as Vandana says, “there is no person who is irrelevant to the transition we must make if we have to survive”.

“The message I have for you at Elevate,” Vandana Shiva says, “is what your festival is about: We need to elevate. We need to elevate our knowledge. We need to elevate our consciousness. Let us elevate our energies, let us elevate our solidarity, let us elevate our imagination.” She raises an eloquent hand and a smile burbles about her lips. “There is nothing beyond our dreams and there is nothing to prevent our dreams from being turned into reality if we are committed.” Her voice takes on a playful warning tone. “In any case, there is nothing to lose but our extinction.”

She leaves us with a beatific smile.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Creative-Response, Urban Exploration and Twitter

I am being edged out of participation in a society that communicates in the language of technology. In a couple of years, I predict that I won’t be an owner of a mobile phone. Already I am receiving messages from unknown friends that my non-smartphone cannot read because they (presumably) contain HTML, a language my phone doesn’t speak. Over the next couple of years, more and more communication will happen in languages that my phone cannot interpret, as more and more people start using smartphones and start to forget that there could ever be an alternative. Well over a billion smartphones have been sold in 2014 alone and, already by 2013, more than half of all American adults owned a smartphone, with over a million Google Android devices being activated every day.

In the next couple of years, my phone will become next to useless and I will become one of those people who are whispered about at parties – He doesn’t even have a phone.

Already I miss out on a vast amount of communication that happens over proprietary systems, driven by the smartphone technology boom. The average smartphone user checks his or her phone a hundred and fifty times every day, using an average of forty-one mobile apps. I don’t blame users for this, but it drives us all into the hands of the closed communication systems that are promoted on these devices.

SMS and email are open systems. In other words, anyone can send anyone else an SMS or an email; it doesn’t matter who provides them with the service. But not just anyone can communicate through Twitter, Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, Instagram or any of the other communication tools that are supposedly at our service.

None of these “tools” is like a phone book. A phone book is a collection of telephone numbers attached to names that anyone can use to contact anyone else. How quaint. If you weren’t in the phone book, however, that didn’t mean that no one could contact you and it didn’t mean that you couldn’t contact anyone else; it just meant that your number was private. Facebook, to take the most popular example, is not like this. In order to contact someone on Facebook, you have to register with Facebook. Likewise, in order for someone on Facebook to contact you, you have to be registered with Facebook. It is a predatory system; it feeds off its membership; the more time you spend on Facebook, the more sustenance you give that mode of communication.

With well over one billion users, choosing not to be on Facebook is, to a certain degree, choosing not to participate in communication with those people. Facebook has around 1.35 billion active users. WhatsApp: 600 million; Instagram: 300 million; Twitter: 284 million; Viber: 209 million. Likewise, choosing not to have a smartphone is increasingly choosing not to be able to communicate with your friends. You can’t even use WhatsApp or Viber without a smartphone. I still have no idea who is sending me those unreadable messages.

As Shoshana Zuboff says, this is an illegitimate choice, it really is. Systems that used to be open and free are being fenced off and monetised. Email is open and free; Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are not. If you use Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, you can never communicate with me without contributing to the business model of these closed systems. There is a further risk, with the current threat to network neutrality, that a “First Class” internet will be established, excluding those like me who opt out.

What’s the problem with social media?

I concede that I’m probably in a minority who feel disgusted that Facebook are profiting from my communication with my friends; that they are mining my communications for data in order to more effectively sell products to me, my friends and family. British Telecom might have profited from my telephone calls to my friends back in the nineties, but my calls weren’t bugged, screened and fed back to me in the form of personalised advertising.

I think it’s important at this point to distinguish between the traditional way that advertising paid for “free” services and the way that companies like Google are able to provide “free” services. Cable television, for example, uses the traditional model: adverts are beamed in a fairly scatter-gun fashion at just about anyone who hasn’t bothered to switch over or get up to make a cup of tea. The advert hopes to influence your purchasing choices maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple of weeks when you go shopping. Google, however, extracts data from you and can use that data to influence your purchasing choices directly, right now. There is a big difference.

But perhaps you feel like exchanging your data for “free” communication is a good deal. I accept that this is a price that many people are willing to pay for a “free” service. Fine, but there’s a lot more to my objection.

By using Twitter, I would not only be contributing to a business model that I fervently disagree with, I would also be shutting down options for other people. I would be adding my voice to communication that happens in exclusive, fenced off, proprietary and predatory spaces; rather than in inclusive, open and free spaces. That closed space keeps some voices out. The thought disgusts me. I don’t want to be a part of that clique.

But perhaps you feel like Twitter gives voice to more people than it excludes; certainly a lot more than are excluded by illiteracy or a military dictatorship2. Good point, but there is still more to my objection.

Twitter, it is worth pointing out, is not a democratic organisation. It is a business and will operate to extract the maximum wealth from us. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, WhatsApp, all likewise. There is no democratic oversight for these businesses, aside from government regulation. Unfortunately, these technology businesses have significant advantages over government regulatory bodies, namely much greater financial, computational and intellectual resources. More sinisterly, they are fulfilling a surveillance role for our more secretive governmental bodies that will always mean that regulatory bodies are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. But what, you might ask, is wrong with this hobbled regulation?

