Although Invisible Women supplies women with an enormous cache of ammunition to use to fight for justice at home and at work, the people who really need this book are men.
I say this after a conversation about the book with a female friend who said that she found the book rather repetitive: each chapter—excellent in isolation—drills home the same central idea over and over and over again: that there is a systematic gender data gap that not only inconveniences women, but actually kills them.
I observed that repetition into submission is exactly what men will need before they’ll get the message.
I imagine that a lot of women will find Perez’s barrage of statistics tremendously validating, but I don’t think many women will be surprised to learn that, globally, females do twice the unpaid childcare work and four times the unpaid housework compared to their male counterparts.
Nor will it comes as a surprise to women that this unpaid care work, irrefutably essential for the smooth running of society, is not accounted for when designing transport systems, workplaces and public services. Bus routes that don’t connect the places women need to go, insufficient and poorly paid care leave, a tax regime that penalises women’s economic activity.
None of this will come as a surprise to any human woman—and that’s kind of the point of the book.
The gender data gap is there because fifty percent of data isn’t collected and fifty percent of stories aren’t told. The pervasive ‘default male’ approach scientific research, product design, news media and the arts means that, most often, women simply aren’t consulted.
I could rant on, but I’ll leave you with one powerful contrast that nimbly demonstrates the yawning gap between women’s experience and the design of our societies.
‘Staring, touching, groping, ejaculation, exposing genitalia and full rape’: women get sexually harassed on public transport. A lot. A 2016 survey of 6,000 French women found that 90 percent had been victims of sexual harassment while travelling on public transport.
From conversations with female friends, I knew that men had a serious problem with sexual violence on public transport, but I had never truly grasped the extent of our problem. I’m beginning to now.
The powerful contrast that Perez draws is this: although I’m better informed about sexual violence against women on public transport, I still have no idea how to go about reporting this criminal behaviour. For a violation so serious and affecting so many people, I have never once seen any public information posters or heard any announcements telling victims and witnesses what to do.
This lack of clear information goes part way to explaining why, according to Transport for London’s estimates, ‘90% of unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport goes unreported’.
On the other hand, as Perez points out:
Most authorities seem to have managed to install clear signage about what to do in the event of spotting a suspicious package.
In the case of the UK’s ‘See it, say it, sort it’ anti-terrorism campaign, with its frequent loud announcements at every train station and on every train, it’s almost impossible to evade knowledge of what to do.
I would love to compare the number of victims of sexual violence with the number of victims of terrorist attacks on public transport over the past ten years. But I can’t because one of those statistics only affects women and thus isn’t properly collected.
Rather than terrifying the populace about the occasional abandoned backpack, our society would be much better served by public information campaigns that aim to eliminate the constant daily abuse suffered by half our population.
I took far too many books away with me this week, including three about the people and places of Dartmoor—but I only read one: Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.
Newport’s provocation was supported, not only by numerous case studies of organisations that have eliminated email, but also by psychology research and, most interestingly for me, history.
I was startled, for example, by the discovery that email overwhelm and inbox bankruptcy wasn’t merely latent in the system, but already evident from the very beginning, as this anecdote from the book shows.
When Adrian Stone implemented the new email network at IBM in the 1980s, he carefully estimated the number of emails that the server would need to handle, based on the number of telephone and paper messages that were passed between IBM employees on a typical working day.
Email was seen as a significant leap in efficiency for the company, removing the logistical complications of both synchronous communication (pinning someone down for a phone call or meeting) and asynchronous communication (delivering a pen and paper message).
Unfortunately, as the cost of communication dropped to zero, the number of messages the employees exchanged shot up and, within a few days, they’d blown the email server with the superfluous cc’ing of colleagues into endless back-and-forth email threads. Sound familiar?
As Stone puts it:
Thus—in a mere week or so—was gained and blown the potential productivity gain of email.
When IBM discovered this fundamental flaw with email, of course, they abandoned the experiment and everyone went back to communicating face-to-face, person-to-person in the old, slow, productive fashion. Oh, no, wait…
Luckily, in the second half of A World Without Email, Newport suggests alternative workflows that don’t provoke the misery-inducing ‘hyperactive hive mind’ of email and instant messaging.
I’m conscious of the irony of recommending this book in an email newsletter, so—before you unsubscribe—it’s worth saying that the title of Newport’s book is, by his own admission, more marketing hype than practical proposal.
Email still has a (drastically limited) role to play as a versatile, snappy, cheap tool for asynchronous communication. Inspired by the Reach Out Party, if I could declare one inviolable rule for every email interaction, it would be this:
Make your recipient’s inbox a better place to hang out.
In this postmodern, information age of imagination, the pandemic is a confrontation with realities—both the one we have created over the past fifty years and the one that was always there, bleeding behind the screens.
The reality we simulate
In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described an historical shift since the 1970s in the development of technology, away from physical objects and towards simulated projects:
What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the ‘hyper-real’—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original.
If you doubt the essential truth of this broad assertion, then consider your life in 2020. Many of your human activities, I’m sure, have been reduced to their simulations:
WFH instead of with colleagues in the office
Email instead of love letters
Dating apps instead of meeting strangers
Sport, drama, comedy on television instead of in the crowd
Video calls instead of birthday parties
Emojis instead of touch
These simulations are only possible because of the development of information technologies. They’re not the real thing, but they’re the best we can do at the moment and I’m sure many of us are very grateful.
But these simulations didn’t come out of nowhere. As Graeber continues:
The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. … Information technology has allowed a financialisation of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new ‘flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population.
The evolution of this society has been like boiling the proverbial frog: change has been so gradual that few people notice until it’s too late.
But this year, without warning, the hyper-real dropped the ‘hyper’ and became pretty much the only reality left to us. This abrupt shift to a life entirely mediated through screens has confronted us with what, perhaps, we might otherwise have forgotten.
The reality that bleeds
Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Covid-19 is caused by a virus—a virus with what I’ll call a ‘bleeding reality’.
The virus is no simulation. It is not a threat that leaps out at us from behind a screen, like bankruptcy, trolling or slow broadband. It is a real and present danger of the kind that, in wealthy societies, we are not used to confronting, personally, daily.
The threat of pandemic has shown us our direction of travel, from bleeding to simulated reality. It’s zipped us to the end of the hyper-real and asked, Do you really want this? When bleeding reality is stripped away, what are you left with?
All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
It took millennia for physicians to dream the idea that intangible viruses could kill humans. Funny that something we can’t see, smell, taste or touch should be what cuts through the imaginary play of light to show us what is real.
The Shock and The Reason
The pandemic has shown us that bleeding reality still matters deeply, and in a way that the simulated worlds of surveillance capitalism never will.
We hear of a vaccine and realise that real science matters. We read a book and realise that real art matters. We climb a tree or swim a river and realise that real nature matters. We sit alone in our houses and realise that real community matters, and that fairness, justice and equality really do matter too.
Your life isn’t meaningless. It’s not postmodern or ironic. It is real. Your life matters, desperately.
The pandemic has been a shock, but that shock has helped us come to our senses. As Marcel Proust wrote:
Some moments after the shock, my intelligence, which like the sound of thunder travels less rapidly, taught me the reason.
The Punkt MP02 will liberate you from your smartphone. It’s not a smartphone-killer, but it will free you from the burden of the dreaded online default mode.
Most of us are stuck in online default mode. We need a phone for communication in the modern age and smartphones are the most flexible solution for those moments when we absolutely must get online while out and about.
I get it.
But those moments of the essential online are fewer than we think. And what we are left with is the online default mode, in which we carry around the internet in our pocket, with instant access at any time.
The Punkt MP02 relieves you of this default and replaces it with an offline default mode. The online world is still accessible, through 4G tethering to a second device – computer, tablet or smartphone – but it is never only a swipe away.
Reaching into my pocket, I’m separated from a swift fiddle with Whatsapp by a dozen key presses and a twenty second wait. This is just enough to stop me from using my smartphone when I don’t need it – but still convenient enough that going online when I need to is not a hassle.
With the Punkt MP02, I am liberated to use my technology as I need it. A good example is that I often leave the house with either one or the other, but rarely with both phones.
If I want to contact others, I can take only the Punkt and stay offline. If I want to take photographs, then I can take only my smartphone camera without being tempted to go online.
Best of all are the times when I leave both in their drawer at home!
New Model Update: Better or Worse?
This is the second MP02 that I have tested. The first model I reviewed back in April and you can read my thoughts here. Ultimately, this model was unusable long term, mainly because of the short battery life (scarcely a day) and the frequent dropped calls.
So is this new model any better? The short answer is yes, but there are still snags.
Limited battery life
Since the first edition of the MP02, the battery life has improved – but it’s still not sensational compared to other feature phones like the Nokia 3310.
I would say that my Punkt phone use is no more than moderate and I need to charge the device every 36 hours or so. Not terrible, as it was before, but not world-beating either.
As you would expect, the biggest drain on the Punkt battery is tethering. I use this feature a fair amount because I travel often and sometimes need to connect my laptop to the internet.
As a guide, 45 minutes of tethering used 10% of the battery; 70 minutes drained 19%. Sometimes I plug the Punkt in to charge and tether for longer periods, but the phone does get warm and I doubt this is particularly good for the battery life.
Unfortunately, Punkt have withdrawn the ability to tether over USB and Bluetooth connections, both of which use less power than a wifi connection. I hope these features will return in future updates, but customer support didn’t give me any cause for optimism when I mentioned it.
After a month of use, I haven’t had any dropped calls. Fingers crossed that’s a vast improvement.
Home screen snags
There are still a number of glitches in the software – particularly in the way the home screen behaves – and that’s not cool in a phone that costs £295.
The main glitches are when waking up from standby. The worst of these is that the home screen frequently freezes, leaving me staring at an unresponsive phone until it recovers.
The clock also takes a couple of seconds to update – slightly annoying when you’re quickly checking to see whether you’re about to miss a train.
There are a few features that I’d expect to see that are missing, especially with contact management. The address book works in mysterious ways and there is no easy way to delete duplicate contacts, for example.
It would be wonderful if I could manage my Punkt contacts using my computer and a USB connection. Consider that a feature request!
On the plus side, it was easy to transfer contacts from my smartphone to the Punkt using Bluetooth. Full marks there.
