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I’ve just returned from a day of discussion and networking at the Lowry hosted by the Evangelical Alliance (they’re not as scary as they sound)The Lowry Art Gallery at Sunset, Salford Quays.

I met a whole bunch of interesting people from business, media, arts, health, education and politics and we were given the opportunity to think and talk and dream about how we can be involved in changing society for the better.

How do we engage with the the society that we are a part of, the polis, rather than withdrawing into the individual? Through a recession do we find a safe cave and weather the storm, or use the opportunity to pull together and see what is common?

Not that these are easy questions to answer in practice, but they are made easier by connecting with others and having conversations and being inspired.

One of the most interesting things about the Obama phenomenon has been peoples positive reactions to a message of hope. If we believe what we see in the UK news, millions of people have felt a personal connection to that message, drawing them out of themselves and into political engagement.

Something that struck me from the conversations I had today was that we could probably do with a bit of that hope over here. We do satirical, we do irony very well, we do self deprecation, but what about a bit of hope that things could be better?

What would this hope look like? I don’t think it looks like the ‘national-lottery-it-could-be-you’ style hope that the media is so good at. ”TV hope’ you might call it: presenting an ideal, a better house, or better lifestyle, or better way to cook beef, held out as an unreachable prize while we sit on our couches and disengage, drool and get fat on chips.

Real hope surely has to connect with our own lives, our own stories, our own everyday selves, and those we know of who deserve better.

Are you one of those people who finds it a great deal easier to be angry with strangers than with people you know? I am. The person in the street who looks like they are about to cause trouble, or the driver shielded by glass and steel who didn’t indicate a left turn and nearly knocked me from my bike. Nameless and distant, there is minimal sense of shared humanity. I cannot see their perspective, they are ‘other’.

The philosopher Richard Rorty didn’t believe that we could reason our way to universal human rights. No rational argument could do the work required because the idea of an objective (non-relative) set of principles was a myth (he thought). I’m not sure I agree with his relativism, but I do like his solution. We should tell stories.

We need a route to empathy to remove the strangeness of strangers; to make them no longer the others but one of us. Rorty believed that stories offered this route and hence offered a hope of bridging global chasms between cultures.

If I knew the story of the boy setting fire to the bin, or of the man in the silver BMW who didn’t indicate, I might think of them differently.

Stories are powerful tools for breaking down barriers, and that’s why I think Manchester based Asylum Stories is a great project. They are us.

Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is just writing – getting the words down.

Because of that I’m going to give this a try out tomorrow. A clever idea with some fun and useful features. It could be a PhD essential, or it could just mean that I write great quantities of what is largely un-thought through nonsense.

As I’ve said before, though, sometimes it is better to write than to be right.

We’ll see how it goes.

The web opens up whole new opportunities for expressions of community, but how much of it, if any, is real community?

Recently, Online Journalism Blog put out a series of posts about online communities entitled ‘Lessons in community from community editors.’

The lessons were for the most part about running online communities, rather than about building communities in general, and there was often (unsurprisingly) a financial/market-place tilt to the advice offered.

However, a few things jumped out at me as more broadly insightful and relevant. In particular, Andrew Rogers’ first of his three top tips was:

A community is only really a community if it builds (or builds on) genuine relationships between the members. Otherwise it is merely interactivity…

And I thought, how many of the ‘communities’ that we suppose ourselves to be a part of are actually only just places of interactivity? This goes especially for the web, where it seems easier to avoid genuine relationships, but also for more fleshy activities. What about the book club, church, synagogue, gym, office or football match (or mosque or parents association or halls of residence or…whatever)?
Now, there’s a danger of getting preachy, which is not what I intend. But rather I wanted to just flag up that thought. I think real community is something that we (nearly) all want and need. Better then not to be deceiving ourselves into thinking it’s there when it’s not.

I have often heard people comment on the surprising evangelistic enthusiasm of certain Richard-Dawkins-like atheists. But now they are even asking for donations to fund a new atheist advertising campaign.

Professor Richard Dawkins has, apparently, generously agreed to match all contributions up to a maximum of £5,500. The bus slogan is set to read

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

I’m a Christian, and I don’t think this is a particularly bad thing. I do think it’s a little peculiar, but not ‘bad’ in any way. Peculiar, because one of the claims made by evangelistic atheists is that Religion hinders rational thought, but persuasion-by-bus-advert isn’t exactly the pinnacle of such thought.

However, the supporters of the campaign do hope that it might make people think, and if this is the case then I might be in favour of the slogan. Anything to get the question out there is a good thing.

I particularly like what Simon Barrow has said about the campaign:

For what it’s worth, as a Christian, I agree wholeheartedly with the slogan. The first part, anyway. It is indeed most probable that the kind of vindictive sky-god caricatured by the “new atheists”, perpetuated by fundamentalists, and subtly compared to flying space teapots by over-eager Cif readers, does not exist.

Barrow is not so sure about the second part:

The “stop worrying and enjoy your life” bit I find more problematic. Not because I want people to worry and not enjoy life, but because for so many people it is really difficult to do this right now. Which is why the real message that needs to get out there is about encouraging one another in active compassion.

Exactly. Furthermore, it hardly seems that being an atheist (or an agnostic) has anything to do whatsoever with worrying and/or enjoying life. If the aim is to encourage people to stop worrying then it seems like a severe mis-diagnosis of the problem. If the aim rather is just to persuade people to believe in atheism then the motivation that is offerd just seems way off the mark.

