Category Archives: Observations

A Calculation is Not a Judgement

When human judgement is drained from a system and reductionist rules are applied to complex situations, the results can lead to terrible injustices and harms. If we privilege the procedural outcomes of artificial systems over the importance of humanity, life and experience and the more-than-human world, we will likely face a self-reinforcing feedback loop of such effects, not unlike the existential threat of runaway climate change.

I wish to advance a proposition… a distinction. Namely, that there is a significant gulf between the mathematical operation by which a calculation can be arrived at, and the emergent process of evaluation by which a judgement is made. I think this is an important distinction for our times, because it describes the difference between a procedure of abstraction and a process of conscious deliberation. A calculation can be determined by a non-sentient entity following a series of steps to accomplish an end (such as an algorithm). Humans have created machines that can do this at scales and speeds far beyond our own individual capabilities. A judgement, however, requires a sentient being, imbued with consciousness and the capacity to exercise discernment and perception, to arrive at an authoritative opinion.
And time.
It takes time to absorb and reflect, to ruminate and pass judgement. What I hope to argue here is that consciousness itself is an irreducible constant fundamental to fair and trustworthy judgement.

I am, perhaps, re-treading old ground: the argument between quantitative and qualitative methods has rolled on for at least two centuries – rooted in the slow rise to dominance of a kind of scientism as the prevailing order of knowledge and worldview. Both methods have merits, and their integration or synthesis can lead to remarkable achievements. Both are rooted in very human beliefs and traditions of how knowledge comes about. Wielded together, they stimulate extraordinary benefits but, when asymmetrical in influence and power, the drawbacks are considerable.

We now live in a world where the quantitative has achieved ascendancy in almost all areas of life, where computations and automated decision-making affect the everyday lives of billions of people. Tremendous advantages in speed, efficiency and technical capabilities across the panoply of human activity have resulted. But they also amplify injustices and inequalities, or compound environmental and ecological over-exploitation and destruction. In doing so their scale and speed disempower and degrade the intrinsic agency of human beings in favour of inflexible and unfeeling systems. It is crucial to see that it is a deliberate choice to quantify and sort the world in this way, not an impartial effect of some immutable logic that cannot be challenged.

As Oscar Wilde might have framed the distinction, the difference is one of knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing” (from The Picture of Dorian Gray). It is trivial to calculate the price of something according to a formula of tangible inputs and costs – yet far more elusive to judge its value. That demands a broader spectrum of parameters, such as context, emotion, culture and other intangibles. Our human fallibilities lead us to both extremes. Judgements, too, can be unsound. Intention and ethos determine how and why we adopt a particular trajectory – as much as our adherence to one method or another, one disciplinary process or another.

The predicaments outlined above are, I believe, at the very root of the proliferating existential dilemmas which humans, indeed all life, now face. The stabilities of our ways of living are being challenged everywhere by changes in natural forces we have clearly, recklessly, contributed to – possibly beyond our capability to re-balance, notwithstanding an irrevocable and devastating loss of biodiversity. I believe that the over-exploitation of the natural world, of other creatures and lifeforms has been facilitated by precisely the unfeeling calculation of systems based on abstracting life into discrete parts that can be separated from a complex whole and used indiscriminately without repercussion. It is a brutal and destructive alienation that does not factor in to its calculation of profit and loss the consequences and costs of its atomistic unravelling of mutual interdependence. We see the results across the planet in the systematic extraction of specific resources causing catastrophic loss of entire environments and ecologies surrounding them. There is no doubt that this can only persist for so long.

We also see it in the human sphere when bureaucratic systems over-emphasise adherence to rules above consideration of individual, or even collective, circumstances. One of the most appalling examples in recent years has been the terrible injustices and harms inflicted on the Windrush Generation by Theresa May and the UK Home Office’s “Hostile environment” policy. And these are just the most visible examples of intentional applications of the technology of bureaucracy, and its component methods and tools, to harm the vulnerable. They are almost certainly intended more as a distraction, or sleight of hand, whilst other yet more egregious activities are kept in the shadows. It seems to me that much of this is being done as a climactic frenzy of industrial capitalism – to squeeze every last drop of advantage from a system that is so weighty with its own entropy that it cannot possibly endure indefinitely. Banking the last pennies to hedge against an uncertain future where, it is assumed, the wealthiest will command the most safety, luxury and authority.

