July 12, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 12th 2021 Edition

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June 27, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations by André Spicer

Rather than the usual books, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations is a paper by André Spicer. Normally it'd be something to include in the Interesting Things on the Internet... editions, but there were too many nuggets to quote so I figured it warranted its own post.

As ever, remember to heed Laurie Anderson's advice: "Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it."

Page 2

In this paper, I claim bullshitting is a social practice. I will argue that in particular speech communities people are encouraged to play the language game of bullshit-ting, and when it is played well it can bolster their identity. Under certain conditions, bullshitting is relatively harmless and can even be beneficial. But bullshitting can quickly spiral out of control and take over an entire organization or industry.

Page 3

While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth (Bok, 1978), bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’, Frankfurt writes.


Cohen pointed out that sometimes ‘the shit wears the trousers’ (p. 324). Instead of focusing on the bullshitter’s inten-tions, he argues, we should look at the structure of bullshit. Cohen goes on to identify ‘unclarifiable unclarity’ as the key feature of bullshit (p. 333). These are statements which are unclear (‘unclarity’) but for which there are no procedures to make it clear (‘unclarifiable’). A bullshit state-ment is ‘not only obscure but cannot be rendered unobscured’. Furthermore, ‘any apparent success in rendering it unobscured secretes something that isn’t recognizable as a version of what was said’

Page 4

A lie is a statement which the liar believes to be false but they present as if it is true, often with intentions of deceit (Bok, 1978). In contrast, bullshit is not presented as if it were true and the intention behind it is not always outright deception. This distinction is captured by Frankfurt (2005) who argues that a liar is concerned about the truth, but attempts to replace it with falsehood. In contrast, the bullshitter is unconcerned with the truth and speaks with no reference to it. The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods

Boris Johnson is a bullshitter, not a liar.

Page 5

Littrell and colleagues (2020) found that bullshitters tend to have lower cogni-tive ability, be less honest, less open-minded, have lower feelings of self-worth and a higher tendency for self-enhancement. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socio-economic background (Jerrim etal., 2019).

Page 9

A second sub-sector with a significant concentra-tion of bullshit merchants is the ‘entrepreneur-ship industry’ (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017). This is the cluster of mentors, (pseudo-)entrepreneurs and thought leaders who push poorly evidenced, misleading and seductive ideas about entrepre-neurship. Often their target is so-called ‘wantre-preneurs’ (Verbruggen & de Vos, 2019). In some cases, these ideas have been found to encourage vulnerable young people to adopt what are seductive but empty and misleading ideas about entrepreneurial success.


A second aspect of a speech community which can foster bullshitting is noisy ignorance. This is when actors lack knowledge about an issue yet still feel compelled to talk about it.

This reminds me of so many "digital and creative" strategy discussions in the city.

Page 10

When an actor is relatively ignorant about an issue, they do not have the wider back-ground knowledge in order to compare new claims. Nor do they have an understanding of the right questions they might ask. This means they rely on relatively crude understandings of an issue yet tend to be much more certain than an expert would be (Raab, Fernbach, & Sloman, 2019).

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don’t know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowl-edge or understanding.

Page 13

For instance, following the financial crisis of 2008, senior executives of some of Britain’s largest banks were asked to testify in front of a committee of the UK Parliament. When the bankers were quizzed about their responsibility for the crisis, many responded with evasive bullshit. They expressed regret, claimed they had already apologized and shifted blame to others (Tourish & Hargie, 2012). This evasion had a game-like quality. The inquisitors kept asking questions aimed at establishing the veracity of claims while the bankers continued to avoid the questions. This points to a significant chal-lenge for people calling bullshit: the effort they need to put in to refute bullshit is often of an order of magnitude greater than what is required to produce the bullshit in the first place (Brandolini, 2014).

Page 19

Finally, bullshit can become sacrilized when it is legitimated by wider institutions. This hap-pens when meaningless terms are embedded within commonly accepted practices, rules and cognitive schemes. When this happens, what was previously bullshitting within a particular organization can begin to seem like something which is inevitable and highly valuable across an entire field. For instance, within the cultural sector in the United Kingdom, a wide range of empty terms such as ‘creativity’ began to be used by actors in increasingly reverential terms (Belfiore, 2009). When this happened the idea of creativity began to be treated as a sacred value.


For instance, a participant in a meeting may resist being swept up in a presentation filled with manage-ment buzzwords and ask for precise under-standings of how this will work operationally. When this happens, resolute disbelief can become a significant barrier to ongoing bullshit-ting.


When bullshitting becomes part of the rou-tine processes in an organization, it is more likely to be undermined through de-routiniza-tion. One way this happens is through unlearn-ing. This occurs when actors consciously question the bullshit they use in an unthinking way. For instance, if a management buzzword is identified as bullshit, actors have to consciously reflect on their language and find alternatives. A second way routine bullshitting can be under-mined is through anticipatory defence. This means actors who expect bullshitting will put in place prophylactic measures to protect them-selves.

Page 20

As well as undermining routinized bullshit-ting, actors can question bullshit which has been integrated into the formal structures of an organization. This happens through the process of de-formalization where what appeared as legitimate organizational processes are shown to be illegitimate. One way this process can occur is through theorizing. This is when claims which appear to have a rational gloss are sub-jected to deeper and more searching inquiry by experts. For instance, overblown claims about the effectiveness of a management technique may be deflated through careful empirical tracking of actual impacts. A second way bullshit can be deformalized is through de-sanctioning. This can occur when people in for-mal positions of leadership ‘call out’ bullshit in an organization and question its use. When this happens, organizational members are less likely to routinely bullshit. Finally, bullshit can be deformalized through public repudiation. This happens when an organization as a whole com-mits itself to avoiding management jargon, unnecessary acronyms and other forms of busi-ness bullshit.

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June 20, 2021

Can't Buy Me Innovation

A few months back, the Government announced its plans for some big, grand capital-I innovation programme that they'd like to invent the next Internet or something.

It's the sort of thing that in theory I'd be very interested in, but I've learned to mostly ignore such developments. I'm pretty confident that it'll achieve little beyond wasting huge amounts of public money. That's a genuine shame, but I think the best way to deal with that is to build an alternative approach that makes it obsolete. So that's where I'm focusing my efforts.

However, since Laura James pointed at this excellent blog post on ARIA (the name of the Government's initiative) from Nick Hunn, and Rachel Coldicutt live-tweeted a thread about Dominic Cummings' appearance at the Science and Technology Committee talking about ARIA, some thoughts about it have been rattling round my head. Let's see if I can get them out and into this post.

Nick's blog post does an excellent job of explaining the cultural problems with the UK R&D funding landscape, which won't be solved by throwing more money at it:

The people who put together the scoring schemes for our current development grants would run screaming from the room at the prospect of a mere 20% success rate, as would almost every civil servant. This is despite the fact that the real success rate of current grants, at least in terms of game-changing innovation, barely registers. The people administering them have invented some very novel scoring criteria which make them look as if they are successful, but that is probably the most innovative thing which has come out of them.

I think part of the problem is that they don't know what they want to "buy", beyond "innovation". And the problem with that is that it isn't something you can buy. When asked what they did today nobody replies "I innovated", it's "I wondered what would happen if..." or "I thought it would be interesting to try...".

