Monday, August 19, 2013

Social Networks: Learning from The Tamil Tigers, TED Talks and Anonymous

Though all these groups have different mechanisms, they all do a powerful job at connecting people- both online and in the physical world.

 I’m not particularly interested in whether the Internet helps or hinders interaction, in fact I’m a bit tired of that argument. Rather, I’m interested in how physical and online interaction can be best strengthened, in a way that crosses both spheres. Both online and physical are necessary for strong social movements, according to one of the most cited sociologists, Manuel Castells (Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, 2013). I‘m particularly interested in this because I’m wondering how my network or 'community of interest', Cybersalon, can help its members connect better. Equally I think it's important for institutions to change and become more outward focused- enabling interaction between their constituents is one important way. It's interesting that Julian Assange from WikiLeaks is running for the Australian Senate. Who would've envisaged that such a controversial activist group would want to enter an institution, to change it from the inside, no doubt.

 Today’s civil societies need ways to strengthen their connections between people, which are crumbling, according to Robert Putnam’s study of the US (Bowling Alone, 2000). However, more recently, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman (Networked: The New Social Operating System, 2012) argue that we are more connected to others than ever before, but in a new way, through networked individuals rather than through more traditional societal groups or so-called communities. With 716 billion text messages sent per month, 1.1 billion active monthly users on Facebook and 200 million on Twitter globally we cannot ignore the power of online communication.  When trying to build connections between people we must learn from some of the shining networks and communities out there.

Manuel Castells and Bruno Latour believe that in the future, rather than occupying physical space, in addition to cyberspace, social movements will need to occupy institutional space. Institutions will have to change to reflect the changing power structures we are seeing. By building better tools and frameworks for participation, within public and private organisations, we can enable successful self-­organisation and collaborations ready for the next stage of democracy that is surely coming.

  “The way [chaotic social change will] play out, will depend ultimately if the political institutions open up enough channels of participation for the energy that exists in society for change that could overcome the resistance of the dark forces that exist in all societies."

 (Interview with Manuel Castells by Paul Mason, BBC Radio 4, Oct 2012).

Latour is a professor at Sciences Po Paris and wrote: 'Reassembling the Social – An Introduction to Actor Network Theory', 2005.

 When deciding to look at strong networks, there are a number of types: there are the global 'leaderless' social activist groups who are often cited to by those studying Social Media and Net Culture – such as Occupy and Anonymous ­‐ and on the other hand, hierarchical groups with strong leaders, such as the LTTE (Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka) who are often cited by those studying terrorism, conflict resolution and human rights. The LTTE was one of the first political groups to use the Internet in its campaigns, though this is not widely known (Shyam Tewari: The Internet and Governance in Asia: A Critical Reader, 2007).The Internet has allowed Tamils and their supporters to receive news outside of the other media channels that were heavily censored by the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE successfully raised up to US $300 million a year mostly from their diaspora and networks.
  (Source: Jane's Intelligence Review and Human Rights Watch Report, 2008).

 A third type of network of strong connections between its participants come from the TED Conferences and the Burning Man festival - US real‐world events that have spawned global communities. There’s also Enterprise 2.0 also known as Social or Collaborative Business across businesses. Started by Google and Facebook and quickly adopted by others, these systems aim to help employees, customers and suppliers collaborate, share, and organize information via Web 2.0 technologies. These are important to learn from in terms of internal knowledge management.

 As I said earlier, I’m interested in strengthening connections amongst the nodes in one of my networks, Cybersalon. Cybersalon is unusual as it brings together pluralist groups that cross occupations, race and class across a tech-­savvy audience in the physical world as well as online. It has an ambition of fostering dialogue and collaborations between this diverse range of people-­‐ academia, business, politics and art. It has been around since 1997 and is based in London.

Online Communities and Social Networks
 A variety of people have studied the impact of the internet on communities in general: from Howard Reingold’s seminal book Virtual Communities in 1993 where he described them as “a social network of individuals who interact through specific social media, potentially crossing geographical and political boundaries in order to pursue mutual interests or goals”. They can be either weak or strong ties, often the former as people often shift in and out of networks during their lifetimes. (Source: The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited: Mark Granovetter (1983)).

