Category Archives: From the life of…

From the life of…

On optimism

Back in November, I attended the Copenhagen Book Fair where Nadja and I were interviewed by Andrea Hejlskov about our project Borgerlyst. It was a brief talk about literature, activism and nature, which you can see here (it’s in Danish, though):

One of the questions that Andrea asked us was how we could be so optimistic when things continue to look so grim.

I answered that I believe that optimism is a choice. You can only be hopeful when you act. When you make things happen. I didn’t say so in the interview, but I’ve been very inspired by how John Seager answered the same question in The Conversation:

I’m a total optimist. I didn’t start out as one, I just ended up there because all the other options seemed unrewarding.

You know, they’ve done research on luck. They done experiments where they take two people with similar life experiences. and one thinks she’s very lucky, and the other thinks she isn’t. They’ve both had their ups and downs in life. And they would give them those little metal thingamajigs, the puzzles you try to untangle to see how long it would take them. Except they can’t. They give you one that literally won’t come apart. The unlucky one gives up after about 30 seconds. The lucky one just keeps trying. Because the lucky one just figures, ‘I know I can do this.’ And so, having an optimistic cast of mind, and thinking that way opens up doors that the other way doesn’t. And y’know… if I’m wrong, I’m wrong.

I learned a long time ago that nobody else seems to really care all that much what I think, so I might just as well think what gets me up in the morning, and that’s optimism.

I love that. I’m an optimist because all the other options seem so unrewarding.

The book is here

It’s been a long, busy autumn, but now it’s finally here. Our first book:

As you can see, we’ve had it printed with three different covers. It’s all kinds of lovely.

If you want a copy before Christmas, you can order it today in our new webshop or you can come by our pop-up bookshop this afternoon.

We’ll start the real work of marketing the book to the world next year. Right now, we’re just happy that it’s done. It really has been a lot of work.

But it was worth it.

An artist’s manifesto

Over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly frustrated when people ask me what I do for a living, as I’ve lacked a title, a narrative to make sense of what I do. So, I’ve decided to do something that I’m not entirely comfortable doing. I’m going to declare something. I’m going to define my position:

I am an artist.

Declaring myself as an artist is very liberating, because nobody really knows what it means. Just like nobody seems to know what art is anymore. We tend to only recognise art once it’s been approved by experts, curated and included in a museum exhibit somewhere. But art is not defined by institutions that approve it. Nor is it not limited to what you can put in a museum, hang in a gallery or find in a library.

 

***

 

Art is the experience that it invokes. The imagination that it releases. The possibilities that it opens.

Art allows us to see the world anew. It creates experiences that don’t fit with our existing worldview. Art is when you least expect it. It is when you think you know what it is about, only to realise that it is something else entirely.

Art makes us reconsider the things that we have come to take for granted. It shows us the world from perspectives that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Art rips open the frictionless world that we inhabit and shows us the seams. It turns seamless into seamfull. It traces all the dirty interconnections of the systems of which we are part.

Art turns us into beginners again. It gives us that beginner’s mind where everything is possible. It opens up spaces where we can experiment and reach our own conclusions. It frees our imagination to dream of how things can be different.

Art creates the tools for change and leaves it up to each of us to decide when and how to use them. Art builds on the fundamental truth that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.

Art doesn’t force change. It merely makes change possible. It allows us to act, learn and change for own sake, in our own time. It allows us to change our understanding of what’s possible through the act of doing it ourselves. It allows us to realise new possibilities by exploring them.

For instance, realising the amount of food that is available for free by going out dumpster diving. Or realising that other kinds of communal decisionmaking are possible by participating in a consensus democratic process. Or realising that other ways of understanding reality are possible by dropping acid. Or realising the interconnectedness of all the things we depend on to produce our food by volunteering on an organic farm. Such experiences are usually not recognised as art. But in fact, they are the most profound opportunities for change.

As an artist, I work to create such opportunities for change by disturbing the expected.

 

***

 

I’m still trying to wrap my head around how what I do can be conceived of as art. I think a big part of it is the fact that my work doesn’t really seem to fit neatly in the usual boxes and categories. Not a writer. Not an academic. Not a consultant. Not an activist. Not a teacher. But something more and in-between.

I am what Frances Whitehead calls ‘a professional dot-connector.’ A trickster living in the interstitial spaces between disciplines, sectors and organisations. A cross-pollinator of ideas who traces the patterns in the overwhelmingly complex systems of which we are part. A clown working to create disturbances and surprises — not to shock, but to challenge each of us to think for ourselves.

