I’m lucky to have a spare room and for the last few years, I’ve made a case of inviting interesting people younger than myself to stay over if they’re in town.
I meet them when I lecture in universities or speak at conferences. Some have come to visit London for work, a conference, or just for fun. This has put me in the path of Olivia Ireland who is studying gender studies and security in Australia, Katya Krasner who graduated from Goldsmiths, Jolane Schaffner who is a very talented photographer based in Augsburg, and recently Daphne Muller, a young ethics & design graduate from the Netherlands who I hired to intern in Bulb Labs. This has given me some idea of what ‘young people’ are interested in and worried about.
I’ve been working at Bulb since late October and the best thing about it is the exposure to other types of young people, often straight out of a UK university. Most of the company is below the age of 35, including some of the most senior people who have been there since the early days of the company. Outside of Daphne, Bulb Labs isn’t a great representation of the rest of the business. I convinced Claire and Tom, old friends and peers in #iot, to join Labs as contractors. We’re all in our late 30s to early 40s and that 10 year gap with the rest of the business is fascinating. It’s one thing to say ‘young people these days’ and quite another to work with them closely.
On Monday night, a colleague ran an International Women’s Day and I was asked to give a talk. I thought it might be nice to bridge that perceived gap by remembering the most useful thing I was asked to do when I was about 26. Back then, I found myself in Manhattan, staying on the spare bed in Tom Klinkowstein‘s space age apartment for a couple of nights. I had worked on helping Tom, a new media art pioneer, with one of his #iot focused pieces when I was a student in Ivrea and when I came to stay, I was a little lost. In the first years of my first business, I was struggling to see the forest from the trees. I didn’t quite know how to connect was I was working on (selling and promoting the Arduino in the UK) to the rest of my life. He told me to go sit somewhere with a piece of paper and write down everything I wanted to do with my life ‘to the point of embarrassing yourself’.
So I went to the MoMa and sat in their café writing things down. Without being prompted, I wrote things down by decades. And then stood back. What was there was as interesting as what wasn’t there (no mention of children or a boyfriend for eg.). My ambitions included writing a book (tick!), starting a design school (which I’ve shelved in the ‘unconvinced’ pile by now) as well as building my own home (planning & training for it slowly). It felt great, like holding a treasure map with an X in sight. And I’ve come back to this exercise every 5 years or so.
So on Monday, I made a group of mostly 20 somethings working at Bulb do the same. Two of them came back saying they’d gone home and did it with their housemates. I was happy that this was useful to them.
From what I can tell with my house guests and young people at Bulb, it must be hard living in a digitally-mediated information landscape coloured by a western/capitalist illusion of success: a family, a mortgage, nice clothes, the latest phone, endless capital to travel around the world. That’s nice, but it’s flat. It’s not what real life is about, it’s just what will make you more economically productive to the system. It won’t make you kind, resilient, generous, caring, patient, supportive, mentally strong, in short, capable of weathering the storms of life. The more we, as not-quite-so-old people, can help them relax about their own path in life, the better we all are. They deserve their own stories, their own metaphorical forest, their very own trees.