Bergeron's Children - Smári McCarthy
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On the 19th of December 2010, I received a message from a guy I’d met some months previously. ‘TUNISIA’, it said. Capitals, no punctuation. Nothing else.
I searched, saw what was happening, and pinged another contact, a Tunisian guy, asking how I could help. Over the next couple of weeks, we accumulated a set of videos from the protests all over Tunisia, and I bundled them up into an easy to view, share and mirror package. This was the beginning of massive weaponised Streisandisation. The theory is, when you try to restrict access to information, the value of that information goes up. Barbara Streisand learned this the hard way. Anybody who’s ever seen porn knows this instinctively.
Shortly after the Streisandisation project began, Ben Ali fled the country. Unrelated, but revolution was here. And while the victory belonged to the Tunisian people and outsiders should not lay claim to it, I can’t say that I wasn’t somewhat proud. But before the joviality had passed its apex, another message from the same contact: ‘EGYPT’.
This is a guy who had been monitoring North African human rights issues for decades. He knows this stuff in and out. This is a guy who was tortured, and fled, and survived. So when this guy sends me a message, I take it seriously.
A Swedish-originating hacktivist (hacker+activist) group I’ve been working with, Telecomix, took the Egyptian cause to heart. Peter Fein describes Telecomix as the Yin to the Yang of Anonymous. They break, we rebuild. When the Internet got cut off in Egypt, the plain old telephone system was still left running. So the Telecomix agents thought: ‘If the phones are running, we can install modem stacks and people can dial in.’ Reverting to an ancient technology to protect freedom of expression has never been so fun. Somebody came up with the great idea of crawling the Internet in search of Egyptian fax numbers, and a message was constructed and sent to all of them, giving information about how to dial in to the modem racks we had set up in Sweden and Germany. Egypt fell, kind of.
As the year moved on, things slowed down. As NATO started bombing Libya, I kept waiting for a message. None came. So I did as any man would in that situation, and went to Norway. Sitting there one evening, watching Tim Minchin videos and debating information politics, I received the third message: ‘SYRIA’.
Why was Libya so overlooked, as the bombs fell from on high? Could it be callousness on the part of my delightfully informed comrade, or was it something else? Considering the dynamics of what played out in Tunisia and Egypt, and what has since been going on in Syria, it’s hard to think that the Libyan uprising is motivated by the same ideals. The tribal origins of the revolution, coupled with the almost immediate influx of weapons from various Gulf countries and from NATO gives the impression that it was a power grab. Oman, Jordan, Bahrain. Egypt. Iraq. Throughout the region, people were taking to the streets. In Libya it was different. More focused. Some weird politics were in play.
But this is not about Libya. The Arab Spring undoubtedly put a mark on 2011, but for me it was only the origin of the confusion that shaped the year, and the cadence to which my life harmonised.
July. I was sitting at a café in Porto, feeling relaxed and happy with life, when news comes: a city in Syria, Homs, has disappeared from the Internet. A massive contingent of information activists from all over the world start trying to figure out why. After a while, it becomes clear, as we start to see scattered and vague reports of tanks rolling into the city. Then, at more or less the same time that the tanks were blowing holes in buildings in Homs, a massive nationalist Christian conservative fertiliser bomb goes off in Oslo. Just around the corner from where I had been when the ‘SYRIA’ message arrived.
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To make sense of 2011, I go back to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, ‘Harrison Bergeron’. The 1995 film adaptation will do even better. The setting is the United States in the second half of the 21st century. After the Cold War, there had come a massive economic downturn: the great recession, which never really ended. ‘In all previous recessions,’ Harrison says, ‘once the economy bottomed out and production increased, unemployment decreased. But in the Great Recession due to new and improved technologies, fewer and fewer workers were required in all sectors. With so many people forced from their jobs the traditional economic recovery was impossible.’ The widening gap between rich and poor ended in a Second American Revolution, following which the government mandates total egalitarianism: citizens are subject to mind-numbing television programmes and fitted with electronic headbands to regulate their intelligence to a social norm.
It is a society in which everybody is forced to be equal, yet what is presented as equality is really a docile acceptance that one should not engage creatively: in fact, should not engage at all, since any engagement in the issues of the society would be a cause of disequilibrium. Anybody who lacked the cognitive capacity to understand the implications would be left behind, and therefore it is considered imperative that all be forcibly reduced to the same level.
Being rather smarter than would otherwise be acceptable, Harrison finds himself recruited to the secret organisation that runs this society. They aren’t allowed to breed, but they are allowed to enjoy all of what human culture had to offer, in terms of culture and technology. Unlike everyone else, they have not been subdued by an information vacuum and prepackaged ideologies. But our protagonist rebels against all of this, taking control of the broadcasting system...
