The 2014 Elevate Awards

This is the twenty-seventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The Elevate Awards shine a light on people and projects that cultivate a more sustainable, innovative and just planet. Goaded on by our host Herr Hermes and watched by the crowd in the Dom Im Berg and on Elevate’s live media channel, the award nominees have the chance to share their work. The winners also take home two thousand five hundred Euro in prize money to elevate their work to the next level.

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There are three awards to be handed out tonight. The International Award is given to projects based outside Graz, the Artivism Award to artistic groups with a message, while the Steiermark Award is presented to projects from the local region of Styria.

The International Award garnered twenty-four nominations from across the world, from Latin America to South Africa, and on global issues ranging from the environment to human rights. Ksenia Ermoshina, the jury representative presenting the award, made special mention of the fourth placed nomination: the solidarity letter for the liberation of Josef S, a German student who was arrested for participating in an anti-fascist demonstration. “Everyone could be Josef S tomorrow,” she says. “As a Russian,” she adds, “human rights are being oppressed everywhere – and the western world is not an exception.”

The international jury came to unanimous decisions on the top two nominees for the award. Both were projects concerned with internet privacy. “Maybe we’re all paranoid on the jury,” Ksenia jokes, “but we do think that, for all of the twenty-four other projects, encryption, privacy and security are needed.” Second place went to riseup.net, which provides secure communication for activists. “This platform helped me and my friends when we were fighting against Putin’s regime in Russia,” Ksenia says, “and helped a lot of people all over the world.”

But the winner of the 2014 Elevate International Award is Cryptocat, an encrypted internet chat application. “I think it’s a great choice,” Ksenia explains, “because their initiative is about making privacy accessible and easy for everyone – even if you don’t think you’re a radical activist.”

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Nadim Kobeissi, the founder of Cryptocat, comes on stage to accept his gold painted statue and oversized cheque. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” he says. “I think I know how to say, Ich liebe dich.” The audience laughs. “Am I supposed to say a few words?” he asks Ksenia. “Encrypted please,” she replies. Nadim laughs. “Do you all have your AES encryptors ready?” Bafflement creeps over the crowd. “I don’t know if anyone got that joke,” he adds. Then we laugh.

Nadim explains the ethos of Cryptocat. “I’ve never appreciated that some people took something and tried to make it more complicated instead of simpler,” he says, echoing the Van Jones quote from Let Fury Have The Hour. “There’s a lot of elitism in technology and that’s always bothered me,” he adds. Nadim started developing Cryptocat in college.

Nadim wasn’t even studying computer science, so relied heavily on the open source community. “They were the people who pointed out better ways to do encryption, security problems and ways to make Cryptocat more secure,” he says. Nadim feels this collaboration, community and mutual respect was and remains the most important aspect of the project. “If we deal with each other and the world honestly and transparently,” he says, “this is what ends up benefiting us and benefiting the public.”

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Everywhere I look now, I’m seeing creative-response, no less in the code of Cryptocat than in the nominees for the Artivism Award: from a photographic exploration of the housing conditions for asylum seekers in Tirol to a theatrical extravaganza called Sorry, we’re fucked – YOU are the climate catastrophe!. The winners were decided by a public vote on Austrian national radio FM4, involving more than two thousand three hundred people.

That vote chose a group called Partycipation, who, through their camps and festivals in Lower Austria, encourage community and lively exchange on an intellectual and practical level. They bound on stage to give us a demonstration that involves a song about how “the fishes are going to love me more than you ever done” and a drawing of dancers with broken hearts skipping hand in hand across an ocean. Julian Leutgeb explains that Partycipation are trying to show how art can be meaningful and fun.

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The Steiermark Award, organised in cooperation with the local Kleine Zeitung newspaper and regional broadcaster ORF Steiermark, attracted twenty-seven local projects. After the counting of over one thousand five hundred public votes, the winners were Kama Graz, an organisation that flips the usual educational experience of asylum seekers on its head.

Instead of forcing them to attend German classes and classes in Austrian law and culture, Kama Graz provides the opportunity for migrants to use their talents to become teachers. In Austria, as in the UK, asylum seekers are forbidden from working throughout the long years their case is considered by the authorities. Teaching these classes gives them an opportunity to use their skills and to participate in society. The classes are also the perfect setting for exchanges between asylum seekers and local residents in Graz, over an African cookery class or a lesson in martial arts. Creative-response begets creative-response.

