HOW TO CREATE REALITY

You can only understand sex if you have sex – right?

Opening talk at Docmedia at Film University Babelsberg, June 21, 2018

People often think that the best way to understand a situation is to be in the situation. This is in fact false. When being in a situation, the personal angle on the situation becomes so convincing that it suppresses other, very often more meaningful perspectives.

When I grew up, I was told that there are things, that are true. People might not be able to see them, but they the are true nevertheless. And I was told, that there is a truth to everything. This meant, that you can either be right or you can be wrong. A politician can either be right, or wrong. Every opinion can either be right or wrong, you just have to drill deep down and then you can recognise the truth.

This was in fact all false.

Truth is, that truth does not exist.

So let’s better get rid of the word truth altogether and reframe the sentence: The reality is, that truth does not exist. This new sentence might sound similar. But it is not the same. Reality is not truth. Reality is, what we agree on – for the moment.

Think of a table. We can agree on a table. This is the reality that we now share between our monkey brains. But one million years ago, if this table would have existed, there was no-one there, that would have understood it, as a table. And in one million years from now, if this table still exists, it is very, very unlikely that it will still be thought of as a table.

It is very handy to live in a reality that is shared with others. And it is actually very painful, when this shared reality slips away. If you ever broke up with a person you loved – you know.

Not only with people, you are close with, shared reality comes in handy. If you are hungry, it is great, if you live in a shared reality, where you can exchange a 2 Euro coin for a sandwich.

So reality is not something that is already there, and we just have to find it, it is rather something, that we have to agree on. So how do we agree on reality? How does that work? How is reality built?

We agree on reality by sharing stories between each other.

We build reality by telling stories. Story-telling might not be the only tool to build reality, but it is the most powerful. It is the tool, that human apes developed the furthest.

It is not that you tell a story and then it is. For Reality to be, it needs to be shared between our monkey brains.

If I tell the story, that I own billion Euro, that would not change my financial status. But if I manage to convince everyone relevant around me, that I own one billion, then I would live the life of a very wealthy human ape.

This is a trick that some master very well. They use the trick to create reality the way they want it to be. And if the image of President Donald Trump comes into your mind now – yes this is an excellent example.

President Donald Trump is a magician that is able to create reality out of thin air. As long as enough people let him. As long as enough people chime in, to his reality.

So here we are, and I could now talk about the responsibility of media producers. So many of you – my friends – are media producers, storytellers, reality creators.

But I would like to talk about another angle of storytelling.

Exploring reality.

Storytelling is not only a tool to shape reality, it is also a tool to explore reality. And we do that all the time. Because we do not just tell stories, we also listen to stories. And you, as a producer of a narration, you do that. Before making a film or an i-Doc, or an article, you read books, articles, you listen to people. You take in other stories to get a better understanding of reality, before you express your vision of reality, yourself.

This is, what I am most interested in, in my work: To get a better understanding, how the world works, what reality is. To observe and to explore the world. And that means to explore the way we tell stories.

The edges of reality.

I am especially interested in the edges of reality. The borders of reality. So something is within the borders of reality and something is outside of those borders. Of course – the things that are outside of reality, we can’t see them, they are invisible, unthinkable.

But what is interesting, is that these borders of reality are not fixed. They change over time. There are things, that were not part of the shared reality in the past. But they became part of it. Things unthinkable in the past suddenly pop into existence. We live in a time, where it happens all the time, that, not too long ago unthinkable things, just pop into reality. 1000 years ago this was very rare.

Bacteria. Totally outside of the shared reality of human apes for the very most of their existence. Then suddenly, they became thinkable, measurable, and we could even make them visible.

As soon as something becomes thinkable, it is more likely to become visible, hear-able, touch-able, smell-able, feel-able.

Reality is a cloud.

The territory of reality changes its shape over time. New things become part of reality and others drop out.

Things that have dropped out, were part of reality in the past, but they are not any more. These things that are not part of reality any more, are difficult to see, because they are now invisible, only indirectly we can notice them. From evidence we find, we are able to tell, that they must have been part of the shared reality, in the past. When we find temples of ancient gods for example we know that these gods must have been part of the shared reality of the people in the past.

