Category Archives: Essays and other experiments

Essays and other experiments

Organisational permaculture design

I’ve just received my copy of the latest issue of the Danish permaculture magazine Tidsskriftet Permakultur. And it’s a little special because it includes an essay I’ve written on what I call organisational permaculture:


The essay included in the magazine is an abbreviated version of a somewhat longer essay that goes into a lot more detail. For completeness’ sake, I’ve put up the unabbreviated and uncut version of the essay here on the web for all to read (it is in Danish, obviously).

You can read the full, uncut version of the essay here.

My debut as a newspaper columnist

For the past three weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to write a weekly column for the Danish daily newspaper Information.

It’s been a fun challenge to try a fit some of my ideas, thoughts and opinions into the column format. You can find all three columns here (in Danish, obviously):

  • Rodløs på nettet – about how modern life and technology is making us less rooted, less connected to the land and the communities where we grow up.
  • Vi har brug for flere nybegyndere – about daring to be a beginner, even when we reach the age where people expect us to know better.
  • Hellere ånd end regler – about the lack of respect and spirit in modern farming and all the horrible unintended consequences that this lack gives rise to.

Who knows, maybe I’ll have the chance to write more columns in the future…

She staggers to stay upright

Last Thursday I attended a showing of a documentary on the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. After the film, there was a concert where Ida Bach Jensen, who composed the score for the film, performed.

It was a magic 40 minutes, and it gave me time to digest some of the themes and thoughts of Ekelöfs poetry. The following is a sort of summary of my thoughts.

Ekelöf writes:

Seeking stable ground in life.
Everything is fluid. Everything deceives us. Everything lures us into traps. To misunderstandings. Misconceptions. The only thing that does not waver is death. To think of death. To see life through death is to provide a pedal point to the dizzying uncertain melody we live.

Elsewhere he writes something along the lines of:

She staggers to stay upright

I find that intensely poetic. A condensation of a greater truth: That to be in balance you are always moving towards a disequilibrium. Always compensating to stay upright. Staggering back and forth. Like a tree in the wind. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle. Whether it is staying put or moving forward, maintaining balance requires constant work. To remain flexible.

In the same way, a major theme in Ekelöf’s work is how the good and the evil, the ugly and the beautiful are intertwined. They depend on the juxtaposition, the contradiction. They can exist only through each other.

Nothing can exist by itself. Nothing is pure and clean. Everything is raw, mixed and implacably honest. Like punk.

We may try to ignore it. Filter out the ugly and inconvenient. But it will only make us less flexible. Less in balance.

Instead, we have to see the ways in which the ugly highlights the beauty.

At the concert, the clean, clear almost crystalline spirituality of the music was deflated by the laughter, conversation and clinking of plates and cutlery from the café outside.

At first it annoyed me. But then I realized that it was the very dissonance of the ambient sounds of the café that gave the music its depth. And the ethereal spirituality of the music was underlined by the mundane chatter from which it sought to escape.

The beautiful and ugly complemented each other. It resulted in a calm sense of wholeness. Of balance.

It is the unpredictable, the unfinished, which creates the magic of the moment. We are never ready. We are always caught by surprise. It forces us to recalibrate. To stagger or fall.

On Saturday, I went to see a play that revolved around stories of the sea. As the play ended, they projected big photo of the wide open blue sea onto the stage.

I looked out at the sea. Exploring my newfound sensibility of the imperfect, I sought out the unexpected. The ugly. That which is set apart and breaks the harmony. The crack in the mirror. The matter out of place. That which is not in balance.

At first I couldn’t see it.

The sea is quiet, mirroring the sky in a plethora of blue nuance.
So beautiful. So pure.

Then I realize that the thing that doesn’t belong is me. The man. The boat. The attempt at control.

A tiny speck of intent merely tolerated in this vast aimless flow.

The development of democracy

I’ve started a new writing project over at the Borgerlyst blog. It is a longer essay on the development of democracy. Of course, there is no one model and understanding of democracy that can match all of the ideas that are related to democracy. So I’m trying to focus on a Danish context (the essay is written in Danish, too).

I’m writing the essay in installments, and there’ll probably be around 15 installments in total. I’ll publish two installments a week, and the first post in the series is up on the Borgerlyst blog now.

So why am I undertaking this project? I think we can learn a lot from how our current understanding and use of democracy has developed. It can help us explore the values that we have come to take for granted. But it can also help us see that the only constant element in democracy is that fact that it has undergone development and change throughout its history. Constantly evolving to match the values and conflicts in our society. And I hope such an exploration can help initiate a bigger conversation on the development of democracy in 21st century.

It is with great humility that I undertake this project. I’m no democracy expert. I am not writing this to expound some great truth. I am writing this to learn. And I hope that you’ll come along and learn with me. The text is in a continual state of beta. In development – much like the democracy that it endeavours to describe.