Hermes throws in one last gag before closing Elevate 2014. “I’ve heard I’m booked until 2024,” he says, “so the festival will continue!” He bows low, the lights play over the applause, and Elevate is over.

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***

As for me, after four days of discussions, deliberations and dancing, I am a stronger person than I was before. I am stronger because I know I am not alone in believing that a more commonistic, connected and creative world is possible. In fact, thanks to Elevate, I don’t have to only believe; that world is already here, waiting for me to join.

In a post-party human circle, thirty or forty of the organisers, producers, artists, activists, technicians and musicians who make Elevate elevate, raise shots of Zirbenschnaps to the only toast we’ll ever need:

“Ich liebe dich!”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate Awards Show 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

The header image is a free cultural work under Creative Commons, author unknown. Thank you!

Amy Goodman: The Journalist Connection

This is the twenty-sixth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Amy Goodman, host of the independent daily news show Democracy Now!, has been working to change the dominant narrative of capitalist media for three decades. “In independent media,” she says, “we have to tell the story as it’s happening and we have to de-construct the story being told in the rest of the media.”

The success of Democracy Now! proves that there is a mainstream appetite for alternative narratives, but the programme is almost unique, eschewing advertising dollars and funded entirely by its listeners and viewers. Corporate or government-sponsored media will always have the bigger resources to dominate the airwaves. And, as we all know, the first rule of journalism is: Whoever pays the most gets to tell the story.

Strangely, Amy believes that journalism should be something else. “Go to the person closest to the story and let them speak for themselves.” She calls this the first basic tenet of good journalism. “If they can’t speak,” she continues, “if they’re disappeared or if they’ve been imprisoned, if they’re afraid for their life or their livelihood or their family, tell their stories until they can tell their own.” It sounds straightforward enough, but doesn’t seem to be followed on most corporate or state media, which Amy claims are dominated by “a small circle of pundits, who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong”.

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One example of the mainstream media’s incompetence in representing the people’s narratives, was their response to the Occupy movement. “The corporate media would often mock the Occupy movement,” Amy says. “Most of corporate media ignored Occupy for a week. There was even a segment on CNN about Occupy called Seriously?!”, which mocked the movement for the crime of trying to connect crises.

The people could see a narrative that was not permitted by the corporate media or by the government: the connections between Troy Davis, climate change and the treatment of military veterans; the connection between the war at home and the war abroad. “These issues are all connected,” Amy says, adding that, despite not being taken seriously by the media, “it’s not the weakness of movements to show these connections.”

The truth is that the government and the corporate media were afraid of Occupy. And, regardless of the frequent accusations that the occupations didn’t change anything, they are still afraid. Occupy gave us a new vocabulary of resistance; if you talk about “the ninety-nine percent” or “the one percent” today, everybody knows what you’re talking about. “They occupied the language,” Amy says with obvious pride.

We know that corporate media and governments are still afraid because the response of the one is still ridicule and the response of the other is still militarisation. The 2011 riots in the UK were almost exclusively characterised as the work of a criminalised underclass, rather than as a consequence of the shooting of a black man by the police or as a reaction to rising inequality and a government that is in it for themselves.

In the US, the killing of an unarmed eighteen year old African-American, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer triggered popular peaceful protests. The protests were met by tanks, automatic weapons and tear gas. The officer who killed Michael will not be prosecuted.

According to Amy, the corporate media have been conveyors of lies to protect the push for war. The mainstream media, she says, has been “for the state”, instead of “the fourth estate”; disabling journalism’s important social function of helping hold government to account for their actions.

Given this sorry state of affairs, the role of independent media like Democracy Now! is more important than ever. “We go to where the silence is and say something,” Amy says. “We’re there to bear witness.” She still believes in the power of journalism. “When you hear someone tell their story,” she says, “you don’t have to agree with them, but it’s the starting point for understanding and that’s the starting point to peace.”

So when Amy says that journalism has the capacity to be the greatest force for peace in the world, I believe her. Stories are our way of sharing different points of view with each other, helping us build empathy. And I like to think that, if you feel empathy for someone, you won’t then go and shoot them in the head.

