Deleted section: ‘Some imagined futures’

When I was preparing the new Second Edition of Making is Connecting, I got rid of some older stuff to make way for newer stuff. (The new book includes – as it says on the back cover – ‘many new sections, as well as three new chapters on creative processes, do-it-yourself strategies, and platforms for creativity’). That’s sensible to do, but it’s sad to say goodbye to perfectly good material. But that’s where the internet comes in, giving me a place to park things that otherwise don’t have a place in the physical world any more.

So! At the start of the Conclusion chapter in the Second Edition, there’s a footnote that says this:

In the first edition of this book, there was a section in this Conclusion where I took the opportunity to describe some ‘imagined futures’, proposing implications of the book’s arguments in the areas of media, education, work, and politics and the environment. I think these suggestions can have a tendency to seem either banal or fantastical, or both, and you can imagine the implications of this book perfectly well for yourself. So I’ve put that section online (at makingisconnecting.org), which means it’s still perfectly accessible, but not taking up space here.

And here it is. If you have come from the book, looking for this online, well done – I hope it wasn’t too hard to find.


SOME IMAGINED FUTURES

In this section we will consider the implications of ‘making is connecting’ in different contexts. The argument of this book, and the five ‘key principles’ listed above in particular, have pretty straightforward implications for the kinds of services and experiences that it would be valuable to see developed in the future. Compressed and summarised even further, the generic points are:

→ People should be given opportunities to express their creativity through tools which do not seek to shape or determine the outcomes; and which enable people to express their unique presence in the work; and which mean that their contribution is distinct and recognisable.

→ People should be able to share the fruits of their creativity simply, and without unreasonable restrictions or gatekeepers.

→ Communication, exchange and collaboration should be enabled and encouraged, to foster engaged communities of interested people who can help and encourage each other. Collaboration should be at the level which participants in a project are most comfortable with, which could in tiny bits, or substantial chunks [i].

We could work out the implications of these points in any number of areas. Here I’ve picked four: in media, in education, in work, and in politics and the environment. For each one I will briefly outline a vision of the future. I’m not going for far-fetched futuristic scenarios here – these are modest developments of the world as we know it. And these are not manifestos, exactly, but rather illustrations of what this approach might mean in practice.

‘Making is connecting’ future scenario – media

The implications for electronic media are perhaps most obvious, and have been discussed in different chapters of this book. In the future imagined here, people have easy to use, intuitive electronic devices which enable the simple capture, editing and preparation of creative material, such as text, images and video. Because such tasks never seem that simple to everyone – and because some people want to work to high standards – accessible, local hands-on training is readily available to people of all ages, pitched at the right level, and never too patronising or laborious. Participants simply learn by making the thing that they want to make, getting help where necessary. Because such sessions are not to everyone’s taste, there are also lots of inspiring free booklets to get people started, working and experimenting at their own pace, and peer-support networks for the exchange of friendly mutual help and support.

The everyday creative material which people make is typically shared on user-friendly platforms, funded – but in no way controlled – by a consortium of governments who are eager to encourage creativity in their populations. Access to this material is not restricted by country, or indeed by any other variable (apart from basic restrictions on inflammatory bigoted material, and content where people or animals have been harmed in its preparation). Alternatively, users can choose other platforms, including ones where users are able to create their own distinctive personal space online, unrestricted by templates or fixed requirements (although less ambitious users are able to choose from, and adapt, a range of readymade patterns) – with no advertising – for a reasonable monthly fee. There are also free services supported by advertising.

Although much personal making and sharing activity is not motivated by money, in this future, there are some mechanisms so that producers of entertainment and information which becomes popular can get paid, with the money coming from grants, sponsors, and in some cases from unobtrusive advertising. (At present, funding solutions which are not based on advertising may seem unlikely. But consider that the TV Licence in the UK raises around £3.45 billion each year for the preparation and distribution of a particular haul of media content [ii]; a similar annual fee used to reward producers of online material could be a powerful incentive for those who wanted to produce good quality material for a wider audience).

In this future, incidentally, conventional professionally-produced media is not dead. People still enjoy high-quality stories produced to excellent standards, so this is not a world where things like television and cinema have perished – but in this future people spend less time with such mass-produced media, because they find greater amounts of emotional engagement and inspiration from the homemade media made by their friends and the other amateurs they follow, and enjoy the feelings and discoveries within the sense of absorbed reflection as they make their own stuff. Professional news reporting has also survived, incidentally, as this is a particular kind of material which cannot be replaced by the kind of random ramshackle homemade content which we otherwise love.

People have not merely swapped some of their former traditional screen time for a more diverse mix of screen-based activity, however. Overall screen time has gone down, because people are using the internet to make real-world connections, and are having their interests sparked in new things – stuff you can actually do, rather than just other things to watch or listen to.

In short, in this future the Web has enabled people to cast off the primarily slumped, passive model of twentieth-century ‘leisure time’, and given them the opportunity to embrace a more social and connected life of creative exchange, which in turn leads to a greater awareness of other people, and their needs. Over time, people have come to feel more connected to the local and global environment in which they live, and have started to perceive their own role as one in which they can make a difference, rather than stand by as a detached observer.

‘Making is connecting’ future scenario – education

In this future, it has been realised that memorising stuff for tests is the antithesis of real learning, which takes place through meaningful activity. This shift turned out to be somewhat easier than expected, once government policies had been changed, since most teachers had tended to doubt the value of shovelling information in pursuit of test scores [iii]. In the new system, students work on learning projects, in which their teachers encourage them to ask questions and to seek out understanding for themselves. To present their learning to others, they produce exhibitions, physical performances, online presentations, and games. They are inspired by their teachers, who are no longer just the holders of the ‘answer book’ but are visibly also learning new knowledge and skills in their own lives.

Students are encouraged to ask difficult questions and challenge conventional assumptions, and to interpret the ‘syllabus’ widely and imaginatively. They are not required to regurgitate ‘correct’ answers which have been previously dispensed by the teacher, but are expected to research and think about a subject and then produce their own responses to it, sometimes individually and sometimes collaboratively. Some of the knowledge they develop is abstract and theoretical, but is usually connected to real-world questions and problems. In particular, a substantial part of the school experience is embedded in the surrounding environment, and genuine local issues.

This future education system recognises the characteristics of powerful learners (as set out in the present day by educationalist Guy Claxton [iv]): they are curious about the world, and wish to understand the how and why of things; they have courage, which means they are willing to take risks, and to try things out to see what happens; and they recognise that mistakes are not shameful disasters but are just events that can be learned from. They like to explore, investigate and experiment. Tinkering with things is a way of learning. They have imagination, which is grounded by reason, thoughtfulness and the ability to plan. They have the virtue of sociability, which means they know how to make use of the potent social space of learning. Finally, they are reflective, and are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in the learning process.

This approach has been adopted, in this future, as the natural follow-on from other ‘making is connecting’ principles. As this is a society which values and makes time for everyday creativity – and one which casually expects that culture will come from ‘ordinary people’ rather than distant organisations – it naturally fosters these approaches to learning, as they stem from the same orientation to knowledge and the experience of hands-on creative action.

Conversely, in this future, people look back with some horror at the way in which a strangely passive, ‘sit back and be told’ population managed to drift into the kind of situation where their acceptance of the political rhetoric demanding ‘standards’ in schools led to relentless tests – tests of ‘correct facts,’ rather than assessments of real insight or intelligence – which teachers had to prepare their students for, which in turn led to the collapse of actual ‘standards’ in terms of genuine learning and creative capacity. In this story alone it is noted that ‘making is connecting’ is not just a warm, fuzzy, pleasant notion, but a more fundamental concept with significant social implications.

‘Making is connecting’ future scenario – work

In this future, the change in education corresponds with, and enables, something of a shift in the nature of work. It has been recognised that the role of the interchangeable ‘knowledge worker’ is unrewarding, leading to personal unhappiness as well as business inefficiency. Being unable to see any direct fruits of their labour, employees become bored and lethargic, with small attempts to disrupt the system their only form of pleasure. Therefore, in this future, work is organised as far as possible so that individuals can feel pride in performing whole tasks, of the sort that can be held in the mind all at once [v], rather than the diffuse processing of bits of a task which can never seem to be completed and therefore admired.

The future-people have not entirely worked out how to make everyone’s lives and jobs 100 per cent creative. The implication in Charles Leadbeater’s We Think book that every working person should spend their time producing creative ideas, and collaborating to develop them with others online, turned out to be unrealistic. This was partly because society does not require tens of thousands of ‘new ideas,’ but rather needs a few good ones, implemented thoughtfully and well. And it was partly because many jobs are about producing, fixing, and implementing versions of existing things, and not all of them can be done in cloudy networks.

