Vital Networks: the work of transforming experience into understanding

How can we get better as groups at learning from the experiences we go through? I have been wondering about new approaches to care and this question has been much in my mind since interviewing members of the public during a project about the “word on the street” in Liverpool in 2015. It was a sobering month in which I came to know personally just how disaffected and disenfranchised the public felt about anything changing for the better in England.  In a comment on the Edgeryders community call on improving how we support each others mental and spiritual health, I wondered if “everyone who lives in a distributed area is in some way involved in processing the emotions experienced in that place”. I feel a great potential for technological networks to create rituals and bring people together to process experiences in new ways. Generally, I’m talking about creative networks for coming back to life: networks that invite people into a social experience to care about themselves and other people, to keep hold of their hopes, to understand beyond their own spheres of experience and to find support in being the magician of their own life. This is speculative stuff, I realise, so I’ll anchor my offering to this strand in real examples and share work that I know of and am making.

A frank admission to start: the subject of networks of care is relatively new terrain for me. I’m no expert and there are long histories and contexts that I cannot represent here.  I really welcome feedback, criticism, references and most of all, examples of working networks already in place. There are many excellent examples and the diversity of reports shared on this site - the variety of food sharing initiatives, performance and storytelling circles, maker spaces and innovative support systems - is informing my learning around this subject.

One of the areas that show most clearly the positive effects that community interventions can have are post-conflict efforts. In this post, I want to tell you about the powerful work of theTrust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH) who developed a program with survivors of the Nyayo House Torture Centre and other centres in Kenya. In a follow up piece I will look more at digital systems with a mind to exploring how elements of ritual and and formalised events for expression and listening might be tapped into in new ways to support communities through online means.

Facilitating Forgiveness: the hardest job there is?

I met Denis Ngala when I was doing some work in Timbavati, South Africa. He is a tall, radiant and infectiously joyful character, utterly grounded and with a sense of spiritual authority having spent most of his twenties studying in a seminary. He told me a lot about the work that he was doing in Kenya with TICAH and the problems that faced victims of torture returning to society after they had been released.

Details of the intense suffering and the physical and mental abuse that went on in Nairobi’s Nyayo House torture chambers and other places of detention during President Moi’s regime are still emerging decades later. Ngala was working at facilitating meals for torture victims and their perpetrators where they could have honest discussions in an attempt to heal these old wounds. He told me that often the victims and perpetrators of the violence were people who grew up in the same village and had studied at neighbouring schools so he was often bringing together people who had known each other throughout their lives. The kind of emotional resolve and resources needed for either survivor or perpetrator to face the horror of the past and sit down together, share food and listen to each other’s stories is frankly extraordinary. But Ngala describes his methodology when convening these meetings as based on simplicity: “it is rooted in listening to one another and honouring each life story.” His role as the third party, guiding the conversation, ensuring that each person spoke and was listened to has had truly beneficial effects. He tells me that some who have gone through the process visit each other and share their childhood stories or are able to meet at public occasions.

One very illuminating aspect of this work is that the focus goes beyond the individuals directly involved. TICAH has looked to help educate the wider community to understand what had happened and how to support it. This was necessary as without  intervention communities often closed up, and rather than accepting the survivor back into social contact they viewed the returning survivor with unease and distrust, creating a situation in which survivors sometimes found themselves ostracised, left to deal with the experience alone.

TICAH met this situation with interventions that emphasised embodied communication and the creative body. They invited those effected to walk a labyrinth together in a peace ceremony and organised body map workshops that brought together different survivors to share their stories. The body-mapping workshops use art skills to trace participants’ bodies and then map elements of their life stories onto this body map: visual elements are added that stand for the individual’s aims, what supports them, the traumas they have lived through and their strengths. These visual records are a way of introducing the details of what happened in captivity back into the community to be held by everyone. So the labyrinth walking and the body-mapping make the real lives, bodies and experiences of the victims a public experience and enable the wider community to listen to and appreciate how these survivors managed to live through painful and unbelievably challenging times.

