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Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin

Digital nomads are a 21st century counterculture. The choices they make today will shape how we live and work tomorrow.

Words and pictures by Damien Walter

The global network enables us to react to the world as a whole. – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The center was not holding. But that was a good thing.

It was a world caught in the fallout from credit bubbles, financial collapse and bank bailouts. Of Occupy protests on the streets of our cities and illegitimate wars that disappeared from the news cycle as fast as they had been invented to fill it. It was a world waiting for a recovery that would never arrive. Most of us were trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together as we remembered them being. But others were asking if the way things had been, had ever really been that great.

There was a revolution in the air. We’d packed the world full of laptops, smartphones and iPads and stitched them all together with the Internet. The year was 2013, and our world was bristling with new technologies that were only beginning to fulfill their endless potential. There were seven billion people on the planet and for the first time we could all talk to each other as one global network. There was no rule book, and we were starting to realize that there never had been.

Occupy Zen
Occupy Wall Street. Photo by scottmontreal https://flic.kr/p/aKhJYz

Many smart, creative people were looking at the deal being offered and wondering what fool negotiated their side of the bargain. Students were quitting schools that wanted them to take on crippling lifelong debt. Graduates were saying no to unpaid internships that offered no promise of work. Skilled professionals were quitting jobs that wasted their creative potential. People were selling up, moving out and hitting the road, with only a backpack, a laptop, and a few creative ideas about how they were going to pay the bills. In the 30s they would have been called Bohemians. In the 50s Beats. In the 70s Hippies. Now it was 2013, and people were starting to call them ‘digital nomads’.

At some point in mid-2013, I realised I was one of them. More and more of my working life fitted into my laptop. One day, I realized I could pack up the laptop, go anywhere in the world I wanted and take my work with me. I spent the summer in France and then decided I wanted to go further. The nomad network was buzzing about Chiang Mai, a small city in the northern highlands of Thailand, and the district of Nimmanhaemin, that had somehow become a mecca for digital nomads. I was writing a book, and because I could do it anywhere, I decided to do it there. I didn’t even know what I wanted to find, so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.

Perched at the Birds Nest

The Bird’s Nest cafe occupies a teak frame house on the edge of Chiang Mai’s old town. A hammock swings between two wooden uprights, bright sunshine filters through the Lanna style carved fretwork and fearless street cats weave among table legs, chasing speedy brown mice and yellow lizards. If you’ve ever daydreamed of freedom from your swivel chair in the cubicle farm, the Bird’s Nest is the place.

The Bird's Nest
The Bird’s Nest in Chiang Mai is a haven for “digital nomads” seeking a escape from the higher costs of living in Western cultures.

I was on a tight deadline of my own making. It’s easy to confuse the life of a digital nomad with a never ending vacation but in reality combining travel and work means taking on all the stress and insecurity of freelance self-employment, while navigating a complex territory of time zone clashes, wifi failure, visa negotiations, and jet lag. I was drinking the strongest coffee I could find in bulk, anything to stay awake until I hit my word count, when Peter asked what I was writing.

Explaining you’re writing about digital nomads when you are a digital nomad raises confusion. Was I writing about myself? Was I writing about myself, writing about myself? It turned out, I was writing about Peter.

The Bird’s Nest is a haven for digital nomads, with a few dozen travellers passing through on most days, though the faces are never quite the same. They come looking for good internet, strong coffee and carrying Macbooks and iPads. Many are designers – of user interfaces, websites, graphics. There are photographers, video makers, and content creators. People who’ve realized they can take their work anywhere with an internet connection and that the unstable income of a creative freelancer stretches a lot further in Chiang Mai than New York. In the old city $1 will buy you dinner, $2 a large Chang beer, and for a $150 a month you can rent an apartment with a balcony, internet and laundry service.

Peter is one such digital nomad. He works for an executive coaching company in Hong Kong helping market and sell their courses online. He’s training to deliver coaching himself, most of which is done over the internet. Top employees and executives are a valuable business asset, and the market to help them improve their strategic and leadership skills is booming. The work demands complex and subtle kinds of communication that once had to be delivered face-to-face. Now, it can be done over Skype allowing the best coaches to connect with the right clients anywhere in the world. It’s just one example of the unexpected kinds of work migrating from the physical world to online.

But it wasn’t coaching that first brought Peter to Chiang Mai. At age 32, Peter, who is Anglo-French and switches fluently between English and French, had already travelled much of the world. The Thai’s call Westerner’s “Farrang”, a term leftover from the Frankish empire which had dominated Western Europe for much of the middle ages. For all that time, Westerners have been traveling to Thailand to learn about Buddhism. Peter arrived at a one of Chiang Mai’s numerous Buddhist monasteries simply looking for shelter, with no money and no home after years spend living in India. Arriving without any notice, or the traditional donation made by most visitors, Peter was fortunate the monks were merciful and allowed him a place on a month-long retreat. Twenty-eight days and nights of silent meditation opened his mind in ways he had never imagined.

