Me interviewed by Documentally

Last week at Elevate, I had the honour of being interviewed by Christian Payne, AKA Documentally. In the interview, we talk about the Alphasmart Neo, why I started writing, travel, Calais and the superiority of an analogue book.

I can also recommend his many other interviews at Elevate, with luminaries such as Antonino D’Ambrosio and Elf Pavlik. I’m honoured to be in such company!

Shoshana Zuboff: Reality is the Next Big Thing

I’ve been blogging from the Elevate Festival in Austria this week. Here’s a little something from yesterday…

Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. This post is a summary of her initial statement, which kicked off Saturday afternoon’s panel ‘Reality is the Next Big Thing’.

Shoshana starts with a question: Why does Google matter? Her answer penetrates deep beyond Google’s immense financial clout and beyond Google’s unprecedented concentration of informational power. Google matters because they have pioneered an entirely new business logic. This new logic, Shoshana says, has already become the model for most new online businesses. And, effectively, if the Google model is the dominant model in the online world, then it will become the dominant model in the capitalist world.

But why is Google’s business logic so innovative? In order to understand the answer to this, we have to first understand that we, the users, are not Google’s customers. Google’s customers are the advertisers and others who buy the data that Google collects on us, its users.

Capitalism has always depended on its populations for two things: employees and customers. This is no longer true. Google, the fourth most valuable company in the world, employs only 48,000 people. At the height of its power in 1958, General Motors was the largest private employer on the planet. For comparison, the largest private employer on the planet today is Walmart with 2.2m employees. Google and its dominant business model simply does not require many employees at all.

If the people are not Google’s customers and they are not Google’s employees, then what does Google need people for? Only one thing: data. “Data is becoming everything,” Shoshana says. “The ugly truth here is that this so called ‘big data’ is plucked from our lives without our knowledge and without our informed consent.” This big data, which Shoshana calls ‘big contraband’ or ‘big stolen goods’, is sucked from our social media, from our smartphones, from our every networked click, type and touch.

This new economic model has created a new asset class, which Shoshana calls surveillance assets. They attract a lot of investment: surveillance capital. What we’ve created in Google is a new logic of accumulation: accumulation by surveillance. And the new economic model is, of course, called surveillance capitalism. Populations no longer exist to serve and consume; we exist to be harvested.

These developments are moving very quickly. Google progressed from collecting the data of things we have done, through the data of things we are doing to making predictions of things we might do. Now Google wants to be able to, not only predict, but to influence what we will do next, in order to sell that influence. Reality is being turned into a new commodity class called behaviour. Reality is the next big thing for business.

Shoshana’s presence in the room wasn’t entirely as a video-conferencing harbinger of doom. She also presented her answer to what we can do about that prospect of doom.

“Capitalism,” she says, “is not intended to be eaten raw. We need institutions and regulations that cook capitalism and make it edible.” The capitalism of the nineteenth century was very raw and great political battles were fought for the social welfare state that made capitalism fit for human consumption. In a similar way, Google or any surveillance capitalism must not be eaten raw. They must be “cooked” through a reassertion of democratic rights and law.

“In the shadow of the dark Google, it has become fashionable to mourn the passing of democracy,” Shoshana concludes. “But if we leave behind democracy, we leave behind the best part of ourselves.” She reaches out to us from her 1930s office on the other side of the planet, stretching out a hand to the audience. “But I do not fear losing democracy because I do not anticipate it. I do not anticipate it because I believe in you, in each one of you. That’s the promise of today. So go: do.”

You can read much more on Shoshana’s thought in this article: Dark Google on FAZ.

Think Hope, Think Crisis

“Hope explodes, volcanically, with rage.” It just so happens that John Holloway lives next door to a volcano in Puebla, Mexico, and can contemplate the aptness of the metaphor every day. “Revolutions for me are volcanic,” he says, “the burning lava is always just beneath the surface.”

John was in Forum Stadtpark early on Saturday morning, sharing with a packed room his ideas about hope and crisis. I only have time here to share a tiny proportion of what he said, but the ideas fell like the Autumn rain outside.

John started by recalling recent expressions of popular revolution and rage, in Athens 2008, Oacaxa 2006, Istanbul 2012, Cairo 2011, Rio and Sao Paulo 2013. “Explosions of anger are at the same time explosions of hope,” he says. “People go out on the street and break windows because they actually believe things can be different. These expressions of hope are expressed, not in the long term building up of the Party, but in these volcanic expressions of rage.”