I can’t have an audible ring tone without also turning on all the other annoying system noises
No improvement on the old model – actually worse because my phone refuses to vibrate, despite having that option turned on. I would ordinarily rely on the vibrate to get around the obnoxious system noises that come whenever the ringtone is set up.
I’ve asked customer support about this and they appeared baffled by the desire for an audible ringtone without audible key tone presses.
In conclusion, this new model MP02 is a significant improvement on the previous edition. I can see myself using this model for the foreseeable future, but I sincerely hope that further improvements to the software are in the pipeline.
Note: Punkt sent me this new model MP02 gratis. Thank you!
We get sold on a particular feature – like the ability to make social phone calls to friends and family – but find ourselves quickly overwhelmed by myriad extraneous features that distract us from our intentions.
This is where the Punkt MP02 feature phone intervenes: adding a step between my sociable intentions and the pernicious distractions of my ‘smart’ devices.
Note: Punkt sent me this MP02 gratis. Of course, it’s lovely to receive such a kind gift, and you would be forgiven for being suspicious about this the honesty of this review. But please suspend your doubt – as you will see, I’m far too reliant on connectivity to tolerate a device that doesn’t work properly!
The Punkt MP02 as a minimum viable technology
I’ve written before about using the minimum viable technology for a task, and the Punkt MP02 fits perfectly into my buffet of devices.
The MP02 does only two things really well:
It does a few other things, like messaging and note-taking, but it doesn’t do them very well. These features are more for emergencies than day-to-day use.
Using the Punkt MP02 in combination with my laptop and my smartphone, I can still take part in extraneous ‘connected’ activities, without turning them into reflex habits.
But, best of all, the Punkt and I now prioritise phone calls.
Has the Punkt changed my behaviour?
Of course, the proof is in the pudding, or, as the saying goes, in the device use statistics.
With the Punkt in my digital arsenal, I’ve averaged only 15 minutes a day on my smartphone. For comparison, my average smartphone use – excluding phone calls – in the week immediately pre-Punkt was around 60 minutes per day.
Looking back over the longer term, my average smartphone use – excluding phone calls – in the last two months has been about 45 minutes a day – and that’s with a conscious effort to reduce my smartphone usage after reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.
It seems that, with the Punkt, I could be saving 30-45 minutes a day, a remarkable return for the device thus far.
I have also made more phone calls to friends and family with the Punkt than I used to with the smartphone. In my first week with the Punkt, I made 5 ‘social’ phone calls for a total duration of 110 minutes, averaging about 22 minutes each.
In comparison, over the preceding six weeks, I made 9 similarly social calls on my smartphone, lasting a total of 180 minutes. On average, that makes only 2 calls every week.
These smartphone calls were still around 20 minutes each, which reassures me that I’m comparing apples with apples, but with the Punkt, it seems as if I’m more than twice as likely to pick up the phone and call friends and family. Brilliant.
This might, of course, be down to novelty. It’ll be interesting to see whether I continue to spend significantly less time on my smartphone, as the unnecessary habit degrades, or whether instead I begin to crave the convenience of the ‘smart’ features I do use.
Which brings me on to…
Do I still need a smartphone?
There are several features for which I know I will still use my smartphone.
Maps. Connectivity is not necessary: I have downloaded maps for offline use.
Camera. Wifi will be needed to transfer these from phone to computer.
Whatsapp messaging. I prefer to use my computer for the actual sending of messages, but this is only possible with a ‘smart’ connection as well.
Strava tracking for bike rides.
Banking apps. Not strictly necessary, but I can’t be the only person who finds the mobile apps easier to use than the web equivalents.
As you can tell, none of these activities are urgent. I could survive without any of them. Does that mean I will get rid of my smartphone? No.
My smartphone is still, for better or worse, the minimum viable technology for that grab bag of low-priority, but still useful features.
I’m not going to buy a dedicated camera because I hardly ever take photos. Photography isn’t a priority for me. Likewise, I’m unlikely to buy a Garmin GPS for my bike: they’re expensive and I’m not massively into following pre-planned routes.
It remains to be seen whether the Punkt MP02 has turned the smartphone into one useful tool among many, rather than one dominant tool to rule them all (and me) – but that is the hope.
Pros, Not bothereds, Cons and a Wishlist
With the psychological and practical aspects of the review dealt with, let’s look at the phone in more detail. What works, what I don’t care about, what doesn’t work, and what could work.
Pros (for me)
The phone works as a phone – hallelujah! This is huge.
Tethering works as well as with my old smartphone (after help from the excellent customer support team). This is also huge.
Excellent customer support, fortunately, because the phone needs it. It can’t be easy designing and launching an entirely new genus of phone, and early adopters need support.
Beautifully designed and feels good in my hand. I’ve dropped it a couple of times already and it seems robust.
BlackBerry security. Hopefully this means that my phone can’t be hacked. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this means in practice: presumably the protection doesn’t extend to tethered devices. I’ve written before about the leaky nature of mobile phones, and how this data is big business. It feels good to own a device that, for once, puts my privacy first.
Not bothereds (for me)
For a simple phone, there’s quite a going on. I can connect to other devices using Bluetooth, WiFi and a USB connection. I genuinely have no idea why the phone has GPS.
There are a panoply of other unobtrusive features, including messaging, calculator, calendar, alarm, world clock, stopwatch, timer, and notes with timed reminders (including recurring reminders). They all seem to work well, but I doubt I’ll use any of them much.
The messaging system can display emoticons and QR codes. Wowzas.
Cons (for me)
UPDATE: Punkt are currently manufacturing an update to the MP02 which will be available in July 2019. Hopefully many of the bugs listed below will be fixed – and they have kindly offered me an exchange. As I said earlier, the customer service is excellent.
This is quite a long list, so I’ve bolded the cons that have a significant negative impact on my day-to-day use.
Limited battery life. The Punkt’s battery life is currently only about a day of light to moderate use. A couple of phone calls, a couple of hours’ hotspotting, and it’s dead. Even on standby, the battery drains remarkably quickly. Overnight, on aeroplane mode, I lost 15%. Frankly, compared to other feature phones, it’s feeble – and very nearly a deal breaker. Luckily, Punkt’s engineers are working on a solution and hope to release another firmware update in June. Watch this space…
I can’t have an audible ring tone without also turning on all the other annoying system noises (key-pad tones, lock and unlock tones, etc.). For a phone that sells itself on discretion, this seems very odd. The excellent customer service people don’t appear to have a solution either. What this means is that, for the sake of my sanity, I have to have the phone on silent all the time. It does vibrate, however, so I usually hear something buzz when someone calls.
The ringtones might be ‘the work of respected Norwegian sound artist Kjetil Røst Nilsen’, but in my humble opinion, they are all a bit weird. It’s not possible to upload my own, although they do say this might be a feature for a future update.
Likewise, I can’t change the alarm noise, which is unfortunate because it sounds like I’m under attack from quite a raucous seagull. Not the most relaxing way to wake up.
The earphones aren’t very good quality and only come with one earpiece. They are USB-C, though, so I could buy a new set, I guess.
You can programme shortcuts, which is handy. This would be a pro, but isn’t very well done so becomes a con, I’m afraid. The options are fairly limited and the execution isn’t always as clear as it could be. I set a shortcut to turn on tethering, but there is no notification that the shortcut has executed successfully, and I can’t set a shortcut to turn tethering off.
The power source is USB-C, so I can’t share chargers with most of the rest of the world yet, and heaven help me if I lose this one cable before I get a chance to buy a backup. A bit harsh to make this a con, but there we go.
I’ve also run into quite a few glitches:
I’ve experienced a few (5) dropped calls. It’s hard to say whether these were down to the Punkt or the caller’s phone. I’ll keep an eye/ear on it.
I had to restart after the home screen stopped working.
The notifications don’t always behave as they should.
The home screen clock takes a few seconds to update. (This bug seems to come and go.)
USB tethering only worked once and never again. Shame, because it could be a useful feature to keep the phone charged while using the battery-intensive hotspot.
Wishlist (for me)
I would love a voice note feature so that I could record notes to myself, rather than type them out, tortuously, on the predictive keypad.
A torch would be handy.
The Bottom Line
For me, at the moment, the Punkt MP02 just about crosses the line. After a week’s testing, I will definitely keep the Punkt in my pocket.
The annoying ring tones, the various glitches, and the more significant issue with the battery life, are still not enough to outweigh the importance of untethering myself from my smartphone.
I need a phone that keeps me in contact with friends and family, without distracting me from the way I want to spend my time. The miraculous little Punkt MP02 helps me do that.
If I were grading the phone as a whole, however, I couldn’t give it more than a B-Minus. Everything about the Punkt screams Premium – but I’d be a bit gutted if I’d shelled out the £300 asking price for a dumbphone that scarcely lasts a day, and does some pretty annoying things.
If they can sort out the myriad glitches, and significantly improve the battery life with the next firmware update, then we’ll be talking about a phone that delivers not only on the promise of digital minimalism, but also on the premium price point.
But the real test for me will be whether I decide to take the Punkt MP02 when I go travelling this summer.
When I’m out of the country, my reliance on the web increases. I’m much more likely to want to connect to look up places to go. I’m much more likely to stay in communication with friends and family over email and Whatsapp, and I’m much more likely to be away from my computer and a fixed WiFi connection.
Finally, space and weight are a consideration and, although the Punkt is small and light, every inch and every gramme counts when I’m travelling. The fact that I have no other devices that charge from a USB-C is another slight point against the Punkt.
So the Punkt has 3 months to prove itself indispensable!
Thanks a mill to Punkt for sending me this MP02, and thanks to their customer service team for helping me get it up and running. Thanks also to @documentally for putting me in touch with Punkt in the first place.
‘The power of a general-purpose computer is in the total number of things it enables the user to do, not the total number of things it enables the user to do simultaneously.’
I found Cal’s most effective recommendation was using an app called Freedom to set boundaries on the multi-tasking powers of my technology.
With Freedom I can set an automated schedule of when I’m able to check email and Whatsapp, the two major distractions from focused time in my life.
Rather than slavishly checking for superficial social interactions every five or twenty minutes, I can corral those messages into fenced-off playgrounds of digital distraction. But the playground is only open for an hour in the afternoon.
