• The Strange Melancholy of the Beautiful People at Work

    by  • June 24, 2012 • Everything Else • 3 Comments

    (crossposted from EdgeRyders)

    The video is compressing in the other window. White characters on a black background, the cryptic commands chained one after another feeding the files through the process.

    avconv -i DSCN5430.MOV -vcodec libtheora -vb 384k -acodec libvorbis -vol 512 -ab 128k DSCN5430.MOV.ogg

    Lots of clips of our teams at work, speeches given and jokes told.

    Video compression is political. I started to use these tools because, actually, they did what I wanted (simplewith, crude, basic video processing) better than the equivalent toolkit on the mac, Quicktime and iMovie. They kept changing iMovie around – much-valued features disappeared between releases to be replaced by ever-simpler, ever-easier kit. Always the lure of the pro-gear, too.

    Stallman dropped the hammer on me personally: “do not require your users to use Flash, it is spyware.” Right, right… the irony of making videos about political freedom, and then requiring people to use corporate software which logs everything they see, was not lost on me. I love and respect Stallman, and while everything they say about him is probably true (he is, after all, profoundly developmentally disadvantaged by something in the general direction of autism) there is no denying that he is a hero of the human race, a myrmidon of the future, who freed our Software and our Knowledge by creating the GNU software license and inspiring WIkipedia (which he hardy ever claims credit for.) Alas, like Gandhi, he’s impossible to follow in all things, but making videos about Freedom requiring non-Free tools landed. I stopped.

    I have three videos I want to show you. The first is the well known “Vinay Gupta at Dark Mountain, Time to Stop Pretending?” film. I’m rather haunted by this because it was a moment of almost unbearable focus and purity-of-intention. I knew when I stepped up on stage that I was speaking for posterity, with clear sight and firm conviction, as if looking from an ascended position on a mountain. I wasn’t right again for about six weeks afterwards, the shock of tangible action at that level was so large. I know how to live up there all the time, but it comes with costs: it completely destroys your ability to relate to other human beings as equals. They’re staring up at you across 600m of altitude, you feel you’re looking them straight in the eye, and it’s a disaster. Guru-land.

    TIME TO STOP PRETENDING, Uncivilization, 2010. (10m .ogg format) (this link will work on Firefox and Chrome, but not Safari)

    So then we get to something a little harder.

    This is the Black Briefing, at least a civilian edition of it. It’s a brutally frank examination of the psychological forces which give rise to fascist leadership, and the risks of seeing this in a European setting in response to the financial collapse. At Dark Mountain, the audience was a heavily left-green collapse-oriented group, coming together because of isolation in their gloom. At EdgeRyders, the group was young people (and quite a few formerly-young people like me) pushing hard for a better future for each-other, ourselves, and the continent.

    At this point in proceedings, we’d had two days of Proper Conference. Senior dignities and notables addressed the audience, members of the audience addressed the group in dialogue with the same, and there were only occasional flashes of “teeth” as somebody broke the polite rules of engagement and said “excuse me, but in my country, we are screwed” or, perhaps, said “but I think that 2 million empty houses should, perhaps, be reallocated to five million unemployed young people? How might we arrange that?” followed by the polite tittering of fear which accompanies any vision of putting pressure on existing property rights.

    The Fear is very real. As I said in Europe is at risk of War on the EdgeRyders site, The Council of Europe and the European Union were created to prevent a continuation of a thousand years of war. To see them in trouble is to fear the problem they were created to solve will return, refreshed and rearmed, to plague the future.

    I did not take the stage during the conference, nor during the first day of the unconference. I was waiting to see what happened, where the energy fell, what people really wanted to talk about. I can be, as Alberto Cottia observed, quite the showman, and I did not want to distort what was happening organically with that kind of attitude, not until I’d gotten a clear sense of momentums. I’m trying here to paint a picture of a political decision making process that I went through before deciding to act, and how. I can’t tell you what EdgeRyders was like – you had to be there, and, in fact, you had to be there as every individual present! Everybody had their own trip, together, and I suspect the take-aways will be extremely diverse.

    So in the Black Briefing, I explained how people treat each-other and see each-other in different kinds of scenarios, with exposure to different kinds of anticipated pressures from the future. I discussed trade network theory, and the implications for civil war, rebellion and revolt. I explained something about nuclear weapons and space travel, and I tied a pretty bow on it. “This is for you, this is your problem now.”

    THE BLACK BRIEFING, EDGECAMP 2012 (40m .ogg format)

    I did this in the last hours of the Unconference as an attempt to add what had been left out, to broaden and deepen the discourse, outside of the immediate political problems, but to address the issues too high, too nasty and too long to get at inside of a more general environment. If I’d stood up on Thursday morning in the first session at the Plenary Microphone and had 20 minutes with the crowd, I could have set an agenda which would have got most of the organizers burned at the stake. I kept silent and waited, a bit of action here and there on the back channel, precisely because field-muddy combat boots go very poorly when banged upon the desk of State. And this is the split, really, that we have two “fields of the possible” – the possible in which all the Council of Europe’s promises are met without violating what are currently perceived to be fundamental property rights among property owners, and the future in which “we must eat the rich to survive” which is scattered in different balkanized islands of reluctance to accept that the old are automatically better off than the young, because they bought houses when it was cheap.

