Swimming against Brexit

Serbia’s main broadsheet newspaper Politika asked me to write something about Brexit. Since the article was published a) two weeks ago, b) in Serbian, and c) only in hard copy, I don’t think anybody will be too worried if I publish the English language version here…

I haven’t lived in the UK for a long time, but I still think of it as home. I was born and raised in England, but I don’t think of myself as English. When I’m in the UK, I think of myself as a Londoner; when I’m outside the UK, I think of myself as British. Both of those identities are wrapped up in a sense of being European – but the difference with being European is that it is something that I chose, rather than something I was born with.

A truly European identity has only really emerged since 1992, when the Maastricht Treaty established freedom of movement across the European Union. For many people younger than me, therefore, a European identity is something they were born with – and now, they have been denied that identity. One key statistic from the Brexit referendum was that 71% of 18-24 year olds voted to Remain, but only 36% of people over 65 years.

Of course, not all young people voted to Remain, and not all old people voted to Leave. The picture is much more complicated: people with more formal education were more likely to vote to Remain; people without passports were more likely to vote to Leave; people living in areas with higher numbers of immigrants were more likely to vote to Remain; people living in areas more dependent on EU funding were more likely to vote to Leave.

I’ve been living outside the UK for such a long time that I wasn’t eligible to vote. If I had been able to vote, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but many of my family and friends voted to Leave. I understood their reasons, although I didn’t agree with them. Their vote to Leave had nothing to do with evidence, and everything to do with identity. Many people in the UK feel that their sense of identity has been slowly eroded, and that the EU is at least partly responsible.

This is felt in two ways. The first is that the EU has taken political power from the UK, taking away our power to make decisions for ourselves. The second is that the EU has opened up the UK to immigration on an unprecedented scale, changing our culture. However it’s important to note that in Scotland or Northern Ireland the majority voted to Remain in the EU; the Brexit referendum was a proxy vote for an English (and to some extent, a Welsh) identity.

The vote to Leave was a protest vote, by communities that feel frustrated and disempowered and marginalised. Early signs of this protest could be seen in the rapid growth in popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) from around 2008, a party formed around a single issue: taking the UK out of the EU. Despite their success, UKIP are still kept at arms’ length by other political parties, because their Euro-sceptic position has always been wrapped in a barely-disguised xenophobia.

This association of Euro-scepticism and xenophobia explains why there has been a sudden rise in the number of racist incidents since the referendum. Minorities have always faced racism in the UK, but the decision to Leave seems to have been a license for many people to express ideas that were previously unacceptable. This needs to be understood as part of the protest: people looking for somebody to blame for their problems will first attack the most obvious targets.

This is where identity becomes important. The most obvious targets are the people who don’t look like you or sound like you, but in a diverse society such as the UK, those people may still be British citizens. To me, this is the difference between a British identity – which can include anybody, no matter what their race or religion – and an English identity, which is more limited. There is nothing wrong with being English, but the way in which it is expressed now is often unacceptable.

It’s no coincidence that the popularity of UKIP rose after the global financial crisis in 2008, which hit the UK very hard. This protest vote was against political elites who have failed to listen to their constituents for many years: not just those in European institutions, but also in the British parliament. There is a crisis in democracy across Europe, and the Brexit referendum result is a clear signal that people will not tolerate it for much longer.

The European project was built on hope. It was designed to stop Europe from falling back into the horrors of the Second World War. It has been largely successful; it’s almost impossible to imagine members of the EU going to war with each other. There have been plenty of conflicts on the periphery of the EU, such as the break-up of Yugoslavia, but those smaller conflicts have not lead to wider conflicts between EU states, as they probably would have done a century ago.

It’s now likely that the UK will also break up, as Scotland and Northern Ireland have both expressed interest in leaving the union in order to remain in the EU. If that happens, then being “British” will no longer have any meaning, leaving me in a difficult position. Occasionally one of my Serbian friends will refer to me as English, and I’ll correct them: I’m British, not English. That’s because I’m not sure what being English means; but now I’m not sure what being British means, either.

Becalmed in British waters

Today my home country votes on its future. It feels strange to type that phrase “home country”, because I haven’t lived there on a permanent basis for a long time; for so long, in fact, that I am not allowed to take part in that vote, even though my future is inextricably tied up in its future. I have followed the Brexit campaign closely – the first referendum referred to by its hashtag, which is probably a sign of the apocalypse – but I deliberately avoid writing anything about it until the day of the referendum itself.

For the last few months, my friends outside the country have been asking: what will happen? I had no idea: the polls said it was increasingly an even split, but when I spoke to friends and family in the UK, I felt like an island of Remain in a sea of Leaves. I realised early on that the decision was values-based rather than evidence-based. Even I had to recognise that the best evidence the Remain campaign could muster was a case of better the devil you know, rather than something you could test against history.

Nobody knows what happens if the UK leaves, not really: I predict disaster, but I’ve been wrong before. It’s not that I don’t trust economists, exactly, it’s that nobody trusts economists after that global financial crash which none of them saw coming and all of them seem to have convienently forgotten. Economic arguments are not as solid as Remain thinks they are, but at least Remain still accept economic arguments; Leave have stopped pretending that they understand how economics works, and have just started calling economists Nazis.

That’s where my worry rests its head. There are legitimate value-based reasons to vote Leave: to rebuild a sense of identity; to renew a democratic tradition; to regain some control in a chaotic world. I think there are strong arguments against all of those, but I understand those reasons. They make sense to me. The problem is that, while those are the arguments are the port of origin for the Leave campaign, they are not the port of destination. The Leave flotilla currently moors in a harbour of desolate isolation which for some reason they believe is the gateway to the world.

