Billmon’s back

I have spent the past few days working with Mimi to transform my nicotine stained work room at the top of our house into a welcoming guest room. Now some of you may have guessed that this project does not have my unqualified enthusiasm – something for a later post. But one thing that did cheer me considerably was the discovery a couple of days ago that Billmon was back.
As I wrote in post a little over a year ago, “Missing Billmon”, Billmon was “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.” You can see what I mean here.
So thanks to Dave Pollard for alerting me to his return. From a remark Billmon made in the comments to one of his recent posts it looks unlikely that he will re-open his Whiskey Bar. But maybe posting occasionally on the Daily Kos will be a more sustainable strategy and allow us to enjoy his insights over a longer period without the stresses and demands of maintaining his own site.
You can read his posts and comments at the Daily Kos, here, here, here and, my current favourite, here. If you want to find out more about him there is a little information here.
With all the idiocy in the world I felt he couldn’t resist making a return and I, like many of his other readers, am delight that he has.

Ciborra’s Drift

The late Claudio Ciborra is one of those writers whose prose is so closely woven that it is hard to extract nuggets as quotes that still make sense. So bear with me on this one, which I can’t resist quoting and preferably then go on to the original and read it in context:
“On the other hand,tactics, ruses, improvisations, of which drifting is the product and outcome, are contingent procedures indexed by the here and now, and meaningless outside a specific time-tagged situation. Given a linear, pre-planned procedure made of a sequence of actions, tactics are precisely those scrambling interventions, multiple variations, those fleeting creative acts that transform the expected neutral situation into a situation perceived as favourable or pleasant”
Claudio Ciborra,The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems, OUP Oxford,2004, pp93-94, ISBN 0-19-927526-2

The real generator of newness

Opening a page at random in John Chris Jones’s “Essays in Design” (one of my all time influences), I found this:
“Context (a name I prefer to environment, because it sound less like a separate thing from ourselves) is the hardest thing to perceive, because it includes us, our ways of thinking. The fish cant see the water. ‘It’ is the source of change, of unexpectedness, the real generator of newness, design, of evolution. Aims, purposes, requirements, functions: these are words for how we see what is needed. But when we name them we tend to exclude the main part, the least predictable: ourselves, our minds, and how they change, once we experience something. It is ourselves, not our words, that are the real purpose of designing. The biggest mistake is to take the product alone as the aim. Its always secondary. Always a means, to process, to what we’re doing now or will be doing later. Dont comprise the process: get it right.
The best kinds of evolution we know, natural, linguistic, hand-crafted, are planless but highly responsive to change of context. With astonishingly coherent results.
The first step to attempting something similar in design, in continuous designing, is, I think now, to acknowledge publicly from the start that when we design our knowledge is of necessity incomplete. And to design the design process to reflect that modesty, that expectation of learning what the problem is as we try to solve it, discarding first thoughts. To make the meta-process sensitive to what is learnt in the highly informative process of designing.”
J. Christopher Jones, “Essays in Design” John Wiley & Sons, 1984, pp 212, ISBN 0 471 90297 7
Oh serendipity!

The biggest bubble of all

Peter Senge, Bryan Smith and Nina Kruschwitz get it in one:
“Bubbles are not entirely pernicious; indeed, they usually provide some real benefit — at least to some people or for some time. Some dot-com stocks were great assets. Some subprime mortgages did improve lives. The longer the bubble endures, the more people and re­sources get drawn into it, the more people benefit from it, and the more the beliefs supporting it become en­trenched. If a bubble can last for generations, it becomes hard to imagine an alternative to it. But at some point the tensions and inconsistencies between life inside the bubble and the larger reality outside it must be resolved. The bubble cannot expand indefinitely.
The industrial age constitutes an extended bubble of just this sort. Its expansion has continued for more than two centuries, so it is easy to assume that it will continue forever. Its positive impact has been undeniable: Life expectancy in the industrialized world has roughly doubled since the mid-1800s, literacy has jumped from 20 percent to more than 90 percent, and benefits hitherto unimaginable have sprung up in the form of products (canned foods, machine tools, iPods), services (air travel, eBay), and astounding advances in health, communication, education, and entertainment.
But the more harmful side effects of the industrial age have also been apparent from the beginning, at least to those who looked for them. They include a host of environmental crises, including increased waste and toxicity, growing stresses on finite natural resources, a loss of community, and a commodification of daily life that led to a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Biologist Edward O. Wilson calls the view from outside the industrial age bubble “the real real world.” From this perspective, no matter how valuable the assets of industrialization may be, their overall costs make the bubble unsustainable. One might argue about exactly when or how the bubble might end, but there are already signs that the kinds of investments of money, effort, and attention that brought success during the bubble are less likely to yield the same benefits now. Investments outside the bubble are another story. They will produce both more wealth and a more sustainable life, as people leave their old assumptions and practices behind.”

