A digital mountain pasture?  A digital summit?

These are two ways to refer to the same event, and they evoke the wide range of subjects that will be treated over a six-day period.

The “Estive” is one of the oldest traditions still in existence since the development of pastoral and agricultural societies several thousands of years ago.  While the tiny minority of the planet’s inhabitants that make up the “numerical world” communicate in “real time” and are instantly satisfied by the immediate present, others still witness the changing of the seasons, the full meaning of nature, and how to use the earth’s slow natural cycles to plan their work and produce food.

At a time when the French Riviera shimmers with suntan lotion and frenzied living, it is quite unprecedented to think that, right near our offices, there is a calm mountain atmosphere and an exotically clear, pure blue sky.  The mountains inland from the Riviera are a haven of peace and beauty… as is anywhere that remains unaffected by the clock, that all-powerful contraption.

There, at an altitude of nearly 2000 m, the recalcitrant land was cleared for farming long, long ago, even as far back as antiquity.  In these isolated areas of the Cians valley and the Haut Var, people lived in almost total autarky.  During the winter there was no road or passage to reach the coast.  Things were this way until the beginning of the 20th century.  As in all such places of the world where conditions are similar, the inhabitants developed their own forms of agricultural and material autonomy and solidarity, and organized their lives according to specific environmental, technological and social aspects that were the result of a long evolution.  Even though most of these rules are now forgotten, they echo in the reality of today’s world.

Dependency

It is a paradox to think that, although our roads, seas and canals offer us so many ways to travel, we are still totally dependent on energy distribution and communication networks, particularly the transportation networks for food and goods.  Our food and the objects we use are often produced on the other side of the world.  These networks are really incredibly fragile, and most of our activities function based on the theory that energy will always abound, the climate will stay mild and economic and political situations will remain stable.  But the cracks in the system are obvious:

The oil industry is on its decline, while global demand is rising, particularly in booming countries like India and China.  We are now experiencing the last years of a “providential” oil economy that has been responsible for destroying our biotope in just a few decades.  We are in an oil peak.  Our industry, our agriculture and the consumption of nearly all our food and goods are dependent on road transport.

In spite of the catastrophic events due to climate change that have occurred over the last decade, for the time being the climate is only moderately affected by a century of pollution – of which we are still following the pattern.  Experts have been warning us for a long time of these events spiralling out of control (for example, a 1°C. rise in temperature would cause the release of billions of tons of greenhouse gases stored in the ground or in the oceans, thereby quickening the rise in global temperature). All agree that the climate will become increasingly unstable, unpredictable and violent.

The third weak point in our societies stems from the domination of economic or military powers that either have no concern for or have no idea as to what to do about the growing number of individuals on the planet.  The direct control these powers have over individuals and their activities is now getting the better of certain forms of self-regulation such as the rules of democracy and the political and social interchanges that our present-day societies have taken over 200 years to instil.  These powers have reason to be concerned.  We will be witnessing massive migrations due to economic or climate changes.  Economic and climatic crises = food, political and sanitary crises.  Both the virtual world and real earth is putting up walls between the rich and the poor, restricting free movement, advocating excessive security.   The political evolution of most countries, whether rich or poor (with the exception of some democratic niches), is tending more towards conservatism, withdrawal and exacerbated communitarianism, very much to the detriment of universal values.

Digital Peak

In order to conceal reality, the rich are given an illusion of speed.  Think of all the miniature technology that is forever going faster, increasing in complexity and becoming more and more ergonomic.  This technology can provide no physical nourishment.  It just gives the poor an illusion of rapid wealth – television, mobile phones, new television channels…

We are all armed with prodigious technological tools strong enough to solve humanity’s greatest problems.  Even in the remote corners of the earth there is a microprocessor in someone’s pocket.  We have wonderful tools, designed and marketed by today’s economic powers, destined to be thrown away even before having really been used. By selling time, we sell obsolescence.  Today’s object is so readily disposable that we could think that we are being sold waste.  Have we reached a digital peak?

Meanwhile

We must compare this realistic tableau with the headway made by artists, thinkers, field experts, activists and hackers…all those who believe that human beings have unexploited intelligence.

The creative community puts forward several ideas for consideration:

As an answer to the concentration of powers, they suggest small decision-making communities organized on a fractal scale.  As an answer to industrial production, free-information communities suggest smaller autonomous workshops and smaller scale digital craftsmanship, rehabilitating local know-how and promoting free material and software.

As an answer to the concentration and control of information and knowledge, creative communities are re-inventing systems for sharing, distributing, organising content and networking.  As an answer to energy production, eco-innovators suggest smaller systems using shared renewable energies and storage.

As an answer to the concentration and levelling-out of our agricultural systems into single-crop farming, new farmers suggest diversity, using local resources and direct sales.  There is no lack of admirable examples.  All of them function.  All have very little media coverage, as they cannot be widely promoted from today’s economic point of view.  They cannot be reproduced on the scale of a centralised system.

Utopia or reality?

Some object to all of this, saying that those involved are utopians, that their answers are half-baked improvisations or that there is no future for their ideas.  On the contrary, all around the world, in remote as well as urban areas, these new approaches and procedures are being implemented, are evolving, and are being put to use within their respective contexts.   They are proof that if inhabitants themselves take charge of society, things can work. They also demonstrate that autonomous decision and free communication within a system where material and immaterial goods are shared is of utmost importance to face economic, social and environmental problems.   It is quite simply a question of re-composing autonomous and autarkic systems and adapting them to an era of networking.

As part of this wonderful adventure, artists, activists, researchers, teachers, communities promoting free software, free resources and free material, thinkers, agitators and hackers are those urging change.  Most of them are highly active in both local and international networks that are finding ideas and putting them to practise. They are inventing new ways to share, new forms of creativity and collective conscience that will help us to face the coming troubled times humanely.

Is this viral autarky network a new model for humanity, or is it an expression of our fear of the future?  We will certainly treat the subject during our debates, in the evening, under the stars, and once the last computer battery has run out.

Have a good summer!

Jean-Noël Montagné / May 4th, 2010

Remerciements à Anne Charvolen pour la traduction.