But there is a warning in the wind: Greece.

Greece has suffered the most terrible consequences of the crisis of capitalism, but at the same time it has the most militant anti-capitalist tradition in Europe. In Greece over the past few years, there has been action after action, protest after protest, against the imposition of austerity. And it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the imposition of capitalist aggression on the people.

“Greece is a clash of hope on the one hand and the reality of crisis on the other,” John says. “Crisis hits struggle on the head and knocks it down. And, if that is the case, how on earth do we think about revolution? How on earth do we think about hope? How on earth do we think about radical change?”

“We need to re-learn hope, we need to think rage into hope,” John says. “It doesn’t make any sense to say you shouldn’t be angry – of course we should be angry!” But, starting from this rage, how do we think this rage into hope? For John, the answer comes from the Zapatista concept of digna rabia, dignified rage.

John returns to the inspiration for his opening speech: Ernst Bloch and his book ‘The Principle of Hope’. Bloch says that our subjective hope has to find an echo within the world itself. In other words, the world has to respond to our hope – or, in John’s words, “We have to find the hopeability of the world.”

“Across the world, we’re getting the sense that we’re banging our heads against the wall and we’re getting no response.” For example, the millions-strong global anti-war demonstrations in 2003 drew zero response from governments, who went ahead with the invasion of Iraq. This is an enormous challenge for hope and our struggle. “When governments are so distant from society that there is no response there at all, how do we think about the hopeability of the world?” The question is open and increasingly urgent: How do we think about the possibility of change in the world?

During the rest of the workshop, John went on to discuss hope and historicity, crisis, debt and commonising – but your humble writer has not the space to share more! You’ll have to find John himself or wait for the Elevate 2014 book, where I’ll be able to explore John’s ideas in much more depth.

What the Woop Woop is Creative Response?

Antonino d’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. Then, all at once, Antonino discovered the mysteries of punk, rap, graffiti and the skateboard. And, as he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his sidewalks into skateparks, he realised that another world was possible.

These art forms, which grew up in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, Antonino calls “creative response”.

The rest of this evening’s panel contributed their ideas of what creative response means to them as artists. For Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, “creative response is everything I do. It’s why I’m sitting here, why I don’t give up.”

Ksenia Ermoshina’s creative musical response is with experimental noise. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for everyone who is marginal – for us, here,” she says with gathering excitement. “We are kind of noise for global corporations. Let’s be noisy, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture.” On cue, the crowd breaks into applause, laughter, whooping.

“Creative response is saying aloud the things that are on your mind,” says Deanne Rodger, a British spoken word artist. “The things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, make me feel small, marginalised. Creative response is an exploration of the self.”

For Austrian electronic musician IZC, creative response is not so simple. “For me, my music is not always a conscious direct response to something I read or saw – but it’s in there. It takes some detours and it takes some time, but it’s in there.”

And, of course, as Antonino says, the Elevate Fesitval itself is a creative response: electronic music and visual arts side by side with intense political discussions. Dom Im Berg, the heart of the festival, is a cave that was hollowed out by slaves and is now transformed into a place for all to come and celebrate our common struggles.

“We all have the talent to creatively respond,” Antonino says, in conclusion. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world. That’s very important.”

For a fuller exploration of creative response and Antonino’s ear-popping soul-dropping film, “Let Fury Have the Hour”, you’ll just have to wait for the book of Elevate 2014!

Elevate Festival Opening Speech: John Holloway

‘My opening speech has a title. The title is: Opening Speech.’ John Holloway laughs with our laughter, stepping away from the Elevate podium and swiping at the air in front of him, as if he’s just thrown a frisbee. But the title is no whimsy.

Nor is his decision to speak in German. ‘Mainly it’s a protest against Englishification,’ he explains. ‘Not from a nationalistic point of view, but because of the social narrowness that is brought along with this Englishification.’

(Half a dozen sentences into the festival and already my spell-checker is choking on a new word. I love Elevate.)

