Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of cri­sis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of the­se moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inherit­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future gen­er­a­tions.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it hap­pen­ing?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing the­se sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: This episode is Mary Mattingly, which you prob­a­bly saw from the title already, but now it’s offi­cial. And she is an artist out of New York City.

Micah Saul: Yes. She does a lot of work relat­ed to the envi­ron­ment, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, urban design, human mobil­i­ty, and our inter­ac­tions with those things.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: She’s not sole­ly focused on the envi­ron­ment, she’s focused on humans in the envi­ron­ment.

Anderson: We tracked her down because of a project called The Flock House project, which we’re going to talk more about in a moment here. But while we kind of talk about that in the inter­view, I want give a lit­tle bit of back sto­ry and also men­tion that before she worked on the Flock House, she worked on some­thing called the Waterpod, which was a kind of sus­tain­able float­ing barge that was wan­der­ing around the New York City area. And you know, it was grow­ing its own food, and had lots of inter­nal process­es on it. YACHT actu­al­ly played a con­cert on the Waterpod, but Mary men­tioned that that kind of float­ing around and see­ing all of the­se inter­est­ing indus­tri­al land­scapes from the Waterpod inspired her to under­take the Flock House project, where she was think­ing about, well how could we put lit­tle dwellings in all of the­se spaces that I’m see­ing from my float­ing barge? And so there’s kind of a direct lin­eage from one idea to the next. So I just want­ed to throw that out there because we’re not going to get into the Waterpod in the actu­al edit­ed con­ver­sa­tion here.


Mary Mattingly: So, a flock house is a struc­ture that’s basi­cal­ly designed through a crowd­sourcing dif­fer­ent ideas from dif­fer­ent archi­tects and engi­neers and peo­ple skilled in build­ing code in New York City, and then also artists and peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent ideas about build­ing mate­ri­als that could fit into that code. So essen­tial­ly it’s try­ing to look at the code, sim­pli­fy it, and make some­thing that not meets it but beats it, sort of. So you can get around get­ting build­ing per­mits, but you can still build a legal struc­ture that is in a way self-sufficient and can move so you can place it in areas that are under­used or that you need to be in. 

So, Flock House start­ed as a data visu­al­iza­tion, actu­al­ly, of migra­tion pat­terns of peo­ple right now. So just sourcing cur­rent data about where peo­ple are mov­ing, and then mak­ing kind of a glob­u­lar shape or if you can imag­ine the globe, and then the­se rings around the globe, and that’s kind of how the shape came to be this round object with the­se rings. And then over that there’s the geo­des­ic dome, essen­tial­ly because it’s a real­ly easy way to make walls. So, under­neath the geo­des­ic dome, there are all the­se rings that are in this case and for New York they’re built out of ply­wood, because there’s so much around. So, just smooth­ing the ply­wood into the­se round shapes and then mak­ing that visu­al­iza­tion fit into some­thing that’s archi­tec­tural and stur­dy. That’s kind of what the struc­ture is itself.

Aengus Anderson: Okay, so it’s like a lit­tle single-person hous­ing pod?

Mattingly: It could be for more than one per­son, but it’s about ten feet in diam­e­ter. So it could be from one to three, I’d say, pret­ty tight­ly. Yeah. It’s a hous­ing pod. It col­lects rain­wa­ter, grows a lit­tle bit of food under­neath in some bar­rels that fit under­neath the­se lad­ders that kind of hold the struc­ture togeth­er. So instead of doing any weld­ing or any­thing, you just use some­thing that’s pre­made, that you can find. And then solar pan­els provide most of the pow­er. In some cas­es there are bike gen­er­a­tors and lev­er gen­er­a­tors for pow­er.

Anderson: And so, you were look­ing at data visu­al­iza­tion about migra­tion pat­terns around the world, and here we have a sus­tain­able, very small, portable house. What’s the con­nec­tion between the two?

Mattingly: Essentially, move­ment. So, I was real­ly think­ing about you know, well, peo­ple are mov­ing right now. I see that as kind of the future as well. So more and more peo­ple are going to have to move for envi­ron­men­tal, polit­i­cal, or eco­nom­ic rea­sons. Or want to move. So, what could be a short-term solu­tion, or what could be some­thing that made sense for a longer term that was better-built than a lot of things that you might see built from scrap? So, how could we make this fit the code of your city but also be built from scrap? So it’s a lit­tle bit safer, in a way, you could say. And it also has the abil­i­ty to come apart and then be put back togeth­er.