But, I doubt it will go the way anyone currently anticipates – the speed of environmental and ecological transformation will most likely confound our best models and projections, since none can reliably forecast the full range of interdependent, interwoven forces and factors we have interrupted.

I doubt the wisdom of focusing our civilisation’s faith too closely on systems that use automated, statistical calculation of probabilities to make future-facing decisions on our behalf, let alone in the here-and-now. It would itself be a further profound disconnection from our very humanity to hope that such technologies will ‘save’ us from the profound disconnection of the human from the more-than-human natural world. This has been gathering pace for hundreds of years, since at least the European discovery of the Americas and the growth of modern industry and global capitalism. Our technologies are reflections of our cultures and societies, not simply neutral, inevitable outcomes of rational enquiry and engineering. They arise out of our cultures, beliefs, behaviours – they are value-driven… the products of choices, intentional or unconscious.

Evidence is growing (as documented by ProPublica among others) that demonstrates how algorithmic decision-making has a tendency to amplify existing biases leading to exacerbated injustices and inequalities, as well as other pernicious effects. Instead of the promise of impartiality that has justified an increasingly reliance on both bureaucracy and algorithmic systems, we have come to realise that they have all of our human fallibilities coded in, but with the additional twin enhancements of speed and scale – rippling the effects out further and faster. Now would be an apposite time to check the headlong rush to automate how we manage our societies and everyday lives, especially as we must shift our economies and industries from extractive and destructive activities to ones which preserve and maintain life and ecologies. The two are inextricably linked.

… some are already engaged in experiments that try to make the possibility of a future that isn’t barbaric, now. Those who have chosen to desert, to flee this “dirty” economic. war, but who, in “fleeing, seek a weapon,” as Deleuze said. And seeking, here, means, in the first place, creating, creating a life “after economic growth,” a life that explores connections with new powers of acting, feeling, imagining, and thinking.”
Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times (2015)

Knowledge, Skill Acquisition & Competence

Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus’ model of skill acquisition is a useful guide in discerning the distinction between a calculation and a judgement, through tracing the path from novice via advanced beginner, competent, proficient through to expert. It describes how, in the early stages, the novice must learn the rules and understand how to use them. As their experience grows (and presumably confidence in their ability to apply the ‘right’ skills), they rely less on formal analytical application of the rules and more on their intuitive knowledge of what will work best in the given situation.

“Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ essential point is to assert that analytical thinking and intuition are not two mutually conflicting ways of understanding or of making judgements. Rather they are seen to be complementary factors which work together but with growing importance centred on intuition when the skilled performer becomes more experienced. Highly experienced people seem to be able to recognise whole scenarios without decomposing the into elements or separate features.”
Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology (1980)

This model complements the four stages of competence (often attribution to Abraham Maslow), which describes the path from Unconscious incompetence via Conscious incompetence, then Conscious competence to Unconscious competence. Again, from a baseline of lack of ability, and even a lack of awareness of inability, there is a trajectory towards competency becoming innate. It becomes embodied not just in the mind, but absorbed into a whole sense of self such that the delivery of expertise is often described as the expert having an intuitive feeling for the right thing to do.

Experience then becomes the key to transcending the application of rigid rules-based approaches and developing craft, skills and expertise. It is also the domain of art and creative practices. What this amounts to, is another order of knowledge that Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge”. It is not the procedural, codifiable, step by step, “explicit knowledge” approach that calculation and computation are so excellent at, but something transmitted through experience itself so that the learner eventually acquires the ability to judge what is right to do. Not simply a linear problem-solving trajectory, but a holistic awareness of the whole problem or task. It is committed and informed, acquired by desire and often with passion and with care – a praxis established through dialogue and reciprocal exchange. Being relational, it is a foundation for cooperation and collaboration.