The app works across devices as well. Using Freedom I can turn my smartphone in to a single-use dumb phone at the touch of a button. I can even have the smartphone capabilities turned off by default.
The feeling is indeed one of liberation; no wonder the app is called Freedom.
If you have any sense that your devices are distracting you from the deep work that you value, I urge you to give Freedom a whirl. It is free to try, but a year’s subscription is only £13 if you use the code FOCUS40.
5 Ideas from Digital Minimalism
1. Swap phones.
When you’re with a friend, swap phones so neither of you can be lured away to the dreaded ‘third place’. Your phones are still there in an emergency, but the embarrassment of asking for your device just so that you can crush some candy will be too much.
2. Spend time alone.
Solitude is vital to our emotional balance and too little time alone leaves us feeling anxious. Finding solitude doesn’t mean ship-wrecking yourself on a desert island; you can find solitude in a busy coffee shop. Solitude is simply time spent without input from other minds. Leave your phone at home. Take a long walk. Write.
3. Use digital to facilitate real world comms.
Social media, email and messaging is not an adequate replacement for social interaction, but our brains can be fooled into thinking it is. Set up a meeting on the phone or in person.
4. Hold conversation office hours.
Tell your friends and family that you’re always free to speak on the phone at X o’clock – and be available at that time. When someone ‘pings’ you a text message or email, invite them to call you at X o’clock any day of the week. Alternatively, set up a regular time for taking coffee or a walk and invite anyone and everyone to drop by.
5. Prioritise strenuous leisure activities over passive consumption.
Activity gives you more energy, not less. When you’re tired, simply switch task. Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. Become ‘handy’. Join or set up a club, community group or meeting.
You’ll note that all of these tasks could have been accomplished using only one tool: my smartphone. So why have seven devices when I could have only one?
After all, the smartphone does many things excellently.
Most people in the world will never have owned a camera as good as the one on the back of their smartphone (myself included).
Smartphones have normalised the miracle of GPS navigation, made mobile internet access a pocketable habit, and serve us as powerful micro-computers whose potential is limited only (it seems) by the imaginations of app developers.
I have used my smartphone to practice yoga, answer emails, chat with work colleagues, catch up on the cricket, check train times, monitor my sleep, write blog posts and, of course, track my smartphone usage.
Incredibly, this is quite normal.
But whereas the smartphone is a complex technology, basically indistinguishable from magic to most people (myself very much included), single-purpose tools like my travel clock or DAB radio are what I call Minimum Viable Technology.
Rather than starting out with what the tool can accomplish (Ooh! Look, it’s a clock and a radio and a stopwatch and a phone and a camera AND a yoga teacher!), the principles of Minimum Viable Technology first define what you want from life (Bleeurgh, what’s the time?), and then find the simplest tool to match (a bedside travel clock).
Principles of Minimum Viable Technology
Clearly define the single task at hand
Use the least complex tool that still accomplishes that single task
Stop. Adding. Features. Goddamit.
I believe that such Minimum Viable Technologies offer significant advantages over complex multi-purpose technologies.
It is too easy to switch task when using a multi-purpose tool.
We’ve all been there with smartphones and computers, but it’s equally true of other complex technologies – a house, for example.
Would I be more comfortable in the lounge or the kitchen? Should I lie on the bed or rest in a deck chair in the garden? Does the bedroom need another lick of paint, and when am I going to put up those shelves? Is the heating on too high?
It sounds ridiculous, but the plurality of options and the ease of task switching is detrimental to our ability to focus. And losing focus quite possibly makes us more miserable humans.
Does the blade on my Swiss Army knife have a sharper cutting edge than the cook’s knife in my kitchen? No.
Similarly, does the camera on my smartphone take better photographs than a dedicated SLR? Clearly not.
The best multi-purpose tool will never be superior to the best single-purpose tool, and that has consequences for the way we work (and play).
Are we willing to accept good enough for the best?
In many arenas, the answer will be emphatically yes, but for the most important things in life, the answer simply must be no. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?
There is an argument that using one device to rule them all is less wasteful, and I wouldn’t like to argue with that.
I have now seven devices where one would do and at some point all those devices will end up in landfill and their useless lumps of plastic will out-live me. I feel pretty shitty about that.
But the principles of Minimum Viable Technology tend towards less wasteful behaviour, not more.
For example, the absolute Minimum Viable Technology for cleaning my hair is, quite simply, water. Having grown up in a certain society with certain expectations, however, I have settled on using diluted lemon juice.
No more need to buy expensive (or indeed cheap) shampoos and conditioners. No more need to wonder what all those ingredients are doing to my hair (let alone what happens when I wash them down the sink).
In the final analysis, do I really need my own travel clock? Do I really need my own phone? The wide span of human history argues in the negative. I just don’t have the guts to go without.
If we all use multi-tools, what will become of the artisan and the artist?
The more basic the technology, generally speaking, the greater the skill 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 have to go back to the approved dealer for repairs.
Technology, as it becomes more complex, leaves in its wake a certain kind of ignorance.
Of course, this ignorance is not always or necessarily a limitation. Drivers who don’t know the first thing about car maintenance (myself included) can instead spend their time on other pursuits – but it doesn’t make them better drivers.
Side Bar: It’s not all about ‘devices’
Technology is everything humans have ever invented to try and make our lives easier, from agriculture and money, to shampoo and footwear.
Here are some other ways that Minimum Viable Technology influences my life choices:
I prefer to walk than cycle, if I have the time. This often surprises people who think that I’m a devoted capital-C Cyclist. I am, but also: MVT, baby.
I wear ‘barefoot’ shoes that don’t over-complicate the business of keeping my feet warm, dry and protected from sharp stones.
I don’t have a gym membership because I can use press up bars and a yoga mat in my own bedroom.
I eat a primarily plant-based diet: a more simplistic diet than meat-eating in almost every way, from food production to preparation and digestion.
If in doubt don’t spend money, say no to ‘upgrades’, and always check the ingredients.
With all this in mind, I believe that my original question should be flipped: Why have only one device when I could have seven?
Rather than depending on complex multi-purpose tools for everything, I believe that we should use them as ‘catch-all’ technologies to mop up the functions that are either unimportant to us, or we simply haven’t had the courage, the time, the money or the wherewithal to replace yet.
My smartphone does only one thing better than any other device I have found: GPS mapping when I’m on my bike.
Does that make it worth having? Frankly, no. I cycled around Britain without GPS: it’s not a big deal.
But my smartphone sweeps up a few other useful functions that are nice to have, but aren’t sufficiently important to me to find a dedicated replacement.
A yoga teacher would be vastly superior to the app on my phone, but I’m just not dedicated enough to make the switch. Likewise, I don’t care enough about photography to buy an actual camera.
And so we come to the 50ft-chameleon of the personal computer.
I wrote a line to myself recently: A computer is not a crutch. And yet that is exactly how I treat it.
My computer is my workstation and playstation combined. It is my portal into the world, and the screen through which I peer. It is the medium of my creativity.
I know that my life could benefit from applying the principles of Minimum Viable Technology to those moments when I turn to my computer screen.
What do I want from life right now? It’s probably not to stand here typing, reading on a screen, or replying to emails.
This computer is so far from being a Minimum Viable Technology that it’s actively keeping me from being the person I want to be.
I’ll see you outside!
Minimum Viable Technology (6 minute read). 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.
Productivity Positive Constraints (5 minute read). The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all. There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.
No Money Mondays (6 minute read). 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.
After a week of fluctuating symptoms of flu, yesterday I was reminded of the healing power of a bike ride. The weight came off my shoulders as I cycled through the southerly reaches of Greater London, through back streets of spring sunshine, between grid-lines of daffodils, dodging traffic on green lanes and perking up parks. Has it been so long since that summer we shared?
The feeling was of a reflective moment during the playing of an old song: a moment of calm and clarity. It made me pick up the phone this lunchtime and call an old friend, stitching something together where it might have severed. That’s what a bike ride can do: that’s what being in-the-world can do – for me, at least.
UPDATE 28/1/19: The extension mentioned below no longer exists. Instead, you can use an extension like No Tabs, or just change the options so that your browser opens all links in a new window.
This could be the most boring positive constraint ever conceived. To be honest, I did feel pretty embarrassed about sharing such a geeky post. But if, like me, you sometimes feel chained to the hedonic treadmill of The Internet, then I have no shame.
This positive constraint has helped me spend less time in from of the computer, while making that time more productive. Thanks to No Tabbed Browsing I have spent less time aimlessly browsing the web and more time getting shit done.
I won’t blame you if you skip this one, but if you think you might have a problem – enjoy!
Ah – the bliss of writing outside! – sun on my face, the sound of trickling waterfalls around me and the scent of freshly budding flowers. Not bad at all, thank you. And it’s all down to my now complete tech setup, ready for the ravages of the road towards Syria. Continue reading The Tech Setup
I am currently documenting Elevate, a festival of arts and political discourse that takes place every year in Graz, Austria. This workshop brought together a roomful of creative activists to share ideas on how to give our ideas a colourful and powerful impact on society. (Follow these guys through their Twitter feeds.)
First, Mike Bonanno from The Yes Men took us on a magical mystery tour of creative protest, from the suffragettes dressing up as Ancient Greeks and Gandhi’s salt march, to bread helmets in revolutionary Egypt and the KGB’s flying penises.
“Big campaigns are won by small numbers of people,” Mike says, pointing to the US Civil Rights movement. “It wasn’t even the majority of the minority that was involved.” This is why being creative and making a big noise in the media is important: you can have a disproportionate influence on the political process. “The tendency of the media is to re-tell the same story the whole time,” Mike says. “Keep reminding them what the real story is.”
You can find a lot of Mike’s inspiration through these three resources for creative action:
Ksenia Ermoshina brings a creative perspective from a very different part of the activist world: Russia. Ksenia describes the Russian activist environment, where the police have a tendency to over-react, arresting people who protest by dancing in cathedrals, for example. This has the pleasing effect of amplifying the activists’ message.
Equally, however, Russian civil society has no repertoire of action, as you find in Europe or the States. In France, where Ksenia currently works, the activists can immediately draw on a palette of actions, from die-ins to occupations, that everyone is familiar with. They don’t have to reinvent protest every time.
