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Gemma Copeland

Tag “reading”

 — Resurgence

I don’t have anything much to add to the post-election cacophony. I know how important reflection is after a result like this, but in the week that has passed since I’ve found that I can’t bear to spend too much time thinking about what has happened, and what it’s going to mean for the next five years, for a country already tearing itself apart, for those who are already suffering and for the vague glimmer of hope I was holding out for decisive climate action.

I do want to record what I’ve found to be useful in dealing with the despair, mainly so I can refer back to it when I inevitably feel like this again in the future. Perhaps it will be of some use to others as well.

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 — All lichen, all coral

I’m currently in northern Wales, doing a lot of walking and also reading Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.

It’s a collection of essays about geology and biology, shared histories and unstable futures, nature and the Anthropocene, featuring many of my favourite writers: Anna Tsing, Donna Harraway, Ursula K Le Guin. It’s split in two halves – Ghosts and Monsters:

Ghosts and monsters are two points of departure for characters, agencies and stories that challenge the double conceit of modern Man. Against the fable of Progress, ghosts guide us through haunted lives and landscapes. Against the conceit of the Individual, monsters highlight symbiosis, the enfolding of bodies within bodies in evolution and in every ecological niche. In dialectical fashion, ghosts and monsters unsettle anthropos from its presumed centre stage in the Anthoropocene by highlighting the webs and histories from which all life emerges.

A rock covered with lichen and moss, found on the mountain Cadair Idris in Wales

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to apply the principles of Hyperfocus to my work. Productivity books aren’t the kind of thing I’d usually read, but this one has actually been quite useful.

A lot of it just seems like common sense, like recognising that you have a finite amount of attention you can spend in every moment. It’s basically about applying meditation techniques to daily life to make the most of your attention. It starts with being more aware of the kinds of work you’re doing, which parts are purposeful and which parts are unnecessary busy-work.

Setting intentions

It’s a lot about intention-setting: intentions for the hyperfocus session (an hour or less), for the day and for the week as well.

He summarises the core idea of hyperfocus as:

Keep one important, complex object of attention in your awareness as you work.

You decide what this object of attention should be, set a timer for how long you want to focus on it, eliminate any distractions and give it your full attention.

As with meditation, if you catch your mind wandering, you gently draw it back to the task at hand.

Scatterfocus and recharging

The counterpoint to hyperfocus is scatterfocus, where you just let your mind wander and observe where it goes. This is where the more creative thinking comes in, associations between otherwise unrelated ideas.

There are a number of other techniques in it that I’ve found really useful, like writing down “open loops” that are distracting or worrying you, and scheduling specific blocks of time to check email each day.

I liked the book because it’s ultimately about working less and making sure you allow yourself to recharge. I am definitely someone who tends to work too much, and tends towards anxiety as well. It was so useful for me to read this because it reminded me that overworking and multitasking doesn’t lead to better results.

I just tried out this great tool made by Javier Arce. It allows you to send your Kindle highlights directly to an Arena channel (something I used to painstakingly do by hand, block by block).

It recognises which highlights are from different books, and you can select which highlights to add or edit.

✶✶

 — Community is a Garden

I came across this toolkit when searching for examples of community-led design practices for a workshop that Sonia and I are currently running (more on that soon).

It explores how artists and communities can work together towards climate justice. It has a few interviews and case studies, accompanied by a few prompts and reflective exercises centred around building collaborative relationships and spaces for dialogue.

I really liked the list of practices at the end, particularly Ambiguity:

Moments of disorientation create space for unpredictable discovery. How can you challenge existing narratives, leave questions unanswered, and introduce new lines of inquiry? Through open-ended practice, how can you create conditions that scaffold communal discovery? How can you begin with questions rather than answers?

It references a few of my favourite writers, adrienne maree brown and Donna Haraway, and has prompted me to finally read Braiding Sweetgrass, which I’ve wanted to do for a while.

I’m collecting more examples of Community-Led Design Practices on Arena.

As of this week, I’m living in Vilnius for a few months while HM does the Rupert residency. Feeling very lucky and inspired.

I’ve been drawing lots of Major Arcana cards, which indicates deep shifts and changes. Feels apt.

A desk and two chairs in front of a tall window, looking out into snow and pines, next to The Moon tarot card

I’m simultaneously reading a few books that feel interconnected:

The Ministry for the Future

I really enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s writing style in Red Mars, but felt a bit conflicted reading it because I hate the frontier mentality and techno-solutionism that usually comes along with the idea of colonising Mars.

This book is a near future science fiction novel focused back here on Earth. The eponymous ministry was set up to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens as if their rights are as valid as the present generation’s. Similar to the seventh generation principle of many indigenous cultures.

As Prem Krishnamurthy summarises in his latest newsletter:

It uses the space of fiction to produce a polyphonic, multi-scalar, politically-essential, and thoroughly engaging thought-experiment: a playbook of prototypes for concrete steps to work against climate catastrophe now.

I haven’t finished it yet but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Particularly how Robinson weaves together scientific and economic ideas for mitigation and adaptation with compelling human stories.

Parable of the Talents

I just finished Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. I guess you could say I read a lot about climate change and societal collapse. It’s the sequel to Parable of the Sower, which I read about a year ago and loved, but needed a bit of a break before continuing in that world. Butler’s dystopia is so gut-wrenching and horrifyingly prescient.

I saw that adrienne maree brown and Toshi Reagon have a podcast solely focused on the two books, but haven’t listened yet.

Pharmako-AI

An exchange between K Allado-McDowell and GPT-3. Together they muse upon climate change and cybernetics. Some passages are really eerie, and of course the whole time you’re wondering about what consciousness or intelligence (or even authorship) actually means.

When I look at an animal, that’s what I see: intelligence about a biome, compressed and extracted by evolution into a living form. It takes millions of years for life to coalesce in this way, which is why it’s so tragic when species are lost, that the latent space of ecological knowledge is degraded in this way.

We need to save those aspects, those smarts, the way we do when we save books, before they are lost forever. We need to save them in some kind of ‘intelligence library’ somewhere, along with the ocean’s memory of its place in a stable equilibrium with all other life on this planet. And from that place we can construct a new kind of science, one that is closer to the lessons that living things teach us about themselves, and about life on the planet , Gaia, than we have ever gotten before.

I was originally interested in this after reading The DOOM! Report from Nemesis, which is written in the same way and gives a taste of what this book is like. I find Pharmako-AI much more readable and poetic than that essay, though.

I’m also dipping in and out of the Atlas of Anomalous AI, also published by Ignota and edited by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell. I love anything that references the Mnemosyne Atlas.

An ink drawing of the Tibetan god Yama holding the wheel of life, from the Wellcome collection

Interdependence 40 with Audrey Tang (digital minister of Taiwan)

I was so excited when I saw that the latest Interdependence was with Audrey Tang. This is one of their best episodes so far, imho.

I’ve been so interested in Audrey’s work since reading this article last year. She’s an organiser, coder, politician and poet. Every conversation she has is recorded and published into the public domain. Her approach to politics and what she’s achieved so far is astounding. This episode also really made me want to visit Taiwan.

Some interesting thoughts about how to give non-human entities a say in politics, which reminded me of some of the ideas in Ministry for the Future and also Regen Network.

She mentioned so many interesting things, it was hard to keep up. Including this report from the UN: The Age of Digital Interdependence. I hate reading PDFs on screen but this one looks pretty interesting, if a bit too human-centric.

Going Horizontal

A book about creating non-hierarchal organisations, which we’re reading as part of the inaugural Common Knowledge book club!

Entangled Life

Because I love thinking with mushrooms! They never cease to amaze me. So far, it’s an enjoyable and fascinating book.

A still from Studio Ghibli's Princess Monoke, showing the forest spirit, a giant blue creature made of stars

10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki

A documentary about Miyazaki’s creative process. It’s interesting to see that his talent seems both innate and a lot of hard work. He can capture the energy of an entire story or character in just one sketch, but also has days or weeks where he hates everything that he makes, continuously throws everything out and begins again, or just avoids working all together.

 — Weaving webs of reciprocity

This week I’m thinking a lot about Braiding Sweetgrass, because the forest floor is now covered in purple and yellow flowers (ground ivy and yellow anenome, I think).

A forest in Lithuania with purple and yellow flowers everywhere. In the background is tree covered in moss and lichen.

That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other. Science and art, matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science—can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.

I really liked the book’s focus on reciprocity as a core principle of nature and means of collaborative survival and much else besides.

How do we refill the empty bowl? Is gratitude alone enough? Berries teach us otherwise. […] They remind us that all flourishing is mutual. We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us.

 — Hope in work & joy in leisure

Happy May Day!

