It's a busy week in Miami. Art Basel is upon us, of course. Design Miami as well. Then there are all the satellite fairs and the associated parties, concerts, and openings. Right now, Miami looks and feels like one giant, frantic party.
Amid the frivolity, however, at least 700 people are doing some serious work. That's the number of artists, tech geeks, and media moguls attending the second annual Sime MIA conference at the New World Center on Miami Beach. Among those speaking yesterday was Adriana López Vermut, sister of imprisoned Venezuelan politician Leopoldo López.
"The [Venezuelan] government is fighting old school media," she said. "There have obviously been amazing advances in social media, which are a tool, but I do think there is an opportunity at this time to come up with new ways of offering transparency and, more importantly, of offering independence of thought."
López Vermut was introduced by a dramatic video depicting her brother's struggle against the Venezuelan government and arrest in February.
Wearing a T-shirt reading "Free Leopoldo," López Vermut spent much of her time on stage describing the conditions her brother endures inside the Ramo Verde military prison, where he awaits trial on charges of inciting violence.
She said guards had punished her brother for delivering a four-minute speech from prison by dumping feces and urine into his cell, then cutting off his water.
At one point, when describing how a telephone conversation with his family had been cut off by screeching alarms, López Vermut began to choke up.
She said her brother was being accused of "subliminal messages" and a "subversive ethos," even though he called for peaceful protest. López Vermut claimed that 90 percent of Venezuelan media is now controlled by the Chavista government, but that the government had yet to subvert newer, social media like Twitter and Facebook.
Shortly before his arrest, López tweeted out a video of himself calling for peaceful protests across Venezuela. The video was viewed 1.3 million times and drew tens of thousands of his supporters onto the streets of Caracas.
"If you didn't have the possibility of tweeting and tweeting and building this network," his sister said, "you wouldn't be able to overnight bring together a million people in support of one individual fighting for human rights."
Courtesy of Sime MIA
Speaking just before López Vermut on the New World Center stage, two other activists made similar points about technology enabling political transformation.
Those technologies were decidedly more old school than twitter, however.
First, Jordanian comic-book creator Suleiman Bakhit spoke about fighting Islamic extremism by undermining its claim on the imagination of youngsters in the Middle East.
Extremism isn't so much about religion -- in fact, many jihadists know little about Islam, Bakhit said -- as it is about the perversion of our age-old need for hero narratives. Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda offer disaffected young men starring roles in a supposedly epic battle between good and evil.
Bakhit decided kids in the Middle East should have heroes other than suicide bombers, so he created a series of comic books showcasing positive characters.
"We need to challenge these myths," he told New Times after his speech. "Drone strikes on their own are not going to stop extremism ... and comics are a fraction of the cost."
Almost as retro as comic books, the movie Titanic took center stage during a talk by North Korean refugee Yeonmi Park.
Park spoke about growing up under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-il. She said that watching a bootleg copy of the American blockbuster first made her question the party line about self-sacrifice.
The sheer fact that a movie had been made about someone other than The Dear Leader was mind-boggling, Park said. She wondered if the actors would be whacked for their performance.
"Obviously, Leonardo DiCaprio was not killed," she said with a laugh.
Park and her family escaped North Korea in 2007 by crossing the desert into China. She now pushes to bring democracy to her native country.
Other topics tackled at the three-day conference including "biohacking," driverless cars, and internet privacy. While López Vermut, Bakhit, and Park testified to the positive effects of technology, Nico Sells spoke to its darker side.
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"The NSA is a tip of the iceberg. Everyone is spying on us," said the founder of Wickr, who advocated boycotting Facebook and covering up the cameras on electronic devices. "There are thousands and thousands of data brokers making money on you. This is what they do."