I’ve been doing a series of interviews for Edgeryders – a joint project of the Council of Europe and the European Commission, led by the Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division at the Council of Europe. I’ve been investigating how people make a living on the edge, or if they do at all – very pertinent (and personal). Here’s what I was working on:
How can people make a living on the edge as technologies change quicker than regulations and new business models disrupt old standards? While young (and not so young) people are defining a new society through their networked interactions and processes, often the obstacles to their ability to make a living are bureaucratic or outdated ways of doing.
The Edgeryders platform is organised through a series of “campaigns” linked to specific areas of the work of the Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division. These campaigns are made up of “mission reports” written by members of the community which are then studied by ethnographers working on the project. The Quest For Paid Work is part of the Making A Living campaign which examines issues around employment.
My brief was to identify people who have experience in the area and share their stories with the wider community, looking for common methodologies, tools and tactics. The people spoke for themselves in the videos and I did summaries of the interviews in language appropriate to the members of the community who mostly have English as a second or third tongue. The videos were not meant to be professional quality but rather quick & dirty, using the resources and bandwidth available, to capture the reality of how technology is used (and sometimes fails). All the videos are in this playlist below and you can read all of my posts here.
I was joint-facilitator with Jovin Hurry (who did most of the heavy lifting) at the Making a Living session of the Living On The Edge conference held at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on June 15. This post about the session is the follow up from the Edgeryders platform
The session was divided into the 5 areas of the Making a Living campaign and Edgeryders distributed themselves on the 5 corresponding tables: Paid Work, Social Innovation, Recruitment, Allies and ?. Every 15 minutes they rotated to a new table/topic, except for one person who became the table host and filled in the newcomers on the dicussions so far, ensuring fresh ideas and perspectives.
The topic coordinators reported back at both the end of the session, and in the Dynamic Reporting session using the papers from each table which were used to harvest the ideas of the Edgeryders who rotated through them.
This video features the “table hosts” summarizing the discussions and possible outcomes:
Olivier is part of a social enterprise called Platoniq and is based in Palma de Mallorca. Platoniq work on various projects mostly based on ICT, the latest of which is Goteo, a crowdfunding platform with crowdsourcing options so a project is not just asking for money but building a community. Platoniq have never believed in living off a service in Internet so they live off offline services through workshops, consultancy for social enterprises or cooperatives – developing tools on Internet and these tools bring them reputation and that is the base of the business which is giving services to public administrations, which is hard right now in Spain, and also to private entities.
Goteo is the result of two years research on alternative economy models based on Internet – P2P credits, microcredits etc. Goteo is based on crowdfunding and crowdsourcing with open DNA, only helping projects to be founded if they have, for example, open design, free software, open hardware etc., concentrating on these new business models. More than crowdfunding, it’s like micro credits which are paid back in the form of educational packages, code, design etc.
Open licensing is totally integrated in the Goteo platform so any project using it has these licenses right from the start. When a person helps a project through Goteo, they are helping to open up processes – an example is an open shoes project which is not just about buying shoes but putting money to “liberate” parts of the process like the design so everyone can build their own shoes.
Platoniq always have two approaches, online and offline so Goteo was conceived without code at first and this influenced the final design of the platform. It was really co-designed through workshops and other processes – which means it has more features and is much richer than other “similar” platforms. This is the capital that Goteo brings with it and is also where the money comes from, from workshops and not through the small percentage of money they get from the platform. The business model is selling services around it which is a common thing with many open practices.
Sprints & lemons
The enterprise moved from Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca in part because Susanne from the Platoniq team is originally from there and because it is nicer to live there. They have a garden where they produce their own tomatoes and lemons etc. and turn to the Internet when they need to know how to do something or share practices with other ecological producers. Before opening their new office they were spending half of what they spent in Barcelona, even though they had a free office in the Catalonian capital. Previously they were working with people full time in the Barcelona office but now they do sprints, coming together to work three days a month in a very focussed manner.
The crisis has produced a schizophrenic situation because there are lots of institutions that want Platoniq to help them develop participatory projects – they have less money than before and they think that participation will be cheaper and the users will provide the content. It’s a big mistake they have to fight. 50% of money they make is from institutions so it has been affected a lot by the crisis – if before clients were taking a year to pay, now they are taking two. However they are doing more workshops as crowdfunding seems to be one of the alternatives for projects to find a way of being funded. It’s important to use this moment to show that open models are much more effective and not as obsolete as closed ones, Olivier says.
Platoniq have both online and offline networks and are taking advantage of the fact that Mallorca residents pay half price travel to maintain them – meaning they can go to say, Bilbao, and work with interesting people for a few days, something they couldn’t do before. He thinks it’s necessary for people to meet each other and have a sprint from time to time and concentrate on the things to develop instead of having an online to do list – sometimes it’s good to be located somewhere and work with people for a few days and then to meet on Internet.