The calm waters of that harbour hide serious monsters just beneath the surface. The xenophobic nature of the later Leave campaign has been well-documented, but they’re just taking advantage of what was already there. Much as I value the rich tradition of English rebellion and non-conformism and grassroots democracy – a tradition which the ruling classes have consistently written out of history – there is a sour side to it, a side that would rather retaliate against an imagined enemy rather than recognise that perhaps our generals do not have our best interests at heart.

The legacy of Brexit, I worry, is that this particular battle will continue long after the campaign itself has been lost. Half the country will be aggrieved by the referendum result, and if that half is Leave, they were already aggrieved to begin with. The leaders of Remain will forget about those people as soon as the sun sets – if they ever thought of them at all – and the leaders of Leave will be free to pursue their less acceptable agendas in the dark. The targets of their wrath will be those that they blame – not just immigrants, but also those corrupted by immigrants.

The killing of Jo Cox was shocking precisely because it an anomaly. I am barely separated from Cox in some ways: we worked for some of the same organisations on some of the same issues; we shared common friends and common views about the way the world should be. I am close to her killer Tommy Mair in a different way, a way that means that I can understand his desperation to act, the way in which his desire for the best for his country could have been polluted by drinking the waters of that harbour far too often.

There is no excuse for what he did. Despite what the more rabid portions of the old right wing believe, there is no war on. We are not enemies unless we choose to make ourselves enemies. Unfortunately some people do choose to make themselves enemies, positively relishing the role, and then they need to locate their own imaginary enemies. The Remain camp need to be aware of this – there is no equivalent group in the Leave camp, holding knife fighting classes in sweaty summer schools – and realise that this group, while useful on a tactical level, will turn on them as well as soon as they need more enemies to justify their existence.

I agree with some commentators that this referendum is about the English rather than the British, but I always relied on my British identity and I don’t know what I’ll do if it disappears like the morning mist. This is the same feeling I had when the Scottish referendum was underway: not a worry about what would happen to the UK, but what would happen to the people of the UK. The English identity never included me, because I’m not white enough. Instead I felt myself British and a Londoner, both categories that welcomed people like me, although for very different reasons. Unfortunately both of those categories are also in question now; but at least they include me.

Why do I need to be included? Because part of the problem is that elites – and I am a member of an elite – are increasingly ungrounded, living in a globalised world rather than their neighbourhood. I’m sure Jo Cox felt it, and that’s why she decided to stand as an MP in her home town. I decided to try something different: while keeping the connections to my home country, deciding to settle somewhere else and build new connections there, and to try as hard as possible to minimize the globalised lifestyle that would pull me away. It’s not been a successful experiment, but I tried.

Identity is important. European was an identity that only really emerged as I was coming of age: the year I started university was the year of Maastricht; I’d spend the first half of the year working my way around western Europe, doing odd jobs and baby-sitting and car delivery and prep chef work in different cities. That identity has been systematically eroded since then, finally worn down by the way in which Greece was dealt with by the EU – specifically by the troika, and more specifically by Germany, a country which I honestly respect for its postwar trajectory.

So today I am in a quandary: I believe the European Union is important, that its achievements far outweigh the price we’ve paid for those achievements. At the same time, I believe that the European Union has failed on a moral level, and risks failing at a political level, due to the actions of its own elites. I believe that the UK should stay in the EU; that we should take ourselves out of this poisonous harbour, steer into and tack across the winds of petty nationalism blowing across Europe, out into open waters where we can set our collective course more clearly for the future.

There’s a lot more that I could write – one thing the EU has taught me is that it’s better to spill words on the page than blood in the field – but there’s no call for more words about this damned mistaken referendum. I don’t think Europe is headed back to its old wars if the UK leaves, although there might be new wars on the horizon, just not the wars the nationalist right is preparing for. I reject their wars; I reject their words; the Europe I choose was born from the Enlightenment, and I would vote Remain, if I could vote at all.

How do we get from here to there? The Futures of Humanitarianism

Crossposted at Medium.com.

In the last ten years there has been a small explosion of forecasts seeking to identify the major trends that will affect relief and development organisations, and to describe how those organisations might prepare to address those trends. Most of these reports are very good, but all of them have a certain scent of panic about them: the sector is alarmed by its own prospects, unconvinced by its own capacity, pressured by its own stakeholders.

This sense of a sinking ship is widely shared by professional aid workers, if not widely articulated: while there is disagreement about how deep are the cracks in the foundation of the humanitarian system, one thing is universally agreed; there is tremendous stress on that system, and the current way of working is not sustainable.

The most obvious symptom of this is financial: the financial needs of the sector are growing, but are not being met. However it’s worth getting some perspective: the $20 billion spent by the humanitarian sector in 2014 might sound like a lot until you find out that the mobile phone app WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion that same year. Despite this relatively small financial presence, humanitarianism is an important part of the international community’s image of itself; it is highly visible, and therefore more important than its budget would suggest.

It was partly in response to these stresses — but more in response to the funding shortfall — that the UN Secretary-General convened the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016. I’ll let an article by OCHA explain:

“Humanitarian action has changed tremendously in the past two decades. The numbers of those in need are growing. New challenges, including climate change, resource shortages, and urbanization are placing additional demands on already-stretched resources. New humanitarian actors as well as new technologies are changing how we respond to crises. Now more than ever, we need a new humanitarian agenda for a new era in humanitarian action, one that embraces a wide range of actors, forges new partnerships and spurs more innovative and effective ways of working. How do we get from here to there?”

