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

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Phantom Tomes from an imaginary library

Ever since she was little, my daughter Clara has loved games of invention and imagination – especially ones which involve creating stories and fantastical worlds. Inspired by Edward Gorey (and others) we have been making up absurd titles for fictional books as we walk around London for sometime.

Recently a chance email reminded me of the amazing collection of book covers and other images that the British Library made freely available online and we came up with a way to share our pastime with others, and to expand on it as well. Thus was born the Phantom Tomes a collection of fictional books from an imaginary library – with covers adapted from ones we found online.

In the Phantom Tomes you are invited to dream up and write down your versions of what the publisher’s blurbs might say for these books. Or imagine that you are a literary reviewer composing your critical exegesis of these pseudo pot-boilers.

There is a distinguished literary tradition of creating fictional books, and amongst my own personal (and perennial) favourites are authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Stanislav Lem. Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, remains for me a highpoint in absurdity of the genre – an entire book of critical essays devoted to non-existent books.

Clara and I have had enormous fun putting this little book together and sincerely hope it offers as much pleasure to others in using it as it has afforded us in imagining it.

Read it online or download, print out and make up your own paper copy.

Sensing Climate Change through Empathic Encounters

This is a slightly tweaked version of a presentation I gave recently for a Fellowship application. My proposal was to use the Fellowship to advance the work I have started this year in adapting the processes of data manifestation developed in the Lifestreams project in creating tangible artefacts that communicate the complexly interconnected phenomena of climate research. And to also weave into this narrative approaches inspired by other cultures (especially non-Western “indigenous” peoples) who have developed other ways of recording and sharing knowledge of change over long timespans.

I see art as a way of life, a way of being, rather than the things I make. My practice is founded on bringing the sensibility of being an artist into direct contact with the world through the collaborations I undertake in different contexts and places and with the different communities which I engage with.

As an artist my goal is not to put artworks into galleries, but to weave art into everyday life – not as an exception or decoration, but as a vital and transformative process.

The way I do this is to create the conditions for stories to emerge from the material and interactions of these collaborations, and to help communicate the values expressed by the participants to others: storymaking instead of storytelling.

My interests are transdisciplinary – exploring the intersections of Art, Design and Science and two key strands in my work are Data Manifestation and Public Authoring. These two strands delve into the heart of how artistic practice can assist us in making sense of and defining values about our complex selves and environments: through sensory engagement and knowledge creation, documentation and dissemination.

My proposal focuses on climate change – and specifically on exploring alternative ways to allow people to appreciate and make sense of the complex interdependent interactions between different climate phenomena that are more often isolated and presented independently of one another. Mainstream debates over the past 30 years have tended to treat ‘climate change’ as a series of individual issues – such as the ozone layer, carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, sea ice reduction and glacial melt. In parallel the measures to ‘deal’ with them are often presented as separate strategies too. Whilst we know, in the abstract, that we live within a single global ecosystem, it is passingly rare to see these issues presented in ways that help us understand and relate to their interdependencies.

I propose to use data manifestation and public authoring as experimental means to generate opportunities for people to experience empathic encounters that go beyond the instrumentality of two dimensional graphs and visualisations. In particular I hope to explore more spatial and architectural expressions which can trigger a range of human senses in making meaning from data about climate change.

These are what I call “reciprocal entanglements” where people encountering the work perceive themselves in a direct relationship with it and with meaning making, thus transforming their understanding of issues that are at the heart of humanity’s future.

Over the past few years I have been working with indigenous people in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu on adapting, for their situation and purposes, some of the public authoring tools and techniques I’ve developed.

This has been a mutual exchange of cultural practices intended to reinvigorate intergenerational sharing of traditional knowledge. They hope to preserve their traditional and dynamic way of life from being overwhelmed by the changes wrought by money and industrialised resource extraction. In our terms, they seek to retain their culture’s resilience and sustainable relationship to their specific environment and not be subsumed into our Western worldview. This relationship has given me new perspectives on how environmental change is experienced, understood and shared – where knowledge of such things is inherently local. It is deeply and necessarily intertwined with the daily practices that are required for subsistence, as well as with the community memories stretching back many generations.

My aim is to investigate different ways of making the complex data about climate change tangible for people in post-industrialised societies who do not have the kind of direct and proximate connection to land, sea and the natural world that their ancestors had or that those communities have who still live in rural, often pre-industrialised settings.

Recently I have been inspired by reports on comparative studies of Aboriginal stories and traditions in Australia with scientific evidence of environmental change. These studies have exposed remarkable accuracy in the stories (to within one generation of accuracy) over very long timespans when describing phenomena such as sea level changes. I believe these stories and traditions persist in such cultures because they are neither remote nor alienated from context. They remain proximate and directly relational to the people who have lived with and through them.