Testing the limits
A recent campaign on Goteo to fund a legal case against the ex-director of one the crisis-ridden banks in Spain has tested the limits of the platform – normally they have between 8,000 and 10,00 visits a day and with this campaign they had double that amount in the first hour, collapsing the server. So many people are fed up of the situation where banks always get public money whatever they do while there is no money for R+D, health, education etc. that they responded, he says. The server had to be changed in the middle of the campaign and the idea was to get €15,000 in six days, and they got it in 24 hours. If there hadn’t of been the server problem, they would probably have got it in 3 hours. It also created the schizophrenic situation of using a bank payment platform to go against the banks. It’s a very interesting sociological case to investigate, Olivier feels, being, he thinks, the first political/social campaign done through crowdfunding, and therefore a very interesting citizen evolution in his opinion.
Andrea is part of a for-profit company in Berlin called newthinking which works in the field of digital culture and society, doing web development and organising events like the big social media conference re:publica amongst other things. She now works part time for newthinking so that she can do other things as well – she is on the board of an association called all2gethernow, an event series for new strategies in the music business and music culture which aims to put the idea of music as culture back into the discourse. all2gethernow operates sometimes on a paid basis when there are projects such as one in association with the city of Berlin in September as part of Berlin Music Week, which will be a day of workshops for musicians. She also does things without any renumeration like her monthly radio show, organising a music festival which pays for itself but not for staff, as well as organising occasional concerts which pay something but don’t financially compensate for the time invested.
Andrea is trying to find a balance between doing things she finds interesting and making money. She says that it’s not an easy balance, but she feels lucky as she has had the opportunity to make money with her previous job, and she still has some money left which enables her to subsidise the activities that she’s interested in. She has done this on purpose by working longer on the recent job to buy time later to do things and be a bit more experimental, which is something she thinks is common amongst people who want to make things happen – “the idea of making money in one field to spend in another is one way to do it, because if you try to make money with everything you do, you are very dependent.” If you want to be free in what you do, you have to make the money elsewhere, she adds. She tries never to sell herself for something she finds completely useless, but has taken on less interesting projects as they have allowed her to do something else.
She is also a co-owner of newthinking and the company takes a similar approach too. In the past they have taken on things which were no so profitable but had a high content value, but it’s only possible if other projects bring the cash in, so staff and everything can be paid for. Her lifestyle is based on low expense which means this strategy can work, but Andrea is aware that this is possible because she doesn’t have a family.
“Making enough time”
Sometimes it is better to invest a little in a project yourself than to look for funding, she says, as often more time is spent trying to fundraise than on the project itself. From the experience of all2gethernow she has seen that it is very difficult to build something from a cultural, political interest and make it financially sustainable. Consequently it is very ad-hoc, bringing people in to work on projects once they have been approved financially, because they have not been able to sustain a permanent structure. They would have to start a service, like consulting, to be able to do so.
Andrea reiterates that she is not interested in making lots of money, that she wants to “make enough time” to do the things she’s interested in, and create a sustainable life. She considers herself to be in a privileged position as she can think about and do things she cares about and knows there are many people who don’t know how to do it, or can’t do it because they have a lot of children and despite working hard, still don’t earn enough money to make ends meet. Her way of living is more important to her than having a lot of money or the amount of goods she can buy.
Many needs and desires have been created artificially in society, she feels, meaning that people think they need to have a car, lots of electronic equipment, have expensive holidays – but they are things which can be solved in a way which involves far less money, people could live with less money if things were better organised.
Andrea sees that there is a lot of money in certain areas and much less in others and, thinking of the processes of gentrification and city development, creatives and people who do things are being used and are necessary for others to make lots of money. There is a question of whether money is really being distributed fairly and how can the system be structured so there is a much more equal distribution. Concepts like a basic income or regulation of the amount a company or person can accumulate need investigating, and although this is theoretically done through the tax system we probably need more systemic changes, she concludes.
I met Steve Lawson AKA SoloBassSteve at an Amplified event when I was investigating new formats for Citilab. He was so enthusiastic about everything it made me sick 😉 Later he was part of an Amplified team that came to work their magic on PodCamp Barcelona, and I saw his great skills at close hand. He and @Documentally have been two of my biggest influences on the use of social media to, well, amplify things.
(btw the video failed in the recording so I’ve replaced it with footage of Steve playing music – “the soundtrack to the day you wish you’d had”, as he puts it. Make sure you watch/listen to the video – there’s so much more detail in it, as there is with all the videos in this series 😉 )
Steve is ostensibly a musician, although he says his way or making a living is more a portfolio thing. “I get paid to be curious”, he says. adding that the musician bit is integral, the centre of the wheel.
