All of the knowledge that was gathered in the past is true, became true, or at least pointed in the right direction even back then. The one in which it then actually went. Earlier knowledge may perhaps be overtaken, just as a slower vehicle can be overtaken by a faster one, but only if they are both going in the same direction. Knowledge, contrary to what the word suggests, cannot be “refuted” in the sense that the path then goes in the opposite direction with the new knowledge. It goes on and on. Perhaps that the direction of the path changes that the little paper boat takes on its way down the creek. It keeps changing direction, but it always goes down the stream and never up. Over time, the ship arrives at ever new, unseen, more unimaginable places. The imprints these places leave on the minds of the people on the ship shape the way they can see. The knowledge of the past has always pointed kindly in our direction. Just like a captain who always confidently points the paper ship in the direction in which it then actually moves.
In this text I want to contrast what I have observed in journalism with what I observe in areas of YouTube from the perspective of someone, who made interactive documentaries for quite some time.
I am looking at areas of YouTube in the context of documentary, building of the definition of i-docs by Judith Aston and Sandra Gaudenzi who say that:
“Any project that starts with an intention to document the ‘real’ and that uses digital interactive technology to realize this intention, can be considered an interactive documentary.”
I think that interactive documentary formats (like for example on YouTube) accelerate the trend to an increasingly multi-perspectival, what Gaudenzi calls “negotiation, that a society has with reality”.
Or in simple terms, I think that YouTube & Co have the potential to help us, in the long term, to become more nuanced – and as a consequence – more tolerant, more accepting, less judgmental – and more open to new ideas. This, I think, might increase our ability to collaborate and become more creative in finding solutions, for the problems, that torment us.
I think, that it is already recognizable, that connected individuals and societies develop an increased acceptance for complexity. And I suggest, that this has to do, with the interactive and conversational structure of these media formats and the increased multidirectional flow of information.
I have been working in the newsroom of an international TV-news-broadcaster for more than 20 years. My job was called ‘picture editor’ or ‘image producer’, I was responsible for still images and graphics mainly for television (and sometimes social media). I was just just a cog in the wheel of producing news and documentary pieces, that were then broadcasted into the wider world.
I was helping journalists, who were considered to be the authors, to produce news artifacts. In this little text, I want to focus on the concept of “objectivity” – in the news-room, at which I got an inside perspective for more than 20 years. I want to compare that to habitual methods, that I see developing within interactive documentary and YouTube.
I see similarities between Korsakow (that is the think I invented and used to structure my own interactive documentaries) and YouTube, that I consider to be more interesting, than the differences, that certainly also exist.
This is to say: I think, I see something in YouTube, that I so clearly sense, because of my experience in interactive documentary. I would say – my brain got wired through Korsakow. And similar to me, having my thinking shaped by Korsakow, I recognize people on YouTube, that have their thinking shaped by YouTube – in a quite a similar way.
“Objectivity” was a concept, that came up regularly in the news-room over all these years. And the concept of “objectivity” of course also came up, in the context of me making “interactive documentary”. According to Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007), the pursuit of objectivity, is one of the three basic scientific virtues (along with truth-to-nature and trained judgment), objectivity is considered a measure of quality in science and it certainly is considered to be a measure of quality, among the journalists in the news-room I was working in. Journalists tried to achieve ‘objectivity’ by reporting the things ‘as they were’, or at least as they looked to them, through the eye of a camera’ and not so much ‘as they, the journalists, perceived them’. With this approach they claimed to archive an ‘objective perspective’.
I took a different approach in my interactive documentary making, a different approach to that of the journalists in the news-room, but a similar approach to what I now often find on YouTube. I described reality as the thing that I saw, by describing reality from my subjective perspective.
I would argue that an ‘objective perspective’ in the sense the journalists usually claimed, a perspective at the thing somehow without a position from which it is looked at, does not exist. Reality can not be looked at from the outside, which is what an objective perspective would theoretically need. You can only look at reality from within reality. You can not look at reality from the outside, because – where should that be?
An “objective perspective” can in my opinion only be a fabrication.
Within reality there are many viewpoints from which to look at a thing. And only if one knows, from which perspective something is looked at, it can be seen in context with other perspectives, that almost certainly will not describe the thing in focus, the same way.
A subjective perspective without an agenda, this is what I increasingly see developing on YouTube & Co. In the title of this text I called this a “neutral perspective” and I would like to discuss with you, if this is a helpful term.