An illustration from 1895, featuring a barefooted woman surrounded by a May Day garland with slogans woven amongst the flowers and grasses. Some of the slogans include "The cause of labour is the hope of the world" and "No people can be free while dependent for their bread". At the bottom, the text says "A Garland for May Day 1895, dedicated to the workers by Walter Crane".

It’s pretty wild to read about the origins of May Day. Workers had to fight so hard just to get an eight-hour day, which we now all take as given. Happy to see that it was Australian stonemasons who were the first to strike as part of the eight-hour day movement.

Eighteen Black Cats

A TV screen in a gallery space showing a live video feed of the sky above. The sky is mainly blue with some wispy clouds. The video is captioned with a sentence that begins with "As he found no way back…".
Last week How had an exhibition here at Rupert, to show three of the works he’s been developing over the last few months. My favourite was the piece called Wool-gather:

Raising questions about machine consciousness and non-human creativity, Wool-gather brings together aeromancy, day-dreaming and cloud watching through machine learning and image processing. Pointing an object detection algorithm at the sky above Vilnius, the work uses the shapes of the clouds to generate meandering anecdotes and make whimsical predictions about the future.

It was really meditative to watch, very easy to just lie there and have the stories wash over you.

Listening and reading and watching

I watched Crip Camp the other evening, which I found really moving. The amount of fighting that disability activists did (and still have to do) to win the most basic rights is inspiring but also infuriating.

Related: Sonia recommended the Understanding Disability series by Nim Ralph, which unpacks the different models we use to understand disability, how these have developed over time and the impact this has on the lives of disabled people. Highly recommended.

Also thanks to Sonia (who is my main source of reading material these days) is this super interesting reflection on remote work. They argue that working remotely (or, working in distributed teams) removes work as the centre of meaning and fulfilment, allows us to build stronger communities where we live and, ultimately, live fuller lives.

Where and how to live has come up in a lot of conversations lately. Tom has told us about this collective in Sicily that is currently building a community and artist residency, and Anna keeps talking about tiny houses. I guess it’s a combination of the pandemic, being around our early 30’s and not wanting to move around or rent or sublet anymore. How and I still haven’t decided where to move now that we’ve left London, as the second wave has been worse and visas harder to come by than we expected. I really want to find somewhere (in Europe) that is pretty warm, close to nature but well-connected by train to a city… does this place exist?!

A dreamy illustration of a garden, mainly teal, green and dark purple with highlights in pink and blue.
▲ Screenshot from the Arkadia Zoomquilt

I’ve started listening to a lot of super interesting podcasts lately, all circling the same kinds of themes:

New Constellations

Each episode focuses on one person, who talks about their practice, shares their visions for the future, tells stories about their own experiences and approach to life. It’s really well produced and quite relaxing to listen to, because it’s strongly focused on hope and imagination and mutual flourishing.

For All I Care

A series focused on care and healing, presented by Nwando Ebizie. Each episode features a really interesting mix of guests: artists, activists, scientists and care-workers.

Thank you Linsey for the recommendation 🌸

Serpentine

I discovered that the Serpentine gallery has a really good podcast, particularly the episodes created in collaboration with Future Ecologies. Lots of episodes featuring artists and activists who are responding to the climate crisis.

Anything with adrienne maree brown…

I really enjoy listening to her, so I’ve been following How to Survive the End of the World, Octavia’s Parables and the Emergent Strategy podcast.

 — Exploring maps

A collage made from LiDAR imagery of the Amazon rainforest, a map of the video game Subnautica and a Micronesian navigational chart

Maps seem to be the most consistent thing that people ask us to do at Common Knowledge. We don’t know entirely what it is, but people love maps. Not only do organisations love them, they seem to test really well when we do usability testing as well.

We have a couple of particularly interesting mapping projects on at the moment, so while I’ve been ambiently researching interesting maps on Arena for a while, I’ve recently started doing more reading about cartography as well.



Shannon Mattern’s wonderful article How to Map Nothing seeks out the gaps in the map: cartographies of erasure, absence, refusal and exclusion. For something about nothing, it is overflowing with references, projects and ideas. Lots to explore!

We have plenty of maps and data visualizations that trace the macro-scale public health and political-economic forces that precipitated the “Great Pause”; but we have relatively few that show all those under-appreciated agents that are making it possible — all the something anchoring and abetting that nothing, all the pulsing activity powering the pause. So it’s worth exploring the ways in which maps and other forms of indexical spatial data are registering the ambiguities, contradictions, and inequalities inherent in this geography of suspension — an ostensible pause that instead merely extends, and in many ways exacerbates, the injustices of our society and the inadequacies of our ways of conceptualizing and modeling city life.

Mapping’s Intelligent Agents is another great essay, this time focusing on Other approaches to cartography:

Ideally, we should balance or juxtapose different modes of knowledge and production: Western scientific and indigenous epistemologies, human and other-species ontologies, mechanical and organic means of experiencing and representing place, cartographic rationalism and empiricism, projection and retrospection. No single über-map can encompass all such subjectivities and sensibilities. Instead, we can aim for an atlas, a prismatic collection of mappings, that invites comparison and appreciation of the ways in which our world is both known and unknown.

Mattern is currently teaching a class called Mapping the Field, which I wish I could take. Luckily, she’s put the entire syllabus, presentations and reading list online.

In Here Be Dragons, Lois Parshley explores the unknown places that we’re still trying to map: the Arctic, black holes, the ocean floor. She also considers how mapping intersects with health, deprivation and natural disasters. She references Missing Maps, an open, collaborative project where anyone can volunteer to help map areas that are at risk of disaster or crisis.

I also found this offline-first, open-source tool called Mapeo. It allows communities to document, monitor and map data, and was co-designed with indigenous partners in the Amazon.

For a completely different viewpoint, I really enjoyed reading about literary maps and the design of open world video games.

Next, I think I’m going to read Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

I’ve recently started using Storygraph (thanks Sonia) to track the books I’m reading. It’s a not-Amazon alternative to Goodreads.

When you sign up, you’re asked you a series of questions about the kinds of books you like. It also analyses the mood, pace and genre of the books you read, and then recommends more books based on this. I never actually used Goodreads (I had some low-fi Arena channels for tracking books instead), so I’m really enjoying these kind of features. Apparently I mainly read “slow-paced fiction books that are reflective, informative, and adventurous”.

It seems quite hard to find people you know on the platform, so follow me if you have it (@gemcopeland)!

I’m going through all my Pocket articles that I’ve favourited by not archived, which means that Past Gem thought they were important enough to revisit. Let’s see what I find…

Statements Towards the Establishment of a Proof-of-Rest Protocol

A response to the senseless wastefulness of proof-of-work cryptocurrencies, which use up energy to generate artificial scarcity and profit.

Rather than burning ourselves out in bullshit jobs, why don’t we rest and do nothing? If anything, we need to be saving our capacity for transitioning to a post-capitalist society.

A sustainable way of life will necessarily require us to be more in balance with the natural rhythms of our bodies and the world around us, leaving time for rest, repair and regeneration.

An animated gif of a tiny white cat. It runs across the screen and then curls up and falls asleep.

Who Taught Me

I found Aimi Hamraie’s work via Futuress and really liked their take on an “About” page. It’s an incomplete list of all the people, stories, lessons and situations that have shaped them and their world view. It made me wonder what I’d put on my own list.

Indigenous World Views

Super interesting critique of permaculture and regenerative agriculture from an indigenous perspective.

Indigenous cultures often share the view that there is no good, bad, or ideal—it is not our role to judge. Our role is to tend, care, and weave to maintain relationships of balance.

The Strategic Independent

I’ve been gradually working my way through all of Tom Critchlow’s essays. To the point where it has become a joke within the co-op.

He’s writing a book (also available online) about how independent consultants can work in more strategic and effective ways. Basically: working smarter, not harder – being curious and spending more time understanding the broader context of one’s work.

Developing our new Systemic Design Framework

An evolution of the divergent and convergent thinking Double Diamond. It recognises the non-linearity of complex problems and the invisible activities that support and interact with the design process. Really interesting explanation by Cat Drew of how the framework emerged and the thinking behind it.

A diagram of the systemic design framework. It's a circle divided diagonally into quarters, to represent the invisible activities that underpin design: Orientation & Vision Setting, Connections & Relationships, Leadership and Storytelling, Continuing the Journey. In the centre of the circle is a double diamond, illustrating the four stages of the design process: Explore, Reframe, Create, Catalyse.

Community Tech in Action

Rachel Coldicutt and the team at Promising Trouble / Careful Industries have been producing some really interesting work. In this series, they explain the research they’ve done into the motivations behind and potential for community tech projects. Tools that are custom-built, rather than just stringing together off-the-shelf consumer tech that aren’t fit for purpose. Basically Common Knowledge’s reason for existence!

