One of the most important things for any society is to distinguish between ends and means to ends. –
– EF Schumacher
Technology is a means to an end.
– Martin Heidegger
Other things that live in my shed include rats, mice, spiders and sparrows. They rustle and die and have sex at night in the gap between the outer layer of rusting corrugated tin and the inner layer of long-dead trees. The gap is where insulation should be. In winter the shed is cold. There is no hot water. An outside tap with a piece of hose attached to it serves as a shower. My kitchen is a broken shower tray and half a driftwood pallet, on its side, with three tin plates stacked in it. Cutlery goes in a plant pot. There is no washing machine, central heating, fridge, freezer, toaster, oven or television. I recently created a toilet with my own bare hands and built a privy around it, cunningly disguised as a hedge in case the council decides to visit. There is decking, made from planks of wood that were thrown off a building site. There are two wooden posts for hanging a hammock, weather permitting, which is not very often.
You’re probably thinking I live like this because I’m a self-cleaning off-grid superhero with a talent for hewing things out of wood with my teeth. Or because I’m a rational, politically-minded individual who is making a reasoned statement about Generation Ecocide. Or because I’m a Neo-Luddite, ideologically disdainful of such things as electricity and broadband, preferring to pick a lute and carve spoons. The fact is I don’t like carving spoons. I have a cello, three guitars, about three hundred books and a problem with the concept of Kindle. But I also have a pair of Technics, a mixing desk, two powered monitors, a tape deck, a Pioneer CDJ, a vacuum cleaner (spiders) and broadband. Navigating the twenty-first century technosphere is a complex task, even in a tin shed at the end of a remote peninsula at the end of a small island in the middle of the Atlantic.
When I washed up here with a dented heart and the city still ringing in my ears, the shed was stuck in the inter-war years of the last century. It looked the way I felt. The roof sagged. The door had parted from its hinges. Paint came off in flakes the size of my hand. For a while I slept on the floor and used candles. I like candles. It would have been easier, greener and definitely more romantic to have eschewed electricity. But I wanted to listen to records. And since I make some of my money being a DJ, listening to records helps to make living here economically viable. You don’t have to have records to be a DJ anymore. Most DJs use computers. My records take up valuable shed space. It would be far more sensible to keep my music in the virtual world. But I love records. I love the way they feel in my hands. I love the sound of scratches. I love being able to flick through them at gigs. Plus it’s helpful to have pictures to look at when the linguistic part of my brain is too wasted to function (occupational hazard). It would be cheaper and much less confusing to live without the internet, but then I wouldn’t be able to buy records. Or write this and send it in via email. Or post songs on YouTube. Which would rather defeat the object of living in the shed, since I came here specifically to free up time for writing and song making.
It would have been easier, greener and definitely more romantic to have eschewed electricity. But I wanted to listen to records.
The relationship between time and technology is as complicated as the relationship between me and technology. For the past two and a half million years human beings have been developing tools that save time. Stone tools, metal tools, power tools. Machines for mass production. Threshing machines. Machines for washing clothes and dishes. Bikes, which are quicker than legs. Cars, which are quicker than bikes (or they used to be, until congestion reversed the equation). Apps so we don’t waste time waiting for buses. Dating apps so we don’t waste time falling in love with the wrong people. Satnav so we don’t waste time being lost.
The problem with time-saving technology is that you need money to access it, and making the money often ends up costing more time than just doing without the technology. The problem is as old as the stuff. Thoreau wrote about it in 1854:
The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages… Well, I start now on foot and get there before night… You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow.
William Morris wrote about it in 1884:
They are called labour-saving machines – a commonly-used phrase which implies what we expect of them; but we don’t get what we expect.
Journalist Evgeny Morozov wrote about it last week:
The dialectic of empowerment works in mysterious ways. Yes, the smart devices could save us time – so that we can spend it working to pay our higher, personalised insurance costs, or send that extra work-related email, or fill in an extra form that is required by some newly- computerised bureaucratic system.