Nevertheless, in this future the education system no longer produces mere drones, and their new-found appetite for self-expression and hands-on creativity does not stop when they leave school or college. These workers expect – and are expected – to be able to make their mark on the things that they work with, to make their presence felt, and to shape their environment so that it is enriching, sustainable and effective. Having been encouraged to be inquisitive and courageous learners in school, and having managers who are similarly curious and imaginative – and who welcome challenging questions – these employees typically seek creative solutions to their everyday tasks, and their longer-term goals, and are supported to express their own human voice in what they do.

This shift has meant that employers and managers have to trust the individuals in their organisations more, and subject them to auditing less. Maintaining a lighter, supportive oversight of work has led not to more shirking or laziness, as some had feared, but to a more ethical engagement with work. In this future, people are more likely to want to do good work for its own sake, as they are motivated to feel pride in what they have done themselves, rather than doing it to satisfy a management demand. (Inevitably, this is not always the case, but the idea of spoiling the process for everyone with endless bureaucracy and auditing, in order to avoid occasional instances of poor practice, has been rejected).

As this model has spread the responsibility for doing things well, with creative input and leadership being distributed more widely, it has also brought an end to the ‘megasalaries’ previously enjoyed by business and organisational leaders. It has been recognised that huge differences in pay contributed to everyday unhappiness, as well as visible inequalities, and greater social problems [vi], and so – although greater levels of experience, insight and responsibility are still rewarded – there has been a move towards more equal pay and conditions. This is widely accepted as reasonable, because it reflects the way in which everyone is expected to make a thoughtful and creative difference in their own work.

‘Making is connecting’ future scenario – politics and the environment

These changes in creative everyday activity, and in education and work, are political shifts in themselves, of course, and they connect with other changes. In the future imagined here, people typically assume that a hands-on engagement with the processes that affect their lives is desirable, and therefore feel more inclined to connect with political processes, of both formal and informal kinds.

Having blossomed as creators of their own cultural worlds, and as participants in a culture of originality and exchange, these people want to have a meaningful and imaginative input into local and national policies – not (only) through polls and elections but through participatory events where they have genuine opportunities to influence strategies and practice. These are not talking-shops where the most articulate individuals get to pontificate, but hands-on experiences where participants build models, showing their ideas in metaphors and collaborating to build these into shared visions. This means that everyone in the room gets the opportunity to contribute, can take time to reflect and develop their ideas, and works with others to address needs and concerns that they may not have thought of. (That’s not a random idea – it’s a real process, as described in my previous book Creative Explorations [vii]). There are also stimulating opportunities to build creative ideas together online.

In this future, political communication has become much more two-way. Rather than offering traditional media and internet content which explains ‘This is what we’re doing’, the political actors and representatives of the future have been compelled to create a range of meaningful forums for the exchange of ideas, where the politicians and different stakeholders have to properly respond to each other – and not just through an illusion of ‘interactivity’ – because voters of the future are dissatisfied with candidates offering anything less.

Aside from conventional political structures, people are also much more enthusiastic about taking matters into their own hands – especially because they feel encouraged and supported to do so. They have in part been inspired by the Transition Towns movement (as mentioned in chapter 1), which offered a model for this kind of engagement – people getting together to do something, using creativity and imagination, in response to a shared concern. This did not necessarily mean protest – certainly not only protest – but rather working out a positive, resilient and sustainable solution for the future. As Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins put it in 2009:

This is really about looking the challenges of peak oil and climate change square in the face, and responding with a creativity and an adaptability and an imagination that we really need. It’s something which has spread incredibly fast, and it is something which has several characteristics. It’s viral. It seems to spread under the radar very very quickly. It’s open source. It’s something which everybody who’s involved with it develops and passes on as they work with it. It’s self-organizing. There is no great central organization that pushes this; people just pick up an idea and they run with it, and they implement it where they are. It’s solutions-focused. It’s very much looking at what people can do where they are, to respond to this. It’s sensitive to place, and to scale. [viii]

Having adopted this kind of approach to creative political activity, people take up the tools developed and shared by others, or originate their own, build on them and then pass them on again. They share exciting, promising, fruitful ideas of what can be done, and are less interested in prophecies of doom (which can be essential warnings, but don’t get us anywhere in themselves). They put on events, and take a playful making-things orientation to challenges which otherwise could seem forbiddingly serious and difficult. And through this they have started to make an actual difference.