Well, as Shoshana demonstrated, perhaps the greatest consequence of the rise of these exclusive, fenced off, predatory, proprietary technology companies is the threat of the total erosion of democracy. As Shoshana explained, Google has pioneered a new economic logic: the company needs us as neither employees nor customers. If Shoshana is correct and democracy did indeed grow from the need for capital to employ labour, then what will become of democracy if the world is filled with companies like Google, vastly profitable, with a minuscule workforce? Google is the oligarchy of the internet age. Their only oversight is their “corporate mantra”: Don’t be evil4. Their clemency is extended on a whim. With annual profits of twelve billion dollars, a highly educated workforce with development interests including artificial intelligence and drone technology and a user base of one billion people, great evil is certainly within their power.

Beneath this threat lies the real problem: Google, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and all the rest make good products. That is the real problem, as Micah Lee identified. Because these products are so good, we are choosing this closed future for ourselves without really thinking through the undemocratic consequences of what Shoshana calls “surveillance capitalism”. And, as more and more people choose this future, it becomes harder and harder for people like me to choose any alternative. We either go along with the masses or we refuse to participate in mass society. Can you see the dangers inherent in these “choices” now? Sorry to employ the meretricious appeal to fascism, but the Germans chose Hitler.

Those without smartphones or a Facebook account already feel like an excluded underclass. Without a revolution in communication, it will only get worse.

How can we operate in this closing world?

Bradley Garrett is famous for taking a scenic photograph from the top of the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, recently erected on London’s riverside with buckets of Qatari money. The shot is famous primarily because the Shard wasn’t quite finished yet, it certainly wasn’t open to the general public and he was seventy-six stories up in the midnight air, peering over a ledge.

For obvious reasons, that photograph, and hundreds of others taken in equally adrenalin-pumping circumstances, became exceedingly popular on social media. I believe the term is “viral”. Popularity on social media led to a surge of interest from the mainstream media and suddenly Bradley’s night sport (and PhD research subject) of “urban exploring” was blown into the limelight. What Bradley was doing was not only borderline illegal, but it was also a great insult to the powers that would try to control our movements in the city. Bradley challenged the physical closed space in a spectacular, creative fashion that brought awareness of the enclosure to people who would otherwise have just gone on about their day. Creative-response.

I’m sharing this story because Bradley’s experiences with academia, social media and mainstream media can teach us something about how to get our message heard and change people’s perceptions of their world; precisely what we try to do at Elevate. “The only way to forge broader coalitions and get people talking about the politics of closed space and the control of narratives over our histories,” Bradley writes, “is to use the same techno-cultural media circuitry that is constantly entangling and distracting everyone.”

In other words: Never mind the threat to democracy, get a Twitter account.

Bradley, however, has one major caveat. “The danger here,” he says, “is that if you try to change the system from the inside, often what becomes changed is you.” Participating in a social media that encourages constant changing fashions, that advertises luxury goods, exotic holidays and foreign brides, will have a detrimental effect on your health and happiness.

Interestingly, given the dubious legality of his activities, Bradley is more afraid of the media than of the police. “While the authorities have largely failed to stop us,” he says, “the media is still working diligently to de-tooth urban exploration by buying us out.” Appropriately enough for a man used to evading the British Transport Police while running the Underground, Bradley has an escape route for the media as well. “Now that we have used their channels to broadcast our messages,” he explains, “it’s important that we slip the net and re-form as something equally inspiring and hard to pin down, and then reform again from another angle.”

Those words capture the essence of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s creative-response and his exhortation to be “flexible and fluid”. They could also be the beginnings of a battle strategy for using social media in the spirit of revolution.

1. Be hard to pin down. Do not give the social media corporations your life and livelihood; use an alias if you wish, lie to them.

2. Be inspiring. It is the message you communicate to us that is important, not the accumulation of surveillance data on social media servers. Use and abuse them to broadcast your message, not theirs. But you must make that message inspiring. It must be creative-response; it must speak with passion and with compassion. If it does not, then leave Twitter and keep working until you have something to say.

3. When your broadcast is over, burn your accounts without nostalgia or mercy. Be a citizen, not a “consumer”.

And, for pity’s sake, save your brainspace and use an ad-blocker.


The ideas contained herein are taken from my work with the Elevate Festival. The book of the festival is available now in paperback from lulu.com. It’ll be arriving before Christmas for download…

Shoshana Zuboff: Reality is the Next Big Thing

I’ve been blogging from the Elevate Festival in Austria this week. Here’s a little something from yesterday…

Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. This post is a summary of her initial statement, which kicked off Saturday afternoon’s panel ‘Reality is the Next Big Thing’. Continue reading Shoshana Zuboff: Reality is the Next Big Thing

No Money Mondays

This is something I’ve been working with for a while. The premise is simple: don’t spend any money on Mondays. This is a fairly meaty post, so I’ll cut to the chase:

Why No Money Mondays?

