Missing Billmon

I was sitting around with a bunch of friends the other evening and the conversation drifted around to blogs. The general consensus was that reading blogs was a waste of time. What surprised me was that most of the people there were in the interactive media business. I shouldn’t have been surprised because it is a conversation I have heard many times before from similar people. But it is certainly a bit of a puzzle.
Now it is certainly true that out of the millions of blogs out there any one of us will only find a tiny handful that interest us enough to visit regularly. But the same is true of any other media stuff – there are millions of books I wouldn’t want to read, thousands of films and god only knows how many TV programmes and videos.
But it is also true that I have found ideas, facts and stimulating perspectives in blogs that I haven’t found else where in other media. I also notice that many of my favourites are not by people who post everyday – which seems to be the recipe for getting on the A list – but people only post when they have something interesting to say or have found something interesting they want to draw our attention to.
Until the end of 2006 one of the best examples of what I’m talking about was Billmon – a voice of sanity, who wrote about US politics and the war in Iraq, with a clarity, insight and bitter humour that was good for my mental health. Sadly, he burnt out, got a life or just gave up in despair. What ever the reason I still miss him.
(If you want to check out what I mean there is a collection of some of his writing here or you can download an archive here)

Some advice from George Nelson

I think George Nelson is probably my favourite writer on design. Like many of my favourite thinkers and writers his work is now largely out of print. This may say something about me or, maybe, something about the times we live in. Anyway, here’s one from George to think about:
“The Eames Memorial Lectures are not supposed to be sermons, as I understand it, and, anyway, I have never believed in the virtues of missionary work, which historically has succeeded only in putting Mother Hubbards on all those beautiful Hawaiian bodies and hacking paths through the jungle for the advance troops of Empire. If I did believe in giving advice, however, I think that what I would suggest is trying the interesting experience of being out of style, or maybe just getting out of step once in a while. It can be nervous-making at first, but who knows? You might learn to love it.
(Stanley Abercrombie,”George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design”, page 205)

The Integrated Design Memorial Show

Thirty three years ago students and some dissident staff mounted a show at Art Net in Central London (27 June to 3 July 1974 to be exact):
“The Integrated Design Memorial Show.
Documentation about the work, philosophy & politics of the Ealing Integrated Design Course, 1970-74, and factors leading to its demise.”
Looking through some old papers today, I discovered my response to a request from the organisers for a personal statement, which I reproduce here:
“When I was asked to prepare a statement for this show I was asked to describe my progress through the course and what I had got out of it. Had I still been a student on the course I might have taken this approach. But I find at this time I am unable to do so. Had the course been continuing something of the kind might have been appropriate and, perhaps, interesting. But the course is not continuing.
A possible reaction to this would be to write something expressing my rage, sadness and frustration about the end of the course. But hopefully any one going around this show will feel the sense of waste the end of the course makes me feel.
What instead I would like to point to is two things which since I left the course have seemed increasingly important.
Firstly the sense of personal involvement in and commitment to the course by its students. The course has not been the product of any one individual or small group of individuals, but the collective product of a large number of staff and students working together, and as such is an example of the way that democracy can work in an educational setting and work efficiently.
Secondly, that the course was not only something important and valuable to the people directly involved with it, but has been an important educational experiment with implications not only for Art and Design education but for education as a whole.
The word experiment is used with some caution. Too often it means brave tries, gallant failures or peripheral and irrelevant events.
The Integrated Design course was not an experiment in that sense.
The course has been successful.
There is no reason to suppose that had it been allowed to continue it would not have continued to be a success.
No doubt in other places in the show examples of the different ways that it has succeeded and the different criteria that can be applied to its success will be shown.
Whether an experiment that succeeds is still an experiment depends upon your point of view.
In a particular sense I believe the course was still an experiment and would have continued to be an experiment, because it was attempting something new and because it was structured and organised in such a way so that it could continue to change and develop. It was a learning situation in which ideas could be tried out and tested, a severely practical situation, a situation that was subjected to searching criticism by those involved with and committed to it, criticism far more stringent and pointed than any of its critics have been able to muster.
And the result was a learning environment in which many of us experienced as the first genuinely educational experience we had encountered. An environment in which we were able to develop and redefine our identity as individuals and in which many of us changed profoundly.
And this is why many of us feel a sense of rage, sadness and frustration that the course is coming to a premature end.
Not simply because something valuable to us being destroyed, but because with it a concentration of practical experience of how to run, structure and organise a genuinely student centred course is being destroyed, practical experience which could be useful to others in many different situations.
All we can hope for now is that somewhere the lessons from the course will be learned, that this practical experience will not simply be wasted, and that new courses will be started so that others can can have the same opportunities that we did.”
P.S Sadly, the hopes i raised in the final paragraph have largely been dashed. Little remains of the Ealing experiment except for the memories of the people involved and a few scraps of often fading paper.
P.P.S To give something of the flavour of the course as seen by an outsider, I reproduce this review of my years graduation show by Richard Cork:
“All over London the art colleges have just begun, or are about to begin, their annual exhibitions. Some, like the Royal college, the Slade and the Royal Academy, will attract large audiences. But I would like to recommend particularly a visit to the Ealing College show at the TUC headquarters in Great Russell Street, because these students have recently been enjoying a special course that sets out demolish the departmental boundaries still constricting many other schools.
The impressive aspect of this course lies in its willingness to let each student pursue whatever path interests him(sic) most, regardless of whether or not it fits any preconceived ideas which teaching staffs usually have about “Legitimate” areas of study. Cross-fertilisation is a real possibility at Ealing: while one student makes clothes, another traces the history of car design; and they work alongside others who draw cartoons, use film and video, stitch together illustrated books or write treatises on the problems of art education in general.
In practice, each individual tends, perhaps inevitably, to single out an interest which does not really impinge on the activity of others. But the potential flexibility of an open situation is there, and everyone undoubtedly benefits from the realisation that he(sic) is not tied down to one narrow, exclusive discipline. I would like to see the Ealing experiment have a widespread influence, and be adopted by many of its more illustrious rival establishments.”
Evening Standard, Thursday, June 21, 1973
P.P.P.S Anyone who is interested in the origins of purposive drift can probably see it here.