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Amy’s faith in journalism comes directly from the power of the grass-roots voices she airs on Democracy Now! She refuses to believe that people are apathetic, despite demoralising statistics like low voter turn-out. “I thought they were civically engaged,” she says, “but just perhaps in different ways, thinking that their vote might not make a difference.”

For the last nineteen years, she has dedicated herself to finding those alternative stories of engagement that aren’t often heard on corporate media. Amy describes these grass-roots voices, concerned with war and peace, inequality and injustice, as “not a fringe minority, not even a silent majority, but a silenced majority”. For Amy, this majority are silenced by the corporate media, who ridicule and scorn them, or refuse to tell their stories.

The government silences voices in an even more literal way. “Obama’s prosecuted more whistle blowers than any other administration,” Amy says. In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leaks, government seems to be attacking even well-known journalists who try to protect their sources.

“When Glenn Greenwald came back,” she continues, “he said that, when populations feel they’re being surveilled, they become less creative and more sheepish.” For Amy, the fight against surveillance is bigger than all of us. “We have to fight back against the fear,” she says. “It’s where creativity is, it’s where Elevate is: it’s people conspiring together.”

Amy settles back with a half smile on her face. “Which is why we have to take the media back. You’re the me in media.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Everything is Connected >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Interview: Amy Goodman – Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Dean Puckett & Sengwer: Conservation vs Communities

This is the twenty-fifth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dean Puckett is a film-maker from the UK. His films Crisis of Civilisation (based on the book by Nafeez Ahmed) and Grasp the Nettle are Elevate favourites; you can see his promo stickers all over Forum Stadtpark and in the most unexpected of public toilets.

He is currently working on two documentary films, one set amid house demolitions in the Kenyan mountain jungle and another set in a volunteer-run radio station in Totnes, Devon. They might sound very different, but they are bound together by Dean’s driving fascination: communities. “I’m fascinated by how human beings function in small communities,” Dean says. “It’s kind of anthropological,” he adds. “People open up to me. I remember, as a kid, people would just come up to my mum at the bus stop and open up to her. I’ve inherited that.”

I ask Dean how he sees his work in the context of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s concept of creative-response. “Any art is creative-response,” Dean says. “It doesn’t have to be political, but with the Sengwer, there’s a fundamental injustice that I’ve been attracted to.” The Sengwer are a Kenyan tribe whose ancestral lands have been demarcated as national park by the Kenyan government, in a programme funded by the World Bank. Dean is filming the resistance to what has become a brutal campaign to evict the Sengwer from their homes.

Sengwer man

Grasp the Nettle (embedded at the bottom of the page) is another politically-charged film, about an environmental activist community in London. Dean lived and worked alongside the activists as they occupied a stretch of waste ground in Kew and followed them to a three month occupation of Parliament Square. There is one key difference between the Kew occupiers and the Sengwer in Kenya, however. While those at Kew chose their struggle, the Sengwer have had their direct action forced upon them; their houses are being burnt to the ground.

What draws Dean to make these kind of activist films? “I do get addicted to those kind of things. I’ve always felt like a total outsider myself,” he says. “It’s like a force of nature,” he adds. “I’m not thinking, I want to be a film-maker, I just feel utterly compelled to make these films.” The fact that film is the medium through which he tells these stories appears to be entirely coincidental. “I always wanted to be creative,” he says. “My career as a film-maker has risen hand-in-hand with the tools of my generation: digital cameras, YouTube. It was just the thing that I got into.”

Dean is keen to stress that his films aren’t “black-and-white” campaign films. “There’s quite a lot of humour in my work,” he says. “I’m attracted to the absurd, even with the Sengwer.” Despite the ongoing destruction of their way of life by the Kenyan Forest Service (KFS), Dean does not want to gloss the Sengwer as the one-dimensional miserable victims you often see portrayed in emotional campaign films.

Embobut Forest

“There’s a gallows humour there too,” Dean says. “One minute they’re talking about getting arrested and their house getting burnt down and the next minute they’re joking about their co-wife.” It’s these contrasting moments that capture reality in full colour. “Nothing’s black and white,” Dean says. “There’s often humour side-by-side with tragedy.” He doesn’t want to ignore those elements of life, which would limit the scope of his films. “You can either do a campaign film about the Sengwer,” he says, “or you can do a film about the life of the Sengwer.”