Now that’s a question worth asking. In this article, I want to sketch out the beginnings of an approach that might get us from here to there, if we’re courageous enough to take it. I know this article is long — most humanitarian staff barely have time to skim the headlines on the Guardian Development Professionals network, let alone battle through 5000 words — but trust me: it will be worth your time.

  • Who’s afraid of the big bad future? or, how the humanitarian community talks about the future.
  • Why is my crystal ball so cloudy? or, what stops us from talking about possible futures.
  • How to think about the Futures or, how things tend to be too near, too far, too low or too high.
  • There are no conclusions or, why don’t you tell us how to fix the humanitarian sector?


the small print

Originally shortlisted for SFX magazine’s The Writing Dead competition last year, I tag this short story as “John Grisham with zombie subcontractors”, but feel free to disagree.

I started working at the Where Value Corporation on the same day that my first wife died. I didn’t think anything of it at the time: we hadn’t spoken directly to each other for nearly two years, and even our lawyers were sick of the sight of us.

With hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the fact that my lawyer was sick of the sight of me. I pointed out that a potent cocktail of emotional distress and legal ennui may have influenced my decision to sign on with the corporation.

“I can show you a copy of your contract,” my boss offered, “although obviously I’m under no obligation.”

“Perhaps you could read it out to me,” I suggested, “although obviously you’re under no obligation.”

As he read it out to me, my mind wandered.


My first day on the job, the day my wife died, the day my lawyer screwed me in the most lawyerly way you can imagine — well, that day was not so bad. Where Value is a great company to work for (up to a point, but we’ll get to that point a bit later): the work is rewarding, the perks are amazing, the buffet is satisfying. I was rewarded, I was amazed, I was sated.

“Glad to have you working with us,” my boss told me repeatedly, in that first week, and he meant it.

“Glad to be working with you all, Glenn,” I told him, and it was true. I thrived at Where Value: recruited into the Hypothetical Matter department, researching potential applications of dark fluid, promoted to the Chaplygin Modelling unit. I started dating my co-worker Crystal Haight, who was considerably more attractive and intelligent than my dead wife, and played non-Euclidean Ultimate Frisbee for the department in the company league.

“I think we should get married,” Crystal told me, exactly three months after we started dating.

“You think we should get married?” I responded, because for some reason I found the proposal (at least, I think it was a proposal — she was renowned for her diffidence) puzzling rather than alarming. “Wow.”

“I think we should get married,” she repeated, her conviction condensing like droplets on the side of a cool can of cola. We were married exactly three months later. My career within Where Value went from strength to strength. We had our first child exactly three months after our marriage. My career within Where Value faltered slightly due to lack of sleep. Crystal returned to work exactly three months after giving birth.

This was the point at which Glenn called me into his office for what was known internally as a Confidential. These briefings were a regular part of the life of a Where Value employee, a mixture of performance appraisal and electropsychometric auditing. Sometimes a Confidential could get quite dark, but so far mine had gone swimmingly.

I think this was mainly due to Glenn, who was the best boss I ever had, and a really genuine guy. “How are you feeling?”

“How am I feeling?” I replied, “I feel great. Great wife, great baby, great job. I mean, what else am I supposed to feel?”

“What else are you supposed to feel?”

“What else am I supposed to feel?” I didn’t understand the question. Glenn looked down at the papers on his desk, which were strictly ornamental, since Where Value was a completely paperless organisation. “Glenn, I feel great. Really. What’s this about?”

“What this is about,” sighed Glenn, “is Crystal.” He told me that, during Crystal’s maternity leave, Where Value had obtained evidence that she had been passing Where Value research findings to our competitors, in return for cold hard cryptocurrency. “The evidence is damning,” he told me. He showed me the evidence.

“Wow,” I said. It was damning.

“Did you know anything about this?” he asked.

“Did I know anything — Glenn, how can you even ask me that? I didn’t know anything about this until you presented me with this damning evidence.”

“I believe you. This room is one big lie detection facility, and right now it’s screaming into this earpiece that you’re innocent.” He took the earpiece out and put it on the desk in front of him.

“If you know if somebody’s lying, then why don’t we bring Crystal in here right now, and ask her what’s going down?” I demanded.

“We don’t want her to stop passing on our research,” Glenn admitted, “We just want her to pass on particular pieces of research.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Corporate counter-espionage. Whatever you do, don’t confront Crystal about this.”

I confronted Crystal about it that evening. She was cradling the baby monitor in her arms as if it was the baby. “How could you do this to me? To us? To Where Value Corporation?”

“The Where Value Corporation doesn’t care about us! Have you read the small print in your contract?”

“Have I read the small print in my contract? Of course not! My lawyer read it on my behalf, and signed in my absence!”

“Well maybe you should call your lawyer!”

“Not again,” I muttered after she had left, taking the baby with her. I sat in the black leather gamechair that Crystal had bought me for my birthday, visions of another expensive and protracted voyage of divorce scrolling down my mind.

“I confronted Crystal,” I admitted to Glenn the next day.

“You confronted Crystal?! Why, man, why?”

“It seemed like the right thing to do?” I offered.

Glenn put his head in his hands. “That explains why she hasn’t come to work today.”

He sent me back to work, but Crystal’s absence in the laboratory was like a dipole magnet missing from a particle accelerator. My mind was not on my work, and that’s why I failed to observe the necessary security protocols, sealed myself in the hazmat locker, and died from dark fluid poisoning early the next day.


Perhaps you remember that I told you that Where Value is a great company to work for up, to a point; it turns out that it’s a great company to work for up to the point of death.

“Wow,” I said, after Glenn had finished reading my contract, and I had realised just how badly my lawyer had screwed me. “So the life extension protocols included in my incentives package aren’t optional.”

