Free Thinking Festival 2010: Kevin McCloud

Kevin McCloud was speaking at the Free Thinking Festival this year in a lecture recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3. (I’ll let you know when it’s being broadcast, soon.)

I was meant to be tweeting during the event. What quickly became apparent during McCloud lecture was how difficult it was to tweet. Listening to him was akin to a specially extended edition of Grand Designs. The man writes beautifully and speaks even more eloquently. So much so that every single sentence is a 140 character tweet in itself. Little wonder that after a while I gave up, sat back and listen to what the man said.

And it was a convincing argument too. So convincing in fact, you’d be forgiven for wondering why it needed to be made at all. Doesn’t everyone already know deep down that mass-produced goods aren’t terribly good for our psyche. That cherishing those objects in our lives which have narrative, those which weather well and perhaps even improve with age is better for our soul?

His solution was simple. We need to return to respecting craftmanship.

His illustration – proof if you like – was simple: shopping promotes the production of dopamine, a short term mind-enhancing drug which temporarily makes has feel better about ourselves; investing time in craftmanship like extended periods of time spend making a sculpture promotes an alternative mind-altering and considerably longer-lasting drug – serotonin. Which would you prefer?

But there was a problem for me. McCloud’s is well-known for documenting the paths people follow in creating their dream homes. Grand Designs is about self-builds involving the kind of craftmanship he espouses. But they’re also projects which involve lots of money and considerable amounts of pain in the process for those pursuing – as far as I can make out – an extreme form of happiness.

During a short interview after his lecture, I asked him whether it was all really worth it. Just because you’re respecting the value of craftmanship in the end product, are the months of agony us viewers often derive a warped sense of pleasure in watching really worth it when the build is complete?

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Free Thinking Festival 2010: Human Aquarium

Here’s a little thing from the fringes of the Free Thinking Festival this year. If you don’t want to read what’s below, skip to their interview here.

Human Aquarium is … well .. what is it exactly? It’s a box. That’s what it is. A box packed full of computer and projection equipment with two people sat inside looking out through a perspex screen to a bemused looking crowd the other side.

One of the pair – Guy Schofield (below) – operates the ‘machinery’. The other – Robyn Taylor (above) – sings a long drawn out melody into a microphone.

There’s a technical chappy too – that’s John Shearer (below). He, like me, looks on at the assembled crowd who in turn look on the whole thing with a mixture of bemusement and excitement.

Unlike me, however, he does from time to time touch the perspex screen while Robyn and Guy perform inside their box amid temperatures approaching a stifling 40 degrees. No wonder their sets extend only to 20 minutes a time. By touching the perspex screen John like any member of the audience helps create the performance. The fingers on the perspex influences the computer-generated sounds. I don’t know how exactly, but it does. And, in a space like Sage, Gateshead it’s quite a wondrous thing to experience. Not least because the sight of it draws you and others in. And as soon as that happens you’re entranced.

One night only at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival. No matter though. I talked to them for ten minutes about their work. And what a smashing bunch they are too.

And there’s even some hastily shot video of their performance too.

:: Follow Human Aquarium on Twitter
:: Find out more about the lovely performers on the Human Aquarium website

Free Thinking Festival 2010: Other people’s happiness

My eyes were drawn to this report on the Daily Mail website triumphantly announcing that the UK is ‘mediocre’ in a league table of ‘happiness’. Insodoing, it seems the Daily Mail has misunderstood both the definition of ‘happiness’ and indeed what the survey it bases the report was concluding.

Still, it makes for a good starting point.

The report referenced is the 2010 Legatum Prosperity Index. Sounds dry, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not that dry really. The UK really is 13th in the league table of … ‘prosperity’. A league table based on a great many rankings. Far too many to list at any rate. So go look at it yourself. The key findings are quite interesting. In short, happiness isn’t made by wealth necessarily but choice and opportunity. And other things too. Really. Go read it. It’s all open to interpretation anyway.

What’s interesting is the ‘personal freedom sub-index’. Basically, if us humans enjoy certain freedoms the positive experience which eminates from it will bleed into the community we occupy. Everyone’s a winner. And frankly, coming 15th out of 110 isn’t all that bad. If only we could come 15th in the Eurovision I’d be quite a happy chap. (Don’t worry, I’ll save the Eurovision for another blog post.)

But it got me thinking a bit more – inevitably – about happiness. Up until now I’ve spent most of my time thinking about what makes me happy. Only this evening at the end of a long day in which I battled with the usual pressures, I started dreaming (around about 4.45pm) of relaxing during the evening with a magazine, some TV or just a cup of tea. Simple pleasures you see. When I’m up against it or giving myself a hard time, its the simplest of things from which I derive pleasure. These are the things which make me happy. The things which transport me from my tiresome and sometimes destructive thought processes to a better, more contented place. That is happiness, as it brief as it sometimes can feel.

But what if I should be thinking of other people’s happiness? Where does indulgence in ones own happiness end and responsibility for other people’s happiness begin? And – at the risk of failing miserably at my new excursion into ‘cod philosophy’ – if we are to be responsible for other people’s happiness how exactly should we make that happen – do we impose or enable for example ? – and how many other people’s happiness are we essentially responsible for? I can barely take responsibility for my own happiness. If being responsible for others seems attractive now, is that in itself me just denying overcoming the barriers to my own sense of wellbeing?

Could someone let me know?