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Hacktivists need care too: Jérémie Zimmermann

After years of jet-setting digital activism on a global scale, disillusioned burn-out Jérémie Zimmermann has found a new cause: hacker wellness.

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Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

After years of jet-setting digital activism on a global scale, disillusioned burn-out Jérémie Zimmermann has found a new cause: hacker wellness.

Zimmermann’s move to Berlin this year seemed like evidence – just overdue. As one of France’s leading international digital rights campaigners, whose natural eloquence, congenial charisma and immoderate taste for bright shirts (and long-term friendship with Julian Assange) have made him one of the most visible players on the international hacking scene, it was about time the man joined the Müller-Maguhns, Appelbaums, Telekommunists, C-Basers and crypto-partiers who call this city home. After seven years of exhausting full-time jet-setting activism as a coordinator, campaigner, analyst, graphic designer and “whatnot” for the organisation La Quadrature du Net, Zimmermann decided to treat himself to a break in hackerland. When he’s not hanging out at C-Base or RaumFahrtAgentur or flying to hacker symposiums, digital conferences and internet rights festivals, he’s working on his new brainchild: Hacking with Care.

As someone who dropped out of full-time salaried activism after undergoing serious burn-out symptoms, what’s your take on the basic income? This idea that existence should be disconnected from labour must have some appeal to you, right?

It’s not about working or not working. I think the very notion of what is labour is something that is open to debate. When you contribute some free stuff to a project or edit Wikipedia, is that work? If you do it as a passion, is it still work? The question is how we fund the commons, and the production and fostering of commons. Intellectual activity isn’t quantifiable by the current metrics of capitalism, but it got sucked up by those companies, like Youtube and Facebook, who capitalise on it. Instead of letting those companies turn our intellectual contributions to the world into revenue for them, why wouldn’t we find ways to fund these activities for ourselves? This idea of the basic income has come and gone for the last 25 years, it may be fashionable right now in Berlin, but in my view, it faces very harsh political opposition. But the idea of mutualising ways of funding our contributions to society – whether intellectually or otherwise – seems evident when we see capitalism failing at lowering social inequalities.

So how should we reward this work?

It’s not about rewarding the work. Rewarding intellectual work is the rhetoric of the proponents of so-called intellectual property, which we can also call “imaginary property”. People who say that once you have done a piece of work, money should continue flowing to you, even after you’ve been dead for 70 years. This is rubbish. We don’t need to reward intellectual work. We need to fund it. It’s not about the work that was already created. It’s about enabling the work that hasn’t been created yet.

And concretely – how would you make that happen?

Whether it’s basic income or some mutualised fund of some sort, I don’t give a damn. What matters here is our capacity to organise our collective individual agency in being useful contributing members to society, whether it’s through editing Wikipedia or helping grandmothers cross the street. This is really the key element from moving from a fully capitalist society to whatever comes next; it’s the ability to recognise the commons for what they are.

Okay: what are the commons?

A common good is something that belongs to everyone, and that we collectively take care of. The streets, the air we breathe, the clean water and the ground, but also all the music in the world, paintings, software. What we’ve seen in the last 50 years is that those common goods are systematically being captured, being privatised, when we should be organising them to remain common. So I think this is really the key issue. Whether we fund this with a global-whatever-income or other schemes is an administrative detail, a mere technicality. What matters is that we gain and maximise this ability to organise and protect commons.

Should the state be responsible for that, or should it be a grassroots model?

Historically, it’s been the mission of the state to organise the commons. Now the states are failing at that, they’re bending to industrial interest, they’re just losing their power and moral compass, letting companies privatise the commons. So we have to organise in different ways, in between individuals. What matters is that we experiment and practise every day what we think would be a fit model to scale for society as a whole.

Is this why you moved here? To join the ranks of Berlin’s fertile grassroots scene?

I didn’t move out of Paris for political reasons. But yes, many of the movements that interest me, that I’m part of, are happening in Berlin. Not only this movement to decentralise free internet and defend the commons, but also, the ability to organise mutualised infrastructure is something I’ve never seen to such extent as here in Berlin. Those events by the Chaos Computer Club, the Chaos Communication Congresses and Camps, are models, inspirational for anyone organising anything.

Do you see a culture of rebellion here?

In a world dominated by a capitalistic economy, I think it’s rebellious to live the kind of life you live in Berlin: deciding when you wake up, when you work, when you go to bed, instead of sitting in an office from 9-5, being forced to speak to anyone who wants to speak to you when the phone rings. I think taking back control of your timelines is an act of rebellion in a world of permanent emergency.

Isn’t that speaking from a rather privileged standpoint as an educated white man?

Of course. I mean, we live in the West, we have a Schengen passport in our pocket, we have social benefits. But when you acknowledge your privilege, you can then make sure that this privilege can be used for more than just yourself. Being privileged doesn’t mean that you will never, ever do something good for the world.

So are all the people you know here happy, self-employed creatives with control over their daily schedules?

Many people I know are self-employed and organise their lives in a very precarious way. But I think there’s a light side of this precariousness that leaves space, mental space, for the rest. I think that’s one part of the explanation. The other part is that Berlin feels like a city of perpetual change. The number of political regimes that have run the place over the last 100 years is flabbergasting. This gives very strong resilience to people and institutions in general, but also this amazing ability to reinvent oneself. You see this radical self-organisation with Voküs, hacker spaces or Tempelhofer Feld… in Berlin, it’s abundantly clear that trust, knowledge and the commons can be organised in a peer-to-peer, decentralised way in between individuals with joy and inventiveness and just compassion for human beings.

