Small-Batch Memories of The Unready

21 May 2017

In 1016, Æthelred The Unready died, to be replaced as King of England by the invading Cnut the Great. In 1017, Cnut married Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, and divided the kingdom into the four Earldoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. A thousand years later, names like Æthelred and Cnut sound distinctly un-English, and the world is utterly changed. The English may still fear foreigners arriving from across the Channel, but the Vikings are long gone.


Will anyone remember our stories in the year 3017, and will they too feel that we are like aliens, far removed from the reality in which they now live? Like Edward Shaddow, my mind takes a turn towards the post-apocalyptic when thinking about what life might be like a thousand years hence. I’m not optimistic about the future of humans, given our long history of dealing poorly with environmental degradation, and our utter failure to make any meaningful progress towards stopping or even slowing catastrophic climate change. But yesterday’s newCardigan Cardi Party with Cory Doctorow encouraged me to think that, perhaps, there might be some hope after all.

Cory talked about John Maynard Keynes’ prediction of a fifteen-hour working week by (- checks watch -) about now. His point was that Keyne’s was actually right - he simply didn’t predict that our desires would increase such that we are no longer satisfied with the lifestyle of a well-to-do 1930s European or American. So whilst I tend to image a kind of Tank Girl future of repression and chronic water wars, perhaps this is wide of the mark. Maybe the legacy of our times will be a warning about where hubrus and individualism can take humanity, and our much wiser descendants will live full and satisfying lives living mostly in harmony. Just without jetpacks or flying cars. The recent news that the Svalbard seed bank has already flooded as the warming climate causes permafrost to melt is yet another warning that for all our technological skills, there’s no guarantee that anything from our cultural and scientific storehouses will survive in 3017. And yet, cultural and scientific knowledge has passed down generations over long stretches of human time. Whether it’s Australian Aboriginal Star Maps, Japanese Tsunami Stones or simply family heirlooms, doing GLAM in a small and decentralised manner can be surprisingly effective.

Ubiquity and Abundance

The projects I find most exciting and intriguing - LOCKSS, IPFS, DIY squat archives, The Enspiral Network, the Internet itself - are all based on principles of decentralised networks, autonomy with connection, and local control. If I was going to wake up in a post-apocalyptic future, I’d want to be in the Enspiral kibbutz. In yesterday’s interview, Cory and Tom riffed on the idea of abundance, and the future Cory imagined in Walkaway where machines are always the best they can be, as opposed to today’s experience where “everyone has the eleventh-best drill in the world”. I like this idea, but it still feels a little bit too much like what we have today - not so much abundance, but rather ubiquity. A few years ago, every technology, business and economics writer was talking about the rise of personalisation. The idea was that with more advanced manufacturing techniques, the near future would be one where we would all order our own customised products and the mass-production system would someone manage to personalise each item to an individual consumer’s tastes. To the small extent that has come to pass, it’s a hollow sort of personalisation. What has been much more evident, at least in my First World hipster bubble, has been the rise of a sort of anti-mass production movement. From coffee to gin, vegetables to soap, “small batch” and “hand crafted” are the thing. More interestingly, whilst personalised mass production assumed that people were focussed on themselves, increasingly people are moving in the opposite direction - wanting to know who grew their coffee beans and sewed their shirt, or what kind of life the cow had before it turned into steak. It’s a sort of “shopping literacy” I suppose.

When I think of abundance, I go back to what Keynes wrote about - what he imagined as a three-hour workday but I prefer to imagine as a two-day working week. A world full of tinkerers, artists, storytellers, obsessives and bullshit artists. Sure, we’ll still need surgeons, electricians, and science laboratories, but most people could live as dilettantes - spending the majority of their time working out how to grow the most exquisite orchid, build a faster bicycle, or paint the perfect sunset. Or perhaps they will create the most thorough index, the most detailed catalogue, or simply the greatest gin ever distilled.

Small batches and long notes

Is the future of GLAM one of small-batch culture and long notes about the creator of each artefact? Will there be songlines to guide travellers between the archives? The question of what galleries, libraries, archives, and museums will look like a thousand years from now perhaps shouldn’t make us think of crystal storage that requires supercomputers to actually read, or 3D-printed Roman ruins. The important thing isn’t really the technology used or even the physical artefacts that survive - it’s the stories and lessons that are passed on. Apart from anything else, most of our current institutions are likely to be under the warm, acidic sea in a thousand years. All that will be left is stories of the people of 2017. We probably should get cracking on the world being imagined into being by groups like Enspiral, Unmonastery and Open Source Ecology because if we don't, I have a feeling I know what our descendants might call us.

The Unready.