On “The Mushroom at the End of the World”

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

“Tricholoma matsutake” by casper s

After reading Reassembling the Social, I decided that I should read a contemporary example of an actor-network theory study. I chose Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. 

The protagonists of Tsing’s study are matsutake mushrooms and the human and non-human assemblages that arise with them in forests and rural hinterlands across the Northern hemisphere.

“The thrill of private ownership is the fruit of an underground common.” (p.274)

What I appreciated most about Tsing’s book was its exploration of the cultural practices that arise with matsutake. These communities include the complex camps of pickers who descend upon the Eastern Cascades in Oregon each fall, Satoyama restoration groups in Japan, and emerging Matsutake entrepreneurs in Yunnan, China.

The thread of the book I found most challenging was Tsing’s tracing of matsutake from relational, biological object, to representation of individual freedom, to object of economic exchange, to alienated commodity, to highly-valued gift. Much of story Tsing tells explores how humans, fungi, pine trees thrive and live in times of ruin or precarity. But her narrative about supply chains, salvage accumulation and economic livelihoods — without resorting to stories of progress or development — offers an interesting perspective on capitalism. It helped  me to appreciate why the Academy of Management and scholars I know are interested in management “after capitalism”, the circle economy, and systemic approaches to corporate social responsibility.

Transition and service design scholars, particularly those interested in participatory design and design for social innovation can seek inspiration in Tsing’s examples of assemblages of scientists, communities, and scholars working together to learn and relearn ways of intervening and tending forests for the benefit on human and non-human inhabitants. Tsing’s vocabulary of “patches”, spores might offer those  interested in the challenges of scalability and diffusion new analogies and tools for thinking through next steps.

“Precarity means not being able to plan. But it also stimulates noticing as one works with what is available. To live well with others, we need to use all our senses, even if it means feeling around in the duff.” (p.278)

This book will appeal to adult educators and social innovation change agents because it offers many examples of coalitions of workers, retirees, scientists and  students working together to relearn how to tend to forests and unlearn the alienated anomie of urbanized life.

“Rather than redemption matsutake-forest revitalization picks through the heap of alienation. In the process, volunteers acquire the patience to mix with multi species others without knowing where the world-in-process is going. (p.264)

Speaking of transition design, Cameron Tonkinwise’s tweet and link to a New York Times article on a new segment of organizations that redirect returned gifts from landfills strikes me as a retail sector example of salvage capitalism that profits from the byproducts of consumerism.

Tsing challenges readers to question taken for granted concepts like species, immigrant, and forest. She demonstrates the heterogeneity of scientific communities and the patchy sometime incommensurable nature of the knowledge they create. Her focus is on the variation in forest science and the question of whether human intervention adds or diminishes the forest. The answer it seems depends on the pine.

The text is interdisciplinary and multimedia in the best sense. Each chapter begins with an evocative photograph, and I was delighted by the traditional Japanese poems about Matsutake. Tsing blended ethnographic accounts, first person narratives, academic analyses and Michael Pollan-style histories of forests told from the perspective of the forests themselves. She even gives science fiction writer Ursula Leguin the last word.

All in all, The Mushroom at the End of the World was a great book to follow reading Bruno Latour and it reminded me of the value of scavaging for ideas outside of the fields of design, learning and service.

What have you been reading over the holidays that has you inspired?

On “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

When I was floundering about in graduate school, I read “Aramis or the love of technology” cover to cover. At the time, I was obsessed by the then state-of-the-art ASRS automated materials storage system that had just been installed at the heart of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC. Now, of course you can find automated, miniature sorting and retrieval systems at public libraries, and Amazon’s warehousing and delivery systems are Things of public legend:

My first steps into ANT were to ponder mediation, affordances, and the classic Engstrom activity theory model with Mary Bryson.

That led me to think  about the assemblage of scholars, librarians, research knowledge artefacts, research libraries, giant climate-controlled storage environments, retrieval robots, computer networks, and the software that connects them. I even delved into the military-industrial history of the development of automated storage by the RAND corporation in the glorious, Modern 50s.

Which brings me to “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory“. The book presents Latour’s explanation of the basic premises and implications of Actor-Network Theory. Its object is social science in general, and sociology in particular. Latour presents a methodology of activity-network theory.  It is a history of ANT and a history of the Science Wars from the 1990s. Strangely, reading Latour brought be back to sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in 1996 as an English undergraduate, listening to an “As it Happens” interview about the Sokal Affair and those long-ago attacks on postmodernism.