What about in the digital world you’ve been involved in for so long? We now know that we can’t trust our computers, that the internet is corrupted.

Even hackers who were called paranoid some years ago fell from their chairs when the first documents from Edward Snowden were released, because of the extent of this mass surveillance. This sick cyber-industrial complex between states and industries has the virtual capacity to access all of our computers, all of our data at any time. We can’t trust the very computers we depend on for everything we read, buy, share, everything we love, everything we want to secure. The trust has been forever broken in these companies: Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft… The problem is not fixed just because we’ve shed light on it.

So now that we know we’re under constant surveillance, do you see a wider social impact, in terms of the way we relate to each other as individuals?

We know from many studies – and people who lived here through the Stasi era know exactly what I’m talking about – that the worst effect of mass surveillance is self-censorship. The things you don’t say and do, places you won’t go to. How will this translate into the digital world, when everything we do goes through these machines which we cannot trust anymore? This notion of trust is one of my obsessions: What is trust? How do you trust? If we can’t trust these companies and their products, what is left to trust?

That’s a hacktivist’s job – to reinvent a free and safe digital world, where people are in control of their data?

Yes, and it means starting at zero. It means inventing new hardware on which we will run our own free software that will belong to humanity as a whole, as a common good. We will use this software to access decentralised services, in which we will control and own infrastructure to know where our data is and what is happening with it. We will bear full responsibility for securing what should remain private, by withholding our very own encryption keys and controlling the data.

Okay, so where to start? By not “feeding the Google”, as your sticker says?

Individuals have to be able to understand the critical, primary, strategic importance for each of our movements, each of our struggles, each of the ideas we believe in, and act upon them. Leave Google, leave Facebook, leave that Mac, go to the world of free software. Learn how to use a computer that will make not only you, but also the people around you and the world more free, relying on the common good rather than on privatisation and the network of mass surveillance. We all have a role to play in that. That might be the most important of all things to understand.

It’s interesting what you said about people’s awareness of surveillance and the self-censorship that ensues. The GDR was actually using this fear of being watched as a political tool, but the NSA never bragged about it – all those companies always tried to pretend they were our friends…

You’re right. Mass surveillance doesn’t have the same face today as in the 20th century: men in uniforms walking around with weapons, intimidating people. Now, it comes with a smiley face, shiny round corners and comfortable access to millions of apps. Instead of playing with one of the most primal emotions of the human, which is fear, it plays with other primary feelings, envy and laziness, to make you stay isolated and disempowered.

Don’t you think most people are happy to be unaware? The usual excuse is “I have nothing to hide, I don’t care if I’m being watched…”

Let’s not do this now. Your question should be: Are there people who like being in prison? To which I would say, no. Once they realise that they are in a prison, they don’t like the walls. And everybody has something to hide. Ask anyone, “Can we put a camera in your bathroom or publish your emails on the internet?” and they’d say no. Everybody needs to be truly alone sometimes. Intimacy is a fundamental human right.

Can you talk about Hacking with Care?

After years of being a full-time activist, I burned myself out quite badly. I started reconfiguring myself and moved to Berlin as part of this reconfiguration. I figured that the way we treat ourselves is of primary importance. I’ve seen dear friends burn out, sin into depression. Aaron Swartz committed suicide… it’s a collective failure of humanity as a whole that we let Aaron Swartz commit suicide. So with my dear friend, Emily, who is a genius massage artist, we decided to mutualise her massage and well-being practitioner skills, and my hacker and activist skills. The point is to bring care – self-care, community care, they’re one and the same – into the culture of hackers and activists and whistleblowers and people sharing an interest for common good.

Why should a massage therapist know about hacking skills?

The day you want to help a political activist who is threatened by his or her government, who’s isolated, burned out, stressed and anxious – if you want to give that person a massage, you may have to know about taking the battery out of your phone or using encryption. Activists, hacktivists and whistleblowers face a very specific type of harm. Not only when you have to carry three laptops with you at all times to get control of your cryptographic material, but when you have whole branches of governments attacking you. Those pressures are tremendous, and for the last three years, we’ve been actively engaged in bringing these people well-being practices.

So you learned about massage?

Yes, I learned a lot about massage and holistic approaches to well-being, the same way Emily learned a lot about cryptography and operational security and computing freedom. And now we create situations, individual and collective, for sharing that knowledge. We produce concrete material, a video about how to boot up your body muscles in the morning, a hand massage guide that you can give as a gift to your colleague. I’ve been in the parliaments, I’ve been in the UN scenes, OCDE blah blah blah. I’ve tried to change things on the European or global scale. We’ve achieved some meaningful impacts I’m quite proud of. But what I want to focus on now is the change you can achieve right under your face. What you do for yourself could work for the next hundred million people around you as well.

How is the hacker set reacting to this?

We definitely got the “yeah, yeah, massage” reaction – like we’re a bunch of hippies. It took us three years to formulate it, but hopefully we’re now getting to a narrative that anyone who supports WikiLeaks, Assange, Manning, Snowden, free software in general, understands: we need all the participants in this project to be well and stay well, and that this well-being is also something we can collectively hack and organise. It’s maybe one of those things that is still partly outside of the capitalism sphere. It’s in between our hands, like commons, and we can again organise it collectively in a meaningful, beautiful and joyful way.

So, it’s subversive, in a way.

You said it.