How then, might it be possible to devise ways to express environmental change across time for urbanised people in the post-industrialised world – like ourselves – who do not experience such proximity on an everyday basis? And whose life choices will increasingly be made within the context of momentous changes in how we live our lives?

I see my engagements with climate scientists, social and cultural geographers and others doing research and other activities as a form of reciprocal entanglement too. Using tools I’ve developed for public authoring, such as the bookleteer formats, I propose to conduct an auto-ethnography of this process. By sharing my practice and experience of artistic fieldwork in an open and collaborative manner, I hope to stimulate discussion and debate, as well as to invite others to participate. I hope to weave together some of my experiences of working with indigenous people and their insights, with the observations and data of climate science to help us understand the effects and impacts of our actions, to to help us think about what are future choices might be.

Obligation. Responsibility. Culpability

A conversation with a friend a few days ago has made me think about another frame in which to consider action and effect. One which acknowledges the complex, entangled nature of our social relationships and the delicate balance of forces that hold that web of relationships together.

Obligation
To whom do I have (mutual or reciprocal) obligations and what are the nature of those obligations? Will my actions demonstrate my enacting those obligations or an avoidance of them?

Responsibility
What are my responsibilities to those with whom I have relationships? How do I balance my needs and any impact my actions may have on them?

Culpability
Am I willing to accept the consequences of my actions? Am I willing to amend my behaviour in future to reflect any detrimental impact of my actions on others?

In these muddled times, full of fear and anxieties, being able to think clearly, to make informed choices and decisions seems ever more urgent and necessary. Understanding that we are all connected in multi-lateral and multi-dimensional ways, and to have the critical means to make assessments that acknowledge this instinctively, is like a ray of sunlight cutting through the gloom.

Weighing opportunity and intent

As our world plunges into an era of uncertainty and reactive measures against plurality, diversity and tolerance I have been trying to formulate a framework or set of conceptual scales to guide my choices in life and work. How can one weigh out the opportunities that appear? How can intention and action be balanced in a way that respects our essential ethos, whilst acknowledging the constraints and compromises that are necessary to survive in our challenging social, political, economic and cultural order?

What I have realised over the years is that my work has always been about the kinds of human relationships that are forged within it. All my work is collaborative – often crossing disciplines, skills, trades and sectors. What I seek is a quality of experience generated by the energy of a group of people engaged on a collaborative or cooperative enterprise. The outputs (events, tools, artworks, publications, films, media, installations etc) are indeed important – primarily to share the experience with others – but are not the main driver for the work. It is people and the relationships which I develop with them that are my true inspiration and motivation.

In seeking to make judgements about what projects to contribute my energies to, what sorts of opportunities to explore and which kinds of trajectories to pursue, I have begun to identify the essential qualities I want to be present. These are not universal or rigid measures, but rather an attempt to have a simple rule of thumb to gauge whether or not they balance in any given configuration: Passion. Intensity. Intimacy. Pleasure.

Passion
It is important to me to work with people who are passionate and care deeply about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they go about it. It is the lifeblood of a team’s commitment to a project, practice or idea and without it it there is often no bigger vision or aspiration.

Intensity
I find that the most satisfying work is produced at a high level of intensity. Not constant, but following cycles and rhythms within the natural flow of a project’s development and the broader patterns of life that surround us. The ebb and flow of such work cycles naturally generates as well as consumes energy, much as we find in physical exercise.

Intimacy
I judge the richness of my life not in the material things which surround me but in the nourishment I get from close acquaintance and shared bonds with other people. These connections are vital to feeling that I am part of the world and of various communities. It is through other people that I discover new things, new joys and pleasures; and share the things I value and cherish with others. Working together to define a project, identifying problems or issues to be addressed creates extraordinary opportunities for people to open up and create common feeling across social and cultural divides. Without some degree of intimacy with one’s colleagues we are often mired in isolation and loneliness, even in the midst of others.

Pleasure
What kinds of pleasure will flow from this endeavour: the pleasures of association with old or new colleagues; of new skills acquired; of ideas challenged or evolved; of successful reception of outcomes and outputs; of new directions indicated or taken; of abstract thoughts made manifest and shared? Without some sense of pleasure in and from work it soon degenerates into a self-perpetuating drudgery of obligation to a status quo. For the sake of human spirit I think this is neither sustainable nor resilient in the long term.