What does Community Even Mean?

Short essay on how we need to update our conception of community. They suggest this a new definition, in which care, belonging and shared identity is key:

Community = a group of people that care about each other and feel they belong together.

They argue that only sharing a common goal does not a community make:

I believe that every community needs to have an internal purpose first to truly function as a community. Without trust and relationships, it becomes a project, an initiative, a movement.

I liked the look of the open source Community Canvas linked at the end.

The Intelligent Forest

An excerpt from Suzanne Simard’s book Finding The Mother Tree. Forests are complex, emergent, ever-changing, self-organising systems – somewhat like a society, an orchestra, a family or a brain.

Recognizing that forest ecosystems, like societies, have these elements of intelligence helps us leave behind old notions that they are inert, simple, linear and predictable — notions that have helped fuel the justification for rapid exploitation that has risked the future existence of creatures in the forest systems, like us.

Mind in the Forest

More forests! A lyrical essay on meditation, animism, impermanence and meaning.

Only cosmic arrogance tempts us to claim that all this reaching for sunlight, nutrients, and water means nothing except what we say it means. But if it bears a grander significance, what might that be, and what gives rise to such meaning? What power draws the elements together and binds them into a spider or a person, a fern or a forest? If we answer, “Life,” we give only a name, not an explanation.

A LIDAR scan of a forest.

Conversation is Not a Master’s Tool

An interview between Scalability Project and adrienne maree brown. I was drawn to the question about citations, relations and conversation:

SCALABILITY PROJECT: Reading through your texts, we were inspired by how generously you use citations. What you describe above reminds me of your adoption of the Mervyn Marcano quote “Move at the speed of trust.” You also quote Farhad Ebrahimi: “An ecosystem is not just a list of living things … It’s the set of relationships between those living things.” Could you expand more on this nonlinear process of relations, especially in connection to conversation?
BROWN: I love this question because that quote and the practice of citation are the same. I am not a solitary thinker, solitary learner, or solitary channel of these universal wisdoms and universal truths. I’m constantly learning from other people. And I weave. We all weave in different ways. What is the tapestry of lessons and wisdom that is unique for me? Each person ends up with a different tapestry, but you start to see patterns amongst them. And the pattern for me is something infinite.

A couple of super nice interviews and essays by women I admire:

Alice Grandoit-Sutka, co-founder of DEEM Journal, on how to generate new possibilities:

I want a practice that is both critical and generative. Sometimes we can invest a lot of energy critiquing what was, which can block or limit the potential to cultivate possibilities of what could be.

Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash on how she deals with climate grief:

I find that the key to staying optimistic or having hope is – well, not spending too much time on Twitter – but also really allowing yourself and honoring the feeling grief, pain and fury and whatever is moving through you. In the climate movement, people can lose themselves in the gloom and doom or pretend everything is OK and not process the grief. So, a big thing for me is creating strategies to feel the full scope of the emotional intensity of work — journaling, meditation. We have a strong storytelling culture in our organization and ensuring that I am not letting myself numb or get subsumed by the emotional intensity of what I’m feeling. And having a strong spiritual practice of gratitude. There is something about being really intimate with the potential demise of the world that makes you almost ironically really intimate with the beauty of it and the immense gratitude we should feel to be here. Being able to hold both of those things at once is key to my ability to persevere.

Food writer Alicia Kennedy on abundance:

The flexibility provided by a specific kind of abundance—extra pumpkin, banana blossoms blooming, an excess of food, period, growing in the garden to give away—rather than the idea of abundance we’ve been sold, quite literally, being access to anything at any time to buy is what fuels creativity, excitement, a feeling of safety in the midst of an uncertain future. Abundance doesn’t have to be gifted to us; it can be cultivated. It can be a choice we make, in order to take care of each other and the earth. The world is abundant, I remind myself again in a dark time. I pray it. We just have to be sure to see it that way, to share it that way.

 — Summer to spring

How and I went back to Australia for about three months during Southern Hemisphere summer. Now we’re back in the UK, enjoying the spring, seeing friends and family and cooperators, discussing lots of books and dreaming about what to do next.

A collage of three textures found in Australia.

Trip to Australia

This was by far the longest I’ve spent back there since I left ten years ago. I feel so grateful to have a place like that to go back to, to have the freedom to move, and to see friends and family for the first time in two very strange years.

We mainly stayed in Melbourne and worked remotely, which was a whole new challenge with an 11-hour time difference. We did also go to Queensland to see family, Minjerribah (our usual holiday spot when I was growing up and one of my favourite places in the world), Lennox Head and Brunswick Heads in northern NSW, and Tasmania.

A brilliant red and yellow sunset in rural Victoria. There is a farmhouse on the left. The grass looks quite dry and there are some eucalypts along the horizon.

A kangaroo standing in a field of grass, overlooking the sea, on Minjerribah. The sky looks quite overcast.

Visiting Tasmania was one of the highlights. It was my first time there and I was so in love with the natural beauty. It’s one of the first places in the world that’s gone carbon negative as they’ve shut down one of their big logging mills, so now their native forests absorb more carbon than the whole state emits. We saw so many animals there that don’t exist anywhere else.

A beach on Maria Island, Tasmania, with white sand and incredible turquoise sea.

A wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania.

We stayed for a week in a tiny house outside of Hobart. It was so dreamy: a huge window at the front looking out to the bay. They had an outdoor bath where you could look up into the eucalypts filled with birds.

The view from our tiny house.

One of our favourite parts of this trip was visiting Paprika and Benjamin in Launceston. They and their house full of books and garden full of veg really inspired us when thinking about how we want to live and where we want to go next.

The worst part of the trip was getting caught in the terrible East Coast floods and having to spend a week in an evacuation centre. More on that in another post, but it was a really intense, visceral reminder of the kind of world that we’re heading towards (that we’re already living in). The depressing thing is that the area flooded again about two weeks after we were there, and now Queensland is flooding yet again.

Right now

Now I’m back in London staying with friends while we work out what to do next. It is a joy to be here again, to spend time with people that I’ve barely been able to see for so long.

How and I spent last weekend in a place called Praktyka in Devon and came back very inspired. They spent 18 months travelling the world and visiting other places like retreats and cooperatives to define what kind of space they wanted to build together. I’m really excited to see how it develops.

Praktyka's geodesic dome in North Devon.

House dream

We’re definitely still in dreaming/planning mode, but How and I are hoping to find somewhere like this that we can make our own, to build a space where we can have friends visit, grow a garden, run a residency and maybe some type of event/community space.

Realistically we’re going to have to move out of south-east England to do this, so it’s been fun to explore the different options of where we could live. We’re hoping to spend some time over summer visiting a few places that are doing similar things in Italy and Spain.

I’m a little nervous of moving out of a city for the first time, particularly one where I have so many connections and there are so many opportunities. But we just feel so excited about the potential of a project like this. When I think about the times that I have been the absolute happiest, it would be summer 2019 when I stayed at Casa Sasso in Gambarogno and with Brave New Alps / La Foresta in Roverto. I just want that but… all the time.

Capital moves people around and draws them to the center: to find your luck you are urged to move from the village to the town, from the town to the regional capital, and from there to the metropolis. […] Resisting capital’s demand for constant movement is for some designers a strategy against precarisation.
Being exposed to precarity implies a constant temporariness, a constant flux of building and abandoning social and material structures, thus missing out on the possibility of creating interlinking infrastructures that can take us and others beyond precarity, infrastructures that can support critical practice through dire times.

– from Design(ers) Beyond Precarity: Proposals for Everyday Action by Brave New Alps

Reading groups

I’ve joined two remote reading groups. Both are open to join if you’re interested, dear reader.

One of them is Rererereading Group, which Paprika and Benjamin invited us to. So far we’ve read Blockchain Chicken Farm, which I enjoyed a lot, and The Question Concerning Technology in China, which I found too complex and philosophical so have dropped out for the time being. I have really enjoyed the calls that I have joined though – it’s just so fun to discuss a text so deeply with a small group and to deepen our understand together.

The other is a feminist sci fi reading group organised by Yuli. In our first session, 🌿 Entangling the Forest 🪱, we discussed Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and The Daoist Yin Principle in Ecofeminist Novels by Amy Chan Kit-Sze.

A screenshot from our first session of the sci-fi reading group.

I usually hate after hours Zoom calls as it feels too much like work and even during remote lectures I end up zoning out. But I just found this session so engaging and fun. More exciting than a lecture because there wasn’t any hierarchy – just a group of people exploring ideas together. Yuli did a really great job curating the readings so there was so many interlinked topics to dive into which made for a very rich discussion.

