We are living in a time of paradoxes. Words can take on meanings diametrically opposed to their original ones, without most people realising it.
It is the phrase with which Francisco Dias opens this blog highlighting how, when a word does not have an identified and accepted meaning within a context, it becomes a lofty expression of a void, it can be used to fill nothingness with appearances. Just the opposite of what it should be: the representation of a conceptual abstraction together with a code for exchanging views, impressions and opinions.
In the Latin language, “word” was said nomen and was thought to derive from the term omen meaning destiny. Each word contains the destination of the actions it represents, our ancestors thought. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian went deeper and wrote that nomina sunt consequentia rerum, names are a consequence of the reality in which they are used and therefore, their shared meaning indicates the perspective towards which a strategy is carried out.
I thought I would start from this and from an expression that we all use all the time: articles, conferences, books: “we are in the digital era” and ask a question: are we sure we are all clear on what it means and what is really happening?
Digital versus Technology
A lot of people think that “digital” identifies a technology and this has led to most of the troubles in the sector I work in because it has hidden the real essence of the problem and held back opportunities that humanity has never before had so great and so close at hand.
Before embarking on an explanation, I would like to anticipate my thesis. Digital is an environment where:
- relations between people and their works convey the meaning of life
- the most important activities are scientific and humanistic
- technology is the tool with which we can articulate a common language that allows us to build culture and knowledge.
Consequently, when I start working on an audiovisual, an exhibition, a museum or a digital publication, I aim to build cognitive experiences for my audience, the technology I choose to use is the one that best addresses and solves the problem. Consequently, it is also the least of my problems.
Instead, when I meet a client or read an Italian or European call for tenders (I know less about the others) that says they are aiming at the same goal, I hear 3D, or project mapping, or even augmented reality proposed before having an idea of how the thoughts should be articulated and for what purpose. This is a sure-fire way to escape the digital revolution and its opportunities unless it is just a way to sell what you have ready on the shelf. To think wrong is a sin, but very often we get it right.
The main mistake is to confuse the product to be made with the tool to be used, assuming that the goal is included in the technology because someone else thought of it for us. In the world of culture, museums, tourism is one of these, the aim is never to make a film, a portal, a book, these are only intermediate tools, but to create an experience that induces knowledge. When I work, my first approach is to look for those who can provide the ideas without having anything else to sell, so that together we can build a story, articulate the forms, select a more suitable language and then go and look for the technologies that serve the purpose.
The Creative Industry and the Digital Revolution
The creative industry has been profoundly affected by the digital revolution. The possibility of manipulating images is enormous and must be used to open new doors to the power of narration using a language that is increasingly specific to the medium and articulated in such a way as to influence the experience without becoming fossilised in the search for an evocative effect, devoid of internal logic.
These are unmissable opportunities for the development of knowledge that risk going up in smoke in the absence of research. Any modern personal computer incorporates everything needed to produce a complete audiovisual: video, audio, animation, text, editing; everything that only 30 years ago was a four-storey building divided into development and printing departments and studios is now closed in a laptop and available to everyone. This fact should lead us towards a greater range of expressive possibilities and research into the paradigms of the story in images, a wide range of new proposals in audiovisual poetics.
On the contrary, judging from what I see in the dedicated portals, the creative industry risks sitting back on the schemes that the software manufacturers propose as default, with the consequence of flattening the cultural offer to a single planetary sign. I happened to ask editing or photography students what their working tool was. The answer was unanimous: the computer. I would have expected a student of photography to answer light, or an editor to answer image, art history, iconology; without these tools in the head of the user, the computer is incapable of producing on its own what others have prepared to the exclusion of our mind. So it happens that from Alaska to New Zealand we can love the same flavours, see the same sequences, listen to the same music. A homologation of meaning that contrasts with the etymological meaning of the word culture.
Ethnocentrism, which Francisco Dias claims is the cause of many distortions, in the face of a homologation of meaning such as we see on the web, becomes nothing more than a collective variation of the unbridled individualism of a market without the limits imposed by the ethics of responsibility. I believe that the situation in which our culture finds itself is so compromised that it is no longer possible to look for palliative solutions, it is necessary to radically deploy new cultural forces, but above all, it is necessary to have the awareness of being ill, the first condition to be able to heal.