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Cat sleeping at the temple of Wat Suan Dok.

Meditation and yoga are remarkably common activities among the digital nomads of Chiang Mai and such pursuits are a part of Chiang Mai’s unique appeal to tourists and backpackers. But nomads aren’t on holiday or looking to discover themselves. They are working and this often includes long hours on creative but high risk projects. Making the leap to a nomadic lifestyle comes with unexpected stresses, the kind that arise from leaving behind friends and family to immerse in a foreign culture. For many nomads, meditation is just as an essential tool for accomplishing their work as a laptop. The most common reason people give up on nomadism, especially younger men away from home for the first time, is simple loneliness. Perhaps one reason why digital nomads often travel as couples.

Better Together

In March 2010, Simon and Erin sold their belongings and left the UK to travel the world. Like many successful nomads, they are slow travellers, staying in a location for weeks or months, enough time to allow them to focus on their work. Nonetheless, they have still managed to visit 30 countries in Asia, Central America, Oceania and other parts of the world. They tell the world about their journeys through the Neverending Voyage website, a popular digital nomad blog and the place I first read about Chiang Mai.

I chat with Simon over fruit shakes. Average daytime temperatures in Chiang Mai push 30 degrees celsius even in winter, and there isn’t a street corner that doesn’t have a stand selling big cups of fresh fruit and crushed ice. It’s a far cry from the cold, grey Novembers of Britain that Simon and Erin escaped three years prior. The couple had an joint epiphany after returning to their jobs and home after a more traditional vacation. The trip made them realize that many of the things they had – a house and mortgage and traditional careers – simply weren’t making them happy. Simon was already working in web design, and so the pair took the leap to digital nomadism.

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Digital nomads at the Marble Arch cafe, Nimmanhaemin.

Like many who succeed in going nomad, Simon and Erin took to the road with both a healthy buffer of savings and a residual income from renting out their house in the UK. But they’ve worked hard to develop sources of income that can make their nomadic lifestyle sustainable for the longterm. Last year they released the Trail Wallet app for iPhone, to help travellers and nomads keep track of their essential expenses, and have continued with web design work. In their third year as nomads, they succeeded in breaking even for the first time.

Simon, like all the nomads I’ve met in Chiang Mai, is a creator. He began as a musician, a drummer in rock bands and then channelled his creativity into digital design and coding. But he found creative fulfillment hard to come by in the corporate dominated, technocratic world where the work is often done for the profit of others. Successful digital nomads are people with the passion, skill, and creativity to achieve goals outside the prescribed structures and rules of a workplace. They are artists and entrepreneurs, people who thrive on freedom and creativity. They are people seeking places where they can have both, and today they are finding it in Chiang Mai.

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Jazz impro, Acha Ahma coffee, Chiang Mai

It’s that search for the sustainable creative life that has sent generations of creatives travelling to parts of the world where they can live cheaply and find fullfilment of their passions. In the 20s, it was the Montmartre slum district of Paris documented by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. In the 40s, Jack Kerouac captured the Beat generation’s nomadic soul and the heart of the United States in his epic novel On The Road. In the late 60s, Joan Didion painted a vivid portrait of San Francisco’s hippie counter culture in her essay Slouching Toward Bethlehem. It is the same creative spirit that is now departing Europe and America as young creatives are displaced by gentrification and high costs of living. Now they come to Asia and the city of Chiang Mai, carrying laptops and smartphones, slouching towards the streets of Nimmanhaemin.

Go East, Young Man

In 2010, political unrest in Bangkok persuaded many digital nomads based in Thailand’s capital to look for a new home. Chiang Mai was a long an established stop on the backpacker trail, and had a small expat community of retired Westerners. The city’s remote location in the depths of Thailand’s populous but poor northlands gave little reason to think it would suit the needs of digital nomads. But Chang Mai was changing quickly, and no part of it more so than the Nimmanhaemin district, where the city’s prosperous middle class and young creatives were making their home.

Those who arrived in Chiang Mai found a city in the first stages of an economic boom. Thailand’s left leaning Pheu Thai Party government had invested heavily in the infrastructure of the city between 2001-2006, which in turn attracted major investment from nearby China. By 2010, the city was positioning itself for status as a UNESCO creative city as part of its strategy for economic growth. Alongside the traditional wood-frame houses and tin roofed noodle bars of the city’s old town, a new wave of high end restaurants and luxury condo towers proliferated. The Nimmanhaemin district to the west of Chiang Mai was filling up with kooky coffee bars, art galleries, craft stores and fashion boutiques. The first nomads to arrive found a perfect location for slow travel, a city with an ultra low cost of living but an amazing culture of creativity. Word quickly spread through nomad blogs and forums and in the last three years increasing numbers of ambitious creatives have arrived in the city. Word-of-mouth is that there are 30,000 in Chiang Mai by late 2013, spread across the city among residences, guest houses, coffee shops, and a hand full of co-working spaces.