I think if you think about doing projects because you see a social need for them, it real­ly has to be your own as well. So, I real­ly relate it to my own need to always find some­where to live. To be able to be in a posi­tion where I feel like I can provide for myself. And for me, that means hav­ing the­se sys­tems that are off-grid, so you’re not real­ly depen­dent on this sup­ply chain for your needs. 

Anderson: What is sort of the social sys­tem that the flock house is address­ing in a way? I mean, for some­one who would be liv­ing in that. Like, why is this bet­ter than what we have now?

Mattingly: Well, I guess as far as think­ing about the future, I was try­ing to under­stand a time where we would be able to provide for our­selves out­side of a sup­ply chain. But also not be com­plete­ly self-sufficient or alone or iso­lat­ed, which I felt like oth­er projects in the past I’ve done have kind of allud­ed to. And in this way think­ing about a future where we’re work­ing togeth­er, as a close knit com­mu­ni­ty. So in the flock house you don’t have every­thing you need sup­plied for you. You don’t of enough water. And same with food. It’s also min­i­mal on food. So you have to be in the sit­u­a­tion where you can exchange with your neigh­bors, and I imag­ine this barter sys­tem.

So part of the project was actu­al­ly set­ting the­se things up in pub­lic spaces where we could work through a barter wherever they were set up. So for exam­ple, the first one was set up in Battery Park, and the artist who lived in that flock house bartered with the urban farm right next door for addi­tion­al food in exchange for pho­tograph­ing their school groups, I think? So, things like that hap­pened all the time through­out the project, where we would try to ini­ti­ate the­se barters before­hand and then illus­trate them as the project played out over the sum­mer. Which was kind of just a test, this sum­mer.

Anderson: What issues were you try­ing to raise?

Mattingly: I want­ed peo­ple to ques­tion it and to inquire as to what it was. I think it’s pret­ty unclear when you walk up to it exact­ly what it is. It looks like, in a way, a big golf ball or some­thing. Depending on where it was and how it looked at the time, I think peo­ple could be pret­ty con­fused or curi­ous about it. So, I think I want­ed peo­ple to engage with the per­son liv­ing in there and hear about their expe­ri­ence, and then tell them a lit­tle bit about what’s inside and what they’re doing in there. People usu­al­ly planned a project while they were inside of the flock house, so they worked on that. So that was a good segue into talk­ing about the flock house.

Anderson: You men­tioned that you were design­ing them because of your own press­ing needs for think­ing about hous­es and space, but also the envi­ron­men­tal aspect. Why cre­ate the­se sus­tain­able dwellings?

Mattingly: I guess because if every­body had the abil­i­ty to pro­duce some of what they need­ed, then there would be less strain on large sup­ply chains, and less strain on neigh­bors if nobody had any­thing, for instance. So, it’s sort of think­ing about that mod­el of spreading…decentralizing, I guess.

Anderson: And why is decen­tral­iz­ing good?

Mattingly: Well, I think we lose the risk that comes with cen­tral­iz­ing, where every­thing is in one area and then if that area falls apart then you have noth­ing, right. So, if you have all of your grow­ing space in one area of Upstate New York and then some­thing hap­pens to it, then you have no food. And in this case you can imag­ine like, my gar­den fails but yours didn’t, so let’s work togeth­er. Like, may­be there’s some­thing I can do for you. So, it was kind of think­ing about just small­er mod­els of liv­ing with peo­ple and recon­nect­ing as a com­mu­ni­ty?

Anderson: Yeah. It seems like there’s an assump­tion of a dif­fer­ent type of val­ue. And I think any­thing that is inter­est­ed in com­mu­ni­ty seems to be inter­est­ed in com­mu­ni­ty as a val­ue.

Mattingly: Yeah.

Anderson: Is that fair?

Mattingly: Yeah, I think that’s very fair. I guess mov­ing here in 2001, right before September 11th made me feel like I final­ly had a com­mu­ni­ty and under­stood what com­mu­ni­ty could be. Before that, I was mov­ing around a lot and I was doing projects that were imag­in­ing a future encap­su­lat­ed in a small bub­ble, where you were kind of pro­tect­ing your­self from oth­er peo­ple. And it was real­ly a dystopic vision of what was going to hap­pen due to tech­nolo­gies. And I guess I should say com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies and peo­ple not vis­it­ing face to face, for instance. 