Change through Consciousness
That the disease of the planet is a consequence of our individual actions is not my thesis, it is the thesis of Pope Francis who, from the height of his international prestige, maintains that the first contribution must come from our consciences, and consequently, as citizens, we must combat a first serious moral disease which is resignation, delegation to others, renunciation. We need to learn to act, to organise a new resistance against the very little dark forces that would like the survival of the planet to be subject to their own advantage using our surrender as a springboard.
We need a renaissance by waking up those who are incapable of acting because of the pressures of a market rich and powerful thanks to the impotence induced in others. It is a question of building up citizens, changing their mentality so that through an awareness they change their actions. This objective is totally immaterial, it produces consciousness, sense and no physical object, but it could have practical consequences on our reality. It is necessary to act on man and his cognitive capacities beyond technologies, infrastructures and institutions. The indispensable requirements to face the problems caused by development without progress will be a sense of responsibility and cognitive capacities adapted to the challenges.
An epistemic shift is needed, just as Kuhn would have defined the progress of science. One of the first practical steps is to go beyond hyper-specialisation and multidisciplinarity as the sum of non-integrated skills and replace it with the ability to observe the network of relationships that determine reality as an organism as a whole. It was Joël de Rosnay, a scientist who was director of the Pasteur Institute for many years, who defined the “macroscope” as the instrument with which civilisation will have to equip itself in order to understand the reasons for its evolution and avoid collapse. It does not exist except in our own minds. We often lack the mentality of the explorers, their goal was the beginning of new knowledge always outside their own borders.
The Wisdom in Looking Back
Looking back teaches us many things. There was a time when it was thought essential to consider the mutual relationships between things as defining the ultimate function and purpose of any substance. An extremely modern strategic approach: moving from ontology (the inventory, the exploration of what is revealed) to epistemology (the way one knows, the validity of knowledge). We find this described in a book from over 2300 years ago: the Metaphysics. Aristotle gives the adverb ‘together’ a meaning that, if it became common sense, would solve the problem of ethnocentrism that Francisco Dias referred to as an evil of the century.
In the 1960s, the relationships that define the adverb found mathematical expression in the system of differential equations that Eduard Lorenz, a distinguished American mathematician, developed to forecast the weather. He found himself in front of a phenomenon that had never been observed before: a small variation in the initial conditions caused the mathematical model to diverge towards unpredictable results. So is life, unpredictable because of the high number of mutual interactions that define the here and now (hic et nunc). Today, those without a scientific background only remember Lorenz for his poetic synthesis of a butterfly’s wing beat capable of affecting a hurricane; few imagine that his equations are the basis of the mathematical models with which we try to predict the spread of Covid-19 these days.
The deeper meaning of “togetherness” is well understood when talking about music. I was lucky enough to be able to talk about it during a recent work I did with Salvatore Accardo, one of the greatest contemporary violinists. Togetherness does not mean playing in the same room, but working on oneself to be able to produce a polyphonic sound that nobody is able to produce alone. Not only does this imply the composition of different frequencies and timbres that can only come from different instruments, but it implies the need for each one to be indistinguishable and to be able to contribute to the final sound which is unique as long as it is produced in the only possible way. Learning an ensemble is a profound study that teaches one not to overwhelm others, teaches the strength that a maestro can generate, teaches that no soloist is ever alone, teaches one to focus on the emotion felt by the audience and to put oneself in tune with the others. It teaches you to listen in order to play.
If I have taken so long, it is because I would like to clarify a thought: Aristotle, Lorenz and Accardo are three outstanding figures from very different eras. We must not make the mistake of thinking that the first was an representative of the philosophical culture, the second of the scientific culture and the third of the musical culture, but we must understand that their instruments, although different in substance, gave different forms of expression to the same culture.
I hope I have clarified this with examples because it is a crucial point for understanding how travelling can mean getting to know new forms in which culture manifests itself and comparing oneself in order to increase one’s knowledge of the world together with others, and consequently to increase one’s knowledge of oneself. In this sense, tourism can become a builder of culture and a component of the hoped-for renaissance. There is an urgent need to work on the human element and its cognitive, conceptual and abstraction capacities, as well as its critical conscience, in order to build an ethic of responsibility, social cohesion, cooperation and solidarity.
