My turn to see things differently

5 Dec

As things are now, I feel privileged to have work. To have work that absorbs me, teaches me, touches me – that’s a real bonus. These last few weeks I’ve been writing about CulturaDigital.Br for the community. CulturaDigital.Br is a festival taking place every year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  and bringing together many diverse aspects of digital culture – keynote speakers like Paulo Coelho, Michel Bauwens, Philippe Aigrain, Hugues Sweeney, Yochai Benkler, and all manner of carefully curated projects and experiments using some kind of technology, like interactive film, mapping, open art, transparency activists, and more.

Writing about this wasn’t just another commission. It was more like a fast-track total immersion course in digital culture and, most importantly, exposure to points of view I hadn’t previously credited. 

My whole life, I’ve got my news and views from mainstream media. Being involved with CulturaDigital.Br turned a few of those views on their heads. One of the headlines on one of my pieces was “Seeing the World Differently”. That’s how I’m feeling today.

In this post I’m going to share a few things that made an impression on me.


A few years ago my step-kids were using my laptop to download music from Limewire. I was pretty horrified, having read a lot of headlines about ‘pirates’ (The Economist, for example) and seen  scary images of piles of CDs on fire, usually shown  at the beginning of rented DVDs.

I was lucky enough to interview Philippe Aigrain — “a passionate advocate of the right to share” — resulting in a complete U-turn on my part. What convinced me was this, from his interview:

Sharing (exchange, lending, copying, commonplacing*) books played a key role in the Renaissance and classical humanism. It served authors first by giving them access to an increased audience.

In modern times when reading spread and publishing became an industry, non-commercial sharing developed with books and later records. The key benefit for society is the creation of a shared culture associated to social acts (between a few in some cases, between very many in others). The scale of sharing for books, records etc. is not negligible: an average book has more than two readers.

*commonplace books are anthologies, notebooks of text extracts, pieces of wisdom, interest or beauty, that were at the heart of the intellectual work of an author in the 16th and 17th centuries.

This made me think of public libraries. As a kid in the Sixties, growing up in a small, silent village, TV still a flickering B&W, two-hour-a-night experience, library books were my ‘internet’. The place where I could find things out (how to do ballet steps), escape (parents, teachers), and find fictional friends (Anne of Green Gables) who could live on in my imagination.

I lived between the covers of library books. It started with Alison Uttley and I never looked back.

Without shared books, I wouldn’t be the person I am.


I more or less stopped watching films a few years ago. Maybe, after a lifetime of movies, they had got too samey. Maybe I just don’t like expensive cinemas, popcorn, overpriced drinks, too much heating, or people who try to spoil others’ enjoyment by shouting at the screen or the audience. Maybe I just have less time.

Enter digital storytelling into my life. Again I was lucky – this time to interview Hugues Sweeney, a director and producer who works with the National Film Board of Canada and a leading voice promoting new ways of digital storytelling.

Those new ways mean turning film (and other media) from something we passively consume to something we actively participate in.

Thanks to the fact that I needed to  research Hugues and the NFB so I could ask him some informed questions, I discovered the NFB’s website.

For a start, here’s a place you can watch hundreds of films for free.

But the thing that absolutely captivated me was Out My Window. It’s all about “the towers in the world, the world in the towers”. People who live in highrises and how they see the world “out their window”, made in a collaborative, participative way.

It’s hard to describe the pathos. You really have to see it.

It reminds me of the windows I’ve looked out  and the people who were there. A kind of personal “Out My Window” in my thoughts. And now I appreciate more the power of interactive film, and the inadequacy of mass-consumption movies. A truly beautiful project.


Third and final highlight of my CulturaDigital experience: interview with Michel Bauwens, peer-to-peer thinker and activist.

I want to highlight two absolute truisms from his interview, both of which underline his argument that we need to find alternatives to our present systems.

Talking about young people, and what our present systems offer them:

If you are young today, they’ll promise higher education fees, an increased chance to stay unemployed after you have accumulated student debt, the inability to buy a home, decimated pensions, and the necessity to continue to bailout bankrupt predatory financial institutions.

Talking about current state institutions and their sometimes absurd policies:

Fossil fuels get about ten times more subsidies than renewables; soil-depleting industrial agriculture gets a multitude more support than soil-sustaining eco-agriculture; in many U.S. states, it’s forbidden to collect rainwater from your roof, to sell jam to your neighbours, grow vegetables in your garden.

Whether you agree with Occupy or with P2P theory or not, he has a point about the society we’ve created, and the need to look for other ways of managing it.

There was much, much more to the CulturaDigital festival – even though it’s over, take a look at the website and watch out for next year’s edition.

Before I sign off, thanks to Kelly Hungerford at for involving me, and to all the people I worked with on this writing project (not to mention those who discussed anything and everything about digital culture with me and put up with the late hours).

You can follow Philippe on Twitter at @balaitous, Michel at @mbauwens and Hugues at @gredelegre.

Main photo: Laura and Fulvio’s photos on Flickr


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