Why we are doomed: of meetings, ghosts and the QWERTY keyboard

So, I wrote this over a year ago.  Nothing I have seen from the “new” organisations on the scene gives me any cause to revise what I wrote back then.  I am less prone to flounces and resentment grenades, but only marginally so.

There’s a much shorter (and life is short, so read that instead?) version of this on Peace News., extensively de-snarked and de-psychologised..


Why we are doomed: of meetings, ghosts and the QWERTY keyboard

The way social movement organisations arrange meetings makes it harder, not easier, for new people to become involved for the long-haul struggle for social (and technological) change. 

Formats which minimise active engagement and linkage persist, despite being ‘sub-optimal’, much as the QWERTY keyboard persists.  Prospects for change are … virtually non-existent.

The problem

We have all seen ghosts.  Out of the corner of our eye, they pass among us, past us, with messages from the past, the present and the future, if only we would listen.  But the ghosts are largely mute, and if they do speak, we are too terrified to listen….

I do not mean the paranormal type of ghosts, but rather the all—too-normal world of activism and social movements, where if you sit still for long enough you will see a hardcore of ‘the usual suspects’ a semi-periphery of tourists who move from campaign to issue to flashpoint to abeyance and back through the cycle, and then a broader mist of faces, seen once, twice or thrice are placed. This mist is made up of the ghosts, those who should haunt the nightmares of social movement activists, but largely seem not to.  This article is about why they rattle their silent chains and gnash their teeth in futility, why the ghosts matter, and what could be done to minimise the ghostliness of social movements. It concludes with a series of misanthropic and miserabilist moans about why nothing will change. We’re all doomed.


Two kinds of meetings

Social movements create spaces for encounter, recruitment, retention and (in theory) discussion in many ways.  While online spaces are one important way (and the arguments around the use of proprietary platforms such as Facebook is both fascinating and urgent), the ‘real world’ also matters. However, this article is silent on marches, rallies, camps and other physical forms of social movement activity. Instead it focuses on two kinds of meeting – the  set piece public meetings with invited (high profile) speaker and the regular planning meetings of a group.

At both  ghosts are present.  In the former they tend to stay  seated near the back, and leave at the close of (interminable) Q and A.  If asked they might say they had buses catch, child-minders to relieve, and surely that will be true on many occasions. But on others it will be because they have seen or heard enough, and found no place for themselves in the overarching narrative.  At the latter, they usually stay till the end of the meeting (it’s only polite, after all), but probably don’t volunteer for tasks, and don’t expect to turn up on another occasion.   More than this, they are not going to tell their friends ”wow, the event was great, you should definitely come with me next time.”  If anything, the ripples of ghost-making will spread outward, in multiple invisible but effective ways.


What is the problem caused by?
So, why is it so?  We need to take a diversion into the business and innovation literature now.  In it we find discussion of “incumbents” who are the big beasts who benefit from the status quo, and act with political, economic and technological power to keep things the way they are.  They lobby to ensure that patents are protected and extended, that regulations keep potentially disruptive competitors at bay, to demonise innovations which would eat their market share as unnatural, dangerous, expensive. So far, so obvious.

In addition, there is an academic strand of research, ‘Upper Echelon Theory’ which argues that those who run large organisations (while not actually owning them) are able to leverage the resources of that organisation to meet their own personal and social goals – getting the organisation to do things that then reflect well on them.

Where it gets interesting (to me at least) is in thinking about social movement organisations with this ‘incumbent’ lens.  The observation that foundations and charities act as ‘control rods’, soaking up resentment against ‘the system’ is hardly a new one.  Over one hundred years ago Jack London, in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel, wrote about this exact topic. More recently, Naomi Klein critiques ‘Big Green’ organisations in her book This Changes Everything.  On the whole the critique is that, as big expensive-to-maintain organisations, institutionalised incumbents are disciplined by their need to obtain funding from other large organisations- be they state, corporate or third sector.  However, in terms of ghostmaking, there is another, more ‘cultural’ and behavioural critique that needs to be made. This critique has the added advantage of applying not merely to ‘Big Green’, but also the grassroots groups which are so lauded by starry-eyed academics (or worse, those who know better but suppress their critical faculties in exchange for continued access to their subjects).