Lots of Taoist/Daoist themes running through both reading groups. Next I’d quite like to read Le Guin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

I just finished reading a book called The Feeling Buddha, so I’m thinking a lot about mindfulness and spirituality. I also started therapy, and all of these things feel like they’re combining in really generative and healthy ways.

The co-op

One of the nice things about being in London again is being able to spend time IRL with the rest of the co-op. We’re working from a space called Pelican House now, which is full of other left organisations like The World Transformed, Green New Deal Rising, Autonomy and London Renters Union.

The space got off to a bit of a slow start due to the pandemic, but it’s feeling more convivial now as people settle in. The hope is that the building will become a bit of a hub for the left in London.

At the moment, our co-op is trying to work out how to move into a calmer, slower, more abundant mindset. We’ve always had this as an intention, but the sheer amount of projects we’ve been working on and other pressures outside of our control have meant that we’ve slipped into frantic, scarcity thinking.

I feel really lucky (as ever) to have colleagues that are equally committed to thinking about collective care and addressing burnout. It does feel like things are gradually getting better in terms of our work-life balance.

The Beatles

Quite random, but it seems I’ve temporarily slipped into Beatlesmania after watching the Get Back documentary. I’ve never paid much attention to them before, but the film is a fascinating look into their creative process and their group dynamics. Now I can’t stop reading about them or listening to them. (Hopefully it’s just a phase.)

In general

At the moment I do feel a deep despair at climate inaction and the invasion of Ukraine and the (waves hands) state of the world. But then I’m oscillating between that and an intense gratitude for my present and excitement for our future plans. Trying to just ride the waves and direct these feelings towards doing something meaningful and generative with my time.

Bright purple flowers in Tasmania.

Tracing the history of enclosure with Eula Biss, collecting modern stories of commoning with Future Natures, dreaming and planning for a Half Earth Socialist future, and a little bit of solarpunk.

The Theft of the Commons

I immediately devour anything written by Eula Biss, so was very excited to see this article by her in the Sentiers newsletter a few weeks ago.

In the essay, she traces the history of the commons and enclosure, which began here in the UK.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

She debunks that awful essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” by the white nationalist Garrett Hardin. It’s so unfortunately that this idea / phrase has somehow wormed itself into popular consciousness when talking about the commons. It’s been decisively disproven by Elinor Ostrom, who became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her work.

One of the things I love about Biss’ work is her ability to weave together so many different strands, wandering across topics like capitalism, feudalism, luddites, gleaners, nostalgia, art, myths, symbols, language, class.

I loved this quote:

The history of the distant past is often speculative. Like science fiction, it gives us a way of thinking about what might be possible, as much as what might have been. In this sense, both the past and the future are imaginary, but real, too, as ideas.

It ties in with the ideas from The Dawn of Everything, which we’re currently reading in Re-re-re-reading Group. In it, the Davids retell history to open up our imaginations, challenge commonly held beliefs and suggest that we might have done life and politics and society very differently in the past (and therefore, we might be able to do it differently again.)

“Would you go back?” strikes me as the wrong question to ask of nostalgia. The question, as Zadie Smith puts it, is how to “restate the things you find valuable in the past… in a way that’s livable in this contemporary moment.” How to locate the commons in a world that is mostly enclosed. How to recover a tradition of rebellion against monied claims to property. How to use machines rather than be used by them. How to be canny, like the workers of the past, and how to be conservationists, like commoners. We can learn from the time before enclosure, but we can’t go back there.

Eula Biss’ other books include Having and Being Had, about money, ownership, capitalism and class and On Immunity, about pandemics, vaccinations, individualism and community. Cannot recommend them enough.

Future Natures

Speaking of the commons, we just launched a new website for Future Natures, which explores the “emergent ecologies of commoning and enclosure through stories, arts and research.” It was such a great project to work on – the team was so easy to collaborate with and their research is so interesting. They have big plans for building up an international network of commoners so I’m really excited to see where it goes.

An image I designed for Future Natures with an comic by Tim Zocco. It shows an elf-like person on a flying scooter looking at an organic structure of entangled tentacles and mushrooms. The text says "Better futures are not only possible — they already exist in the making." The Future Natures logo is in the bottom left corner.

They’ve created this incredible comic that also explores the history of enclosure, the intersecting crises we’re living through and what commoning is and can be.

An excerpt from the comic. It has three panels showing people building solar panels, doing scientific stuff, farming, gardening and forestry.

Half Earth Socialism

I’ve just finished reading Half Earth Socialism by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese.

The cover of Half Earth Socialism. It has a grey background and is covered in bright green cut-outs of fungi, plants and animals.

I was really impressed. It’s a short but dense book that covers a lot of ground, like a non-fiction chaser to The Ministry for the Future. They criticise mainstream environmental solutions, paint a picture of what a socialist utopia might look like (including a speculative fiction chapter inspired by William Morris’ News From Nowhere, which is clunky but quite sweet) and outline a clear plan on how to get there.

Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is as good as a feast—or better.
— Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry for the Future

They also worked with Francis Tseng and Son La Pham to create a Half Earth Socialism game. I played it straight after finishing the book. It was really fun and helped drill home some of their ideas. It felt very moving to be able to pass policies and take action to address climate change, and then to watch as these played out and some of our worst possible futures be avoided.

On the other hand, it felt overwhelming to think on a global scale and 80 years into the future. While I agree with most of the ideas that the book proposes, just the thought of us actually succeeding to implement them at the speed and scale we need feels almost impossible. Still, I think it’s so useful to have these ideas laid out so clearly, as a discussions point or north star.

Your lifetime bridges centuries of harm that set the stage for climate change and centuries of healing that need to start now. Just be a bridge.
– Elizabeth Sawin

Refuge for Resurgence

We went to the Barbican’s Our Time on Earth exhibition a few weeks ago. It was pretty disappointing. It’s probably partially because I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about these topics already, but the ideas they proposed just seems so cliched/unambitious/self-indulgent. Eirini Malliaraki summarises it well in this thread.

However, I did enjoy the window view designed by Superflux and Sebastian Tiew – love a bit of post-capitalist solarpunk ambiguous utopia!

Still from an ambient video. It shows a future city that is clearly in a world of increased temperatures and sea level rise. Although the buildings are a bit run-down and patchily repaired, there are high tech elements like solar panels and wind turbines. It looks like nature has taken back the city somewhat, with lush green plants growing on every surface and birds in the distance.

Lisbon

My wonderful friend Linsey made us a guide to Lisbon, filled with natural wine spots and local, seasonal food. Particular favourites were Senhor Uva and Comida Independente. We also stumbled on Bar Boca one night, a tiny natural wine bar in Alfama that does vegan tapas.

A corner in Lisbon's Anjos area. One wall is covered in the classic blue and white tiles, in dappled sunlight.

One of the highlights was the Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar. I love his work, so colourful and joyful. The exhibition we saw was all about how he explored narrative and classic mythology in his work.

A banner outside the gallery. On one side is a vine-covered wall and on the other are some more tiles.

A close-up of one of Pomar's paintings – abstract and gestural, in warm colours.

I’ve been really enjoying Panda Bear and Sonic Boom’s new album Reset. When we were in Lisbon I discovered that Panda Bear has been living there since 2004!

Water and its memory

At the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, I was pleasantly surprised by a map of the Brisbane River at the beginning of their Reclaim the Earth exhibition. It was part of a series of works by Judy Watson, an Indigenous Australian artist.

One of Judy Watson's pieces.

The works all centred around water and its memory, responding to both the history of the Seine and in Queensland. She sources artificial and organic materials to make natural dyes, then lets the pieces evolve in open air and on the ground.

Her creative process leaves room for the accidental and the random, and for the effects of time, environment, and natural material on her work in a context of deep climate change. The artist’s method evolves by working from site and memory, revealing Indigenous histories, following lines of emotional and physical topography.

Practicing

In Rotterdam, I visited my friend Ben at Extra Practice, a studio space he shares with four of his friends. It’s a wonderful converted shopfront on a corner, glass windows open to the world. Same energy as Evening Class, except it’s amazing how much further you can take it if you do it outside of London.

While I was there, we did a show for their radio station Good Times Bad Times. It was a lot of fun! They’ve just started a new “season” centred on refusal, which linked in really nicely with some of the themes I’ve been thinking about too.

We also visited Varia during their open hours. We were just planning to drop by briefly but ended up staying for many hours – they even cooked us lunch. Really enjoyed hearing about their projects, how they got started, what they’ve been thinking about.

Nightjet

So excited to see the new Nightjet trains from OBB. They look so cozy! I would be happy to never set foot on a plane again if I could just travel around on one of these.