He had a conventional music career after college – playing music with other people, doing tv, radio and theatre. At end of the 1990’s he played a solo show, recorded it & put it on his website – “people asked “when is the album coming out?”” At the time he was a music journalist and knew there was no money in recording a solo album as a bass playing instrumentalist, people who did it, did it as a loss-leader. Steve realised that making records was cheap and somebody was siphoning off lots of money, so he recorded his first album on a mini-disc. It sold and broke even very quickly and then started to make money. The conversation he was having with his audience made him think there was a sustainable way of making music outside of the mainstream music biz.
Sustainability became the key, he says. Musicians are normally told that they are not quite big enough yet, but doing it himself meant that nobody was telling him what success looked like. People started contacting him about gigs and he did a lot of the booking himself because he knew from being online that there were people in certain areas who would show up to a concert, and that 15 people paying 10 pounds each is 150 pounds, the same as he would get for playing at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The industry was always more about making “someone” lots of money rather than you being able to live but he was discovering that he could make a living. He points out that he was lucky to be in his late 20’s and not a teenager or he might have succumbed to typical idea of success.
Steve had an emerging portfolio career. He had a great network of people he’d met through being a journalist. Also he was teaching, so he had a profile as a teacher and a writer about music education, and it became apparent that the aim was not to be a “full time musician”. Plus it was more stable as a lot of the tech industry collapsed around the turn of the century and a lot of people were out of work. Because he could switch between teaching, writing & playing, he only needed one thing to be paying the bills at any time.
Although he was worried about Napster at the beginning and didn’t use BitTorrent, the more the industry complained about these things, the more he thought they must be good if they were hated so much. Due to their history of never supporting artists, being monopolistic, abusive – being a protection racket more than anything else, if the industry said it was destroying their business model, Steve thought there must be something in it. As technology spread, more people were finding his work because he was visible online and he began inviting people to download his music and pay what they wanted for it. In part this worked because the industry was treating downloads as if they were cd’s and they were priced as if a physical object was created. This then became another story – there was the story of the music and the story of the access to the music, and it functioned as marketing used to.
It also enabled the musicians to be able to talk about their own sense of gratitude that people listened, because in the past the it was considered a bad thing if someone wanted to listen to you unless they paid. All of this happened from the way social media enabled musicians to talk to their listeners. Steve was using his website as a social media forum before social media was known and when Twitter came along he moved over and his community moved with him. He became a kind of music conduit within the community, becoming a fulcrum around which music makers and listeners discovered each other and music makers discovered that they were also music listeners too. He can generate sales of other music by his recommendations and thinks that in the near future this will be the main way people discover music. Steve mentions that he took his music off Spotify for many reasons around their model and cites Bandcamp as much more creator friendly.
Amplifying the conversation
Although he stopped being a journalist, Steve continues to write, mainly as part of Amplified – a social media facilitation project which developed from the Tuttle club in London, where a group of geeks who liked social media got together weekly to discuss what that meant for art, politics, education, business etc. Lots of events were taking place but the sole outcome from them was the guy on the platform talking. But the interesting stuff was people talking over coffee, so they came up with a system for documenting that, of shaping events around that other kind of output. It became a key thing, allowing Steve to solidify his thoughts about how social media works and the necessity of having a multiplicity of voices. This tied in with a widening of access to the tools of dissemination and creates situations where you have a brilliantly diverse culture of people making small scale contributions to what is going on, but when summed together is really important. “We were hoodwinked for the latter half of the 20th Century, with the lie that the only thing that mattered was numerical success – as musicians, in the media, in organisations, and we lost the ability to think with any integrity about what we were doing, and do it because it was important, not because it was successful”. The Internet allows us to reverse that and to find other small groups of people who are challenging the same issues he says.
It meant that in terms of making a living, as what could be broadly thought of as a social technology consultant, Steve was able to work on lots of little projects and make a living, rather than trying to make big money. Big money consultation for government tends to mean that the government doesn’t invest in ongoing work – they feel they’ve had their 1 day consultation with an expert, they’ve spent their budget on that and then continue to act as before, he explains. Steve was more interested in spending weeks at an organisation and completely changing the culture of how they use the Internet, rethinking transparency and opening up the sense of their core message to users, constituents and stakeholders.
To be part of a counter-culture to the entrenched positions and power structures doesn’t have to mean marching in Whitehall, being part of modelling a different way of doing things is really important, and to be able to do that and make enough to pay the bills most months is a good thing, Steve says.