Those doing the work, and potentially innovating, are too close to the work to make the call. Is anything I do innovation? Either it almost all is, or hardly any.

The ur-example of this sort of approach is always DARPA. The difference there is that they weren't buying "innovation", they were buying "new defence technology". That's actual things rather than a vague concept. I think that's a key improvement that could be made to the UK approach: not defence spending, but spending on things that Government wants or needs. That will mean that:

  • You'll have an idea of if you succeeded or not. Failures are okay, and this way at least you'll know if you've had any!
  • Some level of commercialisation is likely to have taken place.

Maybe I'm just arguing for the cash to be given to the SBRI (the Small Business Research Initiative, which funds R&D from small businesses responding to challenges from Government). That'd be more useful than many of the other options. The problem then becomes one of generating the ambitious, interesting ideas of what to buy, which is likely to be just as susceptible to capture by those good at networking and navigating bureaucracy. We'd surface more of the failures though, which you'd hope would provide more of a corrective feedback loop than the present system.

Moving onto Dominic Cummings, lots of discussion has been about his love of "weirdos and misfits". While I agree that he'd be a poor arbiter of weirdos and misfits, I think that a diverse and alternative group of misfits and weirdos would be a good way to increase the variety in areas explored.

Cummings mentions Bell Labs, and as Making Art Work documents, that did enable a bunch of interesting art and tech crossovers.

One of the replies to Rachel's thread makes the important point that "weirdos and misfits" mustn't be conflated with the myth of the lone genius. Definitely. This is a place for Brian Eno's scenius.

Or for a different collective approach, we could look to The Lucas Plan. They got so close in the 1970s(!) to pursuing a bunch of technologies that we could really have benefited from now; think what they could have achieved with backing and funding.

If you find the right sort of weirdos and misfits then the hardest part is going to be persuading them to take the funding. Anyone doing something interesting and different is going to have encountered, and been failed by, the existing system. The independence to follow your own interests, hunches and research is not given up lightly.

The DoES Liverpool community is a good example of the sort of scenius and cross-pollination of ideas between misfits and weirdos, with interests in IoT, plastics recycling, CNC tools, knitting, civic software, biomaterials, and more, plus permutations and combinations of all of them. With no funding in its decade of operating, and despite a much broader remit than just innovation, it runs rings around other innovation hubs funded to the tune of double-digit millions.

That's not to say that we couldn't do more if we were generously funded. We could have more space, and more equipment, and members of the community could be paid to follow their interests full time rather than having to balance that with other work to pay the bills. But it's the people, not the money, that's the important differentiator.

Another of the replies in Rachel's thread summed it up nicely: "the really radical answer is a living wage UBI". Let people follow their interests, that will unlock more "innovation" than any Government quango (or private corporation, for that matter).

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June 06, 2021

East Liverpool Loop Cycle Ride

I do a lot of cycling these days—partly because it's my sole means of transport, but mostly because it's fun—but don't write about it much. Not here at least.

I see from my blog post at the start that it's been over five years that I've been marking my #InTheSaddle rides. I have no idea how many there've been though, because Instagram has no interest in my interest in my photos; and the set of embedded posts that they've broken on that blog post reinforces how they're web-hostile and is one of the reasons I'll be leaving them soon. I should really have known better, but it's never too late to make the change.

Anyway, this isn't the post about why Instagram are terrible, you've all got that to look forward to when I find time to write it. This is about sharing a nice ride that I've found of late.

Every other Friday, Peloton Liverpool (not the exercise-bike startup, this is a local bike coop doing lots of good bike-related activity in the city) run a social group ride after work. It's great fun—a real mix of people and abilities; they can lend you a bike if you need one; the pace is pretty relaxed; and you can be as chatty and sociable as you want (or just keep yourself to yourself and get some exercise).

We do somewhere between 15 and 25 miles, over a few hours. I've started tracking the routes and adding them to this map of Peloton Rides.

Recently I was wondering if I could find a suitable route for us taking in my regular ride through Croxteth Hall and the Stocksbridge Village and Gellings Lane greenways. They're part of the route I've been doing for years, to get out into the countryside and across to Rainford to visit my parents and sister. It'd be nice to get out onto the Coach Road, but there's not a good way to loop back from there.

The National Cycle Network actually has a route from Knowsley Industrial Estate through Kirkby and over to Fazakerley. I knew how to get onto the Loop Line from there, although my routes around there tend to either involve a section on a major road and/or a gated look-both-ways-to-check-for-trains crossing over the railway. Neither of which would work well for a group ride!

I've found a better route through Fazakerley, and have reccied it a couple of times now (the first time, I got caught in a hailstorm and then torrential downpour), and last Sunday got a decent GPS trace and not a terrible timelapse video to give a feel for it.

It's the gold track on this map of some of my routes shows the route. It's about 17 miles in total. Ice-cream at the top of Everton Brow overlooking the city is optional, but recommended.

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May 31, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 31st 2021 Edition

  • Ideas on a lower-carbon internet through scheduled downloads and Quality of Service requests. Interesting thoughts on time-shifting Internet usage, from Sam Foster. I think the big challenge is working out the user interface—that's not quite the right term, but how the concept is communicated to people, and how they schedule things or indicate preferences. There have been an assortment of QoS attempts at the network layer in the past, but none have made things stick because the just-add-more-bandwidth simplicity wins out. That said, I do just time-shift my BBC 6Music listening, so could quite easily schedule that to download in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe there could be an extension/replacement for cron that picks a low-carbon-intensity time to run its tasks?
  • Giving consent. A useful description of sociocracy, which is (very broadly) governing by consensus. I don't think we're too far from this sort of approach with DoES Liverpool, so maybe worth a closer look.
  • The Great Online Game. Lots of this rings true, and at times I hope there's a way we can weave a collective, social story through this, in place of the individualistic, personal-wealth-as-end-goal, burn-the-world-for-crypto alternative.

And this short video is excellent. If worrying.

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May 17, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 17th 2021 Edition

  • What Would Open Source Look Like If It Were Healthy? An excellent set of what-ifs, or hopefully, a set of "look, let's head in this direction" stories about how to help open source communities, from Sumana Harihareswara. I aspire to being able to craft things like this.
  • The cage. A great piece from Jeremy Keith about algorithms and tech. "It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down." Me too, me too.
  • The Memex Method. Cory Doctorow on how his blog helps his other work. That's so true.
  • The Real Development was the Friends We Made Along the Way. A profile of Albert Hirschman and his ideas on economic development. Although he was thinking of countries in the Global South, there's lots to like and apply in smaller scales in the North.

This week's RSS additions (see aboutfeeds.com if you don't know what RSS is, RSS is how I find most of these Interesting Things...):

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May 06, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Lucas Plan by Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott

I've had an interest in the Lucas Plan for a few years now. Recently, Ross lent me a copy of The Lucas Plan book, written by Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott.

It was published in 1982, at the tail-end of the Lucas Plan work. It's a really interesting look at (a) how the workers might have shifted their work into technologies that we could really do with right now; (b) how difficult that is when faced with the power of management, union hierarchy and the government (both Labour and Tory); and the challenges of growing initiatives to do manufacturing differently.