Ksenia describes her adventures in adbusting, creating speech bubbles for inanimate objects like bricks: “Only for throwing at cops.” Ksenia’s inspiration is Hakim Bey, who declared that, even if only one or two people are awoken, the action is still a success. She also always insists on filming the whole process of preparing the action, whether it’s printing and posting photos of Syrian children or making a Vladimir Putin puppet, so that other people can see exactly how it was done and how they too can protest.
Ksenia’s action has a very immediate and personal element, however. Her mother, a journalist, recently lost her job at one of the few remaining independent publications in Russia. Her question for the workshop: How can we talk to more people, reach more people, in countries where regimes are becoming more authoritarian?
Bruno Tozzini comes from the very different background of advertising, a $137bn industry in the US. And yet he shows us a series of creative responses to social problems, some created by advertising agencies and all using corporate platforms, including an intercultural language exchange over Skype, an online street art exhibition using Google Maps, and the sharing through Facebook of the “invisible” stories of homeless Brazilians.
Bruno then takes us through his “four steps of making” and, in the afternoon, we launch into a workshop focussed on generating creative responses to the refugee crisis in Graz. We brainstorm together and formulate half a dozen actions that could be implemented today, from wifi sharing, a refugee hackathon and SMS skillsharing, to the simplest imaginable creative response: “Just go and say hi”.
Christian Payne is a networked storyteller. It wasn’t always thus, as he shows us through his journey from Alpine pastoralist to newspaper photographer and finally encrypted multimedia archivist. “All media is social,” he says. Christian himself promiscuously shares, not only text, but audio, video, geographic data and photos to tell the stories he encounters from Sudan to Iraq, from Twitter to Storify – from a man holding a smartphone to our ears, eyes and hearts.
Christian is a particularly big proponent of unobtrusive, lightweight, multitasking audio storytelling. He is usually to be found in some quiet corner of the Elevate festival, deep in conversation with some bright philosopher, hacker or DJ, seamlessly sharing their words and thoughts with an audience far away in time and space. He describes audio as an intelligent and intimate storytelling form, akin to reading a book, rather than watching a film.
Christian finishes with a warning about posting online. “You don’t own your image, your image belongs to popular opinion,” he says. “You can attempt control your content, but not the way people react to it.” When it comes to protecting yourself online, his advice is simple: “Connect with kindness.”
The final input of the workshop came from Charles Kriel, founder of Lightful and former game designer and circus performer. Lightful is an app that attempts to solve a problem Charles has encountered when advising NGOs on how to share their stories and get access to funding.
Charles opens, however, by discussing the tragic death at a Turkish airport of journalist Jacky Sutton, a former colleague working in the Middle East. The Turkish authorities claim that she’d missed a connecting flight, been unable to afford a new ticket and had, as a consequence, gone into the ladies’ toilet and hung herself. Charles points out that such a course of action would be ridiculous for a seasoned journalist like Jacky, who’d been working in the region for a decade.
Besides the fact that Jacky had €2400 in cash on her person when she died, enough for a dozen new plane tickets, Charles himself has experience of that same fateful flight. “I’ve missed that connecting flight,” he says. “Everybody misses that connecting flight. It’s a guarantee.”
That starting point shows how dangerous is the work of promoting a free press, particularly in the Middle East. “The region is in even more turmoil than is being reported at the moment,” Charles says. His dream is to create an app that will do some of the dangerous work that puts journalists, NGO workers and activists in such mortal danger. Lightful is that app.
Charles and his small team hope to launch Lightful in stages, starting with registered NGOs in a limited geographical space in the next three weeks. The start may be small, but his aim is quietly ambitious: “I’d like people to get into the habit of doing good work.”
“Are you a robot?” says the disembodied telephone voice. “You sound so much like a robot. Will you say ‘I am not a robot?’”
So begins a presentation from Marek Tuszynski and Stephanie Hankey from Tactical Tech, a presentation that lurches easily from the surreal to the terrifying, but ends with a full bodied embrace of evil.
The central question Tactical Tech pose is: what does it mean to live in a data-ised society, for individual and for corporations?
The luckless telemarketer on the end of the disembodied question refuses to confirm that she is not a robot. That’s the point: when we’ve automated ourselves to the eyeballs with algorithms, how do we still know that we are not being controlled by robots?
Balthasar Glattli, a Swiss national councillor, gave away his smartphone data so that everyone who had voted for him could see exactly what he was doing. From the data that leaked freely from the phone, analysts were easily able to track where he was, who he was talking to and what he was likely to be doing. Over time, it was simplicity itself to build up a network map of all his friends and colleagues.
Marek makes the point again: This is not a hacked phone. This is information that you all have agreed to share with the network provider – and with anyone else who buys that data. “Data is not a carrot,” Marek helpfully points out. “You can’t eat it and it’s gone.”
And if you’re thinking that “vintage” phones are the answer, Marek will swiftly disabuse you of the notion. Non-smart phones still broadcast meta data – location, movement, times, connections – from which you can build up a very detailed profile of a user.
Marek shows us a tool called Trackography, which shows tracking data for media websites all over the world. Every time you browse for your daily news, you are inadvertently sending data to third parties all over the world. Some of these companies you already know, like Google, Amazon or Facebook; but some are completely masked and anonymous.
Marek shows us what happens when we browse through 7 local and national Austrian media sources: Trackography counts 95 unintended connections with institutions all over the world, curious about your clicking behaviour.
Next, Stephanie Hankey introduces us to the marketing concepts of geo-targeting, geo-fencing and geo-conquesting. Geo-targeting is pushing people content based on their location. Geo-fencing is about marking out 100m² areas and targeting adverts at people who are in those areas right now, or who have been there within the last 30 days, say. Geo-conquesting takes it to a new level. This is when a company can see when you’re on a competitor’s territory and pushes you an advert to attempt to lure you away.
Stephanie herself was a victim of geo-conquest just yesterday. As she arrived at Frankfurt airport, she was pushed an ad by Easyjet, innocently asking if she wanted to buy a flight. Easyjet don’t operate from Frankfurt, but they knew she was there and they knew she hadn’t flown with them. But, as Stephanie says, “Paranoid is okay, paranoid is good.”
Furthermore, while older tech companies do have a slightly different business model – Apple and Microsoft also make money from selling soft and hardware – as data reaches further into our lives, more and more companies are joining the data model, including the car industry, to take one notorious recent example.
But Stephanie and Marek aren’t here only to terrify people with the reach of data into our lives. They are also here to encourage us to take control back from the algorithms.
Life insurance companies have started giving customers a discount for wearing a device that tracks your physical activity. The discount is worth about €50 per year. These devices track your geo-location, of course, but also your exertion. Using those two data streams, it is easy to tell, just for example, who is having sex, with whom and how much they’re both enjoying it. Is that worth €50?
But why not take the €50 discount and subvert the business model: fix your device to a metronome, to the wheels of a taxi cab, on the end of a drill or to your dog’s collar.
These comedy subversions belie serious questions, like what constitutes political autonomy in the quantified society? Stephanie questions whether “Big Brother” is even the right metaphor. “Big Mama” might be better; these data-driven surveillance intrusions seem utterly banal, rather than sinister.
Churchix, for example, is a surveillance tool that uses facial recognition software to track which of your flock regularly attends your mass. How do these things become normal, even for a church? Even if Churchix doesn’t take off, how did it come to pass that someone thought this was a good idea?
Corporations have been leading the way, of course. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has spent $14m buying the 3 houses around his property so that he would have no neighbours. Contrast that personal decision with Facebook’s real name policy and business model that encourages us to make the private public. And let’s not forget that it’s a business model that made a $3bn profit last year, paid UK staff bonuses of £35.4m, yet only £4,327 in UK tax.
According to Stephanie, these huge data corporations are going around government. They see themselves are being “uber government” and it seems unlikely that they will be pulled into check now.
Microsoft have developed a chip the size of Scrabble tile that can be implanted into women and control their fertility. Calico are in the business of “radical life extension”, curing death. Google are building a space rocket so they can mine the moon.
These are not the things we think of when we think of our favourite Silicon Valley apps.
Marek ends with a provocation to action: How can we counter the creativeness of these uncompanies?
Tactical Tech have a number of projects to help people answer this question:
In today’s digital age, No Television isn’t much of a positive constraint for a lot of people. We can do all our couch potatoing in front of the computer instead: Netflix, YouTube, DVDs. Distracting diversions and an escape into ennui is right at our fingertips.
But, for me, No Television is kind of where it all started. When I was growing up, my family never had a television. The only time I saw a moving picture was when we went to my nan’s (always on a Sunday so that I could watch Football Italia), when I went round a friend’s or when we went on holiday.
The stated reason for this prohibition, for the 18 years between my birth and when my older sister went away to university and brought back a TV, was that television would rot our brains.
The consequences were, I think, far reaching. I’ll quickly cover three of them.
I spent more time reading books or entertaining myself by digging holes in the garden.
Without a television to distract me, I read a lot of books. Yep. I was one of those kids who’d already read The Lord of the Rings before anyone else in primary school had even heard of The Hobbit.
I also spent more time on computers. Television wasn’t allowed, but computers were, and we had a BBC Micro ever since I can remember. This computer ran games like Frogger from tapes you had to put into a tape player and rewind after playing. Sometimes the tapes would get chewed up and you could never play that game again. Medieval.
I had almost zero exposure to popular culture.
I missed every significant British cultural event, from Torvill and Dean’s ice dancing (23.95 million viewers in 1994) to the funeral of Princess Diana (19.29 million viewers in 1997), as well as everyone else’s must-watch TV, from SuperTed to Father Ted. I had no idea what any of the Hollywood women looked like and couldn’t sing the theme tune to Match of the Day.
As a consequence, however, I never got caught up in any of these crazes. I couldn’t participate, so instead I held all popular culture in utter disdain.
It gave me a taste of the unconventional.
Having no television when I was a kid made me highly eccentric. In 2001, 97.5% of households in Britain had a television and watching TV was a full-time job for a lot of people, with average viewing time over 30 hours per week (still is, actually).
That gave me a choice: I could either live my life permanently embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t join in the conversations about Chris Evans on TFI Friday or Naked Germans of the Week on Eurotrash – or I could embrace being the unconventional eccentric weirdo.
That’s a pretty weighty life decision for a nine-year-old.
Where are we now?
Hmm. More time reading and on computers; zero knowledge of, and utter disdain for popular culture; an acquired taste for the unconventional. That pretty much describes the essentials of grown up Dave’s character.
I read 35 or more books a year and try to write a couple too, using my trusty computer (I’ve upgraded from tapes, though). Despite the valient efforts of my friends, I’m still miles behind on popular culture – I watched a film on Sunday night for the first time I can remember in years. And this whole blog is dedicated to the unconventional ideas and actions that can take our lives out of the ordinary and into the memorably extraordinary.
Indeed, positive constraints, the art of doing exactly the opposite of what everyone else is doing, could be seen as the brain-child and embodiment of that first enforced constraint, No Television.
We found out, years later, that the reason we didn’t have a TV was not because my parents were scared us kids would waste all our time rotting our brains out over Eurotrash. Oh no. It was because my dad would’ve done.
This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.
Today’s post will be short, but show you three positive constraints that I guarantee will make you more productive at work.
No Desk for Creativity
This positive constraint works for anyone who spends far too much time in front of their computer. I constantly have to remind myself that spending hours on the computer does NOT equal productivity.
The environment we live in is constantly giving us emotional cues. Whether we listen to Bach or Megadeath, whether we can smell lavender or gasoline, whether we stand or sit at a desk will have an influence on our mood and thence the work we do.
I associate desks and computers with Work. That’s Work with a capital “W” because it’s stressful Work, Work that feels like Work: chasing emails, answering queries and junking spam. I needed somewhere I could escape.
But how? My default “relaxing” hobby was to flop down in my nice swivel chair and drag the mouse around the computer screen for an hour or so. I had to disrupt this mindless habit. So I built a No Desk desk, a desk that folds flat against the wall.
With a permanent unfolding desk, my computer was always out and the opportunity to work was always there. A folding desk gives me an alternative. Now, whenever I fancy a change of scenery or a break (and always at the end of the day), I clear the desk and fold it down.
The critical point is that I can’t work on a desk that isn’t there. The computer goes on a shelf and I can sit on my sofa and relax. That relaxed state is where we find day-dreaming, imagination and creativity.
It’s like an off-switch for my work-related stress and an on-switch for creative thinking. It has transformed my working day and I love it.
What you need: Two strong hinges from a hardware shop or online (mine were £26 for two), a flat piece of wood for the desk (mine’s varnished), a couple of wall batons and some screws (all recycled). The build took me about two hours. If you have a bigger house than me, then separate your working space from your relaxing space – and make sure you spend time in both!
No Phone against Distraction
When I’m working, I put my phone away into a drawer, with the ringers off. This is surprisingly simple, but devastatingly effective. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is no less true for being ancient.
After my experiment with No Phone, I am now acutely conscious every time I check my phone. I know that, when I leave my phone on my desk, I will check the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s gone off or not, I still check it, several times an hour.
These are called microchecks and they are toxic to our focus. Every time you look at your phone, you are distracting yourself from the task you were engaged in. Every time you distract yourself, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus. By which time, you’re checking your phone again…
Putting my phone into a drawer when I’m working is a really simple way to safeguard my focus.
What you need: A drawer, a bag or a different room.
No Computer for Writing
I often write using my Neo Alphasmart instead of my laptop. The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all.
There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.
This is a great example of what I mean by minimum viable technology. I could use a pen and paper to write; that would certainly be less tech than even a glorified typewriter like the Neo. But I type much faster than I handwrite, so this glorified typewriter is a more viable technology for the task of writing than pen and paper. (For me.)
The Neo does the job of writing better than anything else. Even so, I still habitually turn to my laptop, with all its distractions and discomforts. I have to remind myself to leave the desk or the house, with the Neo in tow and rediscover writing purity, just me and the typing machine.
A computer can do a million things, but when combined with human distractability that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Neo does only one thing and that means more writing, less Tetris.
What you need: A Neo Alphasmart (~£50 second hand from the US), or any other more basic technology. Hats off to you if you can manage with just pen and paper.
So there you have it. Three dead simple positive constraints that you could get working with today.
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!”
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
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.
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?
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.
The Elevate Awards shine a light on people and projects that cultivate a more sustainable, innovative and just planet. Goaded on by our host Herr Hermes and watched by the crowd in the Dom Im Berg and on Elevate’s live media channel, the award nominees have the chance to share their work. The winners also take home two thousand five hundred Euro in prize money to elevate their work to the next level.
There are three awards to be handed out tonight. The International Award is given to projects based outside Graz, the Artivism Award to artistic groups with a message, while the Steiermark Award is presented to projects from the local region of Styria.
The International Award garnered twenty-four nominations from across the world, from Latin America to South Africa, and on global issues ranging from the environment to human rights. Ksenia Ermoshina, the jury representative presenting the award, made special mention of the fourth placed nomination: the solidarity letter for the liberation of Josef S, a German student who was arrested for participating in an anti-fascist demonstration. “Everyone could be Josef S tomorrow,” she says. “As a Russian,” she adds, “human rights are being oppressed everywhere – and the western world is not an exception.”
The international jury came to unanimous decisions on the top two nominees for the award. Both were projects concerned with internet privacy. “Maybe we’re all paranoid on the jury,” Ksenia jokes, “but we do think that, for all of the twenty-four other projects, encryption, privacy and security are needed.” Second place went to riseup.net, which provides secure communication for activists. “This platform helped me and my friends when we were fighting against Putin’s regime in Russia,” Ksenia says, “and helped a lot of people all over the world.”
But the winner of the 2014 Elevate International Award is Cryptocat, an encrypted internet chat application. “I think it’s a great choice,” Ksenia explains, “because their initiative is about making privacy accessible and easy for everyone – even if you don’t think you’re a radical activist.”
Nadim Kobeissi, the founder of Cryptocat, comes on stage to accept his gold painted statue and oversized cheque. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” he says. “I think I know how to say, Ich liebe dich.” The audience laughs. “Am I supposed to say a few words?” he asks Ksenia. “Encrypted please,” she replies. Nadim laughs. “Do you all have your AES encryptors ready?” Bafflement creeps over the crowd. “I don’t know if anyone got that joke,” he adds. Then we laugh.
Nadim explains the ethos of Cryptocat. “I’ve never appreciated that some people took something and tried to make it more complicated instead of simpler,” he says, echoing the Van Jones quote from Let Fury Have The Hour. “There’s a lot of elitism in technology and that’s always bothered me,” he adds. Nadim started developing Cryptocat in college.
Nadim wasn’t even studying computer science, so relied heavily on the open source community. “They were the people who pointed out better ways to do encryption, security problems and ways to make Cryptocat more secure,” he says. Nadim feels this collaboration, community and mutual respect was and remains the most important aspect of the project. “If we deal with each other and the world honestly and transparently,” he says, “this is what ends up benefiting us and benefiting the public.”
Everywhere I look now, I’m seeing creative-response, no less in the code of Cryptocat than in the nominees for the Artivism Award: from a photographic exploration of the housing conditions for asylum seekers in Tirol to a theatrical extravaganza called Sorry, we’re fucked – YOU are the climate catastrophe!. The winners were decided by a public vote on Austrian national radio FM4, involving more than two thousand three hundred people.
That vote chose a group called Partycipation, who, through their camps and festivals in Lower Austria, encourage community and lively exchange on an intellectual and practical level. They bound on stage to give us a demonstration that involves a song about how “the fishes are going to love me more than you ever done” and a drawing of dancers with broken hearts skipping hand in hand across an ocean. Julian Leutgeb explains that Partycipation are trying to show how art can be meaningful and fun.
The Steiermark Award, organised in cooperation with the local Kleine Zeitung newspaper and regional broadcaster ORF Steiermark, attracted twenty-seven local projects. After the counting of over one thousand five hundred public votes, the winners were Kama Graz, an organisation that flips the usual educational experience of asylum seekers on its head.
Instead of forcing them to attend German classes and classes in Austrian law and culture, Kama Graz provides the opportunity for migrants to use their talents to become teachers. In Austria, as in the UK, asylum seekers are forbidden from working throughout the long years their case is considered by the authorities. Teaching these classes gives them an opportunity to use their skills and to participate in society. The classes are also the perfect setting for exchanges between asylum seekers and local residents in Graz, over an African cookery class or a lesson in martial arts. Creative-response begets creative-response.
Hermes throws in one last gag before closing Elevate 2014. “I’ve heard I’m booked until 2024,” he says, “so the festival will continue!” He bows low, the lights play over the applause, and Elevate is over.
As for me, after four days of discussions, deliberations and dancing, I am a stronger person than I was before. I am stronger because I know I am not alone in believing that a more commonistic, connected and creative world is possible. In fact, thanks to Elevate, I don’t have to only believe; that world is already here, waiting for me to join.
In a post-party human circle, thirty or forty of the organisers, producers, artists, activists, technicians and musicians who make Elevate elevate, raise shots of Zirbenschnaps to the only toast we’ll ever need:
“Ich liebe dich!”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
The IT industry is founded on systematic exploitation, from the mining of raw materials right through to the way we dispose of our old technology. Why is the industry so exploitative? The usual hoary reason: profit. Companies don’t pay sufficient attention to the ethical consequences of their entire supply chain or the life cycle of their products because that would be too costly.
Regina Joschika is a consultant for Clean-IT, who campaign for fair working conditions in the global computer industry. She outlines the three key features of this exploitative system. First is the demand for fast and inexpensive technology. The lifespan of a computer is much shorter in 2014 than it was in the 1990s. Back then, according to Regina, you would expect to keep your PC for seven years. Now she says that the average life cycle of a computer is just two years; we are now living in a culture of regular technology upgrades. These regular upgrades deliver rapidly decreasing improvements in technology for the user, but the IT industry relies upon them for their annual profits.
The second key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system is the complexity of its supply chains. Unlike chocolate or clothes, IT products are made up of many tiny items. In a computer, hundreds of companies will contribute to the supply chain for a product that is eventually labelled “Apple” or “Dell”. Most IT companies simply don’t know the set up of their entire supply chain because it is so complex. This means that they can’t control environmental abuses and worker exploitation.
At the start of the supply chain, the extraction of raw materials for the electronics industry is highly dangerous. The mining workforce is often not well-informed and not protected, leading to many deaths from exposure to toxicity or from mine collapses. In some countries, children work in the mines. During the next stage in the supply chain, work in electronics factories is often inhumane. Workers are forced by low wages, the threat of lay-offs or worse to work unpaid overtime or overnight. In many countries where these IT products are built there are no trade unions or union activity is restricted. The majority of workers don’t know their rights. Work in the computer industry is also dangerous. During soldering, for example, toxic chemicals are released which can burn skin.
Finally, we come to the third key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system: disposal. An estimated fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. Two thirds of this is not disposed of correctly or recycled – computers are full of valuable input material that could be reused. Most of this waste is toxic, with tragic consequences for the environment and the communities on whom it is dumped, often in the global south, where there is not the expertise to handle it properly, leaving children to exploit the dumps for things to sell.
We can increase pressure on these companies through raising awareness (Just by reading this – well done!) and by using our purchasing power to force change. We can start by using the work of Electronics Watch, the world’s first independent monitoring organisation for labour rights in the electronics industry. We, as citizens, must begin to take responsibility when buying our computers, smartphones and other technological miracles. Starting, perhaps, with the fair mouse.
Fairness and Open Supply Chains
In 2009, Susanne Jordan and Nager IT took on the challenge of developing the first fair IT device on the market. “I have been unable to find alternatives,” she says. “So I did it myself.” Her aim was to offer critical “consumers” an alternative. “At the moment, we either buy nothing or we buy what is available.” Nager IT’s first product is the fair computer mouse. “A mouse is not a hip product,” she says, “but it’s quite a simple product, so I thought I could be able to create a fair mouse.”
There are only about twenty little components in a computer mouse, so why did the development take three years? Susanne demonstrates by showing us a diagram of the supply chain. It is huge, spreading from wire manufacturers, right down to the mines that take the metals out of the ground. Each element of the supply chain is labelled in green or red depending on whether the working conditions are acceptable or not; it’s about half and half at the moment. All the raw materials are labelled red, unfair, except the copper, which was recycled in Germany. “The reality is we still have to use unfair components for our mouse,” Susanne says.
Susanne illustrates the complexity of the process by telling us the story of her mouse cable, which was made in China. She personally went on a tour of the factory and found that the entire cable was not made there, only the processes that could be automated. The rest of the production was actually carried out by hand in the countryside, where the wages were so low as to be cheaper than automation. “It took us three weeks to find this information,” Susanne says. “And, once we find unfair suppliers, we have to find new ones.”
It’s a constant battle and Nager IT are one of only a very few technology companies who are interested in learning about their supply chain. “Transparency and openness is of the essence,” Susanne says. “If other companies did similarly, then we could share information.” Instead, she has to visit every supplier in person, with no guarantee that she’ll be able to find a fair supplier at all. It’s a massive amount of work, even for something as technologically simple as a computer mouse.
Furthermore, as a small business, Nager IT do not have the influence on suppliers that Apple or Dell would do. “If I go to a supplier and ask for fifty grammes of tin, then I have no power,” Susanne says. Nager IT cannot change the entire industry on their own, but they can wave a red flag. “We want industry to notice us,” Susanne says, “see their sales fall and encourage them to make their mice fairer.” Nager IT have only sold 4,500 mice so far, a number that will not make the slightest impression on the sales figures of the mouse giants (I like that image). “But still we try to convince businesses that fairness is a purchasing criterion,” Susanne says.
The Power Relations of Openness
The openness of Nager IT’s supply chain encourages fairness. If we could see clearly how unfair a company’s products were, perhaps that would discourage us from buying them. The closed supply chains of most IT companies keep abuses hidden, even from the companies themselves. But openness can also be a bad thing when it is not fairly distributed.
At the moment, we are subject to the Customer Relationship Management of big businesses like Amazon. There are huge databases full of personal information that we have given away: our home address, our credit card details, our shipping preferences, our purchase history and so on. We have been incredibly open with this data, but Amazon themselves are not reciprocating with open supply chains or open accounting systems. This doesn’t seem to be a fair balance of power.
Markus Sabadello, of the FreedomBox project, wants to flip the relationship that we currently have with businesses like Amazon. He wants Vendor Relationship Management. Instead of Amazon, eBay, Google or Apple storing your personal information, you would store it for yourself in your own personal data vault on a FreedomBox at home. You, the customer, would then decide who would be allowed access to that information on a temporary basis. Open Notice in the UK are currently working on one element of this: a “consent receipt”, which would allow access to your data on terms that you set.
In the same way, the FreedomBox could also hold your social data. At the moment, we have a very centralised web architecture: Facebook holds your identity, not you. The influence of Facebook-as-ID is spreading through the “Login with Facebook” system used on many websites. Again, our openness with our personal data is not being reciprocated by this for profit company. A FreedomBox could be a way of allowing us to take back some of the power of our data. “It’s not about disconnecting from the network,” Markus says, “it’s about owning part of the infrastructure.”
Openness is a Business Model
This idea of taking back control is the same impulse that drives the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is hardware whose designs are made publicly available for people to study, modify and use to build and sell products. It’s about empowering people with knowledge, rather than becoming dependent on the jealously guarded, patent-protected knowledge of closed corporations.
Tsvetan Usunov runs Olimex, a hardware company based in Bulgaria. They have made over six hundred products, of which about half have an open source hardware licence. “Where we can open the products, we do,” he says. Why on earth would he do that? Because, as Tsvetan says, open source hardware is important for communities, for customers – and for his business.
Open source hardware is important for communities because it allows people to understand how things work and to learn how to modify and make their own products. This is also why open source hardware is good for customers: it gives them independence from the manufacturers. Even if Olimex decide to stop producing a certain product, this will not hurt the customer because they can always take the open design and make the product themselves or hire someone else to make it for them. Everything is under the customer’s control and this helps to secure their business. Furthermore, if they don’t like how something is made, or where something is made, they can change it.
All these things are nice, community-orientated reasons for openness, but where’s the business benefit? For Tsvetan, building open source is actually a crucial element of his business model. “You have not just customers,” Tsvetan says, “but collaborators.” A Chinese competitor, inspired by Olimex, opened their designs as well. This is an extraordinary development; it is more common to hear of “protected” designs being stolen by Chinese companies and made more cheaply. Thanks to the principles of open source hardware, Olimex and this Chinese firm are no longer competitors, but collaborators. They will both benefit from the research, design and manufacturing they share. This reduces costs to both parties and, as Tsvetan says, “We both learn and build better products.”
Jan Suhr, one of the developers behind CryptoStick, tells us that open source is critically (and perhaps surprisingly) important for IT security products and software, to the extent that you should not trust any security product that is not open source. CryptoStick is an open source USB device designed to store encryption keys securely, so that people can send encrypted emails even when they are on an untrusted computer. The open source nature of the product means that its security is independently verifiable by anyone. It means that you can yourself guarantee there are no NSA “back doors” or security flaws. Its openness is the very guarantee of its security.
Fairness and Openness Together?
“The conclusion is that they’re not together yet,” Michel Bauwens says. “There are people who talk about openness, but not fairness; and people who talk about fairness, but not openness.”
For Michel, part of the problem is the conflict between labour and liberals, represented by the “open” and “free” movements. “Liberals only look at formal rights,” he says, “not the real conditions where those rights could be exercised.” He gives the example of Linux, which is distributed under a General Public licence (GPL), allowing full use of the commons to anyone. Unfortunately, this licence means that the Linux economy is almost entirely dominated by those with the resources to capitalise: seventy-five percent of the Linux economy is swallowed up by big companies like IBM and Redhat. This leads Michel to ask the question: “Can we have openness and at the same time a more equal economy?”
Michel’s proposal is both controversial and a bit complicated. The complication arises from an apparent contradiction: “The more commonistic the licence,” he says, “the more capitalistic the practice.” As we have seen, the result of the entirely commons-based GPL is domination by big corporations. The same, Michel says, is true of open hardware, where designs are appropriated and made cheaply for private profit in China (Tsvetan’s experience notwithstanding).
Michel’s solution to this problem is the commons-based reciprocity licence. This licence is the same as the GPL, but with one crucial change to the rules: for profit businesses using the commons must pay a licence fee. This proposal is controversial because some people in the commons movement see anything that is not one hundred percent open to be a retrograde step. But Michel anticipates a double benefit from this change.
Firstly, it will create a stream of income to the commons itself, from the side of capital to the side of commons. Secondly, it will integrate externalities. Externalities are not normally considered in business, unless managed through government regulation. However, Michel argues that effective regulation “is endangered because the state is being captured by those it’s supposed to control”.
Michel sees this commons-based reciprocity licence as a social charter, protected by a global foundation that we must yet build. “Every project today,” he says, “is starting from scratch. If we had a coalition, we’d have scale, we’d have pre-existing solidarity.” This is Michel’s link between openness and fairness: “If we had a licence,” he says, “we could have open book accounting and open supply chains.” This transparency, Michel believes, leads to fairness, or at least the possibility of fairness, as we have seen with Nager IT and the fair-as-can-be mouse.
Michel’s example is Curto Cafe, a Brazilian coffee company who operate open book accounting and an open supply chain, showing exactly who produces the coffee, under what working conditions and also exactly who gets paid what. They also have open research and the designs of the blends of coffee are posted online. Their retail expansion is crowd-funded, under a similar model used by Kleine Farm, by asking the local community to fund their rent. This transparency and community accountability ensures that Curto Cafe run their business in the fairest possible way.
Michel believes that, if we want a fairer society, we will ultimately have to create an open and commons-based counter-economy. Part of that counter-economy will be the development of an alternative currency. Together with the CIC in Catalonia, Michel is buying up a fairly-distributed crypto-currency, Faircoin.
Unlike Bitcoin, Faircoin doesn’t encourage rent extraction: stockpiling coins in order to profit from rising currency value. “This is not positive from a commons point of view,” Michel says of Bitcoin. “But what if you could use rent extraction and give it away to entrepreneurs?” CIC and Michel want to use Faircoin as a capital investment collective, to create a flow of value from the capitalist economy to the commons-orientated economy.
There are many problems obstructing fairness and openness, not just in IT, but in our entire social and economic structure. The challenge is, as Michel says, “to design a system in which these problems are already answered and solved from the very beginning”. From environmental impact research and open supply chains to open source hardware and alternative currencies, we have perhaps seen a glimpse today of that beginning.
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.
At the 2008 Elevate Festival, Ronaldo Lemos, Project Lead of the Creative Commons Brazil, talked about the “commons of the mind”. He said that the internet had created a plurality of business models for media distribution – iTunes, BandCamp, Gumroad, Amazon, eBay and YouTube to name half a dozen. The question is whether this is a good thing for creative responders or not. Daniel Erlacher proposes that, compared to the corporate publishing model of the last century, today’s plurality makes distribution much more complicated for artists.
Those complications can also bring with them a certain freedom. Ursula Rucker has experience of both worlds: she released three albums on a traditional record label, but has released her last two albums herself as digital only downloads. “It may be harder because you don’t have someone taking care of you,” she says of the record industry, “but they were never taking care of you in the first place.” Antonino laughs a knowing laugh. “Now there’s a freedom,” Ursula adds. “You do it yourself; you’re not on a leash.” She smiles a wry smile. “At the same time, though, you do have to figure out how you’re going to do it.”
Another possible benefit of the collapse of old models of media distribution since the rise of the internet is that artists are allowed to fail a lot more now, without editors or publishers or producers peering over their shoulder. “I’m independent,” Deanna Rodger says. “I write my stuff, I put it out, I perform where I can.” She argues that, in this new media world of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the artist has more control. “You don’t have to tick any boxes, you don’t have to jump through hoops,” she says. “You’re also generating your own network and you’re getting instant feedback, which is only going to make you a better artist because you’re listening to the people who are listening to you.”
“New media is not a utopia of independence or creativity,” Antonino says. “You have to have a vision,” he adds. “That’s been there since Picasso painted Guernica. Work that’s timeless and timely has vision.” For him, social media are just the tools that we happen to have for creative-response today, but tools are the means, not the ends. “The ends is this.” He breaks the fourth wall of the stage and seems to connect with each one of us in the audience. “What we’re doing here is social media.”
Everything for Antonino is about connecting with people, that’s his creative-response. The main purpose of his film, Let Fury Have the Hour, which took seven years to produce, was and is to connect with artists, collaborators and human beings. “These are just tools so I can be here with you today,” he says. “I would never have thought, as a fourteen year old kid in Philadelphia, I’d be sitting in Graz talking about this work – it’s an amazing privilege and honour.” We should remember, Antonino says, that clicking Like on Facebook is no substitute for being in the room, connecting with each other. “Real participation demands that we’re here, present, together.” Antonino reaches out to Ksenia and Daniel either side of him: “Like this.”
Deanna agrees, but takes a more global view. “Not everyone can afford to go to a show, or afford to come to Austria,” she says. She is keen not to downplay the significance of minute social media interactions either. “It might only be a re-tweet,” she says, “but that can be the start of something.” For Deanna, creative-response is built up slowly. A little burst of creativity, a tweet, might take only a few seconds, but the satisfaction of getting that tweet favourited by friends or re-tweeted by strangers might lead the nascent artist to ask the question: That only took me five seconds; what if I spent a day on it? From these modest beginnings, the artist slowly develops a vision and a voice. The virtue of this start-small method is that, as Deanna says, “There’s no excuse for not doing it because it is so simple and then you build on it.”
And that is exactly how I got started as a writer. Since I was about eighteen, I’d said I was going to be a writer – sometimes I even boasted that I was going to be a writer who turned the world upside-down with my words. But that’s all it was: words. Until, one day, I realised that, if I wanted to become any kind of a writer, I would need to stop talking and start writing. So I started with the smallest possible story: fifty words long. It’s so short that I might as well reprint it here:
The car pulled a parabola into position in front of endless low roofed warehouses. The steam from the looming cooling towers drifted across the Sun. The violins on the stereo screeched to a close and the chill of the air froze. In ten minutes he would be in the interview.
I think the world just about managed to keep itself on its axis, but that’s not the point. My plan was to write a new story every day, each day adding five words to the word count. Over the course of the next six weeks, I wrote another forty-one stories, ending up with one that was two hundred and sixty words long. It might not sound like a lot, but it was a start. Within a month of finishing that two hundred and sixty word story, I began writing my first full length novel. Within two years, I had finished that novel and published my first book of travel writing. I was a writer.
Daniel Erlacher suggests that the music industry has changed as a result of the growth of the internet, citing the fact that artists now make more money from their gigs than from their records. “It’s always been that way for me,” Ursula replies without hesitation. Chris Hessle, the electronic musician IZC, counters the popular denigration of what he calls “the old vinyl economy”. One accusation is that the music business simply doesn’t have the money any more. “There’s not less money,” he says, “but the money’s going somewhere.”
For Chris, it’s quite obvious where that money is going: Apple, Spotify, Amazon and the other major online distributors. Apple is the most valuable company in the world; they don’t seem to be too bothered that there’s “less money” in the music business. “There’s less money, but it’s only in our perception,” Chris argues. He runs a small traditional record label himself and, on his visits to the pressing factories, sees that “the money stays within the scene and creates jobs for people who are within the scene”. Apple’s profits from iTunes, in contrast, fund a technology company.
On this analysis, it’s hard to argue that today’s system of the financial control of artists is any more free than last century’s. Nafeez Ahmed makes this exact point. “We haven’t got away from centralised control,” he says. “We’re still beholden to these opaque systems of rights and ownership. You upload to Facebook, but how much do you actually own and how many rights are you giving away?”
You’ll be glad to hear, dear reader, that I’ve taken the trouble to answer this rhetorical question. You’ll be further glad when I tell you that you retain the intellectual property rights to any videos, music, poetry or photographs that you upload to Facebook. However, the second you post something on Facebook, you grant them a licence to do whatever they like with it, including using it for commercial purposes if they so desire. No wonder Nafeez is asking, “How can we move beyond being shackled by technologies still very much controlled by big corporations which have their own interests?”
Antonino reminds us that the construction of the internet was publicly funded, by the military and educational institutions. He laments the fact that the internet could have seen the democratisation of technology, as well as art. But, according to Antonino, Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 was “one of the great con tricks we pulled in the United States” and helped concentrate ownership of the media into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. “After the economic collapse in 2008,” Antonino adds, “I thought there was a great opportunity for us to think about how society in general was organised, but then everything started getting funnelled back into this hegemony.” For Antonino, at the moment, the primary use of the internet seems to be “to promote more consumption and not more participation”.
Deanna takes us back to the fundamental question of distribution. “As an artist,” she says, “I want to make [my work] available to as many people as possible. As those are the tools I have at the moment, I think those are the tools I should use.” For her, it’s irrelevant whether or not she hates Facebook (she thinks she does), because she can use these tools to come together with others. “It’s not about how much money I can get from it,” she says. “It’s about how much change I can try to inspire. If that’s using Facebook because that’s where I know a hundred people will look at it, then that’s what I’m going to use.” She even challenges Facebook to use her work: “If they take it, then I’m going to write a new poem. Have that one, because I’m going to write a better one.”
Daniel Erlacher has more fundamental problem with social media. “I don’t have a Facebook account,” he says to Deanna. “I can’t follow you and I don’t want to; you exclude me.” When we laugh at his bluntness, he quickly adds, “Sorry, not literally – it’s a big dilemma.” Daniel doesn’t want to participate in this exclusionary social media at all, but when artists use Facebook or Google to promote their work, they become adverts for Facebook or Google. “Every click is an active invitation for other people to find you there,” he says.
Deanna concedes that it is important for artists to become more aware about social media and their channels of distribution, but she’s frustrated with how difficult that is becoming. All she wants is to write and perform, without worrying about whether or not Google owns a licence to all her YouTube videos. “What am I going to do? How am I going to be more aware?” she asks, getting more and more agitated. “How am I going to learn programming?” She hesitates. “I’m going to google it – jokes!” She laughs, we laugh, Ursula touches Deanna’s sleeve in solidarity.
There is, of course, a mid-way between most people’s total acceptance and Daniel’s total rejection of corporate social media. “We should use these mainstream channels and we should show our face if we are not afraid,” Ksenia Ermoshina says, but she also urges us to create “Temporary Autonomous Zones”, outside the internet, where we can come together in physical space.
“It’s up to you,” Ursula says. “Are you able to balance using this vehicle but not becoming it?” Chris agrees, saying, “I think that it’s perfectly fine to use all these corporate structures, but I’m a bit scared to be depending on them.” He sympathises with artists like Deanna who just want to create. “These days, when you sell your music via iTunes, for instance, it’s not so easy to change your channels of distribution,” he says. “We’ve become already quite dependent on these channels, in my opinion.” As more and more people join social networks, the pull of those social networks becomes stronger and stronger.
So how much creative-response is there to these corporations? Daniel doesn’t see any. Antonino quotes John Sayles, the US film-maker, who says that “we all work for corporations in some form”. For Antonino, as for John Holloway, there is no such thing as purity. “Part of creative-response is finding the free space and not thinking about things as black and white,” he says. “Public Enemy, of course, Fight the Power – major label. It’s important that we have sophistication and nuance about how to use that.”
Antonino ends with a story of how his friend and artist Ai Weiwei found the free space on Twitter to subvert an attempted Chinese cover-up of the shoddy construction of schools in Sichuan. Seven thousand schoolrooms collapsed in the province during the earthquake of 2008, leading to the death of up to five thousand children. Every day since, Ai Weiwei tweets the birthday of one of the kids killed.
“That’s a sophisticated way to work with the system to do something that’s an amazing creative-response, so those children are never forgotten,” Antonino says with pride. In this way, creative-response is able to stretch out its fingers and touch people beyond its time and place. “Fighting them at their level is a difficult proposition because they have the wealth,” Antonino adds. “But we have the numbers, we have the better ideas. We have to remember that, we have to get to the free space.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
So you were wondering how my week without a computer went, right? Well, here’s a few ideas:
I enjoyed how I was able to relax. I wasn’t stressing over the constant clamour of the internet.
