This evening, Coxall, Levine and I attended an open meeting of the Open Rights Group, a new UK organisation set in the mould of the EFF. I wasn’t expecting the earth to move for me: we’ve attended too many of these little geek/numeeja run yack-shacks to hope for anything particularly productive to emerge. This evening did its least to confound me.
It was held in a basement in Soho named Zero-One. I say basement, but, naturally, one is encouraged to term it a “creative space”. Said “creative space” was filled with geeks and numeedjas, as well as a scattering of lawyer-types and Earnest Young Men. Overwhelmingly men, of course, the few women who were there either freaks, sociologists or serving the free cheese and wine. Hey – don’t shoot the messenger. A few chairs encircled the basement, but the main floor was bare, to encourage crouching and cross-legged encampment. Oh dear. This was all going to be “inclusive and discursive”, wasn’t it?
Oh dear, indeed: the manageress of the “creative space” started proceedings. Her introduction was little more than an ad for her basement. She then brought on an ex hack, who spouted some trivial nonsense or other, and was excited by the prospect of setting up ever more “wikis” and “blogs”. She, in turn, brought on a jargon-clappy professional “meeting facilitator/consultant”. This was going to be “fun”.
The evening was to commence with a little talk from some Oxford chap or other, followed by a free-fall clustered discussion, in which each cluster was to be provided with its own sticky wall-covering on which to paste their mindstormingly written postcards.
The Oxford nonentity informed us that the Internet was somewhat marvellous, and, gosh, lots of interesting things might become of it soon, what ho, and it’s not just paedophilia and terrorists. The poor fellow seemed trapped in 1994.
The Management Consultant Facilitator then spouted some jargon, and asked the floor for ideas for the discussion clusters. The Earnest Young Men pontificated their banalities. The geeks obsessed about some yawnful minutia. And Coxall suggested we discuss how to win over the “unhosed stupid masses”. Yes, that is the phrase he used and, yes, the reaction from this righton bunch of whitebread nonces was predictable. “Maybe if you stopped patronising them like that…” was the immediate response from one of the Earnest Young Men on the floor.
Thence began the multiple clustering. Levine, Coxall and I have attended so many of these nascent talking shops now that we decided to skip with the usual niceties and begin some good old Trotskyite agitation. We argued that trying to interest people in the potential problems of overreaching anti-privacy legislation, or draconian Intellectual Property laws and the restrictive technologies therefor, was a lost cause. The “unhosed masses” wouldn’t care about these philosophical crampings until they felt the constrictive banding themselves, in their every day lives. We argued for the inculcation of popular anger: to that end, a little DRM here, a little copyright overextension there wasn’t enough. We decided that, rather than allow creative society to die the death by a thousand cuts that is its inevitable fate in a world dominated by multi-billion dollar “content” oligarchies, we should use these monoliths’ huge power and budgets to subvert themselves from within, to the point where their overreaching hubris could lead to genuine polltax-riot intensity anger, and Berlin-wall-sized dismantlement.
Rather than fiddle with legislation to make it slightly less bad, then, or to try to temper corporate excesses with the few thrown crumbs of compromise, a smartly utilitarian organisation would instead encourage the corporate hubris to its reductio ad absurdem extreme, to catalyse rather than inhibit the inevitable Hegelian dialectic’s unfolding.
By analogy, imagine one is piloting an aircraft. One has insufficient fuel to reach an airport. In such a circumstance, it is better immediately to make a controlled crash-landing in a field, than to wait until the plane runs dry and spirals out of control. Similarly, organisations like the Open Rights Group need to realise that, with what will always be considered esoteric domains of discourse, no matter the theoretical “education” one can provide, they have only Hobson’s Choice in how to inculcate change. They need to make this choice wisely, and not to act as unwitting handmaidens to the oligarchies, moderating their ludicrous and unhinged excesses, but rather to encourage the oligarchies to their doom. Only then might a freely creative culture take its first deep breaths of pure air. Until then, it’s a war of attrition no grassroots organisation with romantic aims and – ooh – 5,000 quid a month to spend, can achieve. Idealism against all the money and power in the world? Don’t believe the sentimental penny-dreadful. In real life, the winner is generally preordained.
