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markdown of niki's new play

A Picnic for Bassel in Three Acts

ACT I

NARRATOR:

A group is gathered for a picnic in Dolores Park in San Francisco. They are joined by a life-sized cutout of Bassel Khartabil, a well-respected computer engineer who is unable to join the picnic in person due to his ongoing imprisonment and forced disappearance by the Syrian government. As the title of this play suggests, the picnic is in fact for Bassel. He is, at the beginning1 of the picnic, the main common thread that holds the group together. And they are gathered there in main part to converse freely and discover what else they have in common, and learn from that which they do not. Of course, Bassel will remain a common thread in the thoughts and conversations that transpire, with an underlying hope among the group that through this casual get together and the friendship it will nurture, they will help create an environment hospitable to the development of ideas and projects that could help their friend who, at the time of the picnic, has been imprisoned for over four years and whose whereabouts have been unknown for nearly one year.

It is also worthy of mention that over the course of the picnic, there will be only one person present who has ever met Bassel in person. Also present among them is a self-appointed scribe who attempts to note key phrases uttered and topics discussed during the picnic, in order to share in some manner2 with other friends of Bassel who are unable to join the picnic in person.

The presence of a grapefruit soft drink at the picnic lays the foundation for the first conversation, a brief discussion of genetic allergies to certain foods, such as grapefruits, that at least two picnic goers are afflicted by. The books Cost of Freedom: A Collective Inquiry, a collection of texts dedicated to Bassel and written by various affiliates of the free knowledge, open source, and techno-activist movement(s), and Waiting, a book of poetry written by Noura Ghazi Safadi, Bassels wife, and translated by Bassel while he was in prison, are then shared and their recent manifestation as tangible, printed books is acknowledged as noteworthy. An undocumented transition takes place, and suddenly the group is talking about living on boats...

LIRA:

  • and seasteaders are people who do not want to live under a government, who live on boats out in international waters and sort of form their own government. Or they are people who really want to do this, and believe that this is the only way they could live, ethically.

DAKE:

And they are usually really libertarian or anarchist and have many arguments against the idea of following rules and laws under our government... but what is funny is that once they get out there and they start living this way, they come up with sometimes even more seemingly arbitrary rules than what we live under.

SAKI:

So when they are out in international waters, what does technically govern them, like if someone dies due to negligence of some kind, would it be possible to sue... someone for damages from this negligence? Who actually has jurisdiction?

LIRA:

Well it depends. And I am not sure exactly. But there is a great book you could read if you want to learn more about the seasteaders - it's called Outlaws of the Sea.

ENBE:

Yea, maritime law is an interesting field. And it has connections to Internet law that are underexplored, the questions that arise when the location of an action is supranational, and how jurisdiction can be determined.

SAKI:

And space law too, I would imagine!

ENBE:

And it connects to Bassel insofar as his case involves the Internet, and the often geographically-bound laws that govern what information people are allowed to share and with whom.

LIRA:

Is there an equivalent to jurisdiction in international waters for the Internet?

SILENCE

END ACT I

ACT II

NARRATOR:

The sun is now high and some are becoming sunburned as they eat clementines, bread, and pistachios, briefly discussing species variety in legumes and the manner in which local climate impacts the flavor of a nut. A few curious parkgoers inquire about the Bassel cutout, and members of the picnic group explain who Bassel is, why he is so cool, and offer Bassel stickers to the curious folk. The group then resumes discussion of how they read the news, what news is, and what it could be.

DAKE:

So I was talking with a journalist friend the other day, and he posed an interesting question: is the format of the Article the most appropriate/best form for sharing information, especially in the context of stories that move very slowly, in terms of the rate of information flow about it?

SAKI:

Yea, Like Bassel’s case, where there is so rarely new information about him and his situation, and now we do not even know his location. I know we can't give up hope, and we won't, but it does feel hopeless sometimes.

DAKE:

Well that’s the thing, I think one way to make it feel less hopeless, and potentially be less hopeless, it to find new ways to work with the information we do have, and perhaps reveal new information by connecting the information dots we do have with other data sets. For example, I was thinking, what if there was a way to overlay information from various sources to reveal new facts that were hidden in semi-plain sight. For example, after he was moved from his prison cell last October to an unknown location, I tried to map/correlate the front lines of the war alongside the places where Bassel was alleged to be moved, and discovered that the speculative movements were very close to the movements of the front line. What if there was a tool that made it easier to plot and track these and other movements, and draw potential correlations?

