From: Geert Lovink
Date: December 24, 2007 10:00:02 AM GMT+01:00
Subject: <nettime> Interview with Caroline Nevejan
The Politics of Presence Research
Interview with Caroline Nevejan
By Geert Lovink
The Dutch cultural producer Caroline Nevejan is known for her work at the Amsterdam pop temple Paradiso, as a co-founder of the Waag centre for new media culture and in her manager role at HvA, the university for professional education. Currently she is a member of the Dutch Council for Culture and the Arts, which advises the Minister of Culture. She was about to leave the Hogeschool van Amsterdam in 2004, intended to write her PhD, when I arrived there. The dissertation is ready now. In April 2007 Caroline Nevejan got her degree at the University of Amsterdam. The title is Presence and the Design of Trust and can be freely downloaded at http://www.being-here.net. The interview below was done to reflect on her PhD research.
I must have ran into Caroline around 1980, during the turbulent riot days of the Amsterdam squatters movement. Late 1981 we were both part of the group that kicked off the bluf! weekly, bringing together undogmatic factions within the new social movements of the time. For a few months we were both in the editorial team. A few years later Caroline reappeared as the events producer of Paradiso. It was there, in August 1989, that we worked together during The Galactic Hacker Party, Amsterdam's first computer hacker's convention. I was there in my capacity of 'illegal scientist', as a member of the Adilkno group and Mediamatic editor, writing reports and manifestos. A year later I participated again in an event of a similar visionary magnitude, the Seropositive Ball, which connected HIV-AIDS activists on a global level. Out of these grew the first Next Five Minutes 'tactical media' festival in January 1993.
Key element of these events was the spatial arrangement of the interaction between the Paradiso audience and people elsewhere. In conjunction with De Balie, the cultural centre next door, an Amsterdam style was developed in which a lot of emphasis was put to create an 'aesthetics of public debating'. Discussion was more than a disagreement between key actors. It had theatrical elements in which the producer took up the role of director. It was in this context that new communication technology such as telephone, fax, video conferencing, bulletin board systems and the Internet started to play a role. Why limit a dialogue to those who were able to gather in a particular time and space when you can also involve others remotely?
'Presence and the Design of Trust' is certainly an innovative and non-conventional piece of research. Let's call it singular. Caroline decided to take both The Galactic Hacker Party and Seropositive Ball as her case studies and came up with valuable insights that contribute to the yet unwritten history of Amsterdam's new media culture. The central dynamic she studied is the one between natural and mediated presence. Technology has altered our sense of presence. The question that Caroline Nevejan poses is how networked events can produce 'thinking actors' that play a role in building up 'crucial networks'. Overcoming the usual binaries between real and virtual is one, but how can we build 'communities of practice' that really make a difference, beyond techno-fetishism and political dogmatism? How can we overcome the tendency to produce noise and tension on the line and develop a sense what 'vital information' is?
GL: You have a broad, conceptual understanding of 'design'. Where does this idea come from? People know Dutch design and architecture, but that's perhaps not what you refer to. Design, in your understanding, seems to be a procedure, a set of rules, not unlike project management, which is a practice, one that is not by definition related to aesthetics.
CN: Coming from Holland, the 'man-made' land where everything is designed and which has a remarkable design tradition of which the modern aesthetics have influenced worldwide perception of design, has definitely influenced my perception. I know the environment is 'made', I know aesthetics matter, I know different designs operate at different scales and need different approaches to resources, project management, distribution and protection. My personal understanding of design is also deeply influenced by social movements, by critical science and by the specific Amsterdam evolving digital culture at the end of the 1980's and early nineties, which was a remarkable inspirational environment to be part of.
It was not till I entered into the Doors of Perception community that I started to refer to my own practices in terms of design. In the Doors of Perception large global network people have been discussing and presenting best and worst practices in the developing networked society since 1993: scientists, engineers, artists, graphical designers, interaction designers, philosophers, businessman, inventors, computer wizards and others coming from art, grass root organizations as well as from small companies and large multinational corporations. All were concerned to find good and profitable ways to proceed in this unknown and fast changing landscape. Already in the mid nineties the discourse in this conference changed and started to imply that designing 'stuff' implied designing behavior and experiences of others. It became apparent from practices in business as well as social organizations that design is a way of looking at problems and solving them.