The Human Element

This is incredible work - through these interventions TICAH help communicate that the process of recovery is not the problem of the victim of torture alone, but is in a very real sense owned by the whole community. One striking aspect is the emphasis on accepting the seriousness of the situation - dealing with the very worst of what humans can do to each other - with vital, dramatic, expressive interactive meetings. The labyrinth walking is profoundly beautiful group ritual and the body mapping opens up the assembled individuals to listen to the challenges that others have lived through, and it does this in a joyful and creative way. Reconciliation over food feels innately right. The activities though almost timeless in their simplicity are unusual and unexpected, and generally unlike anything that any of the participants have done before. The act of doing something new is particularly suited to transforming problems as there are no painful memories attached; it opens up new horizons and is perhaps more likely to lead to a renewed present.

When I ask Ngala what networked technologies could do to help these efforts he replies that they could help facilitate expression: “In this work there are problems, most of them could be solved through sharing. When survivors are given opportunities to share their stories they heal fast. Networks would provide a good platform for people to share their experiences. Sharing could be done through writing or be spoken. Narrations could be recorded and later could be used to make short clips.” I think of just how possible this is as it is poses a clear and actionable technological problem, but looking at Ngala I wonder whether he realises how key his presence is to the process and the quality of the interaction. What forges the profound shifts in people’s experience is how their expression is received, listened to, validated and responded to. When speaking with Ngala, a man with vast generosity of soul and focused attention, you really do feel stronger. He beams at you and honours your presence in a way that is rare. In conversation with him you feel that your words matter, your life is respected and that miraculous healing is possible. Popular culture tends to talk about purging emotions, as if emotions are toxic material that needs ejecting from your system, but what Ngala’s work shows is that the magic is in the courage to speak honestly and the grace of being heard: that’s when emotions turn into understanding. The human catalysts at TICAH are so much a part of why these reconciliation attempts have been successful and any attempt to extend the work through technology needs to factor this in at the centre.

Simplicity of invitation, creative expression, embodied shared experience, working and listening to others, ritual time and focus, the unexpected, all these feel like good leads for designing a transformative care network. TICAH’s emphasis on shared humanity and that each person is a human being with a different story encourages survivors and perpetrators alike to stand strong in themselves, to understand the past and live a better day.  I think of post-conflict creative efforts like that creatively depict the subjectivities of Nepali people in the aftermath of the earthquake. There is a courage in projects that present every person, even though they may have lived through horrendous circumstances, as a human being with a unique story and power.

Digital Networks for Creative Care

Strong mutual care is essential not only in places seeking to recover from atrocities, but generally for people working together and sharing space, especially if they are “living on the edge”. Change is difficult and every group liable to conflict. E.C. Whitmont writes in The Symbolic Quest that “The seeming inevitability of conflict among the archetypal “powers” can cause us to experience life as a hopeless, senseless impasse. But the conflict can also be discovered to be the expression of a symbolic pattern still to be intuited.” There’s a potential that we can reach into the intuitions that come out of difficult experience and grow understanding of group dynamics to create pathways that do not end in violence, abuse and waste. The sad cases of suicide, sabotage, ill health and conflict that we know of in digital tech, startup and hacker cultures show that forging wisdom in this area is important.

I feel the need for strange networks of care: unusual, compelling networks that don’t attempt to fix anyone but make healing and self-understanding an adventure and help individuals back into the simple joys of communion and creativity. To explore group dynamics and coherence in recent projects I’ve been involved in, I’ve worked with beans, with dreams (following the method of my mentor Apela Colorado) and with storytelling  Back up in Liverpool we’re improvising on Stafford Beer’s work on group dynamics in public meetings. Whether it’s VR group therapy where you experience your own body and other people in highly unusual ways or group Skype rituals for reconciliation the whole notion of care networks is wide open for innovation and renewal. As a guiding design point I think the only answer to questions like how can ritual time be held online or how can digital networks provide the intensity of feedback of live interaction is bold creativity. If you have examples of creative online systems to faciliate group communication and support that go beyond a message board or online forum and become something more vital and “live” please share them.  I’ll be at 33C3 if there’s people from the Edgeryders community who want to meet around the theme of hacking strange networks of care. There’s also an option to organise a session:

Learning in Doing 

There is a huge amount of trauma recovery material and contexts for group psychology that I do not know about. It is challenging terrain. As much as it’s essential to tread carefully, it is also necessary to create. The outpouring of emotional pain, anger and concern after the American election makes clear a need for strong communities of action and bold ways for participating in new stories. As worrying as is the prospect of making mistakes around mental health, the more worrying prospect is not creating networks to meaningfully connect up alienated, isolated or suffering individuals. Local actions, online networks and communities are all growing this November: each network has a different focus. Involving digital technology to reimagine group psychology and care (beyond Facebook) is just one of the potentials to help these evolving networks support themselves.