I’m writing this to show that democracy is not some single and simple model and solution to be implemented and maintained. It is an unending process that we have to develop together, learning from our mistakes as we go along. And as this history also will show, democracy can easily be lost once we begin to take it for granted…

Bootstrapping Complexity on Amazon

I completely forgot to mention this here. But it is definitely still worth mentioning: My remix of Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control has been published as a kindle ebook on Amazon.

Kevin Kelly contacted me last summer to hear if I’d be willing to have the remix published for the Kindle, and I said I’d be thrilled. I did want to make some smaller, cosmetic changes to the text – but being away travelling, I didn’t have the time to do so. Maybe some other time.

Full disclosure: I won’t make a penny off this remix being on Amazon. All the money will go to Kevin Kelly who did write the whole thing. I merely rearranged some of the words.

Bootstrapping complexity

So, last week I posted my remix of Kevin Kelly’s book “Out of Control”. And soon after putting the remix online, I sent a note with a link to Kevin Kelly to make him aware of the remix, hoping that he would approve.

He did approve. Much more than I expected. And it didn’t take him long to reply:

I LOVE the remix! I wish you had been my editor. There is only one thing missing from this fantastic remix – a better title. I was never happen with the book’s title and now that it is more focused, the need is even greater. What would you call it?

Whoa! Initially, I hadn’t considered changing the title as I wanted to make it as clear as possible where the material came from. Good titles are notoriously difficult to find, and I’m sure that Kevin has thought quite a bit about this one.

Considering the remix as a new whole work, I found that it was the notion of bootstrapping and self-organization that had kept me reading the book initially: the recurring patterns of self-sustaining systems, which I knew were to be summed up at the end of the book. What appealed to me was the fact that the book not only describes self-organisation but also invites further experimentation.

So I picked my title with that in mind: “Bootstrapping Complexity” plays on the fact that the book not only describes how complexity comes about but also how complex a venture self-organization really is. In this way, the title meant to signal a positive empowerment to explore self-organization – both by reading the book and by experimenting on the basis of the book.

I’ve updated the remix with the new title. The new PDF version is here.

Out of control – remixed

This summer, I read Kevin Kelly‘s book Out of Control. It is a fascinating book full of fascinating ideas reaching across the board from artificial intelligence, evolution, biology, ecology, robotics and more to explore complexity, cybernetics and self-organising systems in an accessible and engaging way.

But as I read the book, I also found it suffering from a number of frustrating flaws: Not only is it way too long-winded, it is also almost completely void of meta-text to help the reader understand what Kelly is trying to do with his book (having read the book, I’m still wondering).

Indeed, reading the book I got the feeling that Kelly was trying to combine several different books into one: There is a fascinating study of self-sustaining systems. But there is also a sort of business-book take on network economy. And an extended meditation on evolution and postdarwinism.

I’m sure that to Kelly, all of these things are tightly interconnected. But he doesn’t explain these interrelations very well to the reader. His central argument is that as technology becomes ever more complex, it becomes more akin to biological systems (eco-systems, vivisystems, interdependent and co-evolving organisms). But because the individual chapters are set up as essays on their own, there is often little to tie these wildly different ideas together.

I would have preferred a much shorter book, more narrowly focused on the idea of self-organising systems. The whole text of the original book is easily available online at Kelly’s own website, so I thought: Why not remix the online text to make such a book?

So I did.

I’ve put my remix up here. The PDF version is available here. Comments are most welcome.

Does design equal quality ?

Following the INDEX conference, I got to thinking a bit more about how the designers posited design as an unquestionable good to be used to solve the many problems of the 21st century.

But what is good design? How do you know when you’ve found it?

Well, this summer I read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and he discusses that exact question with regards to technology: What makes good technology? What is quality – not only in design and technology – but in all fields of use and application of such? And how do we come to appreciate it?

Pirsig’s book was a big “cult classic” in the 1970s, and some consider it to be the most widely read philosophy book ever. It seeks to find the answers to the questions above both in Western philosophy, represented by the logic of the motorcycle, and in Eastern mysticism, represented through the Zen Buddhism also mentioned in the title.

But today I suspect that only a few members of my generation have come across the book, and even less have been convinced by Pirsig’s style of narration.

For while I really liked some of his insights, I was frustrated by the way they’d been hidden within a 400 page auto-biographical narrative which at times confused rather than illuminated the main points around the nature of quality and the influence of technology on our lives.

So I set out to remix the book to highlight the questions of technology, quality, and design and the interrelations between them. I found an on-line version of the book and turned 400 pages into around 60, which I have gently formatted and made available in html.

I find the way we relate to technology and design fascinating, and I hope that this remix will help to show some of the ways we think and imagine technology and quality. Please have a read and add your comments.