Things To Think With
It’s no excuse, but over the years there have been various studies that suggest working in an untidy office helps creativity.
Actually, maybe it is my excuse…
Either which way, at the end of busy periods of work, I look around the office at the stacks of books, papers, cards and the like, and at least try and have a little tidy up before the next things kick-off.
This time, I realise I’ve left out a selection of things which I was going to talk about at some stage in a newsletter, or maybe even write a detailed blog about (ha!). Instead, I’ve decided just to collect them all together in this newsletter. Let’s see how that goes.
Marshal McLuhan’s Card Deck
The other week, Indy Neogy shared a link to this article about Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Distant Early Warning’ card deck.
Understandably, I am a person with whom all links to card decks are shared, and for which I am always grateful - thanks Indy.
The pack predates Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies (most people’s go-to archetype of thinky card decks) by six years, and was an additional giveaway to the second edition of a newsletter produced by McLuhan, his son Eric, and a few other collaborators in the late sixties/early seventies.
It’s basically a subscription newsletter format half a century before Substack, and charged business leaders and the like $50 dollars a year to receive it. It reached 4,000 subscribers, which is not an insignificant amount of money for today, never mind back then…
Upon further investigation, I found out that McLuhan’s grandson, Andrew, still runs Eric McLuhan’s site, through which you can still buy an original card deck.
And so, of course, I did.
This Friday lunchtime then (25th June), we’ve decided it would be a good use of some of the next Cardstock meetup to unbox them, and explore the deck and the instructions together, and reflect a little on what’s changed in the last fifty years (and what hasn’t…).
Details here if you want to join us.
Video - Cardstock with Vaughn Tan
Actually, whilst I mention Cardstock, we recorded the last one with the brilliant Vaughn Tan, talking about uncertainty and his card deck for ‘productive discomfort’, IDK.
Go watch it here, it’s a fascinating exploration of the territory, with some excellent surprise guests too.
Now, back to the things…
A Hot Water Bottle for the Mind
From Uncertainty, to the Workmanship of Certainty…
Back near the start of Smithery (so nearly ten years ago), I started reading a lot of the other sources referenced in The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. I can’t remember exactly the chain of connections from that to David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship, but it’s definitely from that quadrant of the Library.
(Yes, the Smithery Library is in quadrants, more on that another day maybe).
In that book, Pye contrasts between two different types of ‘workmanship’; the workmanship of risk, and the workmanship of certainty…
It has proved a useful mental model fairly often in the intervening years, for instance as a way of considering projects in the innovation space.
But what I started looking for way back then was one of Pye’s wood carving pieces.
He was Professor of Furniture Design at the Royal College of Art in London, before retiring and making a whole set of different wooden boxes, plates, and other objects from his Sussex workshop.
I set up an auction search in about 2014, just in case something ever came up. And last month, something did…
Described as an ‘elm wood carved sculpture, ovoid with cut surface’, and was bought directly from Pye at his workshop in the early seventies.
I particularly like the two-part ying and yangness of it, as it representing the separate but symbiotic nature of the workmanships of risk and uncertainty.
Curiously, it is rather unlike most of Pye’s more famous pieces, which tend to be these fabulous fluted plates and boxes like this below from the Crafts Council collection. I’ve contacted a friend of a friend there to see if I can find out more about it.
I described it to someone as like ‘a hot water bottle for the mind’ - I’m enjoying examining it, holding it, and thinking of the processes that it took to make one piece of wood feel like two.
A Container for Light
Through most of last year, I was exploring the idea of thinking of information as light not liquid. It’s the first tool of the TENETS collection which previous readers might remember; ten connected tools to transform the way you think.
In short, the ‘light no liquid’ argument plays out as follows.
We often describe information as liquid; flowing through channels, held in containers. Yet information is useful when we see the differences; separate particles brought together to help us focus, gain new perspective, or fire our imagination.
I happened to be looking for something that could represent this idea within a larger client project, and happened upon this, a prism cube.
Hold it one way, and it makes you think of a container for liquid, an empty vessel to fill.
Yet turn it around, and the moving, reflective patterns of light bring to mind the differences inside, the information that changes with every new perspective.
I’ve found that having such a simple, compelling way to switch between two ways of thinking about information is a very useful reflective tool.
What’s more, it fully occupies your mind, as you’re holding the thing whilst focussing on the questions at hand. It certainly breaks up the pattern of the day, moments of respite in between manipulating information behind glass.
Then I started to wonder if there were other objects that might represent the other tools in TENETS, which could be used to help others step into the relevant tools whenever needed.
I realised that the Artefact Cards themselves are the most developed of these, underpinning the Metamechanics tool I’ve used in teaching and work regularly. It’s about movement, maps, loops and layers, a system of working with information to continually make new patterns and connections built on the digital infrastructure that governs the fabric of our reality. The cards are a literal embodiment of that idea.
The newest tool experiment, though, is something based on the last tool of the TENETS, Assemblage Space…
Assemblage Space is an extension of the Futures Cone. Whilst the latter refers to the potenial future spaces mapped out by the probable, plausible, possible and preposterous, I wanted to represent the past too, the information that has gone before, rather than just the information we infer might order itself in some sort of future.
I drew out a model that mirrored the cone into the past, and invited you to think about the tangible, intangible, remembered and forgotten information you could identify from the rear view mirror. There’s more on that here.
The most interesting part of the model perhaps is the narrow now, where all we know from the past and all we think about the future are bound up in one precise moment. It means there are countless alternative presents we’re not occupying, and alternative futures that we find it very hard to percieve from where we are.
I wanted a way for people to think about this narrow now as they travelled through time, and needed something that allowed them to move through the model as it were.
Now, my brother Andrew has recently taken up woodworking in quite a serious way. To call it a hobby almost seems a disservice, though that might be more to do with how we think about hobbies in the modern day.
I quickly sketched out an idea, and said to Andrew ‘do think you could make me this…?‘
Lo and behold, this is what he gave me a few weeks ago - the first of what I’ve just decided might be called the Assemblage Abacus.
What’s it for, then? Well, I have found it useful so far in thinking about how we travel through time, and how great expansionary ideas get squashed and squeezed into the narrow now.
I’ll be interested when I have the opportunity to hand it to other people, whilst explaining the concept, what they think about it though.
Froebel’s Gifts From The Future
Taking all these objects into account – and thinking back to the McLuhan cards – has made me wonder about collected a set of ten objects not simply for occasional workshops and personal inspiration, but as a subscription for people to have their own versions.
A monthly or even weekly package that arrives to change the mental models people have when thinking about the world.
Maybe it’s slightly reminiscent of Froebel’s Gifts, a series of objects and activities designed by Friedrich Froebel in the 19th Century to introduce children to the world around them.
Indeed, when Fraser Hamilton worked with us, we did wonder together what a modern set of gifts would look like for the internet age.
Perhaps it’s time to think about it again. If it’s the sort of thing you might be interested in, for yourself, a team or a company, do send back an email and let me know what’s intriguing you about the idea?
From The Library
Finally then, as alway, a book recommendation. Given the theme, if you’re interested in this area why not dip into Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Thinking Hand…
Until next time then, happy artefacting…
John V Willshire