“I’m afraid not,” said Glenn, “It’s a great offer, though. If you hadn’t died prematurely in an easily preventable industrial accident due to no fault of Where Value corporation, we would have doubled your lifespan — at minimum!”

“So what happens next?”

“Since you did in fact die prematurely &c &c, Where Value reserves the right to extract the full value of your labour.”

“I got that from the contract reading. What does that mean in practice?”

“It’s not good news, I’m afraid,” and I still believed him, because he was still the best boss I ever had, and it looked like he was going to be the only boss that I ever had ever again. “We could put you back in the lab; although, to be honest, I think team morale will really suffer, what with Crystal gone and you dead.”

“I can see that.”

“What usually happens to employees in your position is that they’re tasked with special duties. Off the books, so to speak. Dead and thus deniable.”

There’s an induction process for undead employees, but Glenn told me immediately what my first assignment was going to be. That’s why I’m sitting here now, in a darkened hotel room in another city, practising drumming my dead digits on the coffee table beside me, waiting for the door to open –

She screams when she sees me, not just because she’d already heard that I was dead, but because I look a mess. Dark fluid poisoning is no laughing matter, corruption and consumption of the flesh; and the exoskeletal armour that Where Value have provided me with is basically steampunk cosplay with a lot of gratuitous torque.

Somehow Crystal’s tremendous beauty doesn’t affect me the way it used to, nor do I feel the slightest fatherly feeling when she drops the baby. I don’t feel any fear when she scrabbles inside her jacket and comes out with a teeny tiny gun, which she waves at me like it was a cigarette lighter. My emotional landscape is a lot flatter since I died, all the hormonal ups and downs steamrollered by whatever proprietary concoction is pumping around my veins now.

The employee handbook that Where Value gave me during my induction (Welcome to your new life as a contractual zombie with Where Value!) doesn’t give you any tips on zombie etiquette. “Just be yourself,” my death coach recommended, but somehow that doesn’t work for me right now.

“Hello, Crystal,” I say as I fold myself up from the couch, although standing and speaking are a lot more difficult than I remember, “We need to talk.”

Terminal in the best sense

There’s something in the air
Or perhaps it’s in the water
Or perhaps it’s in the pale and
Trembling heart that I have torn
From my chest to plant
In the black soil before
Our house where the windows
Stare at us as if we were
Welcome but not here
Not now and not like this
Planting our hearts as deep as
Spoons and forks and knifes
Made clean by the earth
Opening its arms to us
Telling us we are the lost
Pieces it was waiting for
No matter what our house says no
Matter what the neighbours say
Behind our backs or to our
Faces turned toward the place
Where we buried our hearts
Happy that this would be
Terminal in the best sense
Somewhere to stop traveling stop
Running from the spirits that
Haunt our homeland No not our
Homeland just the land we left
To find soil not soaked
In blood and salt from below
That we might tear our hearts
Through slabs and spokes of bone
As if we were on stage asking
As if we were on our knees
Wearing bracelets of black soil
Making this land fertile not
Making this land ours but
Making ourselves this land.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:31:46

Imperial Designs

I’ve given a few talks in Belgrade this year – The Cut and Paste City and The Lonely Planet Guide to Uqbar – and most recently Imperial Designs for the Bricolage Lab series hosted at Nova Iskra. I told everybody at Bricolage that I would post notes from the talk with added links so they could follow up SO HERE WE GO.

When I first proposed this talk to Emily, I wanted to follow up on a talk I gave at Mikser House last year, after the floods in the Balkans. In that talk, I tried to talk about how we could introduce the idea of resilience to Serbia, in anticipation of future floods and other disasters. So that was the idea that appeared in the publicity notes for this talk. Unfortunately as I prepared to give the talk, I realised that it was going in a slightly different direction – not completely unrelated, but not exactly talking about the same thing. So I hope this works.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:09The quote is from Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. (Harari gave an online course based on the book on Coursera; the course is no longer running, but you can still watch the videos.) We don’t like to admit this, even to ourselves. Britain likes to think it got rid of its imperial legacy when it got rid of its colonies; Serbia likes to think it got rid of its imperial legacy when it got rid of the Ottomans and Hapsburgs. But empires have a longer shelf life than that – not least because those legacies are literally built into the world around us. In the UK, entire cities were built – paid for – by the slave trade; in Serbia, Belgrade bears the marks of both Ottoman and Hapsburg empires.

empire-strikes-back-alternative-posterIn case Slide 1 was too subtle, here’s The Empire Strikes Back again in all its poster glory. (Despite my best efforts, I am excited about the new Star Wars movie.) Because of our history, we have a romantic image of “Empire”. Empires are evil; therefore opposing empires is good. I oppose empires; therefore I am good. This version of empire is useful, even if there isn’t an actual empire to oppose. It makes it easy for us to feel like Luke Skywalker. We’ve been raised to think of empires as being inherently bad, but as Harari points out, “Since around 200 BC, most humans have lived in empires.” Empires are usually seen as a bad deal by those that are conquered, but we soon learn to live with them. Until we don’t. Remember: it’s easy to be Luke Skywalker. Nobody wants to think that they might be Darth Vader.