In the fast changing landscape design methodologies appeared to be capable of dealing with a large variety of input in a fast output process. People realized that such an approach could be very useful, also outside of the classical design realms. The evolving networked and information society and the elaborate digitalization of many processes had a huge impact on basic structures of many organizations and businesses. They needed the skills from the design world to be able to deal with the complexities they were facing. In my view, today, design has become a paradigm in itself. Because it emphasizes the ?making of things? people from different disciplines can contribute and collaborate. The 'thing' to be designed brings perspective to the collaboration. In design a variety of languages and media is used (writing, drawing, sketching, photos and film etc.) to make mock ups, demos, storyboards, schemes etc, and the use of such 'boundary objects' facilitates the conversation between people who usually have a hard time understanding each other. Nevertheless I argue that I think that 'design as research' or 'deep design' as Peter Lunenfeld formulated it, has not yet developed the rigor and knowledge base it needs to be able to deal with the complex issues it faces.
I propose to distinguish between 2D design for space (space) and 3D design for function (space and action), 4D design for dramaturgy (space, time and action) and 5D design for orchestration (space, time, action, relations between people). When focusing on dimensions, each of these kinds of design has its own traditions that it can build on. In the different arts and sciences basic issues around the structure of time and space, actions and relations between people have been studied and experiences have been gathered that can be used.
Originally 'design' referred to 2D design for space as in layout and to 3D design for function (space and action) for creating objects and architectures of all kinds. This design is inspired by the classical 'design is art' tradition. 4D design for dramaturgy (space, time and action) designs sequences of action. It is used to create events, educational modules, computer applications or the creation of games. This 4D design can build upon the rich traditions of theatre, dance, music, film, architecture and certain sports. Over the last 10 years we have seen the rise of 5D design for the orchestration of processes (space, time, action and the relation between people). One is today much more aware how infrastructures, frameworks and platforms influence how people interact. Designing user platforms, intranets and communities online have led to using design methodologies for designing new business processes, learning ecologies and human communities. Sometimes one can wonder whether to call this design. I do when design methodologies are used to tackle complexities. Traditions to look into are the arts in which improvisation and synchronization between the artists plays a role of significance as well as into the social and organizational sciences. So, yes, I guess I do have a conceptual understanding of design. I do argue, though, that aesthetics matter.
GL: How did you encounter the concept of 'trust'? Isn't it a concept of business consultants who saw that their clients had a security problem with their computer networks? How did this concept get introduced in cultural theory and design?
CN: The moment I was introduced to the existence of Internet immediately raised the issue of trust. In the 1980's networks like Peacenet and Greennet provided us with news, which could travel beyond the censorship rules from countries like South Africa. So the Internet provided ways to get around not to be trusted formal news reports and it generated 'trust' because the witnesses themselves could speak up and testify unedited. When I started to make shows in Paradiso I collaborated with hackers and through them I found out how the technology itself is easily manipulated, how any code can be broken and how the business propaganda of delivering 'safe' environments was (and is) a fairy tale. At the time I could not have formulated it in these terms, but in hindsight I can see that we were dealing with multidimensional designs and were struggling how all these related and contextualized each other and in this process trust appeared to be fundamental to be able to understand what was happening.
Trust is a fuzzy concept and at the same time it is crucial in any interaction. Everyone who makes things that other people use faces issues of trust. In collaborations, agreements and contracts, in delivering and using services, as well as in every street, issues like safety, liability, believability and trustworthiness profoundly influence the dynamics of interaction. Even though little has been written about 'trust' as such in the design world, since people realize that they are modeling behavior of others, trust surfaces as an issue.