“While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.”
Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being (1969)

Irrational Logics

The Judgement of Solomon (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament 1 Kings 3: 16-28) offers a classic example of wisdom in a judgement that realises justice not through a direct procedure, but through what could be described as an irrational logical path. The story tells of King Solomon called to make a ruling between two women, both claiming a baby as their own, as to who is the actual mother and should keep the infant. With no other way to tell which woman was the true mother, his perverse solution was to propose cutting the baby in half, dividing it equally between them. His wisdom is reflected in the story when one woman gives up her claim to save the life of the child, thus revealing her as the (most likely) true mother.

The story is of a classic type that has parallels in the literatures and storytelling traditions of other cultures. Such stories illustrate how, sometimes, there is no rational path to truth or a just decision but, instead, an irrational, counter-intuitive approach can reveal it in unexpected ways. It is imaginative and transgressive, employing techniques familiar in creative, artistic practices – excessive, surreal and disturbing. These are not quantities but qualities of imagination. It may be perfectly possible to compose a fiction or a piece of music or an artwork to order, by following rules and formulae (for instance the ‘police procedural’ novel or many a three minute pop song). Yet something else is needed for it to become art or literature that transcends the skeleton of its construction and rises above hackneyed cliché and routine prosaicness. Our entire mode of existence and civilisation now hinges on dilemmas as, or even more, knotty and seemingly irreconcilable as the problem faced by Solomon. We are going to need the wisdom of irrational logics and unfettered imaginations to devise visionary, engaging and realistic ways to resolve them.

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Freedom” in Words Are My Matter (2016)

Beyond Measurement: the incalculable heart of humanity

Fairness and trust are both qualities or conditions of human experience rather than fixed rules that can be applied indiscriminately. Neither are particularly amenable to formulaic measurement, indeed they are often critiqued precisely because they are almost impossible to quantify. In the context of automated algorithmic decision-making systems (e.g. in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning) this lack of fixity and highly subjective nature is frequently alluded to. The lack of stable frames of reference for what is at any one time fair, is a feature of its contingent nature. Likewise with trust – what constitutes the nature of trust in any given situation is highly contingent and almost impossible to codify into a stable matrix of elements and factors.

Yet we instinctively know what feels fair or unfair, and what trust feels like, as equally, when it switches to distrust. Thus it appears that consciousness is also a necessary factor in experiencing fairness and trust, just as I reckon it is for arriving at a judgement. And, since feeling is such an important aspect of both fairness and trust, it could be that these two conditions, like our human intelligence, are bound up not only in the mind and thinking, but are co-located and co-created in our embodied experience of knowing. Perhaps neither are at all suitable for programmatic calculation.

What then, drives some to persist in trying to automate trust and fairness in an effort to remove the human from the loop in deciding what is fair or trustworthy? It seems perverse to me to be using such technologies to replace the human, instead of defining alternatives that could enhance our understanding and judgement by doing what computers and systems do best – classify, sort and order huge quantities of information to reveal patterns that are not immediately obvious. The analysis and calculation of data could then inform human-derived judgements that encompass broader contexts and situations including mitigating factors and contradictory states not suited to binary classifications. Better together, one might say.

The upshot of the successes of Deep Blue against Gary Kasparov in 1997 and AlphaGo against Lee Seedol in 2016 has been to invigorate both chess and go with new approaches and strategies, enhancing the potential and pleasure of the process of playing. The successes of these systems have not diminished either game, but suggested new possibilities. And here there may be a lesson in determining the difference between a sentient player with consciousness for whom the playing itself may be the point, and a procedural system wholly focused on achieving a finite goal: winning. By focussing on the objective of an end as the goal, those seeking to train “artificial intelligences” might be missing the fundamental point – and value – of playing; that is, the sensations it provides a sentient being of being alive and of existing in relation to something other than themself. A continuity of consciousness.

