January 15, 2023

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Medium Design by Keller Easterling

At the end of last year I read Medium Design by Keller Easterling. It didn't quite click with me—I couldn't quite put my finger on why—but here are my dog-eared sections from reading it.

Page 11

It is less like designing objects and more like adjusting the faders and toggles of organization.

Page 13

The fourth part considers the cultural narratives and persuasions that must also be designed to propel a change through culture. It may not be enough to mix new chemistries of space in the absence of these narrative catalysts that can also alter the physical contours of power.

Page 47

Everything will be distributed, ad hoc, individualized, and heterogeneous, except their own one, true, monistic platform.

Page 53

On Ebenezer Howard's ideas in To-Morrow: a Peaceful Path to True Reform in 1898.

The corporation would purchase the land and issue bonds, and it would be paid back by rents yielding but not exceeding an agreed-upon profit for the investors. Once the bonds were repaid, the renters became co-operative owners. Capital was a temporary means to generate value from arrangements&mspace;proximities to employment and community as well as access to green space. Those values and affordances, now sitting on the land, could be managed through collective ownership.

Page 72

In medium design, to consider only digital data as information is to exclude most of the information that a city exchanges.

Like the situated values discussed in the previous chapter, spatial arrangements embody actions and latent potentials. These social, economic, environmental, and political potentials constitute heavy information. Organizations of all kinds become more robust when they do not parse information with a single language, whether that language is lexical, digital, or mathematical. And they are information-rich because of the coexistence rather than the succession of technologies. Most prized is not the newness of technologies but the relationships between them.

Page 106

Perhaps most important, anytime the construction industry is activated, whether to build or subtract, jobs are created. Instead of relying only on housing starts for construction jobs, the deconstruction of houses offers many other kinds of work tied to many industries. Deconstruction could have compounding effects, since the material harvested as well as the physical construction prompts even more jobs related to everything from reuse of buildings to carbon sequestration.

Page 129

The legal apparatus that works so hard to expel people might focus instead on recognizing strings of timed journeys to acquire experience before returning home, or more robust procedures for granting international credentials in exchange for this work. While, for some, a fixed destination is appropriate, for others, there is only certainty about the next ten years of their child's education, or the next four years of college, or a need for professional reaccreditation. For still others, there might be a chance to design a global life for fifteen years of changing locations and educational opportunities.

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March 25, 2022

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Everything I Know About Life I Learned From PowerPoint by Russell Davies

A delightful book, that happens to be about giving presentations.

I've been giving talks for years, but I still learnt useful things reading Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by my friend Russell Davies. And it's changed how I've pulled together the presentations I've given since. I expect the presentation-averse would get even more from it.

Here are the sections I highlighted while reading, to give you a flavour...

Page vi

I'm using PowerPoint to stand in for Presentation Software — the category it created. ((I imagine Microsoft's lawyers will hate that. They'll be as angry as when people use Hoover to mean vacuum cleaner, or Google to mean 'abuse of monopoly power')

Page vii

When you prepare a presentation you do a lot of homework and research and thinking. It's natural to get attached to that stuff. You want to demonstrate the effort you've made. And to make it clear that you've thought about the edge cases and the extra things that people might ask about. If you do all that, though, you'll overwhelm your main point with detail, so just start by saying: this is what we're going to cover and this is what we're not.

Page 15

First, almost everyone can be a great presenter. You just need to talk about something you care or know about, and you need to do it to a supportive audience.

Page 26

"Find out who you are and do it on purpose." Said by the great Dolly Parton.

Page 99

And the conversational style of a good presentation helps too. It's not a speech, it's not radio, it's structured but conversational.

Page 103

So much of modern business life is like Tetris. Email, chat, Slack, everything. You complete a line and more stuff just comes at you.
A presentation also offers the special pleasure of being completable. A PowerPoint deck can be finished. You can tick it off. A presentation happens and then you can move on.

Page 125

This is your opportunity to ask for something that will make the world slightly better. You might as well take it. Otherwise what is the point?

Page 129

We call these things 'stories' but they don't have to be life-changing narratives with the tension and power of a Norse myth. Just some stuff that happened to some people.

Page 209

Everyone gets nervous, that's inevitable. A presentation is an important moment. You're occupying people's time and attention. That's bound to create some heightened feelings. The trick is to let your nerves push you into doing the right thing.

Page 247

But then you have to worry — what should I collect [in your ongoing library of slide and ideas in personal PowerPoint decks]? What would be useful?

It's simple. Things that interest you. Things you find fascinating. Remember — this is a long-term pursuit, there's not much point trying to guess what's going to be useful or career-enhancing ten or fifteen years from now. Instead you should have faith that what interests you is going to come in handy. Because it almost certainly will.

And if it doesn't interest you you're not going to do it diligently and it's going to feel like work.

Make your natural inquisitiveness into something a little more structured. Turn it from idly browsing the Internet into research.

Page 253

As the writer Steven Johnson puts it, in an article in the Wall Street Journal:

[...] We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

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November 29, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The agile comms handbook by Giles Turnbull

Giles Turnbull is one of my go-to people when I want to explain how to write blog posts, or the comms style for MCQN Ltd. Recently he's written The agile comms handbook (on Open Library), which collects together a load of his thoughts, ideas and advice for how to communicate with other people.

It's a very readable book. I got plenty from it—despite having read Giles' blog for years—and it's great to have it pulled together into one document, it'll save me digging out assorted blog posts for new hires. (That's one of the good things about books, I reckon; writing a book forces you to set down "this is what I think about topic X, at this time", whereas blogs evolve over time with each post. I felt that with my book).

Here are the sections I highlighted during my reading, to give you a flavour of the book...

Page 16

It's communication that relates to humans, to busy people with many demands on their time and attention. It's communication that aims to tell the truth, share mistakes and successes alike, and do so in creative, accessible, human language. It's communication that aims to build relationships and trust over time.

Page 26

Good creative communication describes the work as it happens: the best way to do that is to let people doing the work, and people who do communication, sit alongside each other (literally and metaphorically) so that between them, they can come up with engaging, accurate ways of describing it.

Page 37

That's what agile comms means. It gives you storytelling superpowers, and helps build trust and relationships.

Page 53

The Internet-era approach is more open. We don't know who might be interested in this, so it's written for everyone. It makes a contribution to a wider conversation, because it links to other articles about other aspects of similar government [in this example] work. It's part of a longer story.

Page 58

It doesn't matter how many things you collect, and it doesn't matter if you don't use them all. In my experience you will probably end up using a small number of them many many times. But having the archive is what matters. It's good to know that it's there, and that it's a repository of memories that future versions of you—or future versions of your team, regardless of whether or not you're still in it—can use if and when they need to.

Page 85

Links are very important. As a general rule of thumb, I encourage teams to link outwards to everything on the Internet that they can link to. If you mention another organisation, link to it. If you mention a rival company, link to it. If you write about a place, link to its Wikipedia entry. If you write about events in the news, link to well-written reports about them. If it's possible to link to something, do so. This is simple, old-fashioned good web behaviour and it still matters.

Page 127

Maybe your first effort is so rough, it's just a list of bullet points. Or a few lines of text and a picture. It might be a sketch on a whiteboard, or some sticky notes on a wall. All of these things count as bad first drafts.

All of them give you something to start with. Something you can share with colleagues for their input and feedback.

Page 128

The very best blog posts are lively and creative and interesting to read, because they've been through this process within a team. They were written and edited by the team, not by distant comms function writing on the team's behalf.

Page 144

For years now, I've been telling the teams and organisations I work with to "use the words that humans use".

That means ditching the corpspeak and instead writing in plain everyday language. Writing the same way that people speak. If you do that, you will find your written communication is suddenly much more effective. People won't have to work hard to grasp your point, because your point will be crystal clear.

Page 147

The human voice is written as if spoken. It uses the words normal people would use. It's written for simplicity and clarity. It's what one person would say to another person, if the two of them were looking at one another, face to face.

Page 157

How would you explain it using just 10 slides? Or in a single page of prose? Once you've created something like this, share it with someone you trust. Does it make sense to them?

Page 165

Good comms describes how you did what you've done. Bad comms just says that you've done it.

Page 181

The [creative] team combines production, writing, editing, filmmaking, support, coaching and creative direction. It's a unit of creative production that you can delegate to.

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August 29, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman

Last year, in response to a blog post about scenius and groups, Matt Edgar recommended Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.

It's taken a year to make it to the top of my reading pile, but it was an interesting read. Here are the sections I highlighted...

Page 5

A classic example is Michelangelo's masterpiece the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In our mind's eye, we see Michelangelo, looking remarkably like Charlton Heston, laboring alone on the scaffolding high above the chapel floor. In fact, thirteen people helped Michelangelo plan the work. Michelangelo was not only an artist, he was, as biographer William E. Wallace points out, the head of a good-sized entrepreneurial enterprise that collaboratively made art that bore his name [...]

Page 7

A Great Group can be a goad, a check, a sounding board, and a source of inspiration, support, and even love. Songwriter Jules Styne said he had to have a collaborator: "In the theater you need someone to talk to. You can't sit by yourself in a room and write."

Page 17

Curiosity fuels every Great Group. The members don't simply solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that is its own reward.

Page 68

Recruitment was critical for several reasons. Taylor believed in the ARPA creed of choosing people over projects when funding research. Like George Pake, who headed both PARC as a whole and its science lab, Taylor believed that good science was done from the bottom up. You hired great people and turned them loose on projects that reflected their unique talents and passions. They told you what they needed to do. The more easily the individuals interacted, the less distracted from their mission they would be. Collaboration was formally encouraged. "You could spend 40 percent of your time working as 'hands' on somebody else's project," Kay says.

Page 71

Taylor knew better than to burden his gifted team with arbitrary rules. If some were arrogant, so be it. It was a small enough price to pay for talent (the attitude was pretty much "we don't care if they're prima donnas, as long as they can sing"). But the weekly meeting was mandatory. "There was only one rule not to be broken at PARC," Kay says. "There was one weekly meeting you had to go to, and you had to stay until the end."

Each week, participants grabbed a beanbag chair from the pile as they came into the meeting. At these often heated sessions, every member of the group was exposed to the ideas and fragmentary accomplishments of the others. Those "bits and pieces," as Taylor called them, were what everyone might have to build on in his or her own research. Thus the weekly meeting served as a simple but remarkably efficient structure for exposing everyone to information that might prove key somewhere down the line. The weekly meeting allowed information to be shared without resorting to time-consuming reports and memos. It also allowed tensions and disagreements to surface and be wrangled out on the spot. The meetings were a reflection of Taylor's understanding of the dynamics of extraordinary groups. "No organization works beyond the size you can get all the principals together in a room and thrash out the issues before you go home," Kay says.

Taylor was also sensitive to the critical importance of his group's having the right tools. Most often, that meant tools they created themselves. In the ARPA community, everyone was both a hardware and a software person. "You had this group that was able to roll its own," Kay says.

Page 78

Bob Potter, who headed the computer-engineering facility that Xerox established in Dallas during the PARC era, was one corporate decision maker who felt the sting of PARC's collective scorn. "[...] they were only interested in their own thing. They thought they were four feet above everybody else. What the PARC people never understood was that they were supposed to help the less fortunate, less intelligent rest of the world."

Page 97

Carville's rhetoric is a reminder of just how powerful the underappreciated art of persuasion continues to be in collective action of all kinds. People are not necessarily swayed by reason. "The head has never beaten the gut in a political argument yet, and I doubt if it ever will," Carville writes in All's Fair.

Page 127

In organizing his Skunk Works, Johnson paid no attention to how the quarters looked or how comfortable they were. One of the principles he held dearest was that designers and mechanics should work side by side, making suggestions and addressing problems as they went along, so the prototype could be modified on the spot.

Page 130

The Skunk Works, Disney Animation, and the Macintosh team were remarkably innovative, but they weren't think tanks—institutions whose real mission is the production of ideas. These Great Groups were places where products were being made, things that had to be delivered in a timely fashion to the world. One of Steve Jobs's mantras at Apple was "Real artists ship." Johnson, too, believed that a plane must be designed brilliantly but not so perfectly that it never gets off the drawing board. In Johnson's view, some things, notably safety, must never be compromised. He built triple redundancy into the Blackbird, for instance, so that a failure in any one system, or even two, would not mean the loss of a pilot. But, like Thomas Aquinas before him and Steve Jobs after, Johnson knew that something that exists is intrinsically better than something, however brilliantly conceived, that doesn't.

Page 141

[Ben Rich, successor to Johnson in running the Skunk Works,] believed, for instance, in the value of generalists "who are more open to nonconventional approaches than narrow specialists." (Both the Manhattan Project and Xerox PARC similarly benefited from the presence of people who were not narrow specialits, but deep generalists.)

Page 158

Although its mission was never as clear as that of groups involved in creating an actual thing, Black Mountain was a place that throbbed with the excitement of creating something new. All Great Groups are boundary busters, and Black Mountain, with its unusual curriculum and changing cast of fascinating characters, was no exception.

Page 181

The role of women in the Manhattan Project is troubling. From Madame Curie, the codiscoverer of polonium and radium, to Lisa Meitner, the grievously unsung physicist, who with her nephew, Otto Frisch, first explained how neutron capture could result in the release of enormous amounts of energy, women were crucial at every stage in the history of nuclear physics. But they were a decided minority among the players in the Tech Area. There were a few female physicists and other scientists, but, for the most part, women played supportive roles, doing tedious mathematical calculations, for example, and serving as secretaries.

Page 198

Great Groups give the lie to the remarkably persistent notion that successful institutions are the lengthened shadow of a great woman or man. It's not clear that life was ever so simple that individuals, acting alone, solved most significant problems. Our tendency to create heroes rarely jibes with the reality that most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.

Page 199

Every Great Group has a strong leader. This is one of the paradoxes of creative collaboration. Great Groups are made up of people with rare gifts working together as equals. Yet, in virtually every one there is one person who acts as maestro, organizing the genius of the others. He or she is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Ironically, the leader is able to realize his or her dream only if the others are free to do exceptional work. Typically, the leader is the one who recruits the others, by making the vision so palpable and seductive that they see it, ttoo, and eagerly sign up.

Page 202

The broader and more diverse the network, the greater the potential for a Great Group. The richer the mix of people, the more likely that new connections will be made, new ideas will emerge.