The possibility of using multiple identities on the Internet has made more and more people aware about for example the basic trust people exchange when they meet. I find the design of trust most complex in 5D designs. These often deal with power relationships in which the establishment of trust can easily be misused. I do not think such misuse only happens in business, I have seen it in many places. Especially when larger groups of people start to express themselves and start to take responsibility, as is facilitated by developments like the Internet, the old fashioned forms of control is not good enough anymore. With new ways of generating knowledge and new ways of interacting, new management styles are necessary. Such styles focus on orchestration, on delegating responsibility (instead of tasks) and facilitate people to contribute and meet other people with other skills and knowledge as well. The way 'trust' and its dynamics are shaped, shapes how people will relate and this defines possible success.
GL: I read your study as a reflection on the culture of organizing public debates that existed in Amsterdam. From early on you have been looking for alternative formats and ways to 'stage' controversies in a different manner, for instance through a banal detail like the rearrangement of seats. Do you think that we reflect enough on this new culture that has been created in Amsterdam? It is great to read about the Galactic Hacker Party and the Zero Positive Ball. However, you also get the feeling that we do not take ourselves serious enough. Could we talk about a 'school' in Amsterdam that deals with alternative designs of public debates? There is a lot of knowledge floating around amongst event an organizer that is not written down. You're not a historian, and neither am I. How do you see that we could better 'capture' the overflow of innovative, unique practices that happen in this city? How can this fertile place of experimentation gain more influence, worldwide?
CN: When traveling I realize again and again that the Amsterdam cultural context in which I grew up and to which I could contribute to, was very special. It would be interesting to analyze this from a design perspective: to distinct the historical, the structural and the self-organizational elements for example. What created this amazing challenging and yet safe playground at the time? Such an analysis also needs to take into account how it changed early this century. How community centers were shut and kids were back in the streets, how people retreated in their own realm, how bureaucracy and administration dehumanized, how the homo scene is suddenly in defense again, how the local media scene more or less disappeared. Most of all I wonder whether the current generation of young people in Amsterdam experiences this freedom and richness we participated in at the time.
I do agree with you that in the seventies, eighties up to the mid nineties there was a very special culture here, which was internationally recognized and which maybe you could even label as what I would propose to formulate as The Amsterdam School for Public Research. One of the characteristics of this Amsterdam culture was and maybe still is that things are made and tried out in public spaces and had a research character. People from different disciplines participated as well as artists, whose involvement has been crucial for success. By making things in public place, 'the public' influences what happens. And as a result things that are made and happenings inform the larger political and social debates. Public Research, a notion we introduced when we founded the Waag Society in 1994, has not been much elaborated very much upon since. There is a lot of not-formulated experience and insights in how to make Public Research happen, here in Amsterdam as well as in other places (like the Sarai initiative in India for example). I wonder, though, whether this is a question of 'capturing'. I guess cultures fertilize new cultures when there is a chance to experience. Such an analysis should inform new designs that can operate in the new current contexts.
Your question also seems to suggest that the 'Amsterdam approach' should gain more influence worldwide. Even though I tend to be skeptical about such 'cultural transmissions', I realized through the many responses on the Al Jazeerah broadcasting of 'Couscous and Cola', a television series produced by my (own) sister, in which a group of migrant teenagers from the Amsterdam-West suburbs freely discusses their lives, that the 'openness' that till today characterizes Dutch society, resonates with young people around the globe. To be able and to be allowed to ask questions and listen to each other is fundamental to Public Research. The challenge as well as the safety needs to be provided though.
Personally I have taken the challenge to take the things I learned into a different professional arena in 1999, namely to higher professional education: to design a sense of performance in education, to switch the attention from designing 'education' to designing 'learning environments', to orchestrate public research in such large organizations. The methodologies we developed in the emerging Amsterdam digital culture were rather useful in that context. I also witnessed that the battle for power is much stronger which pointed out how fragile such processes can be.
Because of the Web 2.0 developments, and the knowledge management problems that organizations have, more study into Public Research makes a lot of sense. James Surowicky points out that diversity and independence are prerequisites for any 'wisdom of crowds'. Scale makes all the difference and as my research strongly suggests, a balance between mediated, witnessed and natural presence has to be found. Such research will address a larger movement in society: how do we create and communicate experience and collaborate at a time of post-industrialization, hypermodernity and mass-individualization? I like your suggestion to start this analysis with a focus on the re-arranging of seats. How the seats are positioned, I can testify and you as well, makes a huge difference in what will happen next.
