Random finds (2018, week 25) — On the Utopian Vision of William Morris, the fragility of beauty, and opportune wisdom from Voltaire

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“When we first came to the site we were struck by the beauty of the place, and by its diversity.” — Bukkekjerka in Vesterålen, Sortland, Norway, by MORFEUS arkitekter (Photograph by MORFEUS arkitekter / ArchDaily)

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

Is William Morris’s utopian society finally here?

“In 1890 William Morris imagined a world free from wage slavery. Thanks to technology, his vision is finally within reach,” Vasilis Kostakis and Wolfgang Drechsler write in Utopia now

Today, William Morris is best-known as a Victorian designer and one of the founders of the Arts and Craft Movement. But he was also a radical thinker and the framework for a commons-based [1] world of cooperation, which he sketched in the utopian novel News from Nowhere, has striking applications for the age of the internet.

In News from Nowhere, Morris imagines a society in which economic activity and human happiness coincided. “He reminds us that there needs to be a point to labour beyond making ends meet — and there is. Unalienated labour creates happiness for all — consumer and creator; whereas modern capitalism, in contrast, has created a treadmill in which this aspect of work has been lost,” Kostakis and Drechsler write. In this utopian society, “[c]raftwork has made ‘wage slavery’ obsolete, and parliamentary democracy has given way to new forms of cooperation. The means of production are democratically controlled, and people find pleasure in sharing their interests, goals and resources.”

[1] The term ‘commons’ derives from a traditional English legal term for common land, also known as ‘commons.’ The use of these commons for natural resources has deep roots in European intellectual history, where it referred to shared agricultural fields, grazing lands and forests. Over a period of several hundred years, most of these lands have been claimed as private property for private use.

“When News from Nowhere was first published, it had many of the trappings of a classic utopia, including that it appeared practically unattainable,” Kostakis and Drechsler write. But the world, and especially technology, has caught up with Morris. Today, a new commons-based mode of production, enabled by digitisation and exemplified by interconnected collaboration, redefines how we can produce, consume and distribute. However, these forms of commons-based production go against the prevailing view of how our economy works, which sees “[i]ndividuals primarily motivated by their interest to maximise profit, competition and private property [as] the Holy Grail of innovation and progress — more than that: of freedom and liberty themselves.” When social groups appropriate a particular technology for their own purposes, however, then social, political and economic systems can change.

“In this commons-based scenario, there are no patent costs to pay, since the digital commons becomes available under commons licences […] Further, less transportation of materials is needed, since a considerable part of the manufacturing takes place locally often through upcycling. Moreover, maintenance is easier and products are designed to last as long as possible. Costs are thus driven down.

The design is developed and improved as a global digital commons, while the manufacturing often takes place through shared infrastructures and with local biophysical conditions in mind. Put simply, this mode of production follows the logic that what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, and what is heavy (manufacturing) is local and shared. This allows for the consideration of the limits and scarcities posed by finite resources, and the organisation of material activities according to participant-defined value systems.”

“Morris envisioned a future in which humans would be free to create and to ‘delight in the life of the world’. Yet in his opinion, for reasons of scope as well as human conditioning, violent events — wars, revolutions — would have to precede such freedom. But he might have been wrong about that. [Commons-based peer production, in short CBPP,] points to the reality of peaceful paths of radical change actually emerging. […]

The difference with CBPP is that it takes back, through empowerment, what has already been lost, but via modern means. It makes use of digitisation, at the forefront of technological development, by interpreting it for the benefit of the people, rather than for its current protagonists. Creating public rather than private value, CBPP follows the digital logic just as much as, and maybe better than, its classic-capitalist protagonists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Perhaps it is best to think of these CBPP as early pilot projects, with a great radical change in our attitude to production possibly just around the corner.

[…]

Were Morris alive today, he certainly would have recognised its revolutionary potential. What was news from nowhere in 1890 could very soon be news from here.”

A beautiful ‘collage’ of William Morris’s work can be found in The Beauty of Life (Thames & Hudson). The book was first published in 2003 to coincide with the exhibition ‘The Beauty of Life: William Morris and the Art of Design,’ which was organized by The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

The fragility of beauty

Last Saturday, I woke up with the news of the devastating fire that had gutted Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterwork, the Glasgow School of Art, just four years after parts of the building were damaged by a smaller blaze. This time, however, the sad truth is that there is very little left to restore, Alan Dunlop, a fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) and himself an alumnus of the Glasgow School of Art, told Dezeen. What makes this loss extra poignant is that Glasgow, as Mackintosh’s home city, this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Beauty is fragile, whether that of great architecture, like in this case, or that of democracy, humanity, nature even. We are confronted with this fragility more often than I care for. The destruction of Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art is a reminder to us all of what is lost when beauty is destroyed.