Page 214

Great Groups ship. Successful collaborations are dreams with deadlines. They are places of action, not think tanks or retreat centers devoted solely to the generation of ideas. Great Groups don't just talk about things (although they often do that at considerable length). They make things—amazing, original things, such as a plane that a bat can't find. Great Groups are hands-on. Think of Kistiakowsky, the great chemist, sitting with a dentist's drill correcting defects in castings because that was what the project needed.

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May 06, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Lucas Plan by Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott

I've had an interest in the Lucas Plan for a few years now. Recently, Ross lent me a copy of The Lucas Plan book, written by Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott.

It was published in 1982, at the tail-end of the Lucas Plan work. It's a really interesting look at (a) how the workers might have shifted their work into technologies that we could really do with right now; (b) how difficult that is when faced with the power of management, union hierarchy and the government (both Labour and Tory); and the challenges of growing initiatives to do manufacturing differently.

As someone deeply involved in taking a similar approach in growing makerspaces and the maker movement, it's equal parts heartening (others have walked a similar path before, and there are lessons to learn) and dispiriting (they achieved so much and still had such a small impact when pitted against the immense power of the status quo).

We are doing things differently—there's no focus on maximising employment, instead we're more interested in owning the machines—but the climate crisis is now an immediate rather than future threat. I got a lot out of reading this.

For a more modern, and visual, look at the project, check out The Plan that came from the bottom up, a documentary that was released a couple of years ago.

Now on to my dog-eared pages from reading the book...

Page 7

In their quarterly newspaper, Combine News, they put their case like this:

Many of our members have deep reservations about nationalization. Indeed, the Combine's central concern is job security and a work situation in which our members can utilize fully their skill and ability in the interests of the community. Only in so far as nationalization could provide these things is it of any interest to the Combine.

Page 8

Mick Cooney, an AUEW steward from Burnley argued:

[...]If we are going to sit back and leave it to the politicians to carry on, then, well, we deserve everything we get.

Page 10

The executive of the Combine Committee selected and developed five categories of proposals: medical equipment; transport vehicles and components; improved braking systems; energy products and devices for undersea work. The criteria of social usefulness referred not only to products but to the production process itself. Thus the plan proposed production processes which would tend to conserve and recycle energy and materials rather than waste them, and would liberate rather than suppress human creativity. The shop stewards believed that any move towards industrial democracy would be a sham unless the nature of the labour process itself was changed.

Page 31

In aerospace, up to the mid-1970s at least, close contact between designers and shop-floor workers was normal: shop-floor workers trying out and suggesting modifications to designs which they would then discuss with the technical workers from the design office. Their skills are very different; the designers' skill involves the ability to specify measurements in mathematical terms, whereas the fitters' or welders' skills involve the ability to make very precise judgements on the basis of more tacit understanding built up from experience. Through their work together they tend to respect the differences. It is not surprising then that the first combine committee which from its origins brought together office workers and shop-floor workers should be in the aerospace industry.

Page 34

The trade unions at the Willesden site prided themselves on always being one step ahead of management. They had even established a tradition whereby the shop stewards would meet every Monday to decide on "the stir" for the week. They calculated that the only way to keep the initiative over the personnel manager was to start something themselves. The same philosophy led them to take the initiative in forming the combine. As soon as they heard rumours of Lucas having secret talks with the IRC about the takeover of the special products group of English Electric (EE) they made contact with the shop stewards at the factories involved. The result was a joint meeting on 13 December 1969, less than a month after takeover negotiations were complete. This was the first meeting of what became the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee.

Page 44

The Birmingham affiliations to the Combine Committee were quickly followed by the affiliations of the majority of unions at the two Lucas Aerospace sites on Merseyside: the Victor Works in Liverpool and the ex-English Electric plant at Netherton.

Page 54
Some enlightened and all-too-rare understanding of where they should and (more importantly) shouldn't expand their interests, despite opportunities.

In the eyes of many trade unionists, the sign that a trade-union organization has "made it" is to take a formal, recognized part in negotiations with management. The reasons for this are obvious. In many ways negotiation, collective bargaining, is what trade unionism is essentially about. It is through collective bargaining that trade-union power is finally cashed. There is a tendency therefore for trade unionists to assume that a new trade-union organization, created to fill a serious gap in the established trade-union structures, will inevitably become, and should intend to become, a new formally recognized negotiating body. Combine delegates saw several problems with this, concerning the desirability of permanent, institutionalized national corporate bargaining.

Their fear was that corporate bargaining would lead to an over-centralized committee whose members would become out of touch with shop-floor feeling and therefore shop-floor power. They saw the danger of the autonomy and therefore the strength of site-level organizations being sapped by an overbearing national committee. Dick Skelland, a GMWU steward from Liverpool, explained the importance of this issue: "This question of the autonomy of the sites was the most controversial issue...After all, shop stewards felt that the national union officials were already taking away a lot of their power. The last thing they wanted was a combine committee taking it away too."

Page 62
Getting strong makerspace-weeknotes-or-newsletter vibes here...

By all accounts Combine News sold well at the sites. Nevertheless, there were problems in getting news in from plants, which led to criticism. From Wolverhampton, for instance:

There's not enough sent into Combine News by the rank and file. Liaison with the Combine executive isn't good enough...We need more of a letters page. We should have more stories.

Page 73

In theory perhaps an organization should not depend on individuals but in the creation of new organizations, against the inertia of established relationships, the networks of trust and understanding built up by individuals with a vision of the new possibilities are vital. These relationships are also precarious, so that if the committed individuals leave and no new institution has been established, the whole network which is a foundation of the new organization can virtually collapse.

Page 75

While management was licking the wounds of defeat, the Combine were not satisfied that they had found an adequate strategy to resist the destruction of jobs. The fact that they had stalled management's plans and in doing so developed a united organization were achievements to be proud of. But 300 jobs had gone, through volunteers and early retirement, and more would undoubtedly soon go the same way. The problem was not lack of orders: order books had been full even as the redundancies were being announced. Reports from all the sites even indicated that the company was pressing for widespread overtime and was sub-contracting a large volume of work. The job loss was rather the consequence of management's restructuring of both its production process—towards longer production runs, more computer-controlled machines—and its investment in other European countries and the United States. The Combine discussed these tendencies. They believed they were confronting a new form of unemployment against which the traditional tactics of the trade-union movement had, in their own experience (the Willesden occupation and the recent campaign), proved to be inadequate. It was this kind of thinking which led a year or so later to their Corporate Plan.

Page 83

The Combine executive expressed its view in an article which initiated a debate about nationalization throughout the membership by arguing:

[...]We could insist that the skill talents of our members could be used on a whole range of ancillary products which the aircraft industry would be quite capable of handling. We could reduce the nagging insecurity which has overshadowed the industry for years, and start to give to the workforce in it a real sense of direction and purpose. We could begin to expand the product ranges the industry handles, to engage on socially useful products, such as monorails and hovercraft. We would be in a better position to create an industry where the skill and talent of our members used to the full, and in a much truer sense, is used in the interest of the nation as a whole. It would be at least a step in the right direction.

Page 91

Lucas's experience with various types of small conventional power packs (used in aircraft) and fuel cells (used in spacecraft) could be put to a wide range of uses. So too could its knowledge of heat-pump technology. The Combine also felt that some of the expertise associated with aircraft blind-landing systems might prove relevant to the provision of sight substitution aids for the blind.

Page 92

There are periods when the arms industry is the source of major technological advances and consequently a dynamic force within the economy. It could be argued that this was the case in the United States and Britain in the 1940s and '50s. But the conservatism of government defence departments and the armed forces on the demand side and the intense competition between a small number of prime contractors on the supply side produced an approach to technological change which holds back radical innovation. This combination of competing suppliers for a monopolistic and traditionalist customer has for the last decade or so led to "trend innovation" rather than the more fundamental "product or process innovation". The race between the prime contractors is often a race to elaborate on the weapon systems first designed in the 1940s and '50s. Several writers on the arms industry have called this "baroque" technology. Mary Kaldor describes this as consisting "largely of improvements to a given set of performance characteristics. Submarines are faster, quieter, bigger, and have longer ranges. Aircraft have greater speed, more powerful thrust and bigger pay loads..." Morris Janowitze describes the routinization of innovation in the military establishment, which lies behind "baroque" technology in the armaments industry, as "a form, though a modified one, of technological conservatism. Whether the problem is missiles or manpower, planning towards the future tends to be a perfection of trends rather than an imaginative emphasis on revolutionary development."

Page 94

In fact at several sites, Burnley, Bradford and Luton, most of the initial ideas came from the shop floor; technical workers would often follow up these ideas by looking through technical journals for background information. In two cases local connections between the workforce and a local hospital or home for disabled people was an important stimulus. For instance, at the Wolverhampton site there had been a long connection between a nearby handicapped children's centre and a charity club based in the factory. In 1966 one of the apprentices in the factory designed a vehicle which could be used by children at the centre suffering from spina bifida. He was able to mould the back of the cast to suit the shape of the child's back. The "Hobcart", as it was called, could have made a huge difference to the lives of these children had it been developed and manufactured on a larger scale. Lucas would not consider it, even though the Australian Spina Bifida Association placed a large order. The apprentice, Mike Parry-Evans, did not at the time consider it was worthwhile to press the project on Lucas.

In the end the cart was made, with meagre resources and without the further development needed, at a borstal. This was just the kind of product which could be pressed for through the Combine's Corporate Plan. So, although Mike Parry-Evans was in the United States his colleagues suggested that the Hobcart should be one of the proposals for the Plan.

Page 98

[...] the Combine's objectives are to fight for secure, useful and dignified jobs for all those who work at Lucas Aerospace; to create such jobs for those whose skills and energies are at present wasted; to establish training facilities for such jobs for youth and women who at present have limited access to skilled jobs; and to make products which help to solve rather than to exacerbate human problems.

Page 107

At first the meaning given to the term "socially useful production" tended to be intuitive and implicit. As with many aspects of the Plan, the definitions and theories emerged from discussion of the practice and experience rather than the other way round. As the discussion developed Combine Committee delegates spelt out one approximate definition of a socially useful product.

  • The product must not waste energy and raw materials, neither in its manufacture nor in its use.
  • The product must be capable of being produced in a labour intensive manner so as not to give rise to structural unemployment.
  • The product must lend itself to organizational forms within production which are non-alienating, and without authoritarian giving of orders. Instead, the work should be organized so as to link practical and theoretical tasks and allow for human creativity and enthusiasm.

Page 108

The Combine Committee were not trying to lay down the law as to what was socially useful and what was not. However, the implication was that the basis on which choices are made at present about products and resources is no less arbitrary. The Lucas stewards illustrated that the present way in which product choices are made and market power is distributed leads to social needs going unmet, even when there are the resources to meet them. Options are closed off which are both technologically feasible and socially desirable. Consider for example the Combine's proposal for a hybrid vehicle. The technology for it has been known for decades. The need for it has existed for even longer. People would very likely have been buying it, had they had the option. The problem is they would not have been buying it in sufficient numbers for it to be profitable for the mass-production giant car firms to make the extra investment required. And the car industry is such that the giant mass-production firms determine the options which we face on the market. Until the energy crisis possibly makes the hybrid vehicle profitable for the major corporations, this option of a non-polluting town car is not available on the "free" market.

Page 109

On employee development, the Combine points out that there is no indication that the company is working on an adequate programme of apprenticeships and the intake of young people. It adds: "the company is making no attempt to employ women in technical jobs and, apart from the recruitment of these from outside, there are very many women doing routine jobs well below their existing capabilities. Quite apart from the desirability of countering these discriminating practices, the employment of women in the male-dominated areas would have an important "humanizing" effect on science and technology." It concludes: "it is our view that the entire workforce, including semi-skilled and skilled workers are capable of retraining for jobs which would greatly extend the range of work they could undertake."

Page 137

Copies [of the market survey for heatpumps] were handed out to the trade-union representatives as part of the back-up material for the New Products Committee. Management made no comments on it. Nevertheless they had signed it, implying they had read it. Danny Conroy, a trade-union representative on the committee took it home to read:

"It was a big thick document, but if you bothered to read it as I did, it predicted a (European) market for heat pumps of £1000M by 1985 at 1975 prices. I took it into work the next day and when we challenged management—who were always saying they didn't see a future for heat pumps—you could see by their faces that they hadn't read the document. And they didn't expect us to read it."

The Burnley stewards made a lot of this incident. It illustrated to them an important point about the Corporate Plan. Terry Moran explains:

"It vindicated our proposal to create jobs by making the heat pump. It showed there was a massive demand for heat pumps. In this way it also showed that advance thinking comes best from the people on the shop floor who are concerned about their jobs and about their country, rather than about how to get the easiest profits. There would probably not have been a profit in the short term with the heat pump. But they would have provided jobs and exports and in the long run it would have been commercially viable."

The shop stewards at Burnley certainly won the propaganda war over the heat pump. Meanwhile the prototype was being built at Burnley based on the specification produced by ERG. The machinist and fitter evidently became very involved in the project and the practical interaction among the members of the Burnley team was very much alon the lines encouraged in the Corporate Plan, i.e. an "integrated project team" of blue- and white-collar workers.

Page 138

It would be more sensible, as the stewards recognized, to use a larger, cheaper mass-produced car engine for a unit suited to providing heat for a group of homes.

Page 139

The Combine in fact suggested that heat-pump production would be ideal for creating work for the Liverpool workforce following the 1978 redundancy threat; a detailed plan for a new production unit was even developed.

Page 154

The oil crisis meant that all kinds of official bodies, from transnational corporations through government departments to the Royal Family, became interested in alternative energy technologies. This interest from the establishment raised all the political questions of control over technological change which are often ignored in a movement united around technological forms. The Lucas Aerospace workers took this questioning further by taking several alternative technology ideas out of the realms of apolitical utopias. By using and modifying alternative technologies in their resistance to redundancies, the Lucas stewards were showing how the design of technologies and the choice of technologies involves bitter struggles over power, not simply over different technical "fixes".

Some parts of the AT [Alternative Technology] movement had in fact already begun to realize that the key issue was not so much the hardware itself as the politics of production, distribution and control. An editor of the radical AT magazine Undercurrents gave an indication of the thinking going on:

Small may be beautiful, but is small fascism beautiful? It is quite possible to envisage a future society in which widespread use is made of wind energy, methane, organic farming, geodesic domes, and all the other alternative technology clichés, but which is thoroughly repressive in a social, political and cultural sense.

The emphasis within the AT movement had been gradually moving away from individual "self-sufficiency" in remote communes and towards "community-scaled technology", i.e. technologies suited to more conventional living situations. There was also a shift of interest taking place from "the technology of consumption to the organization of production".