I_Could_Tell_You_But_Then_You_Would_Have_to_be_Destroyed_by_Me_02 Speaking of Star Wars, the X-Wing fighter appears in this patch from Kirtland Airbase in New Mexico. The original version was hit by a legion of lawyers from George Lucas’ entertainment empire, and had to be modified so it wasn’t so obviously X-wing. Lucas’ empire is a different sort of empire, an entertainment empire. During the Cold War, this sort of empire was very important, an extension of the power of the US and the USSR. That’s what lead the CIA to its ‘long leash’ policy of funding key developments in modern art in the US. These military patches were collected as part of a project by the artist Trevor Paglen, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World. The explicit violence in some of them is interesting. It’s not surprising – it’s the military, which is institutionalised violence – but the people wearing them think of themselves as good guys.

giphyThe “Nazis” comedy sketch from Episode 1 of That Mitchell and Webb Look should make all the good guys nervous. Presumably the military staff who made that patch think of themselves as the Rebels in Star Wars, the freedom fighters; but of course they are more like the Empire, complete with their own death stars. (We’re probably the Ewoks.) This is not a design error, this is what the design is supposed to do: tell your enemies that you are worse than they are. Empires in particular need to do this – to promote their own narrative at the expense of others – using violence if necessary. ‘Narratives’ aren’t just stories – stories like Star Wars – but also design. Narratives are made visible in the types of organisations that we participate in; in the build environment we move through; in the objects that we use every day.

ChandBaoriStepwell Here’s an example: the Chand Baori Stepwell in Rajasthan, built in the 8th and 9th centuries. (You can watch a video about Chand Baori, and another about stepwells, based on an article by journalist Victoria Lautman.) Stepwells were a critical part of water management, particularly in western India and other dry areas of Asia, the earliest known stepwell forms date from around 600AD. The Mughal empire encouraged stepwell construction, but the administrators British empire decided that stepwells should be replaced with pumped and piped water systems modelled on those developed in the UK – a ‘superior’ system. It was of course also a system that moved from a communal and social model of water management to a centralised model of water management – and the British loved centralised management, because it’s easier to control.

130617.twp_.laughter.01Here’s another model of water management – the Playpump, which received a lot of media attention and donor support after it was proposed in 2005. The basic idea was that kids playing on the big roundabout would pump water up from the well for the whole village. This doesn’t seem very imperial at first sight: it looks like these kids are having fun, and the village is getting water. Unfortunately it was a massive failure because it flat out didn’t work, although the Playpumps organisation is still around; if you want to know more about that failure, read this article in the Guardian and this lessons learned from the Case Foundation, and listen to this Frontline radio show on PBS. TL;DR: the Playpump didn’t work because it was designed by outsiders who didn’t understand the communities: a classic case of design imperialism. There are lots of examples just like this, where the failure is easy to see but the imperialism is more difficult to spot.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:29

About 5 years ago there was a big hoo-hah about an article called “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” by Bruce Nussbaum. Nussbaum accused people and organisations working on design that would alleviate poverty as yet another imperial effort. This depends on defining “empire” as a power relationship – an unequal power relationship, where the centre holds the power (and resources) and the periphery will benefit from those resources only when the centre decides to give it to them. At the time, there was a lot of discussion around this idea, but that discussion has died now. That’s not because it’s no longer an issue: it’s because a new imperial model, more subtle than Nussbaum’s idea, has successfully taken root, and few people in the design world even realise it.

iu1HVuHynggFTThis gif actually shows insecure nodes on the internet, but it’s a useful proxy for overall internet activity (brought to you by the Internet Census 2012). If you were born after 1990, then you were born into this empire of the world wide web; and most people in the world live under it, even if they don’t realise it. However there are actually two empires competing to design our 21st century: the first, an empire of secrecy and control; the second, one of openness and collaboration. The tension at the heart of the internet – a distributed system designed by a military-industrial complex – made them both possible. The question is, how do we know which side we’re on?


The first empire is being built mainly by supervillains. Supervillains used to look this – the Secret Society of Supervillains – which meant you could see them coming a mile away. It’s more difficult these days but, thanks to James Bond movies, it’s quite easy to tell a supervillain from their plans:

  • Developing a squadron of robot attack dogs? You’re probably a supervillain.
  • Running a fleet of drones that kill anybody you don’t like? You’re probably a supervillain.
  • Planning to control all the worlds information? You’re probably a supervillain.

It’s important to remember that supervillains don’t think that they’re supervillains. Rule number one of supervillainy: supervillains often think that they’re the good guys, or at least that their plans are for the benefit of other people.

Worldwide_NSA_signals_intelligenceI have no doubt that the intelligence agencies think that they’re the good guys, even as they intrude into our lives, but the Five Eyes programme is probably the real secret society of supervillains. The little we do know about Five Eyes, the biggest surveillance network in the world, is largely because of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers. I don’t want to talk about because it just depresses me.

refugees-smartphoneThe second empire is being built from below, in fragments. Here are some migrants recently arrived in Greece, taking photos of a map with their mobile phones. Some people think that these people can’t be that poor if they have mobile phones, and that’s a little bit right and a lot wrong. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works now. 85% of the global population is now under cellphone coverage: between 3.5 and 4 billion people now own phones, even amongst the poor; in India, the average monthly spend on phone credits is around $4. What’s interesting is that the smartphone isn’t really a phone: it’s a computer linked to the internet that also makes telephone calls.

static1.squarespace.comIt’s always worth considering this chart on mobile phone uptake from Benedict Evans – which, in an age of smartphones, is also a proxy for access to computing power – just to remind ourselves that we really have no idea what’s happening. The question is: what are all those migrants doing with all those mobile phones? They’re doing the main thing that access to this technology enables people us to do: to organise and collaborate.