As someone deeply involved in taking a similar approach in growing makerspaces and the maker movement, it's equal parts heartening (others have walked a similar path before, and there are lessons to learn) and dispiriting (they achieved so much and still had such a small impact when pitted against the immense power of the status quo).

We are doing things differently—there's no focus on maximising employment, instead we're more interested in owning the machines—but the climate crisis is now an immediate rather than future threat. I got a lot out of reading this.

For a more modern, and visual, look at the project, check out The Plan that came from the bottom up, a documentary that was released a couple of years ago.

Now on to my dog-eared pages from reading the book...

Page 7

In their quarterly newspaper, Combine News, they put their case like this:

Many of our members have deep reservations about nationalization. Indeed, the Combine's central concern is job security and a work situation in which our members can utilize fully their skill and ability in the interests of the community. Only in so far as nationalization could provide these things is it of any interest to the Combine.

Page 8

Mick Cooney, an AUEW steward from Burnley argued:

[...]If we are going to sit back and leave it to the politicians to carry on, then, well, we deserve everything we get.

Page 10

The executive of the Combine Committee selected and developed five categories of proposals: medical equipment; transport vehicles and components; improved braking systems; energy products and devices for undersea work. The criteria of social usefulness referred not only to products but to the production process itself. Thus the plan proposed production processes which would tend to conserve and recycle energy and materials rather than waste them, and would liberate rather than suppress human creativity. The shop stewards believed that any move towards industrial democracy would be a sham unless the nature of the labour process itself was changed.

Page 31

In aerospace, up to the mid-1970s at least, close contact between designers and shop-floor workers was normal: shop-floor workers trying out and suggesting modifications to designs which they would then discuss with the technical workers from the design office. Their skills are very different; the designers' skill involves the ability to specify measurements in mathematical terms, whereas the fitters' or welders' skills involve the ability to make very precise judgements on the basis of more tacit understanding built up from experience. Through their work together they tend to respect the differences. It is not surprising then that the first combine committee which from its origins brought together office workers and shop-floor workers should be in the aerospace industry.

Page 34

The trade unions at the Willesden site prided themselves on always being one step ahead of management. They had even established a tradition whereby the shop stewards would meet every Monday to decide on "the stir" for the week. They calculated that the only way to keep the initiative over the personnel manager was to start something themselves. The same philosophy led them to take the initiative in forming the combine. As soon as they heard rumours of Lucas having secret talks with the IRC about the takeover of the special products group of English Electric (EE) they made contact with the shop stewards at the factories involved. The result was a joint meeting on 13 December 1969, less than a month after takeover negotiations were complete. This was the first meeting of what became the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee.

Page 44

The Birmingham affiliations to the Combine Committee were quickly followed by the affiliations of the majority of unions at the two Lucas Aerospace sites on Merseyside: the Victor Works in Liverpool and the ex-English Electric plant at Netherton.

Page 54
Some enlightened and all-too-rare understanding of where they should and (more importantly) shouldn't expand their interests, despite opportunities.

In the eyes of many trade unionists, the sign that a trade-union organization has "made it" is to take a formal, recognized part in negotiations with management. The reasons for this are obvious. In many ways negotiation, collective bargaining, is what trade unionism is essentially about. It is through collective bargaining that trade-union power is finally cashed. There is a tendency therefore for trade unionists to assume that a new trade-union organization, created to fill a serious gap in the established trade-union structures, will inevitably become, and should intend to become, a new formally recognized negotiating body. Combine delegates saw several problems with this, concerning the desirability of permanent, institutionalized national corporate bargaining.

Their fear was that corporate bargaining would lead to an over-centralized committee whose members would become out of touch with shop-floor feeling and therefore shop-floor power. They saw the danger of the autonomy and therefore the strength of site-level organizations being sapped by an overbearing national committee. Dick Skelland, a GMWU steward from Liverpool, explained the importance of this issue: "This question of the autonomy of the sites was the most controversial issue...After all, shop stewards felt that the national union officials were already taking away a lot of their power. The last thing they wanted was a combine committee taking it away too."

Page 62
Getting strong makerspace-weeknotes-or-newsletter vibes here...

By all accounts Combine News sold well at the sites. Nevertheless, there were problems in getting news in from plants, which led to criticism. From Wolverhampton, for instance:

There's not enough sent into Combine News by the rank and file. Liaison with the Combine executive isn't good enough...We need more of a letters page. We should have more stories.

Page 73

In theory perhaps an organization should not depend on individuals but in the creation of new organizations, against the inertia of established relationships, the networks of trust and understanding built up by individuals with a vision of the new possibilities are vital. These relationships are also precarious, so that if the committed individuals leave and no new institution has been established, the whole network which is a foundation of the new organization can virtually collapse.

Page 75

While management was licking the wounds of defeat, the Combine were not satisfied that they had found an adequate strategy to resist the destruction of jobs. The fact that they had stalled management's plans and in doing so developed a united organization were achievements to be proud of. But 300 jobs had gone, through volunteers and early retirement, and more would undoubtedly soon go the same way. The problem was not lack of orders: order books had been full even as the redundancies were being announced. Reports from all the sites even indicated that the company was pressing for widespread overtime and was sub-contracting a large volume of work. The job loss was rather the consequence of management's restructuring of both its production process—towards longer production runs, more computer-controlled machines—and its investment in other European countries and the United States. The Combine discussed these tendencies. They believed they were confronting a new form of unemployment against which the traditional tactics of the trade-union movement had, in their own experience (the Willesden occupation and the recent campaign), proved to be inadequate. It was this kind of thinking which led a year or so later to their Corporate Plan.

Page 83

The Combine executive expressed its view in an article which initiated a debate about nationalization throughout the membership by arguing:

[...]We could insist that the skill talents of our members could be used on a whole range of ancillary products which the aircraft industry would be quite capable of handling. We could reduce the nagging insecurity which has overshadowed the industry for years, and start to give to the workforce in it a real sense of direction and purpose. We could begin to expand the product ranges the industry handles, to engage on socially useful products, such as monorails and hovercraft. We would be in a better position to create an industry where the skill and talent of our members used to the full, and in a much truer sense, is used in the interest of the nation as a whole. It would be at least a step in the right direction.

Page 91

Lucas's experience with various types of small conventional power packs (used in aircraft) and fuel cells (used in spacecraft) could be put to a wide range of uses. So too could its knowledge of heat-pump technology. The Combine also felt that some of the expertise associated with aircraft blind-landing systems might prove relevant to the provision of sight substitution aids for the blind.

Page 92

There are periods when the arms industry is the source of major technological advances and consequently a dynamic force within the economy. It could be argued that this was the case in the United States and Britain in the 1940s and '50s. But the conservatism of government defence departments and the armed forces on the demand side and the intense competition between a small number of prime contractors on the supply side produced an approach to technological change which holds back radical innovation. This combination of competing suppliers for a monopolistic and traditionalist customer has for the last decade or so led to "trend innovation" rather than the more fundamental "product or process innovation". The race between the prime contractors is often a race to elaborate on the weapon systems first designed in the 1940s and '50s. Several writers on the arms industry have called this "baroque" technology. Mary Kaldor describes this as consisting "largely of improvements to a given set of performance characteristics. Submarines are faster, quieter, bigger, and have longer ranges. Aircraft have greater speed, more powerful thrust and bigger pay loads..." Morris Janowitze describes the routinization of innovation in the military establishment, which lies behind "baroque" technology in the armaments industry, as "a form, though a modified one, of technological conservatism. Whether the problem is missiles or manpower, planning towards the future tends to be a perfection of trends rather than an imaginative emphasis on revolutionary development."