Page 164

[A group of women from a factory earmarked for closure] travelled nearly eight hundred miles to hear a talk that Terry Moran from Burnley and Mike Cooley from Willesden were giving near Stockholm. Soon after they had returned to Skelleften they and their colleagues started to draw up their own alternative plan for protective and utility clothing as a basis for their campaign to keep the factory open. They did this in a very direct, some might say naive, way. They contacted wood-choppers, slaughterhouse workers, steelworkers, miners and hospital workers asking them what kind of special clothing they needed. At first people laughed. The Algot Nord women talked to them, explaining what they were trying to do, and soon they were convinced. As a result the women received detailed replies from thirty-seven sources. Their campaign was only partially successful. They failed to make the government (the textile industry is nationalized in Sweden) keep the factory open itself, but at least they were given the factory and an initial grant to start a co-operative. All the twenty or so women who had fought so hard kept their jobs; the co-operative is still going and slowly expanding to this day.

Page 166

Moreover their questioning of the direction of this "progress" arose from within the very process of making these wheels [of progress] go round. They consequently are able to see the other directions in which the wheels can go; and the ways they can be redesigned. So their questioning of the glib optimism of the conventional views of progress was not fatalistic. It could help directly to mobilize for change.

Page 176

You would have thought that by now a Labour government and TUC who were serious about their Industrial Strategy, based as it was on job creation and the involvement of trade unions in strategic planning, would have got round a table with the authors of the Corporate Plan to discuss the problems of implementing it.


These are just some points that could have been discussed, had there been an ounce of determination to get something done.


One indication of the close relations between the Department of Industry and Lucas is an easy interchange of leading personnel from the department to the company and vice versa. In 1978 John Williams, deputy chairman of Lucas Aerospace, was seconded to work as the right-hand man to the chairman of the NEB, with special responsibility for [the nationalized] British Leyland (incidentally a major customer of Lucas Industries). More significant, though, were the movements of Sir Anthony Part, who until June 1976 was Permanent Secretary at the Department of Industry. In an interview with The Director in January 1975 Part mentioned that he wished to go into industry or commerce when he retired from the Civil Service. The Director thought this might at first be difficult:

Unfortunately there are complications here, owing to the Civil Service rules about retired top bureaucrats going into firms with which they have had official dealings...it doesn't look as if there'll be many firms which don't fall into that category for Sir Anthony Part.

Certainly, Lucas did not fall into that category. As Permanent Secretary, Part would have had contact with Lucas at least since the Department of Industry in 1969 gave Lucas £3 million to carry out the initial rationalization of the Aerospace components industry in 1969. But this kind of complication did not slow Part down in the rapid fulfilment of his desire to be an industrial baron. By October 1976, three months after leaving the Department of Industry, he took up his seat on the Board of Directors of Lucas Industries.

Page 184

On 20 March, four days after the announcement [of plant closures], a meeting was held between [Lucas' General Manager] James Blyth and Ken Gill [General Secretary of the largest union in Lucas Aerospace] in the New Ambassadors Hotel. What exactly went on there or in any of the subsequent private meetings we will never known, and neither did the Combine Committee or any "lay representatives" at the time. Gill never told the Combine or any TASS representative in Lucas Aerospace of the meeting. Whatever the detailed discussion, three months later, on 12 June 1978, Gerald Kaufman announced a deal whereby Lucas was given £6 million to build a new factory to retain 500 of the original 1,400-strong workforce in Liverpool. In the year of a possible general election, a year when unemployment was over 12 per cent in Liverpool, a year when the government was allowing British Leyland to close a five-year-old factory in the Speke estate of Liverpool, it was important for Kaufman to be seen to be doing something to soften the blow of a highly publicized closure on Merseyside. And the emphasis certainly was on being seen. The announcement came in answer to a "planted" question from Sir Harold Wilson about unemployment in Liverpool.** In the announcement the emphasis was on the company "opening the new factory". It did not mention the fact that the 500 "new" jobs were far outweighed by the loss of 950 jobs. The shop stewards at Liverpool distributed a leaflet which gave a more accurate impression:

If the company had gone to the Industry Minister and said, "We wish to take 950 jobs away from Merseyside, please give us £6 million," the answer would have been swift, rude and to the point. They now seem to be achieving the same end by the simple ploy of first declaring a complete closure with the loss of 1,450 jobs, and then allowing themselves to be persuaded to relent by the offer of what is believed to be a £6 million subsidy towards a new £10.5 million plant employing only 500 people. The factory is supposed to be for machining work only, that is a factory without a product, a superior jobbing shop.

** The site for the new factory is Wilson Road, Huyton.

Page 190

Some of the [assembled for tri-partite discussions between workers, management and Government] fourteen-man committee's alternatives were for immediate implementation. But the shop stewards' brief was also to suggest alternatives that would provide jobs with a long-term future, and jobs which would not be saved at the cost of jobs in other plants or companies. The report suggested products for Liverpool which could have given these works a secure future, and could have even led to the creation of new jobs. These products included the GG 220 gas turbine for which Lucas had recently refused to accept orders; fuel control systems; coal-fuelled gas turbines; coal combustion fluidized beds; and the full-scale production of the heat pump, for which there was already a prototype at Burnley. For each of these products there were wider social arguments and evidence of new markets as well as the case for job creation. The two types of turbines proposed were especially economical in their fuel consumption. And the heat pump, as we have seen, provides a particularly cheap form of domestic heating.

These products would take some time to establish at Liverpool. In the meantime, Liverpool could produce kidney machines, for which the Victor works were easily adaptable and for which there was a clear social need. A section of the report went into detail about the kind of kidney machine which medical experts considered to be most beneficial to patients. In connection with all these products the Lucas stewards made contact with workers producing similar products in other companies to work on a more co-ordinated strategy of workers' plans to avoid workers' proposals for one company putting workers in another out of work.

Page 191

It seems that serious bargaining was not the purpose of the tripartite meeting. The Department of Industry had a prepared package which the national union officials were ready to accept. The Department of Industry's proposal involved giving Lucas another £2 million in order to save an additional 150 jobs in Liverpool and Bradford together. The fourteen-man committee said this would be unacceptable to their members and they forced an adjournment.

At the next meeting this stand by the fourteen-man committee resulted in a further 150 jobs being offered. All but one of the committee reasserted that their brief from the delegate conference which had elected them was to prevent any loss of jobs—the extra 150 would still mean a loss of 650 jobs. The one shop steward who found the additional 150 acceptable was the AUEW convenor at the Liverpool factory; his members were going to fill the jobs that were saved. It was GMWU members whose jobs would be lost. The lack of unanimity of the fourteen-man committee, which was anyway in a subordinate role to the national officials, enabled the official negotiators to reach agreement.

Page 207

By contrast, in the case of an unofficial combine committee, lacking support from established institutions, always having to improvise and move forward in order to survive, the trust a secretary builds up for the combine tends to depend considerably on the trust for the individual concerned. And because his or her skills have come from improvising rather than operating explicit rules, these skills will tend to be tacit and intuitive. There are no trade-union courses on combine committee organization, nor handbooks on the problems facing a shop steward when he or she take on the job of co-ordinating many different factory committees across the country. The transition from one secretary to another in the Lucas Combine Committee was therefore a difficult one.

Page 223

Although alternative products are thus only one part of the idea of workers' plans, they are an important part. And they are important as much for illustrating new possibilities as for immediate negotiations with management. A design or prototype of a product which could meet unmet needs, and for which otherwise redundant resources are available, stimulates people into thinking of new ways of organizing production and designing technology to meet people's needs more adequately.

Take the road-rail vehicle, for instance. This featured in much of the media coverage of the Plan; primarily because a small prototype test unit had actually been built at NELP in 1975/76 by Richard Fletcher, with help from the Lucas stewards. The science and technology television programme "Tomorrow's World" had shown an early version on test on a disused railway track, shifting from road to rail at a level-crossing. It aroused considerable interest, for example from the Highlands and Islands Development Board and various overseas governments, including Tanzania. Nearer home, Labour councillors in Burnley were particularly interested in the road-rail vehicle: "It's just what we need to keep some of the branch lines open and to service the more outlying areas. And production of it could provide more jobs for workers at British Leyland and Lucas," commented Councillor Birdshaw. Labour councillors on several other local and county authorities, including Sheffield, London and Manchester, along with local trade unionists concerned with transport were thinking on similar lines.

Under more favourable political conditions, co-ordinated pressure from workers in Lucas, in British Leyland and in Dunlop and from local authority purchasers might have forced the companies to go into production of the road-rail vehicle; or perhaps a public or municipal enterprise could have been established. As it was, the best that could be done was to modify an existing bus to produce a working prototype.

Page 231

The first question to ask in any assessment of the Combine Committee's plan is, how successful has it been in achieving its own ends? It had its origins in the fight to save jobs. In this the Combine's campaign between 1975 and 1981 was remarkably effective. Instead of 2,000 redundancies in 1977 and two closures in 1978, only about 100 jobs have been lost of the past four years due to compulsory redundancies or closures. Moreover, in three cases local redundancy plans were withdrawn as a result of campaigns based on the Corporate Plan.

Page 235

The reasons for these cutbacks have not been "technical". Rather they were a result of corporate priorities and financial objectives. This helps us to rule out at least one explanation of why negotiations did not take place over the Combine's Plan. Technical difficulties were not the main problem.

It is worth noting in connection with the technical feasibility of diversification that Lucas Aerospace is well used to changing product lines regularly—since it deals mainly with short-run batch production. While some plants may not initially be suited to longer runs, there does not seem to be any fundamental reason why the emphasis could not be shifted. A researcher on secondment to CAITS produced a detailed plan demonstrating how a new Liverpool plant could be developed for heat-pump production, using "integrated product teams" rather than conventional flow lines.

Feels like something pitching for more flexible production facilities, which would be even more achievable these days with more CNC machines. That would open up more possibilities for "mass customisation".

Page 236

In addition, the whole field of renewable energy systems is expanding rapidly as predicted in the Plan—with wind and solar units of the types proposed in the Corporate Plan gaining increasing acceptability. The UK solar collector industry already has a £25 million annual turnover (including exports) and a number of major UK wind-power programmes were launched in 1981 involving industrial consortia led by GEC, Taylor Woodrow, McAlpine's and British Aerospace, including £5.6 million allocated to a 3MW unit for the Orkneys, likely to be the first of several large wind turbines for UK use.


Lucas Aerospace, however, is not in the habit of looking for new markets. In fact probably one of the main reasons why the company wants to stick with military aerospace is that it can then forget about "marketing", relying instead on profitable cost-plus defence department contracts.

Page 237

There are probably other internal factors which reinforce this externally favoured inertia. Several studies have shown that, as companies grow in size, proportionately more resources are given over to administration and less to innovation. Creative technologists face more bureaucratic constraints from accountants and administrators; and work on technical innovation decreases status and career opportunities. Not all large corporations suffer from these tendencies to inertia all of the time; there are also aspects of increased size which can favour innovation. Certainly Lucas has been more or less responsive to innovation at different times. But judging from the experience of the electronics workers and the technical managers in Birmingham and the recent fate of several new diversification projects, inertia, fear of the unfamiliar and an unwillingness to take risks have all contributed to Lucas's response to the Combine's proposals. What the Combine's Plan did was to move ahead of the market, by identifying technical possibilities that met social needs in socially appropriate ways and preserved jobs and skills. It could be argued that this approach is likely to be more effective in throwing up original and innovative, as well as socially approapriate, ideas—in particular since it draws on a wider range of people than just company "new ventures" or R&D groups.

Page 238

In the event, all that these companies could offer were "technical fixes" involving very sophisticated (and expensive) technology, much of it of dubious value and purpose: computer data files and analysis techniques for criminal records and crime-pattern analysis, electronic surveillance systems to combat crime, and so on. As Robert Boguslaw put it in 1972:

Could we really expect technical élites nurtured on a diet of weapons system development, a criterion framework of time and cost efficiency, and a "free enterprise" management ethos, really to address themselves to the technological tasks involved in providing human dignity and a peaceful planet?

Page 240

A linked point is that, if left to conventional industry to develop, new potentially radical technologies may not be developed appropriately—the type of devices they would produce would reflect the priority of the individual company's profits, e.g. expensive planned-obsolescent solar collectors which fall apart in a few years, sold to gullible rich individual consumers, or giant centralized solar, wind or wave power units reinforcing the monopoly of big business and/or the state. So it is important to specify the technology and its use in detail. And of course the context can change; what might be "progressive" in one context (e.g. small-scale technology) might not be in another: the concept of social usefulness is a dynamic one.

Page 243

This claim has a number of implications. First it challenges management's prerogative to manage without accountability to workers. The Lucas workers' experience of drawing up and trying to implement their proposals led them to question whether a ruling or managing class was necessary for the production of wealth. But it is not only managerial authority which is challenged. So also are political and economic parameters within which the labour movement has operated. For the Lucas Combine's Plan implies much greater popular control over social and political decisions than is possible through the present British state.

Page 245

It is not only in industry that people, especially in the last fifteen years, have been doing a lot more than "describing their grievances". Many groups in the wider community also are not satisfied with defending the status quo. Among women, for example, there has been a strong emphasis on campaigning for, and in some cases creating, health-care provisions, nurseries and child-care facilities which more adequately meet women's needs.

Page 247

A second factor favourable to the initiative of the Lucas Aerospace stewards was the versatile potential of the technology in the aerospace components industry. Aerospace components are produced in small batches to meet special orders; and to meet the specific requirements of each order the machine tools and the production process have to be adaptable. Most of the machine tools in Lucas Aerospace are what are known as "universal" machine tools, which can be used to carry out many different engineering jobs. By contrast, in industries based on mass-production the machine tools are purpose-built or "dedicated" to perform one job only. Mass-production is organized on flow-line principles, often with relatively inflexible conveyor-belt systems designed to maximize productivity for one specific product. It could be argued, therefore, that in mass-production industries alternative production options are not normally as easy to envisage as they are in the decreasing number of companies in small-batch production.

Page 251

Trade unions, who generally understand their role as being to get the best terms for the job rather than to question the nature of the jobs available, do not in general take up issues of skill and access to information. Even among craft unions the resistance to deskilling is a defence of the label of "skilled" and the wage levels which go with the label, rather than a defence of the content.

