A liminal song of thanks
This is a guest post from Ed Mitchell, Transition Network web co-ordinator. It's a story about how technology and what it represented used to bother him, and how much change he has gone through working on the Transition web project, how he learned to accept the paradoxes, and why the stories project is so important to him. It's his only post on this project, so it's quite long.
- Technology itself
- The context we're in
- Feeling cold? Feeling angry?
- Accepting the paradox
- Re-claiming the context with stories
- A bit of history and my respect to
Technology is nothing on its own. Without context, it is a stick, a knob, a bauble, a dial with flashing lights.
In a general human context, it is a projection of the worldview and ambitions of its producers and advocates, taken up by users who consume it as they are given it.
Web technology is no different, contextually reflecting the egos of the individuals and organisations who own it, subtly marking the boundaries between us, raising all the difficult questions (if you chose to listen to it), re-asserting the power relationships we see around us every day (if we chose to recognise them).
You will see this as every website is there to serve the purpose of its sponsor organisation. Which is in turn playing a role in our world; the greater socio-economic context. On the whole I used to find it very hard to accept this; in my workplaces, I'd fight with management, moan about how the sites weren't doing any 'good in the world', be called 'an idealist' and 'a bit odd' and move on.
The root of my beef with these places wasn't really about the websites I was involved in producing, it was the state of the world, as projected through the websites, and our powerlessness, if that makes sense. You can see it in social networks too; they're not there for our benefit; they're there to make money for their controllers, so every decision is rooted in how to make more money. The recent kerfuffle about Facebook's new and incoming changes describes this well; the users will moan, but it's mostly onto deaf ears; they get what they're given.
"The newspaper lies, the radio lies, the TV lies, the streets, they howl with the truth"—Henry Miller
Once, as a consultant, I did a presentation on how the social networks were bad news for people as the technology, and its implicit message, rewarded apparently confident, extraverted behaviour, counting our friends and updating these friends when we made new friends, when many of us weren't that way inclined. So the implicit message the technology was giving us was incongruent to our needs. Damaging, I'd still say.
This went down like a fart in a spacesuit with some of my consultant friends who clearly felt galled that I couldn't just see the bright side of it all and keep 'bigging it up' to the clients, and in one bizarre conversation, 'just tow the line'. I couldn't stop feeling like a nutter, or a foolish idealist, or the person everyone was cautious about talking to, as, when it came down to it, I didn't fit in.
"Context is all" (Atwood, M, 1985-ish)
The Transition Network web project is actually quite concerned that the future of the internet holds great risks for people who don't 'tow the line' while being sold by its controllers as some form of uber-connecting hipster life function.
David Cameron recently threatened to use the 'kill switch' on the internet in times of crisis (*exactly* the wrong thing to do), and the large media empires are gradually putting their content behind paywalls, having lost millions of pounds on advertising based online offerings. Internet Service Providers in The USA have won their argument to limit people's access to the internet based on their payments, so soon, the less wealthy you are, the slower your internet access will be. Every single mobile phone on which we are all going to be web surfing in the future is a potential listening device, owned by corporations more powerful and wealthier than the governments, with dubious tax avoidance practices, to put it nicely.
That's because it's getting chilly, whatever the big adverts say about how technology is there to connect us (to beautiful rich looking hipsters, anyway).
In this context, technology is not for its consumers; it's for the people selling the product and reinforcing the story about growth, and denial about the challenges that are really going on.
So the future for many online is quite possibly going to be like a cross between a faceless shopping mall and a shouty social network, stuffed full of people being nagged by brands, spiritually choked with relentless reminders of their 'friends' apparently more successful social life.
Because that's how you make money out of users.
It's an advertisers dream, an engineer's pay ticket, a product manager's polish, an internet entrepreneur's ego, an analyst's study, a theorist's something else, but a soul's nightmare. (See why my fellow website agency workers avoided talking to me about this stuff in the pub?)
I reckon that unless you use technology and your gifts, education, energy, networks and knowledge, to make the world a better place, you are wasting your time. And energy spent not doing this makes me angry. But I was still more driven by anger than anything else, and kept on beating my head on brick walls pointlessly, ranting at my workmates, feeling desperately sad about what I saw as the dark side of social networks.
"The next revolution - World War 3 - is being waged inside your head. It is a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or around international fishing boundaries on the high seas, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV and in cyberspace. It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred pro...paganda war of competing world-views and alternative visions of the future." (Marshall Mcluhan)
Last winter I did a lot of homework on myself. I questioned my patterns and my actions, my frustrations and anger, and motivations.
During this phase, I asked a bunch of people why they bothered be 'activists' (which I believe Transitioners are) when the odds on us having a wonderful world were so slim. Why not just curl up into a ball and die, or just max out every mortgage going and jet ski out of rocket fuelled helicopters at the edge of space?
My favourite answer was:
"Ah well Ed, you see, it's a paradox"
Of course! It's not one or the other, it's both; good and bad, angry and happy, and we are a part of the solution *and* the problem, and the high likelihood that our eco-utopian visions may not make it to fruition doesn't mean we don't stop working away from a world we don't like the smell of. The act of doing it is important (to me), and that's enough.
And the stories we tell ourselves are very, very important.
We need to support people to take back their story, and reclaim the narrative; even just in their heads. To start telling each other human stories, based on real things that real people actually did. To help people focus on some reachable goals. To build each individual's personal resilience, and resistance to the pervasive droning of all those adverts.
We're not trying to stamp the Transition Network brand on a web product (I can see it now 'TransitionBook'), or convert users into viral marketing community evangelists; we're exploring a channel through which people can tell their own stories of the ins and outs of their lives.
In the context of Transition.