It is not merely a case of incumbents defending their financial interests directly, but other material interests – status , attention, their place within an ecosystem of soi-disant ‘dissent’.  Further, incumbent actors (primarily individuals but also at an organisational level) are driven by the need to see themselves as pure, righteous and competent, as a last line of defense for a society stumbling into chaos.  To reflect critically, to admit not merely that ‘mistakes were made (but not by us)’ but that potential members and their skills and energies were lost, that they were turned into ghosts- would be more than merely morale-hurting (the usual excuse given), but actually inherently a critique of years/decades of failure, of the style, capacities and potential of social movement organisation ‘leaders’.  This would open them to attack by other members of the organisation.  Nobody is masochistic enough to put their own head on the chopping block and offer their opponents an axe.  And nobody but self-obsessed neurotics likes to ruminate on missed opportunities, poor choices and the resulting failure.   Not only is this not ‘selected for’, to use a Darwinian term, but it’s not in the skill set of most leaders, who have been well-educated and encultured into the dominant ways of having a ‘right’ answer, of explaining away failure and ignoring ignorance.  But we urgently need to change this, because social movement organisations, especially around environment (and especially climate change) are failing, and failing faster. And that is – in part – because we have too many ghosts already, and we should stop making more of them.


The consequences of the problem

So, if people do not become involved, but instead become ghosts, then obviously they are not available to continue or expand the work of the organisation, the campaign.  The organisation loses those people  who might help it succeed in its goals or the campaign to achieve its objectives; but there is a deeper loss – as the new people fail to stay engaged, this undermines the morale of (at least some) of the existing members, and adds to the stress of extra work on few hands. Groups that are not growing, that are not even sustaining their numbers very probably come to lack legitimacy in own eyes and the eyes of others. This in turn can cause a hardening of the sense of ‘nobody else gives a fuck’ among self-selected elites, leading to a willingness to adopt extreme/Manichean/apocalyptic positions.

All this contributes to burnout and withdrawal from the organisation itself. Discretionary effort is withheld.

Even beyond this, there is an even-less-visible, but equally real, effect, the ripple effect of non-recruitment.


Why do people become ghosts?

There are of course multiple reasons why people don’t get involved after initial contact. And failure to get involved is not all the fault of organisers of badly designed and facilitated meetings.  Here’s a selection of reasons why many of those who turn up to one or two meetings are not seen again.

  • A certain number are tourists who can’t/won’t commit to the boring work of activism, but instead flit from one ‘high’ to another.  Insofar as they have skills or resources that might be useful, they are a loss. Insofar as they have no stomach for a fight, they are a dead loss.
  • Others turn up just to ‘stay aware of an issue’, or see the media personality ‘n the flesh’, but with little or no desire to become actively involved in a issue, or any issue.
  • Some are cops, or political opponents who have come on safari to laugh at the hippies.
  • Some hard-core hacks turn up to gather intelligence on what their competitors or the enemy (the line is fuzzy) are doing, and to recruit from among the attendees for those other groups.
  • Occasionally ex-activists will turn up, to confirm their doomy gloomy predictions of the futility of groups and re-affirm why activism is a grotesque farce most of the time.

But that is by no means everyone who turns up to one or two meetings.  I maintain that a large number (and it will vary, and be hard to measure in any case) are actually desperately worried about the state of the world (how could an intelligent, aware, sensitive person not be, and want to be part of the solution, not the problem?)  They are coming to meetings to see if the group has a plausible plan, and if they can see themselves as part of the group.

I think there are two major reasons why people come to public meetings (and to a lesser extent an organising meeting)  Firstly, they come to learn facts and perspectives about ‘an issue’ – to get beyond the headlines.  If you’re not particularly confident around the skills of tracking down different sources and perspectives and comparing and contrasting them, then this can be a relatively efficient way of getting information.

Secondly- and I sometimes think, without any way of proving it, that this is the major reason people attend meetings, is the need to find connection with other people who give a shit and want a better world.  Basically, these people are looking to find a way to escape from the  endemic and escalating loneliness that characterises many ‘advanced’ societies.


But along with those overarching motivations, there are other things people need if they’re going to stay involved, if they’re not already hard-core, committed (and indoctrinated) activists, with deep social ties in a group.  They need and/or want

  • opportunities to admit ignorance and uncertainty, and hear succinct and non-judgemental explanations of radical ways of thinking.
  • opportunities to get their ego-needs met, especially around attention, recognition, connection

On the whole, new attendees do not get these in meaningful or effective ways at meetings.


What they get instead is

  • The  boredom of listening to a small number of self-proclaimed radicals banging on, often using jargon and referring to obscure and long-past events, ideologies in a thinly-veiled effort to meet their own ego needs.
  • The feeling of exclusion when other people (obviously known to the facilitator) are named and they are not
  • When their questions either do not get an outlet or are dealt with an eye-roll and condescension.

And we wonder why they don’t stick around…


What are the causes of this ghost-making?