Page 94

In fact at several sites, Burnley, Bradford and Luton, most of the initial ideas came from the shop floor; technical workers would often follow up these ideas by looking through technical journals for background information. In two cases local connections between the workforce and a local hospital or home for disabled people was an important stimulus. For instance, at the Wolverhampton site there had been a long connection between a nearby handicapped children's centre and a charity club based in the factory. In 1966 one of the apprentices in the factory designed a vehicle which could be used by children at the centre suffering from spina bifida. He was able to mould the back of the cast to suit the shape of the child's back. The "Hobcart", as it was called, could have made a huge difference to the lives of these children had it been developed and manufactured on a larger scale. Lucas would not consider it, even though the Australian Spina Bifida Association placed a large order. The apprentice, Mike Parry-Evans, did not at the time consider it was worthwhile to press the project on Lucas.

In the end the cart was made, with meagre resources and without the further development needed, at a borstal. This was just the kind of product which could be pressed for through the Combine's Corporate Plan. So, although Mike Parry-Evans was in the United States his colleagues suggested that the Hobcart should be one of the proposals for the Plan.

Page 98

[...] the Combine's objectives are to fight for secure, useful and dignified jobs for all those who work at Lucas Aerospace; to create such jobs for those whose skills and energies are at present wasted; to establish training facilities for such jobs for youth and women who at present have limited access to skilled jobs; and to make products which help to solve rather than to exacerbate human problems.

Page 107

At first the meaning given to the term "socially useful production" tended to be intuitive and implicit. As with many aspects of the Plan, the definitions and theories emerged from discussion of the practice and experience rather than the other way round. As the discussion developed Combine Committee delegates spelt out one approximate definition of a socially useful product.

  • The product must not waste energy and raw materials, neither in its manufacture nor in its use.
  • The product must be capable of being produced in a labour intensive manner so as not to give rise to structural unemployment.
  • The product must lend itself to organizational forms within production which are non-alienating, and without authoritarian giving of orders. Instead, the work should be organized so as to link practical and theoretical tasks and allow for human creativity and enthusiasm.

Page 108

The Combine Committee were not trying to lay down the law as to what was socially useful and what was not. However, the implication was that the basis on which choices are made at present about products and resources is no less arbitrary. The Lucas stewards illustrated that the present way in which product choices are made and market power is distributed leads to social needs going unmet, even when there are the resources to meet them. Options are closed off which are both technologically feasible and socially desirable. Consider for example the Combine's proposal for a hybrid vehicle. The technology for it has been known for decades. The need for it has existed for even longer. People would very likely have been buying it, had they had the option. The problem is they would not have been buying it in sufficient numbers for it to be profitable for the mass-production giant car firms to make the extra investment required. And the car industry is such that the giant mass-production firms determine the options which we face on the market. Until the energy crisis possibly makes the hybrid vehicle profitable for the major corporations, this option of a non-polluting town car is not available on the "free" market.

Page 109

On employee development, the Combine points out that there is no indication that the company is working on an adequate programme of apprenticeships and the intake of young people. It adds: "the company is making no attempt to employ women in technical jobs and, apart from the recruitment of these from outside, there are very many women doing routine jobs well below their existing capabilities. Quite apart from the desirability of countering these discriminating practices, the employment of women in the male-dominated areas would have an important "humanizing" effect on science and technology." It concludes: "it is our view that the entire workforce, including semi-skilled and skilled workers are capable of retraining for jobs which would greatly extend the range of work they could undertake."

Page 137

Copies [of the market survey for heatpumps] were handed out to the trade-union representatives as part of the back-up material for the New Products Committee. Management made no comments on it. Nevertheless they had signed it, implying they had read it. Danny Conroy, a trade-union representative on the committee took it home to read:

"It was a big thick document, but if you bothered to read it as I did, it predicted a (European) market for heat pumps of £1000M by 1985 at 1975 prices. I took it into work the next day and when we challenged management—who were always saying they didn't see a future for heat pumps—you could see by their faces that they hadn't read the document. And they didn't expect us to read it."

The Burnley stewards made a lot of this incident. It illustrated to them an important point about the Corporate Plan. Terry Moran explains:

"It vindicated our proposal to create jobs by making the heat pump. It showed there was a massive demand for heat pumps. In this way it also showed that advance thinking comes best from the people on the shop floor who are concerned about their jobs and about their country, rather than about how to get the easiest profits. There would probably not have been a profit in the short term with the heat pump. But they would have provided jobs and exports and in the long run it would have been commercially viable."

The shop stewards at Burnley certainly won the propaganda war over the heat pump. Meanwhile the prototype was being built at Burnley based on the specification produced by ERG. The machinist and fitter evidently became very involved in the project and the practical interaction among the members of the Burnley team was very much alon the lines encouraged in the Corporate Plan, i.e. an "integrated project team" of blue- and white-collar workers.

Page 138

It would be more sensible, as the stewards recognized, to use a larger, cheaper mass-produced car engine for a unit suited to providing heat for a group of homes.

Page 139

The Combine in fact suggested that heat-pump production would be ideal for creating work for the Liverpool workforce following the 1978 redundancy threat; a detailed plan for a new production unit was even developed.

Page 154

The oil crisis meant that all kinds of official bodies, from transnational corporations through government departments to the Royal Family, became interested in alternative energy technologies. This interest from the establishment raised all the political questions of control over technological change which are often ignored in a movement united around technological forms. The Lucas Aerospace workers took this questioning further by taking several alternative technology ideas out of the realms of apolitical utopias. By using and modifying alternative technologies in their resistance to redundancies, the Lucas stewards were showing how the design of technologies and the choice of technologies involves bitter struggles over power, not simply over different technical "fixes".

Some parts of the AT [Alternative Technology] movement had in fact already begun to realize that the key issue was not so much the hardware itself as the politics of production, distribution and control. An editor of the radical AT magazine Undercurrents gave an indication of the thinking going on:

Small may be beautiful, but is small fascism beautiful? It is quite possible to envisage a future society in which widespread use is made of wind energy, methane, organic farming, geodesic domes, and all the other alternative technology clichés, but which is thoroughly repressive in a social, political and cultural sense.

The emphasis within the AT movement had been gradually moving away from individual "self-sufficiency" in remote communes and towards "community-scaled technology", i.e. technologies suited to more conventional living situations. There was also a shift of interest taking place from "the technology of consumption to the organization of production".

Page 164

[A group of women from a factory earmarked for closure] travelled nearly eight hundred miles to hear a talk that Terry Moran from Burnley and Mike Cooley from Willesden were giving near Stockholm. Soon after they had returned to Skelleften they and their colleagues started to draw up their own alternative plan for protective and utility clothing as a basis for their campaign to keep the factory open. They did this in a very direct, some might say naive, way. They contacted wood-choppers, slaughterhouse workers, steelworkers, miners and hospital workers asking them what kind of special clothing they needed. At first people laughed. The Algot Nord women talked to them, explaining what they were trying to do, and soon they were convinced. As a result the women received detailed replies from thirty-seven sources. Their campaign was only partially successful. They failed to make the government (the textile industry is nationalized in Sweden) keep the factory open itself, but at least they were given the factory and an initial grant to start a co-operative. All the twenty or so women who had fought so hard kept their jobs; the co-operative is still going and slowly expanding to this day.

