Mono- and multi-perspectivity according to Jan

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. (( ))

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?