Successful digital nomads are people with the passion, skill, and creativity to achieve goals outside the prescribed structures and rules of a workplace.

Punspace opened in early 2013 to accommodate the burgeoning population of digital nomads in Chiang Mai. It sits in a quadrangle of hip glass fronted boutiques and tea shops in a quiet corner of Nimmanhaemin. In the lingering heat of late November, a Punspacer stands stripped to the waist, balanced on a tree stump, sculpted abdominals rippling as he goes through a Ta’i Chi routine with martial discipline. His practice is exemplary of the digital nomad lifestyle of working hard and relaxing harder. Yoga, Thai massage, meditation, and athletic exercise as opposition to the tradtional backpacker activities of drink and drugs. Inside, the brightly lit shared space is solid with young professionals, predominantly male, focusing on their work in the oasis of air conditioning and high speed internet Punspace provides its members.

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Punspace, a modern co-working space in Chiang Mai is reflective of the burgeoning creative ecosystem that has descended on the East.

“I’m out man,” says Adrian, a slighty-built, young American who, for the past two weeks, has been doing solid 12 hour days of coding at Punspace. He works with big noise cancelling headphones and sitting next to him, you can hear the tinny clash of techno music powering his fingers through line after line of computer code. His contract for a European tech start-up is up and he’s moving on from Thailand to Vietnam, an upcoming hotspot for digital nomads.

Voices say their goodbyes and a forest of hands go up for fist bumps: “A thousand blessings upon you.” “Chiang Mai’s gonna miss you.”

There’s a jockish camaraderie among the Punspacers. But it disguises the basic transience of the digital nomad life. No one knows Adrian beyond small talk over lunch. Three minutes after he leaves, the space is silent again, excepting the bur of laptop fans and Adrian remains nothing more than a membership entry on the Punspace database.

Coders are the bulk of the Punspace membership and some are contracted to major development houses who don’t care how or more importantly, where the work gets done. Others are navigating a richly rewarded freelance field so hungry for engineers that they can negotiate their own terms, including location independence. But also drifting through Punspace during my month long membership were film-makers, podcasters, web-designers and even a writer: Me. Among the punspacers there are many bloggers, content creators and SEO consultants whose main activity s writing. When I ask why they don’t call themselves writers I’m surprised by the answer – they don’t think they’re good enough and they fear being called out for not being “real” writers.

The next phase of digital nomadism will not be lone adventurers with only a backpack and a laptop, but small companies and potentially entire industries relocating to parts of the world best suited to their business needs.

Also gravitating to Punspace are an assortment of “internet marketers”, the broad catchall term for anyone with some web skills and something to sell. In many cases, the thing they are selling is advice on how to sell things. The bible of internet marketers is The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. This handbook of “lifestyle design” advocates a system of digital outsourcing and automated business models to escape the “deferred life plan” of traditional 9-5 work. Like all persuasive sales pitches, there are nuggets of insight in the Ferris lifestyle manual. But there’s widespread skepticism amongst other digital nomads about Ferris’ ideas. The many internet marketers who have adopted Ferris as their gospel resemble nothing so much as a pyramid marketing scheme. The same same advice on how to make it as a digital nomad is repackaged and resold time and time again, for decreasingly small return, to those further down the pyramid.

Chiang Mai Mecca

Kasper has lived in Chiang Mai for over two years now. He sees hundreds of digital nomads coming through Chiang Mai, but many never succeed in their ambition of establishing a location independent business. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, and Ferris’ dream of a 4 hour work week is very far from the reality.

“A website with Google Ads or an ebook on the best coffee shops in Chiang Mai isn’t a business, “says Kasper. “It’s not sustainable. The blog or ebook might succeed for a little while, but sooner or later that bubble of success bursts and people run out of money. People come and stay for six months or a year, run out of funds and then go back home.”

Kasper left Europe because he simply couldn’t see opportunities there for young entrepreneurs like himself. With his partner in Sao Paolo, he owns a development company that specialises in online services, many of them tailored to the needs of digital nomads and mobile businesses operating internationally.

