I ended 2013 listening to Glen Greenwald’s keynote address at the Chaos Computer Club’s 30c3 conference in Hamburg. Though Greenwald was convinced that change is possible, he was certain it would not arise through political debate or democratic processes. Instead his optimism is vested in the skills of his peers, and in encryption technologies such as the Tor browsers, PGP and OTR being put to use on the technological battlefield to reclaim the sanctity of our private communications.
Not being an activist, hacker or securities specialist, this disturbed for me for three reasons. It’s not only the sanctity of our communication that we have lost, but also faith in our governments, whom we are now forced to assume hate us. Secondly, as a naïve believer in absolute rights and freedoms, I simply do not want to admit that it is our obligation to arm and equip ourselves with technologies only to protect freedoms that should not be infringed in the first place. Lastly, and worst of all, I am certain that these freedoms have been lost forever and that there is nothing much we can do to restore our world to its un-surveilled, non-Leviathan form. At the same time, I had no desire to fall into the state of the resigned disdain articulated particularly frequently by leftist thinkers and activists: that we are doomed and on a perpetual decline.
During the Occupy movements, Wikileaks, the London riots, the Athens demonstration, Manning and Snowden, a consensus developed that the problem was our lack of imagination: that we are the lost generation, up in arms but without dreams; rioting without a voice or a vision. The generation of hackers, Bitcoin traders, smartphone and Facebook addicts without any ideology or thinkers of our own.
My mother is the kind of lady that reads Hegel purely from a historical perspective. She hates the fact that we read non-canonical philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and discuss his political ideas. What she fails to understand is that people like Zizek have given an entire generation not only a voice but also the courage to engage. Whilst Zizek and other political activists have not provided us with answers carved in stone tablets, a lot has changed. Everyone actually knows that capitalism has failed us, that the global banking system has derailed, that the South of Europe was done in. And since 2011, we have a firm conception of the so-called 99%.
At the time of the Wikileaks disclosures, back in the spring of 2011, Franco “Bifo” Berardi noted, correctly:
What is more important (than the disclosures) is the activation of solidarity, complicity, and independent collaboration between cognitarians that it represents: between programmers, hardware technicians, journalists, and artists who all take part in an informational process. The activation of the potency of this connected intelligence, autonomous from its capitalist use, is the lesson Wikileaks has to offer.
To understand how much things have changed and how far we have come, it helps to go back to this generation’s starting point: the 90’s. The consumerism, throw-away fashion and turbo capitalism that defined the 90’s is not that different from our current psychotic engagements with Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest. But back then it was our reality. Now it is merely escapism and we are fully aware of it.
We may be in that strange twilight zone between darkness and light, but it is here that truth and reality matter the most, and we know exactly what kind of era we are living in. My generation is finding its voice in an uprising that is unique. It is not about freedom (a la Kant or even Jean Paul Sartre) or the self-determination that marked the end of segregation and imperialism, this time it’s about autonomy. Autonomy from systems and governments that seem to lack the consciousness of how oppressive they actually are.
Greenwald’s suggestion is essentially one of compromise. We need to start making better compromises. This may mean learning encryption in order to send honest messages as though absolute privacy still exists or parting from comfortable illusions by consciously processing leaks and their implications. More than anything it means recognising on what we should never compromise. It means singing, writing, dancing and thinking not because it is profitable but because it is as real and natural to us as breathing.
Juliane Mendelsohn is a doctoral candidate (competition law) and lecturer at the Free University of Berlin.