  • It helps me to be more mindful of money, of how easy it is to spend, and how pointless. A day without money somehow frees my mind. I feel less stressed. I’m out of the game for a day. I can look at adverts, but I’m not part of that world.
  • It helps me live more healthily. I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.
  • I realise how possible a day without money is. It makes me dream of a life without money and what that would mean.
  • It helps me become more creative with how I spend my time and energy. A quick thought comes into my head, like: ‘I need to buy some new batteries for my dictaphone.’ I hear myself think this, but I have to reformulate a solution. I can’t just buy some new batteries. I can take the batteries out of my bike lights for the time being.
  • It saves me money! Every day, I record my spending. Over the course of a year, this forms a fascinating record of my spending patterns. On weeks when I have a No Money Monday, not only do I reduce spending on one day of the week, but that parsimony spills over into the rest of the week. This is another good reason why I do it on a Monday, the first day of my week. (The main reason is, obviously, alliteration.)
  • I am more productive: no more time-wasting shopping-excuse excursions.
  • Monday is when I do my accounts (usually with horror). It feels good to have a money-fast after that.

The History of No Money Mondays

I’m not the first person to think not spending money once a week is a good thing. No Money Mondays used to happen every week in Britain. Not on Mondays, but on Sundays. Shops, markets and businesses were forced to shut down for a day – by law. But now Sunday trading is part of every British high street – and even if it wasn’t, the internet would provide for every fleeting desire.

Sunday trading surged forth as a result of the free market reforms of the moribund Conservative government of John Major. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 made buying and selling legal. I’ll rephrase that: before 1994 it was illegal for shops to open on a Sunday. Illegal. Those of a younger generation will find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

But Sunday trading didn’t come into Britain without a fight. It was vigorously opposed when initially put to the House of Commons by Maggie Thatcher back in 1986. It wasn’t just vigorously opposed, but it became Thatcher’s only policy defeat in the House. The only time Maggie Thatcher was defeated in the House of Commons was when she tried to let shops open on Sundays. I’m sorry for the repetition, but this seems impossible to believe today. She wasn’t defeated on the Falklands War, she wasn’t defeated on privatisation, she wasn’t defeated on emasculating the trade unions. She was defeated over her Sunday trading bill.

The Bill of 1986 was defeated by an alliance of Christian Conservatives and Labour trade unions. The Christians wanted to ‘Keep Sundays Special’, to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the trade unions opposed workers being forced to work on Sundays. When the Sunday Trading Act finally passed in 1994, it was only because of amendments that protected workers rights: Sunday working would be voluntary.

I’m interested in why Sunday trading was opposed. I can see why trade unions wanted to protect their interests: a seven-day working week isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I can see why Christians wanted to defend the Sabbath: the Book reserves Sunday as a day of Holy rest.

But is there something more? I would say yes. I would say that behind this opposition was an instinctive desire to protect ourselves from continuous striving. A day with an open shop is a day with the possibility of buying and selling. And if you’re buying and selling, you’ll profit or lose: you’ll move up the escalator or down.

Close those shops and the escalator stops. A moment’s respite from the pressing needs of survival.

The Rights of Religion

I am a big believer in religions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Believer (or even a Belieber), but I can see that religion grows out of an instinctual need. And these instincts are usually good for us, or serve some purpose. Religion dominates in three domains:

  1. Community.
  2. Contemplation.
  3. Charity.

These three areas are not well served by other organisations and none cover all three, all together, all the time. Large, participatory organisations like Amnesty International offer us a combination of community and charity. Certain activities, like yoga, might give us community and contemplation. But religion alone nourishes all three. This comprehensive coverage explains both the rise of religions – and their ongoing popularity, in spite of all their absurdities and inherent threats.

It is with absolutely no surprise whatsoever that I see science gradually demonstrating the crucial importance of these three areas of life to our well-being as humans. A healthy network of colleagues and friends is an excellent marker for happiness. Purposeful contemplation, of the sort that prayer or meditation offers, is great for our physical and mental health. And charity, including volunteering our time, makes us feel happy.

To me, it is obvious that such a recurring and popular phenomenon as religion must provide the human race with some large benefits. I remain an unbeliever, but I am happy to take my lessons from religion. A money-fast Sabbath is one such.

I believe that the fight against Sunday trading in Britain, although economically indefensible, was an instinctive response to a real threat. But because it was a threat that we could not frame in a logical way, the Bill passed when all logical opposition was overcome (the trade unions’ objections to Sunday working). However, both the threat and our instinctive response to it, represented by the religious Christian Conservatives, remain.

So I would like to bring back the money-fast Sabbath. In my own irreligious fashion, I propose No Money Mondays. Instead of using laws, we will have to use our will-power, but I think it is worth it.

Straw Bale Building at Braziers Park

Last weekend, I went to Braziers Park to have a go at building a straw bale house. Here’s a little film I made about the project, run by Hugh Makins.

Straw Bale Building: Braziers Park from David Charles on Vimeo.

