One to watch

Thanks to a post by Pat Kane about plans for a new School in New York, my morning was brightened. Here, at last, are some people rethinking the nature of schooling in a sensible way, with a million dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation to support its planning and development:
“The new school has been conceived as a dynamic learning system that takes its cues from the way games are designed, shared and played. All players in the school ­ teachers, students, parents and administrators ­ will be empowered to innovate using 21st century literacies that are native to games and design. This means learning to think about the world as a set of in interconnected systems that can be affected or changed through action and choice, the ability to navigate complex information networks, the power to build worlds and tell stories, to see collaboration in competition, and communicate across diverse social spaces. It means that students and teachers will engage in their own learning in powerful ways.”

Being fair

Words to ponder from Mark Pesce:
“People who don’t fight over anything else do fight over money. Money (particularly in the United States) is so fraught, so overloaded with meaning, that it nearly always evokes some sort of neurotic reaction. Money means survival. Money means freedom. Money means choice. It may not buy happiness, but, as Mae West once remarked, “I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich, and rich is better.” Money is so intensely evocative that we have been forced to develop elaborate and relatively fool-proof systems to handle it. Banks and other financial institutions exist precisely because people are rarely rational with their own money: these institutions serve as the collective superego we employ when confronted with choices about money. That these institutions – such as BCCI, or Arthur Andersen – periodically abandon these principles in the pursuit of profit indicates the huge gravitational strength of wealth.
Social scientists and neuropsychologists have recently begun to test the human drive to wealth. One of the most significant findings – released just a few months ago – indicates that we each have an innate sense of fairness in every financial transaction, and we’re more than willing to walk away from a transaction which we deem unfair. Furthermore, we’re willing to punish others for perpetrating those transactions. This cognitive “center of fairness” is one of the last areas of the brain to develop fully – it marks the final stage of adulthood, appearing reliably in adults after about age 22. This means our sense of fairness draws upon many of the foundational cognitive structures of the brain, which help us to understand value, social ranking, need, and so forth. Only when these systems are in place can we develop a notion of fairness. And if any of these systems fail – as does happen, on occasion – psychologists can predict an individual’s descent into psychopathology. Being fair is perhaps our highest cognitive achievement as individuals, and thus – quite rightly – it is marked as the beginning of wisdom.”

She says it better than me

I dug out this quote from Jane Jacobs yesterday for a comment I made on Dave Pollard’s “How to save the world” site. I was then going to use it in a much longer post I was going to write, but thought, “sod she says it better than me”. So here it is:
“In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal orientated, and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along. For one thing, unforeseeable problems arise. The people who developed agriculture couldn’t foresee soil depletion. The people who developed the automobile couldn’t foresee acid rain. Earlier I defined economic development as a process of continually improvising in a context that makes injecting improvisations into everyday life feasible. We might amplify this by calling development an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems …”
(Jane Jacobs, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, Pelican Books, 1986, pp221-222)

Taking the “man” out of management

Simon Caulkin has a great article about voom-voom capitalism in today’s Observer. As he points out:
“While it is greatly to the taste of the capital markets, the private equity management style runs up hard against what people say they want from work. According to studies such as Roffey Park’s annual ‘management agenda’, most people are still more motivated by making a difference, by recognition and by doing a good job and feeling good about it than anything else. Put bluntly, beyond a certain point most people want meaning from work rather than money.”
And then goes on to says:
“Such concerns might seem to cut little ice in the face of the high returns being claimed by the most successful private equity and hedge funds, quite apart from the extraordinary amounts being pocketed by those in charge of them. Despite what people privately think, money talks louder than anything else, doesn’t it?
Yet even in this ultra-hardnosed world, the human factor has a habit of biting back. Last week the Financial Times noted that staff at top investment banks in London, struggling to cope with record deal volumes, were so overstretched that they were in danger of making costly mistakes. One consultant noted: ‘The temptation is to drive your people harder. But there is a limit. There could be a danger of people slipping up.'”

And concludes:
“It’s a delicious irony: the boiler room of today’s voom-voom capitalism at risk of blowing up under the pressures it is imposing on others in the name of the virtuous disciplines of private equity. Down on the shop floor, whether in the City or a Land Rover plant in Solihull, you take the ‘man’ out of management at your peril.”

