Simon Bray (Taking Time): There's a quote on the Weapons of Reason website from Marcus Aurelius. “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” For me, Weapons of Reason is a publication with a voice of clarity amidst the whirlwind of voices that bark at you online and in print, about how to think and behave. It feels like it's very clear in terms of equipping its readers to make better decisions. I wondered how, initially in a broader sense, the notion of time affects the motivations and the ethos of the magazine.
James Cartwright: We set it up really as a way of kind of getting our heads around the world. I think one of the main things that we were keen not to do was for it to be a preachy thing, where we're trying to shock people into changing their lives. We weren't coming at it from a perspective where we thought we had all the answers at all. Danny, the publisher, set up the magazine before I came on. He’d just set up Humans After All (the design agency that makes Weapons of Reason), off the back of another agency, and had gone out to South by Southwest and saw Al Gore talk.
He was really moved by the presentation that Al Gore gave about how we need to change the world. We realised we don't really understand a lot of what's going on here, we don't really know what's at play. I think I broadly understand the world, but all of these complex interactions I didn't get. So we wanted to do something that allowed us to pick all these things apart.
I’d been sat at a computer being a design journalist for a couple of years, and I was like, okay, my world is this little box, I tap away at it. I've got a lot of this left, and I'm going be working a long time. At the time there was a lot of talk about the fact that we weren't going to be getting to pension age until we were 75 and I thought I can't do this forever. I've got to think about doing something that's a bit more engaging in the long term, and Danny was the same. If we’re going to be working in the commercial context, it has to be for something that he believes in, something that has more longevity than simple financial reward. We all have to make a living, but outside of that, what's the most interesting thing we can do with it? So in that way, it's a time based project for both of us.
It’s a slow nudge to get people to change their ways, I suppose, but I don't feel like I have any right to tell people what to do, so the whole idea is that we explore it together and see what comes out of that. Then if people feel like they understand the world better, and that helps them make better decisions, that's the ultimate goal.
SB: How does this all influence the decisions and process made when putting the magazine together?
JC: The magazine is divided into past, present and future. The whole idea of that is to give a historical context to an issue, then an overview of how that is playing out currently. Then the future is all about trying to imagine how things could be. Sometimes that's imagining the best case scenario, or sometimes it’s if we continue down this path, we are in a lot of trouble.
In the food issue we give like a history of farming and how that's come about, we've gone from a band of hunter gatherers to modern mechanical farming, and that's a real hop, skip and a jump through thousands of years of human history, but you have to understand that to then talk about the effect that industrial farming is having on the world and then to think about some alternatives. Not to go back in time necessarily, but to know that your present is shaped by something more, that it hasn't always been like this.
In his book ‘Feral’, George Monbiot talks about shifting baseline syndrome, that every year you have a generation thinking that what they knew as a kid is normal. Everything changes constantly, but you lose and forget so much. So the past bit of the magazine is trying to combat that shifting baseline!
One of the main reasons we set up the magazine was we didn't feel like we were getting the kind of information that we really needed anywhere else. I don't feel like journalism does the job of explaining context and giving real clarity to a situation. Even in the best newspapers, you read an article in isolation and to fully grasp it you need a framework to hang it on. News comes in these fragments and tying them together is really difficult because there's so much of it.
We wanted the magazine to be something that covers a broad issue, but gives you the context, both historically, but also in terms of how the articles are grounded. So we explain the context of the situation before we go on to talk about a specific topic. It’s hard to be timeless if you're talking about current statistics, but for the most part we're talking about issues that have persisted for a long time and aren't showing any signs of shifting, not things that are part of a news cycle necessarily.
That definitely shapes how we craft the magazine from an editorial perspective and part of that is just going away and doing lots of research for a long time before commissioning anything. I feel very uncomfortable commissioning people before I have a firm grasp on the issue. I go and do a lot of reading, and my understanding of an issue will only be fragmentary at best when I start putting the briefs together, but just to have an understanding of that whole issue myself is really important. That takes a load of time, maybe a couple of months to read everything but I need to read before I approach people.
Then there’s a sort of slow burn of going back and forth with writers, having conversations with the creative director about the illustration briefs. After talking it all through over six or seven months,we have these really intense briefing sessions where I go through the entire magazine with the team for about four hours and explain things and get confused, and they get confused. Eventually we achieve some kind of clarity and move forwards
In terms of the design decisions, the whole idea is to make it as simple and clear as possible, an aesthetic that is approachable and colorful. The layout is pretty simple, we don't often divert from a single column for the text, so it's more like reading more like the experience of reading a book because we believe that reading in that way helps you engage.
