Histories of momentary places

My hippie heart is continually entranced by communal living spaces. [Permanent Hospitality Berlin](http://berlin.projectvolunteering.net/), the one I’m closest to, is firmly entrenched as my favourite place in the world.

But, magical as it may be, the odds are that it won’t exist in fifty years’ time. Such places depend entirely on the personalities and culture involved, which change in a matter of months or less. Most disintegrate or are reabsorbed into normality, and only a very [few](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freetown_Christiania) walk the cultural tightrope for decades.

So these projects are reinvented and forgotten year by year. Permanent Hospitality has made a point of documenting itself, but I’m not convinced that words can capture any more than the basic institutional structure of such a place. It takes a work of genius such as The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test to get inside the heads of a culture (and it becomes harder, not easier, when the group are less self-consciously exhibitionist than the Merry Pranksters).

Usually, the only way of getting at the spirit of the place is through the minds of the people touched by it. I am inordinately excited by the knowledge that the hundreds of people who have encountered the project are now spread in tiny pockets across the world, bringing their idea of it wider into the project.

All of which is by way of introduction to [this short essay](http://www.monochrom.at/hacking-the-spaces/) on the [hacker spaces](http://hackerspaces.org) movement, which shares at least a little with the ideology of other intentional communities. I’ll leave the main thrust for another day (briefly: I disagree that being self-consciously ‘political’ is essential, or even necessarily helpful), but I entirely agree with the call for oral history:

To get there we really need a more explicit sense and understanding of the history of what we are doing, of the political approaches and demands that went into it long ago and that still are there, hidden in what we do right now.

So to start off we would like to organize some workshops in the hackerspaces where we can learn about the philosophical, historical and other items that we need to get back in our lives. Theory is a toolkit to analyze and deconstruct the world.

Not new, of course: once the [Whole Earth Catalog](http://www.wholeearth.com/index.php), now [worldchanging](http://worldchanging.com/) and a flotilla of websites provide the maps. But, especially given the noticeable age-segregation of so many projects, I feel an increasing need to pick the brains of greybears (and…erm…greybeardesses) who have been through it all before.



: As usual, Mike adds a [comment](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/2009/05/histories_of_momentary_places.html#comments) that’s considerably more informative than the post itself. Mike, you rock.]

UK Prison population

As [Rachel](http://palmer1984.livejournal.com/278208.html) highlights, Labour govenrment has massively raised the UK’s prison population:

1997: 61,000

2008: 81,000

It works out at somewhere around 150 people in jail per 100,000 population. That’s higher than China, Burma or Saudi Arabia, although admitttedly only a fifth of the USA.

Police State UK

Just a link today – to [Police State UK](http://policestate.co.uk), a new blog “intended as an information source for people who are concerned about the direction politics and policing have taken in the UK”. Not so much there yet, but I’m sure it will continue to grow over time. After all, there’s no shortage of material.

recognition and redistribution

[Nancy Fraser](http://www.eurozine.com/authors/fraser.html) isn’t a name I’d come across until last week, when I [read](http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2009-04-21-eurozinerev-en.html) a fascinating [interview](http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2009-04-21-fraser-en.html) with her for Eurozine.

Fraser is a political-scientist-cum-philosopher, who has attempted to sum up the political culture of the last few decades in a shift from ‘redistribution’ to ‘recognition’. That is, people stopped mobilizing around inequalities of wealth and power, and instead dedicated their energies to demanding respect for their identities within the same market structure. So out went tax-and-spent, benefits were cut, the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor. But there were massive sttrides forward in feminism, gay rights, reducing racism, and the like. [I’m butchering her ideas.

I’m obviously butchering Fraser’s ideas here, but her generalisation holds up surprisingly well. From Tony Blair to the culture wars to the issues exciting student campaigners, the left gave up on fighting economic inequality. Those who did keep a focus on redistribution — notably, the unions — were depicted as dinosaurs.

This ties in to the soul-searching happening on [Liberal Conspiracy](http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/04/21/the-lefts-response-to-the-financial-crisis-is-indeed-weak/) and elsewhere. It’s hardly surprising that we have nothing to say about the financial crisis, if we’ve spent the past 2 decades looking the other way when it comes to poverty.

Transparency isn’t Bunk

Online government transparency projects have reached the [hype cycle](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle) where proponents and pundits get disillusioned, and start to wonder if the whole thing has any value at all.

So [Aaron Swartz](http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/transparencybunk), of Watchdog, theinfo, and many other excellent projects, has decided that ‘transparency is bunk’:

For too long we’ve been funding transparency projects on the model of if-we-build-it-they-will-come: that we don’t know what transparency will be useful for, but once it’s done it will lead to all sorts of exciting possibilities. Well, we’ve built it. And they haven’t come. The only success story its proponents can point to is that transparency projects have bred even more transparency projects. I’m done working on watchdog.net; I’m done hurting America. It’s time to give old-fashioned narrative journalism a try.

Aaron’s strawman here is the idea that just making information available will have people investigations rather than watching soaps. Which is, well, obvious. This stuff was always going to be mainly used by the usual lobbyists, hacks, and campaigners, plus a small crowd of obsessive amateurs. That’s how it feeds into journalism and politics. At best, as with mysociety projects, ease-of-use can broaden the circle of people who would look at official data.

Likewise [Cory Doctorow](http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/29/cory-doctorow-police-transparency) has figured out that speaking truth to power achieves little by itself, in particular about police misbehaviour at last year’s climate camp:

And here’s where transparency breaks down. We’ve known about all this since last August – seven months and more. It was on national news. It was on the web. Anyone who cared about the issue knew everything they needed to know about it. And everyone had the opportunity to find out about it: remember, it was included in national news broadcasts, covered in the major papers – it was everywhere.

And yet … nothing much has happened in the intervening eight months. Simply knowing that the police misbehaved does nothing to bring them to account.

Again, this shouldn’t be a shock to anybody who has ever been involved in a political campaign. The truth doesn’t change anything until it is pointed at an election, or a law-court, or at influencing somebody in power.

[Evgeny Morozov](http://neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/node/17241) has a decently calming reaction to all this, but to me the short answer is that sites collecting government data are tools rather than end-products, which aren’t much use without further work to build stories out of the raw facts.

Whataboutery and noblogathons

For some reason, charges of hyocrisy and misdirected attention make both Johann Hari and Sunder Katwala break out the neologisms. [Hari](http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/how-to-spot-a-lame-lame-a_b_185787.html) calls it ‘whataboutery’:

>When you have lost an argument – when you can’t justify your case, and it is crumbling in your hands – you snap back: “But what about x?”

>You then raise a totally different subject, and try to get everybody to focus on it – hoping it will distract attention from your own deflated case.

>So whenever I report on, say, atrocities committed by Israel, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: “But what about the bad things done by Muslims? Why do you never talk about them?” Whenever I report on the atrocities committed by Islamists, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: “But what about Israel?

[Sunder](http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/04/23/calling-time-on-the-whynoblogathon/) applies the principle to blogs, where it becomes the ‘Whynoblogathon’:

>Oh, I see you have blogged about X but you chose not to blog about Y. Ah-ha! Now we see your hidden agenda.

On a personal level, I agree with both of them. But they’re smudging an important distinction between personal blame and group behaviour. I don’t care what one columnist, or one blogger, writes about. But the importance we attach to issues depends on whether we are repeatedly confronted with them. Media attention is the main reason why a British life counts for so much more than an Afghan one. It’s why we distrust science (because we hear about the entertaining bad science, but not about the good science). It’s why Mail readers get wildly distorted ideas about race and crime. This is stuff we need to talk about, in the same way as we need to be able to talk about institutional racism without calling people bigots.