  Anonymity versus Identity WikiLeaks has led the way in terms of governments’ transparency and individuals’ privacy. Its founder, Julian Assange, advocates the need for anonymity to unearth what people really want to say, not only for whistleblowing but for opinions too. Both WikiLeaks and Anonymous have used Tor to ensure total anonymity. Anonymous formed on 4chan bulletin boards where such anonymity is encouraged. Given the recent disclosures by Edward Snowden on surveillance, this may well become important for social networks. Google and Facebook on the other hand are trying to ensure that users use their real identities.

“Tor means that submissions can be hidden and internal discussions can take place out of site of would-­be monitors.”
WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy: David Leigh and Luke Harding, 2011.

 Hierarchical Versus Leaderless Groups Felix Stalder in "Enter the Swarm: Anonymous and the Global Protest Movements" talks about the important dichotomy between hierarchical organizations based on the principle of representation, where leaders are formally legitimised through procedures of delegation, usually based on voting, to speak and act on behalf of their constituencies. He argues that their legitimacy has been weakened by corruption, favouritism and institutional capture. On the other side are self-­consciously leaderless organizations which reject the principle of representation in favour of direct participation in concrete projects. Many of the latter have become “a social swarm” consisting of independent individuals who are using simple tools and rules to coordinate themselves horizontally into a collective effort.

(Source: n.n.: Notes and Nodes on Society, Technology and the Space on the Possible (Feb 2012)). One of the fundamental choices a network must rests on the debate about leaderless versus leader‐led organisations. Thinkers include Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom’s ‘The Starfish and the Spider’, Harvard government professor Barbara Kellerman’s The End of Leadership and British diplomat Carne Ross’s The Leaderless Revolution.

 Clay Shirky, a leading academic on social media from NYU, identified three main requirements that must come together for such loosely organised cooperation to emerge: promise, tool, and bargain. Only when the three dimensions match for a large number of people does cooperation get underway. (Source: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations: Clay Shirky (2008). New York, Penguin Press.)

  Hierarchical Groups Online: The LTTE-­‐ The Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eelam, Sri Lanka

“The Tamil diaspora is one of the most networked and its members are extensive users of the internet.” (Source: P.179, ‘The Internet and Governance in Asia: A Critical Reader’, 2007). The LTTE’s online strategies are shrouded in secrecy, even now, after the Separatist war has ended. One important source is book ‘The Internet and Governance in Asia: A Critical Reader’ (2007). In this, Shyam Tekwani’s paper argues that “a case study of the LTTE offers the ideal model to understand how online networks have been incorporated into the operational strategies of terrorist groups and how online networks of contemporary terrorist groups are as much of a security threat as their land-­based networks”. He goes onto say that the LTTE’s online strategies over twenty years are being copied by other similar groups around the world.

Social Activism and Leaderless Groups

 Zeynep Tufekci has written on #Occupy Wall Street in the US to the #M15 movement in Spain, from Tahrir Square and #Jan 25 in Egypt, to Taksim Square and #occupygezi in Turkey. She comments that these social movements, while coming from strikingly different backgrounds and contexts, share structural and stylistic elements. She terms them “networked movements” and says that they all have a lack of identifiable institutional leadership, either in institutional form or as spokespersons. (However there are other forms of leadership). This means that they cannot be negociated with behind closed doors.
In ‘Revolution 2.0’ Wael Ghonim (the Google employee and founder of the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook page) recounts how Mubarak’s top officials tried to negotiate an end to the demonstrations with him. He could only chuckle as he had no such power, says Tufekci.

Paolo Gerbaudo, a Cybersalon participant says in 'Tweets and the Streets' (2012) that these movements are centred around a ‘no’, an opposition to something, rather than having strategic action towards taking political power themselves. Social media works well in this kind of context, but this also explains why, compared to the large size of the movements, they often have limited long-­term impact. The thinking around Social Media Activism would benefit from comparison with other types of long-­‐term political protests such as the LTTE, who have been using technology for more than 20 years. The Internet has meant the LTTE’s operations became “quicker, cheaper, more covert and more varied”. It also enabled them to lengthen their staying power. By bringing in thinking from the business world too, the analysis will be enhanced further.
(Source:P.175, Shyam Tekwani (2007)).