Page 254

Very few parts, if any, of contemporary capitalist economies conform to the criteria for a free market set out by those who theorize the market as the most democratic mechanism for economic decision-making. This does not mean that central state planning is the only alternative. The experience of the Soviet Union indicates that, for all the social improvements it has brought, centralized planning can be wasteful and inefficient in the way it allocates resources. A central government planning department, however well computerized, cannot handle efficiently all the millions of connections which, like a nervous system, make up the economy. Innovation tends to get stifled as much, if not more, than in the West, unless it comes through official established channels. Working people in the Soviet Union have few ways in which they can exert a democratic check on the waste, inefficiency and lost opportunities they see, and no means by which to press collectively for improvements in their standard of living and quality of life.

The wrongs of Soviet-type planning, however, do not turn the wrongs of the disguised planning of the Western economies into rights.

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April 03, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Making Art Work by W. Patrick McCray

"Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture" by W. Patrick McCray (on Openlibrary) is an interesting history of the art and technology scene in the mid-20th Century. As a technologist-who's-also-been-an-artist, and someone who helps run an organisation that welcomes technologists and artists (among others) and provides a place for them to work and find each other there was lots of interest in the book.

As ever, lots of what we're doing has been done before, or at least something similar has. It's nice to think that someone might write a history of the DoES Liverpool scene sometime; we'll have to keep striving for doing epic shit.

Here are my "dog-eared pages" from reading it...

Page 15

Compared to artists and those who write about them, engineers often appear as relatively silent actors in the larger historical record. Moreover, compared with scientists, engineers are papyrophobic. That is to say, they are less inclined to record their recollections and activities on paper.


When British artist Dick Higgins coined the word "intermedia" in 1965, he was referring to art that "seems to fall between media." Intermedia art was understood as a hybrid thing, cross-fertilizing and blurring boundaries between traditional arts like painting, sculpture, and dance while adding film images, electronic sounds, and other technologies. Higgins term suggested a coming era when traditional borders between artistic media as well as academic disciplines and professional communities would shift and possibly be erased.

Page 37

Outside the studio, Malina (and other kinetic artists) realized that many galleries and museums were not set up to display electrical works. To help alleviate concerns of gallery owners, he might include a statement on the back of his pieces noting that, if malfunctioning, it could "be put in order by any electrician or radio repair man."

Page 49

In 1961, for example, in the Belgium city of Liège, Schöffer unveiled his Cybernetic Tower. Standing 170 feet tall, its suite of sensors registered ambient environmental changes such as wind, temperature, and humidity. The information collected went to a computer that, in conjunction with electric motors, varied the movement of large rectilinear metal blades and vanes. Sunlight was reflected and diffused off their polished metal surfaces while, at night, beams of multicolored light were projected onto the tower. Schöffer integrated his works into the local environment, using the glass windows of a nearby office building as well as the Meuse River itself as projection screens.

Page 63

One of the more notable efforts, based on extensive site visits and interviews, was carried out in the mid-1950s by the American Society for Engineering Education. It emphasized that producing young engineers who appreciated the liberal arts meant discarding stereotypes while also encouraging engineers to see the arts and humanities as valuable in their own right. Hoping to do more than just make engineers "acceptable in polite society," the humanities could enhance engineers' understanding that "every professional act has human and social consequences." Statements such as these acquired greater urgency toward the end of the 1960s, when student activists, opponents of the Vietnam War, and critics of large, impersonal, and destructive technological systems increasingly labeled engineers as amoral technocrats beholden to the corporations they served. Such charges insinuated themselves into the art-and-technology movements as we'll see later.

Page 76

What Sontag branded as the "one culture" possessed exceptional diversity. It included not only painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers and musicians but also "neurologists, TV technicians [and] electronic engineers." One of these new professional hybrids, someone Sontag was certainly aware of, was engineer Billy Klüver.

Page 87

Video artist Nam June Paik, who spent time at Bell Labs as an artist-in-residence, already had his answer: "If you are surprised with the result," he later told an interviewer, "then the machine has composed the piece."

Page 94

At first, Rauschenberg incorporated static objects like light bulbs or radiometers. But his plan for a new piece, eventually called Oracle, really started to come together after Klüver gave him a tour of Bell Labs in 1961. As the artist later told critic Barbara Rose, seeing all those new technologies was "like being handed a ghost bouquet of possibilities."

Page 101

"We need a house full of exotic technology." Billy Klüver, 1966

Page 104

Despite securing his employer's approval, Klüver soon abandoned the project. Instead, he decided it would be more efficient to directly engineer social situations that would bring different professional communities together. "Only by making new inventions which are not conditioned by ordinary attitudes," Klüver later said, "can we learn about technology."


Just as Klüver's colleagues were well acquainted with one another, the artists had worked together several times.


But this familiarity only went so far and Klüver was nervous as the two groups appraised one another. "The air was stiff," he recalled, and their conversations soon soared off into abstract musings. As he wrote in his diary, "What are we doing at 13,000 feet? It's a long walk to earth." Pierce brought their speculative dialogue back to terra firma. "Tell them what you have," he encouraged his engineers, "tell them about things."

Page 124

While logical in principle, the patch board system proved enormously troublesome in practice. Locating the necessary hardware was only the beginning. Eventually, engineers convinced Automotive Marine Products, a small company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to loan them equipment. Then came what Schneider called the "saga of the tiny plugs"—thousands of feet of wire and coaxial cables with the proper connectors attached to their end had to be made by hand. With only a few days to go before 9 Evenings started, the artists, along with dozens of friends they had recruited, learned firsthand how to wire patch boards and strip cable ends. At one point, Simone Forti went looking for John Cage and found the famous avant-garde composer off by himself, patiently crimping wires.

Page 151

In stressing the need to collaboratively develop "alternate technologies" for "industrially deficient environments," Klüver's thinking reflected ideals of the "appropriate technology movement" promoted by social activist groups in the 1960s. And, in questioning the autonomous nature of technology, Klüver's ideas echoed those expressed by public intellectuals like Lewis Mumford, concepts which later coalesced under the academic banner of "science and technology studies."

Page 167

In 1965, after submitting a proposal for [CAVS, the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies,] to MIT's administration, Kepes published his idea in the journal Daedalus. His essay described a "closely knit work community" of artists and designers who would be based in an "academic institution with a strong scientific tradition" such as MIT. Just as paleontologists envisioned human evolution advancing via interbreeding, Kepes proposed that "cultural evolution" would happen through "interthinking" between artists, engineers, and scientists. These collaborations would, Kepes argued, produce a "climate more conducive to the development of new ideas" than artists might achieve by working alone.

Page 169

[...] Billy Klüver described how E.A.T. emerged out of the spirit of 9 Evenings. By not focusing on aesthetics or artistic products, chance and randomness were encouraged as part of a larger creative process between artists and engineers. Likewise, Ivan Sutherland, an MIT-trained electrical engineer, described how computer algorithms could create art that varied with the observer's participation.

Page 183

"No one asks a scientist why he wants to use a laser beam," Klüver noted, and artists should be free to do likewise.

Page 192

In 1966, London-based artists Barbara Steveni and John Latham formed the Artist Placement Group (APG). Robert Adeane, who sat on the board of companies such as Shell, helped Latham and Steveni situate artists within corporate settings. But where Tuchman [with his similar programme in Los Angeles] saw these partnerships in largely instrumental terms, the APG brought a more theoretical and activist-inclined orientation to the table.

Page 220

"What are managers going to do with an artist?," Whitman recalled [of his residency]. "They introduced me to all the guys with beards. John Forkner had the longest beard. So we talked."

Page 230

When Fujiko Nakaya contacted him, Mee had just started his own company, a small operation run out of his Altadena garage, which planned to make instruments for weather monitoring. He had never heard of Billy Klüver or E.A.T., but Nakaya's knowledge of cloud science impressed him. Moreover, he had met her father at scientific conferences and was well aware of his pioneering research on snow.

Mee was initially skeptical about whether they could generate enough fog to obscure the entire 120-foot-diameter pavilion but he agreed to explore the problem with her. Mee respected Nakaya's aesthetic preference for producing an envrionmental sculpture of "dense, bubbling fog...to walk in, to feel and smell, and disappear in."

Page 231

When Fujiko Nakaya started working on the fog project, she made several sketches and drawings of the Pepsi Pavilion, surrounded by billowing clouds. But until she tested Mee's system in Osaka, the visual effects it would actually produce were speculative.

Page 244

Inside, Pepsi's public relations officer for Japan fretted that "common people don't understand art. I tell them it means nothing, right?"

Page 257

A closer look at the [LACMA "Art and Technology" exhibition]'s participants—this can be seen from the grid of men's faces on the cover of Tuchman's Report—reveals what became the show's main liability for many members of the art world. All of the artists included in the exhibition were white men. While this imbalance might have escaped public censure in 1967, when Tuchman was starting the Art and Technology Program, by mid-1971 such an omission seemed a serious lapse in judgement. In June, the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (or, LACWA, a dig at their county's publicly funded museum [LACMA]) presented its own report to the Los Angeles Times. Between 1961 and 1971, it stated, some 713 artists exhibited their work at LACMA. Of these, only twenty-nine were women. And, of the fifty-three solo shows the museum presented, only one was devoted to a woman artist. Finally, an inspection of the museum's permanent galleries showed that only 1 percent of the art displayed was made by women artists and, to add insult to injury, plenty of the artwork featured depictions of nude women as seen through the male gaze.

Page 265

In 1965, around the time Bell Labs hosted him as an artist-in-residence, Paik had predicted that "artists will work with capacitors, resistors, and semiconductors as they work today with brushes, violins, and junk."


Although video art received the most attention and legitimacy from the art world, similar stories could be told for other "new" technologies that artists experimented with throughout the 1970s. Computer art (which eventually morphed into commercial and scientific applications like computer graphics and data visualization), holography, and art made using copy machines were similar to video art, if not in prominence, by virtue of their small-scale and relative accessibility. In each of these cases, artists&mash;an increasing number of whom were women—could explore the possibilities of electronic technologies without necessarily requiring a professional engineer's expertise. These new technologies offered women artists a way forward along fresh paths not blocked by men. For example, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, artist Sonia Sheridan, with support from the 3M Company, translated several years of experiments with photocopying machines into a new course of study called "generative systems."

Page 279

For years, CAVS had presented the visual arts as a humanizing influence on students, engineers, and scientists where people might interact on equal footing. Negroponte presented an alternate vision in which "being digital" would reshape society, economies, and, almost as an afterthought, benefit the fine arts as well.


[CAVS director Otto] Piene countered that Negroponte's "porous" proposals [for founding the MIT Media Lab] were full of "buzzwords" and "modish applications," promising future payoffs while abandoning the visual arts. "It is verbiage," CAVS supporters fumed, "the only defense for it is that it works to raise money."

Page 196

As an exercise in feminist social practice, [Annina] Rüst's artwork—she titled it A Piece of the Pie Chart—addressed the pervasive underrepresentation of women in the workforce. Using a robotic arm and a computer workstation, her assembly line-like installation imprinted pie charts on actual pastries that showed lopsided gender ratios at technology companies and art museums. The installation also produced mailing labels so one could mail a custom-made pie to the organization associated with its data.

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February 14, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool's Hidden History of Collective Alternatives by Matthew Thompson

Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool’s hidden history of collective alternatives (and on Open Library) by Matthew Thompson is an excellent exploration of the history and present-day (and future?) of co-operative and community housing here in Liverpool. It's also nice to see that it's open access and available to read online.

I found it a really interesting read—as you can see from the quantity of dog-eared pages. The Housing Market Renewal scheme, responsible for some of the more recent State-and-private housing disasters, is something I've written about before. And it was odd but lovely to read quotes from, and references to, so many friends and acquaintances when we get to the more up-to-date sections. Well worth a read.

Page xvii

I wanted to show how similar things had been done in the not too distant past, in the same city, often in the very same street, by other collective housing movements that shared so much, if not their name, with Liverpool's budding community land trust movement.In the 1970s, fuelled by tenant protests over poor conditions and the displacement entailed by the council’s ‘slum clearance programme’, one of the largest and most imaginative housing co-operative movements in Britain if not Europe was born—Liverpool’s so-called ‘Co-op Spring’ 2 or ‘Co-operative Revolution’.

Page 8

Secondly, for all its good intentions, there were inherent problems with this state project [of council housing]—even when delivered at the municipal scale by local authorities (as is all too evident in Liverpool’s history)—to do with the way in which housing was done to and for people rather than by them.

Page 17

Rather than rights of citizenship being founded on passive membership of a nation-state and abstract entitlement to property, they derive from the active contribution of each inhabitant to the creation of a complex urban ecology as well as their necessary embeddedness within the web of social relations that make up the city.

Page 22

The foundational economy comprises two components: material infrastructure (the pipes and cables, utilities and networks of everyday life, such as transport, food and retail banking) and what the foundational economy collective call ‘providential’ services (referring to the providence—the benevolent care and guidance—to be found in health, education and welfare provision).

Page 24

With this in mind, the question then becomes how to re-engineer the state to work for, rather than against, the housing commons. How can we re-scale the state towards more decentralised and networked institutions that enable us to engage in democratic decision-making over the material and providential services that underpin our lives? How can we reform the monolithic, centralised and hierarchical versions of public ownership of the post-war past into more collective and participatory forms of common ownership? How can we bring the state into closer conversation and engagement with that third domain of economic ownership and management often referred to as the social economy?

Page 30

Liverpool was the first city in Britain to legislate against the dire urban conditions created by capitalism. The 1842 Liverpool Building Act, Dockerill demonstrates, challenged laissez-faire attitudes of the time to municipal intervention—enforcing minimum space and hygiene standards in newly constructed privately rented courts across Liverpool. In 1846, the Liverpool Sanitary Act—the first comprehensive health legislation in England, two years ahead of the national Public Health Act, which likewise made local authorities responsible for drainage, sewerage and water supply—inaugurated the world’s first Medical Officer of Health and Borough Engineer in 1847 so as to begin to ameliorate some of the worst conditions through public improvements such as sewers.

Page 37

Regeneration has become almost a self-generating industry in Liverpool—the first to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of its maritime economy. Some local academics and commentators go so far as to suggest Liverpool’s contemporary economy is primarily geared around the so-called ‘regeneration game’

Page 53

the International Co-operative Alliance ratified its five principles: (1) open and voluntary membership; (2) democratic control; (3) fair distribution of economic results according to labour or consumption rather than capital ownership; (4) education in cooperation; (5) cooperation between co-ops.

