The LOTE5 conference was prose to LOTE4’s poetry. In 2014 we were in the ancient caves of Southern Italy, now we found ourselves in a repurposed warehouse in Brussels. Quixotic to pragmatic; swapping catholic for protestant, wine for Leffe. Apart from that sentence I’ll give the purple prose a rest - last time I was getting carried away by views of medieval churches down the valley, this time I’ll stick to what happen at the conference.
LOTE is a conference organised by Edgeryders, but what is Edgeryders? It’s an online forum, it’s a community, a Europe-wide network. The community coauthors reports about political issues, and collectively they run the conference and other events. ‘Distributed think tank’ seems to capture some aspects of it, if imperfectly. I left LOTE4 thinking that the first rule of Edgeryders is that you don’t define Edgeryders. This year, we had a discussion about what Edgeryder’s ‘elevator pitch’ is - a complete reversal.
When you try to say what Edgeryders is - or ought to be - there are two perspectives to switch between. There is the offer that Edgeryders makes to the world, its sales pitch for consultancy work, and there is the offer that it makes to its members. What does it do for it’s members? I liked John Coate’s (more of him later) metaphor: Edgeryders is for ‘free electrons’, people full of energy bouncing chaotically across society and looking for something to orbit around.
Nadia EL-Imam, one of the founders, described “a drive towards a very specific position in the labour market: full time employment. But that seems to be less and less available.” Edgeryders is the alternative. Nadia also described a ‘transgressive’ attitude to expertise which comes when people take on multiple roles. Edgeryders offers a coworking space, with a new definition of working and without the space. It’s a place to locate yourself alongside traditional employment.
But for the community to exist at all, they have to keep winning bids and getting funding. To win bids it’s necessary (but not sufficient) to offer a product or service that people can understand. We had a session discussing what that could be, one interesting answer came from Giulio Quaggiotto. Edgeryders, to him, is a way for bureaucracies to contract with people they otherwise could not. Government agencies can’t directly employ hackers and artists, they are too risky, and in any case bureaucracies don’t know where to find them. On this understanding, Edgeryders is to it’s members what securitisation is to mortgages.
Edgeryders has been very involved with the European Capitals of Culture program, helping the city of Matera win the competition. In this context the organisation has another utility. Even if a local government has formed links with the creatives and activists in their own town, Edgeryders brings a pan European dimension. That’s very important in programs which require international or European networks, of which the Capitals of Culture program is one.
I felt we missed the point that Edgeryders brings a certain kind of sexiness. We contrasted Edgeryders with McKinsey (a very established consultancy), trying to work out what made Edgeryders unique. Which is funny, because if Edgeryders is anything, it’s unique. What do I think McKinsey do to win a bid? Probably take everyone out for dinner at a posh restaurant. Well, for a certain audience, Edgeryders can trump that: Disco Soupe. On the Saturday night of the conference everyone went to a community kitchen and prepared dinner from left over vegetables with music to keep the energy levels up. It’s exotic and honest and fresh in a way that McKinsey will never be - it may not be for everyone, but for a particular audience it’s catnip.
The difficulty is that Edgeryders’ members all have strong and divergent political opinions, so whatever the process of instrumentalising the community is, it has to avoid upsetting people. Elevator pitches don’t capture nuances, and the nuances will matter.
Which brings us to the keynote talk, by John Coate, about how (digital) communities can avoid melting down. John was a founding member of The Farm, a famous cooperative, and also a foundational member of The Well and SF Gate - very much the right person to speak on the topic.
The talk was so good I could happily recount it all, but the notes are available here so I won’t. Personally, I was curious to note how much of the advice resonated with my experience of writing. I got a lot from his idea that the ‘default setting’ in humans is to misunderstand. I’m often infuriated when people can’t understand written communication that I’ve spent so long crafting. It’s helpful to remember that if you are trying to express difficult ideas that aren’t fully formed then misunderstandings are commonplace. It’s normal to have your words misconstrued, especially across cultural or disciplinary boundaries.
John is a veteran of the San Francisco counter culture, which gave birth to Silicon Valley and is the origin of so much of the online world we are familiar with. He suggested that Edgeryders could also embody a kind of innovation that can’t come from conventional institutions, just as The Well did before.
What is that innovation? It’s about building systems that link people and organisations quicker and more effectively. It doesn’t have to be digital, but digital is giving us an amazing laboratory for testing new ideas. Digital networks make it easier to measure changes, and policy makers love evidence. Digital also means that geographical distance is less important, international communities can form more easily.
But Edgeryders also understands that networks are hybrid, the offline component is just as important as the online.
Years of sociological research have shown how important an individual’s interpersonal connections are for their wellbeing. Now we are starting to apply that knowledge. One idea came up that Edgeryders is on a micro scale what The Atlas of Economic Complexity is on the macro scale. If everyone can navigate the network for themselves, hierarchical power structures are much less important.
I wanted to get down my thoughts on the big ideas from LOTE5, and to capture the change since 2014. Documentation is always a mantra at LOTE. I hope there isn’t so much here that it’s hopelessly confusing, but, as John Coate pointed out, sometimes that happens.
In another analogy, he said “There is an emotional sub-carrier with the words that you write”, what he calls the vibe. Write a post when you’re pissed off and people can tell, even if you try to hide it. The vibe in Brussels was positive, optimistic and ambitious, but then you already know that from my emotional sub-carrier. Nadia said she wanted to eat McKinsey’s breakfast, I reckon there’s a good chance that Edgeryders can at least add Disco Soupe to the menu.