As individuals in complex societies, our abilities to effect positive change that counter destructive forces often appear insignificant in the face of such huge systems and overwhelming structures. But exercising informed judgements about what we do and why is surely one of the best and most profound ways we can retain a sense of personal agency against the tide of narrow automated, rule-based decisions increasingly foisted upon us from above. Nurturing a plurality of informed judgements made by ordinary people in their daily lives might offer a powerful corrective to the strictures and conformities now being insisted upon by autocracies of all kinds and natures.

Exploring Risk

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Over the past 6 weeks I’ve been working with Professor Lizzie Coles-Kemp and her team in the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London to produce a publication as a deliverable for their part of the TREsPASS project.

TREsPASS : Technology-supported Risk Estimation by Predictive Assessment of Socio-technical Security was a 4 year European Commission funded project spanning many countries and partners. Lizzie’s team were engaged in developing a “creative security engagement” process, using paper prototyping and tools such as Lego to articulate a user-centred approach to understanding risk scenarios from multiple perspectives. The three books and the poster which comprise TREsPASS: Exploring Risk, describe this process in context with the visualisation techniques developed by other partners, as well as a visual record of the presentations given by colleagues and partners at a Summer School held at Royal Holloway during summer 2016.

The publication has been produced in an edition of 400, but all 3 books included in the package are also available to read online via bookleteer, or to download, print out and hand-make:

We are now starting a follow on project to develop a creative security engagement toolkit – with case studies, practical activities and templates – which will be released in early 2017.

Fairness and Bias in an Algorithmic Age

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Last month a new research project of which I am part got underway – UnBias: Emancipating Users Against Algorithmic Biases for a Trusted Digital Economy. Its a collaboration between the Universities of Nottingham (Horizon Digital Economy Institute), Edinburgh (Informatics) and Oxford (Human Centred Computing) funded by the EPSRC through its Trust, Identity, Privacy and Security in the Digital Economy strand. Over the next two years it will look at the complex relationships between people and systems increasingly driven by personalisation algorithms and explore whether, and to what degree, citizens can judge their trustworthiness.

My role will be to lead a co-design process that will create a ‘fairness toolkit’ : raising awareness about the impact of algorithms on everyday behaviours; devising pragmatic strategies to adapt around them; and engaging policymakers and online providers. We will be working with schools and young people to co-develop the toolkit – following in the wake of previous projects exploring young people and social media, such as Digital Wildfire.

For me this project cuts to the quick of concerns at the heart of today’s society: empathy, agency, transparency and control. I will be bringing ideas and practices to the project I have been exploring from a number of different trajectories over the past few years, from my work on the Pallion project to data manifestation and reciprocal entanglements. I am particularly excited as this marks my first formal collaboration with Oxford’s Human Centred Computing research group with whom I’ve been in dialogue for a couple of years.

Mapping Rehab Journeys

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Back in the summer of 2014 I devised a simple paper-based tool to help brain injury survivors map their rehabilitation journeys through a gentle creative process. It was part of the work I did for the Movement Science Research group at Oxford Brooke’s University – helping them to understand how to create a patient-centric digital rehabilitation monitoring tool. Having tested it successfully with a group of brain injury survivors in a workshop at Headway Oxford, it was frustrating not to be able to find a way to develop my ideas into a simple, low cost and flexible tool that could be used by brain injury survivors to periodically record their experiences of rehabilitation.

Since then I have been mostly engaged on a project co-designing a simple method and tools (based around bookleteer.com) for documenting Traditional Knowledge with villagers living in the jungle in Papua New Guinea, as well as with my work on data manifestation. As the notebooks for documenting knowledge have evolved, I have seen how they enable people to capture things that they value in ways that help them communicate and share that value further. Reflecting on this over the past few months, it made sense to think about adapting the ideas for the rehab journey tool into a booklet – utilising the simplicity, low cost and ease of use of the bookleteer format, something requiring no immediate investment beyond my time.

I was also inspired to do this having seen the excellent Patient booklet co-created by Grace Tillyard as part of her Breast Cancer Awareness project in Haiti. I have been providing a small bit of advice to Grace over the past year and half as she developed her programme, and we had talked about using the bookleteer booklet format as a simple way for people to record their experience of cancer treatment and recovery, as well as providing them with information about the process and possible outcomes. Her use of bookleteer to create a powerful tool that can be used effectively in the complex socio-economic environment of a developing country is truly inspiring.

Having discussed my idea with my friend and colleague David Sinden, who co-facilitated one of the workshops in Oxford with me for the TBI project (and who has himself survived a brain injury), I have now created a draft notebook format to help people record their experiences of the rehabilitation journey. It develops on from the original worksheets, encouraging survivors to use both words and drawing to document how they feel about their journey of rehabilitation in the present moment. The prompts ask for feelings related to time, progress, fluctuation and speed of rehab, as well as an overall mapping of the journey itself.

