I believe to have said it before, but the one element I like about storytelling is the infinite range that your imagination can take characters and situations. Oddly enough, we live an age where information can also travel into infinite directions and in real time. This is the age of connectivity between devices, words, pictures, images, executable code, and people. This reality is just one of several, but it has been around for the affluent part of this world since the mid-nineties. To anyone growing up or immersing themselves in this reality for years and years, the view on the malleability of what is and what can be is irreversibly changed.
To some extent this same analogy can be made about globalisation, where companies are now incredibly flexible to choose how much they pay in wages, taxes, and other resources, all according to what location they settle on in a map. This, to the chagrin of many a local government that sees countless organisations close up shop and place their workforce into subsidised (un)employment programmes, because they either found cheaper means of production elsewhere or cannot compete with organisations that benefit from these advantages.
The Internet has had an equatable type of opposition in that many would not want information to move as freely as it does, because of financial and ideological reasons. Digital information (much like the resources used in globalisation) has become so flexible, so replicable, that the concept of ownership is very much in doubt. The traditional link between value and object risks to become severed and threatens to overthrow certain less adaptive elements of our economy.
Ideologically speaking, two threats of free information are often discussed. One, the risk of the media-hype, which can distort the truth of stories but can equally give extremists (like those that caused the Paris massacre) a platform to shout out their message from. The freedom of media is causing both for everything to be open (think racial profiling and killing in Ferguson), but can also bombard and destroy (think paparazzi chasing and causing the death of Lady Diana). On the other side of the coin, this abundance of press also causes audiences to become increasingly desensitised about the many atrocities around this world (particularly those in areas that don’t necessarily affect us directly).
So, how does this relate to Uber, the Je Suis Charlie movement coming out of yesterday’s Paris killings, and Banksy? Each of these deals with the testing of the boundaries of our current reality. Uber, in providing a service that wants to freely turn every driver into an entrepreneur, but depends very much on a free market economy where they can compete with established (and licensed) transportation companies. Je Suis Charlie, or rather the publication Charlie Hebdo, which chose to disregard individuals’ and groups’ sensitivities and instead chose to publish cartoons that were provocative in thought and certainly provocative in feeling (please read my note about this below!). Banksy, an artist treating public architecture as his distribution mechanism.
Each of these have decided to embrace freedom, yet have (purposefully) ignored that this freedom can also create havoc elsewhere and to themselves. Charlie Hebdo tries to expose much of the silliness in people’s beliefs, but that alone is not sufficient in eliminating that people believe in certain causes (that may or may not hold valor). Banksy combined public commentary and the use of a controversial medium (graffiti) into a condemnation of the art world and statements about societies similar to Charlie Hebdo’s. Uber, perhaps in bad company amongst these two, chose to follow the freedom of a capitalist model (following many other recent startups), while purposefully ignoring the local environment for their own benefit.
With the freedom of information age that we live in, come these entrenched beliefs that we should not be censored in what we say and that it is better to act than to stand still. But this new thinking clashes with a world, a reality, where resource mobility comes at a cost, where information can hurt and overwhelm, where established forces do not want to be a part of this freedom. In this free world, we no longer have the freedom to choose not to participate, to choose to not lose our jobs to cheaper labour elsewhere, to not have our private pictures exposed, to not have our religious beliefs questioned, to not have our property defaced with graffiti, etc.
Freedom in a world without boundaries makes sense, yet we live in a world where someone, somewhere has the power to pull the plug, to pull the trigger, to pull the curtain closed. More worryingly, we live in a world, where the very limiting nature of our planetary biology discourages freedom and asks for restraint. We also live in the contrast where one person’s truth can set them free, while another person’s lie can provide them with food and housing in an otherwise poor environment.
What is the answer to this? To me, freedom cannot be the sake of it, but respect and cultural sensitivity to the diversity of beliefs is a more sustainable way forward. To me, Charlie Hebdo was playing with the fire of a stick of dynamite that has been burning globally for a very very long time. Uber has to realise that financial growth is not the only metric to measure themselves by. Banksy, while amazing, is essentially a criminal.
I wanted to publish something more hopeful, but these values of respecting differences are too deep and while I hurt for the killing of these amazing journalists, I also hurt for much of the killing happening in other parts of this world, largely ignored for the consequences they have on the behaviour of radicals within the Western world. Nothing excuses violence and nothing excuses ignorance, somehow we have all found ourselves in the middle of this discussion to which there is no short-term solution.
Afterword: after careful reflection, including discussions on the media and attending the march to pay respects to those that were killed as part of the Charlie Hebdo massacare, I want to add that I very much realise that all of this is a matter of perspective. To the French, Charlie Hebdo was a pillar of free speech and many of its contents were both contested and vindicated within the French legal framework, which deeply respects the separation between Church and State. The I am Charlie movement is also not just about free speech, it is about not living in fear. It is about not living in a dictatorship that restricts much more than just freedom of choice. My stance is still that this freedom of expression must be nuanced to respect those involved in it. Invading people’s privacy is not OK. Should conducting actions that conflict with people’s beliefs be OK? It’s a tough question that I struggle with in light of what comes after free speech is restricted.