Myths & Power
The power of the late 20th Century success myth of Hollywood and the record industry gives these players incredible power in debates about Internet legislation. History is written by the winners, so the account of what the record industry has meant to the world in the last 60 years has been written by the record industry, not by the millions of people who have been failed by it, Steve points out. So they show twisted statistics of what they made before and what they make now and say it’s all because of the Internet. But people are choosing other forms of physical entertainment media – games, DVD box sets etc meaning that music has lost out to other forms which look like better value. Also games and box sets are full of licensed music which the record companies never talk about.
The sales peak in the late 1990’s was people replacing their vinyl and cassette collections on CD, and a vast amount of money in the industry is about archive recordings. Outside of the official figures there is also a secondary economy of people like Steve whose sales are not registered by “official” bodies. The other thing the industry ignore is that the cost of making records is a tenth of what it was for the equivalent quality 20 years ago. Art making doesn’t have to be speculative.
The record industry has an enormous amount of money for lobbying, and Steve remembers that MP Tom Watson said he’d never seen more money spent on a lobby than that around the UK’s Digital Economy Act. Leaked memos showed the extent of their manoeuvres. “The big problem legislatively,” Steve says, “is that they do start to influence laws to make it impossible to do what we do. They don’t want a level playing field.”
Mining, scraping & ecosystems
Steve has a big problem with the model of Internet services that are provided for free while mining and scraping data and selling it to governments and advertisers. He would prefer to pay for services, thereby having services which provide meaningful conversation instead of having models based on data sale. Those services would then be more focused on, and useful to the user. If the selling of data is the business, and many users find it unacceptable, these companies will be become more pernicious, hiding what they are doing. He hates the fact that services surround his music with advertising and that makes it viable for him to make music – “I’d prefer a position where people can pay for the music they like, not pay for the music they don’t like, share it, be part of an economy or an ecosystem that wasn’t just about paying or not paying.”
I’ve seen many contributions from Pavlik on the P2P Foundation mailing list but I only met him for the first time at a hackathon in Berlin in December. I was intrigued by his choice to live without money and wanted to interview him for (Making A) Living On The Edge precisely because his concept of making a “living” is so distinct.
Pavlik is in Berlin at the moment participating in the Occupy Biennale and has been living strictly moneyless and stateless for over 3 years. He doesn’t use money, accept any nationality or use state documents which he sees as exercising his freedom of how he wants to live. He spends his time participating in different gatherings and projects, specialises in ICT and looks at how new tools can be used to change the way people collaborate and organise to move away from hierarchical structures towards flatter structures.
He first moved away from using money when he was living in San Francisco about 4 years ago and had the opportunity to learn what he actually needs. No living thing needs money, he says, but some people use money to get the things they really need. He came to the conclusion that if could get access to the things he really needs then he didn’t money – money only exists in relations between people he adds. “Money only exists in the human imagination – all the bills and coins and credit cards, if a small child looks at it, they see plastic, metal, paper, the money only comes from conditioning”.
At the moment Pavlik gets the things he needs through sharing. He works on projects without asking for anything in return, supporting causes he cares about. Similarly when people support him with food and shelter, he hitchhikes to travel from place to place, it happens just because people want to support him and what he does. No money is exchanged.
He sees that also with information technologies it is possible to move away from the dependancy on one system, especially what he considers to be very crippled and pathological state currencies with all they entail. It’s possible to move to a system with a diversity of systems which take relationships into account, he thinks – so if people know and trust each other there can be more liberal ways of accounting, not really accounting but supporting each other and trusting each other. In relationships with a little less trust it is possible to use different sorts of accounting such as resource sharing or some form of alternative currencies.
Pavlik only moves around the European continent and cannot leave a certain part of Europe due to his decision not to use state documents and he usually travels to participate in some gathering, staying with people, cooking and eating with them. If he stays in the country, he helps to grow food and in general sees his life as part of a wider ecosystem. He doesn’t like direct exchange – “I do something to get something”, preferring to do things to support, doing favours for friends and others, and in the same way receives support himself. In this way there is no element of debt, “I did something for you, now you owe me something,” instead, “I did this because I really wanted to support you”.
He finds that relationships without the use of money are friendlier but admits that he still faces some challenges, of how to organise things as people are used to using money they ask for money and they expect money back but although it involves more effort, he finds a higher quality of relationships which are more honest and more direct, more based on care and kindness. He sees the use of money as a vicious circle but thinks that by spreading a culture of not using it, more people can stop using it and can get to a critical mass. He believes it can become obsolete in a short time if enough people stop participating in it.
I asked him about other currencies, such as bitcoin. He says he doesn’t like bitcoin himself, and focusses on a diverse environment of different ways of accounting between peers, which may include monetary currencies, but he concentrates on a system without them. He sees bitcoin as a monetary currency and appreciates that people try to experiment but sees it as something, in the beginning at least, for geeks, and it doesn’t look at a larger ecosystem or relationships or what is needed to support certain services and resources, all problems which are similar to state currencies.
