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4. ‘We don’t know how to participate’

August 6, 2014

In this fourth episode of the freedom technologists series we hear from Margarita Padilla, another IT specialist active in Spain’s civil society, most recently in the indignados (or 15M) movement. The story below is once again translated and adapted from an interview by Stéphane Grueso that took place in Madrid in December 2011 (see my earlier post on Daniel Vázquez). The  interview is freely available on YouTube (in Spanish). In future posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

My name is Margarita Padilla. I am a 53-year old hacker and a self-employed entrepreneur. I work with other women at a small cooperative in Madrid dedicated to developing free software projects.

I acquired a political education during the 1970s workers’ movement, a worldview made obsolescent by the post-Franco transition. Eventually the class struggle became history, an anachronism, so I was fortunate to run into the squatter movement — my first political upgrade.

Another turning point in my political development was the Atocha (Madrid) bombings of 11 March 2004 (11M for short). It was an experience of utter shock followed by a government cover-up and spontaneous protests on 13 March (13M). It was also an intuition that, from then on, events would happen in either an 11M or 13M register.

Later, in a post-2008 scenario, I began to wonder why nothing was being done about the crisis. This search for answers led me to the 15 May 2011 demo in Madrid, and then to the Puerta del Sol encampment. Sol was a joyous encounter with something we had assumed was there but no one had actually seen.

A moving moment

Perhaps the most moving experience at the Puerta del Sol encampment was ‘moment zero’ – the start to the day of reflection, a period of 24 hours prior to an election in which political campaigning is not allowed. This was on 20-21 May, six days after the occupation of Sol. I was reminded of the Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve, one for each chiming of the clock at Sol (it is customary to eat the grapes at Sol, where the encampment was located). It was the same time and place, but with the added uncertainty of not knowing what would happen. Nobody was really sure about the legality (or otherwise) of the encampment. It is different when a political party calls for a rally, where you have a rough idea of how many people will turn up. But how many people 15M could mobilise, if that’s the right word, was anyone’s guess.

I arrived at around 8 p.m. and started walking around Sol, running into people I knew, groups of friends that kept expanding. At one point we went off to get some dinner. We were eating with the excitement of having to finish early because soon it would be midnight. “Let’s get the bill or we won’t make it”, “Yes we will”, “We won’t, hurry up!”, not knowing what to expect. When we got back we found huge crowds. I was at the far end of calle Arenal, still a long way from Sol. I could picture all the side streets around Sol being equally packed, and marvelled at the spectacle of a much larger crowd than on New Year’s Eve.

As the bells began to chime, an inexplicable silence fell upon us. It was like one of those decisions that are made outside an assembly, as if everybody understood, without being told, that at 12 o’clock we must all hold our peace. When the bells went quiet we let out a collective cry. We weren’t really doing anything other than simply waiting for midnight to arrive. This was not Christmas, when a lot of people do their shopping in this part of the city. That is a busy time of the year, yet you feel alone because everybody’s minding their own business. Now it was different: we were all in it together. It was very beautiful. I had already experienced something similar during 13M, but 13M was full of pain and sadness. There was a great deal of suffering then, we were staring death in the eye. The Sol experience cloned the 13M protests, but without the death overlay. It was a gift we gave one another by simply being there together.

The thought commission

I played a small part in the 15M movement’s thought commission. This was one of the 15M innovations. The committee addressed the need to think for ourselves about our own practices rather than outsource this thinking to outsiders, for instance sociologists, who may go “These people are crusties, they are this, they are that”. Instead of being defined externally, we were free to define ourselves as we saw fit.

The thought commission consisted of a street assembly and the commission itself. The assembly met every Thursday. People sat around in a circle to discuss a given topic. We may have not plumbed any great depths, but a group of people debating an issue in public is not a common sight in a bustling modern city. It was a radical thing to do. Some passers-by actually stopped and listened, which was wonderful.

As far as the contents were concerned, it was not like a working group where sessions are prepared beforehand, nor was it expert knowledge. The novelty lied in recognising the importance of thinking about what we were doing. We were trying not to fall into the default activist mode of doing, doing, doing without thinking. Doing it publically and in the streets was an extraordinary contraption, a gratuitous moment. The logic behind it was: “You and I are going to talk about a given topic for no other reason than talking to each other”. On the evening that closed the day of reflection, Madrid’s entire city centre became a thought assembly. There was nothing but circles of people sitting on the floor talking politics – debating whether or not to vote, who to vote for, the issue of blank voting, whether we had any real options, and so on. I had never before seen that kind of reflection taking place on the streets. It was incredible. The thought group was a coagulation of that spirit.

A conceptual map

I sometimes help with a radio programme called “A line over the sea”. It is a low-level philosophy programme. We call it garage philosophy – it is definitely not expert thought. There is a blog where we put all the broadcasts. When 15M kicked off we thought we should do something about it, so we did some studio programmes and some reporting.

Soon the question arose of who could do what. Amador, who is a writer, said: “I’m going to write something, though I’m not sure what yet”. As there were a lot of young people at Sol, I thought writing could be a bit of a passé technology. In my job as an IT specialist I sometimes draw maps to conceptualise a website or a product. So I thought I would do something visual, something that people could actually see. I soon got working on a conceptual map of the Sol encampment with some of the digital tools at my disposal. I put the map on the blog and soon other contributions started to stream in. We accepted them all. There was no point in arguing over whether this or that event was a 15M precursor. If somebody said it was, then it was.