Tools

A microscope is a tool, and when it was invented and pointed at an edge of reality, a new reality became visible and reality expanded. This new reality, quickly became part of the shared reality. The findings of the people, that were the first to look through microscopes, are now taught in school.

You can also use a camera and point it at the edge of reality, learn new things and thereby expand reality.

Storytelling is a tool.

Like a camera is a tool. Like a microscope os a tool. Tools that allow to do two things:

  1. Explore reality and thereby expanding it – making reality wider
  2. communicate reality and thereby solidifying it

Expanding reality.

What is the best practice, if you want to expand your understanding – the premise to expand reality? You want to observe something from a perspective as neutral as possible. So what does that mean – neural?

You need to have a perspective like someone – who is not in the situation.

Let me give you an example. When I have a tense discussion, a fight with someone, often I get angry or emotional. That is not a good receipt to get a good understanding for the situation. Later, after my mind has calmed down, I usually get a better understanding of the situation. I know what I could have said, and usually I also understand the other person. Unimaginable for me, when I was in the situation.

This is a practise, an exercise.

In the beginning, when I got together with my later wife, we had intense fights. Fights so intense, like I had never experienced in previous relationships. But with every fight, we learned something about each other. Every fight became a learning experience. This is something I had also not experienced in other relationships. It was, because my wife taught me a trick: to get yourself out of the situation, while you are in the situation, so that you can look at the situation from a different perspective. And from this different perspective, I could see two people in a situation with each other, two people that I loved and I suddenly was able to understand them both.

Observer outside.

Storytelling can be a tool for better understanding reality, but only, if you are an observer that is outside the situation. If you are inside the situation, you are an actor. You have to deal with all your confusing feelings, but you do not get a better understanding for the situation itself.

You might get a better understanding for yourself. Yourself being in this particular situation, which makes it convincing, and you might think that you have a better understanding for the situation, but in fact, you are furthest away from understanding the situation itself.

This is how stories are told today: exciting, emotional, they try to create empathy.

CSF

The way we tell stories now – the current CONTEMPORARY STORY FORMAT is a result of the hyperlinear way of storytelling, that was only possible, after the invention of film.

Expanding vs. solidifying.

In the the beginning, when film was invented, people using cameras, were explorers of reality. And by exploring reality, they expanded it. But then, they started to edit what came out of their cameras. And by editing it into a fixed narration, that never changes, even if you looked at it a 1000 times, they explained reality and thereby solidified it.

This became more and more the focus of media makers: To explain reality. And by explaining reality you solidify it.

The computer changes the way we tell stories.

We have now new ways of narration, that became possible, with the computer. With the help of the computer, we can now create rich media narrations, that are not fixed. That expand reality, not solidify it. With the help of computers and the internet, we can collaborate with other brains. And that way, we can use the help of these other brains, to explore the edges of reality better.

TV.

I happen to work at a TV news broadcaster. This is how TV was done in the past and is still done, today: There are – actually just a few – people, who go out into the world and explore reality (mainly using cameras). Then they return to the TV-station, edit their material and explain to the audience, how the world works. The TV-station is an institution, that does a very tiny bit of exploration and a lot of explanation. A tiny bit of expanding and a lot of solidifying reality. That practice is rooted in old TV technology. Before the internet it was not possible to do it in another way.

Future media institutions.

Now things can be done differently and we can already see new institutions appear. And these new institutions might replace the old ones. Institutions, that focus on exploring and understanding reality. The media-institution of the future is less of a broadcaster, and more of a university.

People working at these new institutions go out, explore reality, and they take back what they found. Up to this point it is not much different from how it is done traditionally. But then they discuss their findings with others – with the audience – and they ask the others – the audience – for advise. They document the whole process and make it available. This way of working, is far less focussed on the end-product, but much more on the process.

The mindset of media-makers today is: think about the audience, think about what they want.

The mindset of media-makers in the future will be: think about the audience, think about what they can do for you – for getting a better understanding of reality.

Relevanz vs. Reichweite

Vor 20 Jahren, als ich an der der Kunsthochschule studierte, wurde mir beigebracht, nach Qualität zu streben. Doch was ist Qualität? Qualität wurde von Experten beurteilt, die ihr Wissen aus langer Erfahrung oder aus Büchern hatten. Von dem was populär war, was bei vielen ankam, sollte man sich fern halten.