So that they can share their experiences, and find the meaning, of whatever Transition is, themselves.
That's why we're staying up late, working on personal time, finding friends who don't want to support this future, even though it seems unavoidable, and jamming with them, making it up as we go, sharing our personal stories, openly, our successes, our failures, our hopes, our dreams, our loves. Our vegetables. Wrestling with content management systems that aren't as perfect as our hopes.
Taking the risks and trying to distribute the power of Story's rippling energy.
Even from Transition Network; trying to release the power from there too, like an acupuncture release. Challenging the structures about their authority.
Bringing fun and light into our lives while pushing the adverts back
I have so much respect for every person in Transition who has stood up and stuck their head over the parapet and said "No, I'm not having it.", because I know how alienated I felt (and Rob recently felt like a 25th century traveller).
The Stories thing is for each and every one of you.
I hope all these stories bring light and fun and 'knowledge' into all of our lives and raises our spirits, and shows us that we are connected, and although different, very powerful. And doing our thing in many places, and that there are common themes.
I could go on about lots of people for hours and hours. So I'm limiting myself to three people (and the reporters, and the techs), and they have to be Ben, Pete and Charlotte.
Between these three, they have created the space to produce the job, the inspiration and confidence to navigate the weirder edges to seek it and pull it back from, and the driving creative force of the job itself.
My first interview for the web co-ordinator job with Transition was with Ben Brangwyn in Totnes, hanging off the side of his rickety desk in December 2008. We discussed the power of Story, and what it could do to help connect communities as they struggled through an unknown present and uncharted future. I remember waxing lyrical; I was very into the Sufi tradition at the time, and had experienced the power Story can have over people. He wasn't after some uber-website; the goal was always to try to overcome our own want for control and put together a system that would support self-organising patterns.
"If you want control, get a dog". Ben Brangwyn
Little did I know that Steph Bradley, tale teller par excellance, was sat right behind me. I still wonder if her ears were waggling while she calmly let the interview go on. The stories portal has been designed so that we can support different styles of Story in the future - the Social Reporters, and the Tales. I hope we see that come to life.
My second interview was with Ben and Pete Lipman the chairman in Bristol. The night before, my good friend Mark told me "don't say ANY OF THAT WEIRD SHIT about Chomsky, Marx, Charlie Brooker, Bill Hicks, or 'information as power' and ownership of the means of production if you want that job, OK?". I nodded, thinking 'Yes, he's probably right, everywhere else just wants people to tow the line'.
Almost the first word that came out of my mouth after I got over the shock of seeing a grown up man in such short shorts was Chomsky, and when Pete asked what sort of website I thought we should have, I suggested we don't have a website. That we try to build a brain that would connect all the groups across the internet, letting them stay in their spaces, forging intelligent connections without having to have some massive representation of male genitalia in cyberspace, some shining testament to our ego.
Well - I figured that if I can't say it to these two guys, who can I say it to?
Charlotte "Here I am" Du Cann and I met at a Transition East website workshop in Norwich in 2009, where she made it very clear that we should use understandable language in Transition. Then at the 2010 conference, after which she wrote an epic piece about re-uniting with Adrienne Campbell, and again to discuss stories with Gary Alexander in the winter of 2010/11.
There she shared with me the story of the first world war poets, who overcame their fundamental ethical disagreement and anger about how the war was being faught by the old men in power, to go back to the trenches, because the men needed them, and the story had to be told, whatever the outcome.
"The power of the powerless" Vaclav Havel
There's been no looking back. Charlotte is on fire right now, but not a dangerous nasty 'want power' fire; a rebellious, 'personal is political', powerful and constructive reflective fire, that I have trust in, and an enormous respect for.
The reporters themselves
The reporters have stepped forward to bare their souls and share their stories; and at the time of writing (only 5 pieces in), I'm gobsmacked at how brilliant they are. Brilliant. 'Wicked', as we used to say.
For doing something others will be inspired by. For taking the time out of a busy life, surrounded by the noise of 'business as usual' *and* 'doing Transition' to report on your worlds with such aplomb, honesty, and creative goodness. Thank you. I look forward to this like I retrospectively would have looked forward to one of my favourite novels, if you know what I mean…
A tale, of many layers, about to unfold in front of us, in a context we're interested in, told by those on 'the frontline'.
We are exceptionally lucky to have a co-operative technical unit of Jim the developer, Chris the web host person, Laura the designer. I would put up photos of them all, but they'd be embarrassed. And identified. So here's a cat picture.
The rest is history, emails, google docs, and loads of blog posts
We did build a website, it was absolutely unavoidable, but at every point, we questioned the concept of centrally controlled systems and authority. The aim has always been to see the website as a star in a Transition Constellation, rather than a 'Hub' with spokes, and I hope that is how it pans out.
Having now done the foundations work on the Transition Network website, we can, and are now, using it to honour the constellation, distribute the voices, deepen the story, and empower the activists all around the movement with their stories, and soon, their projects.
It genuinely took just under three years to reach this point at which the Stories project is do-able, and practicable. We could have launched into it earlier, but it was not the time or place - it's now. If you want to discuss this, drop me a line and we'll talk about long term massively distributed online facilitation, technological stewardship and/or cats, and the use of photos of them to bemuse people for no reason.
It fills me with joy and hope and love that it is here.
It also worries me that I haven't met my reactionary demons yet, and have used this work as a distraction from finding inner peace. But that's another story. And I still shout at adverts on the TV, and flick V signs at the billboards as I cycle past... oh dear...
So - who's turn next?
As my granddad apparently said,
"I know what I know… tell me what you know"
Guest editor post from Ed Mitchell, web co-ordinator, Transition Network.