r e t u r n s

21:02 wednesday 20 october – rosevear , st agnes

the next chapter begins . pictures at http://www.charlesarmstrong.net/1999/10 .

i’m warm , i’m dry , i’ve got loads of space , * wahey * !

a sweet potato in the rayburn .

later on i’ll indulge in my first bath in several months .

( don’t worry , i’ve had the odd shower )

: cH

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w r a p p i n g

00:40 wednesday 20 october – digital workshop , st mary’s

after sending this message i’ll shut down the systems here in the stable at normandy farm for the last time and start packing everything into boxes .

the maintenance schedule for the lyonesse lady has slipped back and she will be out of action for the rest of the week . but the islands are now bitterly cold and i have decided to remove myself and some essentials to st agnes , on the black swan , tomorrow .

on sunday night , for first time , i felt intolerably cold in my tent . last night i employed my sleeping bag as well as the trusty eiderdown and was comfortable , but enough is enough . right now i sit here wearing two jerseys and my mittens , as i did through those early months on agnes , but the knowledge that there is a warm house waiting for me across the water makes it seem perverse to remain any longer .

and so another chapter closes .

: cH

d e f i n e

16:09 sunday 17 october – scillonia digital workshop , st mary’s

okay , time to write . got a message yesterday from tom perrett , who’s just crossed the border from laos to thailand , accusing me of procrastrination . and he’s right of course !

all my life i’ve tried to avoid describing my projects . why ? because whilst an activity remains undescribed it possesses an infinite fluidity which is lost the moment it is defined , cast into words . i have a pathological urge to keep options open , retain the widest set of possibilities . this is my freedom . in many ways it is a good approach in an unpredictable world . my strategies are always adaptable and opportunistic . but over the years i have had to learn the discipline of tempering this with hard statements and actions .

perhaps this is the story of moses and aaron ? certainly it is an archetypal tension , beyond satisfactory resolution .

on the whole i try to let things solidify bit by bit , each piece finding its own time and its own expression . but there remains a pain attached to each successive coagulation , a sense of something dying .

look at what i’m doing now . i started this despatch determined to desribe what i am doing . yet i have already spent several paragraphs avoiding that . it must seem ridiculous but i feel enormous reluctance and anxiety about doing this . my heart rate has increased .

[ gulp ]

i shall describe this year’s projects in four clusters : scillonia digital workshop , me ,school for social entrepreneurs , circus . that is also the order in which i sense they have prioritised themselves . the work i am doing in each cluster is , in a sense , the same . describing them separately will clarify but also mislead .

s c i l l o n i a d i g i t a l w o r k s h o p

an attempt to develop a scalable model to facilitate the rapid development of digital-sector skills and activities within traditional community structures .

starting points:
digital activities are widening existing social inequalities
rural communities are in crisis
existing community development models do more harm than good
rural areas are under growing pressure from wealthy incomers
policy still focuses on creating employment rather than extending the skill-base
the last remnants of traditional communities are on the verge of being lost
traditional communities contain many good solutions to human organisation

last july i decided to apply to the school for social entrepreneurs with a project to spend a year in the islands developing a response to these starting points . i had no idea what form that project would take . indeed i knew it could only succeed if i arrived with an open mind about what i’d do . the school was willing to take me on that basis .

why the islands ? i feel a strong personal commitment to them and that is probably the most important reason . but they also embody all the issues i listed . on the smaller islands the traditional community structures remain strong , and i knew i had to learn as much as possible from them . there is little digital-sector activity so a project in this area would have a clean slate , which appealed to me and meant i would not be treading on too many toes . the economy is almost totally dependent on tourism , with scarcely any viable alternatives . the opportunities for island children are increasingly limited to seasonal , low-skill , low-pay jobs . the indigenous community is increasingly vulnerable to wealthy incomers . the duchy of cornwall is concerned with little beyond the islands’ ongoing profitability .

i spent three months learning how things work here . talking to people and asking lots of questions . reading books and studies undertaken over the past three hundred years . taking hundreds of photos and writing about my experiences and perceptions .

by the middle of may i had a sense of what i would try to set up and a name for it ( very important ! ) . it would be a highly-distributed organisation with a flexible geometry . it would seek to create a favourable environment for the development of digital enterprise , which would demand developments in policy , telecoms infrastructure , facility provision , education , decision-making , investment and communications strategy . it would provide a platform of support within the islands but also consolidate a much wider network of influence and expertise . it would pioneer new models for skill-development and dispersed collaboration . it would sit within an unusual constituational structure . it would flow around existing community structures rather than cut across them . it would place digital activities within the traditional multi-skilled lifestyle rather than displace that lifestyle . it would act as an agency in its own right , able to initiate and discharge projects using skills within the islands supplemented where necessary with expertise from beyond them . it would squeeze the maximum learning opportunity from every project . it would seek generally to develop creativity and entrepreneurial capacity within the islands .

five months later the workshop has just begun its first project piloting a distributed apprenticeship model , built around a contract to develop a website for potential visitors . a bid is being made for european funding to establish the first layer of workshop activities and there will be substantial investment opportunities over the next seven years . the basis of the workshop’s constitution and its participation model are in place . the workshop is involved in discussions with the council committees responsible for education and economic development . also with the officers responsible for planning and information technology .

the workshop is proposing a community-owned business to retail the islands’ highest-quality flowers direct to consumers via the web , in my view the only future for this industry . there is a similar project to retail craft goods , and perhaps an extension of the distributed workshop model into tangible products . be good to reintroduce flax and hemp cultivation too .

the workshop is lobbying for the development of a complex of small craft and digital-sector workshop units clustered around a cafe providing open-access computer facilities for residents and visitors alike . this could also form the hub of an organic vegetable preparation scheme for small growers in the islands .

the workshop is lobbying for the investment of european funding in a new telecoms infrastructure via which local broadband services would be provided on a non-profit basis ( we’re urgently looking for a telecoms expert to undertake a month’s consultancy – please get in touch if you know anyone ) . radio-frequency solutions seem to provide the most interesting possibilities .

most importantly , i am confident that the work will continue when i leave at the beginning of february . it was always the greatest leap of faith that this would be the case . nick lishman has played as great a role as me in the development of the constitution and the funding bid . by the time i leave there will be a co-ordinator on each island and at least one island will be well on the way to publishing its own community homepage .

this show’s gonna rock !

m e

a series of experiments :

just-in-time living . i live and work with the minimum of planning or formal structuring .

simple living . utilising the minimum resources necessary to achieve my objectives . challenging my dependence on comfort and consumption .

real-time documenting . evolving strategies for sharing day-by-day life with distributed communities .

local participation . sharing my skills with the community amongst which i live .

wild food . exploring native edible stuff in the islands . yumm .

being myself . challenging habituated repression and self-censorship .

non-ownership . exploring the possibility of owning nothing at all . except myself .

and i’ve been working hard at my sax and my photography !

s c h o o l f o r s o c i a l e n t r e p r e n e u r s

in june 1997 i read a copy of the new statesman on a flight to helsinki .
it contained an interview with michael young , talking about social entrepreneurship and the school for social entrepreneurs . i’d never heard of young , the term “social entrepreneur” or the school , but the article grabbed my attention . i felt very close to the ideas he articulated . i’d been designing a distributed non-profit organisation ( circus ) for the previous year and had started describing myself as “an entrepreneur who wasn’t that interested in money” . when i arrived in finland i urged my friend kirmo kivela to read the article and predicted that i would get involved with michael young and his school . the magazine is still somewhere in kirmo’s parents’ house in helsinki .

it took until january 1998 for me to write to michael young , describing my experience and my interest in what he was doing . james smith , the director of the school , wrote back to me and soon we met . i loved the feel of the school and james’ enthusiasm . i offered my services , proposing a project to develop an electronic infrastructure for the school and a more general dispersed project management system for the voluntary sector .

james sought one other bid for developing the school’s infrastructure ( without realising the person he approached was actually my flatmate martin ! ) before engaging me . he suggested that the best way to go forward with the dispersed project management system was for me to become a student with the school . but it was only five years since i’d left cambridge and i wasn’t that interested in becoming a student again . my time at university was probably the least productive of my life .

in june i returned to the isles of scilly for the first time in five years . with me came tom perrett ( a cornish designer i’d met at online magic in london ) , kirmo kivela ( the aforementioned finnish designer whom i’d met at a club in london ) , tony auguste ( a st lucian friend of mine from london ) and adis bledman ( the son of eric , another st lucian friend in london ) . we spent ten days in tamarisk farm on st agnes , where i’d stayed on my previous visit at easter 1993 with jamie collins ( a childhood friend from cornwall ) and a group of his friends from oxford . that visit in 1993 led directly to the formation of the electric company , my first attempt to design a distributed organisation . odd .

but back to june 1998 . towards the end of our stay a few of us were having supper with johann and joffy , talking about the islands’ future . i remember a sudden , rather surprised , certainty that i would become a student with the school and spend the next year working out here . i commented on it to kirmo and tom the next day . kirmo said he’d come and visit me . as he did !

the story splits in two here . one branch is the scillonia digital workshop , which i’ve already talked about . the other branch is about my continuing work on the school’s electronic infrastructure .

but it’s late now . i’m going to stop and continue this tomorrow . hope it’s not going to be difficult to pick up the thread .

00:15 tuesday 19 october – scillonia digital workshop , st mary’s

and so i return to the fray . i feel pretty pumped about things right now . i’ve spent most of the evening setting things up for the first pilot of my distributed apprenticeship model . somehow i sense this is key to everything i’ve been thinking about through the year . fluid group structures . informal relationships . learning by doing . dispersed collaboration . this first experiment is going to be extremely simple but i hope much will be learned through it .

before i go to bed tonight i’ve got to finish the constitution for the workshop which nick and i have been working on . he phoned this afternoon with confirmation that our initial application had been received and the full form is on its way . we’ll need the constitution and a budget to send back with that .

i also need to write to the laura ashley foundation with feedback about how i used the grant they gave me at the start of the year and asking for a few grand more as leverage for the european grant we’re applying for now .

and i’d like to write a message which has been forming in my head for days about democratic systems to a little group i’ve formed with craig mcmillan and james smith . but i shall probably not get that far , as i fail to do day after day .

there are so many other things as well . if only i had more time . but the task which faces me now is to continue what i begen on sunday .

. . . s c h o o l f o r s o c i a l e n t r e p r e n e u r s

the school is unlike any institution i’ve encountered before . i remember commenting in one of the plenary sessions a few months ago that my instinct had always been to sniff out the rigidities in institutions and thenceforth put all my energy into kicking at them , but that i had so far failed to find any in the school . i have a sense of disbelief that i continue to feel so completely at ease in it .

the school’s approach to learning is fantastic . as far as i can gather there is no teaching at all . everything is about learning . i have learned from fourteen other students who span a terrific range of ages , locations , backgrounds and interests . i have learned , in collaboration with other students , from a wide range of “expert witnesses” who have aquired expertise or achievement of one kind or another . i have learned how to learn better through monthly meetings with a small group and a facilitator . and i have learnt from the people who conceived and run the school . it’s all so refreshing !

my goal is to understand the dynamics which underlie the school’s operation sufficiently to extend them into dispersed communications and i am certain this can be achieved . by february it had become clear to me that i could not have hoped to gain that understanding except by becoming a student . just as well things worked out the way they did .

mark perrett ( tom’s brother , another friend from online magic ) worked with me to get a rudimentary website published for the school back in january . but since then i have been building up a picture of how to move on from there . this process was very much intertwined with my activities in the islands and my wider learning . now things are beginning to move .

much is said about virtual entrepreneurs in the business world . but few in the non-profit sector yet grasp the significance of digital communications . for any group of people setting up a campaign , a fund-raising initiative , a community business , a knowledge-sharing network , the world is about to change . suddenly this sector’s relative lack of resources ceases to be the structural handicap it always has been . it becomes possible to bring together thousands of people with a common purpose in a moment . possible for a tiny but talented coalition to address a wide public as effectively as the largest multinational .

people need support in developing these skills , and the tools with which they will be able to achieve their objectives . group communication infrastructure is the key . every existing groupware technology i know of is rigid , centralised , top-down , overhead-heavy and dependent on proprietory solutions . these are tools designed for industrial-age organisations characterised by supervision-chains , formality and inflexible heirarchy . i seek to design an alternative which is light , decentralised , open-structured and which stimulates creativity and learning . i hope i’m in the process of doing this , but i couldn’t say how .

c i r c u s

a gathering of expertise which is informal , international , idealistic and playful . it’s a long time evolving but it’s going to be interesting . i wrote a sort of draft framework for it in the pub last week .

that’s about it . my hunch is that next year i’ll be working on the same four projects ( amongst others ) but the priority will be sse , circus , scillonia , me .

we’ll see !

what i’d really like to happen now is for people to write in and question me about any aspects of the projects i’ve described . i find it much easier to respond to interrogation than to volunteer information . there’s also the possibility of transforming this mailing list , turning into a more democratic affair in which anyone can participate with an equal voice rather than me droning on all the time . i’ve no idea whether that’s a good idea but if a significant number of people express interest in it i’ll put it to a vote !

shit it’s a relief to have got all that out of my system , inadequate though it undoubtedly is .

: cH

f o r e t a s t e

00:13 thursday 14 october – rosevear , st agnes

my very first night in rosevear , though i shall not move in until next week . this is a wonderful house , an ancient granite and ramm dwelling to which extra rooms have accreted over the years . at its heart is a big open kitchen in which the rayburn mumbles away . i photographed johann installing it in the spring . he has now stripped it down and de-coked it ready for the winter . it heats the house , provides hot water , two hobs and an oven . wonderful iron machine !

from the kitchen extends a long light studio at one end and the sitting room at the other . the bathroom is off to one side . upstairs there are three bedrooms , in one of which i repose now as i write .

i came over from st mary’s this evening to attend a meeting in agnes’ little school . though it currently has ten pupils , the islanders are facing the prospect that this will drop to zero over the next six or seven years . numbers have fluctuated constantly since the school was set up by augustus smith , then lord proprietor of the islands , in 1830 or thereabouts . but this is the first time it has faced such a serious crisis .

the same situation occurred on bryher some years ago , the only island with a population smaller than agnes’ . indeed in the fifties there was some speculation that bryher would cease to be viable as a community and would be depopulated , an eventuality which has happily been avoided . but the education authority decided to close bryher’s school , promising that it would be re-opened as soon as the island had children once again . the years passed and children were born , but the school was never re-opened . instead pupils cross daily to be taught on neighbouring tresco .

the people of agnes are determined they shall not lose their school . tonight’s meeting was to start working out how . about twenty-five people turned up , a third of the population and the nearest thing to a full island meeting to have occurred so far this year . the discussion was focused , intelligent and constructive . i sense that the island will not only succeed in preserving its school but that wider benefits may also emerge in the process . this will be a major focus of discussion here over the winter , and one to which my experience may be relevant .

tomorrow morning i return to st mary’s . roger lorenz , one of the islands’ two telecoms engineers , installed two lines into rosevear this morning , so everything is ready for me to set up shop . but the lyonesse lady ( the inter-island freight launch ) is currently laid up alongside the quay at hugh town for maintenance of some kind . hopefully she’ll be in service early next week so i’ll be able to pack up and shift everything across .

i’m quite excited about being in this house for the next three and a half months , being back amongst this community and this landscape . i don’t think i’ve ever looked forward to a winter so much as i do to the coming one . there’s an awful lot of work for me to do .

22:50 saturday 16 october – scillonia digital workshop , st mary’s

just got back here after supper at watermill . feeling pretty down on computers . last night my jaz drive , my primary storage device , bit the dust . it’s the second time this has happened and i only bought the wretched thing in march . hopefully i won’t have lost any data but i won’t be able to get at anything until iomega gets a replacement drive to me . this took a couple of weeks when the last one died at the beginning of june . it couldn’t have chosen a worse time .

but i’m able to continue some bits of work in the meantime . this afternoon i put together my first stab at photographic despatches :

http://www.charlesarmstrong.net/1999/10

it’s a start .

: cH

t w e a k i n g

991001.1550 hayle station , cornwall

three slightly ragged young girls , no older than seven or eight , were sitting on a fence as i wound my way here through the council estates . i pointed to a path forking off to the left and asked if it led to the station . < police ? > asked one of them brightly . she looked non-plussed when i explained that it was actually the * railway * station i was after .

23:54 sunday 3 october – watermill , st mary’s

i arrived back in the islands yesterday evening feeling refreshed and focused . i’ve been working for most of the time since then and enjoying it more than i have done for ages . anna and adam looked after me in hayle for a couple of days and i took the opportunity to visit dr randolph white in truro , an early mentor of whom i have not seen enough in recent years . it feels as though i’m back on some kind of track .

on friday night a trawler was lost off peninnis head , the jagged southern tip of st mary’s , in high wind and sea . she struck rock while most of her crew were asleep below deck , sinking so fast there was barely time to send up a flare . one soul was lost , a pendeen man on his first voyage , leaving a wife and two children . the lifeboat found the rest clinging to a gas tank in the water . these tragedies are felt closely .

the islands are windy , cold and beset by flurries of rain and hail . a lifestyle based in tent and stable becomes uncomfortable in such conditons . i am grateful for my great aunt ethel’s eiderdown which keeps me from chill . but as i sat writing in the workshop last night with hailstones bouncing on the papers and machinery around me i had a sense that it might be time to move on .

happily for me johann has had a cancellation and i will be able to move into rosevear , the house on agnes in which he was born , any time after next weekend . heaven forbid i should ever take solid walls , a watertight roof and ( gasp ! ) an oil-fired range for granted again . i expect to be joined sometime in mid november by nik shultz , an interactive designer from san francisco who will be working in the islands until easter . perhaps i mentioned that already ? quite a funky little hub of digital industry !

my last gloomy despatch provoked quite a range of responses , from a lovely account of endurance running in the scottish hills to plain old worry ( i’m okay mum , honest ) . i was grateful for them all . but i still don’t understand what mr godfrey from dad’s army has to do with it . perhaps you could explain , alistair ?

on the basis of people’s feedback it’s clear that i must abandon the practice of sending photos as email attachments . from now on i’ll stick them on the web and include a reference to the address .

oh , and i’ve decided to change the way i mark date and time in these despatches , as sharp-eyed readers will have noticed . my minimalist rows of numerals came to seem unnecesarily clinical .

having resolved to describe my project i’m trying to work out how .

so from me , adieu

: cH