    On my return to London, I did a talk at Will McInnes‘s Social Business Session at the beautiful new Mozilla London offices. And there, really, freed from expectations, with a small group of people to talk to, I finally felt free enough to speak my mind.


    This was a lesson to me: the freedom to really get down to what is important is hard to create within pre-existing political spaces.

    In that talk, on return from Strasbourg, I started blank slate at the highest top-down level and worked through to a conclusion, elbows clear. And it was, frankly, a much better, more penetrating and more useful thing than the Black Briefing. The freedom from constraint and expectation is crucial to finding new ways of seeing. We need to create contexts within which we can tell the truth to each-other about what is happening, and about our world/s. Getting enough elbow-room for people to meet on the level, without a straitjacket of goals and expectations, to see clearly together what is and what must be done, this has to be our goal.

    The EdgeRyders conference was probably as far as the Council of Europe could stretch, and it was without-a-doubt the best Open Government flavoured event I’ve yet heard of. It was a spectacular success in their terms.

    The EdgeCamp unconference (which I first suggested, and which Francis, Stephane, Yann, Noemi, Malcolm and Nadia planned, organized, hosted and executed) was a spectacular success and was, without-a-doubt the best Open Everything flavoured event that I’ve yet heard of. It was a spectacular success on those terms. Getting to spend days with Lucas Gonzalez, who’s been my daily collaborator for about six years, and who I only met for the first time atLiving on the Edge… was profoundly amazing.

    But I found myself sitting in the middle of both events feeling constrained because the mental frame embedded in the events is just too narrow to even conceptualize the problem/solution space in which we find ourselves embedded.

    Council of Europe frames the problems as softening the damage economic blows cause to culture, and seeking to defend us from those blows in the first place. The EdgeCamp vibe was very much about figuring out why those blows were landing in the first place (analysis sessions on banking and politics) and architecting a comprehensive social-political response to them. But the awareness of gigantic Post-Imperial Cultural Privilege, the awareness of poverty and massive environmental constriction, did not form the backbone awareness of either group at the time.

    I’ve been trying to find a secular platform which would allow me to speak as freely and as intensely about the problems of the day as I did at the first Dark Mountain talk when, without a doubt, I said what was on my mind. I get lost in the fractal details of political speech, trying to go to people where they are and deliver a message they will find valuable and can use, without demonizing any side of the destructive equilibrium we are locked in. But my politics are, god damn it, Sacred Politics. I don’t believe we can solve these problems at the same level of thinking that created them, and you only need to look to the Transhumanists to see just how aggressively weird the future we are moving into might become. You need massive, massive headroom to content with this kind of situation, and that headroom is not present either in the Institutions of Old Europe (where you have every right to not expect it – these things govern, they don’t tell fortunes with cards!) or in the rhetoric of the politically aware young, still dismayingly hashing out century-old refracted reflections of Marx and Kropotkin as we burst through into a post-scarcity environment in some areas, and a Total Scarcity environment in others.

    I’ve seen, I believe, the best that the Institutions have to offer, and the best the Networks have to offer, at EdgeRyders and EdgeCamp.

    It’s not enough. I need a bit of time to think about how to frame what might be enough, and perhaps to plan-and-execute a beta-test meeting (ah, Bembo Davies, you devil… the Perfect Human Meeting haunts me still!) but what I’m left with at the end of the process is a simple fact: we did not generate enough leverage to make a decisive mark on the landscape at an incredibly decisive window in history. We exceeded all reasonable expectations in terms of incremental change, but our problems are step-functions and our responses are analogue waves. Given the severity of the situation, we need more.

    I can’t say more of what that “more” is yet. I think we need slightly more formal orientation processes based around statistical and scientific data before people start. I think we need better use of online time before meetings to build bridges and understand each-other’s point of view before the show. I think, too, that we need money – a pot of a few hundred thousand euros that such a meeting might control to actually fund proposal-writing and micro-projects coming out of such courses of action.

    In short, we need to up the tempo of action to keep pace with the times. The next time we do this EdgeRyders thing, let’s aim to walk out not having changed ourselves, but having changed the world.

    There is a strange melancholy at seeing such a gathering of beautiful people chipping away at these problems, sometimes with explosive force, and saying “yes, but all together, it is not enough.” When you start measuring our impacts against the actual size of the problems, it becomes clear we have to break the old frames to get enough leverage to effect change.

    We have done as well as any group of human beings has ever done with these tools, and it is not enough.

    We need new tools which deploy solutions at the same speed and scale as the real problems, not to sit around telling people how great our kit is while all the time living inside of the reality-gap.

    Time for change.

    We are going to need to get much, much better at this process to get through the next ten years. The urgency is very, very real.


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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