OuiShare: a modern cult

Always hopeful for something – some event, something – to add to the gaiety of life in this interval consisting of things that do not add to the gaiety: Trump, Brexit, unaffordable housing. Nothing for ages and then, all of a sudden: OuiShare. Two OuiShare ‘connectors’ visited my workplace earlier this week, to ‘facilitate’ with us (I had not invited them; somebody else had). What is OuiShare? Well, you may remember that in Season 5 of Mad Men, Paul joins Hare Krishna, and no one sees it coming:

Cults of the 1960s piggybacked on popular novelties of their era: trips to India, sex, alternatives routes to transcendence. The passage of time has left Krishna followers looking perhaps a bit more distinctive than they’d ideally like, but look at what the Beatles were wearing back in the day:

At root, cults have an offer, and the offer is always warm, inviting, positive. Who could not want? A modern cult of the 2010s will naturally ally itself with modern positivity: technology, sustainability, the sharing economy, entrepreneurship, diversity, companies without hierarchies, a world without borders, a better politics. Enter OuiShare, with its heart-shaped logo:

“OuiShare connects people and accelerates projects for systemic change. We experiment with social models based on collaboration, openness, and fairness. Our mission is to build and nurture a collaborative society by connecting people, organizations and ideas around fairness, openness and trust.”

You think, yes, all good, now can you be more specific? How do you ‘experiment with social models’? Is it with software or something else? Who do you experiment on? Do you have examples, case studies, peer-reviewed papers? Is there ethical oversight? Are you partnered, perhaps, with any universities? And this is where the cultishness starts to shine through. There aren’t any case studies or journal papers, there are no higher education affiliations, there is no ethical oversight; there are only vague ‘our values’ statements, the Ouishare ‘magazine’, uninformative think pieces on Medium, links to TED talks (by others), pictures of young happy people being sociable. You enter this reflecting chamber for a while only to stumble out a while later having grasped nothing. It becomes a relief to turn to your favourite news site and see simple reports; facts and events. Brexit. Trump.

Cults have hierarchies; circles of involvement. They have novices, initiates, and somewhere at the centre, a founder and his or her close circle. OuiShare has this feature. ‘Friends’ are people who might give them a mention. ‘Members’ have signed up, but only minimally; they have given personal details and possibly a small monetary contribution. ‘Connectors’ are fully involved; these are OuiShare’s foot soldiers who carry recruiting, event organising and fundraising obligations in addition to whatever business consultancy services they manage to sell; as far as I can tell, they are treated as independent freelancers even though – and perplexingly – invoicing is handled centrally. Many of their activities are scripted. You become a Connector when you satisfy a recondite ‘333 rule’. ’Core Connectors’ run the organisation, although OuiShare – note – is a flat ‘emergent organisation’ with no hierarchy. Or is it? There is some doubt as to whether the Core Connector role exists.

Cults also feature obscure terminology and revealed concepts. This, for me, is where OuiShare is at its most fascinating and entertaining. Trendy and more or less meaningful language – ‘OuiShare is in permanent beta’ – is juxtaposed with a word you’d likely have to look up: ‘stigmergy’. Some terms appear unique; for instance: ‘lazy consent’ (a moderately sinister voting system bespoke to OuiShare). During their visit, our Connectors had us engage in an obscure ‘1-2-4-All’ process: first you think of an idea on your own – perhaps ‘something you feel is holding back the company’ – then you find a partner colleague to compare notes; then the two of you merge with another pair to make a four and agree an idea to promote; finally, the whole group comes together to discuss the ideas that made it through. (Is this really as democratic as it might at first seem? Who cares, it has a nice numeric mnemonic and we’re on a schedule; let’s go to the next activity, everyone.) Taken as a whole, the mix of terminology – from familiar to never before heard – does useful psychological work. Your interest – ‘I’ve heard of that; it sounds exciting but I’m not sure I fully understand it’ – presents itself for exploitation. As it happens, here are some friendly explainers to help. ‘Well, it means …’ And so on into the mysteries of the organisation.