Anderson: And in 2001 you were think­ing about that, before sort of the blob of real­ly big social media?

Mattingly: Yeah. I guess I was just see­ing it hap­pen then, and may­be it was because I was here as well and see­ing those par­al­lels between what could hap­pen when peo­ple pulled togeth­er and helped each oth­er. And then also the oth­er side of that, like where tech­nol­o­gy is real­ly extreme and what that’s doing to peo­ple, say in the office I was work­ing in or some­thing like that.

So I think Flock House is try­ing to embrace what I think com­mu­ni­ty could be and what it is in dif­fer­ent spaces, and what there could be more of, right, or I’d like to see more of. Maybe about the dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties for look­ing back­wards at some exam­ples of agrar­i­an sys­tems and how they could be adapt­ed for the present for the future; and also look­ing for­wards and think­ing about what mobile cities could look like, or some­thing; or a dif­fer­ent design for an urban space could look like.

Anderson: We talked about secu­ri­ty as being one of the things that can come from a local com­mu­ni­ty, less depen­dent on a big cen­tral­ized sys­tem. I think a lot of peo­ple like that idea. Are there oth­er val­ues to being in com­mu­ni­ty?

Mattingly: Yeah. I guess the near­ness to peo­ple who can work with you, or who you can work with. What do you think? Are there…

Anderson: I mean, com­mu­ni­ty is a the­me that I’m fas­ci­nat­ed with. Obviously I think it has a lot of val­ue. Here’s anoth­er big the­me that’s been com­ing up on the project. Ideas of pro­gress. And this is one of the things that links the tech­nol­o­gy con­ver­sa­tion with the com­mu­ni­ty con­ver­sa­tion, with a lot of oth­er con­tentions. And I was talk­ing to Alexa Clay about this as well the oth­er day. How do we choose to mea­sure pro­gress? I can think of a stronger sense of com­mu­ni­ty as being a good that in a way is a kind of social pro­gress, even if it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly mea­sur­able.

Mattingly: Okay. Yeah. What real­ly attracts me about the idea of pro­gress­es is think­ing about what hap­pens when peo­ple put their ideas togeth­er who would nev­er meet. So like, we’re talk­ing about com­mu­ni­ties here, and I’m imag­in­ing the­se com­mu­ni­ties as more local but also with enough tech­nolo­gies to be glob­al and have a broad­er base of knowl­edge, right. And I think that’s real­ly excit­ing, what peo­ple do do togeth­er as opposed to alone. 

So I think when I’m imag­in­ing a pro­gres­sive future, it def­i­nite­ly has to do with peo­ple work­ing togeth­er and com­ing up with new ideas that aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly eco­nom­ic or… I don’t know what they are, but I think they’re just ideas that are expe­ri­enced through mul­ti­ple minds that are var­ied from the indi­vid­u­al. And I think what’s excit­ing right now is that we’re, from an artist’s per­spec­tive, we’re far away from mod­ernism, where we’re indi­vid­u­als cre­at­ing per­fect things right. And we’re also kind of mov­ing away from post­mod­ernism, where the oppo­site of that is hap­pen­ing, and we’re kind of work­ing togeth­er. And I think that’s real­ly excit­ing and you know, you nev­er know what’s going to hap­pen.

Anderson: That makes me want to get into a ques­tion which sort of ties that and the Flock House again. You know, the Flock House, if we can talk about it as the embod­i­ment of a cer­tain idea of a future that involves com­mu­ni­ty and mobil­i­ty and sus­tain­abil­i­ty to some extent, and resilience may­be? If those are kind of the ideas of good embod­ied in that as a thing. Are we going in that direc­tion?

Mattingly: I don’t think they’re real­ly the ideas of good, but I think they’re may­be the ideas of neces­si­ty.

Anderson: Ooh. Okay, let’s break that apart. That’s inter­est­ing.

