Hello, I’m Sam Gregory, I’m the Program Director at the human rights group WITNESS, and recently a Future for Good fellow at the Institute for the Future. And I’m here to share a vision I have for the future of engaged activism using the power of co-present live storytelling and action.
I want to start by asking you a question. Take a moment, and think about the last time you took an action for a social justice issue you cared about. For many of us it probably looked like one of these things.
Now ask yourself: Did I really understand or feel connected to this? And did I care?
Now take another moment and ask yourself: Did I make a difference? Did it matter?
I suspect everyone here will have recently taken an action. Everyone will have felt distanced from it. Everyone will have felt at least a little uncertain about the impact.
But in some senses you should be congratulating yourself that you did anything. The truth is that there are always other things going on. Even when an issue is right on our doorstep.
Brueghel captured this memorably in his painting, ‘The Fall of Icarus’.
If you look closely at this picture - beyond the ploughman at his field, and the man staring skyward, and the man poking in the water, and look in to the bottom right, there’s Icarus who flew too close to the sun. He is just disappearing under the waves – you can just see his legs kicking just below the ship. It’s something incredible that has just happened, a bird man falling from the sky, but everyone is going about their daily business oblivious.
But I think we could do better in engaging each other to action. If we could find a way to….
Generate stronger empathetic and compassionate connections for ourselves to other people living through human rights crises, so that we ‘feel with’ and ‘feel for’ better.
If we could…Create more timely, relevant ways for us to act in response to social justice issues.
And if we could better utilize what I call our ‘distributed willingness’ – the networks of people that want to do something, sharing common goals but not located in the sites of human rights struggles.
And if we could tap into more people’s particular skills, capacities and leverage in a more effective way?
In summary how could we better combine: Empathetic and compassionate connection with more timeliness and with better utilization of skills, capacity, leverage and of this ‘distributed willingness’.
My own explorations in this area have started in the place I know best. The power of video storytelling in the hands of witnesses and human rights activists worldwide.
Livestreamed experience offers the possibility of being a distant witness in real-time as events happen.
Pioneering human rights livestreamers emerged during the Arab Spring and Occupy: Syria Pioneer from Homs, who courageously filmed as Assad’s troops closed in Mo Nabbous of Libya Ahurra TV And there were tens of thousands who simultaneously watched the Occupy Livestreams and over the course of a few days millions watched live similar movements in Puerta Del Sol, Madrid
Or more recently we’ve experienced the streets of Hong Kong, Istanbul and Ferguson live.
Sometimes you stumble on amazing moments like this one from Rio, where a policeman about to conduct a search on an activist says ‘Watch the search’ and the activist replies ‘I will watch. There are 5000 people watching.’
And of course livestreaming is not just for street protests. We’ve grown accustomed to it at a personal level in every part of our lives. We have an easy comfort with what we might call co-presence with others at distance. Co-presence being that sense of a shared space via technology even though we’re apart. From skyped births in military familes, to FaceTiming with our children and grandparents.
And let me throw one more element into the livestreaming mix…. Baby meerkats! Take a moment to enjoy them.
There’s been an explosion of new livestreaming tools in the last month, that are more easy to use, lower latency and more tied to our social graphs. Meerkat is one of them.
As is Periscope on Twitter. And a host of other good similar tools already exist from Stringwire to Bambuser.
So to go back to this…. how could we begin to use these tools to generate empathy and compassion for others in crisis, not gawking voyeurism.
How could we turn this into meaningful action for the people formerly known as the audience (that’s us!) as well as for people on the ground in crisis.
And I say this, because I care about action that is meaningful and that would matter for people like these, human rights defenders from around the world who I recently met in Stockholm.
They are human rights defenders on the frontlines of struggles worldwide.
They are in situations like this on a daily basis, confronting uncomfortable realities of oppression, discrimination, exclusion and violence.
So, what if we moved our idea of the audience for video from us a largely passive spectators to active distant witnesses
How could we support the small number of frontline defenders on the ground, like these women in Cambodia. They are few and they are vulnerable.
If an activist could ‘summon’ a crowd of 100 observers and virtual participants, what could they achieve? If we could stand alongside them, what could we achieve? I'd like you to come on a journey of action possibilities with me.
As one path, leverage options for utilizing crowds of watching witnesses draw on that example of the police officer confronted by five thousand viewers. There are ways to to make the presence of multitudes of distant viewers more visible and more leveragable. Perhaps something as simple as an LED light on the front of the live-streaming activist’s camera showing how many people are watching.
Or the faces of watching people projected with light on a nearby wall?
Or could we do what crowds of Tunisian football fans were enabled to do. They were banned from the stadium, but used a smartphone app to tap and cheer, shout along with the match as they watched on TV. Which was translated into loudspeaker synchronized in the stands of the stadium.
“That day, the stadium was empty. But you could hear 93,100 roaring fans.”
Imagine the human rights version of this?
Or this amazing example from Madrid last week where a crowd of holograms from remote watchers gathered to protest new laws that would restrict the right to protest.
Utilizing these approaches could we prevent violence or illegitimate conduct in those places where there is some minimal rule-of-law? Could we gather geographically dispersed support in one place to generate greater pressure?
