Digitisation as an Opportunity and Culture as its Driving Force

Only a few weeks ago, in this very place, we were inspired by “streaming”, which has now become our daily travelling companion, to make some reflections on the world of digitalisation. I mentioned digital as an environment in which an important part of our lives carries out its relationships, opening up new and unexplored possibilities. It was a way of opening up a debate on one of the central themes all over the world and a key theme for understanding how the new ways of producing material and immaterial goods, resulting from an accumulation of knowledge that mankind has never seen at this level, will be dislocated. It is a crucial moment in the transition towards a new socio-economic paradigm, towards a vision of the economy that I hope will include cultural growth as part of the welfare of those who live in or visit the digital environment, which is all too often still subject to the empire of others knowledge. In other words, this is an opportunity to redistribute resources, culture is a resource, and to be able to make a difference to the cohabitation of human civilisation on planet earth. Does this seem too much? Frankly, not to me, because the chain of events we are witnessing risks pointing to disaster.

Digitising as an Ethical-critical Leap

In the previous article, it was said that the digital environment should not be conceived as the mere application of a technology, nor as a fallback due to the Covid that limits our movements and meetings, but as an opportunity to manage the path towards a new sense of living in common. We have a duty to shape this new environment by deriving from it aesthetic experiences and sustainability sources of behaviour in the reality of everyday life, a new ethics of civil living. Knowledge and technologies must support the articulation of languages, whose forms are still unknown, but which are effective in building knowledge capable of forging skills at the service of man as a person. The tools are well known, they are the same ones that have enabled the evolution of mankind: confrontation, critical spirit, conflict, capacity for abstraction, thought, knowledge. These are the tools on which to focus for a digitalisation strategy that will bear tasty fruit.

The complex and articulated process that we simply call “digitisation”, is the opposite of the forced transfer of the analogue world to another location, it cannot be confused with a “move” from one environment to another of the same furniture and furnishings. An environment made up of clones and digital photocopies would become the surrender of the greatest revolution that the human mind has ever conceived: knowing how to build a new world, but then not knowing how to inhabit it. It would mean abdicating the possibility of expanding our own capacity for perception to be relocated in the real world as a capacity acquired for an efficient civil community. This is true in general for an organisation, for a service, but even more so in the domain of culture.

We need to be able to reconstruct a different emotional image around consolidated principles and values, from which the life of a territory can then benefit as a sustainable and protected ecosystem and in which we can live, enjoying the advantages of a continuous osmosis between the two worlds. Participation and sharing are required, and an effort of creativity is needed so that the transition can rebuild lost values and behaviours in accordance with the civilisation of globalised mankind. Digitising is an ethical-critical leap, it means writing a philosophy before someone imposes coercive models using pre-constituted reasons and making defenceless and sometimes accomplices, accept the instruction manual for life that is generally included with every new technology and every raking in of consensus.

(Re)writing the Digitisation Strategy

In these days, TheaterkOmpass, a platform for reflection on the languages and strategies of theatre and dance in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is publishing a series of thoughts and proposals that are absolutely agreeable; moreover, it is building a network of relations and knowledge that gives a glimpse on a practice of research and development of original digital solutions in the field of theatre and performing arts. This is an initiative to be followed carefully, because it identifies the digital environment as a place that is autonomous from the real one, and absolutely not an alternative, but rather the place of a different strategic vision of an autonomous form of communication. A place of experimentation where fields of applications that are disconnected in real-life can converge and create innovation by using the overlapping spaces between knowledge, research, to generate meaning that can be reconverted into well-being and imaginative power. Sometimes forms of connections that are difficult in life are very effective in the digital world. These are unexplored forms of territorial development whose articulation may become an economic booster.

How advanced or backwards you become depends on how you rewrite the digitisation strategy of a sector, not on which technologies you choose, this must be clear from the beginning.

The article I am referring to can be found on this link. Its starting point is the pressing need to actively shape the digital transformation with the means of art and … extend the physical stage space into the digital by experimenting with forms of collaboration that no one would have thought possible before. The first aspect I would like to stress is that the authors identify the means and methods of art as being capable of shaping the transition towards an ecosystem that increases cognitive experiences; in essence: implementing a new medium to increase the strength of the traditional one, and not to replace it. You may say that they deal with the theatre and therefore it is logical that art is the guiding principle, can be true for them, but not for everyone. It may not be so. Art constructs a marvellous representation of contemporaneity, and theatre, which in the digital world finds different forms, could preserve that “energy of reiteration” that George Steiner attributed to the great authors of Classical Greece. A medium capable of transferring to the widest possible audience all the emotions, analogies and values that renew the traditional perception and provide an unexplored point of view to interpret the dynamics of reality.