We’re talking in the Warm-Up Cafe, a buzzing nightspot in the heart of Nimmanhaemin. Nimman Road is a unique blend of traditional Thai style, European chic, and a retro 1950s Californian vibe. The college kids who party here are obsessed with motorbikes, 90s grunge music and hipster culture. In 2013, hipster students look the same the world over – skintight low-slung jeans, asymmetric haircuts, tattoos. Nimman at night could be London’s Soho, Saint-Germain in Paris or the Mission district in San Francisco. And in a decade it will likely be as exclusive as those neighbourhoods. An apartment in Nimmanhaemin today costs 30% more than it did just a year ago.

Kasper has agreed to introduce me to Edmund, an American entrepreneur who now makes his home in Chiang Mai. Edmund has taken advantage of the boom in Chaing Mai, helping businesses set up shop in Thailand, a process that can be bureaucratic and labyrinthine for new entrepreneurs in the country. He helps new businesses establish a legal structure, and can even manage ongoing work permits and permissions for employees.

“There’s like an escalating contest to attract entrepreneurs, attract direct investment, among emerging economies,” Edmund says. “If you have capital you can choose between places like Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong, offering years of tax free operation, free office space, even cash incentives.”

Chiang Mai is a potential mecca for tech start-ups and creative businesses. The next phase of digital nomadism will not be lone adventurers with only a backpack and a laptop, but small companies and potentially entire industries relocating to parts of the world best suited to their business needs. Skilled professionals can be tempted to work here for a third of the pay because they can achieve a much higher standard of living in Thailand’s northern capital. Cities like London, Paris, New York, San Francisco and other cities that have priced themselves out of the reach of most young people could see a shock exodus of the very creative professionals on which their fortunes are founded.

However, there are still a few barriers to Chiang Mai’s potential transition to a startup hub.

The lack of a physical base in traditional centres of capital like San Francisco, New York or London is still a deterrent to many investors. Such traditional perceptions take time to change, but changing they are, not least because a small start-up operating at half the cost of its competitors has a massive commercial advantage. The rise of platforms like Crowdfunder, an “equity crowdfunding” version of Kickstarter that allows backers to actually invest in and receive a return on projects, has the to potential to radically democratise where new business emerges.

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The looming, holy mountain of Doi Suthep is a place of pilgrimage for foreigners visiting Thailand and the Chiang Mai province.

The Answer Lies Within

The holy mountain of Doi Suthep imposes over the bustling streets of Nimmanhaemin, and the golden minarets of the Wat Phra That temple sparkle in the relentless Thai sun. Young monks in the traditional orange robes of the Thai buddhist tradition walk alongside young hipsters. Ancient temples stud the old town of Chiang Mai, rubbing shoulders with the glass and steel of condo towers and shopping malls. But it’s not complete coincidence that brings a generation of digital nomads to an ancient capital of Buddhism.

For two and a half millennia, Buddhism has been challenging people to climb the holy mountain and take part in spiritual retreat. The thirty days and nights of silent meditation are a serious challenge. Few Westerners conditioned to our culture of constant activity and stimulation can deal with silence with only their thoughts for company. But it’s in the silence of meditation that life’s hard questions are answered. For today’s digital nomads, the question is whether their travels are only taking them back to the material culture of the West, or towards a different kind of life.

But digital nomadism is not a life for everyone. The freedom and creativity that make it exciting for artists and entrepreneurs also comes packaged with exactly the risk and and insecurity that most people seek to avoid. As humans we’re conditioned to seek security in our relationships and connections to each other, in friends, family, and tribe. As nomads, we give up that security in exchange for the freedom to find ourselves as individuals.

The counter culture of the 60s liberated a generation from the conservative social values of their day. Today’s counter culture is changing our relationship to where we live and how we work. We’re a generation freeing ourselves from the assumption that a 9-5 life and a crushing burden of debt are the only kind of life. Instead we’re seeking better, more creative ways to live. We’re finding ways to use technology instead of being used by it, ways to be liberated by our inventions, not trapped by them. In a decade, we will look back on digital nomads as pioneers of a lifestyle so widespread that it no longer requires a name.

Walking the streets of Nimmanhaemin I wonder why I came to Chiang Mai. Was it to write a book? Or was I seeking something else? Looking up at the holy mountain of Doi Suthep, I think I might climb it myself, and find my own answer.

*

DAMIEN WALTER

Damien Walter is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Wired UK, SFX, i09, Aeon, and Electric Velocipede. He teaches creative writing at University of Leicester and writing for digital media at University of Nottingham.

Twitter: @damiengwalter

First published in The Ascender magazine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIsqOOvlbDM

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How Fighting Fantasy beat traditional stories

In the three decades since Fighting Fantasy began, games have changed our concept of story forever.

When I was 10 I wanted, for a brief period, to be a professional Fighting Fantasy player. I was so fascinated with the now-iconic green-jacketed gamebooks, emblazoned with the legend “Thrilling fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero!”, that I hatched a plan to make playing them my job as a grown-up. The market for professional gamebook players never materialised, but fantasy gaming has become big business. If I’d chosen to hit the Magic the Gathering pro tour, or joined a videogame clan I might have stood a better chance.