There shouldn't be too many distractions because we're talking about big stuff here. When we do want to distract you, it's with a statistic or a hard hitting fact that's going to support the piece. So much of your reading experience online is gobbled by ads, so we don't want to pull people out of the text unless we absolutely need to or it's going to sort of expand their understanding somehow.
SB: That's really interesting to hear, the context of an issue is extremely important and as you say, it's very different to engaging with news, because if you're reading a story for the first time you don't get an appreciation of all the systematic structures that are influencing the event that you're reading about.
I think it's really interesting that it's such a long process to pull everything together, in terms of the research and the reading, working with the team over six months. You're taking time yourself to understand an issue. It’s extremely important to lay out that context for people and consider how things could be better. We can all operate in this quite insular way in which we think about how I can preserve myself and my family and make sure that we’re okay for the future. But we have to make all these small decisions which mean that the broader future is better. It can be very hard to think about influencing the systematic things that you feel are out of reach aside from casting a vote every four or five years. There's a lot more to be done, but the start of that is educating people, which I think you're doing extremely well.
JC: Thanks, that’s lovely to hear!
The coolest thing that happened with Weapons of Reason was hearing from A level geography teachers who were saying that it'd been a really useful teaching device in classes and that kids were really engaged with it. They found it a really accessible way to talk about stuff that textbooks made boring. That's brilliant. None of us saw that coming as something that would be useful. It felt really positive that an audience that you didn’t think were going to participate are engaging with it.
SB: In a work context, you’ve taken a major decision to try and make a change somehow and that revolves around thinking longer term. For previous generations work was far more functional in terms of earning a wage. Do you think it's quite a generational thing to consider that we can have an impact on the world around us in a professional sense?
JC: It’s definitely a way of thinking that’s a product of our generation, of our time, but I think it’s also a side effect of working in a digital landscape in that you get to see so much so quickly. So it's easy to feel restless and I think I definitely felt very restless really early on in my career, and that just wouldn't have happened in a previous generation, I'd have felt lucky to have a job. The idea of what you have, what a career could be or what you could do with your life is just so much more expansive than what it would have been 30 to 40 years ago. It’s definitely a luxury to be able to think like that, I think, but that luxury doesn't apply to everyone does it?
SB: No, of course, but I think a lot of the gen X, Y and millennials are having to live in the moment and think about the now. I think it's even harder than before to embrace the future. There might be financial caps on whether you can get a mortgage or afford to have kids, all these things that mean you become a ‘proper adult’ and force you to think about the future. So there's obviously a phase of life in which you do embrace the now and don’t really think about the future
JC: I think we encourage them to think about the future in a way that they probably wouldn't do as a matter of course. When we started the magazine, it's funny, because our relationship to the audience has changed quite a lot over time, but when we first launched it, we were very broad, in terms of who we're trying to reach. We said, this is for people eight to 80, who are curious about how the world works, and we're going to explain it to them, and it's going to be really, really helpful, it's not going to be patronizing, it's not going to be preachy. Visually, it looks quite young, but the writing is quite sophisticated, that's the perfect marriage, and everyone will read it. And obviously, that just doesn't happen!
I was really keen that we spoke to an older generation, people like my dad's age in their 60s who, you know, haven't thought about stuff quite a lot, don't engage with wider environmental issues or some of the social issues that our generation faces, but if you sat down and explained to them, in a comprehensible way, then they could be switched on.
Danny was very much like going to the other end and wanted to speak to young people and I think we might we're much more aligned on that now. Younger people are a really interesting audience to speak to you because they're going to be the future, they’ll have the greater long term effect on how society works, those are the people we should be talking to.
SB: I think it's really interesting, because you'd expect an older generation to be considering their economic, social, environmental impacts, rather than people in their 20s who are just trying to enjoy the freedom of life, but actually when you look at Extinction Rebellion and the people who are being a voice for the change, actually, it's these younger generations who are pushing things forward, and as you say, trying to encourage our parents generation to think about the impact that they have, rather than just sort of cruising through life.