UDIZ:

That could be very useful! And this goes back to a question I have been asking myself a lot lately: Where did Google reader go? We have so few options for aggregating news relating to particular topics or particular people, especially in some kind of real-time overlay like you are talking about. We just see a constant stream of headlines, based either on people we follow, or based on suggestions related to our Internet browsing habits. And I don't think it is making us more informed, in terms of deep knowledge. I mean, reading three hours of Twitter doesn’t give you much besides anxiety.

DAKE:

I see what you’re saying, but there is a human side to it too that you seem to be forgetting. Cause besides tweets that are headlines for articles that one might not read, there is also the tweet by itself as a piece of evidence, a storytelling tool, in journalism itself. And of course the author of the tweet, a person, with a life. And when someone becomes the person who is relied on for tweets about a certain topic, or about a current event, it can take quite a toll on them. Sometimes these people are located outside the geographic space in which a story, usually a conflict, is occurring, yet they become central information conduits regarding it. But they are less "on the ground" in it than they are adept in collecting, aggregating, and sharing information that is found online about it. Not only does erode the quality of stories, as journalists look to tweets about something rather than directly investigating the story by talking to the people involved in it, but it can also cause some trauma to the person who is "the conduit," as people come to rely on them to provide information which they are themselves quite removed from.

ENBE:

And then there are the "conduits" like Bassel who were actually on the ground and sharing information about what was actually happening, and who put themselves at great risk to share it. How can we better protect these people, both now and going forward, to help people not be arrested, and help those who, like Bassel, unfortunately have been?

DAKE:

That is a tricky question because at least as far as the traditional ethics in journalism go, you only need to protect your sources if they ask you to, if they only agree to disclose what they do on condition of anonymity. But if the source is public there is no need to protect them.

LIRA:

But that is based on older systems of sharing information, where the idea of a source being public, the very idea of a public, was very different. Fewer people could be public, in the sense of having access to an audience of strangers. That's why fanzines were, and maybe still are, so significant, because they were revolutionary in that small numbers of normal people, not media companies, using the everyday postal service, could share information, stories, passions, hobbies, philosophies... with each other, unfiltered by corporate interests that perceive the idea of an audience with hyper-rationalized monetary symbols in their eyes rather than community-driven, organic and human-oriented concepts. It was an opportunity to have more autonomy within a public, a smaller public, but a global one nonetheless, long before the World Wide Web.

DAKE:

Well I was trying to say that the ethics of contemporary journalism are based on a clunky, pre-web news production system, but given what you have said, I would not be so hasty as to glorify a distancing from the roots of mass communication, as something tangible. Hmm...

END ACT II

ACT III

NARRATOR:

The picnic group is informed that an event will soon be taking place in the park, and that they will have to move their blanket soon, as the space needs to be occupied by the tent of an event sponsor who is distributing coconut water. The group staunchly remains in place, and is eventually surrounded by thirsty parkgoers waiting in line for the elixir. The conversation briefly meanders to a discussion of coconut interiors, how one can identify a bad coconut, etc., and then abruptly returns to the topic of contemporary journalism.

DAKE:

Remember that it was the media itself that constructed the idea of a journalist as a heroic defender of the truth. Previously, they were just seen as gossip peddlers.

UDIZ:

And now there is so much peddling going on, the Good stories are drowned out by light and noise pollution from the Big stories.

SAKI:

Maybe there is something about the public-ness of the environment in which citizen journalists work that is the issue. But without being public, how else could they be noticed?

DAKE:

What do you mean about this issue of public-ness?

SAKI:

I mean it seems like in order for a story to be told well, and be discoverable, there needs to be at least one person who is kind of obsessed with that story, and whose obsession fuels their meticulous collection of information about it. But when this act of collecting is public, and in real time, it is strikingly different than the scrap-booking or physical archiving of yesteryear, different for the collector as much as those who explore and use the collection.

And although it is true that it is much more accessible since it is public and in cyberspace, does that really foster a better environment for storytellers and... collectors of various storytelling elements to meet?

DAKE:

I see what you mean. And that's funny, that reminds me of a story I heard from a friend of mine who worked at a big newspaper. This was in the late eighties/early nineties, and he became obsessed with Gorbachev, and just kept collecting every piece of information, every story thathe could find about him, pulling it together into this Gorbachev archive. And all the while people were asking, are you writing a story about him, what are you doing? What is the point? But for him it was like an obsession that he didn't question, and he didn't really have an end goal or a particular thread he was trying to trace, or specific thing he wanted to uncover. It was just something he wanted, needed, to do. And then the coup attempt happened in Russia in 1991 and the editors at the newspaper were like: where is that Gorbachev archive?! And they used it to write a series of in-depth exposes about him and his presidency.