Page 166

Moreover their questioning of the direction of this "progress" arose from within the very process of making these wheels [of progress] go round. They consequently are able to see the other directions in which the wheels can go; and the ways they can be redesigned. So their questioning of the glib optimism of the conventional views of progress was not fatalistic. It could help directly to mobilize for change.

Page 176

You would have thought that by now a Labour government and TUC who were serious about their Industrial Strategy, based as it was on job creation and the involvement of trade unions in strategic planning, would have got round a table with the authors of the Corporate Plan to discuss the problems of implementing it.


These are just some points that could have been discussed, had there been an ounce of determination to get something done.


One indication of the close relations between the Department of Industry and Lucas is an easy interchange of leading personnel from the department to the company and vice versa. In 1978 John Williams, deputy chairman of Lucas Aerospace, was seconded to work as the right-hand man to the chairman of the NEB, with special responsibility for [the nationalized] British Leyland (incidentally a major customer of Lucas Industries). More significant, though, were the movements of Sir Anthony Part, who until June 1976 was Permanent Secretary at the Department of Industry. In an interview with The Director in January 1975 Part mentioned that he wished to go into industry or commerce when he retired from the Civil Service. The Director thought this might at first be difficult:

Unfortunately there are complications here, owing to the Civil Service rules about retired top bureaucrats going into firms with which they have had official dealings...it doesn't look as if there'll be many firms which don't fall into that category for Sir Anthony Part.

Certainly, Lucas did not fall into that category. As Permanent Secretary, Part would have had contact with Lucas at least since the Department of Industry in 1969 gave Lucas £3 million to carry out the initial rationalization of the Aerospace components industry in 1969. But this kind of complication did not slow Part down in the rapid fulfilment of his desire to be an industrial baron. By October 1976, three months after leaving the Department of Industry, he took up his seat on the Board of Directors of Lucas Industries.

Page 184

On 20 March, four days after the announcement [of plant closures], a meeting was held between [Lucas' General Manager] James Blyth and Ken Gill [General Secretary of the largest union in Lucas Aerospace] in the New Ambassadors Hotel. What exactly went on there or in any of the subsequent private meetings we will never known, and neither did the Combine Committee or any "lay representatives" at the time. Gill never told the Combine or any TASS representative in Lucas Aerospace of the meeting. Whatever the detailed discussion, three months later, on 12 June 1978, Gerald Kaufman announced a deal whereby Lucas was given £6 million to build a new factory to retain 500 of the original 1,400-strong workforce in Liverpool. In the year of a possible general election, a year when unemployment was over 12 per cent in Liverpool, a year when the government was allowing British Leyland to close a five-year-old factory in the Speke estate of Liverpool, it was important for Kaufman to be seen to be doing something to soften the blow of a highly publicized closure on Merseyside. And the emphasis certainly was on being seen. The announcement came in answer to a "planted" question from Sir Harold Wilson about unemployment in Liverpool.** In the announcement the emphasis was on the company "opening the new factory". It did not mention the fact that the 500 "new" jobs were far outweighed by the loss of 950 jobs. The shop stewards at Liverpool distributed a leaflet which gave a more accurate impression:

If the company had gone to the Industry Minister and said, "We wish to take 950 jobs away from Merseyside, please give us £6 million," the answer would have been swift, rude and to the point. They now seem to be achieving the same end by the simple ploy of first declaring a complete closure with the loss of 1,450 jobs, and then allowing themselves to be persuaded to relent by the offer of what is believed to be a £6 million subsidy towards a new £10.5 million plant employing only 500 people. The factory is supposed to be for machining work only, that is a factory without a product, a superior jobbing shop.

** The site for the new factory is Wilson Road, Huyton.

Page 190

Some of the [assembled for tri-partite discussions between workers, management and Government] fourteen-man committee's alternatives were for immediate implementation. But the shop stewards' brief was also to suggest alternatives that would provide jobs with a long-term future, and jobs which would not be saved at the cost of jobs in other plants or companies. The report suggested products for Liverpool which could have given these works a secure future, and could have even led to the creation of new jobs. These products included the GG 220 gas turbine for which Lucas had recently refused to accept orders; fuel control systems; coal-fuelled gas turbines; coal combustion fluidized beds; and the full-scale production of the heat pump, for which there was already a prototype at Burnley. For each of these products there were wider social arguments and evidence of new markets as well as the case for job creation. The two types of turbines proposed were especially economical in their fuel consumption. And the heat pump, as we have seen, provides a particularly cheap form of domestic heating.

These products would take some time to establish at Liverpool. In the meantime, Liverpool could produce kidney machines, for which the Victor works were easily adaptable and for which there was a clear social need. A section of the report went into detail about the kind of kidney machine which medical experts considered to be most beneficial to patients. In connection with all these products the Lucas stewards made contact with workers producing similar products in other companies to work on a more co-ordinated strategy of workers' plans to avoid workers' proposals for one company putting workers in another out of work.

Page 191

It seems that serious bargaining was not the purpose of the tripartite meeting. The Department of Industry had a prepared package which the national union officials were ready to accept. The Department of Industry's proposal involved giving Lucas another £2 million in order to save an additional 150 jobs in Liverpool and Bradford together. The fourteen-man committee said this would be unacceptable to their members and they forced an adjournment.

At the next meeting this stand by the fourteen-man committee resulted in a further 150 jobs being offered. All but one of the committee reasserted that their brief from the delegate conference which had elected them was to prevent any loss of jobs—the extra 150 would still mean a loss of 650 jobs. The one shop steward who found the additional 150 acceptable was the AUEW convenor at the Liverpool factory; his members were going to fill the jobs that were saved. It was GMWU members whose jobs would be lost. The lack of unanimity of the fourteen-man committee, which was anyway in a subordinate role to the national officials, enabled the official negotiators to reach agreement.

Page 207

By contrast, in the case of an unofficial combine committee, lacking support from established institutions, always having to improvise and move forward in order to survive, the trust a secretary builds up for the combine tends to depend considerably on the trust for the individual concerned. And because his or her skills have come from improvising rather than operating explicit rules, these skills will tend to be tacit and intuitive. There are no trade-union courses on combine committee organization, nor handbooks on the problems facing a shop steward when he or she take on the job of co-ordinating many different factory committees across the country. The transition from one secretary to another in the Lucas Combine Committee was therefore a difficult one.

Page 223

Although alternative products are thus only one part of the idea of workers' plans, they are an important part. And they are important as much for illustrating new possibilities as for immediate negotiations with management. A design or prototype of a product which could meet unmet needs, and for which otherwise redundant resources are available, stimulates people into thinking of new ways of organizing production and designing technology to meet people's needs more adequately.

