early days (of a better future)

Sometimes I get emails forwarded to me with a note that just says, “Interested?” Often they’re pretty fun and interesting things, especially as my job is quite wide ranging. Shortly before Christmas my boss sent me one such email, containing the following: “This is an invitation to Early Days (of a better nation) which explores the possibilities of nationhood and democracy in a political game of unintended consequences…” It seemed even more fun than usual.

I like games. Board games, party games, wide games. I like that the use of games to explore possibilities is coming out of the shadows as a thing that grown ups are allowed to do at the moment (maybe it was never really in the shadows, but I seem to be noticing it more and more), and I’m interested in how they work and what they illuminate. I like theatre, and I’m more and more interested in interactive theatre (and indeed, cinema, like Secret Cinema). It probably helps that I can’t be scared of it when one of the first plays I was taken to see see was a promenade performance of Julius Caesar when I was seven, and the promenaders becane the crowd at Rome. And I’m interested in politics and democracy. Plus, these were people involved in FuturePlay which I really enjoyed at FutureFest. So basically, I was always going to say yes.

I don’t want to write too much about what Early Days is about, in content, because it’s still a work in progress, and you might want to explore it for yourselves at some point. But the basic story is that as you arrive you are sorted into provinces of a nation that’s just been through a civil war over key resources and about to go into a last ditch peace process before a UN-equivalent steps in - and then you participate in the playing out of that peace process.

Right now, I’m more interested in some of the things that the show - part participatory, part performed - provoked. I have an envelope of random notes and a collection of thoughts that I’m trying to parse into something coherent around three points:

  • What your answers to a couple of core questions say about you, and how they end up putting you in certain places that shape your views, choices and actions in certain ways (yeah, that’s a small thing…)

  • How people play or game a situation.

  • And, are we moving, globally, to a place where we move from nation-states back to city-states? (yeah, that’s also a small thing…)

Basically, I’m ending up at further questions and the desire to form a reading list.

One So, when I arrived, I was asked to answer two questions, with my citizenship being determined by where you place on the freedom-security slider and where you place on what you might call a planning slider, which is about how much detail you want to plan things in in advance before you commit to it. I’ve been interested in the first slider for years - pretty much ever since I studied The Handmaid’s Tale in school and talked about freedom from and freedom to, through discussion of the establishment of the Principate in Rome, when I was fascinated to discover that a tutorial group of mature students all opted for the less freedom-more peace and security option presented by Augustus to the more-freeom-less peace and security situation of the late Republic, when I’ve always leant the other way, up to and including the current surveillance debate.

My answers placed me on ‘the island’, and I found myself with a group of people generally determined to be communal and local, fine with the idea of the province with all the important resource being independent if that was what they wanted, even if it did mean the other provinces being financially worse off, and very open to the idea of becoming either an independent province themselves or part of a loose confederation rather than a united state with the other provinces. We were terribly good at utopian ideals, and terribly bad at detailed proposals for a peace deal. There were a couple of interesting proposals: compulsory beard-having (for the guys… obviously) and the banning of religion - which was later modified to a rejection of state religion and the involvement of faith in politics.

It should be no surprise that the second of these was of interest to me (frankly, my interest in the first shouldn’t be surprising either. #teambeard). What was more interesting, to me, was my reaction to it. I thought it was a daft idea - and did counter the banning of religion proposal. But, in the short time available to us, I chose not to contest the the argument that faith shouldn’t be mixed up in politics or what I think is the overly-simplistic elision of state religion with faith-in-politics. Somewhere between peer pressure, shyness in the face of a group of unknown people I agreed with on other things, and a personal opinion that you can’t actually prevent people’s faith from influencing their politics without lobotomising them, I basically went, ‘Yeah, that’s probably never going to work, so why have this argument now.’

I’m not at all sure what to do with that. In the immediate event it made no difference whatsoever. But in the long run, or the bigger picture? How and when do I decide to have that argument? Where am I picking my battles, and where am I compromising when I shouldn’t? Will I wake up one morning and find that the difference that didn’t really matter a lot in my ‘political group’ is suddenly very real and very important and they don’t even know it’s there?

Two At the end of the event, we were asked to what extent we’d played as ourselves. It had barely occurred to me not to - and even if it had, I am a terrible actor, so in a real-world situation, I’d be terrible at gaming it to my interests. But of course you can’t tell who is playing at what in politics or for what reasons. In some ways, that’s terrifying, because who do you trust (I spent most of the time suspecting that the UN-like body was going to come in and do their own thing with the nation while the peace conference delegates were locked in a room on the island province, because I am apparently currently a terrible cynic about global oversight)? In other ways, it’s quite releasing, because it means that there is always the potential to change a system or situation by gaming it when you have the opportunity. Given that I tend to think that our political economic systems in the UK are currently stuck in a miserable stasis, this makes me feel more optimistic about the potential for change coming in even though I can’t imagine where or how myself, right now - as long as people keep looking for those gaps where they can break in.

Three I live in London right now. My mother thinks London is not really in England any more - which she’s sort of serious about and sort of not, and is sort of right about and sort of not. London and the South-East are like this weird little walled garden, where some things are the same as the rest of the county and some are exaggerated or different. The weight of population numbers, and the location and life experiences of citizens has an impact on the way politics is done and narrated and the way, so a metropolis like London may well have a disproportionate amount of influence on national politics. It’s not just a question of whether or not it’s fair - is it actually sensible and sustainable? Is it good for us?

In other places it gets even more complicated - and in some it’s not about cities but about tribes or religions. I rarely read news coming from places like North and South Sudan without wanting to build a time machine so I can go back to tell Bismarck and Salisbury to put their rulers and maps away before they mess with things they absolutely don’t understand. I can’t be the only person who sometimes wonders why we are still invested in the idea of using the nation state the key global jigsaw piece. Are we still in thrall to Woodrow Wilson? Because really, look how well his ideas of national self-determination worked in practice. Or are we starting to change how we think about what we regard as a happy life, what and where we want to matter in an age of globalisation?

Certainly, the members of my little island province were willing to think about becoming a small island state, be it city-state or federation of towns, going for an understanding of a happy life that puts the local community and emotional ties above the wealth and influence they could be part of in a return to the former nation state. What would it mean to go back to an ancient model of city-states and alliances and federations? Can we do it without becoming horribly tribal - or would we just end up having lots of smaller wars between neighbours rather than civil wars? Would the fact that technology has made us global in a way that we weren’t last time city states were the thing help prevent us from descending into fierce insularity? How might it work in practice?

Addendum... I had a conversation with a colleague about this event not long after writing this piece. We were talking about complex, high-value, meetings with people outside the office, how you decide whether to go yourself or who you send, and how it can be hard to know who is going to be effective in certain kinds of meeting without going with them or sending some kind of spy-camera-tech to watch it, neither of which are often possible.  And it reminded me that this kind of interactive game would be great for playing out possible scenarios in a safe place to judge that kind of thing.  Now, assuming we're not a big corporate with a lot of loose change for this kind of internal analysis (we're not), are there ways of doing this - at least starting out with this - on a low budget?

in which I have thoughts about Mary Morstan.

things I'm looking forward to this year...