Cyber Space

Ksenia Ermoshina is an Internet freedom activist and researcher. We met with her ahead of Elevate Festival 2020 for a conversation around present and upcoming political, cultural and technological struggles.

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Elevate Festival invited Ksenia Ermoshina, who is part of the 64 Faces of We are Europe 2019, to speak during their discourse programme earlier this year. We conducted this interview during the event, which happened to take place on the weekend before the Austrian lockdown. It comes with a short statement she had sent the month before when asked for a few words on the crisis that we are experiencing. She pointed out the situation in Russia, where she had decided to return: the failure of the government, the propaganda, but also solidarity between citizens and creativity.

As the world is facing one of its most serious crises in recent history, Ermoshina’s analysis of climate change, surveillance technology, privacy and human-nature relationship sounds more relevant than ever.

The sanitary crisis of 2020 has been for me an important bifurcation point, not only because it has affected my life and work on many levels, but first and foremost because it has demonstrated the crisis of political institutions and centralized, vertical modes of governance based on hierarchy and blind logistics.

For the time of the pandemic, I have taken a crucial decision to come to Russia to be closer to my parents who are in the risk group. Being in Russia in these times has been a full-immersion experience: I have witnessed the rapid growth of independent, grassroots community initiatives created to support elderly people, medical workers, people in need. Where the state could not do much, local groups have managed to fill in the gaps. Beyond this positive dynamics, the pandemic in Russia has been quite a momentum that has polarised the society even more. The Russian state has introduced new modes of biopolitical control in the name of public health, such as massive surveillance campaigns which used the “social monitoring apps” and facial recognition systems in order to track potentially infected citizens and automatically deliver fines.

Another aspect I would love to underline here, since I’m talking mostly about the Covid-19 crisis in Russia, concerns the new forms of TV propaganda and the framing of Covid-19 in Russian official media. Ironically, the official discourse of Russian media depicts the Russian state as being “the first one to propose a really efficient vaccine”. When talking about Covid-19, the news reporters always compare Russia to other countries, such as Italy, France, the USA or India, saying that “the situation in Russia is much better”. The crisis becomes, for state propagandists, yet another instrument of cold war, a sort of competition with other nation states. The “victory” over Covid-19 is compared to the victory over the Nazi Germany; same vocabulary is employed. Seems like, in absence of real agenda and socially meaningful measures, the government tries to build the new national idea around the “war on Covid-19”.

However, an important part of the population has grown skeptical as for the efficiency of such measures to actually combat Covid-19. Moreover, many small businesses have suffered from the quarantine. People have lost their jobs and did not get any support from the state. Unrest and protests in Russian regions, such as Khabarovsk, have not been stopped by the pandemic. During the most rigid months of self-isolation, April and May, Russian citizens have proven their creativity again by organizing “online rallies”, which I have been part of and have observed and analyzed, interviewing organizers and participants. Protesters were using collaborative mapping tools, such as Yandex or 2GIS, to add geotags accompanied with short slogans and demands. Thousands of critical comments have been published on the maps across the country, visualizing discontent and creating a real impression of a virtual crowd. Many of those complaints talked the inefficiency of sanitary and regulatory measures taken by the government.

Elevate’s festival theme 2020 is “Human Nature”. What is your second thought about it?

 “We are not defending the Nature, we are the Nature defending itself”. This is one of my favorite slogans on today’s struggles, because it shows that many nicely looking initiatives that pretend to help the environment are actually, deeply inside, just new forms of green capitalism. We need to start thinking how to make things with the nature, and not for the nature. Superficial, cosmetic “eco-friendly” projects are not enough anymore. I hope that Elevate will pass this message through: we really urgently need a deep reconfiguration of our ways of being with the nature, and this means both political and cultural struggles, a well as serious inner work on our own human nature.

And your first?

I was happy to find out that my favourite European festival is engaging with the most urgent question, that of rethinking our relationship with nature. I wonder what it means for a festival organisation as well; whether we can move towards different festival experiences, also regarding our habits and attitude to nature and each others as part of the nature. I expect from this year’s Elevate to be even more mindful, deep, connected and wholesome! And I think that this year, the festival experience can change many of us, through new connections with all the wonderful humans that will take part in both discourse and music programmes.

Quo Vadis Humanity? In 2009 Elevate’s main theme was the climate crisis. Ten years have passed. What is your take on the next ten?

I think there will be a movement towards decentralisation and re-localisation of life, with more and more people understanding that we do not really need more to feel better. I hope for the new forms of transnational tribes, based on affinities and common values, will grow and build living utopias, sustainable in terms of human-nature relations. I hope to see the development of new economic models, and parallel communities that will reject false needs and desires fueled by capitalism. I hope that we will see deep changes in the modes of governance of our societies, with more and more trans or postnational ways of coordinating our lives beyond nation-states, beyond borders. But that is the optimistic scenario. I also have a small skeptic living inside of my head that tells me that the next ten years might also be the years of fast collapse, rise of climate refugee crisis, as well as return of right-wing ideas across the globe. Growing inequalities will push humans for desperate forms of struggle, including violent riots. However due to success of surveillance technologies and police techniques of crowd-control, these popular uprisings may turn into many sufferings. But I have hope that we, people who maintain and move forward European culture, may help the first scenario win over the second. Through spread of ideas, values and culture that prefers cooperation over domination, and mutual help over control. But we do not have much time. So I hope to use Elevate’s discourse programme as the arena for sharing my thoughts and hope that a few souls will be convinced to join the bright side.