Here are some pictures from the Glasgow School of art, Hill House and House for an Art Lover to celebrate Mackintosh’s genius as an architect and designer, and the beauty of his wide-ranging work. It also reminds us of how specialised architecture has become.

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Interior of the Glasgow School of Art (Photography by McAteer Photograph and the Glasgow School of Art)
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Hill House has a highly ornamental interior, featuring oriental themes alongside art-nouveau and art-deco details. (Photo courtesy of National Trust Scotland)
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In contrast with the dark, masculine hallway and library, the drawing room is an example of the white rooms that Mackintosh became renowned for. (Photo courtesy of National Trust Scotland)
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Mackintosh and his wife, artist Margaret MacDonald, created almost every element of the house, from the architecture to the furniture. (Photo courtesy of National Trust Scotland)
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House for an Art Lover, which was built almost 90 years after Mackintosh’s death, features dark ‘masculine’ rooms and lighter ‘feminine’ spaces (below). (Photo courtesy of House for an Art Lover)
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On of the lighter ‘feminine’ spaces in Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover. (Photo courtesy of House for an Art Lover)

Regarding a possible rebuild of the Glasgow School of Art, Alan Dunlop told Dezeen it was his contention that Mackintosh “would not approve of pastiche or replication.” Adding, “what has not been lost in the fire is the 110 years of history, the spirit and good will of the thousands of students, artists, and architects who have worked there, and who, consciously or subconsciously, will have been affected by Mackintosh’s essence.”

Interestingly, the Chinese have two different concepts of a copy: ‘fangzhipin’ (仿製品) or imitations where the difference from the original is obvious, and exact reproductions of the original. These are are known as ‘fuzhipin’ (複製品) and are, for the Chinese, of equal value to the original.

According to Byung-Chul Han, a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at the Berlin University of the Arts, “[t]he original is something imaginary. It is in principle possible to build an exact copy, a ‘fuzhipin’ of Freiburg Minster, in one of China’s many theme parks. Is this then a copy or an original? What makes it a mere copy? What characterises the Freiburg Minster as an original? Materially, its ‘fuzhipin’ might not differ in any way from the original that itself might someday no longer contain any original parts. It would be, if at all, the place and the cult value related to the practice of worship that might differentiate the Freiburg Minster from its ‘fuzhipin’ in a Chinese theme park. However, remove its cult value completely in favour of its exhibition value, and its difference from its double might disappear, too.”

Mark Cousins, a teaching fellow in architecture and design at the University of Edinburgh, states the Glasgow School of Art must be rebuilt, not just because it’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, but because it’s an invaluable showcase for Scottish craft skills. The building must not be relegated to mere museum status but remain a functioning art college.

“Glasgow School of Art carries with it an immense historical burden. It simply cannot be razed. […] We should look again at Norman Foster’s approach at the Reichstag in Berlin, where the Russian soldiers’ graffiti was conserved, and the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, by Venetian-born architect Carlo Scarpa,” who “was acknowledged as a consummate continuer of history and this extended commission afforded him the opportunity to tease apart the building’s rich history and tell its story. [His] own contemporary architectural intervention became a significant new layer and has garnered international acclaim arguably because of its adherence to William Morris’ belief in preservation, not restoration.”

According to Ian Jack in his Opinion in The Guardian, Brick by brick, Glasgow must recreate its lost masterpiece, the choices seem to be “demolition and replacement; ‘facade-ism.’ in which a new interior sits behind the old walls, or some other elements of the old are incorporated with the new; or a faithful replica.” Jack argues for the latter — a ‘fuzhipin.’ It would, no doubt, be a long expensive project, “but skills would be preserved and passed on, and there would be something to marvel at finally. Every stone, window, beam, stair, shelf should be faithfully copied — and every ceiling fitted with sprinklers”.

Opportune wisdom from Voltaire

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire

Once you get used to accepting what you are told without questioning it, no matter how absurd, you lose the ability to understand what is good or bad. The moment where you stop questioning what people tell you, the moment where you stop morally evaluating the implication of their words, you might do things simply because someone tells you because he also tells you that it’s the right thing to do.

And also this …

“Comfort is overrated. It doesn’t make us as happy as we think it will. With too much comfort, we miss out on the anticipation of what’s going to happen next,” writes Francesca Gino in her book Rebel Talent.

