It's not often you would expect to see an ex-Rolling Stone wife turned celebrated human rights activist sitting at the same table as a Tibetan monk, a Hollywood actor, an iconic film director and the mother who took up camp outside George Bush's ranch after her son was killed in Iraq. But anyone walking through the center of Berlin last weekend would have noticed, among others, Bianca Jagger, Palden Gyatso, Willem Dafoe, Wim Wenders and, all seated round a table the size of a football pitch.
A total of 112 leading thinkers, artists, philosophers, activists and scientists met up in the German capital on Saturday to take part in the "Table of Free Voices," an open-air, nine-hour marathon session of answering questions that is part of the Dropping Knowledge project. American actor Willem Dafoe and Nigerian human rights activist Hafsat Abiola moderated the event, reading out 100 questions, while the participants, sitting opposite cameras and microphones, had three minutes to simultaneously respond to each question. Although it is doubtful whether three minutes suffices for anyone to really answer questions like What is Gods religion? Is it murder to kill a murderer? Would there be war if the world was run by women? or Can dancing change the world?
The answers were recorded and are now being loaded into an online archive in the form of 1,120 short films, which will be available on the Dropping Knowledge Web site. Users can then comment on the answers and send in their own responses and thoughts. For MIT professor Ceasar McDowell, one of the directors of Dropping Knowledge, this is the main point of the whole project, an idea which has been dubbed "copyleft" -- or the opposite of copyright. So far weve been in a culture that is a read culture: some people get to produce and everybody else gets to just read and take it in, he said after arriving in Berlin a few days before the round-table discussion took place. What we need is that people can read, take in, and then recreate and add their own voice. With copyright, I create something, no one can change it and no one can alter it. We need to have a process which says, I want to create something, you can take it and add to it, and modify and change it. But when you do, you also have to make what you do available for other people to do the same thing.
A peace movement for the digital age
The whole thing started back in 2003 with the US-led invasion of Iraq. Looking at the anti-war demonstrations on the television, co-founder Ralf Schmerberg said it all seemed very retro and rather sixties. So he decided to found something which made use of the Internet to bring the peace movement up to date. Since then people from all over the world have been sending in thousands of questions, which have been whittled down to 100 relating to technology, the environment, ethics and the future.
But what good does simply asking questions do? Surely it is answers the world needs? When you begin to question you begin to think differently, said Hafsat Abiola, who was co-moderating the event just eight weeks after having given birth. This allows you to create new ways in your life, that makes your life better. You know, many of us feel imprisoned in our lives. Some of our own assumptions, and what people tell us about right and wrong, imprison us in our reality. But when we ask questions, we start to wonder, is that correct? Can I change that? That is the beginning of freedom and empowerment for the worlds people.
But the actual result on the day was more like a big party game. Admittedly a lot more thought-provoking than pin-the-tale-on-the-donkey, it was also, judging from the flashy publicity and swanky parties surrounding the event, a lot more expensive. But then, sponsors including German insurance giant Allianz and carmaker Volkswagen.
After listening to a few of the answers (which ranged from the erudite to the downright banal) it soon became obvious that the group isnt actually quite as diverse as the saris, tribal headdresses and ethnic costumes might suggest. Given the choice of voting for US President George Bush, clearly not many sitting round the table actually would -- making it unlikely that conservatives in America will go anywhere near the Web site.
So is this just another case of affluent, liberal intellectuals getting together to hear the opinions of like-minded people? Probably, and that has certainly been the criticism of some commentators. But when these intellectuals include Auschwitz survivor Raymond Federman, former Rwandan child soldier China Keitetsi and Bangladeshi UNESCO special envoy Masuma Bibi Russel, it is certainly tempting to listen in regardless of your political leanings.
Not that there was much of an audience in a position to eavesdrop during the event itself. Few Berliners (apart from hip media types) had any idea it was happening in the first place. And even those that did, and decided to drop by, had no way of actually hearing the answers, unless they had access to the press tent. To anyone really interested in the state of the world, there is probably nothing more frustrating than seeing an iconic philosopher sitting just a few feet away and not being able to hear what he is saying. When asked why this was the case, the organizations press spokesperson Astrid Falter, said the original idea had been to have big screens and speakers set up to convey the answers. However, the echoes from the surrounding buildings meant the participants wouldnt have been able to hear the questions being asked. The main point of the project is that people from all over the world can access the online archive, she said.
But the symbolism of the location was certainly well chosen. The event, supposed to encourage the culture of asking questions and spreading knowledge, was held at Berlin's Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned books in 1933.
A correction has been made to this story: In the original version of this text, Bianca Jagger's decades-long career as a political and human rights activist was misrepresented. We apologize for the error.