GL: Over the years certain concepts become alive. As 'memes' they start to travel and become meaningful for a group of people and then are taken outside of that context, appealing to people you had no idea about. This happened to 'tactical television' that we both worked on with a group of artists and activists in 1992. This turned out to be the first Next Five Minutes festival. Three others followed in 1996, 1999 and 2003. These days there are academic anthologies and lectures series about 'tactical media'. In the book you haven't emphasized this event. Can you nonetheless say something about your role?
CN: It started in my perception with a conversation between David Garcia and me at my kitchen table. We were discussing how the current language to talk about media did not pay tribute to the things we liked and thought were good. It was not anymore about 'left or right', or about 'independent versus dominant'. We decided to explore this more and we invited a few people, like you and Bas Raaijmakers, Geke van Dijk, Raul Marroquin and Menno Grootveld who were all concerned with media, to share this thinking. In my memory we met three or four nights and had long conversations and came up with the notion of tactical television, which emphasized the cracks in the media-landscape as well as the position of the media-maker.
I was the producer and 'concept-protector/communicator' of the first N5M. Each of you had a program-line and I was safeguarding that it became one program as well as that the developed thinking would communicate. You did Eastern Europe I remember distinctly. Bas en Geke did the southern hemisphere with Patrice Riemens as well. David invited artists from all over. Tjebbe van Tijen made the archive. It was a very rich program and in the end the atmosphere from the event was nearly utopian. For many participants it was very reassuring to see how people using media in smart ways could make interventions. Remember that the strategic freeze of the cold was over and so much potential seemed to blossom.
At the end of the first N5M I had a clash with David Garcia, which in hindsight was a very interesting one. He wanted authorship over the concept of N5M, being an artist this was very important for him because the building of reputation is crucial for new funding. I, being the producer and responsible for something that was a collective endeavour, said that this was out of question. It is a whole group who made it happen and in case of a community activity one does not claim authorship, one is happy enough to participate. The issue of reputation building through ownership of authorship versus the building of reputation through participation is till today an issue of tremendous importance.
When we started to produce the second N5M I ran into a serious disagreement with the editorial group. In 1996 the Internet was conquering the world and all you guys wanted to pursue net-critique. You and Pit Schulz had just started the nettime list and this was an opportunity to meet and explore more. The result was a program full of white young ambitious boys, yet it has been my pride to always make programs in which diversity is the fundament and also I thought that the scope and original agenda of the N5M was not pursued enough. Together with Patrice Riemens I wrote the article 'Vital information for social survival' to make my point (which was published in the Economic Times of India). In the end I withdrew from the editorial group. I supported the second N5M from out Paradiso, but it was not 'my program' anymore. It is great to see though how the notion of tactical television has traveled. It makes sense because the notion of tactical media is way to understand certain positions in today's complex media-landscapes. Also, many of the nettime-posters have become Professors of New Media and Digital Culture, who teach between them thousands of students all over.
GL: A concept that you emphasized, time and again, is 'vital information'. It appealed to me, and stayed with me, ever since it was used in the Zero Positive Ball event in 1990. Can you say something more about it? Has it been used in other contexts?
CN: Vital information has been an important notion for me since the Zero Positive Ball indeed. That is where it surfaced for me. The strive for survival and well-being, the conatus as Spinoza called it, makes people take hurdles they thought they never would. When this strive is triggered, original energy of people becomes available and what happens next will make sense. The dialogues and the connections that are made, will truly influence people's lives. When mediated presence offers 'vital information' the bridge between natural and mediated presence becomes very smooth. I have found that in any situation one can find the vital information. It always taps into this deeper layer of survival and therefore it also taps into the sense of ethics people feel. One communicates around the current status quo, so to say, to be able to create, if at all needed, changes in this status quo. It takes an effort to find 'vital information', one has to ask questions and challenge the current status quo.
I only know a few people who work with the concept of vital information. As you know I am not a regular writer, and after the first article with Patrice Riemens, I only discussed the concept again in my dissertation. Nevertheless I have worked with many people over the years and in those collaborations 'vital information' always has played a role of significance.