Nature?

Love this quote from a recent Kim Stanley Robinson interview:

Nature and natural are words with particular weights that are perhaps not relevant now. We are part of a biosphere that sustains us. Half the DNA in your body is not human DNA, you are a biome like a swamp, with a particular balance or ecology that is hard to keep going – and indeed it will only go for a while after which it falls apart and you die. The world is your body, you breathe it, drink it, eat it, it lives inside you, and you only live and think because this community is doing well. So: nature? You are nature, nature is you. Natural is what happens. The word is useless as a divide, there is no Human apart from Nature, you have no thoughts or feelings without your body, and the Earth is your body, so please dispense with that dichotomy of human/nature, and attend to your own health, which is to say your biosphere’s health.

Walkaway

I just read Walkaway by Cory Doctorow and really liked it. It felt clunky in parts (often this kind of idealistic sci-fi does) but I enjoyed a lot of the themes: post-scarcity, anarchism, refusal of bullshit jobs, open source everything, mutual aid.

He wrote a short article in Wired about it: Disaster Doesn’t Have to End in Dystopia.

One of the phrases that has been rattling around in my head after reading it is “slicing time thick”:

Even after years of walkaway, she was used to slicing time into rice-paper slices thin enough for one discrete thing, before moving onto the next. Most of the time, she rushed to complete this current moment before the next thumped the door. Every adult she’d known matched that rhythm, the next thing almost upon them, the current one had best be taken care of in haste. Etcetera sliced his time thick.

It’s something I’ve been trying to focus on over the last few weeks. I’m thankfully on holidays now, but in the lead up to my break I was feeling so burnt out and overwhelmed. The more exhausted I got, the more I would scramble around rushing through tasks and not doing a good job of anything.

I’m trying to focus on moving very slowly, not planning too much, not expecting too much of myself. Easier to do on holidays, of course, but I want to find ways to bring this slowness with me once I go back to work.

 — Alive in the sunshine

I recently read Our Shared Storm by Andrew Dana Hudson, a speculative fiction novel based on each of the five climate-modelling scenarios in the latest IPCC report. It’s got me thinking obsessing a little about solarpunk!

Solarpunk is an optimistic vision of the future where we’re in dynamic balance with environmental systems. It’s polyphonic, abundant, collective, anti-capitalist and decolonial. What I like about it is that it’s not just an aesthetic or genre or utopian vision for the future, it’s something you can do and be in the present. In Jay Springett’s words:

Solarpunk as a movement is building new futures in the minds of individuals but also creating and inspiring communities to DIY their own better futures into existence from the bottom up.

Still from Howl's Moving Castle.

Solarpunk fiction

I think most of the science fiction I read these days could be defined as solarpunk. This list of solarpunk canon by Paul Fletcher Hill reads like a list of my favourite books:

(I’d add Station Eleven and Half Earth Socialism as well.)

Solarpunk societies

In Our Greatest Political Novelist, Tim Kreider outlines Kim Stanley Robinson’s usual ingredients for his [solarpunk] utopias:

He scavenges ideas from the American Constitution, the Swiss confederacy, “the guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon ownership, Kerala land tenure, and so on” to construct his utopias.

Most of these utopias include:

  • common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.

While in Berlin earlier this year I saw Adam Greenfield’s lecture at the Weizenbaum Conference. I missed the first bit of it, which apparently was very doomy, but made it for the second half where he talked through his vision for the future, which I would argue is a solarpunk one:

  • Local community infrastructure, made/adapted/reused from available materials
  • Short supply chains
  • Independence from the grid
  • Lightweight, convivial technologies
  • Local knowledge of how to build and maintain systems
  • An ethos of maintenance, repair and mutual care

Solarpunk now!

A few places I’ve visited this year that have tangibly felt solarpunk:

The Future Food System house in Melbourne

A self sustaining, zero waste, productive house that demonstrates the potential of our homes to provide shelter, produce food and generate energy.

A 3D model of the Future Food System house.

The Floating University in Berlin

A series of DIY structures floating in a rainwater retention basin next to the former Tempelhof airfield.

An inner city laboratory for collective, experimental learning, knowledge transfer and the formation of trans-disciplinary networks to challenge routines and habits of urban practices.

A photo of the Floating University auditorium and kitchen. The structures are made of reclaimed wood and white fabric, perched over the water.

documenta 15

This year’s documenta was directed by a collective from Indonesia called ruangrupa and centred around the values of lumbung.

lumbung, which directly translates as “rice barn”, refers to a communal building in rural Indonesia where a community’s harvest is gathered, stored and distributed according to jointly determined criteria as a pooled resource for the future.

The lumbung practice enables an alternative economy of collectivity, shared resource building, and equitable distribution. lumbung is anchored in the local and based on values such as humor, generosity, independence, transparency, sufficiency, and regeneration.

Further reading


 — Four Thousand Weeks

Four Thousand Weeks – that’s the amount of time you get if you live to 80. Not only does it feel like an impossibly small amount of time, it also speeds up the older you get.

I really enjoyed this book by Oliver Burkeman. It’s less of a self-help book, more of a meditation on time and our relationship to it. It reminded me a bit of another all-time favourite of mine, How To Do Nothing.

Illustration from the cover of Four Thousand Weeks. A classical statue is being crushed by the weight of a clock.

Most productivity frameworks are about trying to control your time and squeeze more activity into your finite day. You end up spending all your time “clearing the decks” of urgent but unimportant tasks, and never actually get around to the really important stuff. Day-to-day life becomes an endless to-do list that we have to get through efficiently on the pathway to a point where our real life can begin.

Burkeman suggests there is always going to be too much to do and there will never be enough time. We shouldn’t try to be more productive, but instead embrace our finitude and accept that there’s a whole lot of stuff that we’re just never going to do.

The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control… The more you confront the facts of finitude instead — and work with them, rather than against them — the more productive, meaningful and joyful life becomes.

This necessarily requires some sacrifice. It’s not just about saying “no” to the things you didn’t really want to do anyway – it’s also about giving up some things that you really want to do.

There are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at.

Instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and or to-dos, many of which you may never get round to at all.

The key is not more productivity but conscious choices and acceptance – the joy of missing out. We have to accept that this is a sacrifice, that we will feel discomfort, that the to do list will always be infinite…

The core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.

Personally, I feel like I’m always living in the future: either anxiously worrying about what’s going to happen or excitedly/impatiently imagining various future scenarios in great detail. I really agree with Burkeman’s arguments about letting go of our obsession with the future and paying attention to the current moment, but in practice it’s obviously much harder.

You can’t know that things will turn out all right. The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one, which means you have permission to stop engaging in it.

One bit that really resonated with me was the part about time as a “network good”: our time is only valuable when it’s in sync with the people we care about. This necessarily means relinquishing control over our own time, in order to fall into step with others. Digital nomadism (I hate that term) optimises for extreme personal sovereignty over time, at the expense of being connected to others – which is ultimately what makes life meaningful.

To be deeply rooted in a particular community or place, you have to stop moving around. These kinds of meaningful and singular accomplishments just take the time that they take.

The book gets more practical in the appendix, which summarises the main points and suggests some actual things you can do day-to-day, like:

  • Much advice of getting things done implicitly promises that it’ll help you get everything important done — but that’s impossible, and struggling to get there will only make you busier. It’s better to begin from the assumption that tough choices are inevitable and to focus on making them consciously and well.
  • Establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work.
  • Focus on one big project at a time, and see it to completion before moving on to what’s next. It’s alluring to try to alleviate the anxiety of having too many responsibilities or ambitons by getting stated on them all at once, but you’ll make little progress that way; instead, train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating the anxiety.
  • Strategic underachievement: nominating in advance whole areas of your life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself.
  • Pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have.
  • Not knowing what’s coming next — which is the situation you’re always in, with regards to the future— presents an ideal opportunity for choosing curiosity (wondering what might happen next) over worry (hoping that a specific thing will happen next and fearing it might not) wherever you can.

 — Long live RSS

I’ve had quite stringent settings on my phone for a long time: no badges, barely any notifications, screen time restrictions on social media and downtime in the evening. Despite all this, I still spend around 90–120 minutes on my phone every day. Like most of us, I default to picking up my phone and doom-scrolling every time there is minute or two of empty time.

I had a bit of a forced digital detox while we were in Greece: my roaming data ran out so I had a few weeks where I could only access the internet on wifi. I decided to make the most of it, partially inspired by Four Thousand Weeks, and deleted Twitter and Instagram from my phone. I still reached for my phone in every spare moment but it was a lot more boring.

