Cornucopia
Abundance isn’t shipping containers full of stuff. (image by me, CC BY NC SA)

Last month I was at the Scifi Economics Lab, and Cory Doctorow
was one of the speakers. There was much to unpack in his talk, and he has a style of delivery that makes you want to quote a lot of things. I won’t give in to that urge, but will highlight one expression.

At some point he talked about abundance. It’s a term I’ve struggled with over the years because it’s so easy to interpret as having mountains of stuff, as per the image above. Or have everything free. A Dutch expression or rather admonition “we don’t live in the land where chickens fly into your mouth already fried” is probably an image our Calvinist culture associates with abundance: no work, but all the fruits of it. I have a sense of the meaning of abundance other than that, but never felt I had the right words to express that other perspective on abundance.

Doctorow’s metaphor for abundance was useful for me. He described back packers always having to carry a roll of toilet paper with them and that if not used it would desintegrate in your backpak, and therefore regularly needs replacement. Backpackers spent resources on replacing their toilet paper and spent mental energy on keeping an eye on still having it with them. A constant worry, and an inefficient use of resources (as you don’t use much of the toilet paper for its intended purpose, due to degradation).
Abundance then is being certain there is toilet paper when and where you need it. This is a qualitative metaphor that adds location, timing and actual need as dimensions of relevance. Abundance here is also more efficient, reduces worry, and is always there when needed. But it’s not limitless, free, or available anywhere for anything at any whim. It’s about qualitative abundance not quantitative abundance (‘heaps of free stuff’).

Hotel Room Toilet Paper Roll FoldMetaphorical Practical abundance, image by Tony Webster, license CC BY

This makes a vast number of things abundant in the society I live in, because it is there when I need it, without worry. Water, food, energy, clothing, transport, and everything else including toilet paper. (I once had a Central-Asian colleague who told me she thought, having visited, the Netherlands was totally boring because of that predictable abundance: no need to improvise anytime/anywhere.) Especially in the context of the six ways to die, abundance is an important notion, also because that abundance is often acquired by increasing the complexity of our systems. That complexity can break down.

Time, location and the context of an existing need are qualitative dimensions interesting to consider as design factors. What do you do when one or more of them are not to be counted on? Or can be counted upon, but at specific intervals? This is dealing with and designing for intermittence, as building block of both resilience and agency. That’s for another time.

Some links I thought worth reading the past few days

This week the Edgeryders OpenVillage Festival took place in Brussels, and I attended the first day. An inspiring day submerged in a diverse group of smart people, happy to engage in conversation. Some notes from a panel on infrastructures for autonomy and dynamic equilibrium of community.

The program described it as “Collaboration is more needed than ever to solve complex problems in care. Yet it can be expensive in time and energy when working outside formal grids, or on a voluntary basis, or in emotionally demanding environments. This kind of work calls for new governance structures and ways of making decisions together based on values that sometimes seem at odds – like self-management and autonomy. This session brings together people who have experience of wrestling with these issues to find an equilibrium which makes it possible for us to work together well.”

Panel members included Cindy Regalado (extreme citizen science at UCL), John Coate (of The Well fame) and Gehan Macleod (GalGael Trust, Glasgow).

Cindy Regalado talked about infrastructure maintenance for communities, and spotting when certain ingrained behaviors become a hindrance (as part of nurturing a community to autonomy). She also called attention on how different roles in a community can have different speeds (roles that are about trust building versus roles about creating tools for instance), which need to be balanced and mutually acknowledged. A specific example she mentioned were fisher villages suffering from the Mexican Gulf oil spill, and how they built their own tools to document and track the damage to their environment, e.g. with DIY aerial photography. This has turned into a larger stack of open source tools for citizen science at PublicLab.

John Coate described his early experiences in building group cohesion, and later as part of The Well. He said to put values first (also because in his first group living in a bus, ‘we didn’t have many skills’ so ‘all we could do was sit down and talk’). From a group’s values you can then engage, being clear on those values, without preaching them. When starting to work with people don’t set too many preconditions, other than what are real deal breakers for you, such as resorting to violence.

Gehan Macleod added a notion, that stuck with me, that in networks/group having a power literacy is more important than leadership. The term literacy is a ‘hook’ for me, as it is also how e.g. Howard Rheingold talks about online interaction, and how I adapted that to how I think about Making as well, and agency in general. Literacy is a sum of a skill and a community, where the skill itself is not of much use on its own. Reading/writing is somewhat useful on if you’re the only one with that skill, but comes into its own when a community has those skills. For me agency is also located not just in the individual but in the set of relationships of an individual and the groups an individual is part of. Gehan Macleod with her remark put thinking about power in that same context, and thus adds it to the list of things I can think of in terms of how to encourage agency.