GL: You have somehow copy-pasted the NGO rhetoric around 'human rights' in your work. I wonder why. As you know there is a whole debate about how useful the 'rights' discourse is in the new media and activist context, and how, potentially, disempowering it can be to claim 'rights'. It's such a passive and institutionalized activity. Nonetheless, you have chosen the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a central document in your study. One would expect boring government or U.N. documents to do. Is there maybe a personal reason why this document plays such an important role?
CN: It is interesting that you ask about a personal reason for this choice. It was not a personal reason at first. Since the moment I realized that 'the sense of presence' can be described as 'the sense for survival and well-being' to formulate it shortly, I was looking for a way to make trust operational in which this sense for survival would resonate. I was aware of the many critique's that are formulated about the UDHR, but realized that in the light of destruction during World War II the UDHR is formulated (which is mentioned in the preamble). In the light of the unimaginable destruction that happened all ideological or religious reasoning became obsolete. Also the fact that it is a secular document and that it has played this vital role in international diplomacy for over 50 years, defines its significance. And I felt with the current developments in which there seems to be no limit as to how far we are digitizing people en mediating our presence around the globe, such a strong reference point is necessary.
Up to this day, when being involved in working with refugees, 'illegal' people and other political situations, the UDHR has been a declaration that one can refer to and on which basis one can go to local, national and international courts, to point out that in certain situations human dignity was denied and that therefore such situations have to be challenged and changed. If I would look for an even more personal reason than I guess the UDHR resonates in its fundament most with motherhood for me. Children have rights that are not to be neglected nor denied by any religion or political system. This is something I feel very strong about.
GL: I noticed that in your references and experiences that you describe, you easily switch between the world of global corporations, human rights activists and social movements. Is the context that you work in really without frictions? You do not often mention that there are conflicts of interests. I suppose you are not suggesting that we all work on the same project. In the past people would have asked: which side are you on?
CN: Already in the past the question: 'which side are you on'? has produced more than enough atrocities, exclusions and humiliations that were not beneficial nor necessary as well as that they were counterproductive to 'the cause'. I strongly believe that people can be 'good' human beings in all realms of society, even if they have different interests, as long as they are willing to enter into dialogues and conversations with others when appropriate. You notice indeed that I try to get around the 'being good' and the 'being bad'. I think that does not actually exist, as a scientist definitely not, but also in my personal life and in my professional life I find this distinction not useful at all. However, in my dissertation and up to this day, I have not entered into any thought or dialogue about the character and value of intentions, which is part of this debate and which I also expect to have consequences for this debate.
I focused on how things and processes can be good and bad in certain contexts from the perspective of supporting survival and well-being. The feeling of something being good or pleasant is an important indicator of where well being is to be found (I here take the perspective of Professor Antonio Damasio). To transpose such senses and feelings into judgments about other human beings in general I find medieval reasoning. That is why our judicial systems as well as our scientific structures are important. Logic and reasoning sanction the action and ideas of people in certain contexts, which is how we can protect ourselves from each other?s misconceptions and destructive actions.
Nevertheless I do agree that when certain interests color certain actions and perceptions this should be mentioned. In my perception I show awareness of this. Are there any specific paragraphs where you miss the mentioning of certain interests? The introduction of the 'crucial network' specifically deals with these conflicts of interest. As you can read, I argue that the presence of the 'crucial network' the gathered conflict of interests, generates an environment in which trust can be found. Power becomes transparent in such a case and therefore the power status quo can be challenged as well.
GL: There is an example we can discuss here. Lee Felsenstein, who is featured in your book as one of the early hackers, has recently made some critical remarks about Negroponte's One Laptop per Child project (http://fonly.typepad.com/fonlyblog/2007/06/one_computer_pe.html). How would you, using your vocabulary of Presence and the Design of Trust, look into this controversy? Your PhD supervisor, Cees Hamelink, also has strong views on this 'ICT for Development' field.