What made Fighting Fantasy so addictive for my 10-year-old self, and for a generation of geeks around my age, was the combination of two things we love with a passion: stories and games. I’m fascinated by the way in which the massive growth of gaming in the 30 years since Fighting Fantasy was first published has changed how we think about stories – so I was very lucky to grab some time with one of gaming’s most influential figures, Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, founder of Games Workshop and lifetime president of Eidos Interactive, the company behind Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.

“I started playing games as a child and never stopped,” Ian says when asked about his own passion for games, which started with classics like Monopoly and chess, then war games and board games before he discovered Dungeons & Dragons in his 20s. “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to turn my passion for playing games into a business of making them.”

It was Dungeons & Dragons that helped fulfil that ambition. Games Workshop purchased the UK rights to the cult role-playing game in 1975, which established the company’s mission to make progressive games for core gamers, and led in turn to the immense success of the Warhammer franchise in the 1980s. Dungeons & Dragons established an entirely new paradigm for gaming, one that brought story and character into games as never before. “In many ways paper and pencil role-playing creates a much deeper gaming experience than many video games,” Ian argues. “The narrative is made up as the game is played out rather than along a predetermined arc written by the games designer. This unstructured format of role-playing on the big screen of the imagination can’t be bettered in terms of unique user experience.”

It was on the big screen of the reader’s imagination that the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks played out. Ian and co-creator Steve Jackson wrote the books in a second-person present style, with branching story narratives and a dice-based game system bolted on. “Fighting Fantasy gamebooks empower the reader, who felt the anxiety or joy of being fantasy heroes themselves – they lived or died by their decisions. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” And a lot of people did exactly that: more than 17m Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were sold, in 28 languages. And Fighting Fantasy is still going strong, with Chinese translations launched very recently.

“There are thousands of traditional books which are of course brilliantly written and have incredibly exciting storylines and thought-provoking philosophies,” Ian continues, as we talk about the differences between traditional novels and interactive fiction of the kind pioneered in Fighting Fantasy. “Yet traditional books have a linear storyline and sometimes a hero which the reader may or may not relate to.” The appeal of a gamebook then is that it allows the reader to be at the absolute centre of the story. The idea of a thrilling fantasy adventure where YOU are the hero is more than just a clever marketing line, it’s central to the success of Fighting Fantasy and a very significant part of how games have changed stories.

The techniques Fighting Fantasy employed to put you at the heart of the story became standard in the burgeoning videogame industry. “In the early days of computer and videogames there simply wasn’t enough available memory to include a compelling story, let alone graphics, speech and music. But today that’s all changed, and storytelling has become an important and integral part of a videogame.” Graphics are near-photo-realistic, characters more believable, and professional writers are transforming the experience of story-led games such as Deus Ex and Mass Effect. But first person action and branching story narratives are still the standard ways of telling stories.

Are we becoming a game-culture? Fighting Fantasy gave a generation of readers a first taste of what games can bring to stories, and the videogaming industry has gone on to take gaming from the parlour and make it an absolutely central part of contemporary life. Gamification has become the trend of the day in the world of marketing, with companies such as Zynga and their game Farmville exploiting our hunger for games to hold our attention and sell us products. In her super-insightful TED talk of 2010, game designer and academic Jane McGonigal asked if gaming could help make a better world, arguing that an estimated 1.5 billion “virtuoso” gamers represent a massive untapped resource of expert problem solvers just waiting to … solve all the world’s problems! Games put us at the heart of the story, in a world where very often we feel far out on the edge.

That was once the traditional role of novels as well, but increasingly stories are also reflecting our hunger for games. Game of Thrones charts the power struggles between warring families in a medieval fantasy world, with each new chapter like a new move on the chessboard of Westeros. The Hunger Games has cashed in on our thirst for competition and its consequences in our daily lives. Perhaps we’re becoming aware that in a world where everyone is the hero of their own story, the inevitable outcome is an ever more competitive society, and we demand books and films that reflect this reality.

I finish my conversation with Ian Livingstone by asking him the Desert Island Discs question for gamers; if he was stuck in the grim far future of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise, which game would he take to keep himself entertained? The writer of Fighting Fantasy has more than 1,000 boardgames and thousands more videogames, but there’s only one choice for a true gamer. “I would probably play chess because it is the ultimate pure game, and I will always be able to improve no matter how long the war goes on.”

Originally published on Guardian Books

Only a creator culture can save us

We’re trying to rebuild a failed consumer culture. We need to make a new creator culture instead.

Published in Culture – A Reader for Writers, editor John Mauk, Oxford University Press.