Where the French-originated OuiShare stresses technology and collaboration, the US-based Ashoka Changemakers stress social entrepreneurship and the environment. The offer is, well, change:

“We analyze the current landscape of a problem by defining the core problems, and mapping them against patterns and trends emerging from the work of leading social entrepreneurs. We take this information from the frontier of knowledge and assemble it, producing a Discovery Framework that serves as a mosaic of strategic opportunities for moving the needle on systems change. We support this with a communications strategy that includes calls-to-action and compelling visuals, deployed through traditional and social media, to activate large-scale changemaking.”

Although less obviously cult-like than OuiShare – there is arguably such a thing as beneficial ‘social entrepreneurship’ – the Ashoka Changemakers nonetheless reveal a model of endless recruitment and expansion. If they disburse stipends to social entrepreneurs, at the same time there is also a price list. For $7,500 they will visit your university campus and conduct a ’360 degree campus scan’:

“… an empowering experience and structured process to assess the changemaking ecosystem at your institution, catalyze deeper commitment among your allies, generate new insights and ideas about what could work at your institution, and get feedback, recommendations, and comparative institutional case studies from Ashoka U.”

Three further steps (with associated costs) will bring your campus to the stage where it can be honoured as a ‘Changemaker Campus’. Perhaps all campuses will one day be Changemaker campuses?

If there is one defining characteristic of a cult, it may be an economic one: a cult expands faster than its payroll. It must do so, or face hard economic limits to its influence. Given that cults do indeed exist – and do expand, or try to – we can ask: what does it cost us? Perhaps an organisation that seems cult-like – such as the Ashoka Changemakers – may on balance be benign. Others, such as OuiShare, may threaten little more than time wasting or make-work for their followers. Not all cults are destructive and not everyone will be asked to drink the Kool-aid.

I’ve yet to witness OuiShare’s second visit to our firm. If they do come – perhaps once more with their anonymous photographer in tow – I look forward to what will be revealed. The thought brightens my day quite a bit, actually.

The luxuriant growth of objects

Jean Baudrillard died recently and the obits – this one in particular – persuaded me to give his writing a try, starting with The System of Objects (1968), which addresses the interaction of the technical and the cultural. In conversation with Steven Poole a few years ago, Baudrillard said – apparently of this book – ‘I did this critique of technology, but I would not do that any more. I am not nostalgic. I would not oppose liberty and human rights to this technical world’.

The System of Objects is aphorism dense. It is also somewhat puritanical. An example of the first:

The fact is, however, that automating machines means sacrificing a very great deal of potential functionality. In order to automate a practical object, it is necessary to stereotype it in its function, thus making it more fragile … so long as an object has not been automated it remains susceptible of redesign …

And an example of the moralising:

… sexual perversion is founded on the inability to apprehend the other qua object of desire in his or her unique totality as a person … the other is transformed into the paradigm of various eroticised parts of the body, a single one of which becomes the focus of objectification.

It’s hard to read The System of Objects without feeling fingered. Personally. Whether it’s your tastefully muted yet minimally accented interior decor (‘nothing but an impossible echo of the state of nature … aggressive … naive’), or your small collection of Galaxie 500 B-Sides (‘in short, there is something of the harem about collecting’), or the iroko antelope head sculpture you and your girlfriend brought back from Africa (‘… narcissistic regression … imaginary mastery of birth and death’), your way of living holds moral lessons for you. Yes, your plan was to pass a pleasant sunny afternoon reading on the sofa; but look, a swamp of guilt and self-doubt is rising around you, and it comes from all the things around you which you thought were good, or at least OK.