I appreciate his nuance. I feel betrayed when I see a one-sided film that doesn’t concede areas of grey; it makes me distrust the premise, no matter how well-intentioned. “I think that’s my strength as a film-maker,” Dean says. “I embed myself in the community and allow the grey areas to come out.”

It’s exactly the same approach he took with Grasp the Nettle, which shows every aspect of activist life, from the everyday struggles of cooking and cleaning to the more extraordinary struggles with accidental arson and a self-proclaimed messiah. “It’s about what it’s really like to live in an activist camp,” Dean says. “I do agree with the anti-war message, but I didn’t want to make a campaign film.”

Dean feels the same about his work with the Sengwer. He does believe that his film can make a difference – he has recently been contacted by officials from the World Bank and believes that pressure can be brought to bear on them – but that isn’t the limit of his scope. He wants to show us the Sengwer’s way of life in all its richness and complexity. “What some NGO films do is give you a warped view of Africa,” he says. “I understand it’s sometimes appropriate, but if you’re going to make a film about a community, then people should find out how they really are.”

Sengwer man and boy

Dean remembers shooting one beautiful scene of a group of women sitting around in a hut, chatting. When his interpreter translated the conversation later, he discovered they’d been talking about how they thought Dean should give them money for the filming, while another person off-camera berated them for such an idea. “The world on the one hand is a dark place,” Dean says, “and these funny moments can really bring things down to earth.” He quickly adds that this kind of cynical conversation was a rarity. “The Sengwer are a wonderful, warm people,” he says. “It’s surreal,” he adds. “You’re in this misty forest, up on a mountain, and people are having their homes burnt down, but you’re enjoying being around these warm people.”

Dean found the same thing when he went to support around four hundred travellers who were to be evicted by riot cops from Dale Farm in Essex. “On the one hand, they’re about to have their homes destroyed,” he says, “but on the other hand they’re cracking jokes.” This is another common thread to Dean’s films: communities under siege. Grasp the Nettle was a film about a community under siege by police, by the government and, eventually, by themselves as well. “It’s about the human spirit,” Dean says, “to laugh even when the worst things are happening.”

Dean’s words remind me of a fundamental flaw in the capitalistic ideology of more, more, more: we humans have only a limited range of feeling. While more might be more for capital, more isn’t more for us. You can always add five pounds to the bank balance of a billionaire, but you can never add five “pleasure points” to the happiness balance of a boy bouncing around on a trampoline. The human scales of happiness, pain, pleasure, fear, suffering, love and joy are finite.

This explains why you can neither measure nor compare the joy of staring into the eyes of your newborn baby niece with the joy of sharing a lingering kiss with a lover or a gasp of fresh air after being sucked under by an ocean wave. It also explains the absolutism of our emotions; how, whenever the worst thing imaginable happens, it feels no worse than it did when you got fired from a job you loved, when your teenage crush ditched you or when you lost your favourite blankie as a kid. Prisoners on death row are as happy as lottery winners.

Understanding the finite nature of our emotions explains otherwise difficult questions: How can disabled people be happy? How come billionaires get depression? How could I ever come to terms with the death of my grandmother? The answer is simply because there is no profit and loss account of emotions, there is no capitalism-style more, more, more.

The moral consequence of this realisation is not that we should leave the Sengwer – or anyone else – to find the light moments in the darkness of their suffering. The daily hardships of their persecution has a chronic damaging effect on their happiness that no one deserves.

Dean illustrates this with a story about two Sengwer women he met, who had just been released after being arrested by the Kenyan Forest Service. To escape, the women had to tell the KFS that they didn’t live on the land, but were just passing through. As they were “just passing through”, the KFS decided that the women wouldn’t need the bags of flour that they had carried all the way over the mountain. They slit the bags with knives and poured the flour out onto the floor. The two women passed the incident off with a laugh, but faced the prospect of a night away from home and a week without flour.