CN: For a start I like to argue that we are not dealing with a controversy here. If anything we are observing a debate between two groups of Americans who both claim to know how to change the world. I guess it is great if they make cheaper computers, do more research into learning and I am always in favor of people who put children on the agenda. However, both do not seem to be inspired nor hindered by knowledge of things that are happening already, nor do they seem to be aware of the social and economic circumstances of the 'developing world'. Even IT multinationals like Intel, Motorola, Philips, HP, Nokia and others have realized at the beginning of this century that while the northern markets are being saturated with their products, people in the southern hemisphere of whom most earn less than 1 dollar a day, can not afford their products. This realization is one of the reasons that they are shifting from product to service design.
To push for a hundred dollar computer per child excludes most of the children in our world, also many children in the United States are too poor to be able to afford such a machine. It is clear to me that this initiative generates lots of research funding for the Americans involved and has a potential business perspective worth billions of dollars. Where this initiative may become dangerous, in the sense that it will prevent other people to make their own things, is where they start developing infrastructure with American for profit companies for all regions of the world. The material infrastructures of the Internet in the end define who has access to what. Especially the market of building infrastructures is, as Cees Hamelink has been pointing out for over 20 years, a new form of colonialism, cultural imperialism or whatever you want to call it. The ownership and responsibilities that come with this ownership (and its potential misuse and if not being affordable), should be of great concern worldwide. Even in Amsterdam we do not own our own information infrastructure anymore.
Concerning Lee's proposal for a computer per village, I can only point to things that are already happening. In 1990's Sam Pitroda, and Indian entrepreneur collaborating with the Indian government, gathered over 300 engineering students one summer to design India's telephone system. The idea was that one phone per village makes all the difference. And so it appears to be. By 2002 every village, so is claimed, now has an STD phone in its local shop. The shop owner provides the service of making phone calls to the villagers who pay a few cents per call and the shopkeeper has a raise in income because of exploiting the phone. Jiva, one of the many social entrepreneurs in India, has started to put a computer with every phone to develop telemedicine as well as distant learning. Infrastructure matters, but even more so do new models for learning. Since 1999 Professor Sugata Mitra, at the time connected to NIIT and now connected to Newcastle University, has been exploring the idea of children who learn through self organization. His by now famous Hole in the Wall project has advanced a lot since. In his last experiment he asked the question whether Tamil speaking children could learn bio-technology in English on their own and he found that they had acquired 30% of the material he had left them alone with for three months (speaking English with a Texan accent they had acquired from one of the sites!). He comes to the conclusion that groups of children, when left alone with a computer hooked up to the Internet, actually learn a lot. For this to happen the computer should be located in a public space so that children can discuss what they see and can enter into competition with each other as well as learn by copying each other.
You ask me to connect this to my research into Presence and the Design of Trust. I guess the market of infrastructures should become transparent for it to generate trust. However, we people will use anything that works and a worldwide judicial system that will respect privacy and promote freedom of expression is not in place. Much government policymaking is way behind technological developments.
Sugata Mitra's work on the self organization for learning I find extremely interesting, also from the viewpoint of my research. He emphasizes that children who gather in natural witnessed presence, because they enter into conversation with each other, have unexpected high learning curves. They make 'sense' of the mediated chaos they encounter in the first place and within days are capable of operating this chaos and learn from it. From his research one could conclude that mediated presence generates the highest learning curves when it is perceived in natural witnessed presence. A similar experience we had with projects like Demi Dubbel from the Waag, and also my experiences at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam point into this direction.
GL: If we become culturally specific, much of the Amsterdam 'making things happen' that you and I are part of can be reduced to the exchange between the Netherlands and the United States. In both case studies, the hackers event and the AIDS conference, US-American activists, and their concepts and reference systems, are playing a key role. Obviously, continental Europe had a lot to catch up with in 1989-1990, particularly if we look at cyber culture. If we switch to the current Web 2.0 craze not much has changed. Americans are flown in to do their spiel, both in the academic, commercial and cultural contexts. Just look at the large creative industries event, held here in Amsterdam so far in 2006 and 2007 called Picnic. The cultural flow seems one-sided. Have you seen much change over the past twenty years in the way that the USA and Europe are interacting?