Online and Physical Worlds: the importance of the two spheres Yochai Benkler from Harvard stresses the importance of Occupy Wall St having both a very important digital and physical presence to garner support and awareness:
(Source: Protesters Look for Ways to Feed the Web: By Jennifer Preston (November 24, 2011); The New York Times).

  “I think the online component was critical: the ability to stream video, to capture the images and create records and narratives of sacrifice and resistance” but “the ability to focus on a national agenda will depend on actual, on-­‐the-­‐ground, face-­‐to-­‐face actions, laying your body down for your principles — with the ability to capture the images and project them to the world”.

 In November 2011 the 1.7 million videos that the Occupy movement disseminated on You Tube were viewed 73 million times, together with more than 400 Facebook pages with 2.7 million fans around the world. An important physical group that have a significant online following is TED Talks or Conferences, who state on its website: “What began as a small conference in California has grown to a global community, many million strong, focused on exchanging and spreading ideas”. This is a key example to learn from. Likewise, Burning Man festival, which started off with 20 people in 1986, has grown to 68,000 people today. One interpretation of its success is its reinforcement of ideas of sharing and exchange, making it a key resource for companies like Google to send their employees to, argues Fred Turner.

(Source: Burning Man at Google: a Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production, Fred Turner, New Media Society, 2009).

 For institutions to have a deeper understanding of the important role they play in shaping thought and power structures, as Castells and Latour argue, is crucial. They need to understand how they can bring in greater participation through different technologies and tools. Else they risk becoming irrelevant one­‐way ivory towers.

 • What are some key uniting forces for strong networked groups and how are these strengthened or lost over time?
• What are some of the pros and cons of accountable and non-­accountable leadership networks and how do online technologies benefit each of them?
• For ‘weak­‐tie’ networks what are some mechanisms of ensuring participation and a sense of belonging?
• How best can we reach the aims of collaboration and dialogue between diverse networked individuals?
• How should identities and privacy be managed?
• How should we best facilitate differences of opinion? Flaming on bulletin boards was an early method, what is best used today?
• What sort of digital system(s) would work best for pluralistic groups that operates both and offline?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Visit to London's 'Bitcoin Squat'

A version of this article was published on Wired on 15 May 2013.

The meeting place is a street corner on a very windy London evening. There's a bald-headed man waiting on the corner too.  My colleague nudges me and whispers: "Is that him?" The man approaches and asks if we are Amir's friends. I explain that we're here to meet Amir, as he's agreed to speak about Bitcoin at our Cybersalon event, the following week. The topic is Net Politics. 

Amir has become a spokesperson for Bitcoin in London. I'd approached him after he'd spoken publicly at a Bloomberg event and the London New Finance Meetup.

Amir is nowhere to be seen. So I call him. On the second attempt he answers and gives me directions to come to the building they're squatting in. A large locked gate greets us, but we manage to squeeze through, into their hacker hideout. 

The building is a former Tibetan Buddhist temple with a large graffiti mural on one wall. In it are about ten people- two of whom are chopping vegetables and cooking up what is to be a big communal dinner. One of the cooks introduces himself as a documentary filmmaker. He says he's working on a film entitled 'Finding Satoshi'. He explains that Satoshi Nakamoto is the hacker name of the unknown creator(s) of Bitcoin, who implemented the system including code and Maths, and then moved on to 'do other things'. It's very important for the decentralised nature of Bitcoin, that Satoshi has gone. It's not a tech start-up after all. It is the idea rather than a dominant personality or promise of IPO riches which give it motive force.

Another guy, a hacker, is bent over his laptop on a sofa. He has a black eye and a few serious scars. He tells me he's been beaten up by the police at their other squat. There's also a little boy playing in a large toy car which needs recharging. I help him plug it in and then turn around and see the guy we've come to meet.

Amir is very warm and hospitable- greeting me with a kiss and a hug- and then proceeding to find more chairs. He is passionate and animated as he starts to talk about the Free Software movement and hacker culture out of which Bitcoin's community and wide adoption has spread.