Take the road-rail vehicle, for instance. This featured in much of the media coverage of the Plan; primarily because a small prototype test unit had actually been built at NELP in 1975/76 by Richard Fletcher, with help from the Lucas stewards. The science and technology television programme "Tomorrow's World" had shown an early version on test on a disused railway track, shifting from road to rail at a level-crossing. It aroused considerable interest, for example from the Highlands and Islands Development Board and various overseas governments, including Tanzania. Nearer home, Labour councillors in Burnley were particularly interested in the road-rail vehicle: "It's just what we need to keep some of the branch lines open and to service the more outlying areas. And production of it could provide more jobs for workers at British Leyland and Lucas," commented Councillor Birdshaw. Labour councillors on several other local and county authorities, including Sheffield, London and Manchester, along with local trade unionists concerned with transport were thinking on similar lines.

Under more favourable political conditions, co-ordinated pressure from workers in Lucas, in British Leyland and in Dunlop and from local authority purchasers might have forced the companies to go into production of the road-rail vehicle; or perhaps a public or municipal enterprise could have been established. As it was, the best that could be done was to modify an existing bus to produce a working prototype.

Page 231

The first question to ask in any assessment of the Combine Committee's plan is, how successful has it been in achieving its own ends? It had its origins in the fight to save jobs. In this the Combine's campaign between 1975 and 1981 was remarkably effective. Instead of 2,000 redundancies in 1977 and two closures in 1978, only about 100 jobs have been lost of the past four years due to compulsory redundancies or closures. Moreover, in three cases local redundancy plans were withdrawn as a result of campaigns based on the Corporate Plan.

Page 235

The reasons for these cutbacks have not been "technical". Rather they were a result of corporate priorities and financial objectives. This helps us to rule out at least one explanation of why negotiations did not take place over the Combine's Plan. Technical difficulties were not the main problem.

It is worth noting in connection with the technical feasibility of diversification that Lucas Aerospace is well used to changing product lines regularly—since it deals mainly with short-run batch production. While some plants may not initially be suited to longer runs, there does not seem to be any fundamental reason why the emphasis could not be shifted. A researcher on secondment to CAITS produced a detailed plan demonstrating how a new Liverpool plant could be developed for heat-pump production, using "integrated product teams" rather than conventional flow lines.

Feels like something pitching for more flexible production facilities, which would be even more achievable these days with more CNC machines. That would open up more possibilities for "mass customisation".

Page 236

In addition, the whole field of renewable energy systems is expanding rapidly as predicted in the Plan—with wind and solar units of the types proposed in the Corporate Plan gaining increasing acceptability. The UK solar collector industry already has a £25 million annual turnover (including exports) and a number of major UK wind-power programmes were launched in 1981 involving industrial consortia led by GEC, Taylor Woodrow, McAlpine's and British Aerospace, including £5.6 million allocated to a 3MW unit for the Orkneys, likely to be the first of several large wind turbines for UK use.


Lucas Aerospace, however, is not in the habit of looking for new markets. In fact probably one of the main reasons why the company wants to stick with military aerospace is that it can then forget about "marketing", relying instead on profitable cost-plus defence department contracts.

Page 237

There are probably other internal factors which reinforce this externally favoured inertia. Several studies have shown that, as companies grow in size, proportionately more resources are given over to administration and less to innovation. Creative technologists face more bureaucratic constraints from accountants and administrators; and work on technical innovation decreases status and career opportunities. Not all large corporations suffer from these tendencies to inertia all of the time; there are also aspects of increased size which can favour innovation. Certainly Lucas has been more or less responsive to innovation at different times. But judging from the experience of the electronics workers and the technical managers in Birmingham and the recent fate of several new diversification projects, inertia, fear of the unfamiliar and an unwillingness to take risks have all contributed to Lucas's response to the Combine's proposals. What the Combine's Plan did was to move ahead of the market, by identifying technical possibilities that met social needs in socially appropriate ways and preserved jobs and skills. It could be argued that this approach is likely to be more effective in throwing up original and innovative, as well as socially approapriate, ideas—in particular since it draws on a wider range of people than just company "new ventures" or R&D groups.

Page 238

In the event, all that these companies could offer were "technical fixes" involving very sophisticated (and expensive) technology, much of it of dubious value and purpose: computer data files and analysis techniques for criminal records and crime-pattern analysis, electronic surveillance systems to combat crime, and so on. As Robert Boguslaw put it in 1972:

Could we really expect technical élites nurtured on a diet of weapons system development, a criterion framework of time and cost efficiency, and a "free enterprise" management ethos, really to address themselves to the technological tasks involved in providing human dignity and a peaceful planet?

Page 240

A linked point is that, if left to conventional industry to develop, new potentially radical technologies may not be developed appropriately—the type of devices they would produce would reflect the priority of the individual company's profits, e.g. expensive planned-obsolescent solar collectors which fall apart in a few years, sold to gullible rich individual consumers, or giant centralized solar, wind or wave power units reinforcing the monopoly of big business and/or the state. So it is important to specify the technology and its use in detail. And of course the context can change; what might be "progressive" in one context (e.g. small-scale technology) might not be in another: the concept of social usefulness is a dynamic one.

Page 243

This claim has a number of implications. First it challenges management's prerogative to manage without accountability to workers. The Lucas workers' experience of drawing up and trying to implement their proposals led them to question whether a ruling or managing class was necessary for the production of wealth. But it is not only managerial authority which is challenged. So also are political and economic parameters within which the labour movement has operated. For the Lucas Combine's Plan implies much greater popular control over social and political decisions than is possible through the present British state.

Page 245

It is not only in industry that people, especially in the last fifteen years, have been doing a lot more than "describing their grievances". Many groups in the wider community also are not satisfied with defending the status quo. Among women, for example, there has been a strong emphasis on campaigning for, and in some cases creating, health-care provisions, nurseries and child-care facilities which more adequately meet women's needs.

Page 247

A second factor favourable to the initiative of the Lucas Aerospace stewards was the versatile potential of the technology in the aerospace components industry. Aerospace components are produced in small batches to meet special orders; and to meet the specific requirements of each order the machine tools and the production process have to be adaptable. Most of the machine tools in Lucas Aerospace are what are known as "universal" machine tools, which can be used to carry out many different engineering jobs. By contrast, in industries based on mass-production the machine tools are purpose-built or "dedicated" to perform one job only. Mass-production is organized on flow-line principles, often with relatively inflexible conveyor-belt systems designed to maximize productivity for one specific product. It could be argued, therefore, that in mass-production industries alternative production options are not normally as easy to envisage as they are in the decreasing number of companies in small-batch production.

Page 251

Trade unions, who generally understand their role as being to get the best terms for the job rather than to question the nature of the jobs available, do not in general take up issues of skill and access to information. Even among craft unions the resistance to deskilling is a defence of the label of "skilled" and the wage levels which go with the label, rather than a defence of the content.

Page 254

Very few parts, if any, of contemporary capitalist economies conform to the criteria for a free market set out by those who theorize the market as the most democratic mechanism for economic decision-making. This does not mean that central state planning is the only alternative. The experience of the Soviet Union indicates that, for all the social improvements it has brought, centralized planning can be wasteful and inefficient in the way it allocates resources. A central government planning department, however well computerized, cannot handle efficiently all the millions of connections which, like a nervous system, make up the economy. Innovation tends to get stifled as much, if not more, than in the West, unless it comes through official established channels. Working people in the Soviet Union have few ways in which they can exert a democratic check on the waste, inefficiency and lost opportunities they see, and no means by which to press collectively for improvements in their standard of living and quality of life.

