See, Hear… Act?: Co-Present Storytelling and Action
Take a moment and think about the last time you took action for a social justice issue you cared about. It was probably signing a petition, clicking on a donate button or retweeting a post on something. Now ask yourself: Did I really understand or feel connected to this? And did I care? Now take another moment and ask yourself: Did I make a difference? Did it matter? I suspect everyone reading this post will have recently taken action. Everyone will have felt distanced from it. Everyone will have felt at least a little uncertain about the impact.
But in some senses you should be congratulating yourself that you did anything. The truth is that there are always other things going on. Even when an issue is right on our doorstep. We know this all too well from the way in which the current refugee crisis in Europe seems to have ‘crept-up’ on so many people despite the years of conflict in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But I think we could do better in engaging each other to action. If we could find a way to:
- Generate stronger empathetic and compassionate connections for ourselves to other people living through human rights crises, so that we ‘feel with’ and ‘feel for’ better.
- Create more timely, relevant ways for us to act in response to social justice issues
- Better utilize what I call our ‘distributed willingness’ – the networks of people that want to do something, sharing common goals but not located in the sites of human rights struggles.
- Tap into more people’s particular skills, capacities and leverage in a more effective way.
In summary how could we better combine: Empathetic and compassionate connection with more timeliness, better utilization of skills, capacity, leverage and this ‘distributed willingness’.
My own explorations in this area have started in the place I know best, the power of video storytelling in the hands of witnesses and human rights activists worldwide. Livestreamed experience offers the possibility of being a distant witness in real-time as events happen. The first pioneering livestreamers emerged during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. For example, Syria Pioneer from Homs, who courageously filmed as Assad’s troops closed in or Mo Nabbous of Libya Ahurra TV. And then there were tens of thousands who simultaneously watched the Occupy Livestreams and over the course of a few days millions watched live as similar movements unfolded in Puerta Del Sol, Madrid. More recently we’ve experienced the streets of Hong Kong, Istanbul and Ferguson live. Sometimes you stumble on amazing moments like this one from Rio, where a policeman about to conduct a search on an activist says ‘Watch the search’ and the activist replies ‘I will watch. There are 5000 people watching.’
And of course livestreaming is not just for street protests. We’ve grown accustomed to it on a personal level in every part of our lives, so that we now have an easy comfort with what is called ‘co-presence’ with others at distance. Co-presence being that sense of a shared space via technology even though we’re apart. From skyped births in military families, to FaceTiming with our children and grandparents. And with the recent advent of more consumer-friendly services like Periscope and Meerkat livestreaming is becoming increasingly popular. There’s been an explosion of new livestreaming tools in the last six or so months, that are easier to use, require lower latency, are more tied to our social graphs, and that complement existing livestream platforms like Bambuser and Stringwire.
So, how could we begin to use these tools to generate empathy and compassion for others in crisis, as opposed to gawking voyeurism? How could we turn livestreamed engagement into meaningful action for the people formerly known as the audience (that’s us!) as well as for people on the ground in crisis? How do we turn ourselves from largely passive spectators to active distant witnesses? How could we support the small number of frontline defenders on the ground, who are frequently few and vulnerable?
If an activist could ‘summon’ a crowd of 100 observers and virtual participants, what could they achieve? If we could stand alongside them, what could we achieve? I’d like you to come on a journey of action possibilities with me.
Leverage in Public
As one path, we could leverage options for utilizing crowds of watching witnesses drawn from the example of the police officer confronted by five thousand viewers. There are ways to make the presence of multitudes of distant viewers more visible and more leveragable. Perhaps something as simple as an LED light on the front of the live-streaming activist’s camera showing how many people are watching. Or the faces of watching people projected onto a nearby wall? Or could we do what crowds of Tunisian football fans were enabled to do, having been banned from the stadium they used a smartphone app that when tapped allowed them to cheer and shout along with the match as they watched on TV. This was then translated and transmitted to synchronized loudspeakers in the stands of the stadium (see video below).
“That day, the stadium was empty. But you could hear 93,100 roaring fans.”
Can you imagine the human rights version of this? Or this amazing example from Madrid where a crowd of holograms of remote watchers gathered to protest new laws that would restrict the right to protest. Utilizing these approaches could we prevent violence or illegitimate conduct in those places where there is some minimal rule-of-law? Could we gather geographically dispersed support in one place to generate greater pressure?
Leverage Behind Closed Doors
Much activism takes place behind the proverbial closed-door in the corridors of power. But creative pressure on a decision maker can be exerted by the crowd ‘in the room’ who are standing “behind the camera” of the one or two people who have been allowed into the meeting.