After having had the conceptual map up on our website for a while, some colleagues suggested we take it to Sol. So we printed it off in numerous A4 sheets to make a large poster and put it on display. It wasn’t something we had thought about at any great length. It was more a case of: “What can I do well? How can I apply my specialist skills to what I’m witnessing?”.

How to contribute

The question of how to contribute has been with me ever since I started learning about free software in the squatted social centres and to understand how hacker communities work. In that scene the question is always: “How can I contribute?”. There was a first public run of this question on 11 March 2004, following the terrorist attacks in Atocha. People who could take photos took photos, doctors rushed to the hospitals, taxi drivers transported people… In other words, “Let’s be efficient and each of us do what we’re good at”.

The Sol encampment was thoroughly copyleft. Perhaps the best expression of this was its replicability. The idea was to devise a replicable, ownerless model that is nobody’s and everybody’s at the same time (as long as you join in). The possibility of copying something but without denying its original authorship is a typical free culture trait. This is not stealing, as we are often accused of doing. Rather it is about recognising authorship, which does not mean that your work is your property. I may be the author of the conceptual map, but it is not mine. Saying that it is mine would deny the authorship of other people who have contributed to this work through their ideas, conversations, and inspiration.

Replicability is crucial. The Sol encampment does not belong to anyone. It fosters a form of anonymity that doesn’t cancel out individual contributions. The encampment is made up of countless little contributions that don’t amount to much on their own. Its merit lies in having created a device whereby every contribution can add value to the whole. It is not something than someone takes away, like those proprietary social media platforms in which there is a social value shared by everybody but there is also a brand or stockmarket value. That didn’t happen at Sol. Instead we put together a cooperation device. If cooperation did not self-organise we would all clash and get in each other’s way. Cooperation entails lots of different things, as well as differing degrees and levels of engagement – from carrying a bottle of water to dynamising an assembly to writing something to sweeping the streets.

Mixing our smells and our sweat

Organisation is always a complicated matter. The movement has such complexity that you cannot see it in its totality from a single angle. No one has total vision. It is quite remarkable that the 15M movement has recycled forms of organisation that I thought were obsolete, such as barrio assemblies, commissions, or working groups which mirror the state’s ministerial system. It is as if, all of a sudden, an ancient technology such as an early modem or a fax, was given an innovative use.

Why did this happen? Perhaps it was because people felt the need for co-presence, for being there together. We can no longer be abstract bodies communicating through immaterial social networks. We must mix our smells and our sweat, bump into each other, because we are in a very serious situation. Some people are impoverished. Some are losing their homes. Some are losing their health. Some are suffering. You can’t resolve this through social media alone, so you turn to what you know. In such a new environment, the familiar can become unfamiliar. Perhaps our thought group is a case in point. I don’t know. I think these are attempts at finding new ways forward, and nobody knows where we’re headed. We are all experimenting.

We still don’t know how to participate

The greatest challenge is participation, especially the vexed question of how to create participatory models. These do not exist yet. Are there any great designs out there? I don’t think so. Participation is hard to crack because it requires certain devices. The assembly is a rudimentary, ancient device. It is beautiful, a marvel of performativity, but it is not designed to be efficient. For one thing, it can’t scale up. You can have assemblies of 1,500 people, 5,000 people, even 20,000 people, but you can’t scale up. This is a serious problem, and not only for 15M. In fact, it is a global contemporary problem. The devices 15M offers – the work commissions, the working groups, and so on – demand a high level of commitment. You have to attend a meeting, and then another, get involved with the tasks, etc. This is all well and good for someone who wants to live this way but you can’t expect everybody to do this. Because you have to leave your current life behind, and not everybody will want to.

The truth is, we still don’t know how to participate, so participation collapses, it becomes inefficient. I think we’re heading for long years of attempts, of fits and starts, until we learn how to design systems of participation that actually work. We can’t base participation on ideology, for the world’s problems are not going to be resolved through ideology. We must decide everything: how we want to live, how we want to die, what economic rights we want to have, what is valuable and what isn’t, how to redistribute.

Upgrading politics

For me the most important thing about 15M is how it has upgraded the political dimension of life. It is the same with software when you switch to a more advanced version. Until 15M came into the scene, politics – understood as managing the common good – was completely devalued. It was of no concern to anyone. The dominant idea, the stereotype, was that people only cared about themselves. The 15M movement puts paid to this idea. It does not deny the existence of individualism, but asserts that it is is not always the dominant aspect of contemporary life. 15M adds a new colour to our palette.

Although 15M has upgraded our politics, it has done so only partially. This is still an unfinished business, not a perfectly designed ‘solution’. It is, nonetheless, an event that changes the situation. The movement is often accused of not having achieved anything tangible. This is both true and false. When I see one of my clients at a work meeting, for instance to negotiate a budget, we both know we’ve seen each other at Sol. Everything remains the same, yet everything is different.

Go to previous post: How Spain’s indignados movement was born

Go to next post: The long-term impact of the new protest movements

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