I arrived in Leicester in the late ‘90s as a student, a year after losing my mother to cancer. Having little support, I worked my way through university as a street sweeper, a factory worker, a waiter, a barman, a door-to-door salesman, a cleaner, recycling operative and grill chef. I wanted to be a writer but that seemed like an unattainable dream at the time. A few years later I began working for Leicester’s library service as a literature development worker.

The first initiative I ran was a project to gather the reminiscences of senior citizens. There I was, in my mid-20s, in the meeting room of an older persons’ lunch club. I had a circle of plastic stacking chairs, paper, pens and a dozen volunteers, most of them past their 80th birthday. At the time, I could manage (as I still can) a good line in cocky arrogance. I told everyone how things were going to be and what the project was going to achieve. We were to capture voices from under-represented stakeholders in the local community, thereby encouraging social cohesion. I hadn’t yet learnt that the language of Arts Council England funding bids doesn’t mean much to normal people. Patient smiles greeted my words.

After a long pause, a woman in her 90s started to speak. She had grown up in a children’s home in Leicester, she told us. She had been abused by her father and then by another man at the home. She had worked in factories when she was old enough. Her husband died young, and so did her son. It took her half an hour to say this much. At the end, she said she’d never told anyone about her life before.

I was, in retrospect, unprepared for that project in every possible way. I spent the next fortnight doing a lot of listening and transcribing. The other stories were no easier to hear. Child abuse, abhorred in today’s media, was so prevalent in the industrial communities of England before the Second World War that it had passed almost without comment.

We published a small pamphlet of writing from the project. It seemed puny and easily ignored, but it meant a great deal to the group. There was even a small reception to launch it. A few friends and relatives and a dignitary from the local council came along to enjoy the municipally funded wine and nibbles. The storytellers themselves had all made new friends, and had kept busy instead of sitting idle in care homes. They had had a chance to speak. And a few people had listened.

It would take me the best part of a decade to really understand why that was important.

In dozens of projects and hundreds of workshops, I tried to help people to develop everything from basic literacy to advanced creative writing skills. I worked with teenagers from local schools, who loved vampire novels and wrote their own hip-hop lyrics but said they didn’t like English, until you told them that Mary Shelley was the first goth and ‘rap’ stood for ‘Rhythmic American Poetry’. I worked with groups of factory workers and people caught in mind-numbing call-centre jobs who just wanted to find something, anything, to show that they were worth more than that. I sat in on daylong symposia of Urdu verse and learnt what it is to have Hindu and Muslim communities talk to each other through poetry. I ran projects with drug users and mental health service users, often the same people. A lot of these people were young men, my own age, from roughly the same background as me. I started to see how real the gaps in society are, and how easy they are to fall through.

Any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles

This all happened in a midlands city of 330,000 people. Leicester now has the third-largest Hindu community in England and Wales, as well as substantial Muslim, Black African, Somali, Polish and Chinese populations. In the late 1800s it was an industrial powerhouse, the hosiery capital of Europe. By the start of the 20th century, it was home to some of the poorest wards in Britain. Throughout the industrial revolution, it had sucked in thousands of rural labourers to man its factories. When the factories closed, that population, lacking any history of education or development, was abandoned, left to subsist on state benefits and lower-than-minimum-wage jobs on huge sink estates. Decades later, many are still there.

I honestly have no idea, beyond individual stories, if the creativity work I did had any real effect. I still get emails from one or two of the school kids I worked with: they’ve gone on to write their own sci-fi books. But there’s a guilt trap in almost any job where the aim is to help other people. Human need is infinite, and you quickly learn the limits of what can be achieved, or else you break from the pressure of attempting the impossible.

Even so, what I did see again and again was the real difference that a sliver of creative life can make, even to people in the worst circumstances. I saw it most often through the discipline of writing, and I think that the written word makes a good route for many people. But any act that helps to empower a person creatively can ignite the imaginative spark without which life of any kind struggles — and in many senses fails even to begin.

Are we already living in the technological singularity?

news has been turning into science fiction for a while now. TVs that watch the watcher, growing tiny kidneys, 3D printing, the car of tomorrow, Amazon’s fleet of delivery drones – so many news stories now “sound like science fiction” that the term returns 1,290,000 search results on Google.

The pace of technological innovation is accelerating so quickly that it’s possible to perform this test in reverse. Google an imaginary idea from science fiction and you’ll almost certainly find scientists researching the possibility. Warp drive? The Multiverse? A space elevator to the stars? Maybe I can formulate this as Walter’s law – “Any idea described in sci-fi will on a long enough timescale be made real by science.”