The Power of Art and Science

I have been arguing for years that art and science contain revolutionary methods and tools that can open our minds to unimaginable and unexpected knowledge. I would like to try to follow a line of thinking along these lines, starting with the power of art as an interpreter of the conflicts of civilisations.

If in the world in which we live, where we perceive the reality that surrounds us, we have traditionally categorised art as ancient, medieval, renaissance, modern, contemporary, or as Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Florentine or northern European, in the digital world, since we can and must replace facts with generating relationships, each work can always live in its contemporaneity. Contemporary and coeval with the artist and with the civilisation it wants to represent or oppose, and which in any case has contributed to its generation, therefore always in relation to something other than itself. This is the dynamic of digitisation in the field of culture, knowing that you can replace an artefact: (latin arte factus, artfully done) with an ‘art-while-doing’. However old it may be, a work of art in digital form always becomes internal to its production.

Sometimes people try to force analogue interpretation into the digital environment, creating a copy. I am not saying that the traditional categorisation of art is illegitimate or useless, of course not, generations of scholars have built on it, but I am saying that the static transfer is almost always illegitimate and dangerous. Digital and static never go together very well, they clash. Let’s take another example, starting from categories that we know from old school habits: Cinema, Theatre, Music, Art, Science, Technology. Watertight chambers, at least apparently, while innovation, which who knows why we are used to defining it as technological, actually lives, prospers and reproduces itself in the intersection and overlapping of the reference categories.

Digitisation needs these interstices to live, these are the rooms where the unexpressed energies of the transition towards a culture that is fuel for the development of a future no longer imprisoned by ravenous entertainment markets live in silence. The future of this culture is “digital thinking”, its enemy: the fossilisation of routines, the rejection of a dynamic of education, the lack of familiarity with research as a method of investigating the mystery, closing off the field to mutual relations between categories, perhaps to defend biased privileges, would render useless the digital environment that we are building with so much effort.

Escaping the Rules of the Audience

Museums and cultural tourism in digitised territories have a duty to become centres for the production of culture (you have understood correctly: cultural tourism can be the producer of culture and not just a showcase) in order to be able to grow and make communities grow and escaping the rules of the audience. Increasing the number of unaware visitors to heritage does not help anyone. The ways and forms of art must be used to tell their own story, and the same applies to territories, particularly all those with a vocation for tourism and hospitality. Digitisation with a strategy behind it becomes a powerful vector of territorial marketing. This is what art and, consequently, the cultural industries are for, and too often have become pure entertainment.

Lamberto Maffei, director of the Institute of Neuroscience of the National Research Centre, looking for the reasons for the evolution of man in the study of brain functions, writes about art[1]:

artists produce subjective models, emotional interpretations of the chaotic reality that surrounds them and of everyday life. The reader or observer accepts or rejects the model with his or her own creative act, which leads to understanding.

The digital world will work if it succeeds in becoming a competitive advantage for our real-world if it succeeds in being a new bulwark of the redistribution of knowledge, of the critical spirit, of the capacity for analysis, basic principles of freedom, equality and democracy.

Perpetuating History through Digitisation

When a civilisation has died out, it leaves traces of its passage engraved on the artefacts it has produced. We collect, preserve and study this heritage with pleasure and interest so that those civilisations, made up of moral rules, values and customs, are able to continue to speak to everyone not through the contemplation of their artefacts, but through the meanings these objects have and are able to reveal. This is achieved through the reconstruction of the sense of life that the authors of those works intended to share with their fellow human beings. Giving as many people as possible the tools to interpret these meanings means creating a confrontation between the motivations of one’s own existence and those of the past, perhaps a conflict, but with this a reflection. In this way, even an extinct civilisation manages to perpetuate itself through us even though it no longer exists. Patterns of values abandoned and reconstructed in another way, new rights will emerge, what struggles have made us better or worse is the best way to know ourselves in relation to the dynamics of history. This is the underlying theme, but at the same time also the power of opportunity within the digitisation process.

Since the discourse fell on the need to be able to replace schemes that are no longer considered valid with more effective ones, let me say a few words about our Maestra Science.

The Barrenness of Algorithms

Since we are centring the rationale on the dynamics and plasticity of the digital environment with respect to knowledge construction, I will limit myself to one aspect of scientific thinking that could provide strength, energy and fluidity to digitisation strategies.