Amir explains how he'd organised the first Bitcoin conference last year- an event in London filled with hackers and anarchists and how incredible it had been. He says he'll be doing another one later this year, this time in Vienna. "I've got the best speakers. But I'm really really bad at marketing it", he explains. "It's called UnSYSTEM. As in, Undo the System". "Will Satoshi be there?", I ask. "Yes he will, replies Amir, "But under another name". 

I'm intrigued, like most people, about the idea of who Satoshi is, the Banksy of Finance as he's dubbed. I ask a few of the hackers I meet there tonight if they are Satoshi. None of them admit to it but one winks and continues, "I wouldn't tell you if I was!"

"Do you live in this squat?" I continue to quiz Amir. "I live in one nearby" he replies and goes onto explain that a group of activists fighting against the financial system live here, together with other people, some from Occupy London. "We have a Bitcoin group contingent inside working on projects and developing software", he adds.

I mention that I hadn't realised how much ideology there was behind Bitcoin's development, and undoubtedly behind 'Satoshi's' original idea. My friend warns me that 'ideology' may be the wrong word to use for a group of anarchists, to which they might object. At the squat I start to realise these people really seem to be embodying their beliefs by living communally and choosing to use their skills to build arguably the biggest disruptive technology out there. They are affecting money and the role of governments - "we're giving tools and financial freedom to everybody", explains Amir. "Bitcoin really is the free market", he continues, "It's not about the abuse of power and monopolies".

The squat is filling up. A group of young men are sitting in a circle avidly discussing something. They include the bald-headed man I'd met outside, who turns out to be a University lecturer.  Others are bankers dressed in suits sitting next to hooded hackers and the documentary filmmaker. I sit on my haunches by them, and listen. The bald-headed man is saying that through his research Bitcoin could be seen as a Ponzi scheme. He's realised that the early hoarders are those with the largest amount of Bitcoins and they're not selling them. Some people disagree. One likens the situation to Apple shares owned by the founders and early employees. They discuss whether this is a flaw in the workings of Bitcoin as a currency. As Bitcoin appreciates in value, does it become illiquid? In other words, is the prospect of becoming more valuable ruining Bitcoin's value as a currency that nobody wants to spend? Is it more of a commodity than a currency?

The discussion is interrupted by the call that dinner is ready. Someone gives me a paper plate and I help myself - it's delicious and healthy. There are now about thirty people in the space and more continue to come in and out. The food is plentiful and there's no sign of money exchanging hands, even in digital form.

After dinner, I'd been told that there would be a presentation. "They mostly do educational talks here", someone explained. Tonight is no exception. Pablo, another Bitcoin hacker, will be talking about Ca La Fou, a 'post-capitalist eco-industrial project' in Catalonia, Spain that he's helping to set up. 

Amir helps him set up the projector. They use a vegetable rack which sums up their lifestyle nicely: bread, potatoes and carrots support the white Lenovo laptop running Linux and the 4500 lumen projector.

Pablo has prepared slides and talks for about an hour about the project- he describes a cooperative where people live and work together- but where home ownership is also possible. When someone leaves, they sell their house to someone else. Most people make money outside. The main occupation inside is making and selling marmalade to the cooperative itself. There is a network of them around Spain. Pablo is mature and obviously has been through a lot of thinking on how this will work as well as been heavily involved in the refurbishment of the land and buildings. "It's a cooperative but in today's sense of the word, with technology as an intrinsic part", he explains.

I invite Pablo to join Amir and speak at our event the following week. He obliges. You can watch it below or here.

Amir asks me for help- to spread the word to fill the huge venue they've secured in Vienna for the next Bitcoin conference. It's next to the UN building and will be happening in November.

When I'd first got in touch with Amir it was to speak about how Bitcoin will disrupt politics and governments. But this visit has made me discover a lot more. Certainly Bitcoin, like hacker culture, is based on freedom. But these hackers' beliefs are more than that - they believe in really changing the system- including finding different ways of living (squatting and cooperatives) and creating a real culture of communal sharing as the dinner embodied. 

I've met just one group of Bitcoiners of course, who seem be motivated by things other than making money. They certainly have ideological links to the 1960s US counterculture, which spawned early Silicon Valley. As investors equate Bitcoin to Gold 2.0, I wonder what will happen to this ideology and to Bitcoin itself.