Some homework for the rest of us

John Thackara has set us all a compelling challenge:
“Reducing the movement of matter – whether goods, or people – is a main challenge in the transition to sustainability. Technology, in this context, can help us use resources in a radically more efficient way – and by ‘resources’ I do not just mean matter and energy, but also space, and time.”
Personally, I would like to combine that with another challenge posed by Tim Webb at reboot 9.0 (closing keynote), June 2007:
“When I come back to this conference next year, I would love to see presentations full of active products: Websites, media and services that are about experiences, that openly talk about their motives, that gossip and chatter and feel personable and humane.”
(You probably need to read the whole presentation to get what he means)
And why do I want to combine the two? Well for that I leave you with a quote from one of my design heroes, Charles Eames:
“Who ever said that pleasure wasn’t functional?”

Becoming something

Paul Goodman was a hero of mine in the Seventies, a taste I see that was shared even more strongly by Susan Sontag. Stumbling around on the net after reading her memorial on learning of his death, I found this quote, which resonates with me:
“It is by losing ourselves in inquiry, creation & craft that we become something. Civilization is a continual gift of spirit: inventions, discoveries, insight, art. We are citizens, as Socrates would have said, & we have it available as our own.”

Find your place

Karen Mahony posted an interesting comment to my entry, “Bouncing back”, where she talked about meeting two interesting women who both “.. subscribe to the idea that you need first to find your PLACE then all else follows.”
Karen’s own experience would seem to support this view. I have often urged her to keep a record of and write a book about how she and her partner Alex built their design/publishing/making stuff business. It is a fascinating example of how a physical move to place, in her case Prague and an intelligent use of the internet has enable them to build a business doing something they are passionate about. (I hesitated before using the word “passionate” because it has become an over used buzz word, but in their case it is accurate – they love what they do and live their lives doing it.)

No plan, no problem

If you have the time (and it is quite long) there are some real gems in “No Plan, No Capital, No Model…No Problem”, a Churchill Club panel session hosted by Guy Kawasaki. The five panellists, Marcus Kazmierczak, Markus Frind , James Hong, Dave Lu and Karen Northup have all set up companies with little or no cash and no backing from venture capital.
What particularly interested me in terms of my advocacy of purposive drift was that each of the panellists adamantly argued that had they followed a business plan they would have missed opportunities that arose and lacked the flexibility of mind to deal wit rapidly changing circumstances.
Do take a look at the whole thing here.