Heute ist es offenbar ganz umgekehrt. Qualität ist definiert als das, was populär ist, was bei möglichst vielen, möglichst gut ankommt. Von dem, was Experten sagen, basierend auf alter Erfahrung oder Wissen aus Büchern, hält man sich heutzutage besser fern.

Wie misst man Qualität, zum Beispiel von künstlerischer oder journalistischer Arbeit? Wozu das Streben nach Qualität? Und wie ist Qualität überhaupbt definiert?

Ziel ist Relevanz und Einfluss. Je höher die Qualität, desto größer die Relevanz. Und hohe Relevanz ist Voraussetzung fürEinfluss.

Qualität wird heutzutage gerne in Popularität gemessen, in dem Glauben, größere Popularität führe zu mehr Einfluss. Doch das lässt sich mit einem einfachen Gedankenexperiment widerlegen, ein Gedankenexperiment, dass ich schon vor vielen Jahren formuliert habe, als das Fernsehen noch wichtiger war, als heute: Wenn ein Dokumentarfilmemacher einen Film macht, über einen Missstand in unserer Gesellschaft und dieser Film wird nur einem einzigen Zuschauer vorgeführt, z.B. einem Minister, der dann ein Gesetz anstößt, das diesen Missstand behebt, ist dieser Film dann erfolgreich?

“Nein!” ist die klare Antwort, wenn man den Erfolg eines Films in Zuschauerzahlen misst. Dieser angenommene Film hatte nur einen einzigen Zuschauer – den Minister. In wieweit der Film die Gesellschaft beeinflusst, in diese Richtung wird noch nicht einmal geschaut. Auf Grundlage von Zuschauerzahlen (ich habe bereits früher beschrieben, wie es kommt, dass sich die Menschen im Fernsehen so gerne von Zuschauerzahlen blenden lassen) wird die Qualität z.B. von Fernsehprogrammen evaluiert, in der Folge werden Programme dann so ausgerichtet, dass sie im Schema der Qualitätsvorgabe (= möglichst viele Zuschauer) möglichst erfolgreich sind. Mit diesem Rezept hat sich Fernsehen, wenn es darum geht, die Gesellschaft voranzubringen, über die Jahre komplett irrelevant gemacht.

Die Vermessung der Qualität in Popularitätder selbe gefährliche Unsinn – wird nun in noch viel größerem Maß im Bereich Social Media betrieben. Das ist gefährlich, denn das, was wir als Macher von Medien den Menschen zum Konsum geben, formt die Zukunft. Die Menschen, die sich mit diesem Quatsch beschäftigen, die Ihre Hirne mit diesem Quatsch formen, können nur mehr in diesen Formen denken. Das Ergebnis ist die Wahrnehmung in Extremen gepaart mit dem Glaube an die einfache Lösung. Dieses Denken führe ursächlich u.a. zur Wahl von Trump in den USA, dem Brexit, der AFD im Bundestag.

Doch noch viel mehr, als die Konsumenten, sind die Produzenten gefährdet. Die Social Media Producer. Sie üben sich tagtäglich, ihre Gedanken in die rigiden Formen von Facebook, Twitter & Co zu pressen; permanent überwacht vom unmittelbaren Belohnungs- und Bestrafungs-System der exakt vermessenen Klickzahlen und Interaktionen . So werden die talentiertesten jungen Journalisten der neuen Generation gnadenlos in das System gedrückt, ein System, das das Denken der Macher wie der User einzwängt, vermutlich ohne dass sie es merken. Denn sie kennen es nicht anders.

Die Menschen in einer Demokratie im Denken in Extremen zu schulen ist offensichtlich gefährlich. Die Gefahr ist nicht mehr abstrakt. Der oberste extreme Denker hat derzeit seinen Daumen über dem Knopf für die nukleare Auslöschung der Menschheit. Eine Vorstellung die uns alle beunruhigen sollte.

Dinge, die neu sind, die das Potential haben, der Zukunft eine andere Richtung zu geben, können im Entstehen gar nicht populär sein. Denn sie sind neu und im Moment des Entstehens gerade erst ein wenig mehr als unbekannt.