Some of this is just down to bad luck, bad timing and so on.  Social movement organisations are usually chronically starved of resources, and have little time or incentive to reflect deeply on past failures.  And so the status quo prevails not  – generally- because of any particular active dickishness but simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here.”

Less forgiveable though, are those movement activists who make a big song and dance about the importance of innovation or doing things differently and then don’t innovate at all or say they will and just fuck it up.  On my darker days, I remember that meetings “designed” by incumbents in unthinking ways, will see incumbents interests prioritised and the possibilities for genuine interaction and finding-of-each-other minimised.

Let’s have a closer look at the way the two types of meeting under discussion are performed generally (please note, this is a generic description, not necessarily specific to your experience.  I would in fact be heartened and enlightened to hear of examples where there are consistent exceptions to the rule).

An early draft of this article used the word “designed” to describe meetings.  But designed is too strong a word- very little thought goes into how a meeting will be arranged. People mostly follow scripts (how they’ve always seen it done) and think that any conscious design is somehow an artificial imposition, and that if anyone wants to speak, they can/will.

The public meeting

The public will have run a gauntlet of paper sellers outside.  They’ll come and sit down near the middle (or at the back if they’re planning to duck out early).  They’ll either sit together or if they are on their own bury themselves in a book or (more 21st century), scroll through their newsfeeds and social media accounts.  The room will fill up a bit more, so people have to do that most un-English of things – sit next to someone they don’t know.  There will of course be isolated outbreaks of networking, talking to new people etc, but on the whole, people will keep to themselves.

The chair of the meeting will – within a few minutes of the advertised start time – announce the meeting open.  There will be some random comments about current events and heavy handed attempts at humour and welcoming.  The speaker will then get a long and fawning introduction.

The speaker – some personality from television or the mass media, mostly, will utter a few standard and obligatory self-deprecatory noises. He (and it is more often than not he, though women are not good at this either) will then very much launch into the standard spiel that they’ve done many a time before.  It will have been updated with new factoids and new examples (almost certainly drawn from their latest book or television programme).  They will get so carried away that they’ll run over time by a significant amount of time.  The chair of the meeting, not wanting to seem a bully, and certainly not wanting to alienate this celebrity (or others) will let it run on.

Eventually though, the celebrity will shut up.  Most of his talk, oddly, will have been about the finer detail of the world’s PROBLEMS.   Problems are relatively easy to study, after all. And there are so many of them…

Solutions? Well, the celebrity doesn’t want to be perceived as following a particular party line, as captive or captivated by a particular group.  At the same time, if you got specific about a solution, all the difficulties in implementing that solution would surface.  Far better, therefore, to keep it to a general ‘the government/business is bad/mistaken’ and a general and generic ‘we the people have to do something’.  The chair of the meeting will call for additional applause.  Some people will get up and leave, knowing what comes next.  And what comes next is… usually dreadful.

It’s the Q and A, which might as usefully be called the P and A – preening and assholery. The chair will ask if anyone has questions, and a bunch of hands (attached to men) will shoot up.  The chair will pick three or four, based on who they know, who they like.  These questions will each be long. Some will not be questions at all, but mini speeches with terms like “don’t you agree that…”.  A long question demands a long answer, and the invited guest may also use the excuse to add stuff that he didn’t get to say in his spiel.  Eventually, with time running out, the chair may make some weak comment like “it would be good to hear from women”.  But it will be too late – a lot of the women will have left, either physically or mentally.

The meeting will close with more applause and announcements about upcoming marches and demonstrations.  The people who know each other will catch up, some will go to the pub and pick over who said what.  The ghosts though, having met no-one, will leave.  They may be back, on another issue, with a different speaker, but then again, they might not…

The business meeting

The group is meeting in a room somewhere – either a Friends Meeting House or a community space (like the one the police so helpfully were involved in setting up in Leeds, back in the day).

There’ll be a bunch of ‘old hands’ who clearly know each other.  The meeting will start on time, ish.  Depending on how many people are present there will probably be a name go round. People will give their name and their political/group affiliations. The chair (or ‘facilitator’) will announce the agenda and ask if there are any additional items.  Discussions will then be launched.

The conversation will probably be dominated by those who have the longest histories in the group/around the issue. They know the most, have the shared experience.  The Plato Rule will be witnessed – the wise man speaks when he needs to. The foolish man speaks when he wants to…”

The facilitator will point to various people, probably using names when he knows the person and “you, sorry, don’t know your name” when they don’t.   Issues will be decided, volunteers sought.  When there is a job, it will not be explained in detail, or paired off with anyone else.  The implication will be that it is an open-ended commitment.