Page 58

[John F.C. Turner] proposed a housing system driven by what he called ‘resourcefulness’ as an alternative to the logic of ‘productivity’ driving the large-scale, capital-intensive, efficient yet wasteful, misallocative and unresponsive top-down system of mass housing under state-capitalism. Turner advocated more imaginative, practical, locally attuned and needs-based use of resources for self-housing, through labour-intensive craft-based production, utilising local skills and knowledge. This was to be enabled by state and professional infrastructures, but driven by spontaneous grass-roots energy of people housing themselves through cooperative labour and directly related to the final product.

Page 69

Granby Street Housing Co-operative was established in 1972, Liverpool’s first rehab co-op.

Page 73

By the mid-1970s, Liverpool Council had the largest Housing Action Area policy in the UK, covering 23 inner-city nineteenth-century neighbourhoods.

Page 100

Having lived in poorly managed council houses all their lives, the first thing co-op residents would tell their architect was that they wanted homes as different from ‘Corpy housing’ as possible.


Weller Street took on a more urban quality, of courtyard squares. Most of the other co-ops, by contrast, were typically cul-de-sacs, which Bill Taylor likens to “a sort of wagon train when they’re stopped for the night”, arranged in a tight, inward-facing circle.

Page 102

Orienting co-op housing around an inward focal point—a community anchor or communal area—is great for internal community cohesion, but has the simultaneous effect of enclosing co-ops, cutting them off from the city, discouraging through-flow, and imposing spatial barriers between surrounding neighbourhoods.

Page 111

I remember as a kid seeing this sweep through the city. Having lived in an apartment in a Torinese palazzo, I think we're too hung up on semis here in the UK.

The URS [the Militant Council's Urban Regeneration Strategy] rationale was to target 17 (later extended to 22) “Priority Areas” of modernist ‘hard-to-let’ flats and tenements built between the 1930s and 1970s, which had become unpopular sites marked by crime, vandalism, squalor and dereliction. Byrne’s assessment of council house designs revealed one promising inter-war period of problem-free semi-detached housing and concluded that this was the pinnacle of British council housing design.

Page 116

The principal proponents of the Kirkby [co-op] movement, however, were young single mothers, who often felt isolated in the flats and wanted something better for their children.

Page 127

"The poverty initiatives then have clearly not made any great inroads on inner-Liverpool’s real material problems. All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time."

Page 133

[...] one of the pioneering Urban Development Corporations, tasked with regenerating Liverpool’s derelict docks and overseen by a specialist quango, the Merseyside Task Force. These top-down planning prescriptions were amongst the first of their kind to be tried and tested in the UK but ultimately failed to do much more than successfully restore or redevelop specific sites, such as the historic Albert Dock, due to their narrow, noun-like focus on property-led redevelopment as opposed to a more holistic approach (such as SNAP and the CDPs) considering deeper socioeconomic structures and processes, such as skills, health, housing, resource redistribution and economic ownership.

Page 137

The social economy organises economic functions primarily according to democratic, co-operative and reciprocal principles; aims for high levels of equality, redistribution and empowerment of marginalised citizens; and works towards the satisfaction of unmet human needs.

Page 143

[Jack McBane on his interview as an advisor to the Eldonians:]

So the interview panel was like 30 people and I’ll never forget it. They had a big social hall, they had an organisation, and they were used to running things, and I said, “I don’t think you’re thinking big enough. This place is a shithole, you know that, why don’t you take on the whole neighbourhood?” And at this McGann’s eyes began to light up ... I said, “Nobody else cares for this place. It’s been abandoned by the council, the businesses have already left town, housing associations aren’t even active here. The only thing that’s alive and well here is you. What’s the point in doing a housing co-op surrounded by this? Because you’re going to waste a huge amount of resources and my time and the architect’s time doing a co-op—why don’t we just change the whole thing and gear it up?”

Page 147

Then, in 1981, Tate & Lyle, the biggest local employer, closed its sugar refinery, causing a further 1,700 job losses, leaving many of the Eldonians without work. Exacerbating this was the closure of the British American Tobacco factory in 1984, with knock-on bankruptcies of local feeder firms.

Page 148

It's complicated, but that wasn't a name I was expecting to find on the supporting side...

Through their lobbying, with the political support of Thatcher, the Eldonians managed to secure the site and the funding required for remediation.

Page 150

In the context of an intensifying battle between the Tory government and Militant-controlled Liverpool Council over the city’s budget, Thatcher was looking to undermine their authority and reassert central control. The Eldonian scheme was the perfect pawn to play.

Page 153

EGL’s [Eldonian Group Ltd] decision to explore the prospects for local energy production in a combined heat and power (CHP) system led them to consider retrofitting the Eldonian Community Based Housing Association’s stock, because, an EGL officer explains, “if we’re going to produce our own energy, we can’t put it into houses that are sieves”. They set up a non-profit energy service company, the Eldonian Energy Partnership (with E.ON, the massive multinational European energy provider, and Peel Holdings as junior partner) and developed a CHP energy centre and district heating network (DHN)—the first of its kind to be delivered by a social enterprise.

Page 154

An EGL manager is upfront about their making profit from contracts with big business and consultancy work delivered elsewhere around the country:

Profit’s not a dirty word to us, but we make profit, we bring it back here and we then use that money to subsidise services we want to provide here, so “dads’ and lads’ clubs”—costing us fifty grand each a year—“after school clubs”, things like that where the local authority will fund to a level, but we want it to be a decent level.

Page 159

The Eldonian Village is perhaps more akin, as one observer likens it, to a “community dictatorship” than a community-based cooperative.

Page 160

Bill Taylor, formerly of CDS, puts it like this:

There was always a bit called the “post-development blues” when you’d been working for four years towards this thing and, finally, “bloody hell, practical completion, move in!” And then the people who have really led the co-op through that gestation period and the delivery period go “phhhhheeeewwww, right I just want a break now, I’m going to resign ...” It’s almost like post-natal depression. You’ve been looking forward to this thing for so long, it comes along and actually then you’ve got a whole set of different challenges because you’ve got something that’s alive and squawking—things like collecting rent, and tackling people who’ve been your friends and neighbours and who live next door about their rent arrears ...

Page 166

Either way, the Eldonian leadership invited a group of local property speculators to take on EGL’s debts in the hope of retaining staff. This group was linked to the Eldonians through their business connections—partners in various property redevelopment schemes in the area and also through Tony McGann’s son, evicted from the village for drug dealing.

Soon after brokering this arrangement, it became apparent that the new owners were not all that interested in fulfilling EGL’s original ethos of community enterprise and reinvestment for social value. Instead, EGL was stripped of its assets—siphoned off through a number of shell companies. Staff numbers fell from over two hundred to around 50. The sports centre in the Eldonian Village was closed down and demolished. The site awaits profitable redevelopment as residential flats, outside of Eldonian management.

Page 167

Others suggest that it was the Eldonians’ prominent position within local politics and in the property industry that made it attractive for predatory investment and money laundering—activities for which Liverpool, an anarchic port city, has long been renowned. If indeed this is true, why was EGL so vulnerable to corruption? Asset stripping is precisely the kind of problem which the community development trust model is designed to preclude.

Page 171

Unlike their mass-produced imitations, they have stood the test of time. Almost all the co-ops, as well as the Eldonian Village, are still here today, in better condition than surrounding housing built before or after.

Page 182

The CLT tripartite governance structure—with equal parts resident-members, wider community representatives and expert stake-holders—is the result of this innovation. 22 Thus CLTs are unique among collective forms of ownership for engaging with and recycling surpluses for the wider community, and not just for member-residents, as in the case of co-ops.

Page 192

According to these critics, HMR [Housing Market Renewal] logic represents a narrowly aspirational, market-based perspective on housing as a ‘space of positions’ in which middle-class consumers vie for position on the housing ladder—disregarding use values for exchange value.

Page 197

The third commissioned research report in 2001, as Webb has demonstrated, 81 identified the student accommodation construction boom in the city centre as a causal factor in the supply and demand imbalance in low-demand inner-city areas, whereby a speculative rash of new flats were being successfully marketed to students, key workers and economic migrants, who otherwise would have settled in the inner-city terraced neighbourhoods. If HMR was to stay true to its original objective of rationalising the structure of housing markets—to rebalance supply and demand so as to reconnect failing markets with sustainable regional markets—then surely a key recommendation of the report would be to stop the building of flats that were directly creating an oversupply of accommodation [...]

Page 215

These mostly women homeowners associated with the city’s artistic and creative milieu—Eleanor Lee, Hazel Tilly and Theresa MacDermott amongst others—helped move the campaign on from reactive anti-demolition protests towards more proactive claims of ownership over the neglected, disinvested and largely vacant streets. Out of a state of despair—tenants evicted, properties boarded-up, streets collecting rubbish, blight setting in—they set about cleaning the streets, clearing rubbish, seeding wildflower meadows on vacant land, painting house frontages with colourful artistic murals and bringing garden furniture and potted plants out onto pavements and into the roads. 26 The centre of these insurgent acts of ‘guerrilla gardening’ was Cairns Street, where most of the green-fingered activists lived. Their vision was to turn the Granby Triangle into the ‘Green Triangle’.

Page 219

This strategy of zero- or very low-interest social investment was described by CLT activists as “philanthropy at four per cent return”, in reference to the early housing association trusts of the nineteenth century known as ‘five per cent philanthropy orgs’.

Page 231

It was not just the church, Juliet recalls, which was targeted by such practices:

We served on the Friday; they continued with the demolition on the Saturday. I think it was by one o’clock Monday the council agreed to stop. Guess what happened on Monday night? Huge fire in some of the properties. Coincidence? So since the day that we filed that legal action, I think it was Monday 29th January [2013], until something like mid-August, there were fires all the time. I was constantly getting phone calls ... We were just documenting the lot of them, and that was part of the evidence that was presented at the High Court. So I do blame them, absolutely, this is the battleground. It’s a war. I mean all that time, there’d never been any fires ...

Page 243

Importantly, the CLT and bakery trade as separate legal entities—the CLT is registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC) whilst the bakery is a Community Benefit Society (BenCom), a relatively new legal form of cooperative that privileges wider community benefit over member benefit. This enables the CLT to operate as the landlord; the bakery its first and foremost tenant. This makes Homebaked an unusual CLT for having a commercial as opposed to a residential tenant.

Page 250

At its heart, this is about changing place, and the way we live and interact with each other and the urban environment.

Page 252

The slum-clearance programme aimed to rehouse residents in modern tenements, tower blocks and houses, mostly built out on the city’s periphery. But providing people with all the latest amenities in clean, spacious, safe environments was necessary but not sufficient to improve quality of life and, in fact, too often destroyed the delicate web of social relations that knitted communities together and provided the socioeconomic safety nets and systems of mutual aid and solidarity so important in times of hardship and precarity. Moreover, post-war slum clearances were conducted by the municipal authorities with such fervour as to help tip the inner city into a seemingly inexorable spiral of decline.

Page 256

HMR was part of a broader trend. By the turn of the millennium, Liverpool had become very talented at playing the ‘regeneration game’: demonstrating deprivation in order to secure public funding from the EU and central government that could then be multiplied by grant regime partners. The effect on people and place, however, was equally impactful. Declining inner-city neighbourhoods like Anfield have been stuck for a long time in a self-defeating mindset of proving to authorities the severity of local deprivation and the need for external assistance. Born-and-bred local resident, artist and Homebaked co-founder Jayne Lawless (whose father Jimmy sat on the CLT board) describes the dampening, deadening effect this can have on self-esteem and collective identity:

There was a big pot of gold ... In order to access this pot, the area had to tick so many boxes in the magical world of deprivation. So suddenly, we were told all the time that we were from this deprived area. And we were like “I’m not deprived. I don’t feel deprived. We have food and clothes, both parents work. How am I deprived?” But the more you feed that in: “You’re poor, you’re this, you’re that”, you watch the standards drop; everything seemed to drop, and it took about ten years, but they finally ticked that last box they needed to tick, and that was that.

Page 257

Local resident, activist and founder of the Homegrown Collective Sam Jones describes it as a logic of resilience:

The hard-won cumulative victories and long-term asset-building that is framed in every aspect of the activities of Homebaked ... is a slow and risk-laden process. ... Homebaked has itself understood the importance of slow learning and cumulative change through this longitudinal model. ... This open and long-term modality has been a difficult commitment to retain in the face of the urgency, and even desperation, that characterises the needs of the local residents of Anfield as regeneration strategies shift and change and continue to threaten not only Homebaked but also their own homes.

Page 259

Little encapsulates this better than the generic HMR regeneration zone billboards thrown up across the city—formatted in standardised script from Granby to Anfield, which could be anywhere or nowhere at all. The taglines gesture vaguely at ‘creating neighbourhoods for the future’—not for the present.

i hate those billboards. See also this similar approach from 11 years ago. And all that's happened on that site since then is the building has been demolished and turned into waste ground...

Page 271

The commons attempts to ‘unsettle this settlement’ 25 by constituting a different conception of the public, one predicated on an expansive public sphere of participation, interaction, interdependence and cooperative self-governance.

Page 281

[Rent] Strikes effectively quell the flow of capital going to private and public landlords—and thereby break the circuit of rentier capitalism.

Page 285

The challenge for collective housing alternatives—if they are to avoid the fate of the housing associations—is to grow by ‘going viral’ 59 rather than scaling up

Page 291

The lack of counter-narratives or popular myths that tell positive stories about the commons is all too evident. Nick Blomley quips: “the tragedy of the commons ... is less its supposed internal failures than its external invisibility”.

Page 293

It would appear that the Left is much better at inventing complex yet compelling mythologies about the structural power of capitalism and the ultimate futility of any attempt to make capital impotent—short of slaying the proverbial dragon—than it is at creating utopian visions that both inspire and sustain incremental action in the here and now.

Page 295

The second and third generations of the Liverpool co-op member-residents do not have personal memories of severe housing need—they lack the life-defining experience of solidarity in struggle—which helped motivate the first generation to manage co-ops directly. Much of the voluntary ‘heavy-lifting’ required—financial, staffing, facilities management, repairs, allocations, legal services—is complex and demanding, not to mention ‘boring’, so it is understandable why residents are happy to offload these responsibilities onto trained specialists such as NWHS. For these reasons, the creation of folktales and myths about the collective struggle remains important for transmitting the value of cooperation down the generations.

We can see this too in the development of the DoES Liverpool community. It's an ongoing challenge, and partly why projects like Maintain are important.