This sounds awfully grand, and that is a big part of why I don’t feel comfortable claiming this position. But when I consider the projects that I’ve been part of over the past 4 years, I see them very much as artistic projects in the sense that I’ve described here (even if I haven’t been very conscious of their artistic qualities before):

Borgerlyst is laboratory that creates small disturbances, questions, unexpected directions in our conversations about society and democracy. We work to point out patterns in the everyday systems of Danish society that we inhabit and challenge others to consider their implications.

For instance, through the conversation salons, we create a setting where different, deeper conversations are not only allowed but actively encouraged, pushing participants to reconsider the kind of conversations that you can have with strangers, and how.

Similarly, with our SMS campaign Folkets Valg (“The People’s Choice”) that focused on the underlying and unspoken premises that all politicians appeared to take for granted when designing their policies on. Every day during the election campaign we asked questions that challenged these assumptions and invited people to reconsider them: What do you take for granted? Which possibilities have you ruled out?

Our book project Borgerlyst — handlekraft i hverdagen is an attempt to bring together the tools and ideas that we’ve found over the past 3 years in one coherent whole. No preaching, just a humble handbook about how each of us can act and get engaged in our everyday lives.

Københavns Fødevarefællesskab is another project that generates an neverending stream of everyday disturbances. As I’ve described elsewhere, it challenges people to consider some of the things they have come to take for granted about how organisations work, about how we buy our food, about how we make decisions as a group, about what kind of future we want to live in. It is a school for everyone involved, because we don’t know how to do what we want to do. The only way is to do it ourselves. We can only try and learn.

My writings, especially the essay Choosing Restraint, has built on these themes as well, challenging the way we usually see the world, and reaching some (hopefully) unexpected conclusions. I hope to write more in a similar vein soon.

 

***

 

I guess we are all looking for a pattern in what we do. A pattern that connects us to everything else in a meaningful way. As I’ve been looking for my pattern, I have found this. But it doesn’t end here. This is not even an answer to the question “so what do you do?” It is just another starting-off point. Another beginning. Another question.

Rainer Marie Rilke advised a young poet: Don’t seek the answers, live the questions.

That’s what I intend to do.

 

 

I’ve written a book

Yes, a book. It sums up the experiences, ideas and insights that we’ve gained from working with Borgerlyst for the past 3 years. Nadja and I spent a good part of this spring and summer writing the first draft, and now it’s finally coming together into a coherent whole. It’s called “Borgerlyst — handlekraft i hverdagen”, which translates roughly as “Civic desire — agency in everyday life” (a little less poetic in English, I’m afraid).

We’ve decided to publish the book ourselves, and to that end, we’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Danish crowdfunding site Booomerang. The book is in Danish, of course, so it might not be particularly interesting to non-Danish speakers. But we hope that with success in Denmark it’ll be possible to make an international edition afterwards.

If you do speak Danish, check out our video, and support the project:

You can see current progress on the campaign here:

Any help — both in terms of money and spreading the word — is most appreciated. Thank you!

Quit your smartphone

Today I have an opinion piece in the Danish national newspaper Politiken. It’s a much shorter rewrite of my blog post about filters in the age of distraction, called “Drop din smartphone.” 

UPDATE: The piece has been posted on the Politiken website. Unfortunately, they’ve changed the title to “The smartphone has taken over our lives”, which is not exactly what I’m saying. But so it goes.

Below, you can find the full, uncut draft of the opinion piece, which goes into a little more detail than the newspaper allowed for.

If you’re curious to read more, you can also read:

Drop din smartphone

Smartphones har fået en stor udbredelse i Danmark. 3 ud af 5 voksne danskere har fået en. Og de ændrer vores måde at være sammen på — men ikke til det bedre. Efter tre år med smartphone valgte jeg at gå tilbage til en gammel Nokia for at genvinde kontrollen over mit digitale liv.

En dag gik det op for mig, at jeg brugte alt for megen tid på at være online. Hver gang jeg tjekkede min e-mail eller Facebook eller Twitter, var det ikke længere, fordi jeg havde et dybere formål med det. Jeg kunne bare ikke lade være. For hver gang jeg så, at der var nye, ulæste e-mails eller nye kommentarer på Facebook, fik jeg et lille kick: Hvad er der sket, siden jeg sidst tjekkede?

