Techutopia In Tibet
"I'm going to fool them. I'm not going to have an army. I'm going to disband mine. I'll sink my battleships, destroy every piece of warcraft. Then, when the enemy approaches we'll say, ‘Come in, what can we do for you?' Then the enemy soldiers will come in and think, ‘There's something wrong here, we've been duped. This is not according to form. These people seem quite friendly, why should we shoot them?' Then they'll lay down their arms. See how simple it is?"
– Robert Conway, "Lost Horizon" 1937
Shangri-La: the remote utopia hidden amidst the distant peaks of the Himalyas, its tranquility unable to be remembered by anyone who leaves, a location so fabled that Franklin D. Roosevelt rather hopefully named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland after it. (Of course, you don't remember that's what Camp David was first called. See how it works?) The promise of bliss is inseparable from the seduction of war, and much less frequently realized.
A handful of Americans made news on those remote Tibetan mountains last month, in a story invoking remembrance of a brutal genocide alongside the frankly salvatory hopes for Internet technology. This story is about nationalism, free speech, radical activism, occupation and global capitalism – all set against the spectacle of the '08 Olympic games in China. It's about what images we're allowed to look at, and the cost of looking, and the bravery of a few people willing to risk everything to protest against injustice.
But mostly, it's about the tech. Or rather, about utopian hopes for what tech might allow.
The action began when Students for a Free Tibet (SFFT), a network of activists campaigning for Tibetan independence, planned a protest that required media savvy to pull off. They recruited several long-time media activists to assist. The event coincided with the '08 Olympic Committee's decision to approve the Olympic torch relay route. China, set to host the '08 Olympics, proposed taking the torch relay through Tibet to the summit of Everest, which the Tibetans claim as occupied territory. The Chinese, according to Lhadon Tethong of SFFT, "hope to use the 2008 Olympic Games to conceal the brutality of its occupation of Tibet and win the international community's acceptance as a modern power on the world stage."
The small group of five activists entered the country claiming to attend a wedding. One of the group had scouted the area previously, and knew they could rent some of their gear, like tents and cooking equipment, on site. They knew they were going to have problems with the video gear – the temperatures at basecamp are rough on batteries and make computers unreliable.
The group performed what would be described in the US as non-violent civil disobedience. Their action was to record and broadcast a speech act in the middle of a country that rigorously prevents individual free speech and which resolutely controls the movement of information.
In front of a camera – that is, in front of the eyes of the world – they unfurled a banner with the Olympic tag line "One World, One Dream." It also proclaimed, in English, "Free Tibet ‘08," and included "Free Tibet" in Chinese and Tibetan, clearly visible. Tendor Dorje, an American-Tibetan from Boston and the first exiled Tibetan known to stage a protest inside Tibet, presented a brief manifesto against the torch route. He lit a "freedom torch" and sang the Tibetan National Anthem as the banner was being displayed. In China that activity is referred to as action against the state, and people are routinely killed for it.
In fact, as a brief aside, on the same mountain in October of 2006, a Romanian television station videotaped Chinese guards apparently gunning down Tibetan pilgrims. It's on YouTube.
You can hear gunshots and see the Tibetans falling one by one as they walk single-file across the mountain's ridge.
You won't find images, although they exist, of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s on YouTube. That historic archival footage, shot by the Chinese as they attacked, shows the slaughter of monks and the destruction of monastaries. That footage has been used recently in experiments on Tibetan monks to measure their ability to bring their brainwaves back to ‘calm' after seeing images of their people being killed. Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959 after an unsuccessful uprising against the Chinese. "There's blood on these mountains," Dorje says in his manifesto, into the camera, and he calls for a Free Tibet.
YouTube was an integral part of April's action on Everest, as there would be no event at all if the action were not recorded and broadcast. The tech was unprecedented. Video activist Shannon Service recorded to tape, simultaneously transmitting the signal via wireless to Jeff Friesen's laptop 20 feet away. Jeff has worked with Alternative Radio, Free Speech TV, Greenpeace and the Ruckus Society.
"Because we knew we were probably going to be arrested," he said, "we needed to get the footage out live."
The video camera was a small, consumer Sony HDV camera, HDV providing higher quality still photos from the video for print media. The camera had a Bluetooth wireless microphone that worked better than expected.
Jeff's wireless received the video from Shannon's camera transmission, and sent the signal through an analog-digital converter that output firewire into his MacBook computer…not much different from using a WII or Playstation or Final Cut. Quicktime Broadcaster downsized and compressed the video to a data rate the satellite connection could handle (220kbps at 15 frams/sec, compressed eventually to 100 kbps), and sent it via satellite (Inmarsat system using a BGAN Java program) to a Students for a Free Tibet computer, which was also running Quicktime Broadcaster. They immediately uploaded the three minute video to YouTube. As a backup, Flickr, YouTube, Pando and other accounts were set up on the computer to upload images and video in the event Quicktime Broadcaster failed to send video, but an Internet connection was still live.
