Category Archives: Books

Balance: do you need to change your daily routine?

As we near the end of summer and September begins to loom,  you might be wondering how to change your regular routine and develop new habits which reduce stress and increase energy.  Perhaps you’re already worrying about being trapped in an office / school room / factory once more.  What will you do to stay healthy and calm when ‘normality’ returns with a bang?

This excerpt  from Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age  might help put things into perspective:

How we spend our days

Work/life balance used to be about how you divide your time. Should you focus on earning money and developing a career, or on family, health, spirituality and pleasure? Today, however, the ways we make a living are changing. These days, work and life intersect more than they did fifty years ago.

Rather than be tied to the office, factory or shop, many of us are able to work more flexibly. Some companies have adopted agile forms of organisation, where employees choose where, when and how to work. This way, our daily schedules can fit better with personal and family demands, operate across time zones, or suit a nomadic lifestyle. For an increasing number of us, regular working hours have become a distant memory and, while this is problematic for some, it has brought new kinds of freedom to others. More and more, work and life are becoming intertwined, just as they were before the Industrial Revolution.

In Europe before about 1800, there was little differentiation between work and life. Work was life in an agrarian handicraft economy where people grew and made most of what they needed, and time was shaped by seasonal and cultural calendars. But as soon as steam-powered machines were invented, and the spinning-wheel was superseded by the power loom, automated production could run 24/7. Workers had to keep up, and soon the factory day became the norm.

Now, the Information Revolution has triggered another change. In the twenty-first century, we’re learning to adjust as the ecosystem of labour evolves yet again. A hundred years ago, workers feared being treated as if they were robots; today they fear being replaced by robots. In fact the future of employment is not all about robots – it’s much more complicated than that – but the nature of work is certainly changing rapidly. The ‘traditional’ workday is becoming shorter, sometimes more fragmented, and definitely more entwined with the rest of our waking hours. And even the very nature of our labour, of what we actually do all day, is being transformed too.  Perhaps some of us will even make a healthy income from going back in time and returning to the spinning wheel. After all, handmade goods are the new luxury products.

There are many possibilities. But one thing we’re coming to understand, better than ever before, is the importance of wellbeing in whichever lifestyle we choose. We’re beginning to realise that, to paraphrase the poet Annie Dillard, the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.

Tech/nature balance

How can we maintain a healthy balance between our lives in technology and our lives in nature? This issue reflects some of the challenges as the work/life balance, so I’ve called it the tech/nature balance.

The problem goes like this: many of us are connected to the internet pretty much all the time. It’s where we work, where we play, where we meet up with people and stay in touch with distant friends and family, and that’s fine. But there’s something else we could be connecting to that has rather fallen by the wayside: Planet Earth. The soil beneath our feet. The air we breathe. The forests, beaches, fields, mountains, lakes and gardens of the natural world.

Today, most of us live in cities which are not exactly rich in greenery. In the 1800s, millions of rural workers migrated to the cities and became urbanites. They got used to buying their food instead of growing it, and there was no longer any opportunity to keep their own livestock for eggs and meat. They could still make their own clothes, but before long it was cheaper to buy them off-the-peg. That kind of lifestyle became just a sentimental memory, although of course the reality of rural life is tough and not at all romantic.

Have we lost touch with nature? Many feel we have. At first we blamed it on the factories, then the car, then the TV, and now we blame it on the internet. But that’s incorrect.

It’s we who are responsible.

We came to believe that we could concrete over the fields and design a better life for ourselves, free of nature’s wildness and uncertainties. But it’s very obvious now that this was the wrong way to go.

We need to develop a different kind of balance, a tech/nature balance. One which helps us live more healthily in cities and more naturally with our technology.

Many people are already doing this. They are finding ways to integrate their online lives with the physical world of nature and the outdoors. Others are getting their daily dose of nearby nature online or using social media to organise and support their outdoor lives. There are all kinds of ways to bring nature and technology together to improve health and wellbeing. Some are obvious, others less so.

This revolution affects us all. It’s important for everyone, but particular groups like children, seniors, and people with medical issues or disabilities will gain particular benefit from its influence. And the concept of tech/nature balance is important in conversations about health, sustainability and the environment, biomimicry and design, architecture and planning.

There are many ways to work towards a better tech/nature balance. In Part 3 of Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age you will find 50 tips, tricks and experiments to try for yourself. Let me know how you get on.

Over and over again, cyberspace brings us back to the physical (Free Access)

So here we are, poised at a moment of crucial tension. Do we embrace cyberspace as part of the natural world, with all of its opportunities and flaws, or do we keep it at arm’s length, as an unnatural guilty pleasure we should not really enjoy?

I’m writing my first novel for twenty years. It’s new, but it’s also the culmination of all my previous books, fiction and nonfiction. So much so, in fact, that the brief final chapter of my 2013 ‘Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace’ might even turn into the introductory chapter of whatever this new book will be called.

So to bring myself up to speed, I’m sharing that last chapter at Medium. Writers often share the first chapter of a book but they rarely give away the ending. In this case, however, the ending is turning out to be the beginning of something else. So here it is. Am I on the right track? I welcome your comments. If you like it, please give me a clap or two. It all helps! Thank you.

Go to Medium to read Over and over again, cyberspace brings us back to the physical

Important note about Medium: Medium now has a paywall but they permit writers to give free access to friends. This link will allow you to read my piece even if you’ve used up your monthly allowance.

After living fiction-free for almost twenty years, I’m writing a new novel.