CN: In my perception, being a witness of USA policy since the seventies, the USA has rudely intervened all over the world and does not hesitate to offend the international community nor does it hesitate to promote their culture with all means available. This has not much has changed. In the telecommunications sector the battle about infrastructure is not over. But also, because the US government has shown such disrespect for others, the USA underground is also profound, which again is an inspiration for many of us. The USA is and has been over the last 50 years 'the' major player in information and communication technology as well as in the cultures (music, film, internet, TV) it produced. In 1989 when we organized the Galactic Hacker Party (before the Berlin wall broke down) the UNESCO declaration in which a 'more-balanced flow of information' was on the agenda. However, since the cold war was over, 'wild capitalism' has conquered the planet as you know, but such dynamics also produce its counter forces and for example the fact that whole regions of the Internet are not English anymore will have impact. In the shows we organized in Amsterdam Americans were never our only guests. And of course this takes a lot of effort, with many European countries it is not easy to interact and with other parts of the world it is even harder. Even with the Internet being so omni-present today, it is often complex to identify the right people. Networks of trust are crucial. I remember distinctly that because you had spent time early nineties in Eastern Europe we had regularly had East-European guests. Because you were the 'social interface' as you are till today for many of us to many others we do not know in other areas of the world. I do argue that current event-organizers do not take enough trouble to make sure they present a diverse program and reach out to diverse publics as well. In my dissertation I describe how in Paradiso a constant effort is taken to prevent the rise of mono-cultures and include new or not known or not-staged people again and again. I think the taking of such effort is a prerequisite for any good program that wants to make a difference.
GL: At the end of your dissertation you have proposed your own methodology, and coined it YUPTA. It describes a design method in which the relation between presence and trust takes centre stage. Could you explain it to us?
CN: YUTPA is the acronym for 'being with You in Unity of Time, Place and Action'. I argue that if we want to understand the relation between presence and trust there are four dimensions that deeply influence this relationship: here/not-here, now/not-now, do/not do and you/not-you. The dimensions place and time define what synchronicity is possible and what feedback possibilities there are. I also realized that the perspective of possible action, to be able to intervene in what happens next, influences the responsibility we can take (and not retreat in a moral distance) and therefore influences what trust we can establish in a certain situation. And this is influenced also deeply by the relation we have to other human beings. When we are in relation with someone (family, friends, colleagues, neighbors) we understand what happens in the context of this relation. People we do not know and with whom we have no connection we merely treat as information to which different laws of causality apply.
In the model I developed the four dimensions create 16 possible spaces for social interaction. I argue that each of these spaces for social interaction have specific possibilities for certain kinds of trust/distrust and delegations of trust. When designing communication processes a much more deliberate design of such processes is possible. By identifying what kind of trust is necessary, you can also decide what medium and format to use to be able to establish such a kind of trust. I find through giving lectures and working with people that especially in 5D design trajectories YUTPA seems to be a valuable contribution.
GL: In terms of education, so much seems focused on short-term skills, in particular when we look at new media. There is a great fear amongst higher education officials to miss the connection with the labour market. However, there are places, such as the Design Academy in Eindhoven and the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, where they do focus on concept development. Is it possible to teach conceptual design on a broad graduate level, to the thousands of students who are now into new media design? Or do we really have to limit this to a small group of more experienced students that work in post-graduate labs?
CN: I definitely think you can teach conceptual design to children, grown ups of all ages and also to the thousands of students who are now studying new media design. The issue though is 'attention'. To be involved in conceptual design requires reflection. To be introduced to the skill of being able to use different ways of reflection requires personal attention. I think more emphasis is needed on the development of solid analytical skills and ways of doing research. Also I found that a lot of the students I worked with were not used to openly reflect and needed to find the confidence to do this. One can learn analytical skills by seeing it done, especially when the subject is intriguing. In my twenties for example I did this fantastic minor in film in which we saw many unusual films as well as great analytical talks about them. We were with a few hundred students attending this course. But we also had breakout groups that were guided by students who had already done this course before and that made a huge difference. I realize that education had to deal with huge budget cuts in the last decades, which triggered the need for more a self-organizational design of education. Nevertheless I have been amazed in my years of higher professional education at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, how the concept of students teaching other students is used so little in the orchestration of learning environments. Today students are mostly left alone in project based groups, but do not have the advantage of being guided by students who are ahead of them. So I would argue that it is a question of orchestration in the learning environments to make sure that the skill to reflect can be developed and conceptual design can become a ground from where you actually design 'stuff'. I also think it is very necessary to do this because otherwise, as you point out, the fear to miss out the connection with the workforces of the future will appear to be correct.