Ngala’s experience shows that targeted and bold ventures can reboot the community’s ability to support and that there is the possiblity of even the most horrific of violations healing. The greatest thing that I learnt from Ngala is the scale of his belief. When I ask him what has been the most illuminating discovery about human care through facilitating this work he replies: “The most amazing thing is we are all human who heal despite all the experiences we have met in life”.  His belief is born out by his experience. It is vital not to miss the transformative quality of having one person believe in another. I consider the enormous amount of work and transformation needed in the decades ahead to meet the problems of our time and then I think about three human beings sitting down for a meal in Kenya and have the sense that great tasks are possible if we learn to work together.

Links on article: with TICAH’s founder Mary Ann Burris with details on body mapping:

Photo: Denis Ngala in South Africa

The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016.

1 Like

really enjoyed this comment:

“Popular culture tends to talk about purging emotions, as if emotions are toxic material that needs ejecting from your system, but what Ngala’s work shows is that the magic is in the courage to speak honestly and the grace of being heard: that’s when emotions turn into understanding”

Certainly a lot to think about.

Thank you for sharing your work with us and teachigng me about Denis’ initiative.

I wondered also if you were aware of the work Joshua Oppenheimer has done on film with and on the Indonesian genocide?

“The Act of Killing”

I found that documentary very very scary in its realism and portrayal of cold blood grotesque crimes and the fact that there seemed to be no redemption whatsoever, no healing, no sense of humanity at all. Perhaps I need to watch it again, but there is no way I could make sense of what happened by the end of it… I wonder if those inhabiting that space could. ever. and what that tells us.

Thank you @kate_g for the piece, I hope you do get to write the second one and also that we’ll meet at ccc. We seem to not be able to buy tickets this year because of high demand. Let’s see.

Director’s Cut

I watched the Directors cut of the film and at nearly 3.30hrs it was one of the most confusing and harrowing experiences on film i’ve ever had. That said, there is a moment towards the end where you start to see under the mask of the protagonists. There is a moment when you realise that this really has affected them and they are questioning their decisions. It’s really small but very powerful. I think that’s why the filmmaker went back to the same subject to make a follow up film. Which i haven’t seen yet.

Thanks for the story & links

This comment sums it up for me. Conversation and understanding turn coping into progress.

The process can be a catalyst towards peace of mind and balance, which is a healthier attitude than striving for an unattainable bliss where there’s no trace or memory of the negative experience. The former is resilient for the future, the latter is very fragile. When you start purging negative emotions, there’s usually some collateral damage and you end up taking down good things as well.

Thank you for sharing this Kate, and thanks for the extra links Alex.


@Alex Levene I will watch these films. Even watching the trailers it’s clear that the film is pushing against people’s desire not to talk about what happened. Which is a very human way of dealing with confounding horror and disgust. Using performance and re-enactment to go right into what happened is almost unbearably powerful.

Just read your post over at A great thread! How did you get on with the application?

It feels ridiculous in many ways for me to talk about innovating new digital networks when this year I have spent little time online (apart from a Facebook flurry during Brexit vote & November the 8th). I’ve missed a lot of posts & sharing. Too much work in VR headsets for too many years means that my stamina for interacting through screens is at an all time low.

But the networks I have engaged with are some sessions I’ve been running on Hacking Reality and a group set up by Charlotte Pulver in London to get muddy and clear out springs on Hamstead Heath. The outdoor emphasis of my life at the moment shifts my interest in networked technologies - more emphasis on Augmented Reality, GPS for content, lasers and light, alternative communication systems… Feel you intuitions on care and art are on the right track.

Hope some Edgeryders will be about at the Chaos Computer Club in Dec to meet on care and going forwards into 2017. Will share some more developments in the new year too & make a concerted effort to login.