Economy vs Finance
Pavlik sees economy and finances as completely distinct – he considers economy to be relation and flows of services and goods, and collaboration and community whereas he sees finance as a tool to work with the economic relations. Therefore he sees a financial crisis as the system of mainstream currencies cannot work by design but he doesn’t see an economic crises as there are amazing technologies, 7 billion people who can communicate in real time worldwide, lots of resources still, and knowledge of how to reuse and recycle resources. There are some environmental challenges due to the misuse and abuse of resources and nature but mainly there is the problem of people getting stuck in the finances which have to collapse. He sees that those challenges bring people together to say that they don’t want to continue in that way. Often they can’t specify what they want to do differently, but they want to come together to discuss problems and how, collectively, different possible solutions can be found.
“The way I see these groups related to Occupy and other related movements is that people don’t have precise expectations of what we want, we just want to come together and look for solutions, different solutions for different problems”, he says. Instead of in mainstream political culture where the parties claim to have solutions to problems, the people there say they don’t have solutions but have certain ways of communicating and processes which may help find solutions. Pavlik appreciates the difference of saying, “if you face problems, possibly you need to participate in finding solutions, don’t expect Papa or Mama to solve your problems”.
Anne Wizorek has actually managed to make a living from her passion for communication while at the same time applying her skills to the things she believes in. Here she explains how:
Anne is a freelance consultant for social media, online strategy/project manager for mainly online projects. Her studies have nothing to do with any of that, she dropped out of university, although getting the diploma is still very important in her native Germany. Anne was always working, even when studying and realised that to finish her studies she would have to stop working, which would mean a student loan – something she didn’t want to do. She wanted to do something real, get something done and a degree in German literature wasn’t about that.
She became an online editor for one of the most popular German blogs and as part of that job became a curator/co-organiser at one of the most important social media conferences in Germany, Re:publica. She really enjoyed that job and it enabled her to explore what had started out as a hobby, a passion – blogging, using social media networks, and eventually she did an art project called PaperGirl Berlin – doing the event management as well as the blog and online communication. Anne had always done this stuff because she loved it but figured out, “OK, this is something that not everyone can do, it’s a very special way of communicating and not everyone can do it, although the tools are really accessible,” so decided to make a profession of it.
After those gigs finished she was working as a freelancer but was still craving the security of being employed. She says she was lucky because at that time she learnt a lot about communication and PR through being part of the team that organised SlutWalk in Berlin, doing the online communications and a lot of public relations which helped her a lot although she didn’t get any money for it – but gained experience which was much more valuable, even in terms of self confidence. After SlutWalk she got a job at an agency but realised it wasn’t how she wanted to bring her skills to people or help clients. She quit and luckily just after that was offered a big contract as a freelancer, a project she is currently working on.
Right now she is trying to decide if she wants to found her own company, apply for funding, look for an agency which is closer to what she wants to do or maybe team up with friends who have great skills. Anne was surprised to find out that there are people who need the things she was enjoying doing as a hobby. She doesn’t feel there is a way to educate people to do what she is doing so she realised she had a skill with which to help clients.
Personal networking has become very essential in getting jobs, and being recommended by people has been important too. She couldn’t make a living without both online and offline networking. She has found that networks are distinct in different places – she has just returned from New York where, as a feminist activist, she met many of the people whose books and blogs she reads and she had the feeling that the community there is closer and more supportive than in Germany. This made her think that she could change the situation as she thinks there are probably more people here who feel the same way. She wants to initiate an event and forge a community to get this kind of environment going in Berlin as well.
Taking to the streets
I asked her to tell me more about SlutWalk. It started in Toronto, Canada because at a security training session on the campus a police officer said women would be less likely to be raped if they didn’t dress like sluts. Students were so appalled that they initiated the SlutWalk – they wanted to provoke with the name but wanted to make visible that they are the victims and that society should, finally, be blaming the perpetrators. The event spread all over the world, to around 80 cities. It was a huge topic in blogs and finally Anne realised it was something that was missing: people spend a lot of time talking about things that are problematic but never take action, never “take it to the streets”. She did some research and found a few people in Berlin who wanted to start it, so she got in touch with them and a few weeks later was in complete SlutWalk mode. She says it was very intense but she learned a lot, also about herself and considers it a really great experience.
Anne feels that the Internet means that anyone, anywhere will always be able to find some sort of information about these issues and in the best case can make you more comfortable with whatever problem you have – you see there are other people who feel the same way. Before you feel completely alone and it is now easier to get in touch with people and give each other support. For her this development is one of the most important things that has evolved during her time online.