Got that? A handful of everyday people broadcast live to a global audience from one of the most remote locations on the planet using consumer hardware and software from the center of one of the most controlled information economies. In some ways it was a very effective beta trial for an entirely new, technologically enabled form of protest. Control, no matter how brutal, can not hold.
The action delivered the same old-fashioned result, however. The activists were arrested, thrown in jail, and knocked around a bit before being deported. After she was released in Katmandu, Shannon said, "the entire thing was fairly traumatic…not sleeping for over 30 hours, being denied food and water for over 14….I became very afraid for my own safety and the safety of my friends."
Communication throughout the action was handled on Skype. Here's an excerpted Skype transcript of the arrest:
Jeff Friesen: no
Jeff Friesen: she is filming to tape
SFT1: amazing job, btw. You are def
Jeff Friesen: they just got arrested,
stopping, running tape
SFT2: ok thanks jeff
SFT2: big confrontation? Or quiet and
SFT1: and the sat is offline
SFT2: any details on detention? It'd be
Very helpful for next steps
SFT1: am dubbing capture down here. Will take
SFT2: so was it Tendor, Kirsten and L that
went into the camp w/banner?
SFT2: and got popped?
SFT1: I think so
SFT1: but damn its beautiful
The activists knew what they were getting into. They were aware of the risks, and they were lucky. Friesen considers what they did media activism, but he says a better word for it would be "a trick."
"Why do we have to pull stunts like this one," he wondered, "or hang off cranes, or chain ourselves to trees to get the media to report on issues that deeply affect people's lives? It often takes something spectacular like the illusion that someone is risking their lives, or actually risking their lives, for the media to pay attention."
The media did pay attention. Massive worldwide media coverage was generated across the AP, Radio Free Asia, Australian television and websites, the Marin Independent Journal in California, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Huffington Post, RawStory, Fox News, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, the BBC, the Taipei Times and the San Jose Mercury News, Monstersandcritics.com, and the International Herald Tribune in France, among many others. There are 616,000 returns for a Google search on "Everest protest."
The Chinese responded by issuing dire warnings to travelers. "Tibet is an inseparable part of China," their statement reads. "The Chinese government and people will never tolerate any activity aimed at splitting China." China has ceased issuing permits for foreigners to travel to Tibet from Chendu since the action. According to blogger Matt Browner Hamlin, the Chinese are threatening citizens by cell phone, sending multiple SMS threats to cell phone customers in Tibet through Tibet Telecom, which say, "Oppose splittism, strike illegal border crossing, promote harmony, reward those who report on illegal border crossing. Reporting phone number: 6598110; Propaganda Division of Lhasa Station of Public Security Police Border Defense Unit of Tibet."
Before the activists were released, they were required to sign official documents stating they were sorry for threatening the national security of the People's Republic of China by saying the words "Free Tibet" in English, Chinese and Tibetan. Friesen feels that because of their censorship of outside media, the Chinese did not know the activists had broadcast the event live, worldwide. "They still wanted those videotapes. At one point when we were detained, they pulled out all of the tech gear, including the satellite, and were questioning Shannon about it. Fortunately they found a Tibetan yak-herding slingshot. The Tibetans used these against the Chinese military 50 years ago and are a symbol of the Tibetan resistance movement. They forgot about the satellite."
Students for a Free Tibet's website has a vision and value statement posted that could have come from the script of "Lost Horizons." That vision somehow seems as impossible to reach as Shangri La itself, although our technological lifeworld keeps reaching towards it. "We believe every individual has the right to be free. Those who enjoy freedom have the power and also the responsibility to make positive change in the world. We aim to create a just and equitable world, free of oppression, in which there is respect for the earth and all living things." Although the Olympic Committee approved China's proposed torch route, SFFT has more actions planned.
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How can you stage an international broadcast for the cause of your choice? Jeff has a few tips:
1. Find out as much information as you can about the site, the gear, the people you will be working with and the people that are going to arrest you. Test the system. Scout the actual site at the actual time of the action.
2. Redundancy. You don't want to put so much energy and time and money into an action, get arrested, and not pull it off. Successful actions are really hard to pull off.
3. Find a geek: if the action is super-techy, find a geek to be there running the gear. I would like to say that the technology is easy enough that anyone can make it work. But it isn't true yet. Seek these people out.