Changing the mentality and generating social cohesion geared towards the development of the community as a single organism was a problem for the people living in Greece and Turkey before the West came into being. Social cohesion and adherence to the founding values of the community was ensured through epic poetry, which dealt with mythological themes, stories and tales of great emotional force around which men and women of the time, under the skilful guidance of a wondering minstrel, built and refined the mental toolkit to cope with vicissitudes and overcome obstacles. Imaginary characters, unreal but convincing situations, a virtual reality without the use of computers helped to create universal truths to which all citizens adhered in their civic life.
Subsequently, for a society structured as a state, as the Athenian one, the epic was no longer usable. The poleis needed more rational forms and new authors able to correspond to a mental structure that had become extremely complex for the time. The tool and the language also had to be changed, so the theatre was created. The first form of pop show that had stars like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to build the strength of an organised and responsible state. The forms of representation changed skin many times, at the end of the Renaissance all the muses together: the old ones and the new ones that had joined them, poetry, singing, music, acting, dramaturgy, all came together in Italy giving birth to opera. The forms of performance still changed, but not the purpose. The stars were called Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and problems, values, behaviour continued to be staged. A woman who resists the sexual harassment of power by committing suicide: Tosca; those of a woman who is promised by force to a man she does not love: Madame Butterfly; the intrigues and subterfuges to make true love triumph over abuse by a barber from Seville; the people ran, applauded, fought. Giuseppe Verdi’s music built the Italian fight for freedom against foreign occupation more than any weapon. Artists know how to influence a mentality by entering the secret ways of the mind, they have their own methods to stimulate curiosity and interest, becoming narrators, provoking identification, influencing the future actions of the spectators, then as now.
A few months ago, a student at Sapienza University asked me what creativity was for me. I confess to you that the question had no easy answer and I wanted to get away from the obvious or, even worse, from ambiguous expressions without a definite meaning. Fortunately, I remembered Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. For thousands of years, men looked at the sky, took measurements, calculated times, movements, orbits. So they did too, they looked at the same sky and understood the very essence of its dynamics, brought it back to earth and built a theory that is still applicable today. They understood it by looking at the same sky as always, but with different eyes. That’s when I came up with a definition of creativity that I found useful. To look at what everyone else is looking at and understand what no one else has understood yet.
Today, culture is in crisis under the blows of a market that seeks to isolate individuals by locking them in a prison without barriers, harnessing their own mutual relations in an algorithm that guides, collects and re-proposes them so that each prisoner is happy to be his own jailer too. Moreover, constructing storytelling that makes everyone feel free and creative, resistant to any mental effort, so that everything is presented as easy and accessible, always in the name of democracy.
One of the philosophers who most inspired the categories of analysis of modern times was undoubtedly Antonio Gramsci, who wrote about culture and the urgent need for the poorer classes to raise their social position in the new state he imagined without dictators:
In a new situation ….. it will be necessary to resist the tendency to make easy what cannot be easy without being distorted. If a new corpus of intellectuals is to be created, right up to the highest peaks, from a social stratum that has traditionally not developed the appropriate psycho-physical aptitudes, unprecedented difficulties will have to be overcome.
It is a fact that Western culture is in a crisis that risks being dangerously irreversible. Whether this is accidental or provoked by a policy that considers culture the true enemy of instinctive and irrational consensus is an argument that, although important, is beyond the scope of this article. In the same notebook, Antonio Gramsci wrote:
Latin and Greek are not learnt to speak these languages, to be waiters or interpreters or whatever. You learn them in order to get to know the civilisation of these two peoples, whose lives form the basis of world culture…. Latin is not studied in order to learn Latin, it is studied in order to get students used to studying, to analysing a historical body which can be treated like a corpse but which is constantly being recomposed in life.
We call man a ‘social animal’, pointing to the fact that he lives in a group, together with his peers, by his very nature. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, called him zoon politikon, a political animal, the adjective giving man’s nature the need to construct rules for living together. The community of humans generates a culture of living together and cannot be rendered sterile and returned to an instinctive nature unless the game is to make the subjects that are part of the community weaker and more vulnerable. Hiding that adjective (politikon) means restricting the ability to participate in the construction of common rules, it means being able to impose them without anyone being able to claim the primacy of democracy. Perhaps it is precisely these rules that annoy those who would like to govern communities without rules or with rules imposed according to convenience. But that is another story.