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 Collective Genius

Reading time: 2 – 3 minutes

Collective Genius presents ethnographic studies of innovation in leading organizations including Pixar, Volkswagen, eBay, Google.

The range of case studies the book addresses is one of its main assets. Readers’ curious about how Pixar makes animated blockbusters or how Google handles its need for massive storage city will enjoy the deep and rich descriptions.

At the heart of the book is a  framework of principles that capture the interpersonal and organizational conditions that make innovation possible:

What I like most about the book is how it blends rich description from formal case studies, evidence and concepts from academic research, and practice principles and frameworks that managers and leaders can adapt and experiment with at work.

Service designers and design thinking consultants will find the frameworks in Collective Genius useful tools for taking stock of the organizational cultural practices. The principles might enable cross-functional innovation teams assess the conditions and readiness for innovation work. As you may have noticed, the ideas of creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution share some similarities to Roger Martin’s ideas on abductive reasoning in The Opposable Mind.

Leadership team coaches, particularly those interested in advancing models of co-creation of value with stakeholders will appreciate the discussion of principles and paradoxes that underlie high performance collaboration.

Learning and development professionals interested in social learning should pay attention to the case studies on Volkswagen and Pixar. The Volkwagen case addresses how to create community amongst siloed, fragmented units, and to instil collaboration towards a common purpose. The initial Pixar case, which opens the book, explores how Pixar enables exceptionally creative workers with diverse skill sets to work together a common shared purpose and to enact shared values. The book will challenge the learning and development community’s focus the psychology and behaviour of the individual work.