Dialogue in the Dark

A few weeks ago I found myself in the unusual position of being in Istanbul with no real plans; at least for a few hours. So I took a metro out to Gayrettepe, which is only one stop before Levent, my local station when I last lived in the city almost 10 years ago. However, this was not a trip down memory lane because I was drawn to an exhibition, or rather an experience that I had heard a lot about and wanted to see, or rather not see what the fuss was all about.

Dialogue in the Dark arrived in the city last December and was opened for the first time on the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Essentially a blind guide takes some eight visitors on a tour through a simulated Istanbul, which spreads across a 1,500-square-meter hall next to the Gayrettepe Metro Station. However, the big difference of course is that this tour is carried out in total darkness; hence the roles are completely reversed because the people with sight need the help of their blind guide, which is contrary to the reality that the visually-impaired experience every single day.

As I did not know what to expect, I was surprised, when after being told to take off our watches and put our phones and bags into a locker, we were all given a white stick with a small ball attached. Then we were shown into the first outer room, where there was still some fractions of light so we could adjust to the darkness before being called into the next room, which was total dark. At first you almost got the sense that the person calling you was perhaps disembodied, perhaps speaking from a sound system, but very quickly you hear them around you and occasionally you even bump into them as you often do, with your fellow visitors. Our guide, one of the 30 employed on this project, who had the extra complication of communicating to us both in Turkish and English was Erhan, a man none of us had ever seen, but whose firm but calm voice, gave you the confidence to trust him completely with your safety.
Dialogue In The Dark
Erhan lead us through a series of rooms, or rather, well simulated situations beginning with a park and progressing through a busy street until we climbed onto a tram – indeed the sounds around us left you in no doubt that it was intended to represent the same tram that rides up and down Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping street off Taksim Square. Despite knowing that you were safely inside a simulated situation, it was strange how many times you felt both a little worried as well as intrigued, by the sounds around you. These different situations made you not only focus on every little sound, but your sense of touch also seemed to be heightened as your stick would alert you to an obstacle, like a fence a step of a bicycle, which you could only identify after having a good feel.

Towards the end we were led into a cafe, where there was another blind person eager to serve us. He read out a list of things available (no alcohol) and their prices. However, you are immediately faced with a problem that blind people must face every day – Trust. I knew I had money in my wallet, but how would I know if I was handing over a 5 Lira or a 200 Lira banknote? After a few moments, where I assume Erhan left us in silence to feel that conflict of trust, he told us that the cafe had a special machine that measures the size of each and every banknote so the correct change can be given, and yet only two of us felt brave enough to order a drink.

The final experience of our journey was climbing on board a Kadikoy ferry boat and sailing across the Bospherous to a sound track of water, ships horns and seagulls that felt so close, you instinctively wanted to lift your hands to shoo them away. Before we docked Erhan asked us all individually how long we thought we had been with him. like most, I said about forty five minutes, while someone said half an hour and another almost an hour. We had actually been there for one hour and forty minutes, which was quite a shock. Erhan explained that this is an almost universal reaction because we were so engaged with our other senses, relying on them possibly more than we had ever done before, that our sense of timing had suffered as a consequence.

In Istanbul, like many cities in the near and middle east, I often get a sense that Health & Safety precautions are quite optional. Unguarded holes in roads or pavement, and insufficient, or no safety railings whatsoever around lethal drops onto rubble or concrete, mean that several fully sighted people die and hundreds are seriously injured every single year from falls around the city; so I could only imagine how difficult and dangerous it might be for the visually impaired.

The tour was now over and so we went through a couple of rooms, where the light gradually increased until we eventually saw Erhan for the first time. It was odd, most of us had imagined what he had looked like but hardly anyone had guessed right. He was quite a good looking man, with longish hair, and because he had a tiny fraction of sight, his eyes appeared quite normal. However, the one thing I noticed, above all else, was just how comfortable and at ease he was in our world, which was quite contrary to the way we were in his, just 2 minutes earlier.

The exhibition has now run in more than 30 countries, 125 cities and over 7,000 visually impaired individuals have been able to earn an income and recognition, along with over 8 Million visitors to the event worldwide.

A recent study held by this Hamburg-based enterprise showed that an astonishing 100% of visitors who were questioned five years later remembered the experience. Around 90% of those interviewed reported feeling sensitized to the world of the blind, 55% recommended Dialogue in the Dark to their friends and family, and 34% wanted to experience the exhibition a second time.

I certainly won’t forget my Dialogue in the Dark.

The experience is set to run into the summer, so if you find yourself in Istanbul or any of the other cities around the world, where it runs please check it out – you won’t be disappointed. However, as the English commentaries in Istanbul only happen on Saturdays, avoid disappointment by booking ahead here


The Astrophysics of Spying – Part 2

Last week I discussed the rapacious collection of data, from our emails, social media and surfing activity and the logging and if necessary red-flagging of every single word uttered during private phone conversations. I also explained the “WHY” distortion, which is essentially the massive inconsistency that exists between what most spying agencies say they are doing, under the convenient – no need to explain catch all of National Security and what they are probably doing.

Unless something is done to control their activities the situation can only deteriorate further as it has already done in most totalitarian autocracies, and in the new breed of veneer democracies now fanning out east and southwards from Russia, where ambitious prime ministers, presidents and military leaders increasingly follow the example set by Putin, who used every covert surveillance trick in the book to cow domestic media and bend the justice system so he could intimidate or conjure up criminal charges against anyone brave enough to question his rule or stand in his way when he tinkered with the national constitution so he could hang onto power for as long as possible.