Balancing the levity of the laughter, John justifies his carefully-chosen title: ‘A speech that opens is just what we need in this world, a world that is closing.’ He peers hopefully out at his three hundred friends in the Dom im Berg audience, out at his unknown audiences on Austrian national television, on the internet livestream and in smartphones hashtagging on international social networks. ‘Maybe this is the speech that opens the festival that opens the world.’

For John, the cause of the closure is clear. ‘A certain logic is being imposed on all aspects of life,’ he says. ‘The logic of money, the logic of profit, the logic of closure.’

‘In the countryside, this logic tells us that you can’t expect to live as your parents did, growing only the food that you need to survive. To survive under this new logic, you must farm mass production or you must make way for motorways, for dams, for mines. Or even better – why don’t you just disappear altogether? Millions of people are forced off the land, to move into the world’s slums.’

‘In the cities, the logic of money tells us that you can’t do what you want with your life. You must earn a living and that means you must do something that increases profits; that increases the power of the wealthy. And this is what is happening: an obscene concentration of wealth across the world; a huge growth in the power of the wealthy, in the power of money.’

‘If you do not want to follow the rule of money, if you want to do something else with your life, you are either mad or a criminal and should certainly be locked up. The dynamics of money are shattering the hopes and dreams of youth; dreams that are broken on the reality of unemployment. Or, often worse, the reality of employment!’ The laughter this time is not warm, it is edged with cold reality.

‘It is not just that we live in a world of closure, but the enclosure is getting tighter all the time. Money cannot stand still. The rule of capital is faster, faster, faster. And this rule means out of the way to the people who are too slow. Out of the way with the people who are holding things up. Out of the way with the people who don’t speak English. Out of the way with the protesters, into the prisons, into the mass graves. Out of the way with the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa in Mexico who disappeared a month ago.’

John pivots his speech to optimism, inspired by the words of Ernst Bloch, the author of ‘The Principle of Hope’, a book written in exile from the despair of Nazi Germany. John argues, like Bloch, that our future depends on hope – not on a silly, blind hope that things will just “turn out right” – but a hope founded and grounded in practice.

In Bloch’s day, hope was still tied to the Party, to winning control of the state. ‘But now the party is over,’ John says, waving encouragement to the flickers of laughter for his pun. The room catches and thrills with three hundred rhythmic clappings. He thanks us: ‘After the depression, this is what I needed!’ John laughs, before delivering more depression. ‘Hope lies not in building a party, not in winning control of the state, because the state is an institution integrated into capitalism and cannot be used to overcome it.’

But if we have not Bloch’s hope, what hope do we have? John essays an answer.

‘Hope lies now in the millions and millions of us who say: No, no. We will not accept, we will not accept your destruction of the world and your guns and your wars. No, not any longer. We will not accept the rule of the rich, the rule of money. Not any longer.’

‘We shall do things in a different way and connect to one another in a different way. We do not want your totality of death and we do not want any totality. We saw in the last century what happens when one totality is replaced by another and now we say no.’

‘We break away from the totality of capital death in a million different ways. We commonise. We force cracks in the system. We fight for our earth, the earth of people and other forms of life, before the capitalist system destroys it completely. We fight to open a gap between the future of capitalism, which can only be death, and the future of humanity, which can still be life.’

John takes a breath. Then adds, ‘If it is not too late already.’

‘Ernst Bloch pinned hope to the power of the “not yet”, the power of that world that does not yet exist and therefore exists “not yet”: in our refusals, in our dreams, in our pushing against capitalism. We have to learn to listen to the leaders of this world that does not yet exist and sing their songs with our full voices.’

John quotes Arundhati Roy’s beautiful expression of Bloch’s same idea: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

‘Thus, in my opening speech, I want to open this world. My wish for the festival is that it will be an Opening Festival. That it sings the songs of the world that has not been born yet, that it sings these songs as loudly and as beautifully as possible. Thank you.’

The rising of this opening audience to this opening speech for this opening festival gives me a sniff of optimism that Elevate 2014 will jam a rubber sole against the slamming doors, hurl a tonne of dynamite at the thickening walls and prise a common crowbar into the cracks of capitalism.

Let’s make it happen.

John Holloway is a Professor of Sociology at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades in the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico. He has published widely on Marxist theory, on the Zapatista movement and on the new forms of anti-capitalist struggle.

You can read all of my blogging from Elevate on these pages – or on the much prettier Elevate site.