Mattingly: Yeah, so the abil­i­ty to move could be a neces­si­ty, right? All the aspects that you just described of the Flock House can just real­ly point to the neces­si­ty of sur­viv­ing in a future that’s real­ly to be deter­mined, of course, but also con­trolled by large play­ers. I won­der what’s going to hap­pen with hous­ing. I won­der what’s going to hap­pen with more and more peo­ple mov­ing to cities every­where because of glob­al­iza­tion and jobs mov­ing to cities. I also think that the future could be a place where peo­ple con­stant­ly need to move, because of the hav­oc that we’ve wrecked on the envi­ron­ment. So for instance, as you think that the mid­dle of some coun­try is fine, but it slow­ly becomes deser­ti­fied, where the rest of it floods or some­thing like that. I mean, I think that’s pret­ty much the future I see, is one of more and more eco­log­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, and peo­ple try­ing to sur­vive in them and may­be some peo­ple know­ing how or hav­ing the resources to, but most peo­ple not hav­ing those resources to.

I do agree that we have infinite cre­ativ­i­ty as humans and we can always kind of cre­ate new mate­ri­als that will do dif­fer­ent things. And we can use our garbage, and we can cre­ate a new plas­tic from that, or some­thing else. Something like that we can always make, for instance, build­ing mate­ri­als. I don’t know how eas­i­ly we can always make every­thing, but may­be I guess it is pos­si­ble. And why not live in a world that’s sort of like Dune, or inside of a geo­des­ic dome that pro­vides you fresh air.

I mean it’s inter­est­ing and scary to think about an Earth that could be com­plete­ly con­trolled by humans, but it seems like it’s def­i­nite­ly pos­si­ble. I could find fun think­ing about liv­ing under the sea or all the places that humans real­ly haven’t been able to sus­tain them­selves in very well. Like, if we could real­ly get con­trol of that. I mean, it’s def­i­nite­ly a dark future, but I think some­thing that I could embrace if we did go there.

Anderson: So the good, then, is almost sur­vival—

Mattingly: Maybe.

Anderson: —for peo­ple with­out pow­er.

Mattingly: Maybe it’s giv­ing peo­ple some kind of pow­er to not be trapped.

Anderson: Right. I mean, if we were to spin that out—and I don’t want to put words into your mouth—but it seems like there’s an egal­i­tar­i­an­ism in that in the sense that like…look, this isn’t like a lev­el play­ing field. People need a chance to live in ways that are some­what under their con­trol.

Mattingly: Exactly. No, I think that’s a very good point, and I think that’s also why in the begin­ning of the project we were look­ing at build­ing code to see how we could get around it. Because you don’t want to be called ille­gal, right? Like, you don’t want your place to get shut down when you’re in it. So you want it to be func­tion­al, and you want to be sub­vert­ing those rules, or get­ting around those rules

So yeah, there has to be this under­stand­ing of the rules that exist, and then how you can play­ful­ly break them and get away with break­ing them. And that in a way gives you a free­dom or pow­er.

Anderson: Do you wor­ry about some sort of col­lapse? That’s been a the­me that some thinkers push pret­ty hard and oth­er ones just laugh off.

Mattingly: Yeah, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t… I think that there are enough dif­fer­ent poten­tials and peo­ple doing so many dif­fer­ent things that a cen­tral col­lapse isn’t going to col­lapse every­thing. Like, a cen­tral col­lapse will affect some peo­ple more than oth­ers, right. And I don’t think peo­ple would be help­less. I don’t think we need to col­lapse, I guess is my point, if we were sort of pre­pared. I mean, I guess that’s the Flock House again.

Anderson: Right, right. And so that’s I think a nice place to sort of go, What does that bet­ter solu­tion look like so you avoid the col­lapse?”

Mattingly: Yeah, and it’s like, mak­ing things is prob­a­bly a place to start to avoid that col­lapse. Like, if we all knew how to make things bet­ter, or more things, then we would be less vul­ner­a­ble to some sort of cen­tral col­lapse. I’d be inter­est­ed to know what you’ve found out as far as mak­ing goes vers­es using.

Anderson: That’s a the­me that I don’t think has been in this project enough, now that you bring it up.

Mattingly: Also, it’s inter­est­ing to think of it as polit­i­cal, because of the way that we’re fram­ing it here it almost…making some­thing becomes real­ly polit­i­cal, or—

Anderson: Right.

Mattingly: You’re not using it, but you’re cre­at­ing it, and you’re sort of get­ting around those pow­er struc­tures, may­be.

Anderson: Is that your vision of a bet­ter future?

Mattingly: Yeah.