It’s harder for us than it was for Thoreau and William Morris. Not just because the smorgasbord of technology is so much richer than it was when railways were radical, but also because we are living through the last, frantic clamour of consumer capitalism, which relies on manipulating us into thinking that happiness is in having, rather than in being, and that belonging requires an off-the-shelf identity. These days off-the-shelf identity often comes as a gadget, putting technological innovation right up there on the front line.
The front line of consumer capitalism is like a bus station from a dystopian novel I haven’t written yet. It looks a lot like a bus station in one of the more exploited countries I have travelled through. Hordes of desperate children, hands outstretched, fight each other for your money. There is shouting, kicking, wailing. You look into eyes made blank by wanting. You do not know who you are. You do not know what you should do. In the vacuum of your indecision come fingers, picking your pockets, picking your heart. You are left for dead. A rotting corpse. The children, still crying, go home to their pimp, who gives them just enough food to survive, just enough hope to keep them on the streets, keep them working, keep them shouting. The streets are rivers of rubbish.
‘We live in the shadow of a great lie,’ writes Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert.iv And the great lie is that ‘consumption will bring us happiness.’ Society needs this lie because the prevailing economic model depends on it. The problem is that ‘individuals and societies don’t have the same fundamental need. Individuals want to be happy, and societies want individuals to consume.’
But consumption costs. It costs money. It costs time. It costs the earth.
Luckily the prevailing economic model isn’t the only economic model. But navigating the twenty first century technosphere without being co-opted into consumer capitalism or becoming a Luddite is hard. Which is where sheds (and their metaphorical equivalents) come in. It helps to have a good pair of earplugs and access to the natural world.
There is a flower that grows on the cliffs near my shed. Its name is Armeria maritima. Armeria maritima is a perennial, which means it comes back year after year, spring after spring, dust to flowers, flowers to dust. All it needs is a bit of time and space. It grows in dark green squashy clumps that suddenly send out masses of flowers on bendy stems, all shades and varieties of pink, from faded to hot. The flowers are fuzzy and delicate like tiny pom pom balls and tough and hard like Charlie’s Angels. You can lie on them all night and in the morning they’ll pop up again smiling like nothing ever happened. In spring the rocky and inhospitable cliffs are literally covered with these flowers. I love them. You would too, if you’d spent the winter moving sideways through thick grey mizzle to collect dead gorse for kindling.
The other name for Armeria maritima is thrift, which is what my Grandma would probably have called the ‘circular economy’. The circular economy is an alternative economic model that is gaining traction not just among hippies like myself, but among global corporations like Nike, Ford and the Chinese government. It is the economic reality of being skint and living in a shed and trying to fulfill a sense of purpose. It is the economic reality of living on a finite planet where disposing of toxic, non-degradable materials is not just life-threatening but expensive. It is the recognition that when resources are limited, everything has value. It is understanding that products can be disassembled and reassembled, their component parts turned from useless to useful. With a bit of imagination and some intelligent design other people’s waste can be collected and turned into furniture. Flowers to dust. Dust to flowers.
The circular economy has its roots in the 1970s when techno-philosophers like Schumacher were turning to Buddhism for alternatives to the rampant materialism they had the foresight to worry about. According to Schumacher, in Buddhist Economics ‘the aim is to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.’v More recently, German chemist Michael Braungart teamed up with American architect Bill McDonough to write a book called Cradle to Cradle which sets out a design philosophy based on the ‘closed-loop nutrient cycles of nature.’vieconomic sense to rethink technological innovation in terms of sustainability. They point out that even when things are recycled they are only delaying their progress towards landfill, and that raping natural resources until there aren’t any left is bad for business. In the Cradle to Cradle system ‘biological and technical nutrients’ both ‘flow perpetually in closed-loop cycles of growth, decay and rebirth.’ Technology as inspired by nature. Their slogan: ‘Waste Equals Food.’