On the relationship of humans and technology — are there more reasons to be pessimistic or optimistic? Can you name some?

I am an optimist by “nature” and I also work in a free software project with great people, on a decentralised secure messaging app that is from the very beginning thought and designed to improve our relations with technology and help defend our freedom and privacy. So it is hard for me to be really pessimist. But if I go out of my nice bubble of privacy activists, I have to admit that there are many reasons to be pessimistic. I would name the main one: the patents and intellectual property on technological inventions. If I were a president of a country, or a transnational council, I would first of all advocate for stopping patenting and embracing the Commons. I think that open innovations are the key factor to reach equal access to technological and scientific achievements, and this includes not only gadgets, but also medical help, better housing and access to food, and so on. Another reason for pessimism is the datafication of human lives, and the transformation of every aspect of our existence in a potential source of revenue for digital platforms. While AI-based technologies have the ability to predict catastrophes and diseases, these predictions are, in reality, not accessible to everyone but just to the companies that own the algorithms. We, the “users”, are reduced to being the primary matter, resources that feed these algorithms, and often we barely know how exactly they work. So here I would preach for the end of data-based economy and for total algorithm transparency — which comes back to my first point about patents. I can name many more reasons to be pessimistic, but for me they all are somehow connected to the question of intellectual property, and this is, in my opinion, one of the key factors that we need to change.

And what about our relationship with nature? We are of course “part of it”, but where are we going?

This is a hard question, because the answer to it must be very contextual. It depends on the parts of the globe where we live. In some places like Western Europe, the environmentalist consciousness seems to be quite high, at least that is the impression we get. However, other economies, for example Russian or Chinese, often ignore the environmental question and still use technologies that are banned in other places. In many places this relationship is hybrid, as we have indigenous populations coexisting with globalised societies, and their attitudes to nature are often the opposite. So I would start by defining the “we” that we’re talking about… In this way, I feel like I agree with the Solarpunks in many ways: I hope for a harmonious fusion between the most advanced achievements of technology in terms of renewable energy, farming, reusage of resources, communications and housing, and the knowledge and experiences developed by communities that have been living with the nature for ages.

“Psycho-spiritual crisis”, “a psychotic society”… How bad is the status quo of humanity?

Indeed, after having lived in Canada and Western Europe, I was surprised how many of my friends experience mental breakdowns, seek for help, use medication or other less traditional ways to recenter themselves. In Russia this has not been a thing for many years, and only very recently I started to hear people coming out about their mental differences. As a woman of science, working in tech, I was quite skeptical about all this, and for some time I thought it was some kind of “fashion”, “first-world problems”, or “rich kids being bored with their lives”. But then I myself had a very serious collapse, including derealisation, deep anxiety, loss of basic values and coordinates or stimuli to move forward. I am still recovering from this, but this has changed my attitude to the spiritual. I do think that there is a deep problem in our ontology and modes of existence imposed by the rhythms of life under capitalism. We are pushed to exist in urgency, to be constantly online, to be always busy, to be always successful, to always achieve new goals and conquer new tops. All life is presented to us as a series of mounts to climb on, and if you suddenly want to take a break and take a step outside, you see yourself far behind the “train of success”, people forget about you if you’re not showing signs of “social life”. I think that we need to change the basic values, fundamental ontologies that lie in the basis of our lives — at least in the Global North: our attitude to time, the idea that “more is better”, the obsession with quantity above quality, the jealousy to other people’s lives, the very idea of progress… We might need a power wash, a complete reboot that will help us start from zero and make a room for spiritual in our quantified lives.

A message to the Elevate Festival community? What can we do?

When you come to Elevate 2020, try to remember the original goal of “festivals”, their social and communal value as a temporary autonomous zone, where it was possible to change power relations, at least within a short moment of time. To experiment with other ways of being with each other and with the world. To learn from this temporary freedom and try to remember the lessons learned once the festival is over. And to bring these experiences back to the “normal life”, to the “big world”, spread the seeds of ideas we’ve learned at the festival, and use whatever resources you have to make them real. And please, be excellent to each other, and take care of yourselves and your significant others. And if you decide to alter your state of consciousness, be mindful and attentive. Use these experiences to grow, do not destroy yourself — the world needs you!

Ksenia Ermoshina is an Internet freedom activist and researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology of Science and Technology from Mines ParisTech. She currently works at the Center for Internet and Society at CNRS, France, and is an associate postdoctoral researcher at the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto.

Ksenia studies information control on the post-Soviet space and is especially interested in analyzing surveillance and censorship technologies and infrastructures deployed by Russian governmental agencies and private companies involved in surveillance markets. As a Citizen Lab research fellow, she studied influences of the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict on civil society organizations and the media, including digital security threats, Internet censorship and targeted surveillance against journalists and activists. She also works with the team of Delta Chat secure messenger as a UX researcher. She tries to grow connections between developers and user communities and promote a bottom-up, organic approach to technological design where interfaces and architectures are understood as intrinsically political. In her night life Ermoshina is a also noise/drone musician and organizer of Transcyberian crypto parties

Watch the discussion “Quo Vadis Technology” at Elevate Festival 2020.

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