An introduction to straw bale building by Hugh Makins. Hugh is driven by his passion to find innovative solutions to the economic, environmental and social crises faced by humankind today. Affordable and sustainable straw bale building is just one aspect of his vision for a better world.

Hugh is a resident of Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. You can learn more about straw bale building by joining one of his experimental weekend building courses.

Filmed on location by David Charles in July 2012.

Consume Skills, Not Stuff

Instead of consuming more stuff, why don’t we consume more of our skills?

That little thought struck me yesterday, while I was sitting waiting in the bank, having loans advertised at me.

We all like to acquire new things. There’s nothing wrong with that desire; it’s a pretty decent developmental tool. But acquiring new things doesn’t have to mean buying new stuff. In most cases, new stuff is not the kind of acquisition that makes us happy.

For example: why should I buy a new guitar? A new guitar won’t help my skills, it won’t help me play any better. What will help me play better is acquiring a new song.

So I went home and ‘bought’ a new song by looking it up on the internet. I now ‘have’ a new song in my head and it cost me nothing. I can forever get pleasure out of my new acquisition, merely by sitting down and playing it.

Best of all, the song’s warranty won’t run out and it won’t break through overuse – in fact it only ‘breaks’ through underuse. What material stuff can you say that about? Certainly not my Argos toaster, recently replaced.

Some things need to be bought as stuff, like my toaster, but a lot of our desire can be slaked by picking up a new skill or by developing existing skills.

So from now on, whenever I desire something new, I’m going to think first of nurturing my skills.

Money

Money’s a funny thing. It seems to be the most important thing in all the world, essential to feeding and loving and living. Then, just when it seems more important than ever, you realise that it isn’t at all.

But surely money…

  • gives you power.
  • makes you feel good.
  • makes other people respect you.

Well, yeah it does. But it’s a short-cut.

It is easier to buy your power than it is to influence others by your actions. It is easier to spend on instant gratification than it is to spend your life content. It is easier to earn money than it is to earn the respect of others.

But this isn’t what I’m most concerned with. I couldn’t really care less if you want to spend money on power, happiness or respect. No: I’m worried because money is boring.

Here are some choices, with money or with imagination:

  • We could go to the cinema tonight. Or we could jump in the Serpentine and make out on the island.
  • We could go to a restaurant for dinner. Or we could rummage around the fruit and veg market after closing and cook up some free food on an open fire in the woods.
  • I could join a gym and work-out in front of a mirror. Or I could go for a run in Epping Forest, get covered in mud and see how high I can climb a tree.

Boring is the enemy and money is the friend of boring.

If you think about it, it’s obvious: money is what (stereotypical) accountants like best. Anyone who wants to live like a (stereotypical) accountant is welcome to their money, but me? Naw thanks.

This boredom can be overcome, of course it can. I’m sure you can think of a hundred interesting things to do with a hundred pounds. But how many people actually spend a hundred nicker on fitting out the local bus shelter with velcro so that all the morning commuters get their suits stuck on the sides?

Of course we don’t. That’s because money is part of a system and that system is boring. You can’t package up a sunset or a tree mud or a lake. People have tried, oh boy have they tried, but some things are beyond market forces.

Money is part of a boring system so we can only spend it on boring things. Rent, restaurants, retail. Drink it on a Saturday night, then dance it away at a club – who ever thought we’d pay to dance?

Do you think Zorba would have paid to dance?

How to Live With No Computers

As you read these words, I have been nine hours without a computer. For the first time in my life-long dependency on computers, I am going cold turkey. I’m not going to use the old bastard for the whole of the rest of this week.

Thank god.

I know this might sound like a ridiculous rich-world conceit, but I am way too reliant on my computer. It sucks into every pore of my life. I wake up with my computer, I work with my computer, I get headaches with my computer. My computer informs me, my computer entertains me, my computer frustrates me.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in – check email – breathe out.

And, to be honest, it’s rubbish. We need a break.

Why No Computers?

One of my ambitions in life is to be as self-sustainable as possible. For me, this means reducing my reliance on things that are not me. Relying heavily on external matter will only cause pain when they are taken away – as all things are one day.

I’m not saying that it’s not desirable to have these things – I rely on a lot of external things for my life and I am grateful for them. But, so far as I can, I want to know what it is like to not have. I might learn something useful through privation. What will I find to do without my time-sucking computer?

I have become so habituated to computers, that they no longer demand my imagination. They no longer get me excited. They are a default. I turn to my computer when I’m bored. I surf the net. I write an email. I surf the net again. When the internet isn’t working I might actually write something. Or play Hearts.

Without my computer to entertain me, I’ll have to think. I won’t have my default available any more. Maybe I’ll find something more interesting, maybe I’ll find something more useful, maybe I’ll find something more human to do.

So for the next week I’m not going to use my computer. It’s not a long time, but it should be enough to knock me out of my mindless reliance on the computer, stop me from taking the privilege of a computer for granted and teach me about what is really important, what is really necessary for my life.

What does No Computers mean?

