The other day I spoke at an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) conference in Istanbul, Turkey. It was a very mainstream conference. Surely, I thought, there must be some mistake? Why would they invite someone like me? “I like to shake things up a little bit,” replied Ali, a consultant to the organizer in charge of finding the keynote speakers.
So there I was, feeling a little bit out of place, a feeling augmented by the contrast in attire between me and the vast majority of the attendees. I'm not sure if I was the ONLY man wearing a T-shirt, but I think I was. At least it was a clean T-shirt.
The opening morning before my speech didn't exactly assuage my feeling of being out of place. The talks by high government officials and corporate executives (for example, a vice president of Samsung) were all about the growth of the ICT sector, Turkey's economic growth, the progress in Internet connectivity and broadband penetration, and so on. They extolled the up-and-coming wonders of technology, the coming M2M (machine to machine) revolution in which not only will people interface with machines, but machines will interface with each other. Soon, my friend, your smart phone will communicate with your refrigerator. Aren't you excited? And you'll be able to video conference anywhere you are – at the airport, even while you are vacationing at the beach. Yes indeed, we were assured, life is going to get better and better, but to take advantage of it we'll have to adapt to some rapid changes.
You can imagine my apprehension as I walked to the podium to speak to those 2000 ICT professionals. I felt like an alien who had just walked off his spaceship.
I spoke of the unredeemed promise of technology to usher in a utopia, the impact of endless growth on the environment, and the feeling that everyone has that the world we know as normal is coming to an end. I asked them, in the most jovial tone I could muster, “Come on – is anybody in the audience really curious about the temperature of your refrigerator right now? Does anyone think your life will be better with more videoconferencing? Can't we do better than that?”
I also spoke to the desire of all human beings to contribute to something meaningful, to live a life that makes sense given all we know is happening to the world.
Usually my jokes provoke laughs and my passionate invocation of the possibility of a more beautiful world draws applause, but not this time. My remarks were met with stony silence and frowns, a whole sea of them. I took a different tack then, speaking of another purpose of technology that lurks like a recessive gene underneath the program of domination and control, a beautiful purpose, perhaps the purpose that lends to the ICT field, even in the age of refrigerator networking, a tinge of novelty, excitement, the promise of wonder. Perhaps it is this intuition of a wonderful happening through technology that draws people to the technology field. Because after all, we like all species have something unique to give to the planet. Our unique gift of technology has a purpose, and we can begin to turn it toward that purpose. I related ICT to a broader movement toward self-organizing, autopoetic systems, open collaboration, the creation of a social ecology that will go hand in hand with the rejoining of economy and ecology.
More stony silence and wooden faces.
I carried on as best I could, hoping the 40 minutes would soon be over. A little voice began whispering in my ear. It said, “Charles, the reason for this cold reception is that you are wrong. You were invited here by accident, but you are not really part of their world, and for good reason – you don't have what it takes. You are a pretender, a dilettante. You don't belong in the big leagues where everyone wears a suit and tie. Maybe the less intelligent, less successful hippies you usually speak to lap up your validation of their own failure, but these folks know better.”
After the talk a lot of people came up to thank me for the speech. They said the usual things about how inspiring it was, but I didn't believe them, not all the way. That little voice was attached to me like a parasite. Even when people said, “Turkish people are very reserved. They show approval by silence,” I wasn't mollified. Nor did the assurance mollify me that “many people in the audience are having such thoughts in secret. Your words will stay with them, even if they are not ready to fully accept them yet.”
Dear readers, please don't flood me with reassuring letters telling me that voice is wrong. I know it is just a voice, just a story. I'm not describing this experience to fish for reassurance. I want to expose that voice, to name it, because I think that almost everyone working to change the world hears that same voice from time to time. It is part of the defense apparatus of the world as we know it. Consensus reality casts its shadow into the psyche of each one of us.
The stories that inhabit us are not mere intellectual constructs, devoid of emotional content, but are part of an entire state of being. A little part of me believes that voice, a hurting part of me. That voice is the voice of a wound, calling for attention. It is a wound many of us share, plunged as we are into a society whose consensus beliefs defy our sense of rightness, fairness, and justice a world that defies our heart-knowledge that the world is supposed to be more beautiful and life more authentic, intimate, joyful than what has been presented as normal. The voice says, “No, the world is fine. The problem is you.” And our social institutions back it up with shaming and humiliation from childhood on.
And there is more. I am sure that some of my supporters will hasten to assure me that the little voice is lying. Yes. But within every lie there is a grain of truth. To blithely dismiss any criticism or self-criticism with non-falsifiable excuses like, “They just aren't ready for it,” or, “It worked, there just isn't any evidence of it,” shuts the door to growth and creates a division of the world into those who “get it” and those who do not, those who are awakening and those who aren't. All of us, in one way or another, carry invisible habits and beliefs of the old world into the new. Only something from the outside – a collision with reality – can reveal what was invisible.
The painful emotions I experienced with the voice that assailed me at my speech indicate that it indeed was expressing a wound. Beyond that, though, I am looking for the truth in the lie. The grain of truth here has yet to reveal itself. It isn't just that I “didn't respect where people are at,” or that I was judgmental, or that I need to conform to the protocol of a keynote speaker or display the symbols of legitimacy in order to be heard. I've gone through all those possibilities. There is something else.