Tahrir_Square_-_February_9,_2011Here’s Tahrir Square in Cairo, epicentre of the Egyptian revolution. Much of that revolution was orchestrated via the internet, but it couldn’t have succeeded if the design of Tahrir Square wasn’t perfect for political protest, as architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad pointed out in an interview: “Twenty-three streets lead to different parts of it… There isn’t one big boulevard that you can block off, and there are two bridges that lead to it as well… It’s also the case that all of downtown Cairo, which isn’t that big, has a street that leads to side or another of Tahrir Square.” Tahrir Square was built 140 years ago, based on the design of Haussmann’s Paris – an old imperial design exported to Egypt, from which the new empire now strikes back. The new imperial model is a lot more difficult to exploit, however:

ChartOfTheDay_1573_Top_10_Web_Properties_nWho controls the internet? These organisations own the internet. Also, big governments. Also, covert engineers. Definitely not you. If you’re a designer who thinks that design is solely about form, you might think Apple is more important than these companies, but that’s not really true. Google has a large say in the things we look at; Amazon over the things we buy; Facebook over the things we share. In any case the infrastructure of the empire is in the hands of a very small number of people, which we generally feel is a “bad thing”.

Tahrir_7_525_525The quote posted by these Tahrir Square protestors is from the excellent comic book V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. V is an anarchist whose political strategy doesn’t go beyond destroying the government, so the comic ends when (spoiler) he succeeds. Successfully toppling a government is not a common problem for anarchists, but who wants to read a comic about anarcho-syndicalists discussing agricultural policy? (Note: I do.) The protestors are likely to have seen the quote in the mediocre film that was based on the graphic novel, and they probably watched it on a pirate copy downloaded from the web. The dying American entertainment empire – that relic of the Cold War – has also become a transmission vehicle for very anti-imperial messages, but at the same time those messages depend on the the new internet empire for their dissemination. It’s confusing.

Book bloc shield smallV for Vendetta is basically about anarchy vs control, and so it feeds into the narrative of anybody who wants to protest authority. This sheet, illustrating a design for improvised riot protection, was shown at this year’s “Disobedient Objects” exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The exhibition examined the role of objects in movements for social change, and how political activism creates design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design. The idea of disobedient objects is an interesting one: this is homemade riot gear, designed to equalise the situation between protestors and police. They were designed in one place – based on bitter experience – and then distributed via the web to other places. The exhibition had a set of 8 instruction sheets for various objects, which you can download and make them yourselves.

WikiHouseGlobal_Village_Construction_SetHere are some more things that you can make yourself: Wikihouse and the Global Construction Set have developed blueprints for housing and farming respectively, extending the principles of open source from the intangible world of software design to the tangible world of industrial design. They draw on expert collaborations made possible by the web; the final products are distributed freely via the web on open source licenses. In fact the products are never final – because they are driven by communities, we are encouraged to adapt and update them for ourselves. These are constructive examples of how the web facilitates building the empire from below, and the vital role that design plays in that empire.

187050_183_28179_KJ9Wn56rcThe internet has made it possible not just to collaborate to bring those designs to life, but also to put those designs in the hands of people who need them, just as the technology becomes available to make them – technology such as 3D printing, one of the most exciting development in design practice in a long time.

field-ready-haiti-project-talk-at-humanitarian-innovation-conference-2015-15-638 3D printing still feels like it should be science fiction, but that medical clamp was printed by Field Ready during their pilot in Haiti, a project funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (full disclosure: I’m on the HIF grants panel). They’re experimenting right now with printing small medical devices to overcome supply chain problems.

RTEmagicC_90fe6eaf9e.jpgLooking even further ahead gives us the opportunity to imagine what the world might look like. I’m fascinated by the amount of design fiction out there, and I wonder why it’s grown so quickly in the past few years. I could give you a ton of links here, but you can do your own surfing. This is a piece of Design Fiction from the Institute For The Future: the Open Resilience Box imagines disaster relief based on free energy provided by a Tesla box, including a fabrication unit, desalination straws, wireless lightbulbs, re-purposed military robots and mesh network drones. Design fiction gives us the opportunity to think about ourselves in the future – it gives us the opportunity to imagine what we might be building today to make a better empire tomorrow.

The ReportI’m kind of a fraud: I’m not a designer, I’m a writer. This year I worked on The Report, a science fiction novella based on research into Vienna’s Smart City strategy, looking back over Vienna’s history as a source of a surprisingly large number of alternative social projects. It was commissioned as part of the 2015 Vienna Biennale; I think the Biennale organisers liked it, but it’s hard to tell. The story was partly about how ridiculous the whole Biennale concept is as a branding exercise for cities in the 21st century, using visual language to undermine that branding. The theme of the novella was similar to this talk: the continual tension between creativity and control, and the choice we might have to make between them.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:54Another quote from Yuval Harari brings us back to where we started, but with a new question to ask ourselves: given that we have no choice but to live in this empire of the internet, which empire will we choose?


During the talk I mentioned that I was planning to show video of robot dogs, but I didn’t because they freak me out. They don’t really freak me out – I think they’re astonishing feats of technology – but what they say about our attitudes towards warfare worries me. They’re being built by Boston Dynamics, who started out under military contracts from DARPA, have recently been acquired by Google X, and who post a ton of promo videos. Particularly funny is this supercut video of robots falling over.

One question raised the issue of whether our education system enables people to recognise the trap that they might be in, and give them the tools to make their own way. The short answer is no. The industrial model of education is not equipped for the 21st century, although I remain hopeful that the internet will also disrupt education as it has other sectors. At the same time I am sceptical of the impact of the most-hyped projects (such as the Khan Academy and the wide range of MOOCs) – it seems to me that we need something that learns from a wider range of educational approaches.

We also discussed whether there is an underlying philosophy to the invisible empire of the internet. I believe that there is, although it isn’t necessarily made explicit. One early artefact of this philosophy is A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace; one early analysis of aspects of it is The Californian Ideology. Evgeny Morozov is interesting on this topic, but with a pinch of salt, since in a relatively short time he has gone from incisive commentator to intellectual troll. It’s interesting that a few Silicon Valley big beasts are trained in philosophy, although to be honest this training doesn’t seem to be reflected in their actual philosophy.