Anderson: It is that kind of— I mean, it’s like it’s a real­ly nuts and bolts sort of cre­ative resilience.

Mattingly: Yeah, I kind of see us for sure need­ing to sur­vive some­thing like that, and hav­ing the abil­i­ty to do so if we’re think­ing about it before­hand. So if we’re kind of pre­emp­tive as opposed to reac­tionary then I think the future could be one of barter and shar­ing, of small­er eco­nom­ic sys­tems, and small­er sys­tems all around. I like the idea of them being con­nect­ed glob­al­ly in some way.

Anderson: I’m think­ing of an econ­o­mist I talked to on Bainbridge Island in Washington named David Korten. And he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in local, but she’s also inter­est­ed in local plus— You know, he takes it fur­ther and he’s inter­est­ed in like, how do you have the­se local com­mu­ni­ties that are envi­ron­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able, but you still get to keep the tech, right? And then oth­er thinkers like a prim­i­tivist I spoke to, John Zerzan, are like, You can’t.” You just can’t have both. 

Mattingly: That’s utter­ly fas­ci­nat­ing.

Anderson: And that’s been a big ten­sion in this project, espe­cial­ly for thinkers on the left who are real­ly inter­est­ed in the local but don’t like to say we may have to back off. I mean, how much cen­tral­iza­tion do you need to have this record­ing device here? Can you have a real sus­tain­able local cul­ture with that lev­el of tech­nol­o­gy?

Mattingly: Yeah. I mean, I think I would have to agree that you real­ly can’t. I mean, it seems like… Here let me just back­track for a sec­ond—

Anderson: Yeah, total­ly.

Mattingly: I went to a uni­ver­si­ty recent­ly and heard a grad­u­ate stu­dent give his the­sis paper. His sub­ject was the lap­top, and he focused on like, how his lap­top was made, and if it had caused any deaths in the mak­ing of it, and was that his respon­si­bil­i­ty? And it was an inter­est­ing the­sis top­ic, but it also made me think wow, this is real­ly becom­ing main­stream, the­se ideas that yeah you’re respon­si­ble for what you own. And I think when more and more peo­ple grasp that, it won’t make sense to kind of live with those things the way that we have been, espe­cial­ly in the very dis­pos­able way that we have been. 

Anderson: Which is inter­est­ing, to think that like, if you believe that sus­tain­abil­i­ty is impor­tant and that part of that is reign­ing in con­sump­tion and being more effi­cient with using things, and may­be actu­al­ly say­ing good­bye to tech­nol­o­gy, which I think is the hard­est thing… How do you sell it to a coun­try that hasn’t got­ten the mid­dle class lifestyle yet?

Mattingly: I think there must be a way to… I guess you can think of may­be the US or places like the US as test zones for things that have not worked out. So if you avoid the things that haven’t worked out and then you go to the bet­ter things, then it seems like there could be a mid­dle ground where you have some tech­nol­o­gy and it allows you to do many things, like cell phone, for exam­ple, get­ting around a land line in Africa, or some­thing like that. It seems like there’s a min­i­mal amount of tech­nol­o­gy that’s prob­a­bly good for a soci­ety today, because we’re already glob­al. So in order to under­stand what’s going on in the rest of the world, for exam­ple, and to— I mean, there’s a per­spec­tive or a point of view that we have right now that’s real­ly help­ful to peo­ple, and it some­thing like that lap­top, right? Like, that kid would nev­er real­ly under­stand where his lap­top came from had he not had access—

Anderson: To the lap­top.

Mattingly: Yeah, to the lap­top. Exactly. 

Anderson: Yeah.

Mattingly: So, had he had access to his genes or what­ev­er, he still wouldn’t know that sto­ry, but there’s some­thing about the tech­nol­o­gy that allowed him to know what was hap­pen­ing.

Anderson: Right. A lot of peo­ple asso­ciate tech­nol­o­gy with pro­gress, or tech­nol­o­gy with some­thing that you’re…not nec­es­sar­i­ly enti­tled to but you should have a shot at. Do you think we can sort of have the cul­tur­al transition—I almost said maturity—to be able to say, Well, we’re not going to have it all.”

Mattingly: I think small groups of peo­ple could. Overall, I don’t see peo­ple able to do that. 