At the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management, Adam Grant told his audience that he separates workers along two axes (which, no doubt, must have pleased them because ‘HR people’ are very fond of labelling): givers and takers, and agreeable and disagreeable. Disagreeable givers can be a pain in the ass, but valuable to an organization, Grant said. “They’re more likely to fight for what they believe in, challenge the status quo, and push the organization to make painful but necessary changes.” But for organizations eager to avoid complacency and determined to improve, they can be invaluable.

Yet, in times when CEOs constantly talk about the importance of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption,’ recruiters continue to look for candidates “who can fall into line,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in Recruiters overrate these job skills, screwing over everyone.

“Few recruiters will own up to this one, but make no mistake: They value those who can fall into line. Our culture may outwardly celebrate ‘disruptors’ and glorifies entrepreneurs, but in most of the workforce, it’s safer to hire people who follow and obey rules, not least because organizations generally aren’t comfortable with rule breakers. There’s a reason why so many successful entrepreneurs struggle with traditional employment, and it’s the same one that leads recruiters and employers to focus on so-called ‘culture fit’ when making hiring decisions. Conformists are more likely evaluated positively by their managers, simply because they’re rewarding to deal with and pleasant to be around. Those traits are certainly valuable, but the typical trade-off is that employers can’t expect a ton of innovative thinking from those contributors.”

Adding, “While confidence, credentials, conscientiousness, and conformity may help recruiters and hiring managers feel better about the candidates they hire, there’s more to talent and performance than these basic traits of employability. In fact, over-emphasizing them can leave you with a dearth of the creative problem solvers your organization really needs.”

So, when it comes to transformation, innovation and change in general, there still is a huge gap between ‘the talk’ and ‘the walk.’ CEOs talk a lot about these things and they may also understand what is needed, but when push comes to shove, prevailing stereotypes and the focus on ‘culture fit’ often turn out to be too strong a counterforce.

“I don’t like the classification of human beings into winners and losers,” Elena Ferrante writes in The Guardian.

“Or maybe I don’t understand it. I think of the symbols that identify a winner. Money, above all — that is to say, the possibility of acquiring expensive objects, and a taste for displaying them as proof of your superiority. Or the exercise of power, demonstrating by very subtle means that you are high up in the hierarchy. Or the sort of aristocracy that derives from media fame, a blue blood of celebrity ensuring that you don’t have to earn people’s attention every time — you’re recognised enthusiastically, at first sight. Or the permanent mise-en-scène of happiness: someone who has a lot of money exercises power, enjoys the status of a VIP, and therefore must be happy.

Except that all these symbols of the winner’s position soon reveal themselves to be less than genuine and, above all, precarious. Money, power, fame, glory, happiness — all are quick to show cracks. And every time this image of the winner collapses, and the appearance of victory turns to failure, the idea of the loser collapses, too; that category of people who have no expensive possessions, no power, no fame, only a sense of unhappiness resulting from their impression of having failed.

Maybe the true spectre behind this classification into winners and losers is precisely that, the fear of failure. It was the thing that as a girl I feared most. Failing in school; failing to get a job; failing any test, be it athletics or maths. I put an exhausting amount of effort into everything that had even the appearance of a competition, because I sensed that one failure leads to another, and that that’s where the list of the good and the bad originates. When you end up on the list of the bad, it becomes difficult to cross over on to the list of the good.”

“It took me a long time to understand that those classifications are as cruel as they are arbitrary. They pretend that neither socioeconomic inequalities nor sexual and racial discrimination exist, nor the extremely culpable waste of intelligence that results. We draw up lists of the good and the bad as if the many privileges deriving from chance aren’t there: your place of birth, your family, the inequality of opportunities.

Even today, in this so-called advanced part of the world, the conditions at the point of starting out are too unjust to think of as a competition in which the odds are not stacked. If I could, I would eliminate concepts such as failing, winning and losing, which no longer have any basis. If it were really necessary, I would confine myself to a competition like the caucus race that Alice encounters in Wonderland. Nobody loses, everybody wins and there is no failure.”

In Measuring What Matters, Steve Marshall writes how throughout education we advocate co-operation, collaboration and participation, while at the same we continue to separate and fragment our community efforts through our use of structures for assessment that divide and isolate.

“It’s the same in most industries; shared reward for group or company success is rare. Bonuses are paid opaquely to individuals and executives are rewarded for the achievements of others.

Ten years ago, our kids instinctively knew that the best chances of finding their way was to work together. The same is true today.

If we are going to continually measure ourselves and work in systems that provide differential reward, then let’s at least measure the things that matter; collaboration, sharing, kindness, support of others and participation. This kind of collective effort is essential if we are to face the problems of an ever smaller world effectively and the choice for each of us is clear.

As Margaret Wheatley says simply, ‘We can choose to be in this together. Or not.’’”