With “neutral” I mean, that the goal is to avoid classification, for example into good or bad – to avoid moral judgement. Maybe a paticual author on YouTube (or in Korsakow) has an opinion – of what is good or bad – but then the author makes this opinion clear and then focusses primarily on the arguments of people with different opinions, not in a way, that makes the arguments of the author stronger, as I so often observe not only in journalism – but to gain understanding for these other arguments and their resulting opinions.
To be clear, I am not talking about all authors on YouTube, but a particular kind of authors that are active in this kind of genre that I see developing on YouTube and in the realm of podcasts (Like for example Rezo, Lex Friedman, Sam Harris, Struthless and if you know more, please let me know down there in the comments!.
This in a way is not a new method: scientific methods usually work that way.
This is why I think this is important
I start with two very simple assumptions:
- The process of making a documentary artefact (like for example a documentary film, a news piece, a podcast, a YouTube-clip), influences the documentary artifact, that is made, in this process (Ok, this is obviously obvious, please don’t scream – point 3 gets interesting.)
- Documentary artifacts, have the potential, to influence the thinking, of the recipients of these artifacts, in a particular way. (Also kind of banal: you get influenced, I get influenced, we all get influenced by stuff we see/hear).
- The process of making must therefore have an influence, on the thinking of the recipients.
So this – as simple as it sounds – seems to me often overlooked. The “how” – how we communicate – if confrontative or seeking to understand, shapes the shared world, too – not just the facts. This is why I consider it to be so very important also on how we get to our understanding of the world.
To be (maybe overly) clear here, I consider myself to be a constructivist. This means that I consider the world to be at least to a significant extent to be the result of the communication, that takes place between people, what they agree on and what then becomes the shared reality.
“Netral perspective” is a friendly way to negotiate the world
So what is the trick? How is this “neutral perspective” achieved for example YouTube or Korsakow?
I consider the main ingredient to be what Cyberneticians like Heinz von Foester calls “observing the observer” and “Second order Cybernetics”.
And that, I would like to describe in the following way: “If one wants to get understanding of a thing (or topic, or question), it makes little sense to get a description of that thing without understanding the perspective, from which that thing was described.”
I assume here, that we all agree, that there are always (and I rarely use superlatives!) multiple perspectives, from which an object could be described accurately, differently and maybe even contradictory.
So how did folks on YouTube get there? Of course, I don’t know how much these authors consulted cybernetics literature, but what I do know – that I didn’t. I applied cybernetics thinking without knowing pretty much anything about Cybernetics (until recently, now I know a bit, a tiny bit).
Looking at my first interactive documentary projects, that develop that ‘neutral perspective’ (and not all my projects do), I noticed a number of similarities in the process of making, similarities I see on YouTube as well. For example, all these projects were to the highest degree self-motivated, that means that I did not have an audience in mind, when I did them, I was the primary audience, and I wanted to look at those topics in the most unbiased way, to get relevant answers, for the questions, that I wanted to get answers for.
Recently I revisited the first three of my interactive documentary pieces, in an auto-ethnographic undertaking, on which I have embarked within my studies:
In retrospect these were the questions that I tried to answer through my projects:
How am I limited in my thinking because of my upbringing?
[small world], 1997 (project only still works on PC)
Am I in danger of becoming addicted to alcohol?
[korsakow syndrome], 2000 (offline)
How can I identify a good partner in life?
Journalists in contrast – at least the ones I observed, constantly seem to consider the audience. This is expressed well in a sentence that I feel I have heard a million times, often, when I suggested an – what we called – info-graphic: “This is too complicated, the viewer does not get that”.
It might feel counter-intuitive to many, to think that YouTubers are not obsessed with their audience. They think about it, too, but it seems different. The YouTubers I look at regularly talk about their audience within the pieces they produce. But they talk of their audience as a source of knowledge and a typical sentence might sound like this: “I am not sure if I described this and that correctly, if you know more, please let me know, down there in the comments.”
In contrast, it is very rare, that journalists speak open about their lack of knowledge. It is widely considered to be unprofessional and a sign, that they did not do their research.
I think, that the difference in considering the audience makes all the difference, when it comes to ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ perspective.
I would say that ‘neutral perspective’ can only be archived, if the perspective of the author is just one possible perspective, out of many perspectives, that are possibly there in the wider world or in the audience. The author of such a piece therefor needs to locate his or her perspective, make clear from where he or she is coming from to give room to other perspectives.
The ‘objective perspective’ that journalists usually claim in their attempt to make things explicable is decreasing complexity. They usually want to tell the story in simple terms. But to decrease complexity you need to leave out information, that is considered to be dispensable, but who is it to know, what information is truly dispensable? Maybe information is cut off that would have turned out to be important later?