This is one of my favourite examples from WITNESS experience. You can’t see them in this photo but there are 3,000 or so people watching the governor of this Mexican state watch this video explaining why he should withdraw his support for a development project on this community’s land. You can bet he feels the pressure of those eyes… Could we do this virtually too?
Or make sure that absent voices – for example, the communities affected by mining and oil companies are ‘co-present’ in the shareholders’ meeting of the company that is directly affecting their lives.
Co-Presence in Iconic Spaces
The physical spaces of activism are often small and cannot contain the multitudes of potential participants. But the storytelling power of actions in defined iconic spaces directly contributes to their dramatic potential for engaging distant witnesses in moral drama. For example, the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina in which protestors occupied the State Legislative building in an act of civil disobedience provides an example of the type of physical space that lends itself to bringing additional supporters in virtually. And then of course we must translate that experience into asking those people to take a specific, timely action as they watch: creating a tweet-storm, contacting their legislators, re-streaming it on to their friends.
The risks of violence and detention can be high for frontline activist at any time…When the world is watching how do we move from a panic button on a phone to a rapid reaction connection to a live feed? Here we see it happening already with a Chinese lawyer who shared live when security police came to his hotel room, similar to the Brazilian man earlier who live-streamed the police search and arrest to generate watching eyes to pressure for his release. Here we have a potential systematic equivalent of a rapid reaction, an on-call network of distant witnesses.
And there can be practical tasks that can be done alongside in a co-present setting. What would the Mechanical Turk or Task Rabbit of rapid human rights reaction look like? We know that frequently activists on the ground are overburdened and over-stretched. So what acts of analysis could distant witnesses perform? Could a strategically deployed crowd of distant witnesses support activists on the street by, for example, identifying abusive police officers and rapidly calling ahead to police stations during those critical moments after arrests when physical violence towards detainees is most likely.
Meaningful Solidarity and ‘Walking in Someone’s Shoes’
One dimension of effective co-presence takes me back to my first question about caring and connecting. The people at the other end of the experience will also doubt whether we care or believe them. Such is the perspective of a sex worker who’d faced police violence in Macedonia, in a video produced by WITNESS partners HOPS she talked about the feeling of hopelessness and pointlessness that can sometimes get to even the bravest people confronting injustice and trying to engage distant audiences.
I think empathy is an overrated emotion in activism, while the role of compassion and solidarity are often under-valued. However, there is a role for ‘walking in others’ shoes’ and ‘seeing through others’ eyes in order to ‘feel’ the experience of being a member of a minority facing everyday discrimination, or understand at a basic level what it is to walk in the streets of a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria, which is under constant threat from barrel bombs that kill indiscriminately.
Walking in Joy Together
An important part of generating empathy and solidarity in the long run is to think about how along with ‘walking in peril’ or ‘walking in fear’, ‘walking in joy’ also matters. The moments of small or great success, or joy, that occur even in the most arduous circumstances, such as the calm moment of reflection on success after an action are key events for co-presence.
And the question would then also be, how might these feelings of solidarity be experienced not only by distant witnesses, but also by those whom they are co-present with at the site of crisis? Beyond seeing hearts float up their screen, as happens with ‘likes’ on Periscope, can we soon see models to viscerally experience shared solidarity and joy, such as so-called haptic tools like a ‘hug jacket’ that make the feelings of distant others visceral and tangible via touch and sensation – so that someday soon someone in crisis can feel the warm glow or uplifting energy of solidarity around them.
So, Now What?
Let me add another layer into the mix. A growing number of tools for task-allocation and routing allow us to reach individuals within networks at the right time and right place based on their skills and timetables, when they are available, and at the moment when their skills, capacity or leverage is needed. The app PulsePoint Respond geo-locates someone with CPR skills near a person suffering a heart attack, who then provides emergency first aid in the critical first eight minutes of a cardiac arrest, while a responder is on the way.
On a more global scale, initiatives like the Standby Task Force provide distributed volunteers worldwide, “crisis mappers”, with opportunities to respond with timely simple crowd-sourced analysis to humanitarian emergencies, such as mapping building damage in a recent tsunami.
On the consumer side, tools like Tinder and Grindr give us easy ways to opt-in and -out of opportunities to meet and date. Moreover, such networks and applications are increasingly built into the consumer tools on smartphones. The smart calendaring and algorithmic understanding in a tool like Google Now anticipates the plans and availability of the user of an Android phone – for example, suggesting that it is time to get on the freeway to drive home to meet the kids from school, but noting that there is heavy congestion on the road, so that the user needs to leave ten minutes early.