Sengwer woman

No. The moral consequence of the finite nature of our emotions is that we should support each other, not in our pursuit of more, more, more, but in our pursuit of enough. The Sengwer are having their enough, their homes, their livelihoods, taken away from them by people who are pursuing more, more, more. The same is true, on a broader scale, across the entire continent of Africa, where western corporations extract natural resources for profits that rarely return to their country of origin.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why do we subject ourselves to capitalism’s addiction for more, more, more, when we humans fundamentally can’t process more, more, more? We have nothing to gain in going after more precious metals or more money or more slaves; we have enough. Ultimately, happiness is not gold, frankincense and more, but a blood red sunset, a dive into a cold river or an apple straight from the tree. We have no more need of more; happiness is enough and there is enough enough for all on earth.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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(Yes, that is the same Simon in Grasp the Nettle who inspired me to write about why we need people who go on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures!)

All photographs © Dean Puckett, taken from the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for his film Sengwer.

The Commons Connection

This is the twenty-fourth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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For Silke Helfrich, editor of The Wealth of the Commons, the commons is both a ready replacement for capitalism and the empowerment we need to act. “I see the commons everywhere,” she says. She describes the commons as a practical application of the African concept of ubuntu: your well-being depends on the well-being of other people. “If you feel connected, the commons is in you,” she says.

However, Silke sees a crisis that Nafeez failed to mention: the crisis of the way we’re taught to think. “What do you learn at school?” she asks. “To get a job and be better than other people.” Not a particularly illuminating education. For Silke, the commons gives us a way to reconnect our ideas to society in a useful way. At the moment, she says, “the social state is not with the people”.

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, agrees. “We’re seeing a fundamental transformation of social institutions,” he says, “the hollowing out of representative democracies and centralised, repressive institutions taking over from more civil government.”

Felix sees our social organisation moving out of democratic reach, under secretive policies that mean we can’t know what’s happening, but “must simply trust that it’s for our good”. He also makes the point that surveillance, as Nafeez’s revelations about the Minerva Research Initiative would suggest, is intended to manage internal security because “they do a crummy job on external threats”.

However, this rise in what Shoshana would call “surveillance capitalism” faces growing opposition from the commons movement. “These two contradictory things,” Felix observes, “are based on the same structure: the internet.” Currently, the construction of repressive institutions is happening much faster than commons collaboration, but Felix is keen to stress that there is a conflict going on and we can take another side. “What makes commons so valuable,” he says, “is it’s a way of overcoming capitalism: I am because you are.”

However, Felix also warns that it will be almost impossible to properly scale the benefits of the commons without what he calls the “transformation of the state to a commons-enabling state”. That’s not to say that such a transformation is impossible or unthinkable, but it will require radical change, if not quite revolution.

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Nafeez, though, cautions us not to create a third ideology of the commons, to go alongside the market ideology and the state ideology. He believes that we can transform the state through the commons without necessarily needing to scale everything. “Act as individuals creatively in the context that you’re in,” Nafeez says, recalling Antonino D’Ambrosio’s theory of creative-response. “There’s no way I can stop the NSA,” he explains, “but I know what I can do in my community.”

This theory of creative-response is an important weapon for taking on the challenges we face with optimism, even when pessimism might, as one audience member daringly suggests, be more realistic. “We’re going to have to take direct action and be ready for that struggle,” Nafeez says in reply. “Whoever said pessimism is more realistic?” He looks out at the audience, challenging. “You’re part of the problem. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re pessimistic. Stare into the face of the abyss and be optimistic about it.”

Felix looks confused, however. “You don’t have to be an optimist,” he says. “This is not a spectator sport; you’re not supporting that team or that team.” He is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. “I don’t think capitalism will innovate itself out of existence,” he says, “but I think there are interesting possibilities that they can be nudged in one way or another.”

The economist and activist Friederike Habermann is perhaps optimistic about being optimistic. “The struggle for life is life,” she says, rather philosophically; engagement in struggle, political or otherwise, is what makes us feel alive. Friederike cites a study by neuroscientist Tania Singer, which shows that, if we are trained for one week in solidarity and cooperative techniques, then our tendency to show solidarity and cooperate increases.

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“We have been constructed the way we are for hundreds of years,” she says, “and within one week we can change a little bit. That’s encouraging.” Although she concedes that the pessimists are probably right, Friederike will not stand with them. “I work with people I feel the optimism with,” she says.

A twelve year old girl in the front row stands up to ask a question: “How can we interest other people who aren’t doing anything?” Silke turns to her and replies, “It’s not about interesting them,” she says, “it’s about being interested in them. It’s not about convincing them, it’s about touching their hearts; and you can only do that if you are interested in where they come from.”