A deeper question to be addressed is cui bono? Who ultimately benefits from the increasing automation of aspects of our society? Just as the Industrial Revolution and factory production reduced the independence and skills of many craftspeople, so too the automation of everyday life is removing ordinary people from participating in decision-making. It places the definition of how parameters are set higher and higher within a social hierarchy increasingly isolated and removed from the experience of living among ordinary people. Such a rarefied extraction of authority without direct connection to context and situation also shrugs responsibility, and provides an effective insulation against culpability. Witness the degeneration of our politicians and political system – how lies, deceit and incompetence have become normalised, even venerated, without meaningful consequence.

I perceive there to be a parallel between the political imposition of strict rules and the mechanistic fallacy of atomising everything into discrete parts without perceiving the crucial balance of relations between them. They both ignore the basic truth of life that, while everything is indeed made up of the same elementary particles, their unique composition into the infinite variety of matter and life is absolutely particular. Local specificity is a feature of life’s mutability – how everything is in constant flux and adaptation in relation to its local context and environment. Scale seems to be a crucial issue here – universal laws function well at the atomic level and at the cosmic, but clearly not so unambiguously at the scales we inhabit as lived reality. There, diversity and locality are contingent on achieving any effective equilibrium.

Complex living systems just don’t seem to obey laws and rules that are based on reductionist concepts. Perhaps at the extremes it is possible for static rules to operate seamlessly, but in the elastic middle we need flow and dynamism. As atoms themselves are held together by the forces, or relations, between electrons, protons and neutrons, so all of matter and reality are bound by the multifarious forces and relations that govern the natures of different entities. To overlook the reality of our relational existence and to reduce everything down to inert and unconnected bits is, inevitably, to be missing a key part of a whole equation – a series of calculations that will never completely add up. Connection, interdependence, reciprocities are the fundamental forces that bind and make whole the matter of life.

We will need all of humanity’s diverse knowledges and skills, from poetry, art and music together with mathematics, physics and many others, to find the necessary paths to a fair future for all life on the planet. We shall need the ability to calculate and build machines that can help us sort and make sense of vast amounts of data, whilst simultaneously we must retain our independent, fluent, human capability to judge – soundly – what decisions are most appropriate for each circumstance we encounter and must respond to.

The Uses of Not
Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not,
is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
Lao Tzu, from Tao Te Ching: a book about the way and the power of the way
(a new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1997)

London, July 2019

Creativity & Technology in a New Renaissance

Commissioned in April 2018 by the Institute of Art & Ideas as an introduction for a research report on the “New Renaissance” in creativity in European cities for Huawei.

What is distinctive about humanity? Is it our capacity to turn abstract thoughts and feelings into concrete expressions and artefacts? Or our capacity to empathise, to imagine ourselves in the situation of others, to perceive and share things from their perspective? These are among the everyday feats of imagination and creativity that should never stop astounding us, never stop inspiring us to keep refashioning our environments and communities for the better. Communicating such experiences is a feature common to societies across time and geography. The history of humanity is also one of technology – our ability to externalise concepts, experiences and skills into pragmatic tools that help us achieve what we desire. From writing to engineering, astronomy to medicine, we continue to devise new technologies to enhance our capabilities and increase our enjoyment of what it is to be alive.

At the heart of contemporary civilisation are our technologies of communication. What we choose to share and how we share it, with whom and when. Technology is, of course, one of the prime outputs of human creativity: it is the practical result of the blending of a range of different knowledge domains, skills and expertise: from scientific theory and discovery, to engineering application combined with social, cultural and economic purpose. Any technological product is thus the child of many different disciplinary parents, all shaping aspects of its evolution from idea to product or service in the hands of its users. Along the way, it is not just the scientists and engineers who invent technologies, it is also the creative visionaries who deal in ideas, dreams and artistic expressions who help define technologies’ purposes, uses and values in the wider arena of society and culture.