Page 312

There are lessons here for building an institutional infrastructure from below—the need to secure an asset base and a sustainable source of revenue independent of the state.

Page 322

The culture of grants is counterproductive for the long-term regeneration of areas, as it encourages competitive bidding, vanguardism and vulnerable dependence on civic volunteerism as well as on government and philanthropic hand-outs. When combined with competitive tendering of public sector assets, this leads to a monumental waste of resources, as potential co-operators are pitted against each other in a zero sum game, resulting in time wasted, unrealised ideas and exhausted creativity for all but the winning bidder. More collaborative processes of public tendering would allow competing visions to be explored in creative dialogue.

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February 06, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Creating a Culture of Innovation by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

Creating a Culture of Innovation by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (and on OpenLibrary)

My good friend Alex's second book was published at the end of last year (my pre-ordered copy arrived on Christmas Eve as a nice coincidental early present). It's a very readable exploration of the plethora of different "innovation" spaces that companies, etc. build, with suggestions and ideas on the good ways of doing it. My dog-eared sections from it are below to give you a flavour...

Page xv

The best innovation work is also down to personal interest, peer groups, timing, and luck, no matter what the state of the carpet.

Page 22

By 1924, Olivetti was offering night courses in mathematics and professional development. In 1932, a summer camp for children was organized, and in 1934, a day nursery was set up on-site to cater to its more than 1000 employees. The cafeteria service was opened in 1936, almost 30 years after the business had started. For many, food is the easiest perk to offer, but in Olivetti's case, it came after many other advantages. Eating together became easy to instigate when every other patriarchal benefit was already being offered.

Page 39

It's impossible to tell if a Rockstar, Ninja, or Sherpa earns more or is more senior than an Alchemist, a Builder or a Change Agent. That confusion will not only confuse new applicants but won't offer clarity to any future employer. Being clear in a job title enables someone to then feel confident about their place in an industry.

Having a title that sounds clear and resonates with the rest of a sector also enables more meaningful conversations between people both inside the company and out. Going to a conference and spending two minutes explaining what kind of role you occupy is a waste of a networking opportunity.

Page 65

Perhaps because of its unattainability, Inbox Zero generated its own wave of email-focused productivity software like Flow-E, Boomerang, ManyMe, and others. None of these applications or concepts have led to anymore clarity around email culture.

Page 74

The greatest benefits of professional jargon is that it nurtures a sense of what mats Alvesson has called 'grandiosity'. Committed users of management jargon are able to transubstantiate boring administrative activities into great deeds. Management jargon can help nurture a sense of self confidence in the chronically insecure world of middle management.

There's something more interesting at play than merely trying to make yourself sound interesting. Every innovation function is, in fact, trying to emulate either a smaller entity than its own or a more artistically inclined department. This desire to emulate an artist collective, an art movement, or any other form of artistic practice can lead to a group of people behaving in a cult-like manner to both build a heightened sense of belonging, increased expectations around performance, and a nifty way to keep others out of the loop.

Page 96

These spaces are neither successful nor unsuccessful, but they are examples of a very particular corporate desire: the one where talking about innovation is as good as innovating.

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January 30, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Urban Acupuncture by Jaime Lerner

Urban Acupuncture by Jamie Lerner. A quick read. I think I was expecting more ideas and starting points for ways to improve areas, whereas this seemed more a set of vignettes of things that make cities alive or interesting.

Page 37

An important step is to add elements that may be missing from a given area. If there is plenty of commerce or industry but no people, then housing development could be encouraged. If another district is all homes and apartment blocks, why not boost services?

Page 48

The more cities are understood to be the integration of functions—bringing together rich and poor, the elderly and the young—the more meeting places they will create and the livelier they will become. The design of public space is important.

Page 52

After all, the Smart Bus already exists. It comes with a few basic features and requirements. First, it requires a lane all its own (painted or not, but exclusive nonetheless), a reliable schedule, and frequent runs. Next, there must be stepless boarding and exit ways, prepaid ticketing, and a choice of local or express lines arriving and departing at regular intervals.

Page 52

[...] the Smart Taxi would have to operate on the same integrated fare system. Imagine that—cabs working in partnership with mass transportation and not against it!

Page 73

There was a time in Paris when you could personally decide what time public monuments would be lit. All you had to do was call a city desk, mark the time and place, pay a service charge, and you had your personal lighting to highlight a monument or any part of the city for someone you wanted to impress.

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November 07, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism by Julia Watson

Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism by Julia Watson. I had mixed feelings reading this, but I think that's because I'm not really the target audience. I grew up in the countryside, with plenty of exposure to farms. It was really interesting to read about these alternate systems from round the world, and plenty seem under threat from Western ideas about how to "do farming/conservation right" or just the endless appetite of capitalism. If it helps protect any of it, then that's more than enough good for the book. I'm less convinced that there's lots for the UK, for example, to take from it specifically, as our environment is very different—it felt a bit like it was fetishizing the indigenous technologies a bit, and I think we should also be looking to similar traditional, in-touch-with-the-land, long-term tacit knowledge from our own cultures too.

Page 70

The living root bridges are built along the natural routes connecting two villages. In the absence of any means to lift and carry heavy stone slabs to suspend them across river and streams, they are left with no option but to turn to mother nature in their endeavour to cross to the other side. The rubber tree (Ficus Elastica) growing in the region beyond Cherrapunjee (Sohra) provided the natural solution. Timber would not have been able to withstand the ravages of the harse monsoons and the scourge of termites and pests.

Page 93

The Balinese term subak refers to both the rice terrace systems unique to this region and the self-governing associations of farmers who share water and planting schedules that are coordinated by calendrical rites in water temples. There are approximately twelve-hundred of these associations across Bali, each made up of fifty to four hundred farmers who continue the tradition of the subak. Traditional subak rice paddies are the most biodiverse and productive agrarian systems known to man. Using local cycles of nutrient dispersal and seasonal rainfall, the same subak terraces have produced rice for thousands of years at the scale of watersheds.

Page 102

In the 1970s the Bali government led a Green Revolution, forcing the introduction of massive quantities of fertilizers and pesticides to the subak, wreaking havoc on the ecology of the rice paddies. Within several seasons, growing cycles failed, soil structure degraded, insect biodiversity diminished, and the subak water temples were forgotten. The Green Revolution replaced native rice varieties with hybrid seeds that were genetically engineered for fast growth, high grain production, and commercial fertilizer application. This led to an ecological catastrophe which, when multiplied by the expansion of the tourist industry, triggered uncontrolled commercial development, aquifer privatization, water shortages, and pollution increase from illegal dumping of sewerage and solid waste. In response, World Heritage status was granted in June 2012 in an effort to save the subaks and water temples.

Page 181

Damming today is environmentally destructive, with impacts that range from altering river hydrology to stopping sediment transportation downstream and species migration upstream. In contrast, the dams of the Enawenê-nawê are porous, multi-functional, productive, responsive, seasonal, and temporary, supporting a unique forest fishing life.


The emerging trend of microgrids for localized energy generation and the design of microdamming infrastructures may lead to designs that respond to more adaptable, sustainable, and temporal conditions. This would allow the world's largest watersheds, river systems, and the human and non-human species which these mighty hydrological systems support, to thrive.

Page 277

An island is simultaneously a floating village, an aquaculture farm, and an artificial wetland synthesized into a single living infrastructure. Designed for mobility, islands are secured to the lakebed with anchors of rock and rope, but are able to migrate to deeper water locations. Today, two thousand six hundred and twenty-nine people live in a group of ninety-one reed islands. Each island hosts several thatched houses that belong to an extended family. Smaller islands measuring ten meters hold one to three families in twelve to fifteen huts. The huts are positioned to face a central clearing, occupied by a watchtower, while one side of the island is left open to dock boats. Interspersed between huts are fishponds, vegetable gardens, and living totora reed beds planted for privacy.

Page 311

For the past fifty years, architects have been imagining futuristic, floating cities that offset environmental problems like rising seas and increasing floods. In the remotest places on earth, a handful of isolated island communities, like the Ma'dan of Iraq exist having evolved technology that enabled aquatic living. The Ma'dan have survived for thousands of years in the cradle of civilization on simple, habitable, adaptable, and biodegradable buoyant infrastructures that rival contemporary, non-biodegradable floating island technology. Commonly used in water treatment or wetland construction, floating islands improve water quality, while also offering a diversity of habitat. Local building technologies are so versatile that a single reed species is used to construct islands, houses, boats, furniture, and meals, literally using biodiversity as a building block upon which these cultures float.

Page 323

The bheri wastewater aquaculture system in the East Kolkata Wetlands is a living and incredibly resilient urban circulatory system. The system is synonymously a fishery, waste management system, agricultural field, rice paddy network, community hub, grazing land, and heritage site. For the community who live around the wetlands, the filtration of water is an act of giving back to the gods. Spiritual connection to the Mother Ganga, whose river water flows through the wetlands, plays its own role in this ecosystem, with Ganges water believed to cleanse the body and mind. At twelve thousand, five hundred hectares of land, the East Kolkata Wetlands is the largest wastewater-fed aquaculture system in the world.

Page 336

Not only are the wetlands environmentally and socially beneficial, they offer enormous financial incentives to the city. With wetland fish being fed by the city's sewage, the city saves approximately twenty-two million USD on the running expenses of a waste treatment plant annually, while water from the bheris being used for irrigation additionally saves approximately five hundred thousand USD in water and fertilizer costs. Wetland activities lead to the production of thirteen thousand tons of fish per year, sixteen thousand tons of rice per year, and about one hundred and fifty-six tons of vegetables per day, all of which are sourced locally and save the city millions in transportation costs.

Passed down verbally through generations, the traditions of the wetland system have been kept alive through careful stewardship of the land. Not only are these processes a way of life and means for survival, they also maintain historical richness, ingenuity, cultural pride, and a spiritual connection to this place. Many fishermen are members of fishing cooperatives, an equitable model of management and profit distribution.

Page 354

Ganvie, meaning 'we survived', is a lake city made of bamboo and teak stilted houses of Tofinu fishing families. The city is a collection of eleven villages organized around a canal system and navigated by dugout canoes. Surrounding the village is an artificial reef of twelve thousand enclosed fish paddocks that sustain waters teeming with fish and wildlife. A healthy relationship between a growing city and a lake is rare, making this an extraordinary civilization that has evolved an aquaculture that embodies advanced ecological design thinking. They use symbiotic species relationships to feed an entire city, while making a healthier ecosystem for its native flora and fauna. Made from mangroves, the 'acadja brush park' is an indigenous reef aquaculture system and technology that has spread from the waters of Lake Nokoue to many other aquatic Beninese communities.

Page 398

Climate change has shown us that our survival is not dependent upon superiority, but upon symbiosis. In the shift towards designing resilient cities, Lo-TEK and indigenous technologies are critical in the conversation for designers addressing climate change, as they are living examples that embody resilience thinking. We need to expand our definition of sustainable technology to encompass the Lo-TEK movement, and in this effort alter the course of collapse. Acknowledging the mistakes of modernity and the failure of conservation, we can shift our position of authority to one of collaboration with Nature.

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September 05, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser is an entertaining and terrifying history of the development of the control and safety (or lack thereof) of America's nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.

My dog-eared sections, to give you a flavour...

Page 196

The usefulness of the Super [the first hydrogen bomb] wasn't the issue; the willingness to build it was. And that sort of logic would guide the nuclear arms race for the next forty years.

Page 223

On January 23, 1956, President Eisenhower recorded in his diary the results of a top secret study on what would really happen after a Soviet attack:

The United States experienced practically total economic collapse, which could not be restored to any kind of operative conditions under six months to a year. . . . Members of the Federal government were wiped out and a new government had to be improvised by the states. . . . It was calculated that something on the order of 65% of the population would require some sort of medical care, and in most instances, no opportunity whatsoever to get it.

Page 375

The BMEWS [Ballistic Missile Early Warning System] site at Thule had mistakenly identified the moon, slowly rising over Norway, as dozens of long-range missiles launched from Siberia.

Page 455

Half an hour later, a Missile Potential Hazard Team ordered them to reenter the silo. They found it full of thick, gray smoke. One of the retrorockets atop the Minuteman had fired. The reentry vehicle, containing a W-56 thermonuclear weapon, had lifted a few inches into the air, flipped over, fallen nose first from the misslie, bounced off the wall, hit the second-stage engine, and landed at the bottom of the silo.

Page 530

As the minutes passed without the arrival of Soviet warheads, it became clear that the United States wasn't under attack. The cause of the false alarm was soon discovered. A technician had put the wrong tape into one of NORAD's computers. The tape was part of a training exercise — a war game that simulated a Soviet attack on the United States. The computer had transmitted realistic details of the war game to SAC headquarters, the Pentagon, and Site R.

Page 533

NORAD had dedicated lines that connected the computers inside Cheyenne Mountain to their counterparts at SAC headquarters, the Pentagon and Site R. Day and night, NORAD sent test messages to ensure that those lines were working. The test message was a warning of a missile attack — with zeros always inserted in the space showing the number of missiles that had been launched. The faulty computer chip had randomly put the number 2 in that space, suggesting that 2 missiles, 220 missiles, or 2,200 missiles had been launched. The defective chip was replaced, at a cost of forty-six cents. And a new test message was written for NORAD's dedicated lines. It did not mention any missiles.

Page 537

And as a final act of defiance, SAC demonstrated the importance of code management to the usefulness of any coded [safety] switch. The combination necessary to launch the missiles was the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.

Page 640

An investigation later found that the missile launches spotted by the Soviet satellite were actually rays of sunlight reflected off clouds.

Page 642

When Minuteman missiles first appear above Kansas, launched from rural silos there and rising in the sky, the film conveyed the mundane terror of nuclear war, the knowledge that annihilation could come at any time, in the midst of an otherwise ordinary day. People look up, see the missiles departing, realize what's about to happen, and yet are powerless to stop it. About 100 million Americans watched The Day After, roughly half of the adult population of the United States.

Page 656

After studying a wide range of "trivial events in nontrivial systems," Perrow concluded that human error wasn't responsible for these accidents. The real problem lay deeply embedded within the technological systems, and it was impossible to solve: "Our ability to organize does not match the inherent hazards of some of our organized activities." What appeared to be the rare exception, an anomaly, a one-in-a-million accident, was actually to be expected. It was normal.