UDIZ:

It's like a story needs to have a person appointed to it... or a person who appoints themselves to it. And we need better platforms through which these self-appointed conduits can connect with one another and be visible to journalistic organizations as a source for material to suit their constantly changing needs. If it had sophisticated and easily customizable search capabilities-

SAKI:

Not so fast, buddy! A platform like this cannot be too easy to use so that people don't consider the risks they are taking by using it. Think about situations like Bassel’s, before he was arrested, and in many ways why he was arrested. People who appoint themselves to a story that their country does not want to be told. And not just the story, but the tools to follow and tell a story, any story, and participate in the global, storytelling knowledge machine that shapes much of the Internet.

And that made him a threat to and target for his government. Because it is one thing to have a lot of followers, and be threatening because of your access to an eager audience, in a large scale, whose collective actions could be too easily choreographed in way that the ruling powers do not like. But it is another to also be an advocate for learning and open discussion, and well respected within international organizations dedicated to the same. Cause it is not just about stopping the flow of information that is transmitted through a person, it is about stopping the machinery that they are helping to build, the influence a person has on the way that people think, the infectious freedom of curiosity, debate, and optimistic discussion. And it is always dangerous to the status quo to change the way that people think. And in light of the accusations against him, that he was harming state security through sharing information and knowledge, it is dangerous for anyone now in Syria even to ask about him. Even though that which he was sharing was arguably public.

ENBE:

Someone is invisible until they start demonstrating an ability to influence others... is it possible to make a platform that resists that, or even one that offers some protection?

LIRA:

It would have to be protection beyond the cyber level, if that’s what you’re getting at. Depending on what a person’s influence is and where they are, especially when it is an influence that resists exploitation by the ruling powers of the state they inhabit, and even if it is in line with the principles laid out in that state’s constitution, they are all too often punished for it, no matter how well they attempted to hide their traces. And even the attempt to hide their traces digitally can belabeled a crime. And their punishment may be to be made invisible. To be forcibly disappeared.

Which is not without a certain irony...

But I do not think that some amazing online platform is going to change that. It is about what the online platforms influence in real life that really matters. I really loathe the phrase ̈the Twitter Revolution, ̈ especially when it is applied to the so-called Arab Spring, because it emphasizes the tool over the people. And it is not about the tool, but what the tool made possible in terms of collective action in urban spaces, and its visibility, and the real life discussions it helped to facilitate, and how various governments have reacted to these activities. Maybe we should just focus on that for Bassel, on creative ways to use the tools we have to get information about him in real life. Where he is. Of course we want him to be free too, but start small, you know? Just try to get information, don’t be demanding. And also work together to find more creative and useful ways to collect and share the already public information there is out there about him and his story.

SAKI:

Yea, just keeping channels open, and making new ones...

ENBE:

But not necessarily all public. I have been pretty quiet during this picnic, as you may have noticed. I have been listening earnestly but also thinking hard about what insights we have gained and I think that is it - keep channels open, but they don't always need to be public. Like this conversation for example. It has been very engaging and I think quite fruitful, but it should remain only with us. And we should consider writing some personal, eloquent letters to people who may be able to help share information on

ALL:

Agreed.

END ACT III

1: A relative state that shifts with the arrival or departure of each picnic attendee.

2: Given that meeting minutes cater structurally toward more objective, goal-based discursive encounters among people and thus would be an inappropriate form for these notes to be rendered following the picnic that is their subject matter, the scribe decides to thicken the layer of abstraction between the picnic that actually took place on 13 August 2016 and the textual documentation of it she aims to compose for the historical record. Seeing as fiction is always close behind, at times even in front of, truth, this documentation takes the form of the play that you are now reading; that is, a work of fiction, based on the notes and memories of the scribe, whose characters are amalgams of her memories of those present at the picnic, and whose names, in this document, are combinations of the first or last two letters of the first names of each person, with two people composing each character. For example, had Bassel and Noura been at the picnic and were they to be combined abstractly as a character in this fiction, their names could be rendered BANO, RAEL, NOEL, or NOBA, etc. Eight people total attended the picnic in reality, but are represented here in various combinations as only five characters for technical reasons.

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