The Skin of Culture
Interview by Camilla Boemio for CALAMITA/À
Derrick de Kerckhove (born 1944) is the author of The Skin of Culture and Connected Intelligence and Professor in the Department of French at the University of Toronto, Canada. He was the Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology from 1983 until 2008. In January 2007, he returned to Italy for the project and Fellowship “Rientro dei cervelli”, in the Faculty of Sociology at the University of Naples Federico II where he teaches “Sociologia della cultura digitale” and “Marketing e nuovi media”. He was invited to return to the Library of Congress for another engagement in the Spring of 2008. He is research supervisor for the PhD Planetary Collegium M-node directed by Francesco Monico. He edited Understanding 1984 (UNESCO, 1984) and co-edited with Amilcare Iannucci, McLuhan e la metamorfosi dell’uomo (Bulzoni, 1984) two collections of essays on McLuhan, culture, technology and biology. He also co-edited with Charles Lumsden The Alphabet and the Brain (Springer Verlag, 1988), a book which scientifically assesses the impact of the Western alphabet on the physiology and the psychology of human cognition. Another publication, La civilisation vidéo-chrétienne appeared in France in December 1990 and in Italy the following year (Feltrinelli, 1991). Connected Intelligence (Somerville, 1997) introduced his research on new media and cognition. His latest book, The Architecture of Intelligence, was first issued in Dutch in December 2000, and in English (June 2001), Italian and German in September 2001. It was later translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese. He collaborated with Mark Federman on McLuhan for Managers: New Tools for New Thinking, published in September 2003. De Kerckhove is also contracted to work on a book about the history of stage performance from early Greek theatre to modern Opera, in collaboration with Francesco Monico.
CALAMITA/À: Your work on media, internet and connective intelligence has made you one of the most influential theorists of communication. Can you tell me an introduction of your research about art and communication?
Derrick de Kerckhove: Among the basic functions of art, that is, to decorate, to elevate, and instruct, there are those that arise from art’s exploration of new media, that is to reveal and often predict the human consequences of new technologies. Italian artists have been good at it for a while. I think of Giuseppe Stampone’s photographic and virtual installations on identity and communication, Salvatore Iaconnesi’s revelation of Social Network solidarity with The Cure, or recently Paolo Cirio’s spectacular hacking and exhibiting the 250000 companies, among which no less than Google and Coca Cola, who have a hugely profitable tax havens on the Cayman Islands. Revealing the dirty secrets of power is, of course, a dangerous business that only artists can risk.
A/À: We are in a risk society-we should like to re-discover our seemingly present state of industrial decadence. Your opinion?
DdK: Risk is good to stimulate innovation. We need it in every field, politics, economy, education, law etc. Art is just about the only function that is not baffled by the velocity of change. Not all, but many artists are beginning to question the situation and looking at possible ways out. Industry is no so much in decadence that it is in transition. Some industries are better than other at seizing the opportunities rather than lamenting the losses. For example, although very slowly awakening in Italy, the media and politics are improving their connections with the people. Education is slower, grounded as it is in a paper-based psychology.
A/À: The failure of global governance concerning the rising effects of global warming, particularly concerning the reduction of CO2 emissions, has created an intense global culture for protest movements that believe that change could only be confronted through a radical transformation of society, effectively challenging the existing distribution of wealth and power relationships. Will we have more extended practical realization?
DdK: Yes, I believe so, as we have seen during the Soviet revolution and the Arab Spring, and before with the abolition of slavery. Such a massive change of heart of a whole population does not necessarily bring peace, vide American Civil war or Syria today. However they do introduce forcefully new ways of seeing the world and acting accordingly. The fundamental message of electricity and its present derivatives, digital and wireless communications, is community (vide social networks) and globality. Eventually those values imbedded in a new ethic will be adopted more or less universally (like the English language or Internet protocols).
A/À: Could you introduce the concept of the digital unconscious?
DdK: The DU is everything that is known about you that you don’t know. It is all the data that purposely or unwittingly we accumulate in ubiquitous databases all interconnected in Big Data. It is hidden, as in Freud’s notion of the unconscious but it is potentially more determining. Indeed the more is known about us, the more other agencies than ourselves can condition or influence our life-and other minor-choices. What we need is not a psychologist but a good hacker to regain some measure of personal control over our destiny.
A/À: What is the prevalence of emotional?. The network will become more and more a kind of social limbic system, where emotions are strong?
DdK: Yes that is an effect of social media that was not expected. Emotions travel instantly in a viral fashion on the Internet and as emotions do for individuals, they promote action wherever it is called for with enough urgency. When you are really mad and you can’t take it anymore, and you find out that everybody around you feels the same, you go down in the street and face tanks. We can expect a lot more of this in the future, unless the universal security obsession (read “control”) ties all our hands down. But even that will never outlive anger and rebellion.
A/À: Also with the change of social ethics we’ll get to a more symmetrical balance between people (as utenti) and authority. Tell me.
DdK: I wish that were so. For the moment, the State (with a capital S, that term includes people in power and those they administer) is still in transition and asymmetry between state and people reigns supreme: they know everything about us and we know precious little about them. But there are very strong signs that things are eventually going to change. Wikileaks and the revelations of Bradley Manning and later Edward Snowden are harbingers of a future where total transparency of government functions will be mandatory for any political system that wishes stability.
A/À: The poet is the first scientist, who is in charge of software that uses the man: language. In the age of electronics, the poet is one who writes the software the new language. The new poetry is that of the software; Linus Thorvald is the great poet of today; Linux is an art form, is a modern poetry. Along with this new idea of poetry survives a whole world of names and “idioms”. Value becomes a simple name, I’ve seen domain names listed two million dollars. Tell me more.
DdK: Did I say this? I may have. It’s a kind of thing I believe. It’s very clever whoever said it. I have examples where poets have ruled society-even if they didn’t know that they were creating new metaphors. Indeed, three little metaphors have had a huge influence on telecom industries: Cloud Computing, Internet of Things, Big Data. The popularity of the first dates back to 1994 and is credited to Anonymous (that is nobody in particular). We know how eagerly telecom companies jumped on that wagon. Internet of Things dates back to 1999 and is credited to David Ashton, and its technological and market implications are still being explored today. The last one (2001) is not only a metaphor but a paradigm. What Doug Laney did is not merely to psyche industry onto a new, enormous, track, but to open an era of Random Access Global Intelligence. Big Data is the source not only of all answers merely waiting for questions, but also of a steady stream of innovations that will impact on everybody and on our understanding of what intelligence really is.
A/À: The symbol of our new century is the network, the network without a center, or orbit, nor certainties; is an infinite connection of causes; is the archetype that represents everything because everything you can belong, every thought, every economy and every individual, every family, in short, whatever appears interesting. The network no longer uses the unit of measurement of the atom, rigid, quantifiable and reassuring; the network is complex and can become chaos if taken to excess. Tell me.
DdK: I don’t agree. The network is self organizing and intelligent. Collectively and connectively, we solve very quickly the problems that arise on networks, turning around the obstacles (the very reason it was invented for), and creating new relationships and tools to increase control over its entropy. As Dr Pangloss or Mr Leibnitz would have said, the network exists to get us over the dwindling and mismanagement of our natural resources.