News From Nowhere

Artist, designer and political activist William Morris published a utopian novel in 1890, News From Nowhere. The protagonist of the novel falls asleep in miserable, industrial Victorian England and wakes up in a future in which labor is meaningful, where our cities are adorned with beautiful architecture and gardens and where we address each other as, “neighbor.” As we all know, instead of that future we ended up with one, in many ways, far worse than Morris could have imagined.

Consider this prescient passage from Morris’ novel,

Said he, settling himself in his chair again for a long talk: “It is clear from all that we hear and read, that in the last age of civilisation men had got into a vicious circle in the matter of production of wares. They had reached a wonderful facility of production, and in order to make the most of that facility they had gradually created (or allowed to grow, rather) a most elaborate system of buying and selling, which has been called the World-Market; and that World Market, once set a-going, forced them to go on making more and more of these wares, whether they needed them or not. So that while (of course) they could not free themselves from the toil of making real necessities, they created in a never-ending series sham or artificial necessaries, which became, under the iron rule of the aforesaid World-Market, of equal importance to them with the real necessaries which supported life. By all this they burdened themselves with a prodigious mass of work merely for the sake of keeping their wretched system going.”

“Yes – and then?. said I.

“Why, then, once they had forced themselves to stagger along under this horrible burden of unnecessary production, it became impossible for them to look upon labour and its results from any other point of view than one – to wit, the ceaseless endeavour to expend the least possible amount of labour on any article made and yet at the same time to make as many articles as possible. To this `cheapening of production,’ as it was called, everything was sacrificed: the happiness of the workman at his work, nay, his most elementary comfort and bare health, his food, his clothes, his dwelling, his leisure, his amusement, his education” – his life, in short – did not weigh a grain of sand in the balance against this dire necessity of `cheap production’ of things, a great part of which were not worth producing at all. Nay, we are told, and we must believe it, so overwhelming is the evidence, though many of our people scarcely can believe it, that even rich and powerful men, the masters of the poor devils aforesaid, submitted to live amidst sights and sounds and smells which it is in the very nature of man to abhor and flee from, in order that their riches might bolster up this supreme folly. The whole community, in fact, was cast into the jaws of this ravening monster, `the cheap production’ forced on it by the World-Market.”

“Dear me!” said I. “But what happened? Did not their cleverness and facility in production master this chaos of misery at last? Couldn’t they catch up with the World-Market, and then set to work to devise means for relieving themselves from this fearful task of extra labour?” . . .

He smiled bitterly. “Did they even try to?” said he. “I am not sure. You know that according to the old saw the beetle gets used to living in dung; and these people whether they found the dung sweet or not, certainly lived in it.”

“I think I do understand,” said I: “but now, as it seems, you have reversed all this?”

“Pretty much so,” said he. “The wares which we make are made because they are needed: men make for their neighbours’ use as if they were making for themselves, not for a vague market of which they know nothing, and over which they have no control: as there is no buying and selling, it would be mere insanity to make goods on the chance of their being wanted; for there is no longer any one who can be compelled to buy them. So that whatever is made is good, and thoroughly fit for its purpose. Nothing can be made except for genuine use; therefore no inferior goods are made. Moreover, as aforesaid, we have now found out what we want; and as we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them. All work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without. There is no difficulty in finding work which suits the special turn of mind for everybody; so that no man is sacrificed to the wants of another. From time to time, when we have found out that some piece of work was too disagreeable or troublesome, we have given it up and done altogether without the thing produced by it. Now, surely you can see that under these circumstances all the work that we do is an exercise of the mind and body more or less pleasant to be done; so that instead of avoiding work everybody seeks it: and, since people have got defter in doing the work generation after generation, it has become so easy to do, that it seems as if there were less done, though probably more is produced. I suppose this explains that fear, which I hinted at just now, of a possible scarcity in work, which perhaps you have already noticed, and which is a feeling on the increase, and has been for a score of years.”

Morris comes from the, earthy, embodied thread of the Western tradition, a philosophical chain that links Aristotle, Christ, Aquinas and Marx. In our dystopian present, we’ve inherited the incorporeal flim-flam of Plato: virtual reality, magical thinking, consumerism, atomized individualism, prosperity gospel and the absurd notion that Elon Musk utterances have any credibility.