She feels that most of the policy makers and institutions are really far away from understanding the experience of people who have grown up with the Internet as a normal part of their lives. She sees a generational clash around some things like privacy – with warnings about not sharing too much information, for example, although she feels sharing can be very valuable, even if it’s painful, because then you can reach out to people who feel the same way. “We have to make sure, especially with all this paranoia going on in the newspapers and the media that by sharing information you are doomed, you’ll never get a job…..actually this is more about making visible what makes us human,” she says. It’s labeled as being a failure, she continues, so we need to make sure that people are not curating their online personas so much that only the positive things are shown. Anne gives the example of people whose Facebook timeline makes you think they must be really happy but when you talk to them you discover they’re having a bad time, even though they are posting about happy moments.
She still finds it incredible that she can just get in touch with people all over the world and have both global and local networks and points out the importance of “this way of bonding and empowering people is eventually always the reason for change”
I met Gerard and Raul in Linz, Austria last year at Ars Elektronika – they were setting up their project and I heard them speaking Catalan, it turned out that we all lived in Barcelona. Their presentation was hilarious as they explained how different technology is the most important technology depending on the situation – so one of those pens with many colours is the best tech on a Friday night as it enables people to copy the entrance “stamps” of a disco on their arms when they have no money. These guys are true “lifehackers”… they also made the “Golden Nica” I’m holding in my avatar picture.
(btw the video was recorded on skype over their mobile after all other attempts failed…)
Gerard Rubio and Raul Nieves are part of the blablabLAB collective and are currently Artists in Residence at Hangar in Barcelona. They formed the collective about 4 years ago. Gerard says that they have a cheap life, but have a lot of time, which is like their financial currency. They invest that time in acquiring knowledge which they then use to create projects and also to hold workshops to transfer the knowledge. Their latest workshop is on how to build a 3D printer, a printer which can print another printer. This workshop comes out of a project blablabLAB did on Las Ramblas in Barcelona called Be Your Own Souvenir which, unlike most of their projects, has given them the chance to earn some money.
Their projects are normally funded but most of the money goes on production costs. For example Haberlandt – “a vending machine for food crops, a bio-reactor for growing a superfood—Arthrospira platensis micro-algae—and an automated avant-cuisine machine”, had funding of 650€ but later it, and Be Your Own Souvenir, won honorary mentions in the prestigious Prix Ars Eletronika which funded a trip to Linz to exhibit the projects with further production. Haberlandt became very well known online and they received lots of offers to exhibit and began travelling and made some money from the project, something which normally doesn’t happen in Spain.
Any money they get goes back into the projects, so the aim is to break even. They usually begin with little or no investment, using materials from the trash like broken 3D printers. Although it is a limitation, it has created an ecosystem for them and meant that they learned new skills and gained new knowledge. blablabLAB is not a hobby, Raul says, but at the moment they have time and don’t need to earn a living from it. For now they are supported financially by their parents, do some jobs and get scholarships so have time to grow in exactly the direction they want. Later they will try to make a living from blablabLABs, although they think it will be hard. Both feel that the time they’ve invested in learning, acquiring skills and experimenting is beginning to pay off and they are getting more workshops and offers.
Reusing materials means that production costs are lower but they also see it as a political choice – reusing before recycling before trashing. I asked them about how far the Haberlandt project had come, it being an example of the blablabLAB ecosystem. They explain that the algae they generated in Linz was eaten by Gerard and during the winter they had about 3 litres of a hibernating culture which now needs to be grown. They are in contact with an active network of Spirulina growers in Catalonia but the main idea is to keep a little algae in case they need to take it somewhere for an exhibition. Raul explains that they have a meeting scheduled with the El Bulli Foundation of the renowned chef Ferran Adrià to talk about Haberlandt as well.
I asked if the crisis in Spain is creating more interest in the kind of things they do. Gerard replies that he thinks there’s more interest in the way they produce because it’s very economical and more people are going to be reusing stuff because they won’t have enough money to buy new things. They both feel there’s going to be a return to how things were done in the past – things that our grandparents did and ways of living, these ways of doing things disappeared, probably due to people having money, but they are coming back. They don’t feel that have set a precedent, more that things are becoming more like the way they work. So far the crisis hasn’t affected them very much, but they are more excited than scared about it. Things were already bad, but now people are seeing it and there is a chance for change – things like consumers cooperatives organising and buying produce direct from farmers and cutting out all the intermediaries, “these things are accelerating and being pushed very far”, says Raul. They are “very interested in the structures, human relationships, sociology and economic structures that can emerge.”
They see that the use of 3D printers can make a change in manufacturing and production, although it’s hard to predict how large, and point out that it’s important to create self aware communities of users who understand the issues around the use of the printers and don’t just create more environmental problems. Many manufacturers of 3D printers just want to sell large volumes and they see that open-source producers have more interest in the larger issues. They hope that someone will start a small business with the printers maybe creating jewellery or something similar.
