Not so tiny

I discovered the tinygigantic site because they wrote some nice thing about my manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along”. Since then I have been visiting it regularly. tinygigantic is the brain child of Language in Common, a creativity and communication studios, and reading their stuff is like a breath of fresh air. It has that curious, hard to pin down, feeling of being authentic.
In a curious way it reminds of my experience many, many, many years ago of sitting in a cafe off Baker Street and reading my first copy of the International Times. At the time I was working in a film lab, wearing my suit and and tie, as required, and dreaming about doing something creative. Hitting the International Times was something I had never experienced before. It was like talking with my friends about the kinds of things we talked about – something no newspaper or magazine I had encountered before had done.
The International Times, or IT as it later became known, was the first of the underground press in the UK. In part a product of its times, it was also the result of a revolution in print technology that made it possible for a small group of people to produce a magazine or newspaper relatively cheaply.
After that first experience, I devoured the underground press ferociously. Some of the things I bought only had one or two issues. What I liked was the openness to new ideas. What I was more critical of was a kind of sloppiness and uncritical tolerance of anything that could be seen as part of the underground and an intolerance of anything outside it.
As Germaine Greer wrote in OZ magazine in July 1969, “The political character of the underground is still amorphous, because it is principally a clamour for freedom to move, to test alternative forms of existence to find if they were practicable, and if they were more gratifying, more creative, more positive, than mere endurance under the system”.
Germaine Greer characterised the politics of the underground as being amorphous. That word is important because the rethinking that was going on was more complex and diverse than it is now often remember. What is often forgotten is the ideas that underpinned Thatcher and Regan’s revolution were just as much a product of the Sixties as those ideas that seem to oppose them.
In a piece I wrote about three years ago I argued:
“… that much of what is happening to us now, how we got here and how things will develop over the next two or three decades can be understood in terms of three powerful “action ideas” that achieved momentum in that period of radical rethinking. I call them “action ideas” because they are ideas that people put into practice, not simply something they think about. The three “action ideas” are:
Self-Created Identity – the idea that individuals and groups can grasp the freedom to define and to create their own identity and way of life.
Market Romance – the idea that markets are the most effective way to organise human affairs, leading to widespread liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation
Digital Everything – the idea that any activity or process can be described in terms of binary numbers and simulated in a computer system.
When we look around and see what has changed from that world of shared routines to the more complex world we seem to be now creating we can usually find at least one of these action ideas at work. I am not saying that these ideas are the sole cause of what we see going on, the world is a more complex place than that, but what I am saying is that pragmatically they provide a useful tool for understanding and taking appropriate action to deal with the changing human landscape.”

Now, I seem to have wander a long way from tinygigantic, but there is, I think, a connection. The freshness and authenticity I see in their writing links back to what was positive in what we know call the Sixties, so you could say that they seem to be the children or grandchildren of the Sixties, without the crap.

“Improv Wisdom”

A few days ago I was browsing through Tom Peters’ site when I came across an interview with Patricia Ryan Madison. Intrigued by what she had to say, I order her book “Improv Wisdom: Don’t prepare, just show up” from Amazon. The day the book arrived was the first bright, sunny, warm day we have had for a while, so I decide to abandon the tasks I was going to do and sat down in my garden to read it instead. I was glad I did.
“Improv Wisdom” is a short book, but packed with gems of insight and exercises she urges you to practice here and now. As I was reading it I found myself simultaneously reframing a major issue in my life from being a negative into a positive. Buy this book now! I don’t think you will regret it.

Why can’t I think this?

Yes, I know, Grant McCracken again. But the man is so full of insights, stimulating ideas and stuff to make you think. This time he is talking about his experience of talking to a group of planner and clients at Energy BBDO in Chicago:
“…I found myself telling these young planners about the time I sat beside Marshall Sahlins, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, as he read one of my papers.  Professor Sahlins was traveling at speed through my paper, not because it was well written but because not even bad writing could slow him down.  Suddenly, he stopped absolutely dead in his tracks and said, ‘hm, I wonder why that is.’
I was watching a very smart man acknowledge the limits of understanding.  You could almost hear him thinking, ‘why can’t I think this?’  This is the secret of noticing.  Spotting things that defy expectation, things that don’t ‘compute.’ The temptation for the rest of us is to ‘fake the results’ and assimilate the anomalous to existing categories.  Good noticers are fearless noticers.
Once we notice, anthropological or plannerly things can happen.  It is not too late for us decide that what looks like something is really nothing, in Sahlins’ case merely an artifact of a student’s rhetorical incompetence.  But we can also decide that the puzzle is genuine.  Now noticing leads to the possibility of insight and this will engage the redeployment of old ideas or, more remarkably, the creation of new ideas.  Potentially, every puzzle is stowaway with mutiny in its heart.
The anthropological, the Sahlinsian lesson: Notice everything and pay attention to things that puzzle.  Pay attention to things that demand your attention and then refuse your understanding.  Pay attention to the failure of attention…”

So, in my slightly hectoring way, I urge you to read this and then to explore his site in detail going back over the years. I have all sorts of things I would quarrel with him about, but he has a mind worth engaging with and devoting some time and thought to do so is likely to be richly rewarded.

Yesterday’s technology

For some reason I don’t quite understand, as someone who finds dashing of an e-mail hard and instant messaging a nightmare, I found this extract from an interview with Don Tapscott on Tom Peters’ site quite reassuring:
“… kids are the leading indicators and they’re driving a lot of this. I mean, one of the youngsters, a 20-year-old female university student, is living in Paris studying at the Sorbonne. She’s a Syrian, and her boyfriend is in Toronto. So they turn on Skype all day long to maintain the relationship, cooking together and stuff like that.
I asked her, ‘Do you use email?’ And she said, ‘Well, no, not really. That’s sort of yesterday’s technology.’ I said, ‘What do you use?’ She said, ‘Well, I use Skype and I use instant messaging, and I use Facebook social networking.’ I said, ‘Would you use email?’ She said, ‘That’s sort of a formal technology like sending a thank-you note to one of your friends’ parents.’..”

Top Ten

I’ve just been on a memorable short trip to Slovenia. (Thanks to Peter Purg and Martin Mele of IAM for their very generous hospitality, stimulating conversation and some interesting ideas about education and learning that I intended to follow up) This was definitely in my top ten of visits of this kind.
And, speaking of top tens, I was surprised and delighted to find that my manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along” was in ChangeThis’s top ten for February. My companions here were:
1 How To Be Creative by Hugh MacLeod
2 Talking Strategy by Chip and Dan Heath
3 Purposive Drift by Richard Oliver
4 Reclaim Your Life by Stuart Levine
5 The Bootstrapper’s Bible  by Seth Godin
6 25 Ways to Distinguish Yourself by Rajesh Setty
7 Keep It Real by Julien Smith
8 The Art of the Start  by Guy Kawasaki
9 Not a Dirty Word  by Bob Prosen
10 You are Being Lied To by Larry Winget
So thanks again to Sally Haldorson of 800-CEO-READ for her enthusiasm, encouragement and sympathetic editing.

Unbranded You

Over the years, Tom Peters has entertained and sometimes stimulated me. An interesting and, I suspect, a humane man. My sense is that when he launched his concept of Brand You back in 1997 he saw it as a clarion call for individual freedom. But it’s a funny kind of freedom he’s advocating here:
“You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop. To start thinking like your own favourite brand manager, ask yourself the same question the brand managers at Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop ask themselves: What is it that my product or service does that makes it different? Give yourself the traditional 15-words-or-less contest challenge. Take the time to write down your answer. And then take the time to read it. Several times.
If your answer wouldn’t light up the eyes of a prospective client or command a vote of confidence from a satisfied past client, or — worst of all — if it doesn’t grab you, then you’ve got a big problem. It’s time to give some serious thought and even more serious effort to imagining and developing yourself as a brand.
Start by identifying the qualities or characteristics that make you distinctive from your competitors — or your colleagues. What have you done lately — this week — to make yourself stand out? What would your colleagues or your customers say is your greatest and clearest strength? Your most noteworthy (as in, worthy of note) personal trait?”

