This piece was originally delivered on August 20th, during the opening lecture on "Collapsonomics" at the 2011 Uncivilization Festival, in Hampshire, UK, an event about the stories we tell ourselves in the face of a difficult future. It was subsequently published along with another piece from the same lecture on New Public Thinking.
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Last month, a friend of mine killed himself.
Len Sassaman had struggled with depression for a long time, but he’d struggled against other things too. Len was a cypherpunk. He worked to give people tools to communicate securely in the face of government oppression and corporate oligarchy, whether that government is in China, Iran, Syria, America, or here in the UK. Len was brilliant, but he also saw this oppression in very immediate terms, even when the signals were less obvious than they have been in past months.
This made him, to be frank, difficult. He framed the world as he saw it, very starkly, and you were either with him or against him on every issue. He spent a decade and a half fighting a war that no one else saw, and it killed him.
I spent the week before last at what used to be a secret Soviet airbase half an hour outside of Berlin with 3,500 other hackers. Chaos Communications Camp felt like an outpost of the future in many ways, some more comfortable than others. We spent the week surrounded by the shattered remnants of the military-industrial complex, eeking out a complex sociality while the struggle with basic infrastructure of sanitation and communication was a constant challenge.
We talked about the future a lot, as news trickled in from the outside world of riots and market swings, of arrests of distant allies and of mass deaths of others. I spent a lot of time watching how people react as their reality breaks down.
I watched people see-sawing back and forth between spectacular hopes for the future and deep despair — the sense that we can do anything, that the future is ours to remake as we wish, and the sense that there's no way forward, no escape from this pit we’ve dug ourselves into. As people get together into larger groups, the despair seems to be shed as a function of group cohesion, leaving behind a hope that is frankly irrational until a sudden tipping point hits and it breaks.
When our reality starts to break down, we are very, very bad at seeing the truth. We will hide behind any alibi, any fig leaf of the potential for continuity.
When we are forced to confront the world as it actually is, we are often unprepared for what we see.
The people who are closer to this reality are hit harder, and differently. That see-saw compresses down into post-traumatic stress disorder. Depression. Shell shock.
The Telecomix communication agency has spent the last three years helping people tell stories, in a very immediate fashion. They've arranged international dial-up lines and other alternate communication channels from Iran, from Egypt, from Libya, and from Syria. They’ve helped people have a medium from which to tell their stories, even if that was the last thing they did.
Telling stories, telling the truth, in the face of oppression and systemic breakdown, is an act of war. It is the way we help others to share our reality, to share the truth of a contracting world in the face of systemic refusal of awareness. It is one of the only truly effective tools to shape the world.
This weekend, while we sit here among these lovely English trees, thousands of people will take to the streets in Syria to tell their stories, to try to shape their world into one which will support their freedom and their lives. They will be answered by machine guns and mass graves, by snipers from rooftops when they step outside, and by a world where one person in ten turns evidence for the police.
And yet, they have not taken up arms, because their story is one of non‑violence.
My friends at Telecomix are not on the front lines in Syria, but they know many people there well, and even fighting that war at a remove can tear you apart. Last week Tomate, one of the Telecomix core team, almost killed himself after three years of desperate fighting, three years of watching his contacts and friends die.
He stopped by the memorial for Len at camp, and he listened to the stories that people told, stories of hope and bravery and loss, and he decided to live, to keep telling stories.
I call on each and every one of you to take up arms.
See the world as it is, and tell its stories.
20 August, 2011