The wrongs of Soviet-type planning, however, do not turn the wrongs of the disguised planning of the Western economies into rights.

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May 03, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 3rd 2021 Edition

  • Remote to who? "we have to ask—remote to who? Perhaps you are remote to your colleagues, but you can be deeply embedded in your local community at the same time. Whereas in a co-located environment, you are embedded in your workplace and remote to your neighbors."
  • LA Mall Purchase Would Be the Biggest Victory Yet for Community-Driven Development. Good to see the community ownership approaches growing in scale.
  • Butterflies and drones. 'I used to joke about having an agreement for potential clients to sign that said “Do you care? Do you really care? Do you really, really care?”'
  • The counterparty puzzle: the curious case of the Miami jewellery designer, the government's PPE scandal and the lawyer on its trail…. As an electronics manufacturer who pivoted into designing and manufacturing visors during the PPE scandal, albeit at zero cost to the NHS and taxpayers, the story of the jeweller mostly rings true. The shocking thing exposed by the pandemic was the complete lack of any understanding of what's involved in making things, from so much of the "people in charge". Decades of Eton-educated people in the positions of power, and the worship of finance above all else are what caused the problems. The fact that those people then had a "priority lane" for getting their mates' made a difficult situation even worse. The Good Law Project are doing good work.
  • Appropriate Measures. An interesting essay about the Appropriate Technology movement of the 70s, and its shortcomings and what we should pay attention to in order to do better this time round.
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April 03, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Making Art Work by W. Patrick McCray

"Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture" by W. Patrick McCray (on Openlibrary) is an interesting history of the art and technology scene in the mid-20th Century. As a technologist-who's-also-been-an-artist, and someone who helps run an organisation that welcomes technologists and artists (among others) and provides a place for them to work and find each other there was lots of interest in the book.

As ever, lots of what we're doing has been done before, or at least something similar has. It's nice to think that someone might write a history of the DoES Liverpool scene sometime; we'll have to keep striving for doing epic shit.

Here are my "dog-eared pages" from reading it...

Page 15

Compared to artists and those who write about them, engineers often appear as relatively silent actors in the larger historical record. Moreover, compared with scientists, engineers are papyrophobic. That is to say, they are less inclined to record their recollections and activities on paper.


When British artist Dick Higgins coined the word "intermedia" in 1965, he was referring to art that "seems to fall between media." Intermedia art was understood as a hybrid thing, cross-fertilizing and blurring boundaries between traditional arts like painting, sculpture, and dance while adding film images, electronic sounds, and other technologies. Higgins term suggested a coming era when traditional borders between artistic media as well as academic disciplines and professional communities would shift and possibly be erased.

Page 37

Outside the studio, Malina (and other kinetic artists) realized that many galleries and museums were not set up to display electrical works. To help alleviate concerns of gallery owners, he might include a statement on the back of his pieces noting that, if malfunctioning, it could "be put in order by any electrician or radio repair man."

Page 49

In 1961, for example, in the Belgium city of Liège, Schöffer unveiled his Cybernetic Tower. Standing 170 feet tall, its suite of sensors registered ambient environmental changes such as wind, temperature, and humidity. The information collected went to a computer that, in conjunction with electric motors, varied the movement of large rectilinear metal blades and vanes. Sunlight was reflected and diffused off their polished metal surfaces while, at night, beams of multicolored light were projected onto the tower. Schöffer integrated his works into the local environment, using the glass windows of a nearby office building as well as the Meuse River itself as projection screens.

Page 63

One of the more notable efforts, based on extensive site visits and interviews, was carried out in the mid-1950s by the American Society for Engineering Education. It emphasized that producing young engineers who appreciated the liberal arts meant discarding stereotypes while also encouraging engineers to see the arts and humanities as valuable in their own right. Hoping to do more than just make engineers "acceptable in polite society," the humanities could enhance engineers' understanding that "every professional act has human and social consequences." Statements such as these acquired greater urgency toward the end of the 1960s, when student activists, opponents of the Vietnam War, and critics of large, impersonal, and destructive technological systems increasingly labeled engineers as amoral technocrats beholden to the corporations they served. Such charges insinuated themselves into the art-and-technology movements as we'll see later.

Page 76

What Sontag branded as the "one culture" possessed exceptional diversity. It included not only painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers and musicians but also "neurologists, TV technicians [and] electronic engineers." One of these new professional hybrids, someone Sontag was certainly aware of, was engineer Billy Klüver.

Page 87

Video artist Nam June Paik, who spent time at Bell Labs as an artist-in-residence, already had his answer: "If you are surprised with the result," he later told an interviewer, "then the machine has composed the piece."

Page 94

At first, Rauschenberg incorporated static objects like light bulbs or radiometers. But his plan for a new piece, eventually called Oracle, really started to come together after Klüver gave him a tour of Bell Labs in 1961. As the artist later told critic Barbara Rose, seeing all those new technologies was "like being handed a ghost bouquet of possibilities."

Page 101

"We need a house full of exotic technology." Billy Klüver, 1966

Page 104

Despite securing his employer's approval, Klüver soon abandoned the project. Instead, he decided it would be more efficient to directly engineer social situations that would bring different professional communities together. "Only by making new inventions which are not conditioned by ordinary attitudes," Klüver later said, "can we learn about technology."


Just as Klüver's colleagues were well acquainted with one another, the artists had worked together several times.


But this familiarity only went so far and Klüver was nervous as the two groups appraised one another. "The air was stiff," he recalled, and their conversations soon soared off into abstract musings. As he wrote in his diary, "What are we doing at 13,000 feet? It's a long walk to earth." Pierce brought their speculative dialogue back to terra firma. "Tell them what you have," he encouraged his engineers, "tell them about things."

Page 124

While logical in principle, the patch board system proved enormously troublesome in practice. Locating the necessary hardware was only the beginning. Eventually, engineers convinced Automotive Marine Products, a small company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to loan them equipment. Then came what Schneider called the "saga of the tiny plugs"—thousands of feet of wire and coaxial cables with the proper connectors attached to their end had to be made by hand. With only a few days to go before 9 Evenings started, the artists, along with dozens of friends they had recruited, learned firsthand how to wire patch boards and strip cable ends. At one point, Simone Forti went looking for John Cage and found the famous avant-garde composer off by himself, patiently crimping wires.

Page 151

In stressing the need to collaboratively develop "alternate technologies" for "industrially deficient environments," Klüver's thinking reflected ideals of the "appropriate technology movement" promoted by social activist groups in the 1960s. And, in questioning the autonomous nature of technology, Klüver's ideas echoed those expressed by public intellectuals like Lewis Mumford, concepts which later coalesced under the academic banner of "science and technology studies."

Page 167

In 1965, after submitting a proposal for [CAVS, the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies,] to MIT's administration, Kepes published his idea in the journal Daedalus. His essay described a "closely knit work community" of artists and designers who would be based in an "academic institution with a strong scientific tradition" such as MIT. Just as paleontologists envisioned human evolution advancing via interbreeding, Kepes proposed that "cultural evolution" would happen through "interthinking" between artists, engineers, and scientists. These collaborations would, Kepes argued, produce a "climate more conducive to the development of new ideas" than artists might achieve by working alone.