Bouncing back

I was doing a quick wander around the web looking for references to “bricoleurs” when I came across this piece about “resilience” from Diane Coutu. The article suggests that, “…resilient people possess three characteristics: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.”
She goes on to say:
“The third building block of resilience is the ability to make do with whatever is at hand. Psychologists follow the lead of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in calling this skill bricolage. Intriguingly, the roots of that word are closely tied to the concept of resilience, which literally means “bouncing back.” Says Levi-Strauss: ‘In its old sense, the verb bricoler…was always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying, or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle.'”
Sounds awfully like purposive drift to me.

Taking my own advice

I don’t know where I am going to be living in two or three months time – a prospect that fills me with a mixture of exhilaration and gut-wrenching fear. In my manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along”, I wrote, “The world is a place of incredible variety, rich in the potential for new experiences, a whole canvas of of the unfamiliar and unknown, filled with possibilities for change”. I also hinted that many of our ways of being and thinking obscure that hope filled fact.
I don’t know where I am going to be living, because we have decided to sell our house and move somewhere else. The notion being that in that way we can create a context where we have more options and more freedom of action – a step into “the unfamiliar and unknown, filled with possibilities for change”.
This, I suspect, is one of the problems of living a life of purposive drift. While there is a certain excitement about leaping into the dark, there is also the fear that one might be removing the ground beneath your feet.
I am reminded of an early version of the computer game, “Prince of Persia”. There comes a point in the game where there seems no way forward, every exit seems blocked. The solution to this dilemma is to take a running leap from a wide pillar, with an abyss on either side, plunging into the darkness where it is revealed that there is ledge, which if you grab on to it and haul yourself up there is an exit to the next level of the game.
Shifting context, something I advise might some times be necessary, can feel like this. Some times it is easy. When I last took a decision on this scale, my decision to leave a full-time job in education, where I had been working for some fourteen years, it was easy. Although I didn’t know what I was going to do, the combination of the cushion of a modest redundancy package and the knowledge that with our new Nu-Labour styled senior management I would be unable to operate in a creative and productive way, meant that getting out seemed the only sensible option. Watching talented and creative colleagues crumbling in a culture of compliance and seeing all the positive things we had built up over the years fading away confirmed that it had been the right thing to do.
But, my sense is that more often than not a decision to shift context is more ambiguous than that. This morning as I made myself a coffee, looked out of the door leading to the garden, where there is a lilac tree, that has absorbed some of my mother’s ashes, the pond where the last of her koi lives and then climbed up the stairs past my son’s room, the bedroom I share with Mimi and then up some more stairs to my nicotine stained office, I could almost physically feel the network of people, things and memories that are embedded in this place and the sense of knowing where I am located in that complex web of networks.
Moving out of the web of the familiar is a disconcerting prospect, even when you know that doing so carries a promise of freedom. Which is why I have a certain sympathy for people who feel that they are stuck in a context which they feel is slowly diminishing them, but can see no way out. All that I can say to them, and myself, is that stepping out the familiar into the unfamiliar may be a less drastic step than it feels, for:
“The world is a place of incredible variety, rich in the potential for new experiences, a whole canvas of of the unfamiliar and unknown, filled with possibilities for change.”

Moving on

Trevor Pateman has focussed my attention on something I hadn’t really thought about before; the importance of unlearning. There’s a lot to think about here and I am pretty certain he’s on to something significant if mostly neglected. Meanwhile, while I digest this idea here is his take on the role of unlearning in intellectual adventure:
“Though I am quite conventionally admiring of those who manage to remain monogamous for long marital lives, I despair a bit over people who stay with the same ideas, the same theories, the same subjects, throughout their intellectual lives. Often enough, it seems that they are living off what they banked in their academic youth. They are failing to move on and out. But moving on is what the intellectual life is about; it is what makes it an adventure rather than an entrenchment. This is not (though it could be) an apology for diletanntism – for what the Utopian socialist Charles Fourier called the butterfly passion. No more than an artist starts with a style or a writer starts with a voice, but rather they have to achieve these things, so an intellectual life does not start with a vision but rather has to achieve one. And it is achievable only through movement, not through the reiteration of what one read in one’s youth. (When, for example, I did know What Marx Said, because I read it fairly conscientiously. Now I have lapsed and I no longer know. That is how it should be).”