Baudrillard connects the moral to the everyday, the mundane, and so his net is cast very wide. This follows from his initial purpose of giving a systematic account of popular culture. The author’s opening challenge to himself – ‘Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?’ – is followed up with a granular chapter structure that at first takes on items such as ‘… Walls and Daylight, Lighting, Mirrors and Portraits … Seats … The Lighter …’ and then shifts by way of cars and robots to broader classifications: ‘The Ideology of Models … The Ambiguity of the Domestic Object’. Ungenerously, you imagine Baudrillard starting out in his apartment – and writing about everything in it – then shifting his attention out the window (some cars down there), reminiscing briefly about that kinky phase he went through (embarrassing, frankly), then trying to remember how it was that time he went shopping at Christmas and found all the advertising incredibly irritating. In other words, The System of Objects has some of the qualities of a confessional. And because you too, reader, are bourgeois, your milieu will be very similar. And so you can connect, no?

The ambition to write big, to write it all, but then not to finish, also seems reassuringly European. (Being and Time remains two-thirds incomplete to this day, measured against its own table of contents.) Then again, Baudrillard’s contemporary, Roland Barthes, seems to have tackled the issue of popular culture by means of postcards and essays, and his piece on the Citroen DS from Mythologies (1957) is conveniently pocket sized.

I haven’t read enough Barthes to be able to convincingly compare him with Baudrillard (and I haven’t read enough Baudrillard either) but I suspect that not only did Barthes get there first, he had more poetry:

It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales.

Baudrillard’s metaphors, though similarly starry, are less beguiling:

… the intimacy of the car arises from an accelerated space-time metabolism and, inextricably, from the fact that the car may at any time become the locus of an accident: the culmination in a chance event – which may in fact never occur but is always imagined, always involuntarily assumed to be inevitable – of that intimacy with oneself, that formal liberty, which is never so beautiful as in death.

Yet when he is not reaching, he is often impressively direct:

Objectively, substances are simply what they are: there is no such thing as a true or a false, a natural or an artificial substance. How could concrete be somehow less ‘authentic’ than stone? We apprehend old synthetic materials such as paper as altogether natural – indeed, glass is one of the richest substances we can conceive of.

The modern idea of the nobility of materials is still very widespread; perhaps more entrenched now than it was in 1968, having acquired an environmentalist gloss. You can test the modernity of this idea yourself by taking a pocket knife into an eighteenth century grand house and having a (discreet) poke: underneath the gilding it’s cheap softwood and plaster.

So why would Baudrillard ‘retract’? One possible reason is that reactions to modernity are easily connected with fascism. And although technological ‘lock-in’ (‘fragility’ is Baudrillard’s term) remains a reality, a counter-force is technological entrepreneurship. And then there are computers, of course.

(My thanks to Alex and David for letting me guest post at AFOE.)

Indigo – pan-European proto-print magazine

The first issue of a new pan European magazine – Indigo – is available online in English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Polish, and Italian. According to the German VISDP magazine, Indigo’s publishers want to put the magazine’s content on paper eventually. Collaborating with CafeBabel, the magazine is apparently primarily targeting the twenty/thirty-somethings of “Generation RyanAir”. The first edition features a lot of interesting content, not least, in May, a guide to flirting from the Baltic to the Bosporus written by Irene Sacchi (p. 42). Have a look.

Indigènes

France is, finally, honouring its North-African war heroes in the wake of the release of the film Indigènes. The film is by French director Rachid Bouchareb and its main cast of five were collectively awarded the Best Actor prize at the film festival of Cannes. The title of the film means “natives” but the official English-language title is “Days of Glory”. From BBC News:

The film is about the campaign from Provence through to Alsace in 1944-45 as seen through the eyes of four soldiers, who leave their homelands in Algeria and Morocco to fight for France.

President Chirac has seen the movie, was moved by it and:

…has announced that the pensions of foreign soldiers who fought in the French army are to be brought into line with those of French ones.

Another interesting quote from the same article:

Many in the audience were themselves of North African origin, and had no idea of this part of French history. “I never saw an Arab or an African soldier in my history books”, says 23-year-old Salima, a student from the Paris suburb of Seine-St-Denis. Her parents come from Morocco and her grandfather fought in the war. (…) “When you go to Africa, people tell us we’re not African. In Europe they tell us we’re not European. We are, and we’re staying. “We’re a bridge that Europe and Africa needs, especially in these times”.