Together Apart

The following text is an edited transcript of the remote lecture presented at SPACE10 Sessions by IAM founders Lucy Black-Swan & Andres Colmenares on April 14th, 2020, where they shared a few critical reflections, thoughts and questions behind The Billion Seconds Initiative.

IAM Journal


Watch the video version here (15 minutes)

As some of you may already know, we like metaphors and paradoxes, and we love to juxtapose and subvert them. This is why we are IAM.

We design alternative learning experiences, tools and platforms to change how the digital economy is changing Everything and by “Everything” we refer to Planet Earth 🌍

In other words, through self-initiated initiatives, partnerships and commissioned projects we help organisations and citizens make better decisions by learning collectively how to:

  • anticipate challenges and opportunities
  • collaborate and build networks
  • adapt to accelerated change in complex times and environments

Humans make terrible decisions when they feel fear. We all fear change and uncertainty. This is why the purpose of our work is to cultivate and encourage the collective critical hope, a shared superpower that becomes quite useful to address complex emergencies as the current pandemic or the growing environmental emergency.

One of the tools we’ve created for purpose is The Everything Manifesto, a collection of proposals to address the environmental emergency by changing the digital economy, using 5 key values to give a direction to that change and asking 10 hypothetical questions as thought experiments to change our relationship with Everything.

The current crisis has only increased the urgency of these proposals and this is why in this presentation we will dig deeper into the key values that can help you make better decisions, both as a citizen and as a member of different kinds of organisations– companies, governments or universities and society at large.

Let’s start with the basic blocks that shape our shared realities: words.

This is why our alternative approach to deal with change is guided by a subversion of language. In our practice, we plurify, demystify and make creative uses of big words as future, technology or the internet:

  • futures as tools for anticipation, participation, storytelling and collective decision-making, as an alternative way of thinking of ‘the future’ as a predefined destination or a dualistic utopia/dystopia prophecy.
  • digital technologies as instruments for social change, as an alternative to the toxic myth of a singular binary god that “will save us”
  • cities and internet(s) as action verbs, instead of places, expanding the meaning and value of becoming active planetary citizens as an alternative to being users, consumers or patriots.

If words are probably the most powerful force available to humanity, then questions can be the best way we can all use that force. We love using questions as design tools.

So let’s start with the question we are all asking today… WTF is going on???

To address this question we need to use one of our favourite words: CONTEXT

The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

The context that is shaping decision-making today can be analysed by looking at the words and language being used to describe the current situation, while we are together apart.

According to many leaders and media outlets, we are fighting a war against an invisible enemy, the coronavirus, which is often presented as the antagonist of a black-swan event, in other words the evil force causing an unexpected major scale crisis.

This narrative is not only false, but intentionally misleading the public opinion as Lucy expands in the following article:

To better understand what is going on, it is essential to denormalise the war narrative.

Blaming or declaring war to a virus is as misleading as declaring war to climate change.

Both are complex emergencies, but not wars. The public opinion is being gaslighted, as this article explains, in another act of an escalating war against common sense by those who keep profiting from a clearly unsustainable status quo.

What is going on is the result of political, societal and economical decisions taken by governments and companies around the world to address the pandemic, which are triggering and accelerating multiple interconnected crises.

The use of the language of war is about the traditional power structures using the fear of war to distract public opinion from the actual causes of these crises:

  • the failure of the supranational governance needed to address borderless challenges
  • underfunded public health systems due to broken tax systems
  • massive precariousness as a result of the concentration of wealth

But what if many organisations and citizens around the Planet decided to resist the idea of going back to that normal?

What if many of us become aware that this pandemic is also opening a window of opportunity for systemic change?

What if we use the internet to launch a petition to include NO WEALTH CONCENTRATION and NO CORRUPTION in the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030?

Let’s listen again to what historian Rutger Bregman said in Davos last year…

This is the power of language. The power of hypothetical questions that can inspire the collective imaginations of many peoples, who can create alternative future narratives to the toxic hypernormalisation of a few billionaires.

We can use words to create the conditions for the change we want to see in the world and help us make better decisions with collective critical hope, instead of fear of war or fear of change itself.

While we are together apart, we invite you to reflect on the meaning of the following three words that stand for social values that we can use to make better everyday life choices during this crisis and beyond, while asking ourselves a thought experiment?

What if we start using the word internet as an action verb, one that has baked in the following values?

From guilt to… Responsibility

The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone. The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.

Responsibility is all about power and the privilege that comes with it. For example, if for you this crisis is a great pause, most probably you have a great privilege. Thousands are losing their dear ones and millions are losing their sources of income or hope. For many, this is not a pause but a severe disruption. Becoming aware of privilege and being responsible should not be viewed as a source of guilt but rather an opportunity to learn.

From fear to… Empathy

Psychologists began using empathy as a translation for the German term Einfühlung and the concept that a person could project their own feelings onto a viewed object. The term is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Empathy is all about caring for others, including other non-human living beings. For example, if for you the worst consequence of this crisis is mandatory isolation or having to work from home, most probably you’ll need to question the effect on your empathy levels of how deaths and jobless are represented as cold stats and curves.

A good example of applied empathy comes from artist and activist Taeyoon Choi who created the Distributed Web of Care, a project that imagines distributed networks as a form of interdependence and stewardship, in critical opposition to the networks that dominate the world today.

From individuality to… Solidarity

According to Wikipedia, solidarity is “an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes. It refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one.”

Solidarity can be understood as the convergence of responsibility and empathy. It is all about engagement and learning. This word is quite present in media narratives today, but we need to be aware of not confusing it with charity, which inherently reinforces inequality.

As Eduardo Galeano said:

“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people”.

We can also use this as an opportunity to imagine how we can cultivate solidarity beyond humans, with all forms of life.

The time is now to start translating these words into collective action. This is why IAM is launching this year two initiatives, a community for citizens and a coalition for organisations.

The first one is We 🌍 internet, a transnational community learning how to use the internet(s) to address the environmental emergency by exploring collectively how we can change the digital economy and the second one is The Billion Seconds Initiative, a coalition of organisations, cities and communities with a long-term mission that is shaped by the following question:

How can we improve the environmental health of the Planet 🌍 and the societal wellbeing for billions of living beings, including humans?

We believe that the possible answers to this question can come from changing the everyday life choices that shape Everything, as plural alternatives to technological moonshots run by billionaires.

Following the directions of change proposed in The Everything Manifesto, we’re building a coalition across borders, industries and cultures, inviting organisations, cities and communities who are willing to make a commitment with this long-term mission.

The members of this coalition will participate, collaborate and support the design, co-creation and distribution of tools that help billions of citizens around the Planet to make more conscious everyday life choices related to three key themes in the context of the digital economy: Energy, Consumption, Attention.

Some people like to call this historical times the “Great Pause”. We prefer to understand it as a Great Awakening, as we can finally become more aware of the weirdness of our interdependencies and how by making better decisions as citizens and organisations, we can define together better directions of change.

While you and billions of humans experience physical distancing, we can use this collective awareness to learn how to internet better.

We can learn how to apply values as responsibility, empathy and solidarity while designing and using digital technologies to reduce the temporal, spatial and emotional distance between our everyday life choices and the implications they are having in Everything.

We can learn how to internet our civic duty as citizens of planet Earth, today, tomorrow and for the next billion seconds.

Photo: Pale blue dot (1990)

Thanks to the SPACE10 team for inviting us to kick-off the SPACE10 Sessions and to all the 300+ members of the We internet community who support and trust our work.



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