Anderson: I asked that because I was think­ing of anoth­er anoth­er guy I spoke to named Joseph Tainter, who’s writ­ten this book on the col­lapse of com­plex civ­i­liza­tions. He paint­ed a very bleak pic­ture. He real­ly framed it as some­thing you can’t get out of. And so when I ask­ing about that, he said, I real­ly think the only thing that’s going to make any dif­fer­ence is the price mech­a­nism. You just have to clob­ber peo­ple so hard finan­cial­ly that they change their behav­ior.” He’s like, you can’t per­suade any­one that they will have a more min­i­mal­is­tic— I mean, may­be you can with a cou­ple peo­ple, but you can’t say, Go live in a flock house. Say good­bye to your com­put­er. Enjoy a con­ver­sa­tion with your neigh­bors.” You basi­cal­ly have to say, No, you can’t afford pow­er.” So then there’s a mod­el where con­ver­sa­tion real­ly doesn’t mat­ter. We’re much more mechan­i­cal; the agen­cy is tak­en away in those sto­ries.

Mattingly: Yeah, but I guess there, it seems like they’re very real and unavoid­able, right? It’s like Bolivia with water pri­va­ti­za­tion. It’s an imme­di­ate need, so your sur­vival instinct sort of kicks in? And you real­ize con­ver­sa­tion isn’t going to be fast enough, may­be. So may­be it has to do with speed, too.

Anderson: So, may­be those are the ones where con­ver­sa­tion mat­ters less, because they’re so imme­di­ate and vis­cer­al. Things blow up if they’re not pro­vid­ed?

Mattingly: Yeah.

Anderson: And then may­be it’s the oth­er stuff. How does the gov­ern­ment dis­trib­ute wealth? You know, who’s doing a some­what decent job, may­be. That’s approached more through con­ver­sa­tion.

Mattingly: But may­be it still has to do with those basic needs, right? And may­be instead of… Hopefully we have a job for those things. Maybe we can get to a point where we can provide those things for our­selves with­out work­ing for them. Because I think then we’re still in the scary posi­tion of being depen­dent for those basic human needs that yeah, can cause things like big riots or mass destruc­tion, when they could have may­be been avoid­ed if peo­ple were able to be more self-sufficient, in a way.

Anderson: Does that mean you’re an opti­mist about the future?

Mattingly: Yeah. I mean, I think I am opti­mistic that we’ll sur­vive, that we can sur­vive.

Anderson: That’s kind of a guard­ed opti­mism, isn’t it?

Mattingly: Yeah. I mean, I’m not real­ly opti­mistic about what I think the future will be like. I think it’ll just be hard­er for more peo­ple. But I do think that there’s a way to alle­vi­ate that. And I’m opti­mistic that peo­ple will be able to do that and hope­ful­ly be more in con­trol of at least them­selves.


Aengus Anderson: I’m think­ing Mad Max and Beyond Thunderdome, and some­how this con­ver­sa­tion has me in that men­tal space. Beyond Waterpod, beyond Flock House…

Micah Saul: There is such an inter­est­ing post-apocalyptic thread through this whole con­ver­sa­tion which pokes its head out every once in a while, but it doesn’t… It was real­ly sur­pris­ing to me to fin­ish lis­ten­ing to it and real­ize that it was there the whole time. But yeah, This is a real­ly inter­est­ing future that she’s paint­ing. It’s decen­tral­ized and it’s high­ly mobile. It’s peo­ple run­ning, it seems like, doesn’t it?

Anderson: Yeah, it real­ly does feel like that. And it doesn’t feel like the com­mu­ni­ty is picked up and relo­cat­ed because of a storm. It feels like the storm hits and everyone’s run­ning—

Saul: Right.

Anderson: —and they’re run­ning as indi­vid­u­als and they reform— You know, I mean, I think that’s where the flock house is such a good… It’s kind of a metaphor for her vision of the future, you know. Something that gets hit by a wave and splits into a bil­lion pieces, and then reforms again else­where. And it’s kind of a scary future. And yet we’ve got anoth­er one of the­se opti­mists. Another one of the­se guard­ed opti­mists.

Saul: And that sense of opti­mism car­ries through the whole thing, as well. Even when she’s talk­ing about poten­tial­ly incred­i­bly dark futures. She says she’s will­ing to embrace those dark futures.

Anderson: And what a line that was. I mean, you can guess why I chose to include that in the edit. Because no one else has talked about that, or said any­thing remote­ly like embrac­ing a dark future.

