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New Artisans Journal
Insights on a path less travelled.
I think one of the biggest burdens of our education system is the drive it gives us to be "right". Aware as I am of that, I still find a temptation to look back at my posts, summarise them and reiterate, in some sort of sub conscious effort to infer that I somehow "know". Which of course, I don't. Collecting fallen leaves of thought does not enable me to build a tree. So instead, in a journal once a month, I'm going to experiment with what my friends in the world of psychodynamics term "reverie"; To play with the leaves of thought, throw them up in the air, and see what happens. To consider their "second order" implications, how they might be connected, and where they might lead. To move away from the linear to the happily disordered, and take the path less travelled. I have no idea where this might end up, but that something here might find a home somewhere.
I’ve been occupied these last few weeks with the broad idea of “enclosure”. Drawing parallels between the enclosure acts that took place in the U.K. in the 18th and 19th centuries, which redefined our society and economy as farming went from subsistence on common land to business on private land. It triggered migration to the cities as the industrial revolution gathered steam, as well as international migration, mainly to the U.S.A for those with little other option. In the three hundred years since it started, the move to a capitalist system has seen both the generation of enormous wealth, as well as its very asymmetric distribution. Now, it seems that we are treading the same path in the virtual, digital realm as Big Tech and the Corporate World enclose not just national digital economies but global ones.
The enclosure acts resulted in my great, great grandfather ending up as a tenant on land that he and his forbears in Shropshire had farmed for generations until, unable to meet the rent; he ended up a gamekeeper on that land. Sometimes, in quiet moments, I have a sense of connection to that.
Increasingly, we seem to be leasing our lives, with everything from our work to our homes being held on sufferance to landlords we do not know. Just as whole villages were moved in order for Capability Brown to create uninterrupted landscapes for wealthy landowners, we now find businesses suffering similar fates. Instead of Capability Brown, we have venture and private Capital building, acquiring and rearranging start-up businesses in order to create spaces for unicorns to roam with little thought for those who have been displaced. Along the way, our social infrastructure, from education to local government, has evolved to be measured in money rather than function and align with the values of business. Monetisation has become dogma, and at times it is easy to feel, in a way, homeless when it comes to the part of our lives that is work.
What interests me, though, is less the inevitable and ultimately destructive logic of the quest for eternal growth, but rather our willingness to go along with it.
It is as though enclosure has cut off our connection to each other and the communities we are part of and replaced it with a synthetic, digital substitute until we find ourselves in some strange hybrid of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Peter Weir’s Truman Show.
I imagined an experiment where I could look down at an organisation, lift the structure away to leave the people unenclosed, and see what happened. Would they, bound by the compelling nature of the company’s mission and values self organise, innovate and deliver; would they sit there, like Skinner’s rats, staying where they were when the electric boundaries were turned off, or would they escape into the wild?
If, as well as lifting away the physical structure, we lifted away the enclosing language of business, with its acronyms, chants and catechism, how might they communicate, and perhaps more importantly, what would they talk about?
With the physical and language barriers lifted but with innate and learned skills intact, what might they create?
What if we allowed leaders to emerge, rather than appoint them? (I’ve always thought that if we have to label ourselves a leader, or a guru, then by definition, we are no such thing. What is important is how others see us, not how we see ourselves)
Freed from enclosure, how might they work together - would they retain divisions and departments, or build from the ground up, creating communities of shared interest - something more akin to the Iroquois Confederation, or Goretex, or those other small, purposeful organisations before capital private equity gets their hands on them?
All very fanciful, perhaps, but it triggered some thoughts.
Firstly, the language of business is restricted, ugly even. It is like some monetary Esperanto designed to enable communication between different ways of making money, but monotone and devoid of texture, colour, beauty, mystery and potential. A language dominated by logic but incapable of poetry. Words and paragraphs with neatly rounded corners used like Lego blocks to build new neat, square businesses.
Creativity and development are at the heart of our ability to survive and thrive, and nature is neither square nor neat.
