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Berlin Web Event Tackles Big Issues

Public Eye's Brian Montopoli is writing weekly dispatches for while living and working in Berlin as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He will return to Public Eye in October.

It was quite a scene: 112 activists, artists, intellectuals — even a Russian clown — sitting around a giant, round table, all talking at the same time.

The participants at Saturday's "Table of Free Voices," an all-day event in Berlin's Bebelplatz, had come to answer 100 big-think questions. Prompted by moderators Willem Dafoe and Nigerian activist Hafsat Abiola, they were given three minutes to answer queries like "AIDS In Africa: How Big Is Our Responsibility?" and "What are the three most important values a child should be taught?"

They weren't talking to each other, however. Instead, the participants — among them Cindy Sheehan, Cornel West and Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy — spoke into video cameras, with the results then uploaded to the Web. The idea, according to organizers dropping knowledge, was to create a so-called "living library" of videos and text that will serve as a resource to unite activists around the world and inspire citizens.

There was a lot to like about the event: The 100 questions were chosen from among the 20,000 that had been suggested over the Internet. The table itself was located in a square in downtown Berlin where Nazis once burned books. And the goal of creating Web video that is useful — something beyond the lip syncing teenagers and exploding soda bottles on sites like YouTube — is an admirable one.

The Web has long offered informative text. Now, perhaps, there would be a central clearinghouse of informative video to go along with it.

But the event was also not without potential stumbling blocks. For one thing, organizers had asked each of the participants to answer all of the questions, regardless of the topic. (They did have the option of sitting a question out.) Many of the topics were broad, but participants still had to weigh in on subjects outside of their area of expertise.

"It's OK that they're not experts on every topic, because they have an opinion," Jackie Wallace, one of the event's co-founders, told "I want to know what Bill (Joy) has to say about climate change, and I want to know what the Russian clown has to say about climate change, because the experts don't have all the answers."

The event itself was a marathon, with more than six hours of questions. The long day inevitably took its toll on participants. (Reached the day before, Joy joked to that by the end he was "going to need an IV.")

Looking over the videos, it quickly becomes apparent how difficult it was for each participant to come up with compelling and coherent answers to every question. Which raises yet another question: Are people really going to have the patience to wade through the somewhat uneven content — more than 700 hours of video — searching for the stuff that speaks to them?

According to Ceasar McDowell, an MIT professor who serves as the group's executive director, that's not the point.

"My theory has always been, you have to start from where you are," he told "First, you have to build a base, a network of people. We're in a time in the world when we need new ways of understanding what it means for the public to emerge. The Table is creating a symbolic representation of what that might look like."

Dropping knowledge has gone through about $7 million in its three and a half years of existence, with a large chunk coming from insurance powerhouse Allianz. In his "fantasy vision," McDowell imagines a situation in which, when something significant happens in the world, "through dropping knowledge, people start to ask questions. Tables of Free Voices start to emerge. We break through the barriers and give people a way to speak."

Both McDowell and Wallace cite what Wallace calls the "non-coverage" of the Iraq war as their inspiration.

"I realized that I needed to sidestep what was out there," said Wallace. "It started around one issue, but there are so many issues that need to be talked about, that aren't really being talked about in depth."

She said dropping knowledge will invite average citizens to contribute their own videos to the site addressing the same questions that were answered at the Table. The long term goal, she said, is to create a forum for global dialogue.

Joy, who donated $100,000 to the event, said it was important that the videos on the dropping knowledge site are indexed by content, not text.

"A good library will have sections of interest," he said. "It's curated. This is curated in the same way that a good library would be.

"Socrates complained about books that you couldn't ask them questions. I love the idea that this is a way to engage people intelligently, to generate questions and answers. There's a sense of it being real. You can feel the person. See the person. It's like a poet reading a poem."

It's fair to say that those involved with dropping knowledge don't seem entirely clear about what the organization is ultimately supposed to become. Perhaps that's for the best. On the Web, after all, projects often grow in ways that organizers might never have imagined. For now, the people behind dropping knowledge seem focused on trying to create a forum for social commentary that takes advantage of emerging technology.

"I think that people really want to take action — they just don't know how to do it," said Wallace. "The majority of the world was against this war, and there is not a place to talk about these things. I think people are ready to engage. We want to drag people in, but I think people are there."

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