You can call it whatever you like: empathy, ubuntu or the commons; it is our humanity and we must find a way of lacing it like a connecting thread through every aspect of our socio-economic organisation, or else run the risk of mutually assured oblivion.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Everything is Connected >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Everything is Connected

This is the twenty-third in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Investigative reporter Nafeez Ahmed is looking into the abyss and what he sees is crisis compounding crisis: climate change, global economic meltdown, food shortages. Each crisis is so cataclysmic, and the science behind each so specialised, that it is difficult to understand the complex connections between them. “It’s created this very serious problem that we’re underestimating the scale of the problems we’re facing,” Nafeez says. “We’re always playing catch up trying to understand how these things work.”

For example, in the last couple of years, the rate of global warming increase has slowed, resulting in a “global warming pause”. “This was predicted by the models,” Nafeez says, “but what wasn’t predicted was how much heat would be stored by the oceans. At some point that’s going to be released.” When it is, the rise in atmospheric temperature won’t simply cause a single crisis for the agriculture of the tomato; it will trigger crises throughout every aspect of human existence, many of which are unforeseeable.

It almost makes you look back fondly on an age when we knew less. Science today means that we know enough to know that we’re in big trouble, but not enough to understand exactly how these interconnected crises will dictate the future of the human race and what we can do to influence that future. Ignorance was bliss. Perhaps the ultimate crisis we face today is a crisis of connection.

Nafeez doesn’t blame individuals for the crises we suffer, but rather the dominant global socio-economic system of capitalism. However, he says we must understand that, although the fault is systemic, we as individuals are complicit in perpetuating that fault.

“So much of what happens in the world today is not the result of one person’s decision,” he says. “It’s the result of a system, it’s the result of multiple processes, multiple decisions made in different ways.” The complexity of this decision-making process is such that, as Nafeez says, “no one has to take complete responsibility”.

Who is responsible for the global increase in carbon emissions that is leading to the crises of climate change? The men pumping oil out of the ground in Iraq? The Chief Executive of Shell? The manufacturers of cars and aeroplanes? Thomas Cook and the international tourism industry? Thomas Edison, inventor of the first mass-produced household electrical product, the light bulb? The President of the United States? The United Nations? The Chinese? You and me? Such responsibility is an impossible thread to untangle because it runs through each one of us. The crisis of connection has led to a crisis of responsibility.

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Unfortunately for Nafeez and the rest of us, those who have the most power to take responsibility don’t allow for alternative ways of thinking about the problems we face. “The people who essentially run the show,” he says, “think that the way they do things is the best possible way.”

More ominously for the rest of us, according to Nafeez, it’s not the Department of Health or Transport or Environment who have been charged with managing the shocks of crisis on society, it’s the military. “If you’re going to ask a man with a gun how to solve the problem of the Arctic melting, what’s he going to do?” Nafeez asks. “Blow the Arctic up?” He laughs. “Yeah, that’ll solve everything.”

In fact, far from helping prepare society to withstand crises, governments are investing in programmes that are more about protecting themselves from the social fallout of those crises. Nafeez tells us about the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, a social science research programme set up in 2008 and funded to the tune of eighty million dollars every year, which will use social media to predict domestic “insurgencies”.

As part of the project, Arizona State University are developing a data mining programme that will allow authorities to analyse threats from the information we share on social media. “This was about tracking dissent,” Nafeez says. “This could end up determining who goes on the drone kill list.” Rather than addressing the crisis of responsibility in a positive way, governments are turning on their own citizens.

Nafeez sees his job as helping to solve the crisis of responsibility by addressing the crisis of connection. He tries to “create narratives, join the dots of crises and create meaningful visions for people”. As part of that mission, Nafeez has recently published a science fiction novel, set in a not-too-distant future where the US and UK have re-occupied Iraq to quell an Islamist insurgency. He didn’t realise, when he started writing six years ago, how soon that not-too-distant future would be: Now.

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Nafeez, whose writing career started in academia, before moving onto journalism and film-making, is exploring fiction as a new way of reaching out to people. “As someone with an academic background,” he says, “it’s been a challenge for me, trying to find ways of communicating what appear to be really complex ideas in a way that most people can actually find accessible and engaging.”