When I first read this all those years ago It felt like a trap, a way of fitting oneself as an acceptable cog into the marketplace, a way of diminishing who you are. Since then I have become increasingly disturbed by the way that Tom Peters’ rap has taken hold. So it was with a jolt of pleasure at a truth well told when I read Josh Kamler’s, “Personal Branding is Nonsense”:
“My target market? My unique difference? My ass. Personal branding misses the point: people are not brands and they’re not companies. They are, uh, people. And there’s all this gooey, messy, intuitive, emotional, vibe-type stuff that humans innately get. Sure, we want to be perceived a certain way by other people, but that perception is allowed to change. In fact, it’s supposed to change.
We are unpredictable, and inconsistent—even to our closest friends—and we like that, because we see ourselves in each other. We learn how to be better people (yes, that includes career stuff) by allowing ourselves to change as we wish, by watching our fellow humans fall down and get up, and by admantly refusing to define ourselves in 15 words or less.”

Amen to that and go and read the whole piece.

Cut and pasted selves

Back in the early 1990s when interactive multimedia, or as we preferred to call it then hypermedia, was still an esoteric concern, I produced a section on bricolage for “Understanding Hypermedia” – a book I wrote with Bob Cotton and which was brilliantly designed by Malcolm Garrett. In it I wrote:
“With a digital medium such as hypermedia, not only is copying very easy, but once it has been copied, material can be very easily adapted, modified, changed or merged with other copied material. In 20 years time, one definition of ‘literacy’ may be the ability to put together an interactive communication (using sound, images, animation and live action video as well as text). If this is the case, it will be largely because hypermedia is the supreme medium for bricolage.”
“… bricolage can be seen as a fundamental aspect of human creativity. Nothing that any of us creates is totally new. Everyone, including the most brilliant and original, draws on existing elements of the culture. What makes something new and original is the organization of those existing elements into new and original relationships, combined with the detail of their expression.”

My interest in the concept has continued to this day and from time to time I have posted examples here:
“Monsieur Bricolage”
“Another take on bricolage”
“Sounds like bricolage to me”
“A new way of being?”
“Cobbled-together technologies”
“Learn to work with the world”
My latest snippet is from “The Ecstasy of Influence:A plagiarism”,by Jonathan Lethem, published In Harpers in February 2007:
“Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?”

It’s quite likely you’ve read it already. Doing a quick google this morning I saw it had something like 30000 links. If you haven’t read it yet, you should, it is worthy of a good ponder.
I got the link from Abe Burmeister’s “abstractdynamics” and I also saw a reference to it in tinygigantic’s lively blog, but today’s discovery was a piece by Henry Jenkins,”The Escasy of Influence and the Power of Networks” which I urge you to read. And, before I get tangled in links, here finally is a taster from the Jenkins piece:
“As a fan of Lethem’s fiction (The Fortress of Solitude), I am tickled pink to see my own writing included in this context. Every so often, journalists, who see me as an advocate of very loose copyright protection, ask me how I would feel if someone took and used my work without my permission as if it were a kind of gotcha question. In reality, I am delighted to see people engage with my ideas; I give much of my own intellectual property away on a daily basis — here in the blog and elsewhere — because I care much more about having an impact on the debates that impact our culture and in providing resources for my readers than I am interested in regulating what they do with my text. Of course, it is nice when they acknowledge that I wrote the material, as Lethem does here, but I also understand as the quote from Donne suggests that new works get built on the shucks of old works and that to be part of the conversation is to become the raw materials out of which new texts get generated or perhaps simply the compost that allows them to grow.”