Instead of waiting for a future that will never come, News From Nowhere imagines a paradise within our grasp, right here right now. We need not wait for the vaporware future that will never happen, the jetpacks, flying cars and space colonies. We can make the work of our hands a joy and we can form meaningful communities. We can reject the utilitarianism and bean counting that define contemporary life. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams put it in his moving introduction to the Victoria and Albert Museum edition of this book, “to make a beautiful object is not to ice an otherwise dull and tasteless cake but to do something that is in its way as straightforwardly necessary to human beings as any machine-made convenience.”

Speaking of beauty, my dear neighbors, you should definitely read this book in the facsimile edition that reproduces Morris’ impossibly beautiful printing. Reading it this way has the hopeful quality of holding an object from the future Morris imagines. Morris’ exquisite typography physically locates the reader in the place of the time traveling narrator. That said, if you don’t feel like springing for the book, you can read a copy online. And, of course, check your local library for the Vitoria and Albert edition.

118 Eric of Garden Fork on Old Houses, Queen Bees and Ramps


On this week’s episode of the podcast Eric Rochow of Garden Fork returns to talk about the struggle of owning an old house, raising queen bees and the over harvesting of ramps. During the show Eric mentions:

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Of Love and Compressed Air

I’m always awestruck by the careful, scholarly writing of Low Tech Magazine creator Kris De Decker (a guest on episode 83 of our podcast). He just published two long articles on the history of compressed air, “History and Future of the Compressed Air Economy” and “Ditch the Batteries: Off-Grid Compressed Air Energy Storage.” This is one of those topics that’s so boring as to be exciting and once you start thinking of the possibilities of compressed air you’ll find yourself, inappropriately, peppering your cocktail party conversation with compressed air anecdotes. Who knew that the city of Paris had an elaborate compressed air distribution system that operated from 1881 to 1994?

Compressed air has been on my mind since purchasing an air compressor and pneumatic finishing nailer that has made the carpentry work for our ongoing house restoration process much easier. What De Decker is writing about, however, goes much deeper than my horribly inefficient Home Depot air compressor. His article is about the air compressor as an alternative to chemical batteries and ways to compress air with wind, solar and hydro power.

Some Amish communities use compressed air as a way of separating themselves from the “English” world and its power grid. In fact, compressed air is sometimes referred to as “Amish Electricity.” While the Amish compress air mostly with diesel generators, some use windmills. The Amish convert kitchen appliances to run on compressed air as well as power tools.

Over the weekend, Root Simple pal Charlie sent me an email describing his grandfather’s patent (US4311010A) for a “Gas-powered engine adapted to utilize stored solar heat energy and compressed gas power system.” Apparently, he couldn’t find a machinist to realize this compressed air storage invention (they all thought it was a perpetual motion machine).

Let me conclude with a detour from the power of compressed air to the power of love. If you didn’t see Bishop Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon, you really should. He turned what could have been nothing more than a celebration of vapid celebrity into something completely different. Now it’s up to us to figure out how to concentrate and distribute the love Curry so movingly spoke of. It might just be easier than setting up a compressed air network . . .

Saturday Tweets: Compressed Air, Digging Down and Orange Marmalade

Music and Math by Hand

One of the issues of our time that keeps me awake at night is the loss of mnemonic systems, especially ones that make use of the physical world. The more we depend on computers, especially mobile phones, the more we will lose the ability to remember things and do stuff without staring at a screen. My underutilized music degree taught me about the Guidonian hand, a method medieval monks used in the days before musical notation software. The OnMusic Dictionary describes it as,

The first system of learning music developed in the 11th century by Guido d’Arezzo. He assigned each note a name, Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, sol, and La (thus the origin of solfeggio), and designed the system of placing notes on horizontal lines to notate pitches (thus the origin of the staff). The Guidonian hand is another of his inventions, it is a system of assigning each part of the hand a certain note, thus, by pointing to a part of his hand, a group of singers would know which note was indicated and sing the corresponding note.

Here’s a video describing the method in more detail:

Should you want to learn a handy and similar method of using your hands for mathematical calculations there’s a whole video channel devoted to a method popular in India. Please enjoy this room full of kids demonstrating the Indian method:

I distinctly remember, in school, being discouraged from using my hands for math. Now I can’t do anything without Steve Job’s infernal gadget. I wonder if, when we’re finished with our home restoration work, anyone would be interested in a musical and mathematical “non-digital digits” camp for adults at the Root Simple compound? We’ve got to take our skills back from these Silicon Valley memory vampires.