I was born in 1987, and throughout my life, I have accessed AM and FM radio channels, as well as internet-TV and radio; cassette music and film as well as Spotify and Netflix; 1.44 MB floppy disks, as well as 256GB SD cards with a speed of 300Mbps. As a child, I took pictures with my father’s tank-like Soviet Zenit on 35mm films, but now I can record 4K video with a tiny digital GoPro that neatly fits in a small pocket. I used to wait for weeks and months to get written letters from my relatives abroad, but now we cannot find the time to start a free Skype call. How communication technologies have evolved over the last three decades is fascinating, but it is equally terrifying. Us, Millennials, we are nothing short of a lost-and-found generation. We are lost in terms of our detachment from the big media institutions that have historically played the gatekeeping role in shaping public opinion and defining political realities. We are found in terms of the expansion of the common and the empowerment of more voices in influencing these gatekeeping processes.
My story begins in Damascus in 2003, when I was in 10th grade. At the time I studied at al-Muhaisnah, one of the most important Islamic schools in town. I was a member of the school’s League Club, where a selected few took additional classes to be prepared for leadership positions in my father’s Shia community. I still remember my first Arabic essay “Syria: The Hardest Number in the Middle East Equation”. My teachers told my parents that my future in politics would be significant. Often, I attended lectures given by leading Shia figures in Syria and Lebanon, including Hasan Nasrallah’s deputies. I sat within a distance of meters from President al-Assad’s ministers and officials who attended the same sessions. My 28-year-old mentor, who now has his own show on national television, spent hours with me after religion classes, explaining Middle East politics. It helped my profile that my mother was a Sunni Bathiest whose brother was one of Hafez al-Assad’s associates, and whose nephew was a minister in Bashar al-Assad’s cabinet. There was so much potential for a Shia-Sunni boy interested in politics, whose family is conservative yet secular and is linked to the establishment. During that period, Iran, Turkey and Syria began to negotiate free trade agreements and open borders, and my profile pretty much combined the characteristics of the three countries.
But then something happened to me, my teachers told my parents. “He’s completely lost”, they said. I was not lost; I just had access to the internet for the first time in my life. For once, I realized a world bigger than my country, and the entire Middle East.
Aged 16, I had my first access to social media and end-to-end communication, which was the turning point in my life. The little ‘chit-chats’ that I had in broken English with Laura and Flore from France, Luis and Diego from Braizl, Asuka from Japan and a lot more felt more meaningful than all the political realities I was being prepped for in my father’s community. If it weren’t for that experience, I would have never learned English, liberated myself from boxed ideologies, and melted in an international community of my own choosing. I have never really met my teenage computer friends, although I am still in touch with some of them. Yet, I still managed to come to Europe and find deep friendships, partnerships and family with people who come from all around the world, do not share my cultural heritage or background, yet do not require that I give it up. My community is not a 1970s coke commercial where people from different cultures and ethnicities gather and sing Kumbaya; my community is made of hard working and devoted men and women who have invested years and decades establishing themselves as global citizens, believing so powerfully this whole world is ours. We are only beginning to integrate into this community, and constantly pursuing strengthening and expanding it.
Ultimately, the little chit-chats that I had with other teenagers from around the globe in 2003 have transformed to high-resolution short films that I now create for an international audience eager to exchange knowledge, trade with one another, and collaborate on things that matter – things of mutual interest or benefit. Sixteen years ago, it took me an hour to send a 2MB image of me wearing the school’s military uniform to a friend in Spain on my dial-up connection, just to create a human bond. Now I get to learn about the value of an Eastern German vintage lens from a photographer’s channel in Stockholm, buy it from a Bavarian flea market for a fraction of the value, test it and communicate my experience in a video review on YouTube, and resell it to collectors from Kos, Jesi, Graz, Berlin and Melbourne for enough profit that covers the next experiment. You might argue that the content or the message of what I do is not valuable, and you might be right, but the medium is what really matters.
Ever since I became an International in 2003, I have joined a community that is actively engaging in the world’s novelist discursive patterns, that occur and evolve on the world’s fastest media and communication platforms. We may have not yet written the history of the 21st century, but we certainly are keeping up fast with the new alphabet.