Es-Tu, Charlie?

Je-suis-CharlieI’m deeply sorry for those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo and its aftermath, and for the pain of their families and friends. I have to say these things in advance of anything else I write, because – well, because those are the things you’re supposed to say. But I didn’t know any of those people, or their family, or their friends. I didn’t read their magazine, and I probably wouldn’t have read it even if I’d been in Paris. My sympathy is strictly mediated, and for public consumption.

In all honesty, I’d rather save my sympathy. I’d rather ration my outrage. I’m worried by attacks on freedom of speech, but this wasn’t an attack on freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo was completely free to publish what it wanted; the attack on freedom of speech comes now, in the aftermath, as those in power use it as an excuse to control us more deeply than ever, and people start to wonder if what they published was worth the risk.

Obviously the editor-in-chief thought so: he said so explicitly. Maybe the cleaner at his offices felt differently, or the policeman guarding him; both of them died as well. So far I’m still with Voltaire: I may not agree with what Charlie Hebdo said (or the way they said it), but I will defend to the death their right to say it. Yet I’m also with Holmes: Charlie Hebdo’s right to swing its fist ends where my nose begins – and I’m prepared to extend my Holmes a bit further.

You can swing your fist in whatever direction you want, but – for the purposes of satire, at least, for the purposes of ridicule – there’s a common expression in comedy circles: don’t punch down. Punch up, by all means: target the powerful, and the rich, and the famous; but don’t target those who don’t have the same cultural resources with which to defend themselves. I wouldn’t say this is an absolute rule, but it’s a useful rule of thumb.

So why did Charlie Hebdo punch down? Because Charlie Hebdo didn’t even realise they were punching down. They saw ISLAM in big block capitals, MILITANT ISLAM that went against the very grain of Charlie Hebdo’s secular origins in the republic; they saw the imminent threat that’s been painted by our governments and our media, the threat that is not just at our doorsteps, but cleaning our kitchens, or stirring in our banlieues.

From that perspective, ISLAM looks more powerful than it is (which is exactly what MILITANT ISLAM wants you to think) so you think you’re punching up: but of course context is everything. Context doesn’t excuse, but it does explain. Context is the detail of the picture, rather than the broad brush strokes. Context reaches into the past to pull out reasons by the root. Context spreads its arms to avoid arrogance and embrace ambiguity. Context forces us to think, and think again.

What else happened on the day that Charlie Hebdo was murdered? Well, we don’t know the exact demographics of French prisons, because the French government doesn’t keep those statistics; but if they’re the same as they were in 2008, then the prison population in France is about 60-70% Muslim. That doesn’t excuse Charlie Hebdo’s murderers; but if you don’t think it’s relevant, then you’re going to be continually surprised by the real world.

headlineImage.adapt.1460.high.1420993506639What else happened on the day that Charlie Hebdo was murdered? In Nigeria, Boko Haram finished its battle for the town of Baga: the town was burnt to the ground hundreds, maybe thousands, of its in residents killed, and the rest fled. Nobody will commemorate them outside French embassies across Europe. That doesn’t make the murder of Charlie Hebdo any less shocking; but if you aren’t equally moved by Nigerian deaths, perhaps you should ask why.

What else happened on the day that Charlie Hebdo was murdered? In 1957, the French Army took over the Battle of Algiers from the civilian police force. The battle eventually cost the lives of up to 3000 Algerians, with another 3000 missing, and the date marked the point at which torture became institutionalised in that early war on terror. That has nothing to do with the muder of Charlie Hebdo, of course, unless you think that the history of French colonialism has no relevance to power and powerlessness.


Was it MUSLIMS who killed those people in Paris? Are such broad brushstrokes very useful in understanding the situation, or remedying the problem? Or are they a convenient way of avoiding looking at the context, of wondering whether this is an imperial hangover for which there may be no cure? Invisible Arabs, like those in French prisons; invisible Muslims, like those who disappeared during the Algerian war of independence; invisible Others, like the Nigerian dead of Baga.

In some small way, I’m more afraid of publishing this than I am of criticising Islam. The Empire doesn’t treat its dissidents well, but it does it quietly; at least Al-Qaeda makes it abundantly clear what your punishment will be. If I don’t express enough solidarity, then the internet will be outraged, because context-free outrage is the currency of the internet. Still: I went to the demonstration last night in my city, stood by the signs that said Je Suis Charlie, and worried about freedom of speech.

Nothing excuses these murders. No reason is good enough for these murders. No history justifies these murders. No religion justifies these murders. No politics justifies these murders. Yet the murders had their reasons, their histories, their religion, their politics. It’s too easy to dismiss them, and it’s too easy to turn on ourselves, and we need to avoid taking those easy routes. Maybe Je Suis Charlie, but Nous Sommes Pas Charlie; and that’s our political problem, not theirs.



Horse Phantoms

A couple of months ago, I published Four Species of Ghost, a knife crime on the body of psycho-geography, in Kamenzind Beograd Issue 5. Four Species is partly an homage to Iain Sinclair, whose work has been hugely influential in how I understand the city as a work of literature, and that’s probably a little too obvious.

It’s hard to escape the shadows of your literary influences, but it’s harder to escape the consequences of poor urban planning. As you’ll gather if you read the article, Savamala is a mess; trapped between a rising river and a falling hill, it’s suffered from decades of neglect that no amount of artisanal bike repair shops can fix.