Page 657

When a problem arose on an assembly line, you could stop the line until a solution was found. But in a tightly coupled system, many things occurred simultaneously — and they could prove difficult to stop. If those things also interacted with each other, it might be hard to know exactly what was happening when a problem arose, let alone know what to do about it. The complexity of such a system was bound to bring surprises. "No one dreamed that when X failed, Y would also be out of order," Perrow gave as an example, "and the two failures would interact so as to both start a fire and silence the fire alarm."

Page 661

The nuclear weapon systems that Bob Peurifoy, Bill Stevens, and Stan Spray struggled to make safer were also tightly coupled, interactive, and complex. They were prone to "common-mode failures" — one problem could swiftly lead to many others. The steady application of high temperatures to the surface of a Mark 28 bomb could disable its safety mechanisms, arm it, and then set it off. "Fixes, including safety devices, sometimes create new accidents," Charles Perrow warned, "and quite often merely allow those in charge to run the system faster, or in worse weather, or with bigger explosives."

Page 670

The only weapons in today's stockpile that trouble Peurifoy are the W-76 and W-88 warheads carried by submarine-launched Trident II missiles. The Drell panel expressed concern about these warheads more than twenty years ago.

Page 685

High-risk technologies are easily transferred across borders; but the organizational skills and safety culture necessary to manage them are more difficult to share. Nuclear weapons have gained allure as a symbol of power and a source of national pride. They also pose a grave threat to any country that possesses them.

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July 18, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I first read Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland in the early 2000s. Obviously before I'd started blogging all dog-eared pages. The overriding message I took from it then was that at some point you have to declare your "art" finished and release it into the world to be judged or ignored or... The quotes around "art" there are mine, because back when I first read it I was applying it to my product development work rather than any art.

I still don't identify primarily as an artist, but it is part of what I do these days. Not that it matters, the wisdom in the book is similarly applicable to anyone developing their professional practice. I felt like I could do with a reminder of the importance of getting things out into the world, that "real artists ship", so I've read it again.

Since reading it, the work is the work has become a new mantra, a way to remind myself that producing any of the things that I want to bring into the world is work and isn't always meant to be fun. It's been a practical means to shake myself out of more reading-interesting-things-on-the-Internet or whatever and to get on with the thing I'm subconsciously putting off.

Page 3

[...] the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.

But while talent — not to mention fate, luck and tragedy — all play their role in human destiny, they hardly rank as dependable tools for advancing your own art on a day-to-day basis.


Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.

Page 4

The sane human being is satisfied that the best he/she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers' concerns are not your concerns (although it's dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.

Page 14

More often, though, fears rise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution Consider the story of the young student—well, David Bayles, to be exact—who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, "But i can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers."

To which the Master replied, "What makes you think that ever changes?"

Page 17

As Stanley Kunitz once commented, "The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language." And it's true, most artists don't daydream about making great art—they daydream about having made great art.

Page 21

Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy—it doesn't mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.

Page 28

Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work. They commit themselves to the work of their heart, and act upon that commitment. So when you ask, "Then why doesn't it come easily for me?", the answer is probably, "Because making art is hard!" What you end up caring about is what you do, not whether the doing came hard or easy.

Page 36

The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly—without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.

Page 52

Making art is bound by where we are, and the experience of art we have as viewers is not a reliable guide to where we are.

Page 54

Today artists often back away from engaging the times and places of Art. But it's an artificial construct that begins and ends at the gallery door. Apart from the readership of Artforum, remarkably few people lose sleep trying to incorporate gender-neutral biomorphic deconstructivism into their personal lives. As Adam Gopnik remarked in The New Yorker, "Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art."

Page 60

Equally, it must have been just plain helpful when J.S. Back committed to writing a prelude and fugue in each of the twenty-four keys, since each time he sat down to compose he at least had a place to start. ("Let's see, I haven't begun to work on the F-sharp minor yet...") Working within the self-imposed discipline of a particular form eases the prospect of having to reinvent yourself with each new piece.

The discovery of useful forms is precious. Once found, they should never be abandoned for trivial reasons.

Page 66

Many attempts to introduce art to the larger world simply give evidence of the uneasy fit in our society between economics and beliefs.

Page 68

A reminder from history: the American Revolution was not financed with matching Grants from the Crown.

Page 72

Fear that you're not getting your fair share of recognition leads to anger and bitterness. Fear that you're not as good as a fellow artist leads to depression.

Page 73

In not knowing how to tell yourself that your work is OK, you may be driven to the top of the heap in trying to get the rest of the world to tell you.

In theory this is a perfectly valid approach—the tricky part is finding the right yardstick for measuring your accomplishments. What makes competition in the arts a slippery issue is simply that there's rarely any consensus about what your best work is.

Page 89

Books on art, even books on artists, characteristically have little to say about actually making art. They may offer a sprinkling of romantic parables about "the artist's struggle", but the prevailing premise remains that art is clearly the province of genius (or, on occasion, madness). Accepting this premise leads inescapably to the conclusion that while art should be understood or enjoyed or admired by the reader, it most certainly should not be done by the reader. And once that kinship between reader and artist has been denied, art itself becomes a strange foreign object—something to be pointed to and poked at from a safe analytical distance. To the critic, art is a noun.

Clearly, something's getting lost in the translation here. What gets lost, quite specifically, is the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. What artists learn from other artists is not so much history or technique (although we learn tons of that too); what we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb.

Page 108

What gets lost in that interpretation [that art is about self-expression] is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world. The need to make art may not stem solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.

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June 28, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Sustainable Movement by Richard Z Hooker

The Sustainable Movement: The Defining Movement of the 21st Century by Richard Z Hooker was a good read, making me re-examine how I'm trying to help us tackle the climate emergency, and giving me lots of pause for thought about the collectives and impact of the Bauhaus and Ulm design schools, and drawing parallels with DoES Liverpool (despite it not being full of designers, nor a school...)

The book was a Kickstarter project, so I'm not sure how you'd get a copy, but if anyone wants to borrow mine give me a shout. Here are my notes/highlighted sections from it...

Page 42

Gropius made it central to the overall objective of the [Bauhaus] school to promote the talents of everyone who studied there. Collective work was to be celebrated over individual personalities, and the desire to share extended outwards to an embrace of the wider community.

Page 78

The year before the school officially opened, Max Bill was already beginning to imagine a future where a designer from the Ulm school would affect the public at two levels:

1. As a responsible citizen
2. As the designer of products that were better and cheaper than all the others and thus help raise the standard of living for broad levels of the population and create a culture for our technological era.

For Bill these principles applied to every area of consumer goods production, and all forms of design - from housing to modern transport. This was a rejection of a designer's tendency to retreat into dreams and fantasies, and instead, as the art historian Hatje Cantz explains, a concerted effort to devote a designer's energy 'quite pragmatically to the everyday world and its needs.'

Page 107

So the big capitalism truck continues to career down the road, increasingly out of control. There's now fewer people in the front trying to steer it, and more in the back trying desperately to unload whatever remains of its precious cargo. Meanwhile, with the route still set to the pursuit of infinite growth, the juggernaut just keeps on going, swerving dangerously towards an increasingly perilous cliff-edge of climate (and social) breakdown.

Page 130

Experimental thought spaces aren't useful just to the arts - the writer John Higgs points out that 'mathematicians during the 18th century played around with imaginary numbers for the fun of it and found them to be surprisingly useful. Over time their properties became understood and they became an important tool for engineers. Our understanding of phenomena such as radio waves or electricity is reliant on them.' So, as he goes on to suggest: 'Artists couldn't create without magical thinking, just as engineers couldn't work without rational materialism.'

Page 177

Danny Hills, an inventor, scientist, author and engineer explains: 'Technology is the name we give to something when it doesn't work properly yet.' The use of this label is then more than a little worrying considering a recurring belief throughout human history has been that 'technology will save us.' Silicon Valley has most recently tried respinning this flawed but still popular myth, and a financial climate led largely by speculation allows this fiction to flourish. Meanwhile, back down here in reality, technology will never 'save us', but the ideas and actions born from it one day just might.

Page 206

3. Professionals appear to 'DENY' or ignore 'The Negative', particularly about themselves of their projects.
4. Professionals appear to create and positively reinforce facades and perceptions until these facades and perceptions are 'perceived' to be fact (media do this all the time).
7. 'NORMAL' today appears to be 'professional values' rather than say 'Spiritual Values' or a reverence for life.

Page 223

Carne Ross, a diplomat with an interest in complexity theories, likes to say: 'We think we need to be big to be powerful, when in fact we can be small.' This can include the scale and reach of our own actions as well.

Page 237

'Now this thing about ecosystems' [Brian Eno] explains, 'is that it's impossible to tell what the important parts are. It's not a hierarchy, you know. We're used to thinking of things that are arranged in levels like that, with the important things at the top and the less important things at the bottom. Ecosystems aren't like that. They're richly interconnected and they're co-dependent in many, many ways.'

Page 238

To adapt and 'repurpose' an old Bill Moggridge quote: 'If there's a simple, easy design principle that binds everything together, it's probably about starting with the people and nature, and ending with the people and nature.'

Page 264

Through any transitional period bursting with new technology, the methods by which artists continue to contribute to culture, involves them continuing to also verse themselves in the use of all the new tools at their disposal.

Page 284

Parent trees protect their youngsters in the forest around them by shielding them from the worst of the wind and the rain. Despite the overwhelming evidence today that suggests capitalism isn't in such good shape. For the time being at least, a young movement embracing a more sustainable future, can help itself by growing close enough to its parents to still benefit from the shelter provided. Securing longevity may begin with accepting a few short-term contradictions.

Page 293

Dieter Rams, the modern product designer's spiritual guru, declared in 2009 a poignantly simple ambition: 'The future of design is in enabling us to survive on this planet. This is no exaggeration.'

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June 15, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

At only 81 pages, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher is a short read, but packed with lots of food for thought.

As ever, here are the sections I highlighted while reading it, to give you a flavour of it...

Page 1

For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic.

Page 7

[Fredric Jameson] argued that the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern cultural scene which, as he correctly prophesied, would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism.

Page 9

Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled 'alternative' or 'independent' cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. 'Alternative' and 'independent' don't designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream. No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.

Page 14

[...] since the form of [Corporate anti-capitalism's] activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn't expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005's Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.

Live 8 was a strange kind of protest; a protest that everyone could agree with: who is it who actually wants poverty? [...] one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding Father.

Page 16

Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism's ostensible 'realism' turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Maybe that's what we're seeing now with its failure to cope with the needs for basic necessities on the shop shelves, or PPE for healthcare professionals.

Page 19

[...] we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The 'mental health plague' in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

Page 28

In any case resistance to the 'new' is not a cause that the left can or should rally around. Capital thought very carefully about how to break labor; yet there has still not yet been enough thought about what tactics will work against capital in conditions of post-Fordism, and what new language can be innovated to deal with those conditions. It is important to contest capitalism's appropriation of 'the new', but to reclaim the 'new' can't be a matter of adapting to the conditions in which we find ourselves — we've done that rather too well, and 'successful adaptation' is the strategy of managerialism par excellence.

Page 42

What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement.

Page 49

The frustration of dealing with bureaucrats often arises because they themselves can make no decisions; rather, they are permitted only to refer to decisions that have always-already been made (by the big Other). Kafka was the greatest writer on bureaucracy because he saw that this structure of disavowal was inherent to bureaucracy. The quest to reach the ultimate authority who will finally resolve K's official status can never end, because the big Other cannot be encountered in itself: there are only officials, more or less hostile, engaged in acts of interpretation about what the big Other's intentions. And these acts of interpretation, these deferrals of responsibility, are all that the big Other is.

Page 63

As a consumer in late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two, distinct realities: the one in which the services are provided without hitch, and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centers, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything ever happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly. What exemplifies the failure of the neoliberal world to live up to its own PR better than the call center? Even so, the universality of bad experiences with call centers does nothing to unsettle the operating assumption that capitalism is inherently efficient, as if the problems with call centers weren't the systemic consequences of a logic of Capital which means organizations are so fixated on making profits that they can't actually sell you anything.

Page 69

At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse — it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic — is not only a dissimulation; it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals — but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor.

Page 79

As Badiou has forcefully insisted, an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital's globalism with its own, authentic, universality.


the left should argue that it can deliver what neoliberalism signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy. What is needed is a new struggle over work and who controls it; an assertion of worker autonomy (as opposed to control by management) together with a rejection of certain kinds of labor (such as the excessive auditing which has become so central feature of work in post-Fordism). This is a struggle that can be won — but only if a new political subject coalesces; it is an open question as to whether the old structures (such as the trade unions) will be capable of nurturing that subjectivity, or whether it will entail the formation of wholly new political organizations.

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March 23, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina

Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina tells the history of Chile and Stafforrd-Beer's attempt at the start of the 1970s to build a socialist democracy with help from cybernetics and networked computers. An alternative, more decentralized approach to the same sort of issues that today's "big data" and "smart city" initiatives aim to address.

Here are my dog-eared pages notes from reading it. (If you want another contemperaneous history of socialist technology approaches in the UK, check out The Plan a documentary)

Page 3
In Chile, I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it; I find it good cybernetics.
—Stafford Beer, February 1973

Page 8
Through sociotechnical engineering practices, Chilean and British technologists tried to make Project Cybersyn implement and uphold principles of Chilean democratic socialism. For example, the system included mechanisms to preserve individual liberty within a context of greater state control. Some Cybersyn technologists also tried to use Project Cybersyn as a vehicle for increasing worker participation in economic management and proposed having workers collaborate with Chilean operations research scientists. I argue that, for the system to support values such as worker participation or decentralized control, Cybersyn needed to implement and maintain the social, organizational, and technical relationships specified by its designers. Yet the reverse was also true: changing these social, organizational, and technical relationships could cause the system to produce configurations of political power, including totalitarianism, that were very different from Chilean democratic socialism.

Page 22
From its earliest days cybernetics valued the cross-disciplinary pollination that occurred when experts from a variety of fields convened to discuss a common problem. The conferences organized by the Josiah Macy Foundation from 1946 to 1953, which laid the groundwork for the field of cybernetics, are the most notable example of such collaboration. For example, the attendance list at the first Macy conference included the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, mathematician John von Neumann, anthropologist Margaret Mead, logician Walter Pitts, Rosenblueth, Bigelow, and Wiener, among others. Attendees at the Macy conferences drew inspiration from cybernetics' encouragement of the use of common metaphors to describe biological and mechanical systems and took this innovation back to their home disciplines.