As with the notebooks for documenting Traditional Knowledge, I felt that it was important for people to be able to personalise their notebooks by putting a photo on the front cover. This might also serve as a visual reminder of how someone was feeling at the time, as well as how they look (or, for instance, include the face of someone who might be helping them fill out the book, such as a carer or friend). This can be easily done using the same sort of low cost kit we use when in the jungle of PNG – a basic cameraphone and Zink photo printer (e.g. the Polaroid Zip printer or Snap camera/printer).

What might the benefit be?
When I ran the rehab journey mapping workshop with five brain injury survivors at Oxford Headway in August 2014, they all became very invested in the process and were vocal in expressing their enjoyment of the task. It was highly social, with a lot of mutual support (especially in remembering things for each other) and free-flowing conversation which in turn provoked considerable self-reflection. I acted as the scribe for one of the survivors, assisting with writing and drawing for her. At the end of the workshop she thanked me and said that this exercise had been the first time anyone had sat down with her and listened to her describe her experiences since she had suffered a stroke about 12 years before. I asked the group if they thought it would be worth doing the exercise again, perhaps on a fairly regular basis (such as two or three time a year). They all agreed that it would be worthwhile, not least because it would give them a sense of how their feelings about their rehab journey change over time and this would give them a way to recall how they have felt at different times.

It is this aspect of self-observation that seems to hold a great deal of value in the process – not just for personal reflection, but also when discussing an ongoing rehab journey with the clinicians, physicians and other professionals and carers who are supporting survivors. Building up a collection of these observations over time could help reveal patterns that often evade us as we live in the moment. They are a form of data that could be useful for longitudinal analyses of the changes and adaptations experienced by people over prolonged periods of rehabilitation.  They offer the potential to collect and collate rich, qualitative information about how rehab is experienced by the survivor themself which could enhance other quantitative data already being collected as part of ongoing care and health management.

The draft notebook is available for anyone to try out in two sizes: Small (A6) and Large (A5). This is just a first step and is in need of feedback to both be improved, and built upon – as there are undoubtedly other ways and tools which could add to this. David and I will be collaborating on testing and extending the format as well as devising a practical process or methodology for both health professionals and peer groups of people experiencing rehabilitation to use it. We hope to have more news about this in the Autumn.

For some new Putney Debates

Earlier this year I was shortlisted for a residency in Lincoln as part of a project celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. My proposal (“Lincoln Debates“) was to work with young people in the city to re-evaluate the state of our society and to bring their voices concretely in to discussions of where we go next. I proposed to engage people in gathering and sharing their voices – through collaborative public authoring and the making of material artefacts, much as I do in my work with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea and my work with data manifestation. Embedding their concerns and aspirations for civic empowerment within the fabric of the city through events and with physical, digital and other media I hoped to devise a project that could resonate for future generations and inspire in them a continual engagement with power, rights, obligations and responsibilities.

1647 Putney Debates
My project title alluded specifically to the debates held in October 1647 at St Mary’s Church, Putney between the representatives (“Agitators/New Agents”) of the rank and file of the New Model Army, and the Army Grandees (Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton etc). The debates were part of a proposed settlement towards the end of the English Civil Wars to determine a new future for England (and by implication Scotland, Wales and Ireland). The men of the army had developed their own manifesto, which would later become a manifesto for a proto-socially democratic constitution for England – An Agreement of the Free People of England. Their demands were essentially communitarian and advocated for much of what we would now recognise as the basis of a functioning democracy, but where there would be no inherited privilege (thus ‘levelling’ each person’s status). The Debates were ultimately unsuccessful, but the discussions that took place and the manifestos that resulted became the inspiration for future milestones in our own and other country’s path to freedom and democracy.

Modern Putney Debates
As we lurch forwards into a new time of uncertainty and division in this country, it seems to me that we could do with more such debates and proposals – not merely as an exercise in creative agency, but vitally as a positive beacon for the future of our country, or countries, our identity and our aspirations to do good in the world.

What would it take to organise some events that draw inspiration from the Levellers of 1647 and strive to propose a new social contract founded on equity, compassion, responsibility, empathy and agency?

Last year I published a series of books that brought together key texts that derive from Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest – spanning 900 years they represent a stunning legacy of hope against oppression, subjugation and exploitation. Now is the time to start adding to that legacy with something new.

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Data Manifestation Talk at ODI

Video of my talk at the Open Data Institute on Friday 17th June 2016:

For further details, read my post, How Do We Know?