I am struck by the sorts questions that Latour offers as a heuristic for courageous analysts to follow:

  1. What controversies? What actants? Where do they lead?
  2. “Where are the structural effects actually being produced” (p.174)
  3. “in which movie theatre, in which exhibit gallery is […The Big Picture…] shown? Through which optics is it projected? To which audience is it addressed? (p.187)
  4. “In which room? In which panorama? Through which medium? With which stage manager? How much?” (p.189)
  5. “How is the local itself being generated?” (p.192)
  6. “Where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority?” (p.206)
  7. What form “allows something else to be transported from on site to another?” (p.222)
  8. What happens upstream and downstream of the situation where subject and object arise? (p.237)

I doubt many people outside of academia will want to read this book but it offers a masterclass in how to question the most basic assumptions that most people take for granted, particularly society, culture, nature, science and politics.

Students of higher education will enjoy how Latour uses the example of a university professor lecturing in a lecture hall to explore how cognitive abilities assemble and are shaped by the scripts, forms, capabilities, and materials.

Despondent graduate students wrestling with theses can take solace from Latour’s perspective on academic writing. In a nutshell, write the 40,000 words and move on to the next challenge. One text does not a career make. Academics can also learn a lot from Latour about writing. Even though his text is complex, Latour is also entertaining, self-aware and humorous.

Thoughtful designers may want to consider Latour’s analysis of the relation between local, global and context in connection with the recent practical scholarship on context for post-thing design. For example, part of me wants to reconsider Andrew Hinton’s “Understanding Context“, Resmini and Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture” and Thomas Wendt’s “Design for Dasein” with Latour in mind. If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social in the context of design before designing solutions or platforms. Furthermore, reading Latour made me wonder what ANT might offer design for social innovation. social innovation should embrace concepts like cosmopolitan-localism and rely on “sociologists of the social”, as Ezio Manzini suggests.

If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social present the context of design before designing solutions or platforms?

On “Design, When Everybody Designs” and “Making Futures”

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

This fall, I have read Ezio Manzini’s “Design, When Everybody Designs” (2015) and Ehn, Nillsson, and Topgaard’s collection.  “Making Futures: Marginal Notes on Innovation, Design, and Democracy” (2014).

Manzini is a leading design researcher and theorist, particularly in the field of design for social innovation. Manzini applies many of the sociological theories about risk and the life course  that I had read with Lesley Andres at UBC  in 2003. Manzini’s answer to the risk, uncertainty individuals and communities face is designed collaborative organizations and encounters.

This most useful section of the book, I think is the chapter dedicated to “Collaborative Encounters”, which draws on Martin Buber and theories of participation and social ties to demonstrate how to map services. The last section of this book work through the practical steps of representing collaborative designs and creating the conditions for social innovations to flourish.

Another theme of the book is the relationship between professional design and co-design with publics. Unlike Dan Hill and Thomas Wendt and other design theorists, Manzini seems less critical of design thinking and more conciliatory in his view on the relationship between expert design and diffuse design.

My favourite concept in Mazini’s book is “cosmopolitan localism“, which he borrows sustainable development. Since I read “Design, When Everybody Designs”, I’ve been working through Bruno Latour’s “Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”, which will merit a future post of its own. But for now I note that Mazini is relying on many studies that would fall into the category of “the sociology of the social”, and I wonder what the notion of design for social innovation might look like through the lens of Actor-Network Theory, which resists the global-local binary and questions the existence of macro social theories and models.

Watch Manzini introduce “Design, When Everybody Designs earlier this year at the University of Malmo:

Read Cameron Tonkinwise’s review of “Design, When Everybody Designs”


“Making Futures” is a wide-ranging poly vocal collection of case studies of participatory design work undertaken by design researchers and a multiplicity of partner community groups, governments, and private sector players in Malmö, Sweden.

Two concepts that sticks with me from “Making Futures”. infrastructuring suggests designers (or other change agents) need to foster long-term working relationships with partner community organizations rather than adopting a project orientation. The other concept is  friendly hacking, which seems to also be circulating in the design for policy literature.

“Making Furtures” is much more academic than “Design, When Everybody Designs” and my favourite chapters were  Erling Björgvinsson’s study of the complexity of collaborations for grassroots journalism and Per Linde and Karen Book’s case study of  place-making by youth groups

A key consideration in both books is the issue of scale and the question of how to create the conditions for collaborative innovations to flourish in neighbourhoods, cities, regions and across countries.. “Making Futures” tackles the political and power dimensions of collaboration between academics, government, community organizations and private sector organizations head on. Both books also consider how assemblages of people working together can collaborate to design and create scapes, places and interventions in the places which people inhabit.

Both books offer designers interested in collaborating with clients,and partners to bring social and community-based social innovations to life plenty of ideas for addressing complex challenges and enabling communities to flourish. For those who are tired of reading  service design method cookbooks, either book will infuse your practice with a hearty dose of theory and critical perspective.

If you have been reading either book, let me know what you find most useful or interesting in them.