Last night I headed over to the Prince Charles cinema to catch a screening of Ivo Gormley’s new documentary, Us Now. It was a free but pre-registered event, that I had failed to sign up to in advance.
Normally I am very confident and able to talk/slip my way inside places, parties and performances that I’m not ticketed out for, and the bitingly cold air against my bare ears was further impetus. However, the whole topic of the documentary and night was people coming together via the internet to organise themselves, so it seemed crass to crash the system of entry. Whilst I waited I saw lots of people from active social activism activity, internet pioneers and documentary fans. Then I got in legitimately, and felt much more adult-like.
I did miss out on being included within the great intro, where the names and professions of the attendants who had registered where illustrated in tag clouds. Paul and Sarah were the most common names, and pictures of bloggers (social heroes!) in the audience appeared, making people turn to check out their neighbours, and transforming the cinema into a social space. (For more on this concept check out Lance Weiler). This was orchestrated by NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, who were hosting the night to launch their new Web Connect strand, to commission, produce and champion projects which show how the web is making an impact on business, society and culture.
Us Now is an optimistic documentary about how harnessing the power of the Internet for mass collaboration can potentially change society and power distribution. It examines forms of behaviour where people organise themselves – by voting how to distribute money within a local community, picking the players’ positions in a real football team, or lending money to particular people at low interest rates. The most commonly known example, and the one the film introduces us to the concepts through, is couchsurfing.com. Rather than a small company, with only seven employees, it’s actually a huge, self-policing organisation, which facilitates 1,500 people meeting and sleeping at each others’ houses, every night. This is a potent example to demonstrate the notion of trust as a way to protect yourself instead of hiding behind rules of entry, seeing as you literally let people into your living room.
The documentary weaves together lots of key thinkers on the power of the web, pushing the implication that people feel a sense of satisfaction when they are actually, rather than symbolically, involved in decision-making processes. (This insight was also quoted to me emphatically by Matt Hansen, who’s open source film project, A Swarm of Angels, works on the principle that paying to sign up and vote on scripting and casting matters actually brings such a sense of involvement that it should be seen as a form of entertainment, and therefore justifies the subscription fee.)
Many exciting new web innovations are adapted from the creations of coders and activists devising ways to allow better access of information in the public domain, to be used towards campaigning for change outside of the official systems created by hierarchical power structures. This often starts by building or adapting an online arena where knowledge can be logged and accessed in a collaborative way. A simple example is a forum, or a place to report problems in your borough, which must then be publicly seen to be investigated.
This is a Foucaldian take on the world [power-knowledge-discourse] that appeals to liberals who want to embrace the future and the untold possibilities of connecting with individuals of the world at large. Or, to recap for cynics, superficial meetings – like from dating sites – are only the start, and truly participatory governing methodologies are the future. It’s a very informative film, which manages to weave a lot of information and speakers together in a coherent, well-paced way, and is worth checking out if you still don’t quite get what the implications of social networking and information sharing may be.