Wir brauchen diese neuen Dinge/Gedanken/Ideen. Es geht vermutlich um nicht weniger als um unser aller Überleben. Doch wir werden das Neue nicht finden, wenn wir die Qualität jeder Idee unter dem Gesichtspunkt der Popularität beurteilen. Es ist wie der Witz vom Mann, der nachts seinen verlorenen Haustürschlüssel sucht. Er kriecht auf allen Vieren unter einer Strassenlaterne. Er weiss, dass er den Schlüssel dort unmöglich verloren haben kann – doch unter der Lampe ist das Licht besser.

Das Licht – das sind die messbaren Reaktionen der Zuschauer. Die gibt es, keine Frage, sie lassen sich auch sehr gut abbilden. Doch sind die Zahlen, nur weil sie sich exakt messen lassen, deshalb auch relevant? Mit Sicherheit nicht.

Gallery Weekend in Berlin – Würmer im Keller

Wenn man nicht die Werke als solche, sondern die Galerie als ganzes, als Kunstwerk begreift, erlebt man ein vielschichtiges Bild der Gesellschaft unserer Zeit.

Es ist Gallery Weekend in Berlin. Eine hippe Galerie in Mitte. Eine Ecke von Berlin, die immer schon häßlich war, vor 20 Jahren verlassen und ruhig, jetzt Teil des pulsierenden Lebens der Stadt, mit Baustellen, Verkehr und zahllosen Touristen.

Die Galerie ist ein Betonklotz. Besucher schieben sich in eine Eingangshalle an den Betonwänden drei Bilder, die aussehen, als hätte jemand Legoklötze gemalt.

Am Ende der Eingangshalle eine schmale, steile Treppe, selbst halb Kunstwerk und dadurch nur unsicher hinaufzusteigen. Im ersten Stock coole, offene Räume. Laut lachende und gut angezogene Galeristen sitzen hinter riesigen Apple Monitoren und scheinen – Masters of the Universe – glänzende Geschäfte zu machen.

Von der Eingangshalle führt auch eine steile Treppe in den Keller. Drei Videoprojektionen, ansonsten ist es stockfinster und es dauert eine Weile, bis sich die Augen an die Dunkelheit gewöhnen. Nach und nach wird man gewahr, dass man den Raum mit zahlreichen anderen Menschen teilt. Besuchern einer Kirche gleich, die ehrfürchtig Heiligtümer bestaunen, die Erklärung der Wirren der Welt versprechen. Doch die Exponate sind kryptisch. Ein Film zeigt einen langsamen Gang durch eine Luxusvilla, ein Film zeigt einen Mann der zu einer Gruppe spricht, wie ein Arbeiterführer zu Arbeitern, ein Film zeigt Menschen beim Sex. Die Menschen, die stumm die Filme betrachten haben sich adrett angezogen, so wie man sich herausputzt, am Sonntag, wenn man in die Kirche geht.

Im Hinterhof der Galerie parkt ein riesiger schwarzer BMW, daneben in dunklem Anzug der Fahrer. BWM ist Sponsor des Gallery Weekend, so steht es auf der Limousine, die offenbar Menschen, die wichtiger sind als man selbst, von einer Galerie zur anderen trägt. Wichtige Menschen, mit denen die wichtigen Menschen in Anzügen im ersten Stock Geschäfte machen.

Sie lassen sich dabei beobachten. Der Betrachter der Kunstwerke wird Betrachter der Vorgänge. Die Vorgänge brauchen die Kunstwerke, um existieren zu können, so wie der Baum die Erde braucht. Sich mit den Kunstwerken im Keller zu beschäftigen, ist wie der Regenwurm, der die Erde umgräbt. Den Baum gäbe es wohl auch ohne den Wurm. Doch mit Wurm geht es ihm besser.

The Ezra Klein / Sam Harris – Dispute – believer vs non believer

People, who talk to me regularly, might be aware  that I am an eager listener of podcasts by Sam Harris[1]. He recently found himself in the midst of a intellectual fight of words with Ezra Klein[2], who is editor-at-large of Vox. I respect them both. 

The fight started a year ago with a podcast of Sam Harris. Ezra Klein published an article[3] at VOX (written by Eric Turkheimer and Kathryn Harden and Richard Nisbett) that attacked Harris and blamed him of featuring  irresponsible racism.