As we saw with Victor Yanukovych’s spectacular fall from grace in Ukraine over the weekend, only the will of the people can ultimately curb such raw ambition. However, with every passing month it will become harder and harder for the will and bravery of the people to stem similar drifts towards dictatorship because the information they are gathering on us now, will be, one day, almost certainly used to try and control us.
Last year’s spat between the US and the EU over the NSA phone recording scandal, proved that the international trading of information and other secrets, perhaps for strategic, economic or home corporate advantage or to sabotage the efforts of none friendly states, is no longer fiction but a hard reality here to stay. It seems our privacy is now a commodity to be used, abused, traded or sold on, at your governments discretion, even, apparently to foreign powers.

Every few months some whistleblower adds buzz to the rumour that an international exchange now exists, for the trade and sale of not only secrets, but the personal and business information of millions of people. Although it won’t be too long before the secrets, behaviour and private conversations of almost every citizen on this planet will become available through the exchange, whose turn-over may already dwarf that of many national stock exchanges and bourses, with an annual trade in information already valued in billions of Dollars, Euros, Pounds, Yen and yes, perhaps sooner rather than later, even Bitcoin.

Rumour has it that the trading system was originally called the Information Bourse (Ibo) until this title was apparently ditched in favour of the more accurate: Espionage Exchange (es-ex) or e-sex as many have now labelled it; perhaps in a crude attempt to inject some double-entendre humour into what is a deadly serious, triple encrypted trading apparatus now springing up in the darkest corners of a growing number of state, and yes, even one or two private for-profit, agencies, who grew their businesses up from ‘bottom feeder’ status, after perhaps starting out by selling stolen credit card information and medical records, before being turned in true Poacher to Gamekeeper fashion to work with these agencies or face jail time. So now these hackers and crooks find themselves almost on the verge of respectability as the fee taking middle men, who facilitate the trickier information bundle trades or cash sales between countries that may outwardly have a poor, or even no discernible diplomatic relationship.

As Spy Centres are inevitably forced to justify themselves financially, like profit centres, perhaps they will, or are already, advertising to each other on this e-sex software? Don’t let your lack of skills and contacts prevent you from knowing anything that you want to know. Can we do it for you? Yes We Can!’ for money, or secrets about your neighbours or maybe just some landing or interrogation room rights in-case we ever drop by with an extra rendition type prisoner – who needs to be persuaded to “talk.”?

Governments have always wanted to keep the upper hand in military hardware development or to gain some strategic economic benefit of course, but what gives them the right to strip each and every one of us down into a collection of data and recordings, which they can now apparently use, or trade on for anything they need from friendly, or not so friendly allies or even borderline enemies? Why do they expect taxpayers to keep writing blank cheques but ask no questions, just because they tell us the money is only needed to keep us safe. Yes we know spying is no longer about cold war politics and more about terrorism and the growing problem of cyber attacks, with denial of service or other cyber weapons being deployed behind virtual battle lines. And yet, the “Why” distortion still points to money and the power to manipulate and improve your own economy, usually at the expense of someone else’s. Countries like China, who have never been accountable to voters now only make half hearted attempts to hide their state sponsored dirty tricks or downright theft of trade and other business secrets. But how do we know that our own spying agencies are not involved in exactly the same activities? The short answer is we don’t.
Let’s go back to last year’s NSA/ GCHQ phone tapping scandal. When Edward Snowdon fled from Hong Kong, the Russians could not believe their luck, when he flew straight into Putin’s golden cage at Moscow airport. So now, although Snowdon continues to leak secrets, you can be absolutely certain of two things: Not a single word will ever go against Russian interests and the second thing, of course, is that whatever is leaked will be designed to cause maximum mischief amongst western allies as happened last year, when Snowdon (read Putin) revealed that the NSA listened to almost every phone call the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel made in recent years. A charge the US didn’t bother denying, but now, much to Putin’s glee, Merkel is calling on EU leaders to create their own secure internet system, that doesn’t rely on elements, where, the US have free access to snoop. Although you can also guarantee, as you read this, that someone in the NSA is already working on a way to slip people, spyware or compromised computer chips with backdoor access into Merkel’s program before it even gets off the ground.

So what does the future hold for us? I expect some people will be looking forward to a time when you can buy a ‘Snoopers’ App for your phone or go to someone like Amazon.com and download someone’s file as easy as a Kindle book, until you eventually have a collection of files on friends, enemies or celebrities, although celebrities will no longer be celebrities if we know everything about them. Such things will, of course appeal to the stalker in all of us, but never forget that your own private life, your conversations, embarrassing habits or perversions, or fears and secrets will also be available to anyone and everybody who may be interested.

If nothing is done to curb the current pace of rapacious snooping on all of us soon, we can say goodbye forever to Free Speech and any concept of privacy apart from whispering during hidden face to face contact. I also foresee the emergence of billions of Vanilla People, forced to conform and live standard, none confrontational lives, devoid of ambition or aspirations. Serving, rather than flourishing under Governments, which increasingly lean towards big business interests or family dynasties, as more leaders succumb to the urge to control all media and open dissent by eventually introducing laws that prevent overt criticism or opposition, so they can hang on to their power. Of course, we are not all so pliable, but for those of us who refuse to become Vanilla People new coded ways of speaking or writing, with double or triple meanings will be devised, to keep us just the right side of the Neo-Dictators, who by then will perhaps rule with a system of warnings like 3 Strikes and Out, all the way through to prison in Re-education Gulags or, within some of the more despotic countries that will emerge, perhaps even death penalties.

It can never happen? Never forget that after World War One, most people believed that war, strife and inhumanity to other men was such a thing of the past that no one – NO ONE – ever predicted that obsessive surveillance and abuse of power through information, would eventually mean that 100’s of millions more people, would eventually perish under the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

If you value your Human Right to privacy please forward, re-tweet or FB Like this to someone who cares – If not then I am told that Vanilla isn’t such a bad colour to wear no matter who may be Watching you!