Everything is a miracle

My repressed pedant has leapt out of the closet again. Looking at feeds related to Purposive Drift in Bloglines, I took a closer look at 37Days. There I found a quote I loved by Albert Einstein. So then I did a quick google to see if I could find any context. Could I find any? No. If anybody knows when, where and in what context he said/wrote it, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, here it is, naked and alone, pushing it up to about 30,301 on google:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Unexpected wisdom

Charging around the web in pursuit of Richard Sennett’s ideas about the changing nature of work, consumption and politics I stumbled across, “The problem with performance-managing professionals” by Stefan Stern – a piece he wrote for the FT nearly a year ago. The bit I particularly warmed to was in the final few paragraphs. It was a surprise because I would never have expected to find any wisdom embedded in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”:
“I have wandered a little from this column’s usual territory. How unprofessional. But that is my point. The early 21st-century version of professionalism risks becoming narrow and impoverished. The under-40s coming up through the ranks seek variety and autonomy in their work, as well as financial rewards. They do not want their true professionalism to be performance-managed out of them.
My daughter may struggle, like the 19th-century schoolboy Tom Brown, in trying to earn a living while ‘doing some real good, feeling that I am not only at play in the world’.
She might benefit from listening, if not to her father, to Tom Brown’s schoolmaster, who offers this advice: ‘You talk of ‘working to get your living’ and ‘doing some real good in the world’ in the same breath. Now you may be getting a good living in a profession, and yet not doing any good at all in the world . . . keep the latter before you as a holy object, and you will be right, whether you make a living or not; but if you dwell on the other, you’ll very likely drop into mere money-making.'”

A Space Without A Goal

On Sunday I did a very ordinary, everyday, thing, I went to lunch with Johnnie, Chris, Kevin and Tania, in Johnnie’s local pub in Islington. I had a great time. So good in fact that instead of leaving at three, to give me time to prepare and cook a meal for my family and a friend, the first time I looked at my watch it was already past five.
So what’s the big deal you might ask – I don’t often, if ever, write about my social life here. This is not that kind of blog. So what is prompting me to write about it now.
Well, there were some curious things about this lunch.
I didn’t know Johnnie, Chris, Kevin and Tania. It was the first time I had met any of them.
I don’t know anybody who knows Johnnie, Chris, Kevin and Tania.
We weren’t meeting on business or because we had been thrown together by an event.
So far as I could tell the only two people, who actually knew each other were Kevin and Tania, who I think were husband and wife.
So I guess we met as a group of strangers because we were interested and curious. And why were we interested and curious? Because we had all encountered Johnnie through a variety of of combinations of the web, e-mail, twitter and, in my case, one longish conversation on the phone and something in those interactions had persuaded us that something interesting might happen.
But I don’t think that it was the fact of a bunch of strangers meeting for lunch was what made Johnnie , Kevin and now myself decide to write something about it. I think it was something that was going on in the space between us that in retrospect seems intriguing and maybe valuable.
I didn’t notice it at the time, but what was unusual was that there was almost none of the tentative probing and locating that usually seems to go on when strangers meet. Nobody asked me the question I dread, “And what do you do?” And no small talk. From the first moment I sat down with Johnnie and Chris we were talking about interesting stuff.
There was a tiny bit of probing and locating when Kevin and Tania joined us, because Chris knew some people in an organisation that Tania had worked for and Johnnie had some mutual interests in the kind of work that Kevin was doing, but that only lasted about five minutes max, and then we all plunged back into interesting stuff.
So, somehow, we were all just there. And yes, of course, we did learn something about one another, but in a kind of fleeting tangential way to do with whatever it was we were talking about at the time.
Which leaves me with a couple of thoughts. The first has an easy relevance. This is to a post by Josh Kamier of tinygigantic where he talked about the problem with small talk and how he and his partner Axel Albin had “decided to spend May avoiding shitty small-talk interactions with people. … The point is to have better, richer, more meaningful conversations with people.” Which he concluded they found, “So far, it’s been super hard.”
So what made it so easy for us? I don’t know, but maybe it had something to do with Johnnie’s qualities as a host. Anyway an interesting question to ponder.
My second thought is more puzzling. I sense a strong connection between that Sunday lunch and a monumental hypertext, “A Space Without A Goal”, created by my dear friend, Nick Routledge, back in 1995, but quite what that connection is hasn’t yet become clear to me.
One obvious connection is that Nick was the first good friend I met through the internet. It began with Nick asking me to contribute to another site he curated, World3. In the process e-mails flew between us and continued after the piece was up. When we final met face to face in a similar way to what happened at lunch, we plunged quickly into intense, interesting conversation.
But that still doesn’t explain why A Space Without A Goal, rather than just a connection to Nick. ASWAG had a strange life. It began as a repository for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and then, if I remember right had a number of homes before disappearing for some years until Nick’s friend Jon Van Oast rescued it and gave it a safe home, with most of its fragments intact, at scribble.
While Nick will correct me if I am wrong, I always saw ASWAG as an exploration of the way the web amplified human connectivity. (Though Nick also seemed to have discovered his quirky, tough spirituality through compiling it) Looking through it last night I found a line that seemed to capture something of the connection I sensed, but could not articulate:
“A Space Without A Goal is simply a space that mixes thoughts.”
And maybe that’s all we’d done as bunch of strangers for a pleasant period of time, simply created a space that mixes thoughts. A very simple, ordinary human thing. What is puzzling is why we should have thought for a moment that there was anything about it worth remarking upon.
Anyway, whatever thoughts any of us may have had about it, thanks Johnnie for being a good host, I enjoyed the conversations.