Both Gerard and Raul admit that they do not have a good social media “policy”, citing the amount of blablabLAB things and other commitments such as studying and work, and feel they should take more advantage of the opportunities social media offers. They are heavy users of the Internet, checking out and following RepRap 3D printer developers for real time updates for example. Usually when they are working on a project they are just too busy and stressed.
I’m enjoying talking to people about how they (try to) make a living creatively. Recently I talked to Susanne Stauch, a product designer & goldsmith who has a diploma in collaborative product design and has studied mass customisation & open source. I’m working with her and Nadia on something called Cookies’n’Code which is all about “hacking” your life – more on this to follow, so watch this space…
The always inspiring Jon Bounds needs no introduction to anyone who’s been around cataspanglish – my chat with him for the series enabled us to get down and dirty in depth about what he’s been up to for the last few years and talk Conversational Psychogeography, Networks, Strong vs Weak Ties, creativity & cash.
Jon Bounds is without doubt one of the most creative people I have ever met. Any conversation with him throws up more concepts than you could work through in a lifetime and I’m lucky to have participated in his pantomimes performed on Twitter and sat alongside him as he’s carried out real time sentiment analysis for Civico, a company that is largely based around another of his ideas. He’s bloody hilarious too 😉
I talked to him about the issues of making a living from his own work in this skype conversation.
Jon has been working, doing anything that anyone will pay him for on the internet for about 5 or 6 years. He did a computer science degree, but decided that he didn’t like computers in the time just pre-internet – internet was on campus only as research tool and he was not taught anything about it. He became unemployed, played in bands and then did a government funded journalism course and tried writing for a living, discovered that he could do it but didn’t have the discipline to fill x number of pages a day. After that he did freelance work and worked in bars before being lucky to fall into a job with a local technical publisher right at the start of the internet boom, doing a lot of internet books. He explains that he had a lot of freedom and time to explore internet technologies, research as opposed to just messing around on the internet, at the time when internet was reaching normal people.
Birmingham: It’s Not Shit
The “famous” thing Jon did which propelled him into working and doing internet stuff for a living, as opposed to as a sideline, was a website about Birmingham with “an amusing and probably rude or offensive name which got a bit of attention. It’s called Birmingham: It’s Not Shit and is still going, coming up to 10 years as a local website and blog”. The main reason behind it was not, as he often explains, that Birmingham was getting a raw deal from the national media, but that the national media could not be very grown up when talking about things – when September 11th happened, the media on the internet died, the BBC website went down, online newspapers went down so the only place online he could have a discussion was on Popbitch.com, a celebrity gossip site, and there people could have a sensible discussion with facts and be darkly humorous and not fall into shock! horror! or default positions. That made him wonder if media could be adult, independent and without a default position. When he was made redundant he had the time to set up B:iNS and although he had done many jobs on the internet, he had nothing to show anybody, so if he wanted to get a job doing internet stuff, it was a good excuse to do something. Because of the name and stance, it got well covered which wouldn’t have happened without the shock and outrage of the local mainstream media. However he didn’t get any direct work from that straight away.
Jon fell into a technical job at a new BBC broadcast centre which opened in Birmingham, something he feels which wouldn’t of happened without the blogging. It meant he could avoid the normal route into that type of job. He “learnt loads there, mainly about how the media works and made a lot of good contacts but 4 or 5 years later the government cuts brought it to an end”. He could have tried to to get other jobs but is not really qualified to do anything, although he has done lots of stuff but has no qualifications which lead directly into a job and his computer science degree is obsolete. He hoped people would pay him for doing internet things and was lucky to get a couple of Arts Council contracts to work on the network side of things straight away, again due to the experience built up doing his own things. “… 6 years ago people knew social networks existed but nothing about them, so anyone with experience of them and who could talk coherently in a meeting could find work”, he says.
He did that for 2 or 3 years, without having to look for work, when only a few people were doing it. Sometimes there was too much and he turned down some lucrative contracts which in retrospect he feels he should have taken. He was enjoying exploring the space, it was a new space, and he knew enough technically and journalistically to “do some weird things, spending maybe 2 or 3 days a week working and the rest of the time taking what people were putting online and cutting and analysing that in different ways to see things which couldn’t have been analysed before”.
