Delays: building in progress

POSTED: October 14, 2016

I had originally intended that the first Convivial Café experiment would draw to a close in a few week’s time. Instead it has not yet begun. I have nobody to blame except myself, and my ability to complicate things or to spot potential complications, depending on your point of view. Let me try to explain what has happened so far and, more importantly, what will happen at Halloween.

The story so far

I began with the intention of updating the virtual café methodology that Peter Small developed almost twenty years ago. I asked myself how he actually organised them in practice, and I remembered that he used a mailing list for each table in the café. This seemed a bad idea in 2016 for several reasons. Firstly it would require a lot of manual fiddling at my end. Secondly, it would mean that participants each got a digest in their email once a day, and maybe more often. People’s mail habits have changed in twenty years and I doubted that people who welcome this. Thirdly this meant that the café would have no social elements at all, and this seemed to be a wasted opportunity at the very least.

I therefore looked for an alternative approach and I experimented with forum software. Initially this seemed to offer a perfect solution but then I began to see limitations and problems. Forums have their own history and many people “know how to behave” on them. I looked at the Guardian’s Comment Is Free forums and these confirmed my fears. Forums lend themselves, for both technical and cultural reasons, to a particular kind of smart-alec-ness. Every discussion on Brexit in Comment Is Free, for example, has devolved into trivial name-calling and flip sarcasm.

Finally I looked at social media software, and decided to use BuddyPress. However this needs to be attached to a website and that served to fuse two projects together.

While I had been doing and thinking all this I had also been putting together a grant application and a series of workshops for a project called Convivial Mechanics, that sprang from the ideas in the first workshop that I gave in Access Space, as well as research I had been doing at Arcada. These workshops drew from the same set of inspirations as the content in the original Culture & Democracy manifesto, the one that we have said we will update. I had been drawing up the content for a website for this, and it occurred to me that all of this formed different aspects of the same set of ideas.

I stated to think of the Convivial Café experiment as one of the first actions of Convivial Mechanics, which meant that the BuddyPress café would fit naturally on that site. Once I realised this I understood what I should do: build one site where we can meet and work together on ideas that come from the same sources and all lead to the same sets of creative, cultural, political and social concerns.

In the grant application I described convivial mechanics like this:

Convivial Mechanics

In the current phase of capitalism the idea of enough no longer plays a significant public role. Growth has become an all-encompassing aim. We have learned to accept that whatever we like would prove even better if only we could have more of it, even though research suggests otherwise. We no longer feel this envy solely about material goods. We have learned to feel it about those intangible goods such as status and ranking, which our digital tools have begun to measure and make explicit to us.

The prevailing economic system demands constant growth because capitalism long ago developed the capacity to satisfy our basic needs, and moved on to manufacturing new, less tangible, needs for which we can learn to demand satisfaction. The various ecological, economic, political and social crises in the last fifty years have demonstrated, however, that we do not have infinite resources available to us, and have laid bare the idea of infinite growth as a fantasy. The desire for infinite growth now appears inhuman in theory as well as in practice. It represents an inversion of the idea that we create tools to extend our capacities. Infinite growth makes us slaves to our tools, and leaves us waiting breathlessly for “innovative” goods to consume and “disruptive” trends to follow.

Recognising that the world has finite resources and that people live as social beings, that we become persons only through socialisation, we need to find ways to reconnect our selves with the world we have inherited. To do this we need to have a clear idea of the qualities of that world. We need to know what we will gain by doing this and we need to know this in human rather than statistical terms.

We need to reinsert the idea of sufficiency into public debate and we need to create work that does just that. We suggest that, as Ivan Illich suggested in 1971, we can do this

only if we learn to invert the present deep structure of tools; if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves.

This project aims to explore our current digital tools in order to see if, and how, we can rethink them as tools to help people “make the most of the energy and imagination each has”. To do this we will need to draw together ideas and practices from different fields, and to create practical demonstrations of convivial tools in action.

To begin this we have reached back in time to reclaim a specific and powerful idea of sufficiency, first proposed by Ivan Illich, and in order to do this we borrowed his term conviviality.

Illich suggested in 1971 that to

formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call “convivial.”

He wrote that he chose

the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.

The concept of conviviality gives us a clear goal to aim at. We do not intend to “make the world better” (because inevitably that means something different to each of us) but rather to work towards a jointly understood goal of conviviality.

We use the word mechanics in all three senses proposed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

1 : a branch of physical science that deals with energy and forces and their effect on bodies
2: the practical application of mechanics to the design, construction, or operation of machines or tools
3: mechanical or functional details or procedure

Convivial mechanics, therefore, names a hypothetical branch of science and artistic research that explores the existence of natural limits on human behaviour, both material and social; researches the implications of conviviality for cultural democracy; and applies this to the design, construction and operation of digital tools that will serve the aims of a reborn and convivial sufficiency.

What happens next?

I intend to finish the website next week and test it the week after. I now know how the café will work in such a way that it builds upon the spirit of Peter Small’s ideas while using the best of social media. I know it will function best as part of the website. The first Convivial Café will therefore open for reworking the ideas in the Culture & Democracy manifesto for the twenty first century at 12:00 GMT on Monday October 31.

I apologise for the long delay to those people who have waited patiently but I genuinely hope that what we do will start some balls rolling and I therefore want to start the working process properly. However I would rather that the chaos lived in my head and got sorted out before we start rather than started too soon and discovering after weeks or months of work that the process had fatal flaws and fell apart before our eyes.

On All Hallow’s Eve we uncover the wagons and start to roll.