Page 169

[...] Billy Klüver described how E.A.T. emerged out of the spirit of 9 Evenings. By not focusing on aesthetics or artistic products, chance and randomness were encouraged as part of a larger creative process between artists and engineers. Likewise, Ivan Sutherland, an MIT-trained electrical engineer, described how computer algorithms could create art that varied with the observer's participation.

Page 183

"No one asks a scientist why he wants to use a laser beam," Klüver noted, and artists should be free to do likewise.

Page 192

In 1966, London-based artists Barbara Steveni and John Latham formed the Artist Placement Group (APG). Robert Adeane, who sat on the board of companies such as Shell, helped Latham and Steveni situate artists within corporate settings. But where Tuchman [with his similar programme in Los Angeles] saw these partnerships in largely instrumental terms, the APG brought a more theoretical and activist-inclined orientation to the table.

Page 220

"What are managers going to do with an artist?," Whitman recalled [of his residency]. "They introduced me to all the guys with beards. John Forkner had the longest beard. So we talked."

Page 230

When Fujiko Nakaya contacted him, Mee had just started his own company, a small operation run out of his Altadena garage, which planned to make instruments for weather monitoring. He had never heard of Billy Klüver or E.A.T., but Nakaya's knowledge of cloud science impressed him. Moreover, he had met her father at scientific conferences and was well aware of his pioneering research on snow.

Mee was initially skeptical about whether they could generate enough fog to obscure the entire 120-foot-diameter pavilion but he agreed to explore the problem with her. Mee respected Nakaya's aesthetic preference for producing an envrionmental sculpture of "dense, bubbling fog...to walk in, to feel and smell, and disappear in."

Page 231

When Fujiko Nakaya started working on the fog project, she made several sketches and drawings of the Pepsi Pavilion, surrounded by billowing clouds. But until she tested Mee's system in Osaka, the visual effects it would actually produce were speculative.

Page 244

Inside, Pepsi's public relations officer for Japan fretted that "common people don't understand art. I tell them it means nothing, right?"

Page 257

A closer look at the [LACMA "Art and Technology" exhibition]'s participants—this can be seen from the grid of men's faces on the cover of Tuchman's Report—reveals what became the show's main liability for many members of the art world. All of the artists included in the exhibition were white men. While this imbalance might have escaped public censure in 1967, when Tuchman was starting the Art and Technology Program, by mid-1971 such an omission seemed a serious lapse in judgement. In June, the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (or, LACWA, a dig at their county's publicly funded museum [LACMA]) presented its own report to the Los Angeles Times. Between 1961 and 1971, it stated, some 713 artists exhibited their work at LACMA. Of these, only twenty-nine were women. And, of the fifty-three solo shows the museum presented, only one was devoted to a woman artist. Finally, an inspection of the museum's permanent galleries showed that only 1 percent of the art displayed was made by women artists and, to add insult to injury, plenty of the artwork featured depictions of nude women as seen through the male gaze.

Page 265

In 1965, around the time Bell Labs hosted him as an artist-in-residence, Paik had predicted that "artists will work with capacitors, resistors, and semiconductors as they work today with brushes, violins, and junk."


Although video art received the most attention and legitimacy from the art world, similar stories could be told for other "new" technologies that artists experimented with throughout the 1970s. Computer art (which eventually morphed into commercial and scientific applications like computer graphics and data visualization), holography, and art made using copy machines were similar to video art, if not in prominence, by virtue of their small-scale and relative accessibility. In each of these cases, artists&mash;an increasing number of whom were women—could explore the possibilities of electronic technologies without necessarily requiring a professional engineer's expertise. These new technologies offered women artists a way forward along fresh paths not blocked by men. For example, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, artist Sonia Sheridan, with support from the 3M Company, translated several years of experiments with photocopying machines into a new course of study called "generative systems."

Page 279

For years, CAVS had presented the visual arts as a humanizing influence on students, engineers, and scientists where people might interact on equal footing. Negroponte presented an alternate vision in which "being digital" would reshape society, economies, and, almost as an afterthought, benefit the fine arts as well.


[CAVS director Otto] Piene countered that Negroponte's "porous" proposals [for founding the MIT Media Lab] were full of "buzzwords" and "modish applications," promising future payoffs while abandoning the visual arts. "It is verbiage," CAVS supporters fumed, "the only defense for it is that it works to raise money."

Page 196

As an exercise in feminist social practice, [Annina] Rüst's artwork—she titled it A Piece of the Pie Chart—addressed the pervasive underrepresentation of women in the workforce. Using a robotic arm and a computer workstation, her assembly line-like installation imprinted pie charts on actual pastries that showed lopsided gender ratios at technology companies and art museums. The installation also produced mailing labels so one could mail a custom-made pie to the organization associated with its data.

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March 22, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 22nd 2021 Edition

  • Why Generation X will save the web. Those of us who lived through the early days of the web—the late 90s and the early 2000s—need to explain what we failed to bring into being with the open, decentralized, empowering Internet, and help fold those ideas in to strengthen new movements for a better web.
  • Not All Men: Dismantling The Pyramid. Like the "as a white man with a degree, you're playing the game of life on the easiest setting" analogy of a few years ago, Max Morgan's pyramid gave me new ways of thinking about how I can help bring down the patriarchy.
  • Indies are Everywhere. We are. We're more interesting than those chasing VC.
  • Why I Still Use RSS. Your periodic reminder that you should, like I do extensively, get an RSS reader and start subscribing to blogs with RSS. I use Thunderbird for mine, because I also use it as my email client; AboutFeeds.com has more background and some other recommendations.
  • More of a Talker. I am—in general, and slowly, and it's a bumpy road of ups and downs—getting better at spotting when I'm procrastinating and nudging myself into doing. Reading of the tricks others use to do the same is great. Us over-thinkers and talkers all need the rituals and tics to overcome that bump. Speaking of which, this tidying through tabs and making a start on this blog post is partly to overcome my procrastination in siting down to write the blog post that I've been not-making-enough-headway-with for the past few weekends. So, hopefully there'll have been something else published since the last Interesting Things... and this one.
  • The Urban Manufacturing Edition. A wonderfully-written vignette of the local manufacturing and making spread through Emeryville. This is what Liverpool could look like, if we want it.
  • The road to electric is filled with tiny cars. And this could be a way that we get around that Liverpool of the future, along with the bikes I was pitching last week. Given the near-constant concern over Vauxhall or Jaguar Land Rover deciding to close their plants here, how do we encourage more electric bike coachbuilders (Aglie Liverpool are already doing that...)
  • Delinquent Telephone Activity. Rachel Coldicutt reminds us that the street finding its own use for things also applies to tech, and encourages us to do more of that.

This week's RSS additions (see aboutfeeds.com if you don't know what RSS is, RSS is how I find most of these Interesting Things...):

  • Adactio. I've oft ended up on Jeremy Keith's blog over the years. Finally decided I should just subscribe. I need to work out how he's styling his RSS feed so it's more human-friendly if you open it in a browser and steal that idea sometime!
  • Jackie Pease Zone. Jackie has started blogging her experiments into biomaterials and three-dimensional algorithmic embroidery.
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