“In recent decades, the ethos of productivity has burst through the walls of the workplace to dominate the rest of life, too. The trouble isn’t simply that we subjugate our non-work lives to work, but that we subjugate the present to the future — which, as you might have noticed, never arrives. In seeking to spend life as productively as we can, we bring upon ourselves the ultimate ironic punishment: we miss it,” Oliver Burkeman writes in Promise of play.

“Play and leisure, defined broadly, are the antidote to this disease: they’re ‘atelic’ activities, undertaken for the sake of themselves, for the pleasure experienced in the doing of them. […] In a society fixated on productivity and instrumentalisation, even temporarily rejecting those values in order to spend time playing can be a radical act — which is perhaps why we tend to condemn so many atelic pursuits as mere idleness. Yet if one definition of ‘wasting time’ is using it for something other than future benefit, wasting time may be not just forgivable but essential, if we’re to live at all.”

Burkeman warns that it is “easy to assume that what’s called for is some kind of escapism — a mental checking-out from the travails of productivity and accomplishment in favour of low-effort, low-energy pastimes.”

The mistake we make, according to Ian Bogost in his book Play Anything is in thinking that play involves a turning away from ‘real life.’

“In fact, that belief compounds the problem, implying that we face only two options for how to spend our time: productively and focused on the future, or attempting to avoid reality, both of which mean we’ll never be fully present. The solution, Bogost argues, is to plunge headlong into reality, engaging with the constraints of the situation in which you find yourself, treating them like the rules of a game, so that the whole world becomes a playground.”

Burkeman believes play “need not function merely as a counterweight to our outcome-obsessed lives, something in which we sporadically indulge as respite from the drudgery of accomplishment. Instead, we could allow the spirit of play to suffuse our telic tasks [that is, tasks or activities focused on and valued in terms of their endpoint], bringing pleasure to productivity, so that we didn’t have to choose between investing in the future and savouring the present. [As Bogost writes]: ‘Anyone can treat anything with the deliberate attention that produces fun.’”

According to Stowe Boyd, ‘unbounded curiosity’ is the first and foundational work skill for an uncertain future, which happens to be the subject of a book he is working on. As part of his research, Boyd has been collecting all sort of aspirational and scientific snippets, including “an almost religious paragraph” from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Fear is boring, and other tips for living a creative life (2015).

“Whenever you’re told to ‘follow your passion,’” Gilbert writes, “it can be very intimidating, and it can be very confusing, because sometimes passion isn’t very clear, sometimes passions burn hot and then burn out, sometimes your passion changes, sometimes on a very sad Tuesday morning when you didn’t sleep well, the idea of passion just feels so out of reach that you can’t even imagine ever accessing it. And yet curiosity is this faithful, steadfast, friendly and accessible energy that is never far out of reach. There’s never a day where you couldn’t dredge up some tiny little fragment of interest in something in the world, no matter how modest it may seem, no matter how humble, no matter how much it might seem to be unconnected to anything else that you’re doing, no matter how random. Passion demands full commitment out of you. You’ve got to get divorced, and shave your head, and change your name, and move to Nepal and start an orphanage. And maybe you don’t need to do that this week. But curiosity doesn’t take anything from you. Curiosity just gives, and all it gives you are clues, just a beautiful thread, a tiny little clue from the scavenger hunt that you’re unique here in life.”

Oslo studio MORFEUS arkitekter have designed a service facility along the Norwegian Scenic Route Andøya at a rock formation called ‘Bohkegeargi,’ a protected cultural monument connected with the heritage of the local Sami people. The rocks form a natural altar and pulpit where offerings to the gods were once made. Today, it is used for open-air church services, which attract people from across the district.

“When we first came to the site, we were struck by the beauty of the place, and by its diversity; a dramatic landscape where the fierce North Sea meets the shore and later steep mountains, Sami tales and monuments connected to different parts of the land, remnants of the old fishing community Børvågen, the old lighthouses towards east, and, to the south, consecrated ground and unique geological formations — all surrounding the rock formation known as ‘Bukkekjerka,’ or ‘Bohkegeargi’ in Sami,” the architects said.

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“America isn’t nearly as dominant a power as it was 70 years ago; Trump is delusional if he thinks that other countries will back down in the face of his threats. And if we are heading for a full-blown trade war, which seems increasingly likely, both he and those who voted for him will be shocked at how it goes: some industries will gain, but millions of workers will be displaced. So Trump isn’t making America great again; he’s trashing the things that made us great, turning us into just another bully — one whose bullying will be far less effective than he imagines.” – Paul Krugman in Fall of the American Empire

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