Read more @ The Guardian

The Tao Te Ching: ancient wisdom for modern times

Two thousand four hundred years after it was composed, we need the Tao Te Ching‘s lessons in self-awareness more than ever. Little can be said with absolute certainty about the origins of the Tao Te Ching. Consensus suggests it was written around 400BC by one Laozi. Laozi translates simply as “old master” – a hint that the author’s (or authors’) true name has been lost for ever.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Chiang Mai

Wow. So it has been a week since I left the UK for Thailand I can barely describe everything that has happened. Long haul flights, airport layovers, jet lag sleep deprivation and constant change have given the last seven days a hallucinatory quality. Arriving in Bangkok after dark felt like stepping in to Bladerunner. Every single second of my three days in that city was saturated with intense sights and sounds. Bangkok looks more like the future than any city I’ve journeyed to. A monstrous entity bristling with glass and steel towers. And down at their roots on the blistering hot streets is an indescribable density of human life. Every inch of space is crushed with street hawkers, food stalls, tuk tuks, mopeds like flocking birds, cripples and filthy children preying over begging bowls, trendy hipster kids, immaculate office workers, McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC and the other brands of hyper-capitalism, christian missionaries, orange robbed monks meditating on smartphones. And traffic. Traffic like you can not believe. Like the city sounded an evacuation alarm and never switched it off. All broiling under the stark sun. Anything that isn’t a condo tower, skyscraper or shopping mall is crumbling in architectural decay. Gaping cavities reveal gangs of grease covered men smashing together engines, ranks of women going blind over sewing machines. Stuttering towers of reclaimed circuit boards and computer monitors. The gaunt murderous eyes of two hundred feral cats. And then another Starbucks. As the sun sets the side alleys of Sala Daeng are populated with squads of costumed bar girls and their pimps, touting laser printed catalogues of possible sexual services, and affluent college students in pristine uniforms navigating from one high end coffee bar to another. Hippie back packers and tattooed ex-pats all standing out in the crowd. And me, the flaneur pedestrian writer in a hat, soaking every sight in.

Three days and I escaped to Chiang Mai, my destination for this journey.

North, and high in the mountains, Chiang Mai is a few degrees less overheated than Bangkok. It was the capital of its own kingdom as late as 1774, and nominally independent until 1939. It’s famed for its unique character, great culture, and increasingly world famous as a traveller destination. The old town sits within a wide square moat, and its Eastern quarter is dedicated to western backpackers and a growing cohort of Chinese tourists. Kikie’s guest house furnished me with a private room for two nights while I hunted an apartment for my stay in the city. When I imagined Chiang Mai, the old town was what I imagined. Narrow winding lanes, local street cafes and a bunch of backpacker friendly nightspots. Chang beer is famous among travellers who come to the city, as is a local brew whisky which can be bought by the flask almost anywhere.

But my expectations of Chiang Mai were defeated on my second day when I ventured in to Nimmanhaemin, or Nimman. The western distract of Chiang Mai outside the old walls and along the Nimmanhaemin road has become home in the last five years to what can best be described as a community of globetrotting yuppies, reinforced by Thailands own ever more prosperous creative class. Nimman is a mecca of coffee bars, international cuisine, boutique residences, galleries, craft shops and more. I’m typing this in Punspace, a co-working space where twenty other western and thai young professionals are writing, coding, designing and the other kinds of work a Macbook and internet connection allows you to do anywhere. My thumbprint has just been taken so I can access the space, its good seating and free coffee, 24/7.

I’m partly here to think and write about the phenomena of the “digital nomad”, professionals who can work from anywhere, so choose locations that, like Nimman, offer a high standard of living at a very low cost. But for the moment I’m just enjoying the experience of the place. I’m full of ice tea because the restaurant I had lunch in kept giving free refills and it was the best ice tea I have ever tasted. But I realised something today, as I walked Nimman after settling in to my new apartment. I don’t know quite what I expected of Chiang Mai. But I didn’t expect to be living within two minutes walk of – not just one – but two Apple computer stores. And on that thought I’m going to track down the Mexican restaurant I passed earlier.

The Great Escape

Digital technology allows us to lose ourselves in ever more immersive fantasy worlds. But what are we fleeing from?

The only people who hate escapism are jailers, said the essayist and Narnia author C S Lewis. A generation later, the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock revised the quip: jailers love escapism — it’s escape they can’t stand. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, escapism — the act of withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into fantasy worlds — has taken on a scale and scope quite beyond anything Lewis might have envisioned.

I am a writer and critic of fantasy, and for most of my life I have been an escapist. Born in 1977, the year in which Star Wars brought cinematic escapism to new heights, I have seen TV screens grow from blurry analogue boxes to high-definition wide-screens the size of walls. I played my first video game on a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum and have followed the upgrade path through Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox and high-powered gaming PCs that lodged supercomputers inside households across the developed world. I have watched the symbolic language of fantasy — of dragons, androids, magic rings, warp drives, haunted houses, robot uprisings, zombie armageddons and the rest — shift from the guilty pleasure of geeks and outcasts to become the diet of mainstream culture.