The development of digital and networked technologies since the 1940s has been among the most evident demonstration of this creative collaboration between scientists, technologists, thinkers and creative practitioners. Artists have been among the most early and enthusiastic adopters of emerging technologies – often adapting them for purposes far beyond the practical and pragmatic uses which might have triggered their production. In particular, there is a rich history of artists not only adopting new technologies, but being at the heart of their development – helping shape them as they evolve both in research laboratories and in other, less formal, settings. Such collaborations have fuelled and driven not only the technologies themselves but also the public consciousness of the potential of the technologies to enable everyone to be creative and share their creativity. Technology companies have often invited artists to experiment and test their new products as part of this process; meanwhile an artistic ‘underground’ has consistently been at the forefront of developing alternative technologies to the mainstream. Technologies are never neutral, but always the products of the cultures that nurture them.

In this ‘New Renaissance’, our understandings of what it means to be creative and visionary are also changing. For centuries it was people with power and wealth who defined through their patronage who could be creative, and the channels through which their creativity could reach other people. Now distributed networks and communications technologies are opening up the near universal possibility for expression and sharing of creativity. As society engages with the practical implications of Joseph Beuys’ contention that “everyone is an artist”, people are having to question traditional assumptions and to re-define notions of value in creativity. What does it now mean to be ‘creative’, to be an artist, when everyone can express and share their creativity? What is different and valuable to society about those people who choose to make their creativity the core of their life and work? What are the perceptual tools required to cope with and appreciate the abundance of creativity enriching our lives?

Professional artists too are having to re-think and re-define their practices in a dynamically creative society. Such changes encompass social, cultural, economic and political shifts as well as the technological. Being ‘creative’ is no longer seen as an exclusive preserve of privileged individuals, instead it is a challenge to everyone to realise as much of our individual potential as we can. Yet some of the traditional roles that artists play in society nonetheless persist : as visionaries, educators, inspirations, pioneers, provocateurs, critics, storytellers, speakers of truth to power, transformers of the mundane into the extraordinary.

In my own work over the past two decades, I have worked at the intersection of art, emerging technologies and social change, devising projects and collaborations that have sought to peer ahead, to envision new possibilities for people to share what they value about the world we live in. Distributed, networked communication technologies have been crucial to this endeavour – enabling people to achieve personal agency in expressing their individual creativity in ways which, just a generation ago, would have seemed improbable if not unattainable. Whilst it is relatively simple to make predictions of the kind of technological changes that might take place in the near future, what is much more challenging is to make sense of the unfolding social and cultural changes that are happening as a result of an exponential liberation of the means of communicating among ourselves. Where once ideas took generations to circulate and where control of the means of production was almost exclusively from the centre to the margins, now we have the means for each person to amplify and resonate not only within their own local community, but globally. The implications of this profound transformation, both positive and negative, are already being felt in almost every country and community around the world. Where they lead us is in no way clear as the disruptive forces they have unleashed bring complications and uncertainties into areas of life considered stable and unchanging, or at least resilient to fashion and slow to adapt.

However, such transformations are the fuel of artistic exploration and experiment – they provoke and inspire new visions and possibilities to be created and shared. And the ways in which artists are able to share their ideas is much more participatory and engaged than before, precisely because of the kinds of communication technologies which have become virtually ubiquitous. The landscape of where creative encounters take place has thus broadened dramatically, as have the modes in which people can take an active part in culture. They are civic technologies in that they enable so much more for people to contribute creatively as citizens than just as consumers. What shapes that civic societies will take in different places, will reflect the great diversity of cultures and creativity that make us human.

London, April 2018

The Charter of the Forest & The New Enclosures

November 6th 2017 is the 800th anniversary of The Charter of The Forest – a landmark document in English law which guaranteed common people access to royal lands to forage, graze their animals, gather wood for fuel and building and to conduct small scale farming. Coming two years after the Magna Carta whose benefits were limited to a small number of barons, the Charter of the Forest set out a “a system of governance for the common stewardship of shared resources”, an early understanding of the importance of mutuality and reciprocity between people and living natural systems. Since England was covered by roughly two thirds forest – much of which was “royal” land, this was the equivalent of guaranteeing that the poorest people would be able to subsist off the land without fear of the harsh punishments that had been imposed in the late 1080s by King William II (“Rufus”) and later by King Henry II.