In all probability, important issues that were at the foot of the agenda are not dealt with because the facilitator has not kept the meeting to time.  So items are either abandoned, deferred or – worst of all – decided in the pub afterwards.

For, inevitably, once the meeting is declared closed, there will be an announcement that some people are going to the pub….


Here’s a brief set of “commandments” and suggestion


What could be done?

Public meeting

Start on time.  It’s unprofessional and sends a message that you are sloppy and don’t consider people’s (finite) time to be a precious resource.

Start with an interaction – get people to turn to the person next to them to exchange names and ‘the reason they came’.  Not doing this sends the message that the only thing that matters is the front of the room, and what the oracles and the elect are saying.  Doing this means that everyone at least speaks to SOMEONE during the course of the evening.

Crowd-source the time keeping.  “Dear everyone, our wonderful speaker Professor Jane Bloggs has expressed a keen interest in hearing your questions and comments and ways forward and so is going to restrict herself to 30 minutes, of which at least one third-  10 minutes is about the possible solutions to problem x.  To that end, I’m going to slide two pieces of paper across – one at the 11 minutes to go mark – “Solutions” and another “This is the end”  piece of paper across at the “one minute to go” point. At exactly 30 minutes, I’m going to start to applaud, and you’re all going to join in.  Let’s practice now – (starts to applaud).

Ask speaker to devote at least half of talk to a) solutions b) problems with previous solutions c) what incumbents will do in response to attempts at reform. d) stuff that people in audience could do in coming days, weeks, months. i.e. NOT an exhaustive/exhausting litany of woes, recap of the book that they are shilling, followed by a tokenistic “we need to build a mass movement” horseshittery.

Making the Q and A a tolerable (even, gasp, energising experience).

(after applause dies down).  “Thanks to Professor Bloggs.  I am sure some of you already have questions.  I am sure others of you have half a question in your heads.  What we are going to do now is spend two minutes developing – and where possible SHORTENING those questions.  Please turn to the person next to you and do that if neither of you has a question, just compare your thoughts on what you’ve heard.”  (After two minutes rings a bell)

So, you’ve had a chance to get feedback on your question. With very rare exceptions, good questions are short questions. So, please no speeches, no self-advertisements. Professor Bloggs has said she’s going to try to keep her answers and responses as short as possible, and not use the time to continue her speech or go off on major tangents.  So we should be able to get through lots of questions.   We’re going to batch them in threes.  Can I see a show of hands, who wants to ask a question?” (Then pick two women and a man as “one, two, three” – don’t use names, even if you know people.)  Then another batch of three…

We’re drawing to a close now.  There’s something I didn’t tell you earlier, and that is that we have a prize for the best question.  Our judges have whittled it down to three, based on how short they were, how much they forced Professor Bloggs to think, and how relevant they were to the topic at hand.  Here are the three questions (puts up powerpoint).  Please only clap for one of the three questions Loudest clapping wins, and the person who asked that question gets…”  (a ten quid book voucher/ a copy of the book being launched, whatevs).  (This recognises and encourages the art of asking good questions, and gives the questioner a specific reward).

Maybe have the questioner come up to receive the book from Professor Blogs and close the meeting with those thanks.
Crucially, end the meeting on time, and on a ‘high note (applause for everyone). Remember the pea-end effect – people’s memory of an event is shaped by the most emotionally salient period within the meeting (the peak), and the final bit (end).


Planning meeting

Start on time, to send out a message of seriousness and reliability

  • Have an ice-breaker/”report-in” from people. Get the creative juices flowing, get everyone talking to one other person.  As a rule, a ‘name go round’ is NOT an icebreaker!
  • Consider having name badges for the meeting, even if most people think they know other people’s names.
  • Have a skilled chair, someone who understands the difference between chairing and facilitating, and is capable of doing both.  And if there are contentious issues to be discussed/decided, perhaps think of having an external person who facilitates those bits, making sure that there’s good process.
  • Facilitator, who either uses everyone’s name or nobody’s, to minimise that sense of an ingroup and an outgroup.
  • Have co-facilitators who facilitate a portion of a meeting, so that they gain experience and confidence, without having to ‘jump in the deep end’.
  • At the half way point of the meeting have a brief break. At this point jobs that need doing could be distributed, to people who were not present.
  • Make sure that when tasks are being offered out, that they are ones that aren’t open-ended commitments, and that wherever possible/sensible people are paired, an experienced person and a new-to-the-group person. Never ever let anything ‘mission critical’ be left to one person.  That stuff should always be paired.