Inside the squat
Amir and a friend tuck in
Amir and Pablo at Cybersalon

The unSYSTEM Bitcoin and social change conference will be held in Vienna from 1 - 3 November 2013.

Speakers include Richard Stallman the founder of the Free Software Movement, Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker closely linked to WikiLeaks, Cody Wilson, creator of the Wiki Weapon, a platform for 3D printable guns, members of Occupy London and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic MP from The Pirate Party.

The next Cybersalon event in the series 'The Net Then and Now': will be held on 29 May in London about meaningful digital interaction. More on and can be followed via @cybrsalon

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Coming of Age Immigrant Story?

"The West has "On the Road" and these Kerouac-type finding-yourself stories, and this is our coming-of-age story, in terms of that young man today."

- Mira Nair

By 'our' she means all immigrants to the West.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist film, based on Mohsin Hamid's page-turner reportedly took five years to make, the biggest block being funding. They got let down a few times. Not surprising as it is a very risky tale to tell. But echoing the words of the film: it's important to listen to the whole story and not to judge before you've heard it all. Good advice to incorporate into all parts of our lives!

I saw it with a friend who afterwards claimed he'd never seen a film before that spoke to his personal story. It's probably also Mohsin Hamid's story- he worked at McKinsey after all. I wonder whether he experienced the tussle between company valuations and his personal ethics? And it seems to have been the personal story of the lead, actor Riz Ahmed as well, he who is practically on screen throughout the entire film.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist highlights the global trajectory after 9/11: the event which changed everything. In the UK so did 7/7. Following both events many men of Asian and Middle-Eastern origin were questioned or arrested without proper grounds. This resulted in some feeling their own countries did not accept them. 

Nair says it's good timing for the film to come out now: the awe that Ahmed's character, Changez, voices in response to the attack on the Twin Towers could not have been publicly voiced even five years ago. Well, except in the book. 

Before you bristle at the earlier paragraph, refer to Changez's explanation at the end of the film that we are all more complex than being for or against a single idea. His 'we' includes the American journalist he's speaking to, who was initially against US foreign intervention. So please, he continues, don't put us in a box and label us. A belief does not necessarily shape everything we are. It's a plea many of us are making - for our layered selves to be understood. Most of all by ourselves. And a realisation that our ideas do evolve.

One really nice addition in the film script is Changez's American girlfriend Erica's art exhibition opening night- a world which Nair understands. I met her at the opening of Lille 3000, where she unveiled her own powerful artwork: lenticular photographs on bus hoardings around the city.

I was surprised to see that in the UK only some multiplexes are showing the film, and not the independents which I would expect. It is noticeably absent even at the Curzon, an arthouse chain.

This is one of the few films which actually tells the story more powerfully than the book. The narrative mechanism (and monologue) really lends itself to an audio-visual medium. The atmosphere and imagery that is built up has rarely been surpassed. And the story, well, this story has rarely been told.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Origins of Modern Yoga- The Movie

I watched the film, The Breath of the Gods last night- a film by German Director Jan Schmidt-Garre screened in London. And it sold out for its entire run.

Schmidt-Garre wants to answer the question: is there one true yoga?

The film first tries to trace the origins of yoga and finds that although it is spoke about in ancient texts, it was not widely practised in India until the 20th century. And that Krishnamacharya, the 'grandfather' of yoga only died 24 years ago. He was the one who got yoga to be taught in Indian schools and who taught, amongst others, two great teachers, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. These two Gurus went on to shape yoga for the West and also for India and both put their unique stamps onto it. Jois or instance made yoga 'difficult and fast'. Iyengar goes against his Guru, who he feels largely ignored him and made him rip his hamstring which took 2 years to heal. But his Guru imposed on him that he would teach yoga to city dwellers, a Herculean task, in which he has arguably excelled.