Saul: No, exact­ly. And then what’s real­ly inter­est­ing is that there’s sort of two poles in this project, right, around the sort of future she’s talk­ing about. On one hand, you’ve got peo­ple that would not view it as that dark, just view it as change and view it as we’re going to make it through that and it’s going to be great.

Anderson: Yeah. I mean, that makes me think of Zubrin, or Cannon, or Miller, or—

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: Maybe even Tim Morton, I don’t know.

Saul: That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion.

Anderson: We could record an hour-long con­ver­sa­tion about that.

Saul: Yeah. Yes we could. So let’s not.

Anderson: So, there are peo­ple who can see that future as not being dark. Who would reject its dark­ness. But then there are oth­er ones, right?

Saul: Right. Then on the flip­side, you’ve got your Jan Lundbergs, you’ve got your…Wes Jacksons, cer­tain­ly your John Zerzans, whoe view that as, Oh my god. That is hor­ri­ble. And you have to do every­thing you can to stop that.”

And then here’s Mary Mattingly, who says, Wow, that’s…pretty hor­ri­ble. But you know, I think we can do that.” 

Anderson: Like, how does she walk between those two dif­fer­ent mine­fields? It seems like some of it is this sense that even as the world gets hard­er, even as we become strapped for resources, even as we are in a world in which we have to run and break apart and reform, the essen­tial things that make life worth­while are good. They’re still there for her, right? The human ele­ment, that con­nec­tiv­i­ty, that’s there.

Saul: And if fac­ing it cor­rect­ly, the per­son­al agen­cy is still there. The self-empowerment can still be there.

Anderson: That opens up some­thing else that I think is real­ly inter­est­ing in this. One of the things that I like about Mary is that she is very hard to put into any sort of ide­o­log­i­cal camp or cat­e­go­ry. And when you talked about agen­cy, you just got me think­ing about the Flock House is such… It’s so…atomized. And it’s also so com­mu­nal. And her thought seems the same way.

Saul: I agree. I think one of the most inter­est­ing things in this con­ver­sa­tion for me was the fine line she walks between all of the­se dif­fer­ent seem­ing­ly con­flict­ing themes we’ve had through­out the project. Is she community-based? Is she individual-based? Is she cen­tral ver­sus local? 

Anderson: I mean, it seems like the tra­jec­to­ry of her thought over time has gone from high­ly con­cerned with indi­vid­u­al­ism and agen­cy, and has got­ten to a greater appre­ci­a­tion of sort of how indi­vid­u­als form into com­mu­ni­ties, and then what is the com­mu­ni­ty as some­thing more than the sum of its parts?

Saul: Right.

Anderson: I kind of feel like she takes us on that whole jour­ney, and we see where she is now, in this con­ver­sa­tion.

Saul: And in some ways I got the feel­ing that’s still a jour­ney she’s on. She’s not quite sure, entire­ly, how to rec­on­cile the more indi­vid­u­al­ist, self-reliant side with the side that believes that there needs to be com­mu­ni­ty.

Anderson: And may­be there is no rec­on­cil­ing, and may­be it’s bet­ter if there always… Well, actu­al­ly we can get a lit­tle Wurman con­nec­tion here. I mean, we can here are forces in bal­ance, per­haps. And may­be that’s one of the things that made this con­ver­sa­tion real­ly fun. It felt very very non-dogmatic.

Saul: I total­ly agree. It felt like a con­ver­sa­tion. It cer­tain­ly didn’t feel like a pre­sen­ta­tion.

Anderson: But speak­ing about con­nec­tions, how about some of the oth­er con­nec­tions? There’s one with Alexa

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: —talk­ing about the fringes. There are actu­al­ly sev­er­al inter­est­ing points of com­par­ison I think between Alexa and Mary’s con­ver­sa­tions.

Saul: I agree. The notion of mis­fits on the fringes of soci­ety was the one that struck me the most. Listening to Mary talk about the economies that she envi­sions pop­ping up around com­mu­ni­ties of flock hous­es real­ly made me think about the mis­fit economies that Alexa was talk­ing about. It made me think that in some ways Alexa believes that we can all learn from the fringes of soci­ety? I kind of got the feel­ing that Mary believes that most of us are already on the fringes of soci­ety, and so we can just learn from each oth­er. It wasn’t a learn­ing from the fringes, it was just learn­ing from each oth­er because we’re already on the fringes.