You cannot use butterfly language to communicate with caterpillars
If we are to get to the other side of the ditch to the future we have dug, we need a new language that harnesses the butterfly in humanity. The challenge I see with AI is not the technology, it is the people. If we build using caterpillar language, and caterpillar thinking, we will get what we ask for. Bigger, better, hungrier caterpillars, eating everything in sight.
One of the other aspects of enclosure that has been in my mind is capacity. When we enclose something and heat it up, the level of energy increases until, without release, it escapes the container with a very large bang. That feels like a reasonable metaphor for most of the “hard-working” people I talk with.
I notice that we don’t talk about “Hard-working Investors”, “Hard-working Landlords”, or “Hard-working Capital”. Hard-working seems to be the preserve of the enclosed rather than the enclosers.
The preferred language of the enclosers is “productive” - as in the economy. When the economy overheats, we cool it down. When hard-working people overheat, we replace them.
This feels patently stupid, as well as inhuman. Machines work well at capacity - we design them to do it. People do not. People who design great machines rarely work at capacity - they need the space to think, experiment and create. To wander past the edge of what we know to splash around in the as-yet-unknown, and they cannot do that to a schedule.
It feels to me like an epidemic of overwhelm. We are creating and consuming ever more input, with little discretion, and somehow expecting ourselves to cope. In a market dependent on monetising attention, what seems to matter is not the quality of what we offer but the quantity.
At the same time, we are hugely underwhelmed; by our leaders, the nature of our work, and the way we work.
early 14c., probably from a parallel form of Old English -hwielfan (West Saxon), -hwelfan (Mercian), in ahwelfan "cover over;"
Whelm is a term that has fallen out of use, and I think it’s a shame; “whelmed” has a ring to it. A place with enough eustress - the healthy level of stress that keeps us engaged, creative and productive in addressing challenges that mean something important to us, and the soul-destroying levels of stress that seems to go with “hard-working” and gives us the levels of mental health issues we have.
I want to work with people who are whelmed.
It seems to me that many of our organisations are broken. Designed for an industrial age, with its priorities of volumes, efficiencies and profits, they have become one-sided. We have minimised the elements of human variability and, in so doing, created structures that are perfectly suited to AI, with no humans at all in many parts of it.
That is not a bad thing, perhaps. Many of the jobs we have created do very little for other people or the planet; we have ended up, unwittingly, with David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs”, and it is time to change that.
We can learn from the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pieces are made whole by celebrating the fractures. For our organisations, instead of golden lacquer, we can use people to bring together the parts that AI will do better. It will need though the eye, hand and soul of the artisan to create something new that serves the interests of people as well as profit, and is unlikely to be achieved by swarms of “Kintsugi Consultants”. I think we have to allow what is breaking to break and then pick up the pieces and bring them back together in a new way that respects and learns from the circumstances that have broken it.
First, of course, we need the glue. That will come by connecting people no longer willing to be enclosed, and who want to bring the human who has been gradually removed from work back into the picture in order to provide expression for the potential of the language we are capable of.
If we pause for a moment, we can see butterfly language emerging in many places. In Citizens Assemblies, here on Substack, in maker movements, and in new forms of business.
This is how it works - small groups, operating independently in areas of common purpose until they are brought together by what Greg Satell calls a “Keystone Event”. We are in what Gal Beckerman calls “The Quiet Before”. The energies of shaking off constraints, finding language, and picking up the pieces to build something new.
This is the space where artisans have played a key role over centuries. People for whom, who they are, what they do, and who they do it with is an emerging dance to music they hear before others. That is what is on my mind now. The Music.
The challenge is how to connect our individual understanding to that dance, one small step at a time.
It is necessary, therefore, to learn to work directly with the conflict in our environment, not ignore it, submerge it, give up on it or try to deny its existence. However profound our individual wisdom, it will not survive in the world unless it is joined with some kind of power.
Art of War. Sun Tzu, Denma Translation
Until next month.