JC: I did an interview a couple of years ago with a philosopher called Susan Neiman, who wrote a book called Why Grow Up. She talks about it in terms of adulthood, when you reach ‘proper’ adulthood, so many of the decisions you get to make are just distractions. They're so formulaic in terms of, do I get a mortgage? Do I have kids? What school do I send my kids to? Do I eat gluten? Do I drink alcohol three times a week? Then you don't have the time or space to engage in wider thinking. Things that are actually far more important in the widest sense than just the minutiae of your day to day life.
SB: That’s so true, you can just get bogged down and distracted, you need to work hard to make space to think about those things. I know you said you didn't want the magazine to be too preachy, but I wonder if you have considered what actions you might want your readers to take as a result of learning more about the world around them, and thinking longer term?
JC: I think one of the things we thought about a lot when we set up the magazine was how much it was going to be an activist thing and whether taking action looks like on the ground direct action, and it's not really about that. If some of that stuff has inspired people to get on board with Extinction Rebellion and go to a protest, amazing, but there's so many other things that people can do to alter their ways of thinking and actions.
We talked earlier about taking out a pension, and you need to have a clear understanding of how those systems work, where the money goes, who it impacts, who’s being exploited to generate that return so you can have a stipend in the future. That involves a lot of slow and complicated thoughts, but actions like that are really important.
Just thinking more broadly about the type of society that people want to live in and why we accept so many of these things as just being how the world is when we're all taking part in a democratic system, and we should be able to shape the future that we want.
In our Unfair issue, Francis Ryan writes about how provision for people who have disabilities in the UK is just horrific. I don't know how anyone can read that and just think it's fine.Why aren't we doing more about that? Why do we continue to accept a political party that's actively failed a section of society who just shouldn't be treated that way at all?
It's not necessarily that we have specific actions that we want people to take, I think it's really just about being better informed because the world is really, really complicated. There are so many factors at play, even in the pension that you want to take or like, you know, the foods that you want to eat or do you want to travel by air when you go abroad? There's just a lot of stuff that needs thinking about because of the precarious stage of civilization we're at, which sounds really grand, but it requires us to think a bit more.
SB: I think everybody's got a limited capacity for the thinking they can do in their daily lives in terms of what they feel like they can have an impact on. I worry that people will get overwhelmed into not doing anything because it feels paralyzing to try and do everything.
JC: There's a balance to be struck isn't there between feeling empowered enough to think that the decisions that you make can affect change whilst understanding that there are wider systemic things that you probably can't.
I think that's one of the reasons why I started to think I wanted to read more about deep time, or microbial evolution and the natural world a bit more, because that timeframe is really soothing. It’s liberating thinking about billions of years in the past because you feel small and insignificant in thinking that but it also makes your small decisions feel really okay!
When I was living in London I just felt constantly stressed, everyone was moving at a certain speed and I constantly felt driven to keep up with that. It's really easy to just be completely myopic when you're living in an environment like that. I think now, when I feel stressed, if I just go outside and look around, none of what I'm stressed about matters to my immediate surroundings. Having some kind of perspective is really useful if you want to make all of these micro decisions that require a lot of thought because it can feel paralyzing.
SB: Yes, that's a really interesting point, placing yourself in a much, much broader context. We can really easily get caught up, particularly through the pandemic, in this mindset of being very insular and just worrying about yourself within the four walls and not really knowing what you can do beyond that.
I think as a race, we're inherently generous and altruistic, so it's really important to try and put yourself within that much broader context of time and environment in order to appreciate that sort of grand irrelevance, I suppose.
Finally, I wanted to ask what you felt was time ‘well spent’?
JC: Previously, time well spent was social time with friends, it was the most rewarding thing, interacting with people that I love. Since my son came along, it’s very much watching this person grow and I want as much access to that as possible. Sometimes it’s mind numbingly boring or insanely frustrating because you experience the whole spectrum of emotions in short bursts and it can feel like a marathon with amazing highs and crushing lows! But time well spent is very much engaging with this little kid who is always changing and everything else feels like it doesn’t matter quite as much, it’s all thrown into sharp relief and it’s hard to avoid cliches, but they change so fast! I think it's definitely a lesson in placing yourself within a certain context and really having to engage.
Getting tied up in making decisions about your family unit and what’s best for them, so much of the wider stuff that it’s important to think about does impact them as well. Obviously you want them to be secure and provide for them, but it’s also important to think about what world you want them to live in. You’re making a provision for them in the future, what does that look like? How can they thrive? What are you setting them up for? All of those things feel really important when you have a kid.