For vores hjerne er gearet til at reagere på forandringer. På nyheder: Hver gang vi ser noget nyt – eller forventer at se noget nyt – så udløser det et lille skud dopamin i vores hjerne. Dopamin er et signalstof, som vores hjerne er udviklet til at reagere på: Aktiviteter, der udløser dopamin, er noget som den efterstræber nærmest af sig selv. Kort sagt: Det er vanedannende.

Vi får dopamin af at spise mad, dyrke sex eller motion, men også af alkohol, stoffer og … nyheder.

Umiddelbart er der bestemt ikke noget dårligt ved at reagere på forandringer og få ny viden. Men online nyheder og statusopdateringer minder mest af alt om farvestrålende slik for hjernen: Man kan spise og spise, men man bliver aldrig mæt. Og man spiser uden at tænke over det, bare fordi slikskålen står på bordet.

Og det var det, som var problemet for mig: Med min smartphone i lommen kunne jeg tjekke min email, nyheder eller Facebook hvor-som-helst og når-som-helst jeg havde et par minutter til overs: I bussen. På toilettet. Foran fjernsynet. I en pause i en samtale. Til sidst var det nærmest bare en refleks at tage telefonen frem, når det så ud til, at jeg kunne komme til at kede mig.

Og det smittede af på mit arbejde: Der gik sjældent mere end fem eller ti minutter, før jeg følte trang til at tjekke min e-mail. Og hver gang jeg gjorde det, var det for at finde noget, der kunne distrahere mig fra det, som jeg sad og arbejdede på. Noget lettere. Noget med et umiddelbart og ukompliceret pay-off. Et hurtigt fix.

Men som oftest, så medførte fix’et bare flere ting, som jeg skulle tage stilling til: Nye emails, nye aftaler, nye invitationer til events, flere nyheder, som jeg skulle forholde mig til. Og smartphonen gjorde det kun værre, for når jeg var på farten havde jeg hverken tid eller tålmodighed til at forholde mig fyldestgørende til noget af det.

Der var mange mails, som jeg aldrig fik svaret på, fordi jeg læste dem på telefonen og tænkte over hvad jeg ville svare, men aldrig rent faktisk fik skrevet svaret. Der var flere møder og aftaler, som blev fejlbooket fordi jeg hurtigt satte dem ind i kalenderen uden at dobbelttjekke tidspunktet. Der var en masse invitationer til fester og andet, som jeg aldrig fik meldt til eller fra på. Mentalt var jeg allerede videre til den næste ting i en uendelig strøm af nye indtryk.

Jeg var fanget i en dårlig vane, der gjorde mig distraheret, ufokuseret, uproduktiv og stresset. Så jeg besluttede mig for at bryde vanen og prøve at genvinde et afbalanceret og produktivt forhold til internettet.

Når vi snakker om internettet, så er det let at skyde skylden på den overflod af information, som vi svømmer i hver dag. Men som internet-tænkeren Clay Shirky har pointeret, så handler det ikke så meget om mængden af information, som om hvordan vi navigerer i den. Grunden til, at jeg følte mig fanget i en vanedannende strøm af hurtig og let information, handlede mere om et nedbrud af mine informationsfiltre, end om mængden af information, som jeg havde til rådighed.

Tidligere var der en masse informationsfiltre, der begrænsede mængden af information, som vi let kunne tilgå. De fleste var økonomiske og teknologiske: Det er dyrt at trykke information på papir og distribuere det, og det er tilsvarende bøvlet at finde, købe og læse. Men der var også sociale filtre: Der var en masse information om folks liv, som vi kun kunne få ved at snakke med hinanden enten i telefonen eller ansigt til ansigt, hvilket var med til at begrænse mængden af information du skulle forholde dig til.

Med internettets nye sociale tjenester er mange af disse informationsfiltre brudt sammen. Vi har mulighed for at følge med i alting hele tiden, og flere og flere af os oplever, at det kan vi ikke rumme. Og derfor har vi brug for at udvikle nye filtre.

Nogle af disse filtre kan udbedres gennem bedre teknologi, men andre kræver, at vi udvikler nye sociale normer omkring den måde, vi omgås information på. En slags digital Emma Gad, om du vil.