Thanks & tickets

@WinniePoncelet Thanks. Wise succinct summary. Apreciated.

@Noemi I’ll write at the December meet. & yes, we had problems getting tickets too. Last batch of tickets go on sale 2016-11-25 10:00 (Fr). Good luck!

Thanks for sharing!

These stories here are so well written and impressive - and this one particularly so.

It still took me a few attempts to endeavour it, because more often than not it’ll tempt you to throw everything down and want to help with what the author is working on. This one is no exception.

However this time I’ve been busy with something that could make a contribution that is interesting to your case ( @kate_g ) . I’ve been meaning to do it as a little story aswell but it really is only hobby format now - and I’d need someone with other background to apply it.

To keep it really brief I’ll just lay out the bare bones, though in application it could be tweaked in very different directions (education, journalism, anthropology/ethnography).

In terms of concept think the opposite of broadcasting*, where one signal (on one schedule) goes out to everyone. Here I try to reach niches, perhaps indirectly, as much on their schedule & terms as possible, and I listen to them (ratio of listen/tell can be tweaked).

In terms of hardware I am currently sitting on 10 cheapo mp3 players and some mp3 voice recorders. The idea is to put some audio content on a small memory card (perhaps also some visual content e.g. on playing card size). This costs 2-3 $ and can hold days worth of structured audio content. The strucure of the content is important because I hope to turn the play+listener into a temporary agent (a little tolkeen’s ring style). So you would have incentives there for the player (or several) to traverse the community networks in a mix of chance, human behavior, and programming, and hopefully end up in someones lap who may have been incredibly hard to find using other methods.

You can then get the recorder to this person (or have the person respond via a phone recording in a “relatively 1st world context”) and document things in long form (8 GB - up to a week). Parts of this will be amiable for speech to text conversion. ( @brenoust that is why I asked the last time we talked)

Once you get the text corpus you can open it up the the digital domain ( @amelia can then probably mine this from an enthnograpic/anthropologic perspective) while it can remail fully anonymous. I also have a concept in mind for quantitative feedback which is similarly simple tech for users (colored beads on a string) but machine readable.

That way you get quant + qual abstractions but you can still jump to the original content fairly easily (provided you speak the language). It ought to scale quite well, especially if you can reuse some of the players.

The motivation for this came from a number of directions (OLPC griping, importance to capture emotion in human interaction, World Bank issues/capability building (two way!)) so I’ve played through a couple of different concepts that can perhaps be divided by organizational/technical aspects, content/didactic aspects, and info flow direction/volume.

I’m currently working on putting together a prototype kit that could plausibly run for a couple of months (and with minor support perhaps years) as a replacement for a “sit-in school” in remote areas that have trouble with teacher absenteeism ( @nadia perhaps interesting to Olivier @ Co - also best of luck in Paris!) and people being too poor to abstain from manual labour for so long (and of course blind, illiterate, etc.). At the moment I’m checking the recharge curves to see how long the cheapo players will survive before someone needds to know how to fix/replace/work around the battery. If any of you see potential there I’d be happy to discuss it and set it up as a proper story.

*that is why the working title is currently “small casting”. Suggestions welcome :slight_smile:

Small casting => pocket university?

@trythis this reminds me of the concept of “pocket university” proposed by @Matthias . :slight_smile:

Yeah they are related

We combined our idea soups on the topic for the Nepal Hackathon but I think both of us had similar ideas bouncing around for year before that.

Small casting is just another riff on the concept which would share a lot of the same hardware and some of the same content I assume. After reading around a lot of the World Bank issues it seemed to me a good MVP-style approach that could disintermediate and also flank their ongoing projects.

One point that set it apart from PU is that this one is more geared towards information flow BACK to the party doing an intervention. The idea is that staff will get a handful of mp3 players (and colored pearls for stringing up) with say 2-3 different sets of “directions” to traverse the OFFLINE social networks to carry on them at all times. When they come across an “interesting person” (e.g. very altruistic behavior, subject to certain condition, etc.) they can, without a word, hand them the mp3 player and things can expand from there. With the right incentives (perhaps including m-pesa) there is potential for large amounts of very detailed quant (coded with the colored pearls) + qual that should be relatively undistorted.