You can guess the rest; it isn’t really important. What matters is the seed of rebellion planted by Harrison. It is only hinted at in the closing moments of the film, but slowly, after his subversive act of defiance against the shadow government, people start to wake up.
I can imagine how it played out. Teenagers daring each other to take the headbands off in secret. Adults sneaking to read a book or two. People having conversations about the state of the world. About history. About culture. Somebody might become good at playing the violin.
And one day, somebody gets a text message. ‘AMERICA’, it might say.
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By August, Telecomix was providing infrastructural support to half a dozen revolutions. Some, like Egypt, were nominally complete but still reeked of militarism and repression. Others, like Libya and Syria, were ongoing and becoming bloodier each day.
The toll a revolution takes on the revolutionaries is immense. People get tired. Exhausted even. Post-traumatic stress disorder, combat fatigue. Burnout. What we learned, during all of this, is that support staff also get burned out. It’s like the drone pilots dropping bombs on innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cause is more moral, but the scenario is the same. When a soldier goes to war, he stays on the battlefield with friends and comrades for extended periods of time. He and his allies are immersed in the context of their reality, and they back each other up. Just like the protesters on the streets of New York or Oakland, of Madrid or Athens, Damascus and Cairo. That contextual immersion is lost on the drone pilots and hacktivists: when our shift is done, we unplug and leave the war zone. We walk through peaceful streets and have dinner with friends who don’t know or don’t care what happened today in some far away place. Our context shifts from war to peace. Eleanor Saitta wrote that her ‘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.’
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I never got the message saying ‘AMERICA’. I never got one saying ‘UK’. There were many I wish I had received but never did. Yet mixed with that wish was a deep and unnerving fear. A wish for a better reality mixed with fear that the reality I had lived with all my days was at an end. For much of 2011, my heart would jump whenever my phone beeped or rang. Sleep was more disturbed than ever, marked by cold sweat. I was not alone. Many of my friends were suffering, and many thousands of others were fighting a brutal war against oppression, felling dictators when they could, but more often failing.
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Then we ask why. Why now? What made 2011 different from other years? In many ways it was similar to 2008, when my home country crashed. Iceland’s economy burst and lost almost all of its mass over the course of a few weeks. Iceland is recovering, but there is little will amongst the political class to work through the legacy of the crash which marked the beginning of the end. 2011 was the third year of the Great Recession which had taken many small countries in its first wave.
The politicians and economists hoped that once the economy bottomed out and production increased, unemployment would decrease. They refused to acknowledge that, due to new and improved technologies, fewer and fewer workers are required in all sectors. With so many people forced from their jobs, the traditional economic recovery is impossible. The question becomes: what does a nontraditional economic recovery look like?
The sequence of events was unexpected. All of us who had thought about this eventuality seem to have expected the rich countries to go first. Some, like mine, did. But with our western tunnel vision, we overlooked the way in which the same forces were working on the countries where the stuff we use is made: people are competing against indefatigable machines on a free market. The owners of the devices and productive capacity that keep us alive have alienated all of us. The difference being that, outside of the most developed countries, infrastructural elasticity is much lower and personal freedoms comparatively nonexistent. Of course they were going to go first.
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But now 2011 is past, and I’m not sure what is going to happen. Some countries are calming down, while others are still ratcheting up. At the time, I often thought that 2011 would be the year of the revolution, where we fix our world; now I see that this wasn’t the year in which we win the wars, but it was the year in which we picked our fights. It was the year in which we all became Bergeron’s children, waking from repose, casting off docility, and becoming human again. Not everybody is there, yet. A lot of people still have their headbands on. A lot of people have so forgotten how to be free that it feels alien to them.
There’s plenty of work to be done, but it’s going to get done. Globalisation may have been used against us so far, but now it’s working to our advantage. Humanity has, for the first time, a real ability to work together, but first we need to overcome some hurdles. In the words of Harrison Bergeron, ‘I hope we can all be together again real soon, as whole people, family – no bands, no government, just people...’
- A ‘mirror’ is an exact copy of another website, hosted on a different server. A ‘package’ like this makes it as easy as possible for anyone with access to a server to make a copy of the site, which makes it harder for the material on the site to be taken offline or blocked.
- See ‘Streisand effect’, Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect
- Peter Fein, ‘Hacking for Freedom’, I Wear Pants, 17 June 2011 - http://blog.wearpants.org/hacking-for-freedom/
- Collected in Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Welcome to the Monkey House (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968).
- Harrison Bergeron, Directed by Bruce Pittman, 1995.
- Eleanor Saitta, ‘Our Stories, Our Weapons’ in ‘Two Stories of Uncivilization’, New Public Thinking, 30 August 2011 - http://newpublicthinkers.org/?p=107