  • It doesn’t mean I can’t type. I have a rather nifty little typewriter that I intend to do my writing on.
  • It doesn’t mean I can’t use other electronic equipment. I can still use my phone and camera, for example. It’s not a smartphone though, so no sneaky computer use there.
  • I’m not going to be an idiot about it. If someone else is using a computer and wants me to look, I’m not going to throw my hands over my eyes and run screaming. I’m just not going to use it myself. 
  • However, it does mean that I won’t be able to post on this blog any more this week. Not until Sunday night, anyway.


A slightly more extreme opinion on what I am doing comes from a 1987 essay by writer and farmer Wendell Berry:

“I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape? For the same reason, it matters to me that my writing is done in the daytime, without electric light.”

Extreme, but I sympathise with his argument and admire the stand he is making. Even though I’m not at total accord with his dismissal of the power of computers to spread knowledge (you can’t blame him for not foreseeing the role telecommunications would play in the recent revolutions in the Middle East) the rest of the essay is well worth a read: http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/berrynot.html

This article, written for PC World around 2002, is much closer to what I expect and why I am doing it: http://pcworld.about.com/magazine/2103p119id108732.htm

Too Much

There’s too much going on.

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How many websites, how many lists, how many directories, how many databases am I on? If I could just hit delete somehow, just fade from the page, erase myself and come back another day, when I’ve arrived somewhere else.

Once, the only thing to think about was whatever was right in front of us. Now we are surrounded: top and bottom, left and right, in front and behind and we can’t remember what we’re supposed to be thinking about.

Everything is silently monitoring, shifting behind the scenes, priming for our attention – Now! Today!

I sit here at the table, with music playing, another person in the next room – but I just know there’s a website somewhere trying to contact me, trying to tell me about where to put my last three pennies, somewhere there’s a call centre that’s just coming to my name on the list and needs to ask me how my house is doing for glazing, somewhere there’s a postman walking up my drive, knocking on the door, throwing demands on my doorstep, asking, whining, pleading.

And I’m complicit: the more I get involved, the more I get involved.

The last thing I expected was this.

Why Not Here?

We’ve got it good. We’ve got twenty-six different kinds of bottled water in the supermarkets and fresh, treated water piped to our homes, hot and cold. We’ve got universal healthcare, prescriptions and waiting lists. The only diseases we might catch are when we go on exotic holidays to countries that are cheap and convenient; cheap and convenient because we’ve got it good. We’ve got education in Hair Design, Food Technology and Plastic Surgery. We’ve got empty experts sitting on our doorstep in world class universities, libraries and museums. We’ve got law courts and justice and security from fear (or the fear of fear). We’ve got a hundred or more years of colonisation to fall back on when things look rough. We’ve got art for art’s sake, music of every decibel, pitch and timbre weeping through the key-holes of royal concert halls and sawdust spit joints. We’ve got national treasures locked behind closed doors, secure nostalgia, binding me to you in glorious memory of past conquests, of what makes me your friend, neighbour and inalienable ally – and some unspecified “other” an inconnu, persona non grata. We’ve got supply-side economics in supermarkets and we’ve got free range farmers markets. We’ve got the fish in the sea and the birds in the air, even if they are all pigeons and black in smog. We’ve got television and radio and sports and leisure, advertisements and the watershed. We’ve got political stability, one party and another party, with the occasional scandal to keep the newspapers entertained. We’ve got freedom of speech and freedom of —-. We’ve got everything they haven’t – and you’re asking me, “Why not here?”

No Supermarket: Week 4 – The End!

So it’s over: 31 days without spending money in a supermarket. Before the post-mortem, some details about this past week.

Things I learnt this week:

  • Eggs are cheaper in my local shop: only £1.09 for 6, compared to £1.57 in Sainsbury’s.
  • Tesco Express (i.e. a small supermarket) stocks 26 different varieties of bottled water. You do know that you can get it out of the tap, don’t you? For free.
  • Sainsbury’s is very useful: for their extensive recycling facilities and the pharmacy where I get my (free) prescriptions. This month I have shamelessly used supermarket resources in exchange for nothing.
  • Expenditure at No Supermarkets: £17.00
  • Hypothetical expenditure at Sainsbury’s: £16.18.

The Final Score

  • Over the course of one month shopping at No Supermarkets I spent £89.94 on food.
  • The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost approximately £80.28.

So what am I going to now it’s over?

Will I go running back to the fluorescent-strip-light warmth of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl? Hell no.

Was everything perfect about my month of No Supermarkets? Hell no (where the devil can I get decent, reasonably priced cheese?). Can I do it better? Hell yes. I promise myself every week that I’ll go to the local markets more often, rather than running out of food, panicking and buying soup and biscuits for dinner.

I’ve enjoyed visiting all my local and not so local shops. I’ve built up quite a rapport with a shop around the corner from where I study. Cherry flapjack: £1.05, thank-you very much.

But why do I like No Supermarkets so much?

  • I don’t have to queue, like I would in the Sainsbury’s just up the road. 
  • I don’t have to walk around six aisles just to find the flapjacks, like I would at the Sainsbury’s. 
  • I’m not paralysed by the choice of six thousand different oat-based snacks you can have from Sainsbury’s. Half the time my shop doesn’t even have any of the cherry ones left. So I have banana. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
  • I’m not advertised at.
  • I can have a little chat with the person who serves me and they say please and thank-you like they give a shit that I came into their shop. Because they own it.
  • It’s closer to the college where I study.
  • I like the fact that their prices are marginally cheaper than the other little shop just across the road. It reminds me that competition is alive and well. It hasn’t just been blown away by corporate supply chains.
  • I feel like the money I’m handing over for my flapjack is going to someone I know.
  • The lighting isn’t so bright. Not everything gleams. The floor might even be dirty. It’s human.

Yeah. I like it. In fact, I like it so much that I’d feel a bit wrong going into a supermarket now. Perhaps I will for some things. Perhaps I won’t. I no longer feel restricted in my shopping habits. I no longer feel compelled towards those glowing orange lights.

So here’s to much more No Supermarkets in 2011.

No Supermarket: Week 3

No Supermarkets again this week (apart from my little tourism on Tuesday). It’s really a lot easier now than I thought it would be. It’s hardly even inconvenient, in fact it’s fun. When I go some place new I keep my head up for little shops, pop in, have a chat, browse and buy. Already my local shopkeeper calls me ‘a regular’, which is nice.

Here’s another thing. This week I met up with a friend for dinner. Normally we go down to Sainsbury’s, do some shopping and get cooking. Not this week. We went to a restaurant. Shock. More expensive, maybe, but it’s about more than just the chow – it’s the experience. That might sound like pure guff. It is. But hey, I enjoyed it.

So how was it price-wise this week? Not including the restaurant, just going on what I bought at shops and markets, here’s the comparison:

  • No Supermarkets: £23.07
  • Sainsbury’s: £18.91

As usual, there are a few discrepancies: I would have had three less avocados at Sainsbury’s – but one extra banana and a smidgen more spinach.

One thing I found is that I spend a good deal more on fruit and vegetables at local shops, compared to local markets. This explains a lot of the difference in price this week. I can get fruit and veg cheaper at local markets than at Sainsbury’s, but the shops tend to be a little more expensive. The key to getting good deals at No Supermarkets is to shop around, travel, investigate and explore. The French had it right when they called their supermarket Monoprix.

I won’t bore you with a great long list of things I bought this week, but here’s a good one:

  • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from New Cross Station Pharmacy: £2.25
  • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from Sainsbury’s: £0.84

Massive.

However, this might not be such a big win for Sainsbury’s as it first appears. The purpose of buying Ibuprofen is to kill your pain, right? It shouldn’t matter how much it costs, right? – Wrong. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, has shown that the more you pay for your pain-killers, the more powerful their effect. You can watch a short video of Ariely here.

It’s hard to tell if paying more has worked for me, but all I can say is that my foot is much better today than it was on Friday morning, when I started taking the tablets.

No Supermarket: Air Miles and Bursting Aisles

I went to my local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday – no, don’t panic, I didn’t buy anything. I went there to do a little research. I wanted to know a couple of things:

  1. Where in the world does Sainsbury’s food come from?
  2. How much choice is there at supermarkets?

And here is what I found.

Where is Sainsbury’s Food From?

Answer: Spain.

I only looked at the Fruit and Vegetable section because that seemed a reasonable sample size: 119 products. Astonishingly, these products came from a total of 36 countries. The top five were:

  1. Spain (20 products)
  2. UK (19)
  3. Israel (9)
  4. Morocco (6)
  5. South Africa (6)

I was surprised to see Israel at number three I have to admit. We get tomatoes, peppers, herbs and exotic fruit like kumquats and Sharon fruit from there. The West Bank did also appear on the list with two products, the herbs dill and sage.

I guess one big reason for the reliance on overseas fruit and vegetables is the time of year. Traditional English Summer produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach have to be shipped in from Spain or elsewhere.

More concerning, however, was the number of products that ARE in season in the UK, and yet it was still possible to buy them from abroad. For example: apples, pears, beetroot and mushrooms, as well as packaged herbs. It seemed that if you wanted herbs in a pot, then they had to be British, presumably because of the care required for potted plants, but packaged herbs came from abroad, presumably because they are cheaper there.

The full list of countries supplying Sainsbury’s New Cross Gate (in order of products supplied): Spain, UK, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Italy, France, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, USA, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, India, Portugal, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, West Bank, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.

How Much Choice Is There?

Answer: Too much.

To focus my research, I examined just one type of product from Sainsbury’s 30+ aisles: soup. Here’s what I found.

There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried soup mix. Tinned represent the overwhelming majority of the market.

There are, in all, sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone: Be Good To Yourself, Sainsbury’s, Chunky, Basics, Microwave, Simmer Soups, SO Organic and Taste the Difference. Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the posh fresh soups.

This meant that there were, in total, on sale at Sainsbury’s… Wait for it – 138 different types of soup.

That, my friends, is ridiculous. Contrast my local shop, where I can purchase one brand in about six different flavours. Fine, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato! Prices there range from £0.89 to £0.89.

Is Choice a Good Thing?

Supermarkets rely on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?

Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for supermarket-style choice in a TED video from 2006. He recounts a story of the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz:

Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, “Doctor Moskowitz, we want to make the perfect pickle.” And he said, “There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles.” And he came back to them and he said, “You don’t just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty.”

From this idea, pickles, spaghetti sauces, soups – everything – proliferated, all in the cause of making us happy.

You can see the full video here:

But Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns:

Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.

“In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

In other words: choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic.

At my local shop I have the choice of about six different flavours of soup. That’s a reasonable selection, given that I could make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised. But faced with an aisle of 138 soups?

I wouldn’t know where to start.

No Supermarket: Week 2

Week 2 and I still haven’t been to a supermarket – or even so much as a High Street chain. I have to say, it’s going rather well. The Suma order arrived on Thursday with 12.5kgs of oats for our house at only £8. I also got a load of Jasmine tea, raisins and eggs. Cue massive omelets.

Yesterday, I went to another local co-operative, Fareshares, who sell organic, mostly fair trade food and other household goods at the right price. Here’s what I bought:

  • 1l washing detergent @ £2.96
  • 250g sunflower seeds @ £0.50
  • 100 rooibos teabags @ £2.83
  • 500ml Aspall’s balsamic vinegar @ £2.83
  • 680g sauerkraut @ £1.67

And I made an incredibly generous (!) £0.21 donation to make it £11.00 in total.

The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £10.34, but I would have had 500ml more detergent, 50g less sunflower seeds and 20 fewer teabags. [Incidentally demonstrating there the way you use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ in the English language. I’m educational too!] If I’d been able to buy the exact same quantities, Sainsbury’s would have cost me a theoretical extra £0.05, so it more or less evens out.

However, as I’ve said before, it’s not all about price with No Supermarkets. The stuff I would have bought at Sainsbury’s probably wouldn’t have been fairly traded and certainly wouldn’t have been organic. I also wouldn’t have met the lovely people at Fareshares or ended up with some random sauerkraut!

Fareshares

Fareshares is a food co-operative near Elephant and Castle in South London. They buy their stuff from wholesalers and then sell it on to us little people at near wholesale price. The people who work there are volunteers and the only major overheads are for the building.

They sell all sorts of stuff. There’s lots of dry foods: seeds, rice, millet, oats, nuts and dried fruits. They also sell tinned things like tomatoes, bottled things like oils and sauces, cartoned things like soya milk. There’s also a small stock of fresh fruit and vegetables and bread (on Thursdays only) – and I’m sure much much more.

It’s a co-operative so try and turn up with a bag or some cartons for your stuff. Then go around picking and packing your own shopping, totting up the total as you go on a piece of scrap paper. Then head to the till and pay. It’s an honesty system, so be honest!

Opening hours: Thursday 2-8pm; Friday 3-7pm; Saturday 3-5pm
Address: 56 Crampton Street (near Walworth Road), London SE17 3AE

Go – it’s brilliant!

No Supermarket: Week 1

Well that was resoundingly successful. I haven’t been to a supermarket since 2010.

Here’s what I bought this week:

  • 3 loaves of sesame bread @ £2.67
  • Le Figaro newspaper @ £1.70
  • 20 bananas @ £3.18
  • 2 cucumbers @ £1.00
  • 15 tomatoes @ £2.25
  • 1 loaf seeded white bread @ £0.97
  • 2 tins of Heinz tomato soup @ £1.78
  • 125g tube of Aquafresh toothpaste @ £0.99
  • 1 punnet of red seedless grapes @ £1.00
  • 200g feta cheese @ £1.69
  • 350g jar of Ajvar sauce @ £1.29

Total: £18.52

So what would it have cost at my local Sainsbury’s? Obviously you can’t get quite the same things – what the hell is Ajvar Sauce anyway?

So, if we exclude that from the list:
My No Supermarket shopping cost me: £17.23.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost: £16.88.

So I spent £0.35 more than I should have done. Tsk.

There are a few differences in the shopping basket to note:

  1. I would have had 24 bananas, not 20 (Sainsbury’s Basics bananas come in packs of 8).
  2. I would have had only 12 tomatoes, not 15 (Sainsbury’s Basics tomatoes come in packs of 6).
  3. I would have had only 100g of toothpaste, not 125g (I couldn’t find 125g at Sainsbury’s).
  4. I would not have bought Heinz Tomato Soup, I would have got Sainsbury’s own brand Be Good to Yourself Tomato Soup, saving me another £0.30.
  5. I would not have bought feta from Sainsbury’s. I normally get mature cheddar on special; this week it would have been Cathedral City Mature Cheddar 400g for £1.99. Ouch. It hurts to see that.

I think those things more or less even themselves out (apart from the cheese).

It doesn’t just come down to cost though. It can’t. Even if you include the extra £0.30 saving from the soup, I would have saved only 3.8% on my week’s shopping by going to Sainsbury’s. That is a much smaller saving than I expected.

