Personal Democracy Forum 2015: Imagine All the Feelz

Personal Democracy Forum 2015: Imagine All the Feelz

(Full text and a few slides after the jump.)


I want to start out by showing you some pictures from my social media streams from two years ago — this is the summer of 2013.

Pdf2015 - Slide02
A pretty fun lookin’ life! Who can tell what’s missing from these photos?

I was also spiraling down into a major depressive episode. To the point where, while I didn’t want to actually kill myself, the pain and hopelessness that I’d sunk into were so great that if this was what it meant to stay on the planet, I didn’t really want that either. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression, but this was like nothing I’d experienced before.

The dissonance created by what was really happening in my life, versus what I thought I should share publicly, only made things worse.

I don’t think I’m alone in having an experience like this– where the private and the public versions of our experience were so incongruous that we felt like something was ripping in the space-time continuum.

We are trained for performance. It’s not always a negative, either: we have many facets to our lives, and we learn over time which pieces to present to which communities, and how/why. This is how we humans stay acceptable to one another!

The difference is that we’re now dealing with a scale of performance that our little monkey brains can’t totally process. Online social tools are giving us tremendous power, sure, and they’re also eating up our sanity, little by little.

I’m here to stage a community and culture-wide intervention.

Five years ago I stood in this room and I told you that online social tools held the power to take the minutiae and the crises and the bliss of our lives to create empathetic experiences like never before. I still believe that. I still think we can do that.

But, here we are, and this is where we’ve gotten to in the journey.

I’m not suggesting we need to focus exclusively on pain, illness and grief, though. What I want is there simply to be room for it. Right now, for example, one of the only ways for us to be emotionally vulnerable online is when something terrible happens in the world–when unarmed Black women and men are murdered by police, when queer and trans folk are persecuted and killed, when women are robbed of their very basic human rights to health and well-being. Using social platforms to emotionally organize when something terrible happens, that’s absolutely critical: we need to come together, grieve and organize in our grief. But we can’t live that polarity online, utter bliss versus extreme pain, and not expect to suffer repercussions. In between, we have to start creating culture, and technological, space to accommodate our full spectrum of experience.

Increasingly, our digital culture looks for cleaner, more perfect, more algorithmically poetic ways to organize itself. My genius hacker maker friend Anselm Hook wrote about this in a rant to fellow software developers:

“In our work, our love-lives, our sexual escapades, we aim for things to go smoothly and to be graceful. To slip past, slide over, not get caught. Never get tangled. … Nature doesn’t get dirty, never has to be cleaned. Nature’s nature is filthy. …. Everything in nature is already entangled. … It could be that entanglement itself is the fundamental law of the universe and other things that we think of as fundamental are merely side-effects.”

As technologists, we are obsessed with purity. Straight lines. Containers and grids. As people, we are obsessed with advertising the best, most enviable versions of ourselves. We have this huge opportunity to rip down the barriers to intimacy and emotional connectivity.

But our obsessions have created a default way of being that is causing us not just to be alienated emotionally from one another, but also from our own selves. The complex identities we have to manage, vis a vis our sanitized technology, is thrusting us deeper and deeper into collective depressive dissonance.

Our cultural obsession with “happiness” also grates on us. Every time an app gets built to support “happiness,” God kills a kitten. Even one of my favorite words to employ when I teach digital media workshops, empathy, has entered buzzword overkill.

Empathy alone won’t help us. Sam Gregory of mentioned this in a talk at Tribeca this year. We also need solidarity–without it, empathy can be meaningless. Or maybe we need even more than solidarity. Something else.

I’ve spent weeks trying to find a word that describes the space we desperately need. It’s at the intersection of these places.

intimacy = authenticity/connection/vulnerability

The closest I could find was intimacy. That word inspires all sorts of feelz for most of us, but moving forward, when I say intimacy, this intersection is what I mean.

The messy bits that make us human create intimacy. But the digital culture that we’re shaping and building, with its obsession with the best versions and the cleanest lines, is robbing us of the intimacy we need to be fully realized creatures. Our ambient awareness of what we share publicly can no longer be substituted for the actual intimacy we crave and need.

Despite the frustration that socnets bring us, we go back over and over because we’re silly mammals who are easily trained by intermittent positive reinforcement. We push this polluted button, seeing if we get lucky and get high off the dopamine and oxytocin hits. We have little sense of what the tools are doing to us or what’s at stake, so we repeat these terrible behaviors over and over, because that one time it felt really good.

This is a call for us to understand that the true future of civics means we have to truly Imagine All Our Peopleness, and create space for intimacy. We must embrace the messy, complicated, impossible fundamentals of humanity.

We know humanity’s a mess. We see it. We joke around about it as organizers and as nerds. And then we plug our ears and yell “LA LA LA!”, hoping that some sort of clean technological magic bullet will let us escape from that pain and scariness.

It just doesn’t work that way. Some of the smartest people I know are in this room. That’s why I’ve been coming here for over a decade. And I know if we put our hearts into this– we can shift the course of the huge crazy journey we’re on.

What if, as people who are obsessed with the idea of improving the conditions within which humans operate locally and globally, we were to truly “imagine all the people?”

What would that look like for our work?

What if we incorporate feelings like this into our work as community organizers and problem solvers?

What if we admit that we don’t know the answers, and that’s okay– that simply not being alone on this nutty planet is a good enough place to start?

Pema Chödrön