I make an arguement that ‘neutral perspective’ allows a higher level of complexity, it leaves more information intact, but it asks for people and societies have to develop an increased tolerance and resilience for contradicting information.
And I think this is what is increasingly happening?
Do you think that too? – Please let me know down there in the comments!
This text is based on a talk I gave at NECS, conference in Bucharest on June 24th, 2022. The talk was part of the panel “Interactive Epistemologies. New Knowledge Economies in the Context of Interactive Documentaries and Web-Docs”.
Also on the panel were Florian Krautkrämer and Tobias Conradi, two of my three collaborators of interdocs.ch, a research project on interactive documentary that is based at HSLU.
The European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) is a platform for exchange between scholars, archivists and programmers.
This text is based on a talk I gave at I-docs, Crisis and Multi-perspectival Thinking – Symposium initiated by Judith Aston and Ella Harris. Taking place online on May 9th, 2022.
Today I am going to tell a story. I am usually not in the business of storytelling, but today is the day. This is a story about Jan, a guy I happen to know.
Jan wanted to be a story teller and he thought it is extra cool, if you tell a story in a nonlinear way. And because Jan did not find a tool that he could use for making nonlinear stories, Jan made a tool himself. He created a software. That was a terrible idea, because the software Jan made, turned out to make it impossible to tell good stories and the stories that Jan made with his software were really boring. The software in that sense was a compete failure. But there are other qualities of course, a story might have, not just that of being exiting.
Jan says, that there is no such thing as an exciting nonlinear story. It does not exist. There is no-one that finds nonlinear stories exciting. I know, I know – Jan does not know, because Jan does not know all the people on the planet, but Jan was hanging out at festivals and conferences on nonlinear storytelling since 2001, talking with other people about his software and other things. Jan says, he has never met a single person that thinks nonlinear stories are exciting. ‘Interesting’, maybe. ‘interesting’ is the term people usually use in this context.
Jan was invited to all kinds festivals, film festivals, media art festivals, theater festivals, dance festivals, literature festivals. Jan was usually picked up by a car at the airport, got a hotel room, was fed well and there were usually free drinks.
Jan certainly noticed that the part of the festivals that he was in, was always just a small appendix to the ‘real’ festival, that took place at a main venue space, while Jan and the people like Jan, met in a separate space, separated from the ‘real festival’, usually in a different building. Jan did not care, this was normal.
Jan always met the same people at those festival, often literally the same, but always the same kind of people.
Who were those people?
In 2011 he was invited to a festival that was somehow different. It took Jan a while to realize. Jan was not picked up by a car at the airport, which he didn’t mind – but he noticed. There was a hotel as usual, he was fed and there were drinks, but he did not meet his people in a separate building to the real festival. He was in fact quite confused that there was no real festival separate to the section he was in. This was the first time the section Jan found himself in was the festival. This was the first i-Docs conference in 2011. (( http://i-docs.org ))
Who were these people?
All the people seemed to come from all kinds of areas, film, documentary, business, biology, academia, non academia, whatever. And now they even had a festival on their own? And why were they all interested in – boring stories?
Who were these people?
And then it clicked for Jan: These people were all multi-perspectival people. Most likely Jan had picked up the term “multi-perspectivity” at one of those festivals, quite likely at I-Docs and then he used that term to look at himself and at his family, his friends, all the people he knew.
He found that there were just few multi-perspectival people – and then, there was the rest, for which Jan picked the term “mono-perspectival”. Jan soon realized, that it is actually not that binary, people are usually not either one or the other, but more or less somewhere in between, somewhere on the scale of perspectivity. Jan made that up, there is no such scale, but Jan nevertheless used it, to get a better understanding of him and the world around him. Jan made lots of notes and got so obsessed about mono- and multi-perspectival thinking that even his closest friends asked him to not use the word “multi-perspectival” in their presence any more. He even invented two new letters for mono- and multiperspectival thinking to speed up his note taking.
Jan talked to me about a couple of his findings. I don’t know what to make of it and this is why I would like to ask you for advice. Jan certainly finds his findings useful and he claims, that it has improved his life.
Jan says: “Being mono- or multi-perspectival are both talents, and usually people are more talented on one or the other side. Both are talents, and both talents come with advantages and disadvantages. People often seem to think that I value multi-perspectivity over mono-perspectivity, but I don’t. I believe there is no good or bad when it comes to being mono- or multi-perspectival.”