The Lessons of Week 1

If it’s not about cost, then what is it about? I have no idea, but here are some things I learnt this week:

1. No Supermarkets are less convenient

My ‘local’ shops are further from me than Sainsbury’s – and the markets are even more of a walk. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but turned into a complete disaster when I developed a debilitating foot injury which meant I couldn’t walk for most of the week.

2. I need to learn how to shop again

Without a supermarket crutch to support my dietary habits, my diet has been all over the place.

I’ve eaten a lot more bread than I normally do, simply because it is filling, tasty and widely available. At times in the week, I confess, I was hungry. I’ve eaten everything that was lying around in my cupboards – including muesli that was over a year old, yum!

I expect my diet to stabilise as I learn where to buy what I want to eat. And as I learn to walk again.

3. I can pay by credit card at my local shop

…if I spend more than £5. This is a nice bonus because the nearest cash machine around my way is… at Sainsbury’s.

4. There is an awful lot less choice at No Supermarket

This is a good thing, I reckon. Although it cost me on the soup and the cheese front, it did mean that I got to try Ajvar Sauce! See also #7.

5. There is a lot less packaging involved in No Supermarkets

The fruit and vegetables that I bought were either in recyclable paper bags or were loose. This is a good thing because it means I don’t have to lug all my plastic packaging back to Sainsbury’s for recycling.

6. Fruit and veg at No Supermarkets is a lot more variable

You actually have to look at what you are buying. Once I’ve got over the shock, I’m sure this could turn into quite a pleasant thing. It might make me less of a shopping machine.

7. I spent a lot less money at No Supermarkets

Not item for item, but in total. There is very little opportunity for impulse buying at No Supermarkets because there is a lot less choice and so a lot less to tempt you with. A lack of availability also means that you have to make do without. Things I didn’t buy this week include: a ball of string, a rubber and porridge oats.

Well, it’s been a promising start and I’m looking forward to increased mobility in Week 2!

No Supermarket: Suma Co-operative

I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.

What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).

So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:

  • 80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
  • 1kg of raisins @ £2.95
  • 6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
  • 12 eggs @ £2.62

Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.

Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.

No Supermarket: Deptford High Street

Yesterday I went to Deptford High Street for my first No Supermarket grocery shopping.

And it was rather good fun. This No Supermarket business forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t just go to the shelf, you can’t just look for the own-brand stuff because you know it will be cheap, you can’t very often even know the price of what you’re buying until you’ve handed over the goods. It forces you to look, to ask, to say no, to negotiate – in short, to connect?

A couple of traders just said hello to me, for nothing. Can I help you? Aright, mate? Another looked for a smaller ball of string for me. I didn’t have to ask, he saw from my face that it was too much.

In all, I went to two fruit and veg shops, a bakery and a newsagents – instead of one big supermarket.

This was what I bought:

  • £1.18 6 bananas
  • £1.00 2 cucumbers
  • £1.25 6 tomatoes (on the vine)
  • £0.97 Loaf seeded white bread (sliced for me by the bakers)

Total cost: £4.40.

I reckon at Sainsbury’s I would have spent about the same, or perhaps slightly more. I wouldn’t have spent so much on the tomatoes, but these ones are very tasty. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics, to be honest, at about £0.80. But the cucumbers were much cheaper – saved me about £0.50. So it evens out.

I have to say, pleasurable though this shopping trip was, it was not convenient. It’s a longer walk to Deptford High Street than to Sainsbury’s and I didn’t buy any string, an pencil rubber, porridge oats – or the dreaded toothpaste.

No Supermarket January

New Year Resolution: I’m not going to use supermarkets during the whole month of January.

For me, that’s quite a big deal. I am accustomed to going to my local Sainsbury’s at least four or five times a week, sometimes just for the walk or the simple pleasure of picking up a value bag of sultanas.

Well, no more. From the 1st of January I pledge not to purchase a single thing from any supermarket, be it Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland, Netto, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons – or any of the other behemoths that bestride our consumer culture.

Why?

  1. I don’t like being too dependent on anything – and supermarkets definitely fall into that bracket of dependency at the moment.
  2. I fancy seeing a bit more of the world – or my local community at least.
  3. It’s embarrassing coming home with a pile of plastic-wrapped food of dubious quality.
  4. Somewhere inside me there’s a vague sense of unease surrounding the operation and supply tactics of supermarkets.
  5. I guess it will support local economy a little bit.
  6. It might be a good way to meet more people in my community.
  7. It might be cheaper, you never know.
  8. It might help me eat better, you never know.
  9. It might reduce impulse buying of sultanas.
  10. It’s something to write about!

The Toothpaste Test

At the moment my shelves are looking pretty bare so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the wonderful (so I’m told) markets in my local area. But, to be honest, I’m a little concerned about where to find toothpaste. I know I can get toothpaste at pretty much any corner-shop or mini-mart, but Sainsbury’s toothpaste is about £0.30 or something ridiculous. I like that: it’s good value.

The thing is, I’d like to turn this experiment into a long-term life choice, but I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Sourcing affordable, minty toothpaste could well turn into the acid test of my No Supermarket January. Wish me luck.