This is not a complete alternative to the big-scale politics, of course. As Hopkins has said in relation to the Transition movement:

I think it’s really important to make the point that actually this isn’t something which is going to do everything on its own. We need international legislation from [the United Nations Climate Change Conference] and so on. We need national responses. We need local government responses. But all of those things are going to be much easier if we have communities that are vibrant and coming up with ideas and leading from the front, making unelectable policies electable, over the next 5 to 10 years. [ix]

In this future, then, people have accepted that things had to change. When they had been living in the tail end of the earlier period, of plentiful oil and accompanying economic growth, they had been lucky. But they also knew that people had been able to craft interesting and rewarding lives for themselves before that time, and could do so again after it. And they knew that the period of plentiful oil and economic growth had also been the time in which an unanticipated dullness passed, like a shadow, over their lives. Being able to buy everything from mega-supermarkets, to consume in front of massive televisions, had been, in a sense, too comforting and easy. Now, with a revitalised sense of their own creative powers, and helpfully connected to ideas and people via the flourishing internet, people feel more like vibrant agents, rather than observers, in the world. They correspondingly feel more concerned about their local and global environments, as they are more emphatically living there. And, therefore, people have started to sort things out.

In conclusion

The near-future scenarios I have painted above are all part of the shift that I have described as being from the ‘sit back and be told’ culture which became entrenched in the twentieth century, towards the ‘making and doing’ culture which could flourish in the twenty first. Although I think there is an appetite for such a change, we could hardly say that this would be an easy shift. Many people have become comfortable with the undemanding role that contemporary culture expects us to enjoy – it appears pleasant enough, allows us to consume wall-to-wall entertainments, and nothing very bad seems to happen. But at the same time, we are not left feeling very whole, or fulfilled, or creative. And bad things are happening – see all the evidence of social isolation, fragmented communities, environmental pollution and climate change in particular – but we choose not to really notice them.

It doesn’t seem right to suggest that people just don’t know what’s good for them: but the empirical research on happiness and well-being does show a clear mismatch between the things which we say help us to feel positive, alive, and connected, and the things which we actually spend most time on. It sounds illogical, but we all do it. And because modern life is often tiring and complicated, we are often likely to welcome the blessed relief of the ‘sit back and be told’ elements which don’t require us to do very much. The ‘making and doing’ culture does require a bit more effort – but it comes with rich rewards.

Making things shows us that we are powerful, creative agents – people who can really do things, things that other people can see, learn from, and enjoy. Making things is about transforming materials into something new, but it is also about transforming one’s own sense of self. Creativity is a gift, not in the sense of it being a talent, but in the sense that it is a way of sharing meaningful things, ideas, or wisdom, which form bridges between people and communities. Through creative activity, where making is connecting, we can increase our pleasure in everyday life, unlock innovative capacity, and build resilience in our communities, so that we can face future challenges with confidence and originality.


NOTES:

[i] In other words, adding plants to a garden is valuable – you don’t have to be doing bio-engineering on individual flowers simultaneously with 1,000 others. (That is to say: Wikipedia is a good model of collaboration, but so is YouTube).

[ii] The BBC’s licence fee income was £3.447 billion in the year to April 2010, and £3.494 billion in the year to April 2009. BBC, Full financial and governance statements 2009/10, http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/pdf/bbc_ar_online_2009_10.pdf

[iii] Remarkably, for instance, Guy Claxton reports in his book What’s the Point of School? (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008) that of all the headteachers whom he has asked in an informal poll at conferences, almost none of them believe that the current system is preparing young people well for the future (p. 22–23).

[iv] Guy Claxton, What’s the Point of School? (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008), p. 123–126.

[v] This is a paraphrase of an argument made by Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working With Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (London: Viking, 2010), p. 156.

[vi] See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2010).

[vii] David Gauntlett, Creative Explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences (London: Routledge, 2007). The methods indicated here are those of Lego Serious Play.

[viii] Rob Hopkins, ‘Transition to a world without oil’, presentation at TED Global, Oxford, July 2009, http://www.ted.com/talks/rob_hopkins_transition_to_a_world_without_oil.html

[ix] Ibid.

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