Anderson: Now that you men­tion that, there’s a real­ly inter­est­ing sort of point of ref­er­ence thing. And it ties back into I think the begin­ning of Mary’s con­ver­sa­tion where she talks about a lot of the ques­tions she asks with her work stems from her press­ing needs. Like, where do you live, right? Whereas for Alexa may­be she faces a dif­fer­ent set of ques­tions in her day-to-day life, so she wouldn’t per­ceive her­self as on the fringe. 

They also have a com­mon solu­tion, which I kind of like. They talk about mak­er cul­ture, which gets us back to Douglas Rushkoff and makes me think that again, here’s a big thing that we real­ly need to be talk­ing about as we push the project for­ward.

Saul: Yeah, I think you’re right.

Anderson: Okay, well let’s close this thing out here. But before we go, let’s talk a lit­tle bit about the good, with the cap­i­tals, The Good. We should have a sound effect that we play for this, but we’re just not that high-budget. But what is The Good. We talked a lit­tle ear­lier, and I was men­tion­ing that I felt that for her a big source of val­ue when she was embrac­ing a dark future came from peo­ple. What more can we read into this? I mean, we’re both human­i­ties peo­ple. We can read any­thing into any­thing.

Saul: I think there were a lot of things she was talk­ing about as good, in the low­er case G. And I think that one of the com­mon threads there, so a can­di­date for The Good (cap­i­tal G) is decen­tral­iza­tion. Decentralization is good when you’re talk­ing about sup­ply chains. It’s good when you’re talk­ing about your liv­ing envi­ron­ment. It’s good when you’re talk­ing about knowl­edge. I mean, in some ways isn’t that what the mak­er cul­ture is all about, is the decen­tral­iza­tion of knowl­edge?

Anderson: Well that cer­tain­ly leads to agen­cy. And I think I could say that decen­tral­iza­tion was nec­es­sary. I could say that agen­cy was good. And I mean, she leaves us on that point. Giving peo­ple con­trol over their own lives. Yeah, I feel like cre­ativ­i­ty and choice. I mean, they’ve come up with Ariel Waldman and with a lot of oth­er peo­ple before. Those seem like goods that you achieve through the neces­si­ty of decen­tral­iza­tion.

Saul: I would buy that.

Anderson: There’s kind of a Whitehead qual­i­ty here, isn’t there?

Saul: Absolutely. I mean, you’re think­ing of that hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble word she used, aren’t you? 

Anderson: Glocal?

Saul: God. Yeah, that one.

Anderson:do love to say that.

Saul: You just know how much it hurts me.

Anderson: The glob­al local. The glo­cal, yeah. And what’s unfor­tu­nate is that that is a real­ly gross-sounding word, but it’s actu­al­ly real­ly use­ful, right.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: And I think Mary gets us to that point, too, with that lap­top exam­ple. It’s some­thing that on one hand is cre­at­ing this giant cen­tral­ized sys­tem. You know, you need that to cre­ate the lap­top. But the lap­top is also the tool that you use to under­stand that sys­tem. And her question’s sort of like, if we have to say good­bye to some of the tech, how do we keep the tech that lets us be glob­al­ly con­nect­ed? And I think again there’s sort of a ques­tion of good there. It puts you in a broad­er con­ver­sa­tion, in a way. I mean, it’s the glob­al con­ver­sa­tion that leads to the unex­pect­ed fusion of lots of dif­fer­ent ideas. That seems like a good for her.

Saul: Yeah. And what’s inter­est­ing to me is how does that rec­on­cile with her desire for small, hyper­de­cen­tral­ized, local com­mu­ni­ties? Like, can you have both? 

Anderson: So basi­cal­ly, do you end up at a point where what you need pits you again­st the good?

Saul: Right. Ugh. Seriously, that’s a fuck­ing hor­ri­fy­ing thought. That your needs get in the way of your val­ues in a way that’s just irrec­on­cil­able.

Anderson: That’s a hard thing for us to accept. Because I think we’ve been wealthy for a long time, and we don’t like the idea of ever being so pushed to the wall where des­per­ate neces­si­ty over­comes what you con­sid­er good. That real­ly does feel like an apoc­a­lypse.

That was Mary Mattingly, record­ed in her stu­dio in Brooklyn, New York on November 32012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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