According to Jan communication between mono- and multi-perspectival people is extremely difficult if not at all impossible, at least at the current stage. When Jan meets someone new, he usually performs a quick scan and if he finds this person to be more on the mono-perspectival side of the spectrum, Jan talks with this person about the weather and usually not about not much more. He avoids deeper conversations because they turned out to be too painful, too many times. Jan says, that he has over and over tried this and to not get into discussions with mono-perspectival people is what he now generally advises himself to do.
These are some of the indicators Jan uses to identify mono-perspectival people:
- people that have a clear opinion
- people that try to convince
- people that don’t like to be interrupted
- people that want to stay with a topic
- people that don’t like to talk about personal things
- people that by default tend to mistrust systems and authorities
- people that make jokes that Jan does not consider to be funny
- people that talk about decisions and consequences
These are some of the indicators Jan uses to identify multi-perspectival people:
- people that talk about options and possibilities
- people that doubt their own opinion
- people that are curious about other opinions and seem to understand them
- people that like to talk about personal stuff without bragging
- people that jump wildly between topics
- people that tend to forget important information when telling something
- people that talk a lot and interrupt each other in conversations
- people that by default tend to trust systems and authorities
- people that struggled in school
- people that make jokes Jan finds funny
Jan points out that most people (and that includes himself) usually have traits on both sides.
According to Jan these are some of the things multi-perspectival people seem to be particularly good in:
- recognizing new options and possibilities
- coming up with different ideas (different to the convention)
- accepting complexity and being ok to not understand certain things
- trying out things
- accepting mistakes and learning from them
- not being confused by new knowledge
- being optimistic
And finally, according to Jan these are some of the things mono-perspectival people seem to be particularly good in:
- making decisions fast
- making and sticking to plans
- making convincing arguments
- alerting people of imminent dangers
- understanding things to a relatively high level of complexity
Jan thinks that multi-perspectival people can understand mono-perspectival thinking, as a mono-perspectival viewpoint is just an other of many possible viewpoints for someone, who is multi-perspectival.
But the other way around it is really tricky, according to Jan and he asks: “How do I explain to my brother, that there are multiple ways to look at something, if he himself can only see one angle?”
What do you think? Is there a way to explain multi-perspectivity to mono-perspectival thinkers? Is this even a thing? How do you deal with this problem, yourself, when you are dealing with people that are on the mono-perspectival spectrum, or didn’t you ever come across this problem at all?
How do you relate to what Jan says? Apart from, that his stance might be overly simplified?
And finally – are Jan’s thoughts helpful at all?
Possibly soon, and perhaps even now, children may be taught one skill above all others to prepare them for life. It is a virtue and it can be trained: Impartiality. Parents/schools/media might teach children to be as unbiased as possible. Because this skill could be the most important prerequisite to be successful – whatever success could mean. Success in the eye of one beholder might look like economic success, ecologic success in an other’s. There might be a huge number of qualities that describe success.
Impartiality seems to me to be the most important prerequisite for being able to profit from the multitude of signals that are being received from more and more directions, also due to technical developments1.
With prejudice, on the other hand, it is difficult, in my opinion, to profit from the information provided by others outside the boundaries of prejudice – independent of the technology used. A multitude of signals, many of them contradictory, come from a multitude of directions, via smartphone, computer, newspaper, radio, television, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, you name it.
All these different perspectives seem to me increasingly affecting peoples’ thinking. It seems to negatively affect biased people (they seem to get angrier) but does have less of that effect on the more impartial folks who seem to me to relax more. Maybe for the more biased people the multitudes of signals sounds more like a cacophony, incomprehensible noise.
When you look with a few eyes at something very large and complex, it seems to me that you can’t perceive much more than the detail that happens to be in front of your nose. You would need many different angles to understand large complex things. If the thing is then still moving, as it is said that the world is changing faster and faster, so if the thing to be grasped is a “moving target”, it can therefore only be grasped if one has learned to look at it from many angles at the same time. Unbiasedness seems to me to be the prerequisite for allowing perspectives that may even contradict one’s own way of seeing.
The problems humanity will face in the future will probably be both bigger and more complex than they are today, and they will then have to be examined and understood from many different angles in order to be able to fix them. The unbiased would thus become more and more important, because they would be able to do so. The bias seems to me already on the descending branch, as can be observed, in my opinion, in many places. The discussions about diversity of all kinds, which seem to have been increasing for years, are in my opinion an expression of exactly this development; exclusion and bias are becoming less and less appreciated, according to my observations. The underlying reason, in my opinion, is not so much the striving for justice, but the awareness of the value of the many different perspectives.