I decided that I should start using RSS again to keep up with blogs and people and news instead. I’m using Feedly as an RSS reader and Pocket to save articles to read later. My Pocket articles go directly to my Kobo, which I love, but unfortunately it doesn’t let me highlight the text. I’ve also moved a lot of my Substacks to RSS now in an attempt to have less in my inbox as well. It seems like it’s not possible to do this with Tiny Letter though.

Here’s a few blogs and newsletters that I really love:

  • Harper’s Magazine publishes a Weekly Review that reflects the chaos of our current reality and always makes me laugh out loud.
  • The Baffler has a similar dispatch called Fresh Hell.
  • Claire L. Evan’s Wild Information. Her most recent post, Intimate Geographies, is sublime.
  • Patrick Tanguay’s Sentiers. I think this is the best newsletter out there… I usually save almost every one of the articles he shares to read later.
  • Alicia Kennedy writes weekly essays on (vegan) food, politics and culture.
  • David O’Reilly writes about digital technology and creative practice. It’s an honest and insightful look at what it means to be creative.
  • Gnamma by Lukas W is poetic and watery and so well-written.
  • Adam Greenfield writes occasional dispatches about politics and mutual aid.
  • Naive Weekly seems sweet and peaceful (via Piper).
  • Tom Critchlow’s blog on strategic consultancy
  • Dark Matter Lab’s Provocations on strategic design, governance, urbanism and complex systems.
  • The White Pube for art criticism, culture and game reviews.
  • Branch, an online magazine about using the internet as a positive force for climate justice.
  • Climate in Colour, on the intersection of climate science, diversity and sustainable living.
  • We Can Fix It, on facing climate change with a mix of fact, feelings and action.

By the way — my own RSS feed is available here.

 — A continuous and never ending process

I read three of Emily St John Mandel’s books in quick succession last month: Sea of Tranquility, The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven. Her work often involves parallel universes and time travel, but it’s subtle and bit different to a lot of the science fiction I read. More like narrative where the boundaries between moments in time feel shimmering and fragile.

One of the interesting things about her work is that, although the books aren’t a series, the same characters appear throughout. The main character of one book might be a background character of the next. Sometimes they’ll be more or less the same, other times their storylines will be slightly altered. It really adds depth to her suggestions about the nature of time.

Pandemics and the end of the world are a common theme, but it’s much less bleak than it sounds. There’s something hopeful about it too — an acceptance of living in post-apocalyptic times, a realisation that there is still beauty after the end of the world.

My point is, there’s always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.

A photo of a comet against a backdrop of stars in space. It looks like it has two split tails: the left one is bright blue and the other is shimmering and white.
▲ The Structured Tails of Comet NEOWISE by Zixuan Lin, from Nasa’s Astronomy Picture of the Day

It was interesting to read Station Eleven the novel after loving the miniseries so much. It was enjoyable to compare Mandel’s original text with Patrick Somerville’s interpretation. Both were incredible in their own way, but also so different. There’s a great (spoiler-ridden) New Yorker article about this: In Station Eleven, all art is adaptation.

HBO’s Station Eleven is obsessed with adaptation, the way that people (many of them actors) reuse and project upon a source. It’s awash in references: Christmas carols, the funk band Parliament, Bob Dylan, King Lear and Hamlet. There’s also the most transcendent cover of rap music that I’ve ever seen on TV, a set piece that somehow crystallizes a character, a situation, and the human situation, all at once. Most of the art featured on the series doesn’t exist in its original form. It comes filtered through individuals, who carry and change it in time—shaping, recontextualizing, extracting what they need. One feels as though Somerville were triangulating between the texts and his characters to locate some mysterious quality that hovers in the middle. When Kirsten, Jeevan, and Frank stage Station Eleven, for example, the play works because the actors and the dynamics among them are so real. Yet the players grow more alive in the performance; their actual dynamics are heightened by it.

Speaking of interpretations and adaptations, we watched the 2007 film I’m Not There last night, which was “inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan”. There are six characters played by different actors (including a transcendent Cate Blanchett) in separate and nonlinear storylines. Each represents a different facet of Dylan’s persona and life.

I don’t think I’m tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It doesn’t even matter to me.

 — Bits and pieces

I’ve been enjoying listening to Overthink, a podcast about philosophy. Really engaging and accessible. One of the hosts, Ellie Anderson, is an expert in feminist approaches to love and sexual consent, particularly the work of Simone de Beauvoir. I really want to read some of Beauvoir’s journals now.


Wonderful conversation between Elvia Wilk and Claire L Evans on Pioneer Works.

I’m always extremely suspicious, for that reason, of any technology marketed using even remotely utopian language—specifically claims that some new sphere or realm is going to be a fresh start or an unspoiled new beginning. That signals to me immediately that the people who are involved in building the thing have no interest in maintenance.


One of my posts got a mention in a Space10 article Where Ideas Come From, thanks to Linsey. In very good company alongside favourites like Brian Eno, The Bloomsbury Group and Donna Haraway. I didn’t realise that this quote originated from indigenous activists in 1970’s Queensland / Lilla Watson:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.


Great episode by Maria Somerville on the NTS Early Bird Show. This week she was joined by Róisín Berkeley, who also lives on the west coast of Ireland and has a similarly soothing accent.


Via Right to Roam on Twitter (RIP) I learned that our continued access to Epping Forest was made possible thanks to people protesting its enclosure in the 19th century.

An illustration of Epping Forest in the 19th century. People are walking and sitting in groups, and the trees look enormous. The caption says "A view in EppingForest"


I don’t pay enough attention to interesting websites anymore, but this one for Nosaj Thing by Eric Hu and Bureau Cool really stood out thanks to a combination of Eric’s distinctive typography / art direction and the fact that all the images are generated by Stable Diffusion.


Some highlights from recent books

Our Shared Storm:

Life did not have to be lived in the shadow of onrushing doom, or with a sense of guilt at the damage one did by simply existing, or consumed by anger at the sins of a greedy, foolish past. There were so many ways to live, so many scenarios of human being to explore.

New imaginaries were possible, small things could be part of big plans…

Half Earth Socialism:

The task of unbuilding makes clear that environmentalism isn’t so much the idealisation of ‘pristine’ nature (though it is vital to protect intact ecosystems) but the recognition that it is still possible to repair our broken world.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous:

Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we’ve come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicenter only to return again, one circle removed.

Walkaway:

I’m suspicious of any plan to fix unfairness that starts with “step one, dismantle the entire system and replace it with a better one”, especially if you can’t do anything else until step one is done. Of all the ways that people kid themselves into doing nothing, that one is the most self-serving.

You got the world you hoped for or the world you feared — your hope or fear made it.

The best way to be superhuman is to do things that you love with people who love them too.

 — Less like an object and more like the weather

It’s so nice to be in north Wales as the seasons change. The beech trees still have the most amazing orange-yellow-red leaves, but now there’s snow at the top of Cadair Idris. It’s wild to think that just three months ago we camped on top of it. There’s a legend that says anyone who sleeps on Cadair Idris’ summit will wake up as either a madman or poet. Three months on and I’m still no better at poetry so…

A sketch of Cadair Idris from 1819. There are two small houses in the foreground with the mountains rising behind.

I’ve been trying to get better at identifying fungi, trees and birds while we’re here. I saw a bright yellow bird the other day which I think is a siskin. There are so many robins around too — I love listening to them sing. I found a database full of recordings of British birds.

I’m also thinking about water a lot, it’s so incredibly wet here. On the weekends when we go hiking the ground is completely saturated and boggy. The Afon (River) Wnion was the highest I’ve ever seen it a few weeks ago.

Really enjoyed this article What does water want? Most humans seem to have forgotten:

Slow Water mimics or collaborates with natural systems, restoring space for water to slow on land in wetlands, floodplains, mountain meadows, forests, tidal marshes, and mangroves. Slow Water is distributed, not centralised: think of the wet zones scattered throughout a wild watershed instead of a big dam and reservoir. It is also socially just: Slow Water doesn’t take water from some people to give to others, or protect some communities while pushing floods on to another. Slow Water gives communities agency to restore resilience to their local landscapes and revive local cultures. And in taking a systems-oriented approach, it simultaneously supports local water availability, flood control, natural carbon storage, and other-than-human life.

An intricate map of the Mississipi River, with layers and layers of the river superimposed in different pastel colours.
A meander map of the Mississipi river by Harold Fisk, 1944

Just west of here the river feeds into the Afon Mawwdach and enters a huge estuary that feeds into the ocean. Fairbourne, a town at the end of the estuary, is the first place in the UK that the government has announced it won’t defend from sea level rise so it’s due to be abandoned by 2054…

c,o,n,t,i,n,u,o,u,s and c-o-n-n-e-c-t-e-d

In Are you the same person you used to be?, they suggest that some people divide their lives up into discrete chapters, constantly reinventing themselves, and others see their lives or identities as one continuous narrative.