So, yay to the campaign if it encourages people to think about what they believe and why, and what they value in life, but an odd thing for Dawkins to fund. The biggest challenge to people beginning on an honest and sincere journey of faith is not athism but indifferance, or so it seems to me. Perhaps this slogan can help to challenge some of that indifference.

My bike is at the local bike shop for a couple of days, so I’m back on the bus – the 43. Forgive me then if I return to an old habit.

Now I’m back on the top deck and looking at bald-spots. I see cyclists in yellow jackets wizz past. I wonder if I’ll see me. Probable not (I’m on the bus, you see).

Someone sits down right in front of me, when there are plenty of other seats available. Sure, it’s fine for him, but he doesn’t have to have someone’s dandruff spoiling his view for the rest of the journey.

A young girl sports a bob the builder helmet as she is hurried past us by her mother at a skip and stumble pace. The bus pauses for a few moments (just for a rest, it seems – no one gets on or off).

At the big new Fallowfield bus stop there is battalion of transport officers in yellow hi-viz jackets – there to manage the otherwise orderless sprawl of buses and students- but it’s not so busy now so they stand around and talk. They are all about the same age and shape with the same amount of hair, like bus-controller Lego men that have all come from the same packet.

It’s not so bad, this bus riding thing. Warmer, at least, but the air smells mildly of cigarettes and curry.

Turns out you’re never too young to join a social networking site:

(I have just returned from two weeks in Kenya, and before post anything else about the trip, here is something I wrote while I was out there…)

I lay down my novel about a young diplomat in South Africa and allow my eyes to flick across the garden below the balcony where we sit. Caleb, a fairly new security guard, is stooped over, swinging a sort of scythe across the dusty lawn. Dust is raised and the lawn thinned. The push mower doesn’t work, I was told, though I doubt Caleb would have used it if it had. His tool is a two foot long strip of metal with a handle at one end and a slightly angled blade at the other that was regularly sharpened using a file that he held in his free hand, itself casually resting behind his back.

Caleb himself is of medium height and solid build. His muscular arm flicks the blade back and forth rather gracefully, throwing uprooted tufts of grass to the left and right. He likes to garden.

With every coming and going through the newly painted red gate (solid iron with a peep hole) Caleb leaves his gardening and hurries to open up. He grins whenever we pass through but otherwise keeps to himself, excepting the time I asked him to show me the bow and arrows that he kept to aid in defending the small compound from any unwelcome visitors. When on his own he bears a solemn expression. Not unpeaceful, but tinted with a little sorrow.

Like the other guards that worked on the three compounds owned by this particular charity, Caleb works 12 hour shifts. He has been brought in recently to replace the guard killed in the post election unrest earlier in the year. A hole in the kitchen window from a stray bullet remains as a reminder of that time, as if any we’re needed.

Caleb disappears from view and reappears with a large machete that he uses to remove lower dead braches from some of the palm trees. He embeds the knife in the trunk of the tree and I flinched very slightly, imperceptibly.

A slight breeze ruffles some young banana trees, the thick glossy leaves of which were still lower than the balcony. A bunch of small green bananas cluster unpromisingly behind a closed red flower.

I am in Africa – Kisumu in west Kenya – and I am watching a maid carry a basket of washing to hang out on the line. She is Kenyan and has a wig on, a common practice for women here who wish to dress up a little. Like all the Kenyans I have met so far she shakes hands with a great beaming smile.

As I sit and look out over the balcony with Caleb using a machete and the black maid carrying a basket of washing, the associations – all second hand, from novels and films and UK media footage – come flooding in. All however are subdued by the peace and beauty of the place, and of the moment.

This advice from Ira Glass is aimed at media creatives, but it applies to any kind of work where your current ability does not match your ambitions. It’s certainly relevant to writing a PhD. The main tip? Keep working!

Does the web provide a radically different platform for story telling? How do we engage with and tell stories on a digital multimedia platform? These are some of the questions we had to ask ourselves at the MediaNet Academy last week. What we came up with was an exploration into the possibilities of digital story telling.

One of the marks of engagement with the internet is a loss of the linearity of experience found in other forms of media. Reading a book or watching a film or TV show follows a fairly standard beginning to end path, one dictated to us, to a significant degree, by the producer (author, director, journalist).

The stories we consume may experiment with unpredictable narrative paths (like the film Memento) but the path we as consumers take is given to us.

There will always be some, of course, who choose to read a newspaper article or novel by jumping in and out of the text at different places (less so with a rented film, and not at all for broadcast TV and cinema) but these are rare exceptions.

In using the web, however, it seems to me to be becoming far more common for us to forge our own path and guide ourselves around stories:

Scan the headlines or a news feed, follow a link, watch streamed footage, check wikipedia for background, check some related posts, scan a few comments… get bored, pick up a new story, follow some more links, find a different take on the subject, think about getting a coffee and the work you should probably get down to doing.

How deep we wish to go with a story, how much background, how many opinions, how much fact checking… so much of this is now up to us. Who is the narrator of the story we experience? Are we?

In small computer room with whitewashed walls and a single small window three of us worked for 36 hours to produce a ‘narrative platform’ for the story of Jo Bloggs. No one piece of text, no one video or radio show, not even one single website presents the story as a whole. The story is told through the viewers engagement with the network of links to blogs and pages and Facebook profiles. Every journey through the story will be different as the viewer finds her own path.

It’s a fictional story though the boundaries are fuzzy (but this isn’t new, think historical novel). If you want, you as a character can get involved in some of the same ways that we all have the potential to become part of the news stories that we read and watch every day.

Interesting stuff. D’ya get me?

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