Jon was calling it “Conversational Psychogeography” but that’s now been formalised into what is called Sentiment Analysis and large media organisations will now sell it to you – and he considers it an example of how this kind of thing works: “If you want to be independent and find work and still have a bit of free time, you’ve got to stay right on the edge of what is happening with technology – the bits that are not yet viable for the big organisations to explore, because everything I’ve done over the past 6 or 7 years has been caught up, commodified. You get forced from two ends of the spectrum – the large media organisations, the web design and development companies and the PR companies push downwards into this space because they think they understand this; there’s also a groundswell of people who really don’t know what they’re doing at all, but they’ve heard about it and they set up small companies in local areas….and I can’t compete with that, I don’t have the morals to allow me to knock those (websites etc) out so quickly, I can’t compete with the pitching and process driven things that a large agency can, so anybody independent gets squeezed out of that and has to move on to another kind of centre and some people are doing that through their own ways… forming companies that can compete or drifting to education….or finding niches – the weird generalists are getting squeezed out.”
Things have been very difficult the last year or more and it’s been hard for him to find enough work to survive on. He claims that he’s not very good at networking in a money sense and feels that many things that he and his contemporaries came up with have not just been co-opted, but stolen by companies and organisations with no recompense. “We have a culture of getting ideas out there…all those things we worked on dissipated and diluted by, capitalism, essentially.” That becomes disheartening so made a decision that he no longer cares, that the battle for this social technology revolution has been lost. Since then he has split professional and personal interests a lot more and will do uninteresting things for money, but the interesting stuff he does now has almost no commercial potential, moving back into the esoteric arty world of literature or publishing.
Consequently he doesn’t expect to make money from writing/publishing. He and a partner are writing a book on the English seaside and needed to travel around the coast of England and Wales, but couldn’t afford to, so crowdfunded it and raised just enough to cover costs. That would’ve been impossible without their knowledge of networks and the media coverage they got comes from knowledge of how media works. He is worried that lots of people think that funding in the age of austerity is going to come from individuals, because that is finite both in money and trust. Projects that get funded are usually from people with demonstrable experience and networks. The ability for people to live from their artistic or research practice is being really squeezed and although he and his contemporaries had the the possibility to do that for 5 or 6 years, he doesn’t think people in the future will have that.
How do thinkers get space to think?
“How do (the brightest) thinkers get space to think without the commercial pressures?”, Jon asks. Historically it has only has been for academics but that’s only one type of thinking and there is huge pressure in academia to produce tangible monetary results. If you look for advice from any government agency, the advice is always how to bend your will to where the money is coming from, how to expand, create growth.
He created a social enterprise 4 years ago to use social media professionals and train them to train young people rather than teaching teachers a syllabus because, “this moves so fast that you can’t teach it unless you are doing it”. The interest was always there, but never the money. The enterprise has been shuttered and there are now other people selling that model now but they are not social media people, but have spotted a gap in the training market.
He considers that a big network is needed to enable support to have creative space. Some people in the UK & US have chosen to live on as little as possible to have that space, as artists always have. The problem he sees then is the disconnect between them and those their ideas might affect – if it’s all outsider, how does it influence the inside, the “normal” people? The danger is again: ideas splitting off from commerce, splitting off from reality, he considers there are huge problems with that.
A good example of a network supporting creative work is that of Birmingham industrialists called the Lunar Society who gave a monthly stipend to Joseph Priestley. He isolated oxygen among other things. Jon wonders if there is an internet or crowdfunding model for “mini-Priestleys”. He would love the idea of a trickle down capitalism rewarding people that have ideas but that doesn’t exist, so he asks is there a kind of trickle up internet socialism? Perhaps, for a few people, but how many people could that sustain?
It’s the Network
Jon claims that for any freelancer it’s who you know that is really important and it’s a cliché because it’s completely true and in his opinion if you are artistically or morally driven, your network needs to larger still as the possibilities are reduced. The network is also important to him as it’s part of what he’s interested in. He feels that It’s necessary not just to have a network but to understand how networks function, especially if you need funding or social capital. Things can travel incredibly quickly through weak tie networks but it’s the strong tie networks which actually help you. “The network is essentially all we’ve got”, he says.
I asked Jon about the recent internet legislation battles. He considers that every piece of legislation which controls the free network is worrying – it is the free exchange of ideas that help it, and the idea that you don’t need to ask to do something with those ideas. While these pieces of legislation are often well intentioned, there’s a knock on effect that people sometimes don’t realise. He doesn’t disagree with copyright per se, but thinks anything that is heavy handed and can shut down a network will be abused by large corporations and large organisations. He is particularly interested in fair parody legislation especially with reference to politics.
He has got networks from prior work but the more artistic networks have come first through the internet, but then offline meeting with those people A lot of the network is from around Birmingham which he says seems incongruous with the idea of the global village and interconnected networks – but it is from building trust offline. There was a time just pre-recession where there were a lot of spaces where you could organise things for free – it’s not the cost as much as the risk, if you’re organising something with people you don’t really know who is going to take the risk of hiring a venue or finding sponsors, selling tickets and collecting money? Easily accessible third spaces were incredibly important and Jon genuinely believes that meeting physically strengthens ties.