Transcript Narayanan

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CN: You have been involved with the developments in Bangalore since the early days. You were part of the developments, and created within these developments this very interesting school that is known all over the world. You were part of the developments yet were on the side. Please tell me, what happened?

GN: You know, the impossible happened. I’ve lived in Bangalore since 1954, so I have seen several transitions. The first transition was the little sleepy Bangalore becoming just a little bit more energized to a public sector investment in the city. The government brought in some of the largest public sector industries, defense electronics, telecommunications, telephone industries, defense para-electronics and in terms of manufacturing machine tools and part heavy electricals. That was an investment in the mid 50’s and into the 60’s and 70’s. And I do not think that Bangalore today would have been possible without that prior investment because the largest public IT infrastructure ITIS was here in Bangalore. At that time Bangalore was a city of hope, of promise, but it was also very colonial and very laid back. But nobody actually foresaw, neither did I, in real terms the contributions that the innovations in IT in the West would bring to India, the opportunities I mean. And finally in 1994 and 1995, I had just finished this building and I was talking to the bank, to head of the ICIC Bank, about raising money to the finish of some of our new centers and at the time I was mostly thinking about largely vocational education, and he told me “Why don’t you dream about what the future possibility might be?” And I said “perhaps the creative sector with the technology sector”. So as early as the mid nineties the vision of Srishti merged with art and design and technology was there. And this gave it the trust and possibility to enter this new Bangalore. If you ask me what this new Bangalore has done, it has now become a global city. It has become this IT capital, which is referred to as the Silicon Valley of India. And I must say that I am less optimistic about this development than I was about the public sector investment earlier. The reason is that IT is build on a short-term vision and now with the current change in the global financial market we have to see whether this city can actually sustain itself. Fortunately the positioning of Srishti was again intuitively, without analysis and without Ernst & Young and McKenzie and so on, just ordinary artists and designers, we decided in 2002/2003 that we would look for long term sustainable development of India rather than design for lifestyle or design for the shop town. And here are we now in 2008, where the bubble has gone, we are very strongly grounded. When you saw us in 2002, in the 6 years we have done substantive work at the grassroots sector. Whether it was in education, green architecture, sustainability in products and crafts and we are now very well poised to take design thinking into looking at the new post perhaps IT era of this city.

CN: Life has changed though. Your students are used to collaborate with people with whom they do not share time or space. Because of technology we can now be at places where we are not, have relations with people we do not know. How does this affect your work?

GN: The Indian relation with technology does not actually mean that kids are actually working in isolation. There are Indian ways of engaging with say the mobile phone, with MySpace or FaceBook or whatever it is. We have had for the last three of four years, we have collaborated with Nokia on the forecasting of the mobile phone industry in this country. We found that the data are surprising and not predictable. The way people want to use the phone and the way they connect with each other and the things that they actually do with it, are not necessarily the way that the people in the Western world are actually doing it. Texting of course has taken over our life. That is one thing that has happened. But texting does not reach those who are not literate; those who can’t read and write, can’t text. So we are still looking very much to the voice and the voiceover IP and others will actually have a far greater impact when you think of phones and the new thing that has now come to India, which is the voicetextmessage, which is not a voicemail. And again these kids do not sit in isolation, they don’t sit apart of the community, they are very integrated into it.

CN: So how would you describe the role of technology in the community?

GN: I see it as playing a very creative and communicative role of an independent nature rather than a mass media nature. I see it as groups being able to share information, ideas and things, and using it for personal, social and community empowerment rather than to be actually dependent on information that is going out from the mass media. I give you an example. In my research project we look at how to use technology for children in poor communities. And we find that when we provide them with web 2.0 access and it is in their local language they instinctively use the tools for political reasons. They instinctively tell stories which are about disempowerment. They want to bring their stories out. They are not working in isolation. They do it to create a community, to create a movement, to tell their stories and take them in front to where the actions is. Where as you connect more with for example my own elite-kids here at Srishti, they may do it just for themselves. They may have their own images, they may want to collect something, and they may want to keep something. So the bottom of the pyramid is really looking at sharing, connecting, collaborating, creating ‘oneness to go forward’ as we say in Karnataka. The elite sector which is geared towards going up the stairs, will say it is my personal memories, I am going to have my life blog, my pictures, but that is not a very large sector. The bottom segment is very critically different.

CN: So you say that technology actually empowers people?

