Two Stories of Uncivilization

August 30th, 20111:45 pm @

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These two pieces were originally delivered on August 20th, during the opening lecture on “Collapsonomics” at the 2011 Uncivilization Festival, in Hampshire, UK, an event about the stories we tell ourselves in the face of a difficult future.


Rust in the Scabbard

Dear brothers and sisters,
Dear enemies and friends,

Your future ended ten years and twenty-two days ago.  Your future also ended in 1991, at the fall of the Soviet Union, and in 2000 when the bubble burst.  Your future ended in 1945 when we won the war and in 1989 when the wall fell.

Your future keeps ending as the shifts in our world produce ripples that redefine it.

My most recent future died in 2007, and the universe has not yet birthed me another.  People in Iceland now use 2007 as a term to denote anything fancy.  “Oh, that’s so 2007”.

In October of 2008, Iceland’s economy exploded, but there were those of use that understood that it was doomed way before that.  Some of us made preparations, some of us tried to think through the possibilities.  We weren’t accurate, but we were correct.

We saw that the governance model, a 19th century hand-me-down designed to suit the needs of Danish aristocracy, was ill suited to any reasonable 21st century reality.

We saw that our economy was driven by greed, irresponsibility and most of all an utter lack of transparency, and we knew that there was a pressing need for change.

The 6th of October 2008 was the turning point.  It was the moment in which we knew that our fears had been apt.  Sitting in my little digital manufacturing laboratory on my little volcanic island in the north Atlantic, I tuned into the webcast.  The prime minister sat there, and he spoke.  His final words exposed the gravity of the situation.  He said:

“Government projects in the coming days are clear: to avoid that chaos does not ensue if the Icelandic banks become to some extent non-operational.  To this end we have many options and they will be used.  In politics and elsewhere, it is important to sheathe our swords.  It is important that we display both calm and consideration during the difficult days ahead, we do not lose heart and we support each other with advice and courage.  In this way, with Icelandic optimism, fortitude and solidarity as weapons, we will ride out the storm.

“God bless Iceland.”

These last words, “God bless Iceland”, are historical.  In the US, if you listen to presidential speeches, they will always end with “God Bless America”, unless there’s something serious going on, in which case they’ll use the longer form: “God Bless the United States of America”.

In Iceland, deities are invoked only out of urgency.

When Geir Haarde uttered those words on the 6th of October, we all knew that our future had died.  But we also knew that he was placating us with talk of sheathing swords, biding his time, hoping that the sword would not come down on him.

Stonewall Jackson thought differently.  He said in 1861: “The time for war has not yet come, but it will come, and that soon; and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”

Since the crash, we’ve been urgently trying to reinvent our future, to usher in a new type of governance, a new type of reality.  We’ve just finished rewriting our constitution; we’re in the midst of legal action against Geir Haarde and many of the bankers that brought the nation to its knees.  We’re at the beginning of a rebirth of democracy.

But as the Universe births us a new future, we need to decide how to raise it, what to teach it and what to make of it.  We need to decide if we are going to allow the sword to rust in its scabbard, or whether we are going to draw it.

Dear brothers and sisters,
Dear enemies and friends,

Our societies are collapsing, our countries are coming to an end, our futures are being reinvented.  Dougald Hine asked us to remember the future, but he didn’t ask us to forget the past.  A lot of people are afraid of the future, but they shouldn’t be.  The future does not mean the end of history.

This is not the end of history.  It is not even the beginning of the end of history.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning of history.

The stories that have carried us forward so far are no less appropriate to the times we are facing.  Our history teaches us how to react to situations of this nature, if only we will listen.

The time I have does not allow for analysis of these lessons, but our conversations will.  My advice is to question the organisational models that have led us here, to criticise industrialism and the centralisation of authority.  My advice is to learn from the failed states where they have failed, and take notice of cracks where they appear.  And most of all, I advise that you take note of the past, and let it guide you as you raise your future.

Edward R. Murrow noted that we are living in an age of confusion — “a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria.  Opinions can be picked up cheap in the market place while such commodities as courage and fortitude and faith are in alarmingly short supply.”

Collapse may be inevitable, but so is the future, and the war for our future is upon us.  Draw your swords and march forth.


Smári McCarthy / @smarimc
London, UK, 2011.08.19


Our Stories, Our Weapons

Last month, a friend of mine killed himself.

Len Sassaman had struggled with depression for a long time, but he’d struggled against other things too.  Len was a cypherpunk.  He worked to give people tools to communicate securely in the face of government oppression and corporate oligarchy, whether that government is in China, Iran, Syria, America, or here in the UK.  Len was brilliant, but he also saw this oppression in very immediate terms, even when the signals were less obvious than they have been in past months.

This made him, to be frank, difficult.  He framed the world as he saw it, very starkly, and you were either with him or against him on every issue.  He spent a decade and a half fighting a war that no one else saw, and it killed him.

I spent the week before last at what used to be a secret Soviet airbase half an hour outside of Berlin with 3,500 other hackers.  Chaos Communications Camp felt like an outpost of the future in many ways, some more comfortable than others.  We spent the week surrounded by the shattered remnants of the military-industrial complex, eeking out a complex sociality while the struggle with basic infrastructure of sanitation and communication was a constant challenge.

We talked about the future a lot, as news trickled in from the outside world of riots and market swings, of arrests of distant allies and of mass deaths of others.  I spent a lot of time watching how people react as their reality breaks down.

I watched people see-sawing back and forth between spectacular hopes for the future and deep despair — the sense that we can do anything, that the future is ours to remake as we wish, and the sense that there’s no way forward, no escape from this pit we’ve dug ourselves into.  As people get together into larger groups, the despair seems to be shed as a function of group cohesion, leaving behind a hope that is frankly irrational until a sudden tipping point hits and it breaks.

When our reality starts to break down, we are very, very bad at seeing the truth.  We will hide behind any alibi, any fig leaf of the potential for continuity.

When we are forced to confront the world as it actually is, we are often unprepared for what we see.

The people who are closer to this reality are hit harder, and differently.  That see-saw compresses down into post-traumatic stress disorder.  Depression.  Shell shock.

The Telecomix communication agency has spent the last three years helping people tell stories, in a very immediate fashion.  They’ve arranged international dial-up lines and other alternate communication channels from Iran, from Egypt, from Libya, and from Syria.  They’ve helped people have a medium from which to tell their stories, even if that was the last thing they did.

Telling stories, telling the truth, in the face of oppression and systemic breakdown, is an act of war.  It is the way we help others to share our reality, to share the truth of a contracting world in the face of systemic refusal of awareness.  It is one of the only truly effective tools to shape the world.

This weekend, while we sit here among these lovely English trees, thousands of people will take to the streets in Syria to tell their stories, to try to shape their world into one which will support their freedom and their lives.  They will be answered by machine guns and mass graves, by snipers from rooftops when they step outside, and by a world where one person in ten turns evidence for the police.

And yet, they have not taken up arms, because their story is one of non‑violence.

My friends at Telecomix are not on the front lines in Syria, but they know many people there well, and even fighting that war at a remove can tear you apart.  Last week Tomate, one of the Telecomix core team, almost killed himself after three years of desperate fighting, three years of watching his contacts and friends die.

He stopped by the memorial for Len at camp, and he listened to the stories that people told, stories of hope and bravery and loss, and he decided to live, to keep telling stories.

I call on each and every one of you to take up arms.

See the world as it is, and tell its stories.


Eleanor Saitta / @dymaxion
Hampshire, UK, 2011.08.20