I wasn’t very productive. I didn’t do much writing. The computer is where I compose most of my short writing, or at least where I edit it.
I didn’t miss the computer’s power of entertainment. I had the radio and a hefty supply of good (and not good) books.
But this is all academic really because I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in bed, with grown up chicken pox.
I might as well make this post useful, so if you’ve got chicken pox, here’s what to expect:
Days -4 to 0
A developing fever and a sore throat. You’ll think you’re getting a cold. Little do you know what the universe has in store for you: two weeks of ugly.
You are now highly contagious, but you aren’t aware of that so you give it to all your mates. They’ll thank you in 10-20 days’ time.
Discover funny little knobs behind head. Think that’s odd.
Collapse on floor in a faint.
Wake up sweating, inside washing basket. Wonder how you got there.
Discover the first pustule.
Pustules multiply, popping up before your very eyes.
A strange weight on your chest makes you paranoid that you’ve also developed pneumonia. Keep an eye on that.
You indulge in lots and lots of sleeping.
Pustules spread to legs, arms, back, face, and multiply on chest and everywhere.
A few spots are slightly itchy. Not compulsively itchy, just a slight throb, a feeling of bulge that is tempting to check out. Don’t.
Headaches persist through the day.
Hard to sleep at night due to discomfort of the pustules.
The weight on the chest, the sore throat and the headaches might have eased a little.
Neck still aches though and you’ve lost your appetite.
Pustules are multiplying and itching at a low level, but just enough to make you constantly aware of them.
You try to have a shower to clean up a little, but can’t really do much actual cleaning because of vast number of pustules on your scalp. Your hair is matted. You consider dreadlocks.
Notice that some have burst and some are starting to scab.
Your face is burning and you think you might have accidentally burst a pustule in your ear. But it could just have been general grossness as you are now the ugliest you’ve been since you came out of your mother covered in blood.
No chance of sleep because your face is covered with exploding volcanoes. The night is the worst time for sleeping. Get some in the morning.
Fever seems to alternate with itching.
Sleep in the day. Read. Twiddle thumbs. Listen to radio.
Get the shivers before going to bed.
Have heavy dreams, exhausting, fever and wake up with a headache and the sweats.
On the plus side: the itching is almost gone.
Feel ill some of the day.
Appetite definitely back as you eat a six-egg omelette with sauerkraut and ketchup (because that’s all you’ve got left in the cupboard).
Scared to believe that you have no new spots.
Try a bath with bicarbonate of soda – yeah!
Have best night’s sleep since Day 0. Still wake up three times for some sweats, but feel fine. Start enjoying the sweat.
You dare to hope that you’re over the worst.
Tired with a headache all morning and afternoon.
The pustules have mostly crusted over and are beginning to fall off, or get rubbed off.
You feel bored and lazy. This lassitude is now your biggest enemy.
You’re not contagious any more, but you still feel disinclined to go out in public in daylight.
Worst of the scabs are falling off all over the place. Gross.
Your first day of full-on activity, like a normal person.
You’re still a bit ugly, though.
The worst of the scabs leaves a crater in your cheek.
The face ones seem to develop and fall off faster than the chest ones.
Could pass for a slightly uglier version of yourself. People stop screaming when they see your face.
Just a few marks on your face that could be dry skin or normal spots.
Your chest still looks like leprosy. Don’t show anyone.
Still some itching against your clothes.
And still it goes on. Apparently chicken pox marks can take months to fully vanish – and, of course, some of them will scar you for life.
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.
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
Day 3 of the Fifth Ashes Test between Australia and England:
Alastair Cook on 99 not out. Michael Beer bowls and Philip Hughes takes a low catch at short leg. Out.
Ian Bell on 67 not out. Watson bowls and Bell nicks a catch to Haddin. The umpire raises his finger. Out.
Except both men called for a TV review and both were successful. Cook went on to make 189 and Bell 115.
Without those 138 runs, England would be on 350, only 70 ahead of Australia’s first innings score, instead of being more than 200 runs ahead. Those reviews mean this series is over: England will win the Ashes.
Is This A Good Thing?
Not England winning the Ashes, of course that’s a good thing – but is the use of technology in sport always a good thing?
Technology in sport is a controversial subject. India are currently refusing to play with a referral system in their series against South Africa. But that kind of stand is the exception: the use of technology is widespread at the highest level in cricket, rugby and tennis. It is currently being tested for use in football.
But who’s driving the change? Do we really need technology? Who is it for?
These are questions that get to the bottom of what sport is and what it is for. Here are my observations:
1. Technology is only used at the top level of sport
During the 2010 Ashes, at least 99.93% of people were spectators, not participants (33,000 average daily attendance at the Ashes, 22 players – not including the millions of people like me listening on the radio or watching on TV).
Therefore the injustice of a wrong decision is only directly felt by a tiny minority of people involved in the sport. Of course fans are passionate about their team – but so are the opposing fans. We cancel each other out.
And therefore the purpose of the sport is not to be just to the players, but to entertain the overwhelming majority of people involved in the spectacle: the spectators.
2. Technology is used to correct bad decisions by the officials
These bad decisions could be the result of incompetence, the extreme difficulty of making the decision or dishonesty (throwing the game one way or another).
Sport has an integrity that should be protected. Dishonesty of all kinds, at all levels, should be policed.
Therefore technology can play a part in protecting the sport from outside manipulation.
3. There is often still an element of human judgement required
Take the Bell ‘dismissal’ last night. The review pictures was inconclusive so the umpire on the field had to make a judgement call. He decided to change his decision and gave Bell not out. In fact, a technology unavailable to the umpire, the snickometer, appeared to show that Bell had nicked it and should have been given out.
Therefore, even with technology, wrong decisions are still made.
So Why Use Technology?
Given these observations, before using technology in sport, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
1. Given the fact that most of the people involved in the sport are spectators, watching for their entertainment: does the technology add or detract from the drama of the spectacle?
2. Given the fact that the integrity of sport should be protected and that technology can be used to monitor the decision-making of officials: are the officials at risk from outside manipulation (i.e. match fixing)?
3. If wrong decisions are possible, is “justice” still a valid argument for using the technology?
The Logical Conclusions
I expect a lot of people will disagree with these, but hey! This is what logically follows from the statements predicated above.
1. If technology doesn’t add drama for fans: don’t use it
The only people to benefit from the limited justice it provides are the players and the purpose of their sport is to entertain, not to be fair to the participants.
2. Use video replays after the event to monitor sport integrity
Football has the right balance at the moment. (2019: Oh shiiiiit…*) The FA use television reviews after the game to ensure the integrity of the game by punishing players who got away with offences during the match, or by striking out unfair punishments.
This not only protects the integrity of the sport, but also means that the players (who are, after all, professionals) get fair treatment from their employers. What happens on the field, however, is entertainment. They still get paid, whatever happens.
After the event reviews can also be used to check up on the integrity and capability of officials. There’s nothing wrong in trying to make sporting officials better at their job.
3. If technology increases the drama of the spectacle: use it!
Tennis is, by nature, a very stop-start sport and the Hawk-Eye review system is arguably quite exciting for spectators. So use it, by all means.
But remember that justice has very little to do with it. The Hawk-Eye review system is 75% drama and perhaps 25% justice.
Why? Not only can the technology (occasionally) be incorrect or unhelpful, but players are also only allowed three incorrect challenges. I understand this is to stop abuse of the system, but this rule doesn’t match the idea of “justice” in the real world. If you have been correctly convicted at trial for theft three times, it doesn’t mean you should be jailed without trial for a fourth theft.
I think the jury is still out on whether the review system in cricket is a good thing or not. Cricket, like tennis, is also a stop-start game, but almost ALL of its drama is compressed into those moments when the umpire raises his finger and gives a batsman out. The review system takes that drama away as soon as the batsman calls for the big screen.
And that’s a real shame for the spectacle, even if England have profited recently!
* UPDATE, October 2019: Football has totally screwed things up with VAR. There is no aspect of its implementation that is satisfactory for the game, according to my logic.
The only fair (to players, referees and fans) use of technology in football is the use of goal-line technology, where the decision is (more or less) black-and-white and (more or less) immediate.
Every single other decision in football is your interpretation of various shades of grey: ultimately, it’s an opinion, even offside. All that VAR has done is add another layer of disagreement, while stripping the immediate drama and enjoyment from the game.
This has to be the most boring blog post title EVER. But, hey, I love stats. I studied the reported social media use from each of the ten nominations for goal of the year. These nominations came from nine countries: South Africa, Brazil, Japan, The Netherlands (two nominations, although only one got any serious sharing), Argentina, France, Northern Ireland, Sweden and Turkey. I assume that these share statistics will roughly represent the social media usage in each of the countries nominated because football fans are very loyal and most of the goals came in international matches or national league matches in the country of the player’s birth, rather than national league matches in a country foreign to the player.
So, after 24 hours of global sharing (to allow for timezone differences), what do we find?
No one uses Buzz.
Only three countries use Twitter that much: The Netherlands, Japan and – above all – Brazil. Brazil had over 30% of shares done through Twitter.
Every single other country represented used Facebook to share more than 90% of the time.
Here are the hard stats, for the countries that drew more than 500 shares (sorry South Africa!):
Brazil (915 shares)
Twitter: 32.57% Facebook: 66.67% Buzz: 0.77%
Twitter: 18.3% Facebook: 81.34% Buzz: 0.37%
The Netherlands (2792 – two nominations)
Twitter: 9.6% Facebook: 89.94% Buzz: 0.47%
Twitter: 6.17% Facebook: 93.23% Buzz: 0.6%
Twitter: 5.98% Facebook: 93.26% Buzz: 0.76%
Northern Ireland (3247)
Twitter: 5.67% Facebook: 94.09% Buzz: 0.25%
Twitter: 2.14% Facebook: 97.67% Buzz: 0.19%
Turkey (at least 12281 – Facebook stops reporting precise data at these amounts)
Twitter: 2.17% Facebook: 97.71% Buzz: 0.11%
So there you have it. Fascinating, eh? I’m sure this will be interesting to someone, won’t it? That Brazil uses Twitter a lot? Or, at least, that goal trended in Brazil or something. Could just be a fluke. That’s the problem with statistics I suppose. Oh well. Enjoy the goals anyway.