By default one could have most of the players in circulation doing more of a PU for poor young women with the appropriate content and a good amount of infotainment mixed in. And of course 1-2 tracks for repairing/charging etc. the players, 2-3 tracks for getting the feedback from the women, and perhaps another couple (later in the process) for building the capability to translate/record additional lectures into the local language.

I currently have envisioned about 100 mp3 players (shared among 2-3 people each) with appropriate support to keep them going for a couple of months minimum in the field which runs slightly above 1000 USD. Of course it’ll be critical to work on ways to reduce the technical attrition rate and balance/channel “misuse” into something arguably helpful.

Then it would be interesting to see how results vary between a “helicopter distribution” vs “digging into a niche”. And of course on the horizon is the ability to plug these collected monologues or discussion into a platform like ER. That way you’re not only getting the “word on the street” but also the “word at the water hole” with some lag in very rural places.

Nice one!

Thanks for the pointer, Alberto. Actually @trythis was the inspiration for the Rasoberry Pi local media servers after the Nepal earthquake last year, and this way also for Pocket University. Lots of inspiration coming from that guy :slight_smile: I’d be interested to utilize a small casting / pocket university like setup for teaching better coffee farming in Hansapur, Gorkha, Nepal. Which is the village for this year’s trial of our “direct international sales of Nepali coffee” project. Just a small project for now, with a friend from last year going there around next week and then again in February. The problem is obviously getting the coffee farming content together, in Nepali …

Edit 1: For extending smallcasting to two-way communication, it would of course be perfect to have a small cheap MP3 player with recorder. But does not exist as far as I know. Feedback recording via mobile phone is possible for >80% of people in low-infrastructure regions, but of course voice quality is an issue then. Most times, I get back to using old-ish smartphones since they are available for <15 EUR used in Europe. Battery capacity is an issue of course …

Edit 2: Two hardware inspirations for @trythis which I found for Pocket University: (1) there are 10-20 MP3 player models which can be fitted with an aftermarket open source firmware … of course good to mod / extend the player. (2) there are cheap MP3 players in neck-worn form factor, which to me seems the best to allow working while listening, without interfering with cables, or earplugs falling out all the time etc…

Thanks fot the links

I may not use them straight away, but who knows what is around the next bend. :slight_smile:

In terms of players I found a couple really cheap at (with earplugs & cable!) but I had problems ordering so I used various amazons (B001B43J8E and B01LAE19D6 ) for now. I actually want very limited capability on the players to start with so that you have to listen through a lecture to get to the infotainment/music part behind it. The cheapo players are fine for that. The other thing that is partially a feature is their crappy 110mAh battery. Currently I am testing the common failure modes, and it also looks like it will be possible to run them without battery directly from either a bucked 12V battery, or a boosted low voltage source (AAA), and of course sunny PV. All of those options (and more) will be in a full kit. In terms of wearing them - they work fine under a hat or headscarf. With 15g they should not be much of a nuisance around the neck either.

As for mp3 recorder I think you are right - there is no really cheap option. I’ve bought this ASIN B01G8OK1O6 for 20$ and it works very well so far. However at that cost I can’t hand them out to just anyone, but I first have to find reliable candidates. Probably I’ll also have to work with other recording formats in the beginning. There are a couple of other somewhat decent recorders around 10-15$ but they don’t save into mp3 or aren’t exactly inuitive.

Regarding your translation (I assume mostly into audio format) this is what I would do: Go around at the schools and ask the teachers if they can recommend someone who has a nice voice and good pronounciation and English skills. Ugliness, bad eyesight, physical deformity, rural upbringing is all a big plus. Probably won’t hurt if you let 3-5 try translating and recording the same piece. Then find someone above average knowledgeable in the actual field work who has a somewhat deeper understanding of the issues and let him/her review the recordings. That is your first team. Then make second team like that and use it to translate some sections of the first piece back into English. Eventually you will probably need a Nepalese speaker who picks up enough audacity (the software) to process this intermediate product into a decent lecture - this person can sit anywhere though.

What is “body mapping”?