To this end, we pontificated loudly, and wrote lots of postcards with catchy phrases, like “Throw Pirate Kids in Jail Today” and “Encourage a Media Exec’s Dream, and Let it Become His Nightmare” and “You Prevent Future Forest Fires by Encouraging Present Ones”. I particularly enjoyed the comparison with the Temperance movement in the early 20th century United States:
“What destroyed the Temperance Movement?”, I asked.
“The reasoned debates, pamphlets and lobbying against it, or its achievement of Prohibition, which ludicrous overreaching achieved what decades of petty lobbying could not”? We need to encourage the development of the equivalent of Prohibition in the digital realm. We need to encourage Them to overplay their hand. They must be sung by we sweet sirens finally into the newly exposed rocks of public opinion.
Of course, the Earnest Young Men found this all far too “cynical”. They called the inculcation of anger “negative” and generally became flustered. The British don’t like anti-consensual opinion, and make it known. Levine was trying to argue with a Britwasp, who suddenly stood up, with his Britwasp smirk, flapped his hands about dismissedly and said “I’m Leaving”. He flounced off. An odd effect for Mr Levine, who was blooded by this, as shall become apparent.
Some people were genuinely tickled by our ideas, we Bolsheviks to the rest of the lilly livered Mensheviks in the other clusters, with their spider diagrams and their invocations to “Reach Out to Our MEPs”. Some people were angered. Some wanted to argue against them, but couldn’t find logically cohesive counter arguments beyond fey idealism. “Oh, we just need to educate The General Public”.
“Really”, retorted Coxall, “So we just say ‘Ooh, Mr Public – did you know that copyright might be extended to 90 years’. ‘Gosh, no. Thank you for telling me. Now I’m off to watch East Enders”. The only education is a practical education, a sharp realisation of what their Content Providers’ hegemony means when given utterly free reign. Not “might mean”, note well, but “means”. The public are not good with the subjunctive mood, after all. They need to be given a real and present catastrophe on a plate before they react.
I was pleased to see that one early waverer concluded by writing “Do not amaeliorate bad legislation” on a card, and stuck it up on our wall. He was beginning to get the point. As good Trots, it was not our job to be pooper-scooper to the Corporate behemoths, tempering and tidying their excessive crap, their Ideological Manifestations, if you will, so that they remain just beyond the nose of general public ire.
The public meeting ended, our board full of sardony. Gedankenexperiment? Genuinely useful methodology? Epater le bourgeois? Pisstake? Some and all of the above, probably. But a hell of a lot more interesting than the anodyne pap drafted by the rubbishers in the rest of the room.
There was a quick reconvening to discuss our gestalt meanderings in plenary session. The Earnest Young Men went on again about their blessed MEPs. Some numeeja urged the importance of Edutaining the Public. Edutaining. If this is what the grassroots has come to, please pass the herbicide.
Levine, oddly Bolshy, asked the lady in charge of proceedings what she was actually going to do. She talked excitedly about already getting some press in the Guardian, The Register and ZDNET. Levine probed her further, asking what she was going to do after sending press released thereto. “Send more”. Levine wouldn’t let it lie. “And once you’re finished preaching to the converted?” General hubbub. An Earnest Young Man tried to defend the fair maiden. Levine tried to retort, saying he’d seen this empty posturing so many times before, but the Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man stopped him in his tracks, rebuking him forcefully:
“We’ve heard enough from you. You interrupted Adam there. You’ve had more than enough to say”. Even the audience, who had been Britishly riled by Levine’s daring to piss in Tony’s Big Tent, were somewhat aghast by the vehemency of the putdown. The Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man then ensured that the evening concluded on a tawdry, Partridgesque note by suggesting that, although he’d seen fit to give his “services” for free this evening, perhaps some might consider hiring for their next such event.
So there we have it. Another hot air balloon sets forth for its brief and useless journey. We emerged feeling depressed at how people seem unable in the current milleu to cope with genuinely robust, left-field debate, preferring rather to ensconce themselves in downy administrivia and shallow consensual sweet nothings.
We departed feeling arrogantly intelligent but deflated, a feeling that we’re enduring ever more often after such events. Big-headedness on our part, certainly, but it seems that the educated idiots who attend these things plough their lobotomised troughs with depressing predictability.