In a prevailing economic system where the UN environment programme reports that 40% of food supplies go in the bin every year in the US vii
My shed is made from the sliced flesh of old trees. I furnished it with old trees of my own. My family of musical instruments, my several hundred books, my footstool that’s as old as me with my name carved onto it. One day these old trees will sink back into the earth and be born again as worms, or blackbirds, or roses, or tall Scots pines or hunchbacked hawthorn or wild, stunted apples with burnt brown leaves and supernatural blinding blossom. At the intersection of trees and humans is innovation. Innovation from the Latin innovere – to alter and renew. Innovation to pit against decadence. Decadence from decay – a falling off or deteriorating from a prior state of excellence. Innovation versus landfill. Trees versus death.
Trees and their kin inspired the circular economy. They are also mentors within the gift economy. The gift economy brought me my decking, my woodburner, my bed, my bike. It brings me blackberries and apples in autumn, sea beet in spring, driftwood all year round. In the gift economy it is considered immoral to hoard, invest or waste gifts, for the simple reason that life depends on circulation.
The gift economy brought me my decking, my woodburner, my bed, my bike. It brings me blackberries and apples in autumn, sea beet in spring, driftwood all year round.
When I washed up at the shed, tired and confused, hurricanes had been flattening islands on the other side of the Atlantic. Planks of splintered wood and rope and bits of plastic washed up and lodged themselves among the granite boulders that pass for sand on the beach nearest my shed. I found a square wooden board, painted green, with the words Jesus Cares inscribed in blue on one side. I carried it home and made a chair. I sat on the chair with one of my old guitars and made up a new song –
The north wind is behind me and I’ve planted out my sweet peas
The money tree is thriving but the best things here are free.
Navigating the technosphere from my shed is like being an early human for whom everything has already been invented. It’s the fun, freeing side of living through the otherwise terrifying 21st century. I can cherry pick. Working out what I need, what I can do without, and how I can make do with what I already have is an ongoing adventure. I need a toilet, for example, but I can keep beer cold in a terracotta plant pot, which means I don’t need a fridge. I write on my eight-year-old MacBook, which has holes in it but works fine (gaffer tape is a wonderful innovation). My eight-year-old MacBook is balanced on a piece of driftwood which is balanced on a faded orange milk crate I found on the beach about five years ago. The milk crate is balanced on my desk, which I made out of discarded 2×4 and the soft wood of my Dad’s old drawing board. Soft enough to carve Rumi into it:
Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come to where you are.
You’ve been stony for too many years.
Try something different.
I used to write sitting at the drawing board on an old stool I had for busking. It was no good for my back. I could get one of those kneeling stools, but they cost money. I write standing up. Money costs time.
Time to be alive. Time to be uneconomic. Time to sing for the hell of it. Time to fall in love with the wrong people. Time to be lost. Time to read Epicurus:
Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
Time to read Kafka:
You are free, and that is why you are lost.’
Technology can help us do the things we really want to do, but only if we are prepared to be lost long enough to figure out what we really want to do.
The vacuum of indecision is where the advertisers hang out. The advertisers are paid to know very well that being lost in time and space is scary and that forging a real identity involves more risk than getting one free with the latest iPhone. Choice requires courage. Technology can expand our choices, or limit them. Technological innovations can pick our pockets in exchange for a feeble off-the-shelf belonging, or they can help us discover and express our individuality. Technology can chain us to our desks or help us live lives tailored to our needs. It can trap us in consumer capitalism or help us in our quest to forge careers in tin sheds at the remote ends of remote peninsulas in the middle of the Atlantic.
There has been a lot of progress in the five years since I arrived with my dented heart and my old trees. I was given a cordless drill and I learned how to use it. I learned how to grow vegetables and which ones are worth growing. I learned the names of the birds that live in my tiny garden and which ones are in trouble. I learned how to sand floorboards and how wonderful floorboards from the inter-war years of the last century look when they’ve been freshly-sanded. I learned how to cut tin with a grinder and that it’s probably best to get someone else to do it for me. I learned how to seal a window with silicone and that some windows are better left shut. I learned how to scavenge for firewood and furniture and food and that this kind of behaviour might be the one thing I have in common with the Chinese government. I learned to type and wrote a book. I learned to use Logic and made an EP. But one of the biggest things I am learning is how to use technology. How to use it, rather than have it use me.