The film has some brilliant lengthy interviews with these two as well as footage of their teachings, including teaching the film's Director. Iyengar in his studio in Pune and Jois in Mysore.
The film also has incredible archive footage of young Jois and Iyengar performing incredible yoga asanas as well as recreated footage of yogis performing to the Maharajah of Mysore as entertainment. Then there's footage of Krishnamacharya teaching his family yoga- with his children he does balancing asanas which resemble basic acroyoga poses (a form of yoga and acrobatics that I recently started). The Maharajah of Mysore was interested in yoga because of its physical benefits, for sport and fighting. It was the 1930s and coming up to Independence. Agility was much needed.

The film also delves into the basic question of : what is Yoga? As Jois says: Control is coming, otherwise this not yoga. Krishnamacharya's teachings were that Yoga leads to 3 things: physical health, mental health- perseverance and purity of thought - and concentration. He omitted talking about God when he went to the West, so as not to impose his religion. In India talking about God is a common thing, says his son, but not in the West.

Which begs the question: why are people in the West so interested in yoga? That is my question and everyone I asked at the screening replied: because they are searching for meaning. But for me, this doesn't fit, as most, but by no means all, yoga classes in the West are physical practices mainly. Of course yoga is a powerful practice and by doing asana-practice it can affect your physical and also mental health- and though the wider philosophy of yoga is not often explained in Western classes, it is perhaps the experience that speaks to the practitioner directly. They feel better both mentally and physically and it increases their concentration. Thereby imbibing the 3 main effects of yoga that Krishnamacharya taught.

As Iyengar says "Those who embraced yoga in the early days, they were maybe mentally disturbed or had quarrels with their parents...' This could be the key as to why it's so popular..?

Krishnamacharaya's children did not admit to the profession of their Father. It was not cool to practice yoga in the 1930s. How things have changed : today the number of people in the USA who practice some form of yoga has grown from 4 million (in 2001) to 20 million (in 2011)
source: Wikipedia

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Long Haul

I get some of my best work done on a plane. There’s nothing like a long-haul flight to get some great thinking and writing done. I used to feel emotional on planes (perhaps related to the amount of wine I drank) but now I’m more emotional on land and when flying up above the clouds, I’m clear-headed. I’m writing this on the 12 hour flight from Colombo to London. I’ve just worked on a few work-related items that I’d been meaning to for ages. And that feels so good. Perhaps part of it is the fact that there’s no Internet connection or phone signal, as I am so distracted by that damn Google…

After the work stuff is done, crossing the world is a great place to take stock of your life (not to mention rediscover your iTunes). For me it usually marks a re-exposure to a significant change in a way of thinking as I’ve usually been in one part of the world which I find so different to the other part (East and West). And though they somewhat fit seamlessly together, in many ways they also don’t…  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Yogic Friday Nights in London

One of my favourite ways to spend a Friday night is at a yoga evening. Last night I went to Shakti Shop, held by one of my favourite London teachers, Leila Sadeghee. She's a new teacher of mine, from the Anusara tradition.

Shakti Shop is held once a month at a beautiful private home in London and it was so  much fun! A group of about 14 people sat on their blocks around a fire and listened to Leila talk for the first 20 mins. We started off hearing about Buckminster Fuller (design guru, philosopher) and how he gave up everything from his 'default existence', that is a regular job, and focused instead on 'helping humankind'. He totally changed his life, despite having a young family. This resulted in him always somehow finding food and shelter for him and his family and becoming a well-known philosopher. This way he had a huge impact on the the way some of the world thinks.

For me, starting with some philosophy is a great way to focus yoga into being more than simple physical exercise. You learn something and can put some of this into practice in the class and then carry it with you afterwards. Leila  later talked about how we should try and keep humane feelings when we're on a packed Tube train, rather than going into our default thinking of finding people a nuisance, giving them some compassion.

Then we moved into asanas and some super deep hip openers! Wow they were intense but amazing, including Hanuman pose which I almost got fully for the first time of my life. I got over the fear that I would break myself, rip my muscles. According to Leila, if you focus on pushing both legs and really are aware of the stretch, you won't do yourself damage.

This type of work went on for about 2.5 hours and we were getting spacey as stuff emerged from the depths of our hips and our imaginations opened up. We ended with meditation and relaxation. Finally we 'met' everyone in the room one to one by shaking hands or hugging them which though sounds super hippy, was very powerful. Human respect.