Vi har været igennem den samme udvikling med mobiltelefoner. Og vi har efterhånden tillært os nogle normer for, hvornår vi kan tillade os at ringe til folk (omend det er sværere at finde ud af, hvor hurtigt vi kan forvente, at de ringer tilbage). Men forskellen på telefon og email er, at telefonen er passiv: Du bestemmer ikke, hvornår den ringer. Hvorimod email er aktiv: Du bestemmer selv, hvornår og hvor ofte, du vil tjekke den.

Men mobiltelefoner har også et teknologisk filter, der understøtter disse normer: Du kan sætte den på lydløs. Men du kan ikke sætte din email på pause: Hver gang du slår op i din email for at finde en gammel korrespondence, et telefonnummer eller en adresse, så bliver du konfronteret med alle de nye beskeder, der er tikket ind siden sidst.

For at genvinde kontrollen over mit digitale liv besluttede jeg mig for at prøve at lave mine egne informationsfiltre. Og jeg fandt ud hurtigt ud af, at jeg havde brug for at starte på en frisk. Så efter tre år med smartphone gik jeg cold turkey. Jeg solgte min smartphone og gik tilbage til en gammel tryk-knaps-Nokia. For på den måde kunne jeg simpelthen ikke lade mig friste til at gå på nettet hele tiden.

Uden en smartphone kan jeg kun tjekke min e-mail på min computer. Det betyder, at det er meget lettere for mig at besvare e-mails med det samme. Og for at undgå, at email kommer til at fylde for meget i min arbejdsdag, så prøver jeg at nøjes med at behandle min e-mail én gang om dagen. Jeg gør det om morgenen, ligesom gammeldags post.

For at dette kan fungere, så har det krævet, at jeg løbende afstemmer folks forventninger, så de ikke forventer at få et øjeblikkeligt svar fra mig. Derfor  har jeg opsat et e-mail-autosvar, der forklarer, hvor ofte jeg tjekker min e-mail, og hvornår man kan forvente svar. Den korte version er: “Hvis det er presserende, så ring til mig eller send en sms. Ellers får du svar i morgen.” Og til min glædelige overraskelse, så er det meget få ting, der haster så meget, at folk ikke kan vente til dagen efter. Og langt de fleste er godt tilfredse med at få et svar inden for 24 timer.

Disse tre informationsfiltre har gjort, at jeg ikke længere behøver at bekymre mig om email eller om at komme til at spilde tid online. Jeg føler ikke længere den tilbagevendende impuls til at tage mit smartphone frem, hver gang jeg er bange for at komme til at kede mig. Det har givet mig mere ro, og jeg føler faktisk, at jeg er blevet mere nærværende og eftertænksom af det.

Jeg ved godt, at dette meget let kan lyde både helligt og teknologi-forskrækket. Og jeg vil på ingen måde benægte, at der bestemt er smartphone-funktioner, som jeg savner af og til, så som touch-skærm, kalender-integration, GPS og et lækkert kamera. Og jeg kan sagtens forstå, hvis du ikke har lyst til at opgive alt det for at gå tilbage til en gammeldags “dum” mobil.

Men det gode ved informationsfiltre er, at du selv bestemmer hvor langt du vil gå. Så lad mig slutte med et par lette forslag, som du kan prøve af. I værste fald har du fundet ud af, at de ikke virker for dig. I bedste fald vil de gøre dit digitale liv lettere at holde styr på, og dermed gøre dig mindre stresset og mere fokuseret:

Afmeld dit data-abonnement. Du vil stadig kunne bruge din smartphone med wifi rundt omkring, men det vil være lige lidt mere bøvlet. Og dermed vil det mindske din tilskyndelse til at tage telefonen frem ved den mindste anledning.

Indgå en smartphone-pagt. Et let socialt filter er at lave en pagt med dine venner: Når I er ude og spise eller til fest, så læg alle jeres telefoner med skærmen nedad i en stabel på bordet. Den første, der tager sin telefon fra stablen skal give en omgang til bordet. Igen en lille ting, men det kan være med til at gøre jer bevidste om, hvor meget I piller med jeres telefoner i løbet af en aften.

Ingen email på telefonen. Lad være med at sætte din email op på din telefon. Hvis du først har email på telefonen, så er det svært at lade være med at tjekke den i tide og utide. I stedet kan du nøjes med at tjekke din email på computeren, hvor du let og hurtigt kan læse og besvare dine mails.