These tools potentially facilitate a better utilization of ‘distributed willingness’ so that we’re asked to join a livestream and take action at the time and place that works for us, calculated dynamically based on where we are and what we’re doing at any given moment, or we’re offered rapidly and dynamically a set of relevant actions options for us to take via a matching mechanism (a Tinder for action on issues we care about). And why is this important? Because we need to be prompted with relevant opportunities and asked at the right time and right place for the thing we can do and that is needed then, not just by an email sitting in our inbox at 9am. But more importantly the exasperated activist on the ground may not know that a crowd will be predictably there when she needs one, and at other times she will not necessarily want to just have an undifferentiated crowd of 100’s watching live, asking inane questions in her comment stream.
The Expert Available When Needed
In this light, in some circumstances, it is not the crowd that is needed but the skills and advice of an individual, of the ‘expert on-call’. How do we bring distant expertise into a location where those skills are not present? Just as Google Helpouts provides the opportunity to be guided by a yoga instructor via video conferencing on HangOuts, an on-call legal observer or a land rights lawyer could provide legal guidance to an individual in a community that has no local lawyer co-located with them. Similarly an on-call video editor could rapidly turn the chaos and longueurs of live footage in to edited material to share on further.
All of these are ways that a powerful co-present activism could play-out in ‘real’-world impacts of reaction and rapid reaction, engagement and empathy, analysis and guidance and powerful leverage.
- Reaction and Rapid Reaction
- Engagement and Empathy/ Solidarity-building
- Analysis and Expert Guidance
- Leverage – Preventative and Persuasive
Now let me add another advance and another wrinkle. In a few years time we know this is also going to be immersive – via the Oculus Rift and other such tools built for gaming and virtual reality entertainment. And yes, we’ve already had the first publicized co-present birth experienced not on Skype, but via live immersive video.
And even Mark Zuckerberg knows we’ll go in this direction. As he wrote at the time of the purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook….
“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face. Imagine standing together with people around the world fighting injustice — just by putting on your Oculus in your home.”
Well… in truth I made the last sentence up, but it’s of a piece with what he’s saying. And already we’ve had some chances to experience human rights contexts in VR – such as Project Syria and the other work of my friend Nonny De La Pena. And Chris Milk and VRSE partnered with Vice to provide an immersive look at protesters in the Millions March. And we’re seeing dramatic, experimentation in body-swap empathy via live VR from the amazing Machine to Be Another and others.
However, a co-present activism will have to pay attention to some key ethical challenges, many of which will be increased by the growth of immersive experiences. I think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where the population indulges in immersive ‘feelies’ but takes no action against injustice. This emphasizes the importance of doing this right.
Empathy and understanding won’t just happen because an experience is immersive or has co-presence – this is not an automatic ‘empathy machine’. And indeed we may not be looking for empathy, but instead compassion, solidarity and action. We need to avoid indulging in a self-expressive activism that takes the emotionality of the us, the distant witness – “Oh gosh, I cried” – rather than the vulnerability and needs of the frontline activist as a motivation for solidarity and action. This is not a puppet theatre.
And the emotional intensity of live, episodic, first-person experience may inadvertently contribute to the ongoing challenge in human rights of communicating structural violence, hidden violence and its underlying causation.
We’ll need to think about structured processes to provide shared experiences outside of crisis. Here we can think about how to use the strong sense of ambient or background co-presence that can be created via the exposure to someone’s daily life and more intimate moments through asynchronous social media feeds such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, so that we feel close even though we’re far.
And finally, this type of witnessing also raises uncomfortable ethical questions of if we can be there, should we be there? If we could have been simultaneously witnessing the equivalent of the murder of Neda Agha Soltan in Iran in 2009, should we have? And is there also potentially a contingent responsibility not to look if we do not plan to act?
But let me not end on a negative note. I am optimistic, I believe that there is a better way to engage us in supporting struggles for justice, in supporting these defenders on the ground.
I am hopeful. I have a vision of shared humanity and shared experience enabled by these approaches that takes us back to where Aldous Huxley originally took the title ‘Brave New World’ – from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where he writes:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
With a “together now” approach that combines video tools to ‘walk in someone’s shoes’ and to see through others’ eyes; with practical task-routing to optimize use of your skills and leverage, and translate feeling into compassionate action, we can do a better job of turning distributed networks of willingness into meaningful action all around.
To learn more about practical work in this area, follow the development of the ‘Mobil-Eyes Us‘ initiative, currently being incubated at WITNESS.