How I lost my faith in fiction

Somewhere in the late 1990s, I lost my faith in fiction. By then I’d published two novels, written two more, and had been an avid reader and writer all my life. But then, somewhere in the text-based virtual world of LambdaMOO, where you can be anything you want to be, and where all you need is imagination and the ability to type into a monochrome screen, yes, somewhere in there, I stopped enjoying fiction. After all, I was spending my days in a place so rich and strange that it was infinitely more creative and absorbing than Real Life, or so I thought at the time.  Why bother picking up a novel? So, I stopped reading made-up stories, and I stopped writing them.

A year or two before this, I’d finished a novel about life at LambdaMOO, ‘The [+]Net[+] of Desire’,  but my agent couldn’t find a publisher for it. One editor said it just didn’t ring true, and I guess in the pre-Tinder era of 1996 it probably didn’t, but in fact a lot of it reflected the real experience of many people I knew.  Anyway, I put the manuscript in a box under my bed, and wrote ‘Hello World: travels in virtuality’ instead. It was a memoir/travelogue of cyberspace, and as a non-fiction book it allowed me to be as real as I liked, which suited me just fine.

I wrote more books, but still couldn’t face the idea of a made-up story which required a pact of suspension of the reader’s disbelief. Every now and then I’d pick up a novel, or start reading a short story in a magazine, but I’d soon lose interest.

However, in recent years, that interest has been creeping back. In 2009 I read a couple of old science fiction novels as research for ‘Technobiophilia’, and was thrilled to get that feeling of not wanting to put the book down. It was so good to have it back! I dipped in more and more, but still couldn’t countenance writing any fiction myself.

How I started writing fiction again

And then it happened. Last September, in Santa Monica, sitting in the Barnes and Noble Starbucks at the corner of 3rd Street Promenade and Wilshire, I suddenly felt empowered. I had been rather miserable, desperate to write about that very coffee shop, but reluctant to describe it through my eyes. I wanted to see it from someone else’s perspective. And as I sat at a table in the corner sipping a non-fat latte and hopelessly scrawling in my notebook, I realised there was nothing else for it. I needed to make something up. Someone. I needed to make someone up.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last nine months – trying to write a novel.  As befits the horrendous mind-twisting confusion of Trump and Brexit, its very tentative working title is ‘What’s Going On?’

What the novel might be about

It’s about many things I’ve never looked at before. Right now, the whole manuscript is a giant sponge for dozens of ideas which I’m regularly squeezing in an attempt to make some kind of soggy sense of the whole mess.  What does Brexit/Trump mean? Where are we now? Where will we be? Why is it happening? What’s going on?  Instead of directing energy at the obvious train-wreck around us, is it more important to pay attention to invisible undercurrents we don’t yet understand?

The process is going to take a while because I’m mostly exploring subjects I know nothing about. I’m also trying to shrug off my internal academic who keeps trying to shut me down by whining ‘but where’s the evidence?’ Guys, I think we’re way past evidence.  Right now, I’m looking at intuition, emotion, and all kinds of unexpected stuff.  I’ve no idea where I’m going but, in case you’re interested,  here are some of the people and topics I’m following and thinking about:

  • Douglas Rushkoff hosts Team Human. a challenging podcast which roams far and wide. Set aside a quiet hour and pick a conversation. You will need your whole brain for this.  Plus, Team Human is coming to London on 9th July with Douglas, Pat Cadigan, and Rupert Sheldrake. I’m going along. Maybe see you there? 
  • Some years ago I went to a conference at Dartington College in Devon, England. Someone gave a talk about their artwork, and part of it involved haunting images of deer passing between trees as if they were in a liminal real/not real space. The artists spoke about the subtle world. I’ve never forgotten the magic or intensity of it.  I’m trying to learn to see the subtle world for myself.
  • Mycelium, trees, networks. Check out the fascinating Paul Stamets  who says “I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven, biologically successful model. The Earth invented the computer Internet for its own benefit, and we now, being the top organism on this planet, are trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.” Paul Stamets TED Talk
  • This April I went on a Deep Time Dive led by Andy Raingold.  Billed as a “sensory exploration of deep time which combines science, imagination, meditation, movement and nature connection”,  it’s not how I usually spend my Saturdays, but I enjoyed Qi Gong under a spreading tree in the rain before we began wandering blindfolded and hypnotised by history, as Andy led us all the way back to the Big Bang, then forward to the present.  We meditated a little, and wandered to distant parts of the property to set our intentions. The hard-boiled academic inside me was screaming but I refused to listen. I wanted to just go with the flow, and I’m pleased I did. It was very memorable and, I think, gently beneficial. It’s repeated in October, should it appeal to you.
  • I’m collecting webcam videos, mostly of animals. (#mprracoon was an unexpected bonus this week!) I’m not sure where this is going. Time will tell.
  • I’ve been gazing out of my window at the Isle of Wight, a few miles across the bay, and listening to this haunting piece of radio Under The Water
  • Finally,  I’ve chosen this image for today’s blog post because it resembles my novel in its current state. I can’t explain why, but there it is.
NASA image
Vegetation in the city of Bam is green and stone-covered desert has various tones of gray. Image credit: NASA/JPL/ESA

A request. If you’re aware of any links, books, films, conversations, stories, lectures, or anything else that might contribute in some way to the stew of my novel, please let me know. I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

That’s enough for now.  My main news is that there’s a novel on the way, it will be both technobiophilic and transliterate, and it will take a while.