Much activism takes place behind the proverbial closed-door into the corridors of power.
But creative pressure on a decision maker can be exerted by the crowd ‘in the room’ who are standing “behind the camera” of the one or two people who have been allowed into the meeting.
This is one of my favourite examples from WITNESS experience. You can’t see them in this photo but there are 3,000 or so people watching the governor of this Mexican state watch this video explaining why he should withdraw his support for a development project in this community’s land. You can bet he feels the pressure of those eyes… Could we do this virtually too?
Or make sure that absent voices – for example, the communities affected by mining and oil companies are ‘co-present’ in their shareholders meeting.
The physical spaces of activism are often small, and cannot contain the multitudes of potential participants. But the storytelling power of actions in defined, iconic spaces directly contributes to their dramatic potential for engaging distant witnesses in moral drama.
For example, the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina in which protestors occupied the State Legislative building in an act of civil disobedience provides an example of the type of physical space that lends itself to bringing additional supporters in virtually.
And then of course we must translate that experience into asking those people to take a specific, timely action as they watch: creating a tweet-storm, contacting their legislators, re-streaming it on to their friends.
The risks of violence and detention can be high for frontline activist at any time...When the world is watching how do we move from a panic button on a phone to a rapid reaction connection to a live feed?
Here we see it happening already with a Chinese lawyer who shared live when security police came to his hotel room. Just as the man earlier live-streamed the police search and arrest to generate watching eyes to pressure for his release. There is a potential systematic equivalent of a rapid reaction, on-call network of distant witnesses.
And there can be practical tasks that can be done alongside in a co-present setting. What would the Mechanical Turk or Task Rabbit of rapid human rights reaction look like?
We know that frequently activists on the ground are overburdened and over-stretched. So what acts of analysis could distant witnesses perform? Could a strategically deployed crowd of distant witnesses support activists on the street by, for example, identifying abusive police officers and rapidly calling ahead to police stations during those critical moments after arrests when physical violence towards detainees is most likely.
One dimension of effective co-presence takes me back to my first question about caring/connecting... The people at the other end of the experience also doubt whether we care/believe. This is the perspective of a sex worker who’d faced police violence in Macedonia as she talked about the feeling of hopelessness and pointlessness that can sometimes get to even the bravest people confronting injustice and power and trying to engage distant audiences.
I think empathy is an overrated emotion in activism, while the role of compassion and solidarity are often under-valued. However, there is a role for ‘walking in others’ shoes’ and ‘seeing through others’ eyes in order to ‘feel’ the experience of being a member of a minority facing everyday discrimination, or understand at a basic level what it is to walk in the streets of a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria that is under constant threat from barrel bombs that kill indiscriminately.
And an important part of generating empathy and solidarity in the long run is to think about how alongside ‘walking in peril’ or ‘walking in fear’, ‘walking in joy’ matters. The moments of small or great success, or joy, that occur even in the most arduous circumstances, such as this calm moment in the St Petersburg Pride are key events for co-presence.
And the question would then also be, how might these feelings of solidarity be experienced not only by distant witnesses, but also by those whom they are co-present with in the site of crisis? Beyond seeing hearts float up their screen, as happens with ‘likes’ on Periscope, can we soon see models to viscerally experience shared solidarity and joy…
So-called haptic tools like this hug jacket make the feelings of distant others visceral and tangible via touch and sensation – so that someday soon someone in crisis can feel the warm glow or uplifting energy of solidarity around them.
And someone who is co-present far away could feel this energy… How could co-present viewers share the joy of this woman I stood next to during the first blush of excitement around human rights and democracy in Burma, as she stood waving a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi and Obama, on the day Obama visited the Lady?
Let me add another layer to the mix.
A growing number of tools for task-allocation and routing allow us to reach individuals within networks at the right time and right place based on their skills and timetables, when they are available, and at the moment when their skills, capacity or leverage is needed.
An app like PulsePoint Respond geo-locates someone with CPR skills near a person suffering a heart attack, who then provides emergency first aid in the critical first eight minutes of a cardiac arrest, while a responder is on the way.
On a more global scale, initiatives like the Standby Task Force provide distributed volunteers worldwide, “crisis mappers”, with opportunities to respond with timely simple crowd-sourced analysis to humanitarian emergencies, such as mapping building damage in a recent tsunami.
On the consumer side, tools like Tinder and Grindr give us easy ways to select in and out of opportunities.
And these networks and applications are increasingly built into the consumer tools on smartphones. The smart calendaring and algorithmic understanding tin a tool like Google Now anticipates the plans and availability of the user of an Android phone – for example, suggesting that it is time to get to on the freeway to drive home to meet the kids from school, but noting that there is heavy congestion on the road, so that the user needs to leave ten minutes early.
These tools potentially facilitate a better utilization of ‘distributed willingness’ so that we’re asked to join a livestream and take an action at the time and place that works for us, calculated dynamically based on where we are and what we’re doing at any given moment.
And why is this important? Because we need to be asked at the right time and right place for the thing we can do and that is needed then, not just by an email sitting in our inbox at 9am.
