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Histories of momentary places

My hippie heart is continually entranced by communal living spaces. Permanent Hospitality Berlin, the one I'm closest to, is firmly entrenched as my favourite place in the world.

But, magical as it may be, the odds are that it won't exist in fifty years' time. Such places depend entirely on the personalities and culture involved, which change in a matter of months or less. Most disintegrate or are reabsorbed into normality, and only a very few walk the cultural tightrope for decades.

So these projects are reinvented and forgotten year by year. Permanent Hospitality has made a point of documenting itself, but I'm not convinced that words can capture any more than the basic institutional structure of such a place. It takes a work of genius such as The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test to get inside the heads of a culture (and it becomes harder, not easier, when the group are less self-consciously exhibitionist than the Merry Pranksters).

Usually, the only way of getting at the spirit of the place is through the minds of the people touched by it. I am inordinately excited by the knowledge that the hundreds of people who have encountered the project are now spread in tiny pockets across the world, bringing their idea of it wider into the project.

All of which is by way of introduction to this short essay on the hacker spaces movement, which shares at least a little with the ideology of other intentional communities. I'll leave the main thrust for another day (briefly: I disagree that being self-consciously 'political' is essential, or even necessarily helpful), but I entirely agree with the call for oral history:

To get there we really need a more explicit sense and understanding of the history of what we are doing, of the political approaches and demands that went into it long ago and that still are there, hidden in what we do right now.
So to start off we would like to organize some workshops in the hackerspaces where we can learn about the philosophical, historical and other items that we need to get back in our lives. Theory is a toolkit to analyze and deconstruct the world.

Not new, of course: once the Whole Earth Catalog, now worldchanging and a flotilla of websites provide the maps. But, especially given the noticeable age-segregation of so many projects, I feel an increasing need to pick the brains of greybears (and...erm...greybeardesses) who have been through it all before.

[ETA: As usual, Mike adds a comment that's considerably more informative than the post itself. Mike, you rock.]

Comments

I find it hard to believe that there isn't a burgeoning effort to archive social experiments?

There are places where some physical and documentary records of transient movements and communities exist: one of the largest is the Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis in Amsterdam: where, for example, the (limited) archives of Christiania up to 1979 have been deposited.

The bias of the IISG, though, remains European, and 20th century. The most exciting communities, as you suggest, are both longer established, and dispersed transnationally. Sadly I think this bias is likely to get worse: it seems to me that the archival impetus of most political and social organisations has declined, not increased, over time. Certainly I'm constantly struck by the fact that most of the major NGOs with which I've come into contact (not at all the same as intentional communities, of course) quite deliberately established some sort of archival process at the start of their existence, which has fallen off over time. And these are organisations with firm institutional and geographical roots. Where is the institutional memory of a transnational, or a virtual, community? How do we record the planning and efforts of, say, MoveOn.org? We can interview its organisers and leading lights, but it's much harder to get a sense of its grass-roots dynamics.

Thanks for that, Mike.

I don't really have enough personal or academic perspective to say whether these things are getting worse. More words are probably being generated and automatically stored than before, but I suspect even more of them than before vanish within a couple of years.

I do suspect this ties into the problem of age segregation in political movements, though. Maybe I'm stereotyping, but I suspect people who've seen a few campaigns rise and fall are more inclined to attempt to preserve something.