I can’t decide which category I belong to. I mostly divide my memories depending on which city I lived in at the time, but I can also see the broader patterns that continue through all my experiences and interests. I guess it’s both.

The article describes research conducted in Dunedin where they studied over a thousand children from the age of three, meeting with them every two years until they were forty-five. They categorised the kids according to their temperaments and watched how they developed over time. How much of our identity is innate and how much is the product of our environment?

Human beings, they suggest, are like storm systems. Each individual storm has its own particular set of traits and dynamics; meanwhile, its future depends on numerous elements of atmosphere and landscape.

A greyscale satellite image showing swirling clouds. On the top and bottom is grey static.
▲ An image from open-weather, capturing transmissions from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite

They suggest that although there are some patterns and cycles that are evident from an early age, one way that people can break out of their patterns is through close relationships with others. It reminded me of a bit in The Mushroom at the End of the World, where Anna Tsing talks about indeterminacy:

Fungi are famous for changing shape in relation to their encounters and environments. Many are “potentially immortal”, meaning they die from disease, injury or lack of resources, but not from old age. Even this little fact can alert us to how much our thoughts about knowledge and existence just assume determinate life form and old age. We rarely imagine life without such limits – and when we do we stray into magic. Rayner challenges us to think with mushrooms, otherwise. Some aspects of our lives are more comparable to fungal indeterminacy, he points out. Our daily habits are repetitive, but they are also open-ended, responding to opportunity and encounter. What if our indeterminate life form is not the shape of our bodies but rather the shape of our motions over time? Such indeterminacy expands our concept of human life, showing us how we are transformed by encounter.

A microscopic close-up of a mycelial network.

Building alternatives

Really good article on Noema by one of the co-founders of my instance Social.coop: Mastodon Isn’t Just A Replacement For Twitter. I was reflecting on the Twitter exodus to Mastodon the other day… It feels to me like a really great example of how important it is to be building these alternatives in parallel to the mainstream.

Acts of smashing, while vital for disruption, do not create the kind of resilient, large-scale, long-term bodies needed to replace dominant powers. As we have seen, the direction our world takes in moments of chaos will be defined by the ideas and institutions that are already available. If we want a world of workplaces owned and run cooperatively, of political decision-making power in local community hands, we stand a much better chance if this is already being built in time for social shocks.
— Graham Jones, The Shock Doctrine of the Left

It is so important to be optimistically building, testing, iterating on these institutions alongside the present day, rather than waiting for some perfect utopia to arrive in which we can start building.

It’s just so easy

Speaking of which, I find it so hilarious that in Victoria 3, a political simulation game, it turns out that communism is the most economically efficient government system:

Capitalist playstyles, they suggest, are too inefficient. The bosses at the top of Victoria 3 capitalist societies get high pay, while workers get very low pay. But in a Victoria 3 communist economy, worker cooperatives ensure that all capitalist wealth is turned over to the workers. As a result, their high purchasing power allows them to spend more money in the economy, which increases economic demand. This leads to higher living standards, which attracts more immigration, another big boost. “It’s just so easy,” the player concludes.

Bits and pieces

  • So inspired by Jeff VanderMeer’s experience of rewilding his property in Florida.
  • Lots of really useful tips on writing image descriptions here. I also didn’t realise that hashtags should be written in camel case so that screen readers can read each word separately!
  • Found a new Substack series on Octavia Butler’s Earthseed.
  • It is really relaxing to watch this livestream of waterhole in Namibia. So many critters! (via Matt Webb)
  • Great interview with Mindy Seu about her Cyberfeminism Index. I love the idea of YACK / HACK: “YACK is discourse whereas HACK is practice.”
  • I’ve been using a hot water bottle to keep warm here because my desk is in the attic below a skylight — extremely cold. Kind of hilarious to see photos of early hot water bottles in this piece from Low Tech Magazine… they look so uncomfortable.
  • Love to see some pleasure activism in action: Repair Together are hosting repair raves to help clean up areas of Ukraine.

 — Reflections on 2022

This year has been a bit of a weird one because How and I still don’t have a permanent home. We spent the first three months with friends and family in Australia, three months living with friends in Camberwell, six weeks subletting a friends’ place in Hackney, six weeks of visiting friends and holidaying in Europe (Portugal, France, The Netherlands, Germany and Greece), some time at H’s parents place and a few months living in Wales.

A mural of a maroon, blue and gold butterfly that says "Camberwell Beauty".
▴ Camberwell Beauty

A volunteer day at a community garden. People are tending to the garden beds.
▴ Glengall Wharf Gardens in Camberwell

A moored canal boat. The sun is shining and it's mid-summer.
▴ Visiting Leila & Stu and their boat Dirty Penny in Oxford

Parisian apartment blocks at twilight. The lights are on and they look warm and cozy against the evening sky.
▴ The view from Luke & Reba’s place in Paris

This year we did a few more multiday hikes and I hope next year we’ll do many more. I find hiking to be so meditative. I love walking through different landscapes, being completely connected to my body, seeing the stars, waking up again in the middle of it.

Me standing in a field of heather with a hiking pack on. The sky is blue with some scattered clouds.
▴ Hiking near Coed y Brenin

Early evening by a beautiful lake. How is sitting in front of our tent. It looks peaceful and quiet.
▴ Camping next to Llyn Du

How swimming in a bright blue lake beneath a mountain.
▴ Swimming in Llyn y Gader

We also did a lot of camping with friends as it seemed to be everyone’s birthday celebration of choice this year. So much fun. I never did it much as a kid so it’s a bit unfamiliar to me but I’ve found I really love it.

A group of tents at the bottom of a lush green valley at sunset.

A group of people laughing by a campfire. It's a bit blurry.

I’ve really enjoying doing more weaving this year — I’ve made a few of them as gifts for friends and family.

Another big change was beginning therapy. I’ve been finding it transformative to have regular sessions. It’s helped me to reflect on big patterns in my life, pay attention to my body and learn frameworks for dealing with future situations, having difficult conversations and giving clean feedback.

Sunset on the estuary. The foreground is quite dark but you can vaguely see a car driving ahead of us.
▴ Driving along the coast in north Wales

Books

I read 40 books this year! The ones I enjoyed most were:

  • Ways of Being by James Bridle, which explores more-than-human intelligence through the lens of both technology and ecology.
  • Death by Landscape, Elvia Wilk’s collection of fan nonfiction essays on feminist sci-fi, solarpunk, larping, compost and ambiguous utopias.
  • The Actual Star by Monica Byrne, an epic sci-fi that jumps from an ancient Mayan civilisation to the present day to a far future post-apocalyptic utopia.
  • The Living Autobiography series by Deborah Levy.

I’ve also loved reading books together with Paprika, Benjamin, How and others in Rererererereading Group.

Work

To be honest, this was a tough year for Common Knowledge at times. Although we’ve had plenty of interesting and important work on, our finances at points over the year have been rocky. This has been due to a whole range of factors, some of which were out of our control and some which were just lessons we needed to learn the hard way.

Nevertheless, we’re ending it in a much healthier place than where we started and we’ve learned loads. I feel really optimistic about 2023 for us. We’ve made a lot of changes in how we run that I feel will protect us from future risk. In the meantime, if you think our work is important and want to support it, we have an Open Collective for donations.

Despite this turbulence, I think we’ve done some great work. The type of work we’re doing is evolving slightly. We did some much bigger projects (digital transformation projects rather than campaign websites) and more consultancy/coaching work (rather than delivery). I think both of these are a move in the right direction. The downside is that there’s a lot less to show for it at the end of the year, but I think that’s fine.

The good thing about these bigger projects is that we got to do more extensive research and discovery phases, which I deeply enjoyed. (Shout out to Dovetail for being the best research tool out there.) I feel like I learned a lot about interviewing people and I got over some of my insecurities around this. In particular, Will Myddelton’s framework for running discoveries provided us with a lot of useful guidance.

The biggest project we did was a complete redesign and replatform for Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, an international organisation focused on humanitarian action and community-led development through participatory mapping and open data. This was a huge undertaking but we all learned a lot and I’m proud of the result. HOT are still working on the content at the moment but hopefully the new site should be launching early next year.

I really enjoyed working with The Architecture Lobby. I interviewed a bunch of their organisers in the US, which was an interesting look at a different political landscape. We made recommendations for gradually streamlining their entire digital infrastructure alongside redesigning their website, which should also launch next year.

