We got off the train at the wrong stop, but, no matter, we’d get a taxi. Except… we’re not in London any more, and there are no taxis in Matera, especially when it’s nearly midnight.
So we walked the last mile to get to the old town, the Sassi, which runs along the side of a ravine. Looking out, I imagined the blinking light on top of a transmitter tower as a boat on the ocean, or a light aircraft over the Sahel – the town has the feel being on the edge of a great unknown, heightened by the even greater unknown of where our apartment was. In the end we found it by chance, just as panic was beginning to take hold.
In the daylight you can see across the valley to rows of caves, some of which are tiny churches with peeling frescos on their walls. Even in the daylight the old town is uncanny, there are so few people there. Before tourism made the Sassi an economic asset, the Italian government moved people out of the medieval caves and into the new town, they are only now moving back.
The Unmonastry is at the cusp of the Sassi’s ravine, the right place for a conference called Living On The Edge; the walls of an ancient cellar rubbing off on your shoulders as you listen to Emmanuele talk about memories of abandoned Italian villages.
The introductory session nicely bookended the LOTE spectrum between Robin Chase and Vinay Gupta. Robin is a Zipcar cofounder and her call was for us to look for “excess capacity” in the system and investigate ways to unlock it. If Zipcar unlocks the value of our underused cars through sharing them, what else could we bring that model to?
Compare with Vinay’s call, of similar kind but utterly different extent: to modernise anarchist theory, cease relying on the government, ignore the market economy and form radical cooperatives that act in our own interests using the internet as a platform. Charities be dammed, they are cut from the same cloth as the corporates. Zipcar type models are encompassed via the theoretical construct of guard labour, but it doesn’t stop there; climate change, wars and everything in between are in Vinay’s purview.
To round off the picture, Fra. Bembo pointed out that everyone would have to clean the toilets, and Jeff (who was dressed variously as a chef and a bin man over the weekend) spoke out in support of a guaranteed minimum income, which I think is rapidly becoming a hobby horse for me.
The stewardship in the title refers, I think, to the idea of an individuals or organisations that attempt to maximise the social benefit of a resource for non-financial reasons – people who ‘steward’ a resource. But the topic that kept recurring is actually the Zipcareque sharing economy. Similar idea, getting more value by sharing resources, but, crucially, driven by market forces rather than cooperative benevolence. This tension came out at the plenary at the end of the first day, with the question “Is Airbnb bad because it makes room sharing, which used to be a gesture of friendship, into a financial transaction?”
The answer that Robin gave, and which I’m inclined to agree with, is that before Airbnb existed people mostly didn’t let their spare rooms, because there was too much friction in the transaction. The new ‘sharing economy’ has probably displaced very little benevolent, non-monetised sharing activity, with either cars or spare rooms. Airbnb is straight out of VC-funded, bubble-valley, hypercapitalist California. I might not like the way it’s come about, but I can see the value of what it enables as despite the economic system in which it arose.
You might have guessed that by now I have an affinity for Robin’s way of thinking, and I think one of the most interesting things she posited was the idea of market failure in the sharing economy. Using economic theory as a lens in very helpful for me, but, I speculate, a total turn off for most other people at the conference. In any case, a massive case of market failure occurs around personal data, where people simply cannot understand the value of their personal data, and the way it aggregates to become incredibly powerful.
So that’s the cut-and-dry economics, but, much more than ever that ever before, Patrick persuaded of a rational position which is sceptical of economic theory. In his view, using money to value things causes people to have a different psychology. It makes it easier, for example, to abuse natural resources, because it makes them abstract. So when I explained that the market is a wonderful way of allocating resources, that it does a magical computation to prioritise what people most want, he agreed. But at the big scale, the environmental scale, the use of money causes this damaging psychological disconnect. When people explain to me why they don’t like economics, I often feel it’s because they don’t get how powerful it is, our conversation didn’t follow that pattern.
Which leads me to the unconference session that Helen and I lead, Art Vs Science. As a spur to discussion, we divided the world into Tribe A – scientists and techies – and Tribe B – Artists and the academic humanities. I proposed that the tribes need to recognise their cultural differences and reconcile them, Helen argued the tribes didn’t really exist like this, and that in any case the differences in culture were a good thing. More is available in the notes, but we did find that the tribe model rang at least a little true with the experience of those in the Unmonastry. Kat was especially good in the debate, bringing lots of useful ideas. I was interested to learn that artists-in-residence at CERN only get three months, those running the program worry the artists might go native and start thinking like scientists otherwise.
One funny conclusion was that even though Helen identifies as Tribe B, and I identify as Tribe A, we both perceive ourselves to be in the minority – at the conference and in wider society. Obviously impossible.
Listening to the talks I noticed a recurring structure in presentations. Someone would advocate for some kind of action, then we’d lament that not many people agreed with us. This was followed by the idea that ‘people’ should be re-educated so they will want they same thing we do. eg. People should use encryption on the web, but they don’t see the value, so we should re-educate them so they do. People shouldn’t go to supermarkets, but they do, so we should re-educate them to not.
In discussion with Theresia, I realised how pervasive this type of thinking is – to the point where I’ve certainly articulated it myself. It’s not a completely fair analysis, but it gave me something to think about.
Sam, who was videoing the gathering, told me he was having difficulty making the Sassi look real on screen. In the diffused light, with buff-colour tufo buildings between grey ravine and the grey sky, the town looks as flat as film set. In fact Pasolini’s films and Mel Gibson’s Passion of The Christ both used the Sassi as a backdrop, as will a remake of Ben Hur.
At the same time the Sassi is more three dimensional than any modern town. Buttresses fly, shoulder-width steps wind through, over, under. One man’s pavement is another mans roof. The bedrock is a Swiss cheese of human activity. When we arrived at the apartment we were led through a tiny cupboard-style door under the stairs, down a staircase and into a cellar space the size of a 4 bed London flat. There’s a story that at another conference a local showed a someone into his house, to show how it connected to the cave system. They went deep enough to end up under a church, looking into a pit of human bones.
God knows what else is under there. One of the town’s churches (wonderfully called Chiese Rupestri di San Nicola dei Greci e Madonna delle Virtù) intersects with an older church carved into the hill. No one knows how old the older church is, the first docmentation comes from the 14th century – maybe the question doesn’t even make sense, geology and architecture elide in Matera. In 1991 they discovered a Roman cistern, hiding, unknown, below the town square, under everyone’s feet.
The time dimension warped too; in the way that three days a Glastonbury feels like you’ve been away for a month. You could open a door in the depths of a cave and come out of at the top of a campanile a week in the past and on the other side of the valley. Perhaps I was just confused because the clocks changed while we there.
I didn’t have much more luck with trains when I came to leave. Somehow I seemed to keep missing the main train station. I took me too long to realise what should have been obvious: the train station is underground.