Apologies if it is clear to everyone else. Happy to follow a link if you give me one.

It wasn’t clear to me, but if i have it correctly:

You draw an outline of your body (real sized, or smaller) and then you connect personal experiences, traumas, memories etc to certain body areas by writing on them on the picture.

For example, if you suffered a physical trauma to your right arm because of a car crash you might write Car Crash on the right forearm. It’s a nice way of visualising the experiences that make up your life. Although they are highly personal, they can also create anonymity because they are pictures, not stories.

We carry our scars around with us, but unless you tell people the story (relive the experience) we don’t know the difference between the person who broke their arm falling down stairs when drunk and the person who experienced brutality or torture.

see here

[is there a way that I can drag & drop images currently? I seem to have to upload them which takes a lot of clicks.]

body mapping

Hi @Alberto - Alex’s description is correct

You can see examples of the some of the body maps created in this Youtube clip:

Mary Anne explains TICAH’s process in more detail in this interview Interview with Mary Ann Burris, Executive Director, Trust for Indigenous Culture And Health (TICAH) | PracticalMattersJournal

Practical networks

@trythis @Matthias Good stuff and thanks for getting practical. Many of my efforts recently have been along the lines of building communication networks that amplify the real knowledge of a community. This is helpful info. Was reading about the Nepal work recently. Respect!

In an art context,  I’ve favoured systems that use cheap speakers & computing platforms - What is Bela? · BelaPlatform/Bela Wiki · GitHub The ritualistic attempt to voice what has not been voiced feels suited to something more public like a sculpture - eg. recent attempt with small bird sculpture in Liverpool that had speakers inside it

But you’re right that when it comes to spreading info & learning material, personal listening as you work is the way (& listening also cuts out the problem of not being able to study in the dark.) The mp3 system feels like it has really great potentials for education - and also distributing more taboo info like facts about AIDS and addiction treatment programmes.

@trythis I will pass this on to Ngala and some NGOs working with addiction & will be in contact if there’s interest.

One question - why not distribute cheap phones rather than mp3 players? Is it battery considerations? Phones seem to be altogether more useful and could simplify the problem of how to get the audio back?

On the subject of making the content accessible but also inspiring & interactive I think there’s interesting creative questions. It’s pretty clear that ”digging into a niche” is going to be more effective as a distribution method (though realise this has to be proved if you’re doing an academic study.) When it comes to replicating the “human touch” that Ngala gave to his work through his supportive presence, it feels like powerful design of the audio experience can hold that sense of the encouragement and support of another person. Interested how you meet that creative design question? ie. recording compelling content and storytelling that addresses the listener in a way that encourages interaction. There’s a few decades of experiments with this personal & empowering mode of address in the self help / meditation / change your life audio genre…

I reckon the other big creative challenge is a really accessible intuitive and compelling site that hosts all the monologues collected and that feels “alive” with the word of the community & updates often. Think there are some beautiful solutions evolving with immersive web and web VR. The clouds documentary  gives a nice example of fluidly exploring knowledge. But a challenge I’ve encountered is that curating and ensuring that the content remains relevant can be a full time job. However perhaps if you’ve got a strong interactive web design that role can be automated or distributed.

@trythis Do you envision asking listeners to speak back to a particular question? That feels like it would have some good focus to it.

On translating - I’m sure it’s a necessity to have local collaborators and fluent speakers of the language in the core team whenever this kind of knowledge share project runs. Perhaps also there’s something to learn from Duolingo and it’s method of getting language learners translating. There are so many language learning initiatives to encourage people back into learning languages other than english. If you can connect with people who are learning the language and you have the need for spoken translation, there’s a useful match.

Spreading info, language learning, cultural sharing and circulating cheap creative technology & making skills all feel like they go together well.

I’ve met a lot of people working with teaching languages that are dwindling in numbers. Teachers of the Maori language and the Khoisan languages of the San Bushman people. They have often complained how young people are led away from learning about their own culture by fascination in smartphones / iPads / all things modern. Combining cultural knowledge & language learning with what is considered aspirational tech can be a big motivator. I’ll expand on this in another post when further down the line with it.

Please ping me if you post news on your projects & @trythis I’ll connect you if I hear back from Ngala.