This was followed by some yummy dinner and wine. Hip openers, good music, meaningful conversation with new people and sensual yummy delights. What else is life about?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Stephen Hawking Effect

Doing something for a cause that people believe in or a person people admire will always motivate them. We’ve heard this before of course, Internet culture is the biggest proof of this.

Well here’s my experience of it: I initially asked one of the world’s best ad agencies to do a creative session with us pro-bono. 

The aim was to brainstorm on a video I want to create to persuade people to sign up to a small blind charity- Royal London Society for Blind People's - Everybody Technology movement. This is a movement aimed at persuading tech companies to make products with disabled people in mind as well as for able-bodied people.

We ended up having an amazing creative session with 7 creatives, a strategist and a client services person. The result: 2 ideas for a short film. One featured Professor Stephen Hawking’s voice. I was tasked with asking him if he’d do it. I was determined that if he does the film, his voice will win over the hearts and minds of tech companies.

Kim and Mareka- whose creativity was behind the script

So I go on the ask to Professor Hawking. Somehow I manage to do it, via his amazing assistant Judith,   who believes in our cause and says it’s important. And he says yes! Of course he is the person who embodies technology and disability. Without technology he wouldn’t have been able to communicate his ideas. He uses an infra-red sensor that tracks the movement in his cheek, to choose words (with predicitive text) and then speaks them out. More on this here.

But at the same time it turns out he’s someone who can mobilise people to do a lot of things. On the production front: since I got him to be the voice of the film, we’ve had a lot going right. First the agency wanted to be more involved and managed to get a great director, production company and post production team to work on it. All for love.

Roz, our Producer
Then we sought the cast- and we got wonderful people, and couldn't pay them. So what motivates them to do it? Well it’s great for their portfolio, they love the script, it’s for a good cause, the Paralympic Effect perhaps…?

The Day of the Shoot

We arrive at a studio in West London on a rainy Monday morning. It’s a really nice studio with a highly impressive and huge camera that moves on a track. A brilliant crew- patient, professional, perfectionist and warm.

Setting up

The set up takes almost 4 hours to perfect the shot and meanwhile we’re all waiting around, including the cast.
Some of the cast: very patiently waiting

Jo learning her lines
The Team at work!

Making up -  Rolf
The Cast

21 people show up to be cast. So lovely and inspiring.
We had a mix of able-bodied and different disabilities. Some actors and  amateurs.

Part of what Stephen Hawking is saying is that although he’s been lucky, having specialised technology, he dreams of a time when people with disabilities are seen for who they are not the machines they use. Often today what happens is that specialist technology for disability is very obvious and people do feel stigmatised. And of course when you see Professor Hawking you do see his chair and hear his synthesised voice before you see him.

Matt and Lynn came along to be cast. Lyn performs in the Para Orchestra and was playing at the Paralympic closing ceremony. She has a set-up a bit similar to Stephen Hawking. She has cerebral palsy and the iPad has been incredible for her- she taps it with her nose and either gets it to speak out what she wants to say or simply shows it to you.

As soon as she got there she guessed a reference music video for what we were trying to do with the visual treatment- Godley and Creme - which was spot on! When it came to her shoot she suggested we ‘lose the iPad’ and so we detached it from her chair. Matt was amazed as he said the iPad is really part of her and she never takes it off. This is exactly what Stephen Hawking was talking about!

Lyn- without her iPad

Matt is a film-maker and writer and compared the shoot straight away to a famous scene in Vertigo.
He has a great blog that covers film and politics- ironically called The Ill-Informed Ramblings of a Cripple.

Dan Lowe, the Director, checking how Matt looks on screen

Dan and Matt
Conor, our youngest cast member

David, an amputee following a motorbike accident

Kayla a young teenage girl also came along. She’s had a spinal fusion – she’s got rods in her spine and can’t sit long. But is oh so sweet and patient. She also is a great singer too.

Amin, a RLSB beneficiary

What’s been so humbling about this is the good will and nature of all these people. Working together with a powerful end goal in mind. Someone on set said you can’t pay people for this, as it would distort it. It is a beautiful thing as it is.

Look out for the short film to promote Everybody Technology(Soon to be released, watch this space!) By the Royal London Society for Blind People and produced by BBH and Ivory Films.