The Charter of the Forest, like Magna Carta, was incorporated into English Statute Law in 1297 and has the distinction of remaining law until revoked in 1971 (its key provisions having been incorporated into subsequent Acts of Parliament over the centuries and finally into the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971). One of its effects was to constrain monarchs and landowners from enclosing ‘common’ land by default, although in later periods this was circumvented by the passing of individual Acts of Parliament – most notably in the 18th Century when huge areas were sequestered by the nobility and the wealthy for their own personal gain at the expense of local communities.

“The Charter of the Forest guaranteed access to the land for common people to forage, graze their animals, farm and gather wood for fuel, building and industry. At a time when the royal forests were the most important source of food, fuel and wood for the production of craft items, it guaranteed rights to herbage (gathering berries and herbs), pannage (pasture for pigs), estover (wood to build homes, make tools and for firewood), agistment (grazing), turbary (cutting of turf for fuel), and the collecting of honey.”
Julie Timbrell

The charter also granted smallholders rights to farm: “Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.” In this respect, the charter’s guarantees may have provided inspiration for critical thinkers such as Thomas Paine, whose books Common Sense, Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice set out key concepts of liberty, governance and equitable access to the commonwealth (such as a universal basic income).

 

The Charter of the Forest is included in the set of books I published in 2015 celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – read it online, download and make up your own copy, or purchase one of the last remaining sets (bound with red silk).

The New Enclosures

The digital revolution and the growth of network communications has led to an extraordinary profusion of new types of ‘commons’ whilst, at the same time, seeing a breathtakingly rapid enclosure of these ‘commons’ by a handful of global corporations. Their rise to pre-eminence over the initially fragmented and anarchic world wide web has been swift yet is by no means certain or secure. The growing scandal of electoral interference via social media advertising in the 2016 US election and Brexit Referendum (as well as reported hacking in the 2017 French presidential election) has exposed just how vulnerable to (if not complicit in) uncivil, anti-democratic action these platforms are. Coupled with the Snowden revelations of blanket surveillance by US & UK government agencies (no doubt mirrored to some degree by other governments elsewhere) we can see that these technologies are fundamentally imbalanced in favour of large, opaque institutions and corporations.

Its clear that the digital realm will need more than just bland promises to act well from those who seek to profit from it most. It is as intrinsically a network of sites and places where humans come together to interact as any other traditional places where rules, laws and social conventions define the ways in which we behave in our own interests without harming others. Those who have power in these spaces are, from time to time, held accountable and required to act with responsibility. Such conventions differ across cultures, societies and jurisdictions and there have been (and remain) many notable exceptions, severe imbalances and asymmetries. In our uncertain times, it is to models of stewardship of the commons like the Charter of the Forest that we could look for precedents in developing compacts – about the kind of world we want to live in – between ordinary people and those who have power.

2018 will see the adoption across the European Union of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – what is probably the most important shift in how we will come to use digital technologies in recent memory. The GDPR creates some new rights for individuals and strengthens certain existing rights: to be informed; of access; to rectification; to erasure; to restrict processing; to data portability; to object; and, in relation to automated decision making and profiling. It also regulates data  ‘controllers’ and ‘processors’ to be accountable in demonstrable ways and to maintain comprehensive records of all data control and processing. There are, however, significant loopholes (via the derogations) that may well be exploitable by governments, public agencies and corporations in spite of the GDPR’s provisions.