I am convinced that societies that are able to admit the greatest possible number of perspectives can see better, recognize better and understand better. And that, in turn, seems to me to be the best condition for being able to respond wisely to change. If it is true that the world is changing faster and faster, societies will be less and less able to afford to be selective and to allow only those perspectives that their biases allow.
I suspect our children will be smarter than we are because they will be better able to load themselves up with knowledge from thousands of perspectives. And they will probably be aware that each one alone can only ever perceive a tiny angle of reality.
These children will, I suspect, be unbiased, smart and humble. Geniuses.
1 I am without doubt unable to turn off these signals and I find it increasingly difficult to turn the volume down a bit.
18 years after its making I revisit the interactive documentary 13thFloor wearing the glasses I wear now.
In 2004, German writer Kolja Mensing and media artist Florian Thalhofer spent 31 days in Grohner Düne, a 1970s social housing complex on the outskirts of Bremen that is home to 1,600 people.
Media scientist Bernhard Dotzler called 13terStock an “interactive home movie”.
and attested “a convincing answer on how to show today’s reality has been found by the film”.
Technology and structure
13terStock was originally built with Korsakow 3, a version that only allowed one interface for the whole film. Later, 13terStock was rebuilt and different interface layouts were added. The keywords are thematic: There are five main topics “family”, “money”, “home”, “war”, “rules” and a number of subtopics for each of the main topics.
There is also a laypot (“birdseye view”) which serves to give a feeling of overview.
Pictorial description of the intro scene
It starts quite abruptly, when one looks out of a slight overhead view onto the desk of a roughly 50-year-old man, whom one observes making a short but complete telephone call, hanging up and saying quite noncharlant that he is a Social Democrat. Then a large white building complex can be seen from a distance. It is obviously the apartment complex that is the subject of this film.
The next shots are now closer to the object, you look from above into the courtyard of the building complex. The camera shakes, and where there were windows a moment ago, black areas now appear on the image, on which small and barely legible terms are written that could also be catchwords or headlines. The black tiles remain, while the image of the camera under the black rectangles shows impressions of the inside, of the life behind the scenery and no longer the view from the outside on the Grohner Düne. The black tiles are hyperlinks an serve as windows into the house and the lives of its inhabitants. While in the background the at that time hip Berlin band “Teans Team” sings also quite noncharlant “Jeder Tag wunderbar“ – “Every day wonderful”.
Disclaimer of the pictorial description
I designed the opening scene of the work described above 18 years ago. Today, I look at it through the perspective of pictorial description. The method of pictorial description was not accessible to me at that time, because I deeply despised this method, which I had become acquainted with in art classes at school, because I understood this technique to be cold and lacking in emotion, and in fact I still see it as such. The method of pictorial description is not about feeling, it is instead about describing how feeling is described.
“Every day wonderful” was my alsolute favorite song at the time and that’s the only reason I chose it. Not because, as I realize today, it precisely frames what the perspective of this work is about. To show the, one could say, beautiful, livable, special and thus interesting. Without making oneself mean with the protagonists of the film and without putting oneself above the protagonists. They are different from us and this is stated repeatedly in the work.
“Without making oneself mean with the protagonists and without putting oneself above them”
I suspect that we were only able to achieve this feat because we were not conscious in the making, because if we had been conscious, it would have put us above the protagonists, who apparently did not have this media consciousness either.
The author becomes visible as the point of perspective in a mediated reality
From the very beginning, we have interwoven the object of our investigation with the personal horizon of our experience. This starts already with one of the first diary entries, when Kolja Mensing describes 18 year ago Florian’s apartment and compares it with Grohner Düne:
“Florian’s Berlin apartment is in a discreet new building from the nineties, more or less next to the Ministry of Economics and Labor and thus not far from the so-called government district.” Kolja wonders if the same fortune as Grohner Düne could happen to Florian’s building complex. “After all, just like many other large housing estates, Grohner Düne was once a sought-after destination for the aspiring middle classes in the early seventies – and back then it didn’t even take ten years for the paradise for young families to become a temporary camp on the outskirts of the city for asylum seekers, guest workers and social losers with German passports.”
We have described Grohner Düne from our perspective. And by describing ourselves, the audience has the opportunity to understand the authors’ perspective and correct for it accordingly. Just like I can do now even as the former author when I calculate my younger self out of the perception process of mediated reality.
And whoosh, I look at myself from the outside. And this probably also happens to a viewer who is not also an author, although the effect is probably weaker.
Die Zeit wrote: “one of these tracks simply shows the images recorded by the video surveillance cameras in the Grohner Düne. Another uses a television reportage that reported on the project of the two filmmakers. So they become part of their own work, which in turn is part of other image systems.”