Mystery, Wonder and the Mystical

A few nights ago I received an encouraging e-mail from David Zinger saying that he had enjoyed reading my manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along”. He went on to say that it reminded him of two sources, Phil Simmons who wrote “Learning to Fall” before he died and H. B. Gelatt’s “Positive Uncertainty”. I intended to follow up on the “Positive Uncertainty” lead because it does seem to have very strong links with my thinking about Purposive Drift. But what really struck me was the Phil Simmons piece, which, perhaps in deeper way, links with my concerns. What he has to say about “mystery” resonates very strongly with my sense of Purposive Drift:
“…I’m writing, I suppose, to say that life is not a problem to be solved. What do I mean by that? Surely life presents us with problems. When I have a toothache, I try to think rationally about its causes. I consider possible remedies, their costs and consequences. I might consult an expert, in this case a dentist, who is skilled in solving this particular sort of problem. And thus we get through much of life. As a culture we have accomplished a great deal by seeing life as a set of problems to be solved. We have invented new medicines, we have traveled to the moon, developed the computer on which I am writing this essay. We learned our method from the Greeks. From childhood on we are taught to be little Aristotles. We observe the world, we break down what we see into its component parts. We perceive problems and set about solving them, laying out our solutions in ordered sequences like the instructions for assembling a child’s bicycle. We have gotten so good at this method that we apply it to everything, and so we have magazine articles telling us the six ways to find a mate, the eight ways to bring greater joy into your life, the ten elements of a successful family, the twelve steps toward spiritual enlightenment. We choose to see life as a technical matter.
And here is where we go wrong. For at its deepest levels life is not a problem, but a mystery. The distinction, which I borrow from the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, is fundamental: problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not. Personally, I wish I could have learned this lesson more easily—without, perhaps, having to give up my tennis game. But each of us finds his or her own way to mystery. At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous, or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a “problem” are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments we can either back away in bitterness or confusion, or leap forward into mystery. And what does mystery ask of us? Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over. That is all, and that is everything. We can participate in mystery only by letting go of solutions. This letting go is the first lesson of falling, and the hardest.”

Curiously, this reminded me of another passage that made a deep impression on me many, many years ago. It is from Melvin Konner’s “The Tangled Wing”, which has recently been re-published and is well worth reading for his subtle and humane discussion of the “biological constraints on the human spirit”:
“It seems to me that we are losing the sense of wonder, the hallmark of our species and the central feature of the human spirit. Perhaps this is due to the depredations of science and technology against the arts and the humanities, but I doubt it—although this is certainly something to be concerned about. I suspect it is simply that the human spirit is insufficiently developed at this moment in evolution, much like the wing of archaeopteryx. Whether we can free it for further development will depend, I think, on the full reinstatement of the sense of wonder. It must be reinstated in relation not only to the natural world but to the human world as well. At the conclusion of all our studies we must try once again to experience the human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bio-electricity; the human will as will, and not just as a surge of hormones; the human heart not just as a fibrous, sticky pump, but as the metaphoric organ of understanding. We need not believe in them as metaphysical entities—they are as real as the flesh and blood they are made of. But we must believe in them as entities; not as analyzed fragments but as wholes made real by our contemplation of them, by the words we use to talk of them, by the way we have transmuted them to speech. We must stand in awe of them as unassailable, even though they are dissected before our eyes.”

And finally, from Ludwig Wittgenstein:
“It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”

It seems to me that if we are to lead full lives as human beings a sense of mystery, wonder and even the mystical are an important part of that life. This does not mean positing supernatural entities, indeed I would go further and say that positing supernatural entities diminishes our sense of of mystery, wonder and the mystical and somehow makes them too mundane and in a curious way touches on the blasphemous.