Page 25
To put it another way, Beer was more interested in studying how systems behaved in the real world than in creating exact representations of how they functioned. Furthermore, he was centrally concerned with developing mechanisms to help these systems self-regulate and survive. He stressed that cybernetics and operations research should drive action, not create mathematical models of increasing complexity and exactitude.

Page 28
Beer challenged the common definition of control as domination, which he viewed as authoritarian and oppressive and therefore undesirable. It was also "naive, primitive and ridden with an almost retributive idea of causality." What people viewed as control, Beer continued, was nothing more than "a crude process of coercion," an observation that emphasized the individual agency of the entity being controlled. Instead of using science to dominate the outside world, scientists should focus on identifying the equilibrium conditions among the subsystems and developing regulators to help the overall system reach its natural state of stability. Beer emphasized creating lateral communication channels among the different subsystems so that the changes in one subsystem could be absorbed by changes in the others. This approach, he argued, took advantage of the flexibility of each subsystem. Instead of creating a regulator to fix the behaviour of each subsystem, he found ways to couple subsystems together so that they could respond to each other and adapt. Such adaptive couplings helped maintain the stability of the overall system.

Page 35
The Viable System Model devised ways to promote vertical and lateral communication. It offered a balance between centralized and decentralized control that prevented both the tyranny of authoritarianism and the chaos of total freedom. Beer considered viable systems to be largely self-organizing. Therefore, the model sought to maximize the autonomy of its component parts so that they could organize themselves as they saw fit. At the same time, it retained channels for vertical control to maintain the stability of the whole system.

Page 39
In contrast to the centralized planning found in the Soviet Union, Allende's articulation of socialism stressed a commitment to decentralized governance with worker participation in management, reinforcing his professed belief in individual freedoms. Yet he also acknowledged that in the face of political plurality the government would favour the "interest of those who made their living by their own work" and that revolution should be brought about from above with a "firm guiding hand."

Page 54
Beer also felt that CORFO needed to change its practices and worried that the "quickest solution" to managing the enterprises "will be imposed before any new thinking has time. Unless cyb[ernetics] can move faster."

Page 61
The exponential increase in the number of punch cards processed annually by the Chilean treasury paralleled the rise in the number of pages it generated annually, as well as the greater length of the annual report that accompanied the presidential address to Congress (105 pages in 1965; 496 pages in 1967; and 1,075 pages in 1970, illustrated each year by ever more graphs and tables).

Page 63
[Beer] regarded the centralized approach [of the Soviet Union] as bureaucratic and overly complex, as well as vulnerable to manipulation. Factory managers and government bureaucrats could easily change the value of the data they submitted to the computer centers in order to put their management skills in a more favorable light.

Page 73
Second, Cyberstride, like the Viable System Model, tried to find a balance between autonomy and cohesion. For example, when the system detected a production anomaly, the National Computer Corporation would alert both CORFO and the factory interventor. The government would then give the interventor a limited window of time to resolve the problem on his own. The enterprises therefore maintained their autonomy to a reasonable degree. If the interventor could not resolve the problem within this limited period, CORFO would intervene. Such intervention would limit the autonomy of the factory, but Beer reasoned it was nonetheless essential for preserving the viability of the entire economic system.

Third, the system's design reflected Allende's commitment to raising employment levels, a key part of the government program. Unlike concurrent uses of computer technology in industry, Cyberstride would use computers in a way that did not lead to unemployment. In industrial settings, computers are often linked to factory automation, which can raise productivity levels but also allow companies to downsize their workforce. Rather than automating labor or replacing management, Cyberstride would offer factory managers and CORFO a tool to help them increase factory productivity using the human and material resources available.

Page 79
The program also implemented a new and untried method of Bayesian statistical forecasting known as the Harrison-Stevens Approach, which first appeared in the December 1971 edition of Operational Research Quarterly. Dunsmuir stumbled onto the method while performing a literature review for the project. He convinced Beer that the new method would recognize significant variations in the production data and predict whether these initial data points signified the beginnings of a linear trend, and exponential trend, a step function, or an anomaly that would return to normal.

Page 87
Even in its final version, however, the model would not function as a predictive black box that gave definitive answers about future economic behaviour. Rather, it offered a medium with which economists, policy makers, and model makers could experiment and, through this act of play, expand their intuition about economic behaviour and the interplay of price controls, foreign exchange reserves, import and export rates, and other factors. Thus, the simulator was not meant to replace human expertise but to enhance it.

Page 89
Beer used the word algedonic to describe a signal of pleasure or pain. An algedonic meter would allow the public to express its pleasure or pain, or its satisfaction or dissatisfaction with government actions.

Unlike polls or surveys, these algedonic meters would not limit or prompt answers by asking set questions. The user simply moved a pointer on a dial somewhere between total dissatisfaction and absolute happiness. This design "uses the [human] brain as a computer," Beer wrote, "structured and programmed by individuality." Reminiscent of Beer's attention to autonomy and broad participation, the meter permitted users to construct their own scale of happiness and did not impose a standardized definition. Unlike many survey techniques, the meter did not require users to rationalize their level of happiness or normalize it to fit on a uniform scale. Instead, the meter recorded the user's gut feeling at a particular moment; the position of the knob on the meter would determine the voltage output on the device. Beer wrote that the meters could be installed in any location with a television set, such as in a Chilean home or in select community centers.

Page 93
According to Gerrity, the CIA planned to bring Chile to the point of economic collapse by urging companies to "drag their feet in sending money, in making deliveries, in shipping spare parts, etc." and to "withdraw all technical help and not provide any technical assistance in the future." We may never know the full extent of U.S. intervention in Chile during the Allende government or the entire role played by companies such as ITT, but we do know that the U.S.-led economic blockade created shortages of spare parts, caused significant problems for Chilean industries, stopped industrial machinery, and affected the production and repair of consumer goods.

Page 109
[...] the deputy director of the State Technology Institute explained, "it is important for Chile to be selective about the technologies it adopts, because in the long run they may determine social values and the shape of society—as the automobile has in the United States, for example.

Page 125
Beer imagined that the individuals sitting in the operations room would be either members of the government elite or factory workers, individuals who did not know how to type—a skill typically possessed by trained female secretaries. With little instruction, occupants could use the large "big-hand" buttons on each armrest. Participants could also "thump" these buttons if they wished to emphasize a point. Beer claimed that an interface of large geometrical buttons made the room more accessible for workers and prevented it from being a "sanctum sanctorum for a government elite." Through this design decision, the system allowed for worker participation.

Page 132
Looked at from a different angle, the Cybersyn system could even be read as disempowering Chilean workers. The timing charts printed in the study of the Easton Furniture factory are reminiscent of the time studies that characterized the Taylor system of management, which had been introduced in a number of Chilean factories before Allende came to power.

Page 145
In many ways its relative obscurity had benefited Cybersyn. The team had enjoyed a high degree of autonomy that was rarely challenged. Using his informal web of contacts, Flores had found it fairly easy to secure most of the financial, human, and material resources that the project needed and had done so without bureaucratic delays.

In October 1972, truck owners and then many other business owners across the country went on strike, in an attempt by the owning classes to bring down the government..
Page 149
After the strike, Silva said, "two concepts stayed in our mind: that information helps you make decisions and, above all, that it [the telex machine] helps you keep a record of this information, which is different from making a telephone call. [Having this record] lets you correct your mistakes and see why things happened."

Page 150
To put it another way, the network offered a communications infrastructure to link the revolution from above, led by Allende, to the revolution from below, led by Chilean workers and members of grassroots organizations, and helped coordinate the activities of both in a time of crisis. During the strike, workers in the state-run factories found ways to maintain production while simultaneously defending their workplaces from attack. They also transformed factory machine shops into spaces for repairing the trucks the government owned or requisitioned. Meanwhile, the telex network helped the government direct raw materials, fuel, and transportation resources to the places that most needed them. It also helped the government keep track of its trucks and provided information about which roads were blocked and which roads were open.

Beer estimated that the telex network transmitted two thousand messages daily during the strike. "The noise was indescribable," Beer said [...]

Page 158
[Beer] advised the government to ask the Chilean people what goods they considered essential, the quantity they desired, and the quantity that they already had, and use that information to determine which goods were of "primary necessity."


He urged the government to use the pamphlet he had developed and Angel Parra's folk song to teach the Chilean people about cybernetic thinking in government and to promote the government's use of science and technology in the service of the Chilean people. He pushed the government to create a "proper proletarian channel" for Chilean television and radio that could shape public opinion of the government and offset the influence of the media outlets run by the opposition and funded by the CIA.

Page 159
Beer insisted that workers should control the use of Cybersyn and argued that this was within their capabilities. Since he reasoned that Cybersyn was like any other "automated machine tool," he concluded that Chilean workers could reasonably use the system "without understanding the electronics," such as the mainframe computer. Beer also felt that the operations room should function as "the shop-floor of Total Industry" and reiterated that it should be "a place for the workers." In addition, Beer wanted to change the power relations between Chilean scientists and technologists to that of advising the workers when needed and performing supporting roles, such as system maintenance.

Page 161
In contrast, Beer's report envisioned a more substantial form of participation. He wanted to change how management decisions were made, whose knowledge was used to make these decisions, and how workers, technologists, and managers interacted. And he believed that Project Cybersyn could change all this for the better.

Page 163
In his writings Beer often cited nature as a complex system that remains viable through its self-organization. He argued that such systems do not need to be designed because they already exist. To modify the behaviour of such a system, one need not control its every aspect but rather change one subsystem so that the overall system naturally drifts toward the desired goal. Perhaps the injection of worker action could drive Chile toward a new point of homeostatic equilibrium, one that was congruent with the overall goal of socialist transformation. Worker improvisation on the ground could, moreover, supplement Allende's directives from above. beer viewed this redundancy as another prerequisite for self-organization and system viability. He wanted to encourage self-organization both by having Chilean workers participate in the actual design of Cybersyn and by using cybernetics to enhance the new forms of participation that were developing in Chilean communities. Such participatory activities would not only increase worker freedom but also create a more participatory working life and a more democratic society.

Page 166
Because the team grew in this decentralized, "opportunistic" way, most new recruits were not introduced to Beer and had little or no awareness, let alone understanding, of cybernetic principles such as the Viable System Model or the Law of Requisite Variety. Nor did they understand how Beer's approach to decentralized control was congruent with the principles of Allende's democratic socialism. Increasingly, Cybersyn was becoming a technological project divorced from its cybernetic and political origins.

Page 168
Examining how beer's and Flores's views changed in the aftermath of the strike shows that individual experiences, historical moments, and geographies all contribute to the ways that technologies have politics and politics are shaped by technology.

Page 178
To these criticisms, Beer responded that the system used simple technologies such as telex machines, drew from excellent programming talent in London and Santiago, and relied on many "human interfaces," meaning it was not automated. He also said that he was tired of hearing the assertion that such a system could be built only in the United States, and stressed that building the futuristic control room required only "the managerial acceptance of the idea, plus the will to see it realized." But, he added, "I finally found both the acceptance and the will—on the other side of the world." This final comment was a not-so-subtle jab at his British compatriots, who over the years had questioned the legitimacy and feasibility of his cybernetic ideas.

Page 183
The ease with which Hanlon painted Cybersyn as upholding political values that were the opposite of those of Chilean democratic socialism is a good example of the difficulty engineers and other technologists face in designing political values in a technological system. In fact, Hanlon was not alone in recognizing Cybersyn's potential for centralized control.

Page 187
It could also be argued that Project Cybersyn used computers in ways that could not be replicated in more industrialized nations. In 1973 the Chilean economy was more than twenty times smaller than that of Germany and almost one hundred times smaller than that of the United States. The Chilean economy was also composed of only a few core industries. Building a computer system to manage the Chilean economy was thus a much simpler task than trying to build a comparable system in Germany or the United States [...]

Page 198
Members of the military still loyal to the constitutional government quickly put down the coup attempt. However, the attempt made visible the divisions within the military and signaled that the president was losing the support of the armed forces. In response to these events, members of the Cybersyn team were understandably concerned about Beer's safety and their ability to protect him. Despite their efforts, Beer remained conspicuous in Las Cruces: he was a six-foot tall Englishman living in a small Chilean town—and he accidentally set fire to the mayor's house shortly after he arrived.

Page 207
Why Project Cybersyn, a technological project that outwardly tried to decentralize Chilean power structures and support the revolution from below, was frequently read as a tool for centralized government control is a more complicated question. In some cases this interpretation was the result of misinformation, as was the case with the secrecy charges. In other instances it was the result of a willful attempt to cast the Allende government in a negative light. The Soviet embrace of cybernetics in the late 1950s and 1960s might also have influenced some to see Cybersyn as a centralizing technology.

Page 212
Computer and communications technologies have often been linked to processes of political, economic, and social transformation. But claims that these technologies can bring about structural change in society—like the frequent assertion that computers will bring democracy or greater social equality—are often made in the absence of historical analysis.

Page 213
More often, Cybersyn team members attempted to embed political values in Cybersyn through sociotechnical engineering, meaning that they tried to build values not only into the function of the technology itself but also into the social and organizational relations of its construction and use.

Page 215
For example, Allende charged the Project Cybersyn team with building a system that supported worker participation. Yet the scientific techniques Chilean engineers used to model the state-controlled factories resembled Taylorism, a rationalized approach to factory production that disempowered workers and gave management greater control over labor. Time analysis, for example, emerged in the context of capitalist production, prioritizing efficiency and productivity over other values, such as the quality of shop floor life. By using time-analysis techniques, Cybersyn engineers could have inadvertently created production relationships that were counter to the Popular Unity platform and then solidified them in the form of a computer model.

Page 220
This story of technological innovation also challenges the assumption that innovation results from private-sector competition in an open marketplace.

Page 231
"The ideal of an objectively knowledgeable expert must be replaced with a recognition of the importance of background," Winograd and Flores write. "This can lead to the design of tools that facilitate a dialog of evolving understanding among a knowledgeable community." Building on this observation, the authors propose that computers should not make decisions for us but rather should assist human actions, especially human "communicative acts that create requests and commitments that serve to link us to others."

Page 233
This last quote specifically for Jackie Pease...
[Beer's] last book, Beyond Dispute (1994), proposed a new method for problem solving based on the geometric configurations of the icosahedron, a polygon with twenty equilateral triangle faces. He called this new method "syntegrity" and argued that it could serve as a new approach to conflict resolution in areas of the world such as the Middle East.

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