But more importantly the exasperated activist on the ground may not know that a crowd will be predictably there when he needs one, and at other times he will not necessarily want to just have an undifferentiated crowd of 100’s watching live, asking inane questions in his comment stream.
In this light, in some circumstances, it is not the crowd that is needed but the skills and advice of an individual, of the ‘expert on-call’. How do we bring distant expertise into a location where those skills are not present?
Just as Google Helpouts provided the opportunity to be guided by a yoga instructor via video conferencing on HangOuts, an on-call legal observer or the land rights lawyer could provide legal guidance to an individual in a community that has no local lawyer co-located with them. Similarly an on-call video editor could rapidly turn the chaos and longueurs of live footage into edited material to share on further.
SO this is my REAL vision for how this starts to play out in terms of rapid reaction, engagement and empathy, analysis and guidance and powerful leverage.
Now let me add another advance and another wrinkle.. In a few years time we know this is also going to be immersive – via the Oculus Rift and other such tools built for gaming and virtual reality entertainment.
And yes, we’ve already had the first publicized co-present birth experienced not on Skype, but in live immersive video.
And even Mark Zuckerberg knows we’ll go in this direction. As he said at the time of the purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook….
“After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face. Imagine standing together with people around the world fighting injustice -- just by putting on your Oculus in your home.”
WAIT, in truth I made the last bit up but if’s “of a piece” with what he’s saying
And already we’ve had some chances to experience human rights contexts in VR – such as Project Syria and the other work of my friend Nonny De La Pena
And Chris Milk and VRSE partnered with Vice to provide an immersive look at protestors in the Millions March.
And we’re seeing dramatic, experimentation in body-swap empathy via live VR from the amazing Machine to Be Another and others.
However, a co-present activism will have to pay attention to some key ethical challenges, many of which will be increased by the growth of immersive experience. I think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where the population indulges in immersive ‘feelies’ but takes no action against injustice. This emphasizes the importance of doing this right.
Empathy and understanding won’t just happen because an experience is immersive or has co-presence – this is not an automatic ‘empathy machine’. And indeed we may not be looking for empathy, but instead compassion, solidarity and action.
We need to avoid indulging e in a self-expressive activism that takes the emotionality of the us, the distant witness – “OH GOSH, I CRIED” rather than the vulnerability and needs of the frontline activist as a motivation for solidarity and action. This is not a puppet theatre.
And the emotional intensity of live, episodic, first-person experience may inadvertently contribute to the ongoing challenge in human rights of communicating structural violence, hidden violence and underlying causation.
We’ll need to think about structured processes to provide shared experience outside of crisis. Here we can think about how to use the strong sense of ambient or background co-presence that can be created via the exposure to someone’s daily life and more intimate moments via asynchronous social media feeds such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. We feel close even though we’re far.
And finally, this type of witnessing also raises uncomfortable ethical questions of if we can be there, should we be there? If we could have been simultaneously witnessing the equivalent of the murder of Neda Agha Soltan in Iran in 2009, should we have?
And is there also potentially a contingent responsibility not to look if we do not plan to act?
But let me not end on a negative note. I am optimistic, I believe that there is a better way to engage you and I in supporting struggles for justice, in supporting these defenders on the ground.
I am hopeful. I have a vision of shared humanity and shared experience enabled by these approaches that takes us back to where Aldous Huxley originally took the title ‘Brave New World’ – from Shakespeare’s The Tempest where he says:
O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!
With a together now approach that combines video tools to ‘walk in someone’s shoes’ and to see through others’ eyes; with practical task-routing to optimize use of your skills and leverage, and translate feeling into compassionate action, I KNOW we can do a better job of turning distributed networks of willingness into meaningful action all around.
See, Hear Act?: 'Together Now' Co-Present Storytelling and Action
See, Hear - Act?
‘Together Now’ Co-Present Storytelling
“Did I feel connected to this; did I
“Did I make a difference?”
Did I feel connected to this?
Did I care?
“Did I feel connected to this; did I
“Did I make a difference?”
“Did I make a difference?”“Did I make a difference?”
Did I make a difference?
Did it matter?
Generate stronger empathetic and compassionate
Better utilization of ‘distributed willingness’
Better use of individual and collective skills,
capacities and leverage
R.E.A.L. modes for utilizing co-present and
distributed participatory storytelling-for-action
• Reaction and Rapid Reaction
• Engagement and Empathy/ Solidarity-
• Analysis and Expert Guidance
• Leverage – Preventative and Persuasive
“After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for
many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at
a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all
over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face.
Imagine standing together with people around the world
fighting injustice -- just by putting on your Oculus in your
Mark Zuckerberg, posted on Facebook after their purchase of Oculus Rift
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!
‘Together Now’ Opportunities
Technologies and movement tactics combine:
Live co-present experience and immersion + focus on generating
Utilization of ‘distributed willingness’ via task-routed use of individual and
collective skills, capacities and leverage
Manifested real-time reaction, analysis, persuasive pressure, preventative
pressure, leverage and genuine solidarity
email@example.com, witness.org, immersedin.tumblr.com, @samgregory