There are more, but we’re drifting here from the mechanics of a meeting into how to distribute tasks and build skills in a group, which is a separate article…

Why social innovation will not happen.

As a baked-in pessimist, but also an empiricist, I believe that few if any of the suggestions above will become social norms.  I have reasons for this pessimism, which I provide in two sections: firstly when the incumbents want to innovate, but lack certain resources, and secondly when  the incumbents do NOT want to innovate (some cases will be hard to parse, of course, since motivations shift, and are sometimes a mystery even to those who have them).

Incumbents want it to but…

Innovation is difficult: experiments can fail, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and there are people just waiting to tell you that no good comes of trying to Change The World.  Further, innovation probably requires (demands) new skills, which an actor can lack.  It certainly demands confidence, and even (especially?) outwardly-confident people can be lacking in that

Beyond the purely ‘internal (psychological, cognitive, emotional) factors, are the broader ones to do with the social and political (small p) environment in which the innovator might attempt to ‘shake it up.’ It may be that they lack the opportunity because, while they are in office, they are not in power, and must defer to others – who do not want innovation – over the format of meetings.  It may be there is simply not enough appetite for  innovation among the broader field of actors involved. For whatever reason they do not see the need for change, or do not believe that it can succeed…. That brings us to the second reason why innovation won’t happen: incumbents don’t want it. It’s not in their material or emotional interest – would be abjuring opportunities for attention and affirmation, and would create unease/discomfort in a significant portion of their audience, which comes to these events largely to be seen as responsible citizens, but ultimately want to be passive, to not have responsibility.

Something from a wonderful book called from “Freedom to Learn,” a book by the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers is particularly relevant here:

He told me that while the experimental plants continue to do extremely well, and he feels pride in the work he has done with them, he regards his work with the corporation as a failure. The top management, though appreciative of the increased profits and good morale of the experimental plants, has not moved to follow this model in their other plants, even though it appears evident that overall profits would be increased.

“Why not?” I inquired.

His answer was most thought provoking: “When managers from other plants look closely at what we are doing, they gradually realize how much of their power they would have to give away, to share with their employees.  And they are not willing to give up that power.” When I stated that it appeared that power over people was even more important than profits- which are supposed to be the all-important goal in industry- he agreed.

So, if incumbents don’t want it, what do they do?

First, they simply ignore proposals for change.   If that no longer works, they may deride it as ‘touchy-feely’ or ‘hippy bollocks’.  Next they may tokenistically schedule discussion, putting it low on an agenda and then either not discussed at all or only discussed in a rushed and cursory fashion.  It is then deferred as “not appropriate; maybe later, after the next demonstration.”

The more sophisticated variant is to co-opt  a change and empty it of meaning (what academics who study these things call ‘de-coupling’). This can be done either fairly knowingly and cynically (having people in a circle instead of in rows, but still ‘running’ things or else inadvertently and simply because you are latching on to the latest ‘cool’ words (for example, the way the terms ‘unconference’ and so on were debased by Compass in 2013- see here.

Even more sophisticated (and I’ve not seen that many examples of this) is to do an experiment with the expressed intention of having it fail so it can be discredited.

What can be done?
As we say up north, “nowt” (which means, ‘nothing’).  Or rather, I can’t imagine a) being part of the solution, I lack the social skills, the status, the patience to enact this.  b) other people with the skills, status, patience stepping forward, since they don’t seem to feel the need; almost by definition, if you have the status within a group to make the changes, you have less motivation to do so, since your psychological and social needs are largely being met (so, not so much ’embedded agency’ as in-bed-with agentic deadlock).

Personally, I vote with my feet.  I just don’t go to events which I know are likely to be shit.  I walk out of events that I have gone to which are shit.  I sometimes lob a resentment grenade over my shoulder as I flounce out.  Strictly for the shits and giggles, you understand.  I have become, for all intents and purposes, a ghost. [n.b this was written in mid-2018. I have de-ghosted, for now.]

The dead hand of history is very very strong.  In the late 19th century the Qwerty keyboard became the industry standard.  Not because it was the best arrangement for rapid typing, but because it wasn’t – in the age when metal had to hit paper, the arms of the commonest letters would jumble.  Therefore they had to be placed away from each other.

Once we have a routine, a set of habits (and I’ve not addressed the whole question of “institutions” in the academic sense here) , we stick to them, even if they no longer ‘make sense.’ The legacy of the way we’ve always done things.

The sun. The sun….



UPDATE 1 August 2019: Thanks to Sam for spotting a bunch of typos/grammar snafus, which I have fixed. All remaining errors remain my responsibility, obvs.





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