Critical to Nafeez’s approach is engaging people emotionally; he believes that emotional involvement leads to reflection and action. “If you can tell stories in a way which can engage people,” Nafeez says, “I think that gets to the heart of how to get someone to reflect creatively in a way that actually impacts on their life.”

The bare ideas and concepts that you find in academia or journalism, by contrast, can be very theoretical and abstract, without bringing people to the point of change or action. “Fundamentally, it’s really about where you think change is going to come from,” Nafeez says. “Can you do change just by having dry academic conversations amongst people who agree with you? Or do you need to use different methods to make these ideas accessible to a mass audience?”

The way Nafeez has made his novel more accessible is “loads of blood, action, violence, swearing” – all the stock ingredients of a thriller, not usually found in a sober academic tome. “We don’t always have to look at these really serious issues in a way which is gloomy and depressing and uninspiring,” he says.

This is precisely what Antonino D’Ambrosio is talking about when he talks about creative-response. Sometimes I wonder if the reason why politics, law and economics are bogged down in interminably boring jargon is precisely so that most people don’t get engaged, don’t get involved and don’t look too closely: they are subjects made boring by design.

Creative-response, however, is demotic and popular. It is fun by design and there is no reason why it can’t be applied to these so-called boring subjects. Nafeez agrees. “That’s really what I’m excited about looking at,” he says. “How you can use mediums like fiction or art or music to engage people emotionally with these radical ideas.”

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For Nafeez, engagement and action will only come if people feel they are able to do something. For that reason, we have to be careful about the way we talk about these crises. “It’s important to frame our predicament in the right way,” he says. “Otherwise you end up with frustration and overwhelming: What can little old me do?”

Echoing John Holloway, Nafeez says we must re-frame the crisis of capitalism. “It’s not that the world is dying, it’s that paradigm that’s dying,” he declares. “By the end of this century – and that’s using the most optimistic figures – this system will be over.” What system will take its place depends on how we respond now.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Everything is Connected >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Interview: Nafeez Ahmed – Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”

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Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.

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But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”

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Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”

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From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Data Disasters

This is the twenty-first in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Anton, from CryptoParty Graz is equally fearful. “There is no mass damage from mass surveillance,” he says, finding only a few small examples of people who have suffered from internet surveillance. “There was no big data disaster. I am afraid that we’ll need something like that to happen before the rest of the users wake up.”

Micah Lee, the man who put Edward Snowden in contact with Glenn Greenwald, hopes that the NSA leaks have been the first alarm clock. “But you might be right; that might not be enough,” he says. “We know they’re spying on everything we do, but people haven’t felt bad things happening to themselves.” He hurriedly corrects himself: “I’m sure some people have. If you live in the United States and are Muslim, I’m sure you are a lot more terrified than I am, living in the United States and being white.”

Nevertheless, historical examples of such data disasters come easily to mind for the panel. When they invaded the Netherlands, the Nazis used government data on religion to round up Jews; while, in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the US government used census data to round up Asian Americans. Today, of course, data collection is much deeper and more comprehensive than during the Second World War; a modern data disaster could be instant and inescapable. “Now, we’re just bleeding data with everything we do,” Micah says, “and this data is available to people who will start internment camps in the future.”

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Felix is, however, quick to point out that most people don’t think of their governments as Nazis and the comparison could be misleading. “It’s not about the wholesale repression of entire populations, but the very precise targeting of individuals,” he says. “So it’s very hard to notice until it arrives at your doorstep and then you’re the only one when it arrives because it arrived at other doorsteps at other times, in other contexts.” Surveillance capitalism is not a problem for you, until it is – and then it might be too late.

The issue for Shoshana is less a privacy catastrophe than “a ubiquitous digital infrastructure that is monetised and that those revenue streams are produced by the interventions to modify our behaviour”. Shoshana quotes former NSA operative William Binney, who says we are very close to living in a “turnkey totalitarian state”, where we live in a permanent condition of “anticipatory conformity”. Shoshana coined this term in 1988 to describe the self-censorship we perform when, for example, we decide not to tweet a joke about bombing an airport.

Today, we are one stage on from self-censorship; our behaviour is being manipulated without our awareness at all. It’s the world of stimulus-response. “And that world comes in quietly,” Shoshana says, “without a big data catastrophe.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler