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John Thackara

Presence and Encounter — How We Meet Is As Important As Why


This is the text of my talk at the OuiShare Festival in Paris on May 7.



Did any of you wander around in a group last night — trying to agree on a place to eat?

Welcome to the sharing economy!

Sharing is hard! And that’s just about one meal.

Think about the food systems of a city; the restoration of a river; the management of waste; or the care of older people.

As we change the way we govern our communities, our cities, and our ecosystems, a variety of different actors and stakeholders — formal and informal, big and small — need to work together — often, for the first time.

Working with people unlike ourselves is not an option. We have to engage with new partners and actors because they connect us with knowledge and experience, resources, and process expertise, that we lack — be they fishermen or farmers, lawyers or birdwatchers, makers or coders.

Also needed in the conversation are those change agents, outliers, and ‘shadow networks‘ who are either excluded from — or exclude themselves — the formal structures of governance.

This is not a small ask. I’ve met a a lot of people who like the idea of sharing, and co-operation — but fear being trapped in a nightmare of endless meetings and incessant discussion.

The most important people of all that we must identify, and embrace, are those people who are usually unheard — elders, young people, many women. For them, the very idea of standing on a stage, or selling an idea, is alien and deeply offputting.

For someone like me — a large white guy with a loud voice — a public platform is not a challenge. For many others — and those people are of course not here — it’s an alien and often scary prospect.

It’s not just a matter of new tools, or platforms. We also need a but a new sensibility — a commitment, a passion, to meet in ways that increase social energy, not suck it dry.

Political thinkers, and academic researchers, who have thought about governance a lot, have produced an impressive crop of buzzwords:
social-ecological innovation
political multi-polarisation
polycentric governance
adaptive co-management
multi-stakeholderism
constellation management

If it was all about obscure language, a sharing economy would be up-and-running!

Behind those words is what I believe to be an uncomplicated proposition: cooperation depends a lot on trust, and trust grows best when we to talk to each other, face to face.

Embodied, situated, and unmediated communication were the norm for hundreds of years before we invented mass media. In indigenous cultures the world over today, communities use ceremonies, arts and stories to maintain harmony between nature and culture, body and mind.

In earlier times — when a big part of the population could not read — participatory ritual and performance were the main ways that beliefs were shared within a culture.

As Ivan Illich so memorably observed in 1970: in his grandparents’ time, one out of ten words that someone heard by the age of twenty were words spoken to her directly — one to one, or as a member of a crowd — by somebody she could touch and feel and smell.

By the time Illich was writing, that proportion had been reversed: About nine out of ten words he heard heard in a day were spoken through some kind loudspeaker.

Things deteriorated sharply when we invented convention centres. Convention centres are expensive, filled with hard surfaces, and — unless you’re in the convention business — somewhere else than the subjects discussed in them. They are media, not the thing itself.

Indoors conventions also foster groupthink — which is why large rules-based organisations love meeting in them.

In his book I and Thou in 1923, the philosopher and theologian Martin Buber counseled that “All knowledge is dialogic” — but he did not just advocate talk. Community and connection are not just about words, he said; they’re about encounter, and presence.

Buber taught us that that literally “vital” conversations needs to be embodied, and situated.

It follows from his insights that the meeting formats we design now, for the sharing economy, should enable us, quite simply, to breathe the same air — as we are doing now.

Inner Politics

There’s a personal as well as public-political aspect to this story.

For the many activists and advocates working flat-out out — in the sharing economy, in Occupy, in Transition — there’s a tendency to over-do things.

That road leads to burn out.

For Sophie Banks, who works with the Transition Network, “burnout is not a side issue”. On the contrary: our inner states are just as important to a healthy political movement as are its external activities.

Banks reminds, furthermore, that our inner states, and the outer, are connected.

We’re dealing with a nightmare, a global system that’s depleting the planet; a system that takes out more than it puts back; a system that allows no time for natural systems to replenish, and revitalise themselves.

If we reproduce those ecocidal behaviours in our own movement, and in our own lives, counsels Banks, we’ll not be in a good shape to complete the journey.

This is why we need, consciously, to grow a culture that enables all of us us to feel empowered, to be seen, to be appreciated.

A culture in which we focus not just on ‘solutions’ — but also on qualities. A culture of “sticking with the trouble”, in Donna Haraway’s phrase — but not a culture that burns us up when we do so.

Less Content, Please

Translated into a brief for event design: People don’t want more messages, they want more interactions.

Change doesn’t happen when you tell people things. Change happens when people share meaningful experiences in rich contexts.

Conversation, more than any other form of human interaction, is the place where we learn, exchange ideas, offer resources and create innovation.

In my own work, this realization was most inconvenient. We spent ten years running Doors of Perception as a high energy internet and design conference — only to discover that what our times need more interactive and less choreographed forms of encounter.

In the search for a new format, we started talking about ‘feral’ events. Feral gatherings — like an animal that has no longer domesticated — is guided by its context, not by a pre-cooked agenda.

A feral event is about this place, this moment, these people. Only here. Only now.

This approach is not original. In pre-modern times, communities had festivals once a week — sometimes more. And before we invented education, children didn’t go to school: School surrounded them. Nature was their living teacher. Every relative – and every plant, and animal — was a mentor. People of all ages soaked up the language of plants and animals and living systems by immersion — not by powerpoint, and not by MOOC.

Meetings and festivals, I conclude, are not about what to do — they are about how to be.

It follows that “convening” is as much an art as it is a military operation.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon to-do lists, and organization — just that we move, on our meetings, beyond the control paradigm of the system that’s destroying us.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon social media — just that we cultivate a hybrid approach so whenever someone says “online” someone else says, “and what about offline?”. Or when we find ourselves inside, someone else says: “and when do we go outside?”

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