GL: You have not chosen for a classic academic career. Instead, you have been active as a cultural producer, consultant and manager. Over the past years you sat down and reflected upon your practice. This is in accordance with the general trend in the Anglo-Saxon countries to have more 'practice-based' PhDs. Now that you're done, how do you look at the academic rituals? Universities seem to stick to their own people who have followed the ordinary career path as required by the sitting professors. New media, design and activism, it all doesn't seem to fit very well within the university system. If students do not chose for a life-long career in their late twenties, they usually can't enter academia at a later stage, so it seems. What are the implications of this for society at large?
CN: I perceive the same trend as you do although it is not everywhere as rigid as the Dutch situation seems to be. In the United Kingdom and the USA for example I see that professional PhD's are valued very much and academic careers can consist of diverse practices. But overall, yes, I see that the social sciences strongly defend their position. It is as if academia has become a class that one has 'to be born into'. I find this very alienating since social sciences can really make a difference, which they are more and more losing out to do. Today, interestingly enough, mostly in business schools I find the original thinking and the development of new social practices to be valued and supported.
To answer your question more in depth I turn to the concept of the 'double hermeneutic' as it is formulated by Anthony Giddens. Social sciences retrieve their concepts from society, add and produce new concepts that in turn produce new practices which are then analyzed which produce new concepts which produce new realities and so on. This makes the social sciences very complex, as Cees Hamelink points out again and again. Only when I found out how much my practice has been influenced by the concepts I gathered, of which quite essential ones come from social sciences, I realized the implications of this double hermeneutic in the social sciences. When the exchange between academia and society is diminished to academic publishing and the influx of other kinds of knowledge and output is discarded of, it will be lesser and lesser equipped to be able to deal with today's complexities and for that reason slowly fade out in the end. In professional social science's realms (in business, in large organizations as well as in individual practices) you can clearly see that many more methodologies for creating engaging reflexivity have emerged. Interestingly it are the business schools and some anthropology departments that have devoted attention to such new models. It seems that academia is still trying to show the natural sciences that it matters by focusing on questions that can be measured in the manner of natural sciences. Such positivist research can be very useful provided it is contextualized in larger frameworks of thinking. Especially in the thinking I perceive a reluctance to connect to innovative and original theoretical and professional practices. Instead of claiming specific methodologies for its own domain, it adapts to a system which in the end, I suspect, will appear to be very counterproductive to its own goals.
Another way of analyzing the current situation is by focusing on the current social science's research paradigm. As Thomas Kuhn elaborated so eloquently, science develops steps and gaps between paradigms, which make previous paradigms obsolete. Possibly the social sciences are stuck in a paradigm that deals with social realities as we could perceive them in the 1980's. The current huge changes because of technological development as well as the scale of globalization that we have to deal with everyday, are mind blowing. Instead of taking the lead in these developments it seems that the social sciences have retreated in a world as we knew it, adding 'some new wine in old bags' and, what I object most to, demanding obedience from its students in the first place. The result is a mediocre thinking, which does not inspire social practices at all, since it does not take into account the need for innovation as it happens in education, in health, in business, in government etc. I also object to the fact that the few people, who dare to develop concepts that deal with these issues, are marginalized up to the point of exclusion.
So you can ask me why interact with this community? I guess that social sciences are dear to me, that I value the scientific methodologies very much and that they can help to understand and to invent the new ways of social interacting that we witness and practice everyday. I wish that the research establishment of today would open up and start to play its role of significance again because there is a body of knowledge to be developed that is badly needed by many. The current fragmented and distributed development of social practices would greatly benefit from social sciences taking up their historical role again.
(Thanks to Patrice Riemens for editorial assistance)
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