Ingen mails udenfor arbejdstiden. Alternativt kan du foreslå din chef at ændre indstillingerne på jeres mail-servere således, at I kun kan modtage emails i arbejdstiden. Det har de ansatte hos Volkswagen i Tyskland gjort — og ledelsen er gået med på den! På den måde er det blevet muligt for de ansatte rent faktisk at holde fri, når de har fri. Det har betydet mindre stress — ikke mindst fordi, at virksomheden på denne måde har kunnet sætte en fælles norm for hvornår og hvor hurtigt man kan forvente at få svar på en email. Måske I kunne gøre noget tilsvarende på din arbejdsplads?

Hold telefon-fri. Dette begrænser sig sådan set ikke til smartphones, men til alle telefoner: Afsæt et bestemt tidsrum hver dag, hvor du holder telefonfri og i stedet fokuserer på at være til stede her og nu. Hvis du har små børn kunne det f.eks. være de tre-fire timer fra du kommer hjem fra arbejde til børnene er blevet puttet. Når først telefonen er slukket, vil du opdage, at du er meget mere til stede, for du fokuserer ikke længere på telefonen. I stedet kan du lade dig fordybe i øjeblikket og i de sociale relationer, som er vigtige for dig.

For det er i virkeligheden det, som al denne snak om informationsfiltre handler om: At gøre det muligt for os at genvinde kontrollen over vores digitale liv, så vi ikke lader os styre af teknologien, men i stedet selv bestemmer, hvordan og i hvor høj grad, at vi vil lade teknologien forme vores liv.

Evolution is awesome

I think we often tend to underestimate the intricate wonder of evolution, and by extension of life in general. It is not only incredible, but it is also scary, bizarre, funny and inspiring.

One of the best examples of this is the Mantis Shrimp, which was featured on the webcomic The Oatmeal recently. But there are many more. In fact, there is a whole blog dedicated to the weird and wondrous creations of evolution. Very appropriately, it’s called, WTF, Evolution?

It showcases some of the weirdest animals known to creation. Including lizards that can shoot blood from their eyes, frogs that incubate their eggs in their stomach and ridiculously garish caterpillars. All complete with a pithy little caption as to why they might have evolved in such a way.

My favourite so far is the mating practices of the leopard slug:

Yeah, this blog has devolved into slug porn. Who would have thought?

Get it done

I’m awfully late to the party, but I just came across Bre Pettis and Kio Stark’s “Cult of Done” manifesto:

1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
3. There is no editing stage.
4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
11. Destruction is a variant of done.
12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
13. Done is the engine of more.

It reminds me of my remix of Fried and Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework. The core message is: When inspired, just start making stuff, get it done and see what happens. I’m not as good at that as I’d like to be. But I’m getting better.

Four Yorkshiremen in reverse

Today, I came across an interesting blog post by Dave Snowden who apparently is something of an expert when it comes knowledge management (whatever that is).

Snowden writes about the dangers of rose tinting — that is trying to map out a route to some ideal future instead of working in the present and relating to the real problems at hand.

His point being that idealists tend to be unable to embrace dissent and learn from it, and so they seek and encourage confirmation rather than conflict. That means that when a group of idealistic, like-minded people get together, it can easily devolve into a sort of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch in reverse, where they encourage each other to develop bigger and bigger utopian fantasies that can encompass all needs and suggestions and thus avoid any dissent.


Drawing of the four Yorkshiremen found on Wowox.com

I’ll be the first to admit to having a utopian bent, so for me this is a welcome warning. I do try to be realistic about the scope of what I’m doing. I find the mental image of “Four Yorkshiremen In Reverse” to be a rather powerful reminder of the danger of such rose tinting.

Snowden goes on to say that you won’t change things by lecturing people on how old fashioned their thinking is. This is similar to Euan Semple’s credo that “to rescue someone is to oppress them.”

Instead of lecturing, Snowden suggests that you put people “into situations and give them tools where old ways of thinking are not sustainable and they have to act differently. If they work it out for themselves it’s sustainable.”

That is certainly something to ponder.

Let’s be honest here

This week’s XKCD struck a chord with me:

This reminds me of one of my all-time favourite songs, “Slow Emotion Replay” by The The:

The more I see
The less I know
About all the things I thought were wrong or right
and carved in stone

So, don’t ask me about
War, Religion, or God
Love, Sex, or Death
Because…

Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world
But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.

Listen to the song here.