I heard the original podcast, read a lot of the conversation and got regular updates on the story when Sam Harris mentioned it on his podcast.

This is a long story with a long email conversation[4], and for people interested in the work of Sam Harris it is not a good starting point. Over and over Sam Harris explains his standpoint, Ezra Klein explains his point, they even get into personal attacks. And in the end (the end at the moment) they both do a podcast, where the whole pattern repeats one more time.

Two great thinkers and analytics trapped in a vicious circle of arguments – what is going on?

Well, I listen to all podcasts of Sam Harris, so I also listened to the Sam Harris/Ezra Klein one (while cleaning the kitchen). But this time I was more than once tempted to give up and turn it off.

But then I saw the pattern. 

Let me do a huge jump from the discussion of two well known American intellectuals to a private conversation, I had at work, with a colleague about doing exercise.

I had just read an article and shared my new knowledge with her: “Sports is not equally good for all people. Scientists found, that there are even people, that do not react to exercise at all. And you can do a gene test, that predicts how your body reacts.”

“Oh”, my colleague replied, “You just say that, because you are too lazy to do sports.”

I found her comment fascinating and I did dive deeper into the conversation in the course of which she said these sentences: “I like sports and I do exercise every day. I don’t even want to believe what you are saying.[5] 

My college thought, that I said, what I said, to achieve something. She thought I said ‘scientists found, that some people do not react to exercise’ because I do not want to do exercise, myself. Which I find a reverse logic. It might well be, that I do this sometimes, so I wanted to learn more. 

Interestingly she seemed to be aware that she is practicing this technique when she said: ‘I don’t want to believe this’ because ‘I like sports’. 

In my world view you can not change or pick the facts you like, to support whatever idea you prefer, as my college seemed to do, and obviously thought, that I would do that, too[6].

This is the same pattern, as in the Harris/Klein discussion. Just on a very small scale.

The patient reader, might know small observations, seemingly unimportant, that one can’t let go. This conversation with my colleague stuck with me, and I remember it every now and then.

Two years ago I wrote in an article[7] that there are two kinds of people, the group that believes in the concept of truth and the group that is aware of the multitudes of realities. In this thought the urge to believe is a talent just like the urge to doubt. The talent might be rooted in the genes, the culture boosts one or the other.

I am certainly a person that enjoys the multitude of angles on reality and I doubt the truth, just like Sam Harris and a lot of other people. But I understand, the majority of people are talented in believing the truth. Like my colleague at work or Ezra Klein. 

The believe in truth leads to a fascinating logic: If you have found a truth, like sports is good (in the case of my colleague) or racism is a problem (in the case of Ezra Klein) all facts related to the truth need to support the truth and if they don’t, the facts have to be false. This logic in itself makes perfect sense.

Because if something is true, then all facts become arguments and the validity of which can be tested. If an arguments supports the truth it must itself be true and if an argument does not support the truth it therefor must be wrong.

This is not my logic, it is the logic of a believer.[8]

When you are aware of the multitude of arguments you get to certainties, which are in daily life almost indistinguishable from believes, the building blocks of reality for people who believe in truth. 

Just like my colleague, I agree in thinking that exercise is good. And just like Ezra Klein, Sam Harris undoubtedly also thinks that racism is a problem. 

But the difference is, that for people, that see the multitude of realities, not every piece of information has to support the certainty. In this logic it is not even rare, that facts contradict the certainty without changing it. Like when you observe a swirl in a river. It is obviously normal, that water can flow against the current, without endangering the general flow of the water. 

And I agree with Sam Harris, who warns of the dangers of ignoring facts, just because they do not support the reality/truth/certainty.

But again, Ezra Klein does not see a fact here, because the logic he uses proves the fact wrong.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Harris

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ezra_Klein

[3] https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/5/18/15655638/charles-murray-race-iq-sam-harris-science-free-speech

[4] https://samharris.org/ezra-klein-editor-chief/

[5] In German “Das will ich gar nicht glauben” – which is a common phrase used in all kind of context.

[6] Understandably, because what is normal for her is likely be normal for me.

[7] Article in German:
http://pha.de/texte/es-gibt-zwei-arten-von-menschen/

[8] I am sometimes temped to fall prey of this logic myself. I guess it is our culture that supports this way of believe.