Walking in Savamala now, I feel the hot breath of the Four Horseman of Gentrication upon my neck; and first among the Horsemen is Beograd na Vodi (warning: link may contain satire), the biggest experiment in social engineering ever attempted in the Balkans. Savamala Future doesn’t look anything like how I described it in my article: in fact it looks worse.

Beograd na Vodi

This is not my beautiful house.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the billboard outside the main train station, a vision of Belgrade that looks like it’s just flown in from Dubai, and isn’t planning on staying too long. I’m sure it would be a great place to visit, but you probably wouldn’t want to live there – but then I’m not sure that the government really intends people to live there.

Large-scale urban development projects such as this speak the language of the public good, and they spend public money; but the real ambition is to attract outside investment (in this case, more Emirati money rolling into town). The problem is that the only way to do this is to wipe out what came before: the rich and ragged history of one of the oldest parts of the city.

One good thing has come out of Beograd na Vodi so far – the renovation of Geozavod, into something that looks a bit faux but is finally being put to use. Of course, that made my article outdated before it was even published; but that’s the great thing about psycho-geography. It’s not about what’s there right now, but what was and what will be. Savamala survives, for now.


Writing off Iraq

This month the White Review published my non fiction piece Every Night is like a Disco: Iraq, 2003, which only took me 11 years to write. I had it in notes, in my head, for that whole time; I always intended to write something, especially after Granta published Fly Away Home: Iraq, 1998. So why did it take so long?

I’d been writing about my working life ever since I started, cribbing from my notes, emails, reports, and anything else I could get my hands on. I’d published a couple of pieces in small magazines, and was thinking (optimistically) about pitching a full-length book, to be titled “Life in the Colony”.

After Iraq – well, after Iraq, three things happened. One was that I was filled with remorse – an attentuated strand of survivor’s guilt – and I felt that I would be trading on the lives of others. I hadn’t earned that right, not by a long shot, and the best thing to do would be to shut up. This feeling continues today, and publishing Disco was quite difficult for me.

Second was that I was angry at the humanitarian sector, and particularly the United Nations, for the abject failure of judgement that was Iraq. After working in Afghanistan, I didn’t expect much from the US and UK governments, but I had hoped that the UN had learned something. They hadn’t, and I’m not sure they’ve learned it now.

Third was that there was a snowstorm of books after Iraq, often from people who’d been in far worse situations than I, or had done far better research and reporting. Iraq became a coin in the reputational currency of the Beltway and beyond, to be traded for power and (often) sex; and I didn’t want any part of that. Aid memoirs? I felt like I needed to grow up.

The memory wouldn’t go away. It was a turning point in how I approached my work, in how I viewed the entire sector. It represented something more for me than just another story in the collection, and I never forgot those people along the airport road. Here was Iraq under a microscope; or more likely Iraq under a magnifying glass, burnt by the sun.

So this summer I sat down and wrote it in a couple of days. Long gestation, quick birth; I guess it had been writing itself in the back of my head. It was an awkward child – too long for short stories, too short for longform. I had a vague idea that The White Review, whose tastes trend extremely catholic, might want to publish it, maybe? And they did.

Now it’s out, I feel a sense of relief. I can get on with writing other things, maybe even from that same period: I have half a piece from Liberia, that same year, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short”, but who knows if I’ll ever finish it? That’s the problem with writing: you can make all the plans you want, but sometimes the words follow their own schedule.


Your Berlin is a Wonderland

Thanks to the Wonderland crew, I spent last week in Berlin touring a cross-section of the city’s most Berlin-ish urban developments. Berlin isn’t the city it was – the relentless teeth of global capital and recession angst have really started to bite in the last few years – but it retains some core values that didn’t fall with the Wall.

Those “core values” include a measured pragmatism that acknowledges that financial benefit isn’t necessarily a social good. The urban landscape (London, I’m looking at you) is increasingly scarred by borderline psychopaths who want to re-shape the city into a playground for themselves and others like them. Berlin has a stronger immune system than that.


A good example of this is a financing policy in which tenders are not granted to the lowest bid; instead a cost is set by the authorities and the most interesting proposal given the tender. Finding the money for “interesting” proposals is another thing entirely, of course – the bizarre role of Swiss pension funds in supporting alternative culture should not be under-stated.

Now obviously I’m a sucker for socially-conscious + environmentally-friendly buildings – the reason I was at Wonderlab was to represent Pametnija Zgrada – but I also retain my core personality trait of being impossible to please. My question is a simple one: does it work? That is: does it live in the real world, rather than in an urbanist’s wet dream?


The Berlin answer is: yes, but only just. Nearly all the projects we visited had benefited from investment that covered site acquisition at reasonable interest rates, so they could start making profit quickly. The inevitable & painful dilemma: alternative cultural approaches are being subsidised by extremely mainstream financial tools (and not just pension funds).

I liked all of the projects, especially ExRotaprint, which seems to get the balance Goldilocks right. Yet it was clear that these types of project don’t necessarily translate well to other contexts – definitely not to other countries (like Serbia) but probably not even to other cities in Germany. We can take inspiration from them, but probably not replicate them.


We spent the rest of our days exchanging experiences between exchanging experiences between projects, a crazy-quilt mix of different approaches to the same problem: the disconnect between people and place. As the world goes urban, this isn’t just an excuse for architects to hold workshops, but the concrete problem that’s going to shape the century.

This is mirrored by the online problem of privacy; to a large extent these twin problems are urban problems. One thing that was noticeable by its absence, then, was any discussion about the smart city – yet Berlin is geared to be a tech hub, and all of the workshop participants were all heavy technology users. I guess that discussion will have to wait until next time.


We were hosted by DAZ, whose internet leaves a lot to be desired, but whose hospitality was excellent.


(Apologies for the fully intentional John Mayer reference in title.)