You can read the whole article in PDF format here or in HTML here.

Moving the slider

I meant to post something immediately after I watched Douglas Rushkoff’s keynote at Personal Democracy Forum in June, if only to say, watch this, it is important. But I didn’t, I just sent the link to a few friends. But anyway, do watch it, it’s worth your time.
My motive for talking about it now is slightly different. He has recently put a transcript of the talk on-line, which means I can read it – a different experience from watching or listening and one that highlights different things. (The significance of being able to experience the same thing in different modes is something I covered briefly in a piece “The Perfume of Sight” awhile ago after listening, watching and reading a speech by Bruce Sterling, which curiously echoes a similar theme to why I am writing now.)
The passage from Rushkoff I picked up on reading what he had to say as opposed to watching him say it was this:
“The next renaissance (if there is one) — the phenomenon we’re talking about or at least around here is not about the individual at all, but about the networked group. The possibility for collective action. The technologies we’re using—the biases of these media—cede central authority to decentralized groups. Instead of moving power to the center, they tend to move power to the edges. Instead of creating value from the center—like a centrally issued currency—the network creates value from the periphery.
This means the way to participate is not simply to subscribe to an abstract, already-written myth, but to do real things. To take small actions in real ways. The glory is not in the belief system or the movement, but in the doing. It’s not about getting someone elected, it’s about removing the obstacles to real people doing what they need to to get the job done. That’s the opportunity of the networked, open source era: to drop out of the myths and actually do.”

One of the reasons I welcome the current financial turmoil, despite its personal cost to me and the profound unfairness of the suffering it brings to those who don’t deserve it, is that it part of the process of removing the obstacles to positive change. With each financial crisis, and there will be more, the Emperor’s clothes are gradually being show to be empty fantasy – wealth capture does nothing but shift resources from the many to the privileged few. More importantly the pursuit of money for nothing diverts attention from the stuff we really need to do if we are to survive and thrive on this planet. As Rushkoff points out it is time to drop out of the myths and actually do.
As Bruce Sterling vividly put it:
“We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet. We’ve got smoke building in the crowded theater, but the exit sign is just a mysterious tangle of glowing red letters.”
My own view, as regular readers will know, is that the exit signs wont come from any master plan or leaders with grand visions of the the future, but will come from a kind of purposive drift of people doing stuff, some of which will work and some of which wont, but gradually muddling our way through to a new kind of civilisation.

Not so irrationally exuberant

A few days ago I wrote a short, bumptious piece where I asserted that:
1 The current financial crisis will be short lived and have less economic effect than many are currently predicting.
2. We are on the edge of one of the most productive and expansive periods of human development in the whole of our history.
Now, of course, I could be wrong about both. The current financial crisis may be more serious than my reading of it and we may screw up so badly that the second doesn’t happen. But my sense is that we will find that while the current financial crisis is less apocalyptic than some are suggesting, it will not be the last of such financial shocks. These will continue until it is grasped that wealth capture as opposed to wealth creation is in the end chasing after fool’s gold and becomes thoroughly discredited. Only then will there be a shift from financial investment to productive investment, which will usher in a new era of human creativity and productivity, which, incidentally, will include developing a more sustainable way of life.
Now, I base my assertions on a crude form of pattern recognition that I find hard to articulate. Thankfully today, following a strange and eccentric path, I came across two talks by Carlota Perez, which in a clear, articulate and detailed argument makes me think that my pattern recognition may not be so irrational after all.
Leaving aside my views, which are based on profound ignorance anyway, I do urge you to set aside some quiet time to watch these two videos. These may be some of the clearest explanations of what is happening now that you will come across. Really, really important stuff:
Interview by R. Farnsworth of CISCO Exec. Thought Leadership
Lecture at IBM Leadership Forum, Rome 2006
And when you’ve looked at those you can download the Powerpoint of her 11th Annual Marie Jahoda Lecture, October 2007 as an aid to quiet reflection on what you have seen in the videos.

Exploiting the labour of love

“In the city and across the globe, the cultures people produce together contain the solutions that make economics possible. Since such sensibility is a common project with mutual appropriation the rule rather the exception, the economic goods that come out of this cornucopia are plausibly commonwealth as well. Some creators are handsomely compensated, but others, perhaps gratuitously appreciated for their “spirit”, are largely left out of the remuneration loop. A simple appreciation that any one’s genius ipso facto reflects the common genius would be a start toward shared responsibility. This justification for sharing does not replace others, nor eliminate the arduous moral and political struggles to achieve it. Instead, I mean that super-profits not only excessively exploit labor, the also exploit the labor of love – perhaps an even uglier injustice.”
Harvey Molotch, “Where Stuff Comes From”, Routledge, 2003, pp258-9, ISBN 0-415-94400-7