I coached participants of the UnFound Accelerator again this year, which is a program that helps founders turn their ideas into platform co-ops. I also got to (remotely) have a really interesting discussion with John Caserta and the Design & Politics students at Rhode Island School of Design. It was really nice to go back to doing some IRL talks/conversations this year too: at the Weizenbaum Conference in Berlin, with Good Times Bad Times in Rotterdam and at The Forest Multiple symposium in Cambridge.

We also had some internal changes within the team: we hired Anna T to help us manage our projects and the co-op in general, and Jamie joined us for a year-long placement from Kingston College of Art. We also did a lot more work with our associate members Everin and John. It’s so nice to have more people join the co-op and I really hope this continues next year. As ever, I feel so grateful that I get to do what I love with people who love it too.

Looking forward

Although it’s been wonderful to freely move around this year and see people that we haven’t seen in years, How and I are at the point where we really need to put down some roots and stay still for a while.

It’s taken quite a while to decide where we should live. I kept getting into endless cycles of rumination and indecision: weighing up options, worrying if they’re the right one.

One of the things that I’ve learned this year is that at a certain point, any decision is the right one. We just have to try it out and see. If we don’t like it, we can change our minds. It’s funny because this is one of the principles of sociocracy that is so foundational to our work at Common Knowledge: “is it good enough for now and safe enough to try?”

You can only ever choose to take the next most elegant step. The best decisions I’ve ever made have been full of uncertainty at the time: choosing to quit my job in Brisbane and spend six months in Europe (which has now become 10+ years); moving to London which led to getting involved with Evening Class and then Common Knowledge.

Anyway, what we’ve decided is to move to Lisbon early next year. If all goes well and it feels like a good fit, we’ll hopefully look for somewhere just outside one of the cities and start on our housing co-op dream. We’re inspired by people who are doing this already like re:gen, Casa Beatrix and Project Kamp in Portugal, as well as collectives like Robida and Brave New Alps in Italy. Who knows where this step will lead, but I’m very much looking forward to 2023.

A view of Alfama, with colourful houses dotted on the hillside and the river in the distance. It's sunset and the light is beautifully soft.
▲ Lisbon in late summer

Previous years

 — Everything is deeply intertwingled

The structures of ideas are not sequential. They tie together every whichway. And when we write, we are always trying to tie things together in non-sequential ways. The footnote is a break from sequence, but it cannot really be extended. The point is, writers do better if they don’t have to write in sequence (but may create multiple structures, branches and alternatives), and readers do better if they don’t have to read in sequence, but may establish impressions, jump around, and try different pathways until they find the ones they want to study most closely.

▴ From Computer Lib / Dream Machines by Ted Nelson

I’ve recently started using Obsidian as a note-taking tool. It’s so interesting to observe how its affordances shape the way I think. The core app is beautifully minimal — a simple interface for editing local markdown files — which makes it super fast, secure and offline-first. You can extend this core functionality by installing plugins built by the community. I love this approach to software: letting people customise their own experience rather than trying to build the entire spectrum of features into the main product.

The main feature of Obsidian is that you can add backlinks as you write. I love being able to link all my thoughts together so fluidly. It makes the process of writing feel different: more like tending a garden. I think carefully about how I categorise ideas and spend more time revisiting past entries.

A few of the projects we’ve worked on at Common Knowledge lately have been digital gardens or wikis, where the usual hierarchical sitemaps don’t capture the interconnectedness of their structure. This prompted me to suggest that we read Christopher Alexander’s foundational text The City is Not a Tree in Rererereading Group recently. For fun, here’s Readwise’s GPT summary of the essay:

This text looks at the difference between structures (trees and semilattices) which are used to think about how a large and complex system is made up of many small systems. It is argued that the tree structure, which has been adopted by many designers and planners when creating artificial cities, is inadequate and cannot properly reflect the reality of the city’s social structure. It is proposed that the semilattice structure, which allows for overlap between elements, is a better representation of the living city, and should be adopted instead.

I think a digital garden full of bidirectional links is a kind of semilattice. The content can be collected, remixed and resurfaced in many different ways, appearing in lots of different sets according to the context. Working in this way requires a whole different approach to design. It’s complex and nonlinear, which can be challenging to get your head around compared to a tree website. Instead you have to understand it from the bottom-up, thinking in sets or patterns instead of trying to establish a top-down map or plan.

In simplicity of structure the tree is comparable to the compulsive desire for neatness and order that insists the candlesticks on a mantelpiece be perfectly straight and perfectly symmetrical about the centre. The semilattice, by comparison, is the structure of a complex fabric; it is the structure of living things, of great paintings and symphonies. It must be emphasized, lest the orderly mind shrink in horror from anything that is not clearly articulated and categorized in tree form, that the idea of overlap, ambiguity, multiplicity of aspect and the semilattice are not less orderly than the rigid tree, but more so. They represent a thicker, tougher, more subtle and more complex view of structure.

▴ From The City is Not a Tree by Christopher Alexander

A diagram from The City is Not a Tree, showing the difference between a semilattice and a tree.

In Towards Growing Peaches Online, Claire L. Evans writes about Christopher Alexander and what he referred to as “living structure”. She describes how A Pattern Language influenced software development in general and the design of Are.na more specifically.

Living structure is the natural order of life lived at human-scale. A compost heap has living structure. So does a good bus system, or a small public square. You can feel it in the difference between a lovely old building and a sterile new development; one is built by its inhabitants, and the other is designed by architects. “When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it,” Alexander writes. “It is so filled with the will of the maker that there is no room for its own nature.” On the other hand, things with living structure feel right; they’re harmonious.

To me, there’s something so exciting about this approach. Instead of designer as author/architect, it’s designer as facilitator: creating the space for unexpected things to happen; for emergence, indeterminancy, ambiguity. (I’ve written a bit more about this here.)

What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator. You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together.

▴ From Composers as Gardeners by Brian Eno

One of the features I love about Are.na is that the sidebar of each block lists all the other channels that it has been connected to in the sidebar. This helps to prompt further exploration and strengthen connections to the rest of the community. Similarly, Obsidian notes have an Unlinked mentions section that surfaces any occurances of the current note’s title in other notes. It’s Ted Nelson’s dream of hypertext in action!

The task of hypertext is not to manufacture connections, but to discover where they have always been. Hypertext researchers before the World Wide Web built systems to support this endless, sacred hunt for entanglement and hidden structure, as inherent to thought as ecosystems are to the natural world.

▴ From Women in Hypertext: On Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall’s Forward Anywhere by Claire L. Evans

A screenshot of Computer Lib / Dream Machines by Ted Nelson. There are simple hand-drawn diagrams with labels that say "Presentational sequences are arbitrary", "Hierarchies are typically spurious" and "Boundaries of fields are arbitrary".

What’s interesting about this to me is that this allows for discovery via other people’s curation rather than algorithms. As Jenny Odell points out in How To Do Nothing, the algorithms of mainstream tech platforms are always streamlining our taste, reducing our personalities down to smaller and smaller sub-categories of taste and feeding this back to us. This closes down pathways instead of opening them up, removing any opportunity for real serendipity.

But connecting to other people, discovering new things and making unexpected connections makes online spaces so much more interesting and alive! Other people are the best curators. For example: NTS is one of my favourite places on the internet because it’s content-driven and entirely powered by people with very good taste. Each show is curated by hand by people who deeply love music. There’s a strong community that anyone can join, either actively in the chatroom or by supporting them financially. They’re always looking for new ways to curate their content: picking their favourites, making themed collections or creating new infinte mixtapes.

On an even more intimate level, this is why I love reading together with friends. I get so much more out of every text by hearing about it from other people’s perspectives. Each person brings their own experiences and interpretations to the same text, making it richer and more multilayered as a result. Through discussing and untangling the text together you create something new in common, taking it to a whole different place.

It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.

▴ Ursula Le Guin

Even without the community element, Obsidian’s backlinks and outgoing links are interesting because they create a network from your thoughts. Individual ideas become less important that the links between multiple ideas.

One of the suggestions of Giles Turnbull’s Agile Comms Handbook (which I reference at work all the time) is to gradually build a narrative over time. I love this approach because it removes the need for each post to be a perfect, polished thought. This makes publishing less intimidating and more like thinking out loud. It allows for your ideas to change over time too.

In this way a blog, comprising a series of posts, can become a digital hyperlinked narrative of thought. New posts can link back to past posts. Teams can document what changes, and show how it has changed. They can show how their minds have changed, and what evidence or research brought those changes about.

This fits with Jay Springett’s and Matt Webb’s advice for publishing online too, which in turn vibes with Julia Cameron’s morning pages practice that I mentioned previously.

Persistent work, created with rhythm, results in an accumulation of creativity. The demonstration of effort, the work of the body, becomes practice.

▴ Jay Springett