Article in the German online magazine Krautreporter

Hi everyone,

as most of you probably saw, I wrote an article about LOTE #4 and the unMonastery in the online magazine Krautreporter. I promised to write an outline of the article in English for you, so here it is. Keep in mind that this is only a brief outline, not a translation of the article, I don’t really feel qualified to do that. Also, I had to do a lot of explaining, since it was supposed to be for a wider audience so most of what I said here, you already know. :wink:

Thanks for letting me a part of this for a couple of days, I had a very interesting time in Matera!

Theresia

  • Stewardship is a term that has room for interpretaion. Explanations of the participants range from “taking care of resources together – for a common purpose” to “The activation of a peer-to-peer (or in this case, citizen-to-citizen) network, that makes it possible for a community to take care of itself.”
  • The unMonastery could count as a concrete example of stewardship.

    Materas bid for European capital 2019 makes it an ideal candidate for hosting a tech-utopian model: A group of people takes care of and lives in an unused building and at the same time works on projects that are supposed to serve the interests of the municipality – with nothing but code, good-will and skills.

  • The history of the unMonastery is short, but a little confusing. Edgeryders was founded in 2011 with money from the European Commission. The Think Tank was supposed to operate online and through a series of conferences and be open to all. The goal was to create a report outside of an institutional framework that would give EU-politicians insight into reality of young Europeans.
  • “The Edgeryders Guide to the Future” was published in 2012, which is also when the second conference took place in Brussels. Edgeryders decided to push forward, even though the EU funding ended. Part of the motivation for doing so was the idea that was conceived in Strasbourg: the unMonastery.
  • The name wasn’t chosen at random. The history of monasteries, with breweries, gardens, prayer and scripture was a fitting parallel.
  • How to bring that model in the 21st century? The answer lies in the “un”: Religion, hierarchy and gender barriers are supposed to be replaced by a focus on accessibility, documentation and transparency.
  • Another inspiration were hackerspaces, even though “they don’t necessarily have a social contract with the communities that surround them” (Ben)
  • Twelve “challenges” were developed in talks with the Materans that were supposed to form the basis for the work the unMonks would do in the next months. The idea of replicating the project and creating a European network of unMonasteries was central.
  • The modesty of the proposals is intentional and maybe a sign that idealism has become more pragmatic since the time of the communes in the 1960s. The comparison is so obvious that some joked the unMonastery is like a commune but with the internet.
  • Even though there is this self-awareness, the pitfalls are the same: Coming from the outside and “giving” people political agency (the german word I used here is “Selbstbestimmung”, self-determination maybe) might be oxymoronic. Matera is a place were people have been forced to take care of themselves for decades. In his 1945 book “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, the Italian author Carlo Levi described the area as a world “hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State, eternally patient”, a land “without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death.”
  • By the 1950s, the sassi had become a slum area and were “evacuated” by the government. It was only at the end of the 1980s that the city realized the touristic potential and began renovation. Since 1993 the sassi are a UNESCO world heritage site. In October 2014 the European Commission announced that Matera had won the bid for European capital of culture. Interest from the outside is probably going to increase over the next years.
  • LOTE \#4 was partly a review and an outlook for the unMonastery. One of the sessions invited locals to share their view of the project. One of them said: “We were told these Americans would come and solve our problems in three months. Basically, we were expecting superheroes.” Apparently, the unMonastery couldn’t fulfill the high expectations. The enthusiasm that I felt during the conference felt a little dampened that day.
  • If you believe in open source, though, you also believe that mistakes are unavoidable and that they have to be documented, so that the wider community can work on tweaking and improving the process. For somebody who is new to the topic, the focus on documentation can seem a little excessive. The unMonastery has transparent finances, the sessions were documented on a hackpad and there is a wiki listing all possible information – from “daily rituals” to the “political climate”. This is commendable, but the risk is that big amounts of documents are piling up online – without being contextualized or (maybe) even read.
  • The other risk is that this kind of documentation is very time intensive. In another session looking back on the unMonastery, we learn that the weekly dinners that were popular with the people of Matera had to be sacrificed for an information session for the wider Edgeryders community.
  • It feels a little strange sitting in the caves of this old city and hearing about projects that have no connection to the place. It still is interesting to hear Vinay Gupta talk about the hexayurts. Or Helen Kaplinsky about Islington Mill. Discussions about the dangers and the use of the sharing economy are surely relevant today.
  • Maybe this conference inspired another project with political value. It is a good sign that politicians like Fabrizio Barca and Amelia Andersdotter came. The unMonastery has further offers from places in Greece and Spain. And watching the enthusiasm and optimism of this community one likes to believe in teething troubles (I’m not sure if this is the right term here, as a non-native speaker, I’m maybe not the right person to translate into English ;) ) that can be solved by little tweaks and improvements.
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Expectations differ

Thanks for sharing this, well done! I had difficulty reading the German version…

“Apparently, the unMonastery couldn’t fulfill the high expectations” 

Contextualizing I think is crucial when it comes to this project… and you probably saw while you were at Lote4 how much expectations differed, even among people in the local community. Those present in that particular session admitted to not having engaged much, precisely because they expected unMonasterians to come meet them, whereas for foreigners opening up a space this may be harder.

During that same session other people were raving about the CoderDojo, and how well that worked (ironically titled “a story of inclusive, collaborating, fun learning”). So a lot of mixed expectations, the question is whose should weight and how much when drawing a line to evaluate this prototype or being able to say x,y,z? I don’t have an answer, my personal take is that a lot of stuff is to be learned from so many people behind such a small project, and I remain quite positive and hopeful for its future… you?

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a very good point

Thank you, Theresia! I like your bold musings with regard to unMonastery.

“Coming from the outside and “giving” people political agency (the german word I used here is “Selbstbestimmung”, self-determination maybe) might be oxymoronic.

I don’t think it is oxymoronic but certainly far from obvious and despite all the confusion with regard to expectations around the unMonastery project, this may be the most important problem in developing a working model. There are serious questions embedded in this observation, about funding, stakeholders, social and political goals, timeframes and recruitment. My personal opinion is that the only way to give anyone any kind of agency is through knowledge and skill share. How to connect this to the rest of the ideas around unMonastery is a question that remains to be answered. 

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Would have been really lovely to read some of this before attending the event, Edgeryders is a hard thing to get your head around… I think especially because someone used the word thinktank in conjunction with it.

"Coming from the outside and “giving” people political agency " 

This is a very current debate around codesign - when designers cede control of design to users, they engage in ‘metadesign’ of that codesign process which affects the outcome. But any kind of intervention at all is always going to have this problem, so the alternative is doing nothing.

I think it’s fine, as long as you are transparent about it. Pretending there is no power structure is the worst case scenario, because there always is one. (More thoughts here: http://jimmytidey.co.uk/blog/hackdays-codesign-prefigurative-politics/)