Others have also sought to find complementary ways to negotiate the boundaries between platforms and users: one noteworthy attempt (which I made a small contribution to) is the Social Charter for Smart Platforms, created as part of the EU’s Smart Society research project. Such charters are, I believe, fundamentally different from some of the more exotic technological attempts to ‘automate’ trust by devolving conscious responsibilities and observation of mutual obligations to background processes – such as the ‘blockchain‘. These simply replace one set of powerful people at the centre of key social processes (bankers, politicians, lawyers etc) for another set (engineers & programmers) who understand and can manipulate the fiendish complexities of its computational processes. If anything, I believe we need to rely less on automated systems that replace human consciousness, and focus more on engaging people to feel their own agency in participating in the relationships that drive our societies and cultures. 

What I think the Charter of the Forest offers us is a model for how we can come to describe things that are beyond private ownership – things that belong to a commonwealth we can all share in, nurture and harvest from. How our current generations steward these resources, be they tangible systems of living nature, physical resources or intangible ideas and knowledge is what is at stake. After the horrors of the Second World War and the upheavals of the mid-Twentieth Century, it seemed as though there was a chance that a fairer world was slowly emerging. But relentless greed and the modern day enclosures of wealth and resources principally via privatisation of national assets, the sequestration and obscuring of wealth in tax havens away from its fair contribution to taxation, these factors have dire historical precedents and echoes. Increasing inequality, reducing fairness and commonality have only ever resulted in catastrophic civilisational upsets or collapse. Coupled with impending climate change the pressure for radical change in how we share our world and govern our polities can only build up so much before something ruptures.

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity…

…What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”
Frantz FanonThe Wretched of the Earth

Pioneering versus Leadership

Recently I’ve had several conversations with friends and colleagues touching on the differences between being a pioneer and being a leader. There have always been support structures for aspiring leaders in many different fields and sectors, but there seems to be very little support for pioneers. Is it because, often being disruptive and maverick, they make other people uneasy? Or perhaps because what they do does not always bring a direct return on investment for sponsors and funders?

One analogy I have been thinking of is that of a ship. Ships require different specialists to fulfill diverse tasks: from engineering, victualling, cooking, communications, maintenance to management. Among these, it is the navigator or pilot’s task to navigate the ship, whilst the captain’s role is to direct the whole crew and be responsible for the ship and its integrity. The navigator must plot a safe course for the ship, earning the trust of the crew and captain that their experience, skill and nous will carry them all safely. I imagine that navigators have to combine heterogeneous skill sets and knowledges – such as weather/meteorology, geography/hydrography, tidal patterns, the mathematics of bodies/mass and movement among other things – to achieve the right synthesis of conditions for their task. I think this is very much like the kind of trans- or interdisciplinary approach that helps foster invention and innovation. Its not for everyone but can be extremely rich and rewarding for those who do participate.

I believe that pioneers are also just the kind of people with the skills to navigate uncharted territories. They survey and map out new territories that are often then colonised – farmed, made productive perhaps – by others who follow in their wake; by which time the pioneers have most likely moved on to new spaces. Leaders could be described as those who stay and organise the territory and the activities that take place within it. It’s this qualitative difference that separates pioneering from leading: leaders work within established frameworks whilst pioneers explore the potential for entirely new structures and frames that don’t yet exist.

What then is the value to society of people who pioneer? How can societies value and appreciate the kind of deferred return on investment that pioneers bring? Is it possible, or even desirable, to nurture pioneers with programmes like those that support those aspiring to leadership roles? Or perhaps, is it too much to ask society to feed the restless nature of those questing souls for whom any structure, in the medium to long term, is probably going to feel irksome?

The question is not an idle one: looking back over my own work of the past two decades there has been a strong element of pioneering in both projects and processes. Some of the projects and concepts I have developed have anticipated mainstream activities, but too far in advance to really reap any benefit from our prescience that could be reinvested in new work. How does one explain, or even demonstrate, the value of this deferred return to funders, sponsors or investors who are increasingly demanding direct returns on investment for the same kind of pioneering work?

There remains a contradiction or tension between wanting to be recognised and rewarded for being so ahead of the field alongside the frustration that people simply don’t understand where you’re trying to taking them. I suspect it comes down to temperament and character, an inexorable drive that just can’t be laid aside.