Ben Hammersley and the darkness.
— 29th November 2011
I went to see Ben Hammersley speak at the Rose Bowl in Leeds. Then I came back and wrote this with my tongue ever so slightly in my cheek.
It was the best of times it was the worst of times. It was also the darkest of times.
It was dark before I even left the house. It was pitch black as I crossed the school field, feeling my way along the path, wondering which of the underfoot detritous I usually avoid was attaching itself to my shoes. As I wound my way through the nordic hovels of Guiseley a small gang of blond youths swept past me on skateboards like longships.
I didn't see any of the usual northern countryside out of the train window, just my own reflection, and then the silhouette of Kirkstall Abbey, gothic and black against the urban orange glow beyond. Leeds was bright at first then dark and shadowy too. Sorry I can't spare any change. Sorry mate. Sorry. I pulled my jumper up around my neck against the cold and continued.
The Rose Bowl was dark. A few souls drifted in corners and a few dull lights glowed from behind desks. I went to the fourth floor to a room I hadn't been in before. It was dark.
Ben Hammersley was here to speak about Digital Disruption. He's very famous, to me, although I realise how little I actually know about him. Such is the way of internet celebrity that names can crop up, return, and return again without you ever really building much of a person out of all the fragments. Ben's name had been cropping up since the very earliest days of blogging and I knew about Wired Magazine. There was a shock of recognition at the mention of Warchalking. Oh, that was him. I thought it was Tom Coates. Or one of the others. Cool. He's also currently the UK Prime Minister’s Ambassador to TechCity which means he's (probably) the one explaining to the Dave why he can't really just "turn off social networking".
Ben stood in semi-darkness. Accompanied not by slides but appropriately by two large blue screens (of death? we didn't know) like the two unblinking blue eyes of some great big Conservative robot that Ben must perhaps take with him where ever he goes; in case of trouble or policy transgressions. He was also accompanied (again appropriately) by the constant hum of a light saber someone had forgotten to turn off. A occupational hazard no doubt. For this was a man who had come from the heart of the Death Star, who had sat in throne room with the Emporer himself and was bringing us news, and perhaps the plans which would relveal a fatal weakness we could exploit to detroy him forever.
Turns out he didn't have the plans which was a shame. But there is a fatal weakness. So that’s good. And the fatal weakness is this: they don't get it. Really it would have been a lot easier if it was the kind of weakness we could exploit with a well placed laser blast.
What they don't get is the internet. They don't get the way the world (post 1989) has started working. They don't get social networks and they don't get Moore's Law. They know they don't get it. I wonder how they feel about this. Ben seemed to imply that they were perhaps ready to go gentle into that good night. I guess more likely there'll be tears before bedtime.
First was a whistle stop tour through the history of the internet and it’s effects on the world. What was interesting to me about this was how the kind of "grand narrative" that I usually lap up from the likes of Adam Curtis seemed to irk me when it was applied to a topic I actually know about. Maybe that’s how people with a real unstanding of politics feel when they watch Curtis's programmes. Anyway, the point is you sensed a person here who has had to contruct these kind of narratives in order to have any chance of speaking some truth to power and in that respect I think a certain amount of rhetorical license is perfectly understandable. I loved the godzilla impression so all is forgiven.
There was some talk of the internet revolution being self-referential which made sense. Using the internet to build a better internet sounds plausible but in a wider sense communication technologies help to spread ideas and always have done so if you're talking about any communication technology it will always be self-reverential a bit. It reminds me how in geography lessons we were taught to refer to roads as "communications". The car is a communication technology. Motorised transport did make it easier to create better motorised transport. Even horses, if you ride your horse over the horizon to that place where they breed faster, stronger horses and bring that knowledge and those technuqies back with you, have helped to create better horses. For you at least. Maybe it’s more a question of scale.
I loved the stuff about the internet being about more than the advertising industry. Having spent so much time outside of that industry to a certain extent, it has been a shock over the last year to find how dominant it is in terms of sucking up so much of the creative energy of digital people. Ben's thoughts about the moral responsibility of people to use their skills and knowledge for the betterment of the world really hit home although the other thing which has become crystal clear for me recently is the fiscal reality of trying to make ends meet in hard times. Michelangelo was paid, and often it was pretty much to produce a form of advertising.
I also loved the story of the war correspondant. The mentality of someone who wants to know the secret of entering an industry, or simply doing something they want to do, being confronted by the reality that the only way is just to start doing it, really struck a chord. It’s the type of thing I just need to hear peope say over and over. One day maybe it'll sink in.
Then there was some facinating stuff about the levels at which power is expected to be exerted in the future. Painting a picture of almost autonomous city states collected more under the banner of Europe than under that of the UK (or perhaps England) sounded revolutionary enough to excite me. The move towards this kind of devolution has a nice ring and the call for decentralisition chimes both with the political atmosphere post-communism and with anyone who understands the power of bittorrent (or Al-Qaeda). What worries me though is that whilst the idea of more local control is alluring, are these city states going to be any better at resisting the power of multi-national business interests than nation states which are clearly already failing?
Why is all this important? Why is it important that we, who understand the power of the internet (if indeed we do), should use that understanding of it for something more than advertising? Why is it important that, like aspiring war correspondants, we should remember that it order to achieve something the most important ingredient is action. Why is it important that we understand the likely power structures of the future? The reason it’s important is that the world is really, very much, and almost completely fucked. Things are bad and they are going to get worse. Not just some time later on, but now. Just after Christmas in fact. Enjoy that mince pie my friend, it might be your last.
I told you it was dark!
And the government is very much not going to be there to stop it. They can't because, as we now know, they don't get it. They don't know what to do. So it’s so important that people who do know what to do get up and start doing it, because that might just be the way that we get out of this mess. The internet is the one beakon of hope because for the main part it is just so insanely great! It has so much potential and really what else does nowadays? Capitalism?
I can see how it all fits. The Big Society relies on local people taking responsibility for changing their... locality. What do they need to do that? They need to organise. But wait we’ve got this new thing which makes it, like, really very easy to organise. Easier than ever before. It’s decentralising like devolution. It’s the way things are going anyway so why swim against the tide? What do we need to make this thing work? We don't need products. We need somethig like Twitter, something that does a thing, but that’s open enough to allow people to do all sorts of other things with it too. What do you call this thing?
I really enjoyed the talk. It was interesting, informative and it felt important. There was a political slant to the whole thing which, whilst causing me to squirm a little trying to unpick it, was also refreshing in it’s "real world" directness in a way that digital or technological talks often aren't. When I was young I used to have a mental check list of indie bands I wanted to see live. I can now check Ben Hammersley off my mental check list of internet celebrities I’ve seen talk. Cool.
I'll leave you with one thought. A man running through the centre of a city, from bar to bar, attempting to spread the good news about communism. Attempting to induce political fervour in his fellow man. Attempting to provoke nothing less than a righteous revolution of the oppressed workers of the city. At every bar he arrives at he finds another man has got there first. He's already up standing on a chair in the middle of the bar. He's holding a placard. On this placard is a picture of a cat. And there's a funny caption.