Read more @ Aeon Magazine

On being bossed around by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.

You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.

Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?

Well. I got to go on a tour of Weird London, chat with M John Harrison about weird fiction, and record the experience as an audio documentary.

And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.

On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter

In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.

Is the death of the bookshop a sign of progress?

High street bookshops maye soon be a distant memory. Should we take this as a sign of progress, or the regression of society to a pre-literate state?

Today the last big bookshop in Leicester, the city where I reside, closed its doors. The out of town Borders went three years ago. Waterstones on Market Street shut it’s doors today, leaving a much smaller sub-branch in the nearby shopping mall. I do not hold much hope of it surviving, and feel convinced at this point that dedicated high street book retailers will soon be a memory. That is sad. I love bookshops. But should we take it as a sign that society is regressing, or is it actually a sign of progress?

Some thoughts for both progress and regress:

REGRESS : The bookshops are closing. That’s where people buy books. Where are they going to buy books now? Taken in isolation, closing bookshops is a terrible sign of a crumbling society.

PROGRESS : Bookshops have been superseded by the internet, ebooks and smartphones, which form a much better infrastructure for distributing knowledge. Big gains for everyone.

REGRESS : That digital infrastructure is only accessible to people who can afford the technology and have the knowledge to use it.And it’s owned by a small number of mega tech corporations. Big loss of privacy and maybe freedom.

PROGRESS : Poorer people culturally excluded from bookshops, much more likely to access books via widely used and ever cheaper smartphones. Anyone can publish a book digitally.

REGRESS : The infrastructure of bookshops, publishers & distributors is what pays writers to write books. Without payment, only rich amateurs can have time to write.

PROGRESS : Retailers, publishers take a lot of the money made from selling books. Digital distribution might mean more money going to writers. Writing might become more like being a traditional artisan, as is happening in other creative professions. This is a big might.

Creative Writing at University of Leicester now offering £1000 bursaries for students.

Overall, I feel the argument for progress outweighs regress, quite substantially. But that doesn’t mean I cheer the death of bookshops. Progress means change, and change rarely comes without waving goodbye to things we love. We just have to believe that they space they leave behind will be filled with things we can love just as much or more.

Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and its any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best? Every word you write is asking for the gift of the reader’s time. Make sure it’s worth it.

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Damo’s Sci-Fi prophecies for 2013

2012 has been a year of transition for science fiction and fantasy literature. SF’s reputation as home of the Bearded White Male hides a more interesting story. SF is the literature of geeks, and today, geeks run the world. Geek culture isn’t infiltrating the mainstream: it is the mainstream. And geeks come in all ages, genders and backgrounds. This year, the Hugo and Nebula award shortlists demonstrated SF’s growing diversity, even as the decision of the editorial team at Weird Tales magazine to publish racist screed Save the Pearls demonstrated many of its ongoing challenges.

Even in the age of the ebook, word-of-mouth is still what makes a breakout hit, and many of the books to watch in 2013 have been building excitement through 2012. Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty is the outstanding hard-SF novel of the year and deserves to feature in many award ballots in 2013. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce has brought the veteran English novelist and World Fantasy award winner to the attention of a growing audience, as have film adaptations in the pipeline for this and his previous novel, The Silent Land. And G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen stands out as among the most original and challenging books of 2012, and my personal pick for at least one major award in 2013.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Do you know why you write fantasy?

In his 1916 essay (not published until 1956) The Transcendent Function the psychologist Carl Jung describes his system of ‘active imagination’, the technique at the heart of the psychological process he named individuation. Put very simply, active imagination means to dive down in to our imagination and to bring back from it visions, dreams and stories.

Among the products of Jung’s own experiments with active imagination is the Liber Novus or Red Book. Jung produced this work as part of a period of intense introspection following his break from his mentor Sigmund Freud. In 205 pages of hand scripted calligraphy and intensely beautiful illustrations Jung recorded his own visions, dreams and stories.


Most writers of fantasy can probably recognise themselves in Jung’s creation of the Red Book. Many writers come to writing fantasy in periods of change, following trauma as as part of a process of recuperation. I have a box of fragmentary short stories labeled Titan that I produced in the years after I lost my mother to cancer. I put them aside for many years, but ideas from them make up part of my work-in-progress novel Lost Things.

Goals like publication and perhaps becoming a professional writer can be important parts of a creative practice. But it’s easy to lose sight of the truth that your writing is probably there to play a much more important part in your life than generating revenue from unit sales. It’s taking you on a journey…where to only you know…and the visions, dreams and stories from which great novels are made will only come if you stay on the right path.

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