I am talking about the awareness of the provisional nature of the results and reference schemes as opposed to the solidity of the methods of investigation, I am talking about the ability to focus on what is indeterminate as a drive for research. If we look around us at what digital capitalism has produced and wisely nurtures, we realise that it moves in diametrically opposed directions: it provides unquestionable truths, it builds communities constructed by algorithms that hold together only beings with non-divergent thinking. This extinguishes dialogue and puts everyone in the position of imagining themselves on the side of universal reason, drawing up paths built on the certainty of the goal even if it is unreachable.

Audiences and management algorithms prevent dialogue and create an impenetrable fence for ideas other than those that dwell there. All that is needed is to surrender the freedom to think in exchange for the pleasure of being comforted by the fact of being right, life reduced to an illusion in exchange for relationships based on emptiness and submission to a superior will, living experiences that are mostly anaesthetic. Readers familiar with the philosophy of pragmatism will have interpreted “anaesthetic” according to John Dewey’s concept (art as experience) as experiences that do not produce knowledge. Those who have not read Dewey are perfectly entitled to interpret the adjective according to common usage: injection of a drug to avoid pain.

Exactly what happened to Faust, in Goethe’s poem, who, unsuspecting of the algorithms that would manage a multitude of followers centuries later, traded youth and pleasure for the grant of his soul to the devil.

Battling Mediocrity

Recently I was reading some passages from Joseph Goebbels‘ diary and I was very struck by how he himself states that he had no intention of convincing the Germans to think as he did, it would have been objectively complicated and would have required forces far greater than those in the field, the Nazi criminal had another aim in mind: to impoverish language so that only one way of thinking could remain afloat. An algorithm as perfect as it is evil, given the results.

If knowledge becomes an organised and planned tour it drops the “unexpected” which, as ancient Greek philosophy had guessed and cognitive science shows, is the source of all cognitive experience. The scientific method must become the heritage of most of our fellow human beings if we are to win the battle against mediocrity.

But things are not always simple. The more one decides to make a profound impact on culture, critical capacity and free-thinking, the more one finds opponents on the one hand and denigrators and false allies on the other. The first ones bring their attack from the outside to safeguard privileges that the free market economy has wisely and laboriously built precisely on ignorance, on the strength of empty entertainment, on complicity with the victims. The latter will seek the reasons for failure from within the process itself, they are recognisable from the technological doggedness as the panacea of every philosophy and from the automatic attribution to the category of “fuffa”[2] of any historical-critical reflection, scientific methodology that could cast doubt on the ipse dixit of their manual.

Ipse does not refer today, as it did for Cicero, to the progenitor of the Pythagorean current, nor to Aristotle as it was understood in the Middle Ages, but to an abstract entity that governs, through incontestable and absolute instructions, life and relationships. When blind loyalty is exchanged for approval of every misdeed, Dr Faust always comes to mind. Change means discovering, but it also means selecting what to leave behind all as it is no longer able to provide cues, energy, dynamism. To recognise who is holding back, we should not look for those who oppose digitalisation, but those who imagine the process to be simple, linear and quick, perhaps adding some technological tools as a topping.

Value(s) Reconfiguration

The digitisation strategy of an area could have a very deep impact on the sharing of culture at the local level, on market strategies, on the economy. When knowledge becomes a trigger for economic development, a source of value, the question becomes how to redistribute this value, which is not only monetary but also ethical. Value that is the glue of social cohesion and, in turn, the source of a chemical reaction between fantasy and imagination that, for the first time in human history, manages to establish an industry.

Neuroscience, which in the last thirty years has provided representations of our brains that were unthinkable until recently, has long warned that digital capitalism not managed by state institutions can lead to anthropological change. The atrophy of critical thinking and the capacity for abstraction risks taking man back to his natural instincts, those reactions that pre-existed the evolution of culture, the denial of an aesthetic of the emotions risks becoming an emotional anaesthesia. Freud’s intuition that the evolution of civilisations took place through the control of man’s primary instincts: food, sex, power, by constructing behaviours or imposing laws that would limit the damage of the individualism that necessarily derives from them[3], is confirmed by the very aspects that are most exalted by social networks as an alternative to phenomena such as study, knowledge, thought and dialogue. The anthropological warning is clear.

The pandemic has dramatically confronted us with the need to speed up the process of overcoming ignorance and mediocrity as a brake on the development of the human community, as a brake on the disintegration and conflict between individuals. We need to return to the idea of the person and to living together on a planet that can continue to host us. Digitisation is an opportunity not to be missed, and the world of culture can only be the driving force.

[1] Lamberto Maffei, “Elogio della lentezza” il mulino 2020

[2] “Fuffa” is an Italian expression for a worthless discourse, the commonplace, the flimsy argument, which in English could be translated as ‘hot air’. It has been left in Italian for onomatopoeic reasons.

[3] Sigmund Freud, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur Boer 2018

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