GN: I think technology can empower people, but I also think it can be very alienating unless context is given. One of the things I have personally been battling for is to enable all technology in local languages.

CN: You have created an educational institution. What is the difference between learning, adapting and social engineering?

GN: Social engineering has a kind of hardness to it which learning an adapting do not have. Learning is obviously about change; you change yourself when you learn. You either become more aware, or you become more sensitive or you learn a new skill or you can do something you could not do before or you can see something you couldn’t see before, you can feel something you couldn’t feel before. Adaptation is also change by its iterative, it modifies. Social engineering seems to be more harsh. It seems to be that we go in there and change everybody very quickly so that we can become this kind of profit. There is a hint of perfection in the word social engineering. I am not very comfortable with social engineering; I am more comfortable with learning and also more comfortable with adaptation. The reason why I instinctively reject the social engineering part of it is that it is too much like there is a utopia that has been determined and we are all to achieve that utopia through instrumentation of technology and of human beings. Learning, if you have technology, it is going to be embodied, it is going to be much more part of ourselves, more ambient. And is it going to be a part of ourselves is a question I have. I feel that it is very important to place the human being and the ‘humanness’ at the centre of technology. When I write my papers I always say it is about the human prospect and the human spirit. The prospect is what you have before you; the spirit is what you have inside you. Whatever we do with technology should expand the human prospect and also expand the human spirit.

CN: To what sort of requirements does this lead?

GN: I think it needs a perspective on technology, which is not a social engineering perspective. I think it needs an understanding that technology can also be tools of self. So we need to see how we actually best develop these technologies. Perhaps it also has a lot of implications for design, for designers, because you cannot sit somewhere else and design for a context you do not understand and provide a solution for the problem. If I can take the example of water. The perspective of most of the works is that we are going to run out of water, there is not enough clean water and India and China are this huge threat because we have this population, we will be consuming such a lot of water. But if you take the per capita consumption of water in India it is very little compared to the per capita consumption of water anywhere else in the world, in the developing world. Most Indian families do with a small bottle of water, they don’t have much water to bathe, and they re-use the water for many things. So if you take that as an analogy and make a comparison when we are looking at technology as well, I am not so sure whether we will need such a lot of technology for India, but we need the right technology.

CN: You don’t feel that with all the identification and surveillance technologies and the data streams that there is a privacy net around the human being that actually suffocates the humanness?

GN: I think so. I think it does suffocate the humanness and I think it is a cause for concern. But I also think we are building societies where people are not trusting one another, they do not want to talk to one another, they want to protect themselves against one another. And sometimes it is about saying, “I won’t be part of that”. Somebody came to me the other day and said: “For the access of Internet over here, we do not have enough security, is that safe or not safe?” And I said, “Well you can either be open or not open. That is not negotiable. You can trust or not trust. And until someone misuses that trust, we cannot make this surveillance or a monitored system. It has to remain open.” And I think more and more people have to have the courage to say so.

CN: Even if technology develops in such a way that hardly anyone controls it anymore, as a human being you can make a choice to be open?

GN: Yes and I want to remain open even it causes me problems. I think we can take the problems, but we have to remain open. And I don’t want to make any decisions based on fear. I feel tomorrow must be about optimism, must be about the future, about happiness, about joy. I think there is far too much deficit thinking that is controlling our lives. So I think it is important to state that technology should not only be monitoring the deficits, technology must be about optimism.

CN: How do you embed this in the learning environment you created here?

GN: I think the learning environment here is always in a state of flux. It is never permanent. One of the students that graduated now, told me that is what he wanted me to remember when he left: “What I liked about Srishti is that very often programs were killed and they died. So please Mrs. Narayanan, remember that what I appreciated about Srishti, is that things are not set there for eternity”. This is a tradition in Srishti, there is a survival of the fittest, and there are new ideas that are constantly allowed to be seeded. The population, we have tried to keep Srishti open to a lot of transit individuals who just come here for two months, three months, six months and make what it is of their lives and move on.

CN: So it does not allow any adaptation?

GN: It allows for adaptation too, because we have silo’s, no institution can be without silo’s, we have our legacy

CN: What are silos?

GN: A silo is like a container; nothing comes after, which might be a department or a program, a worldview that exists within an institution. You can’t say it does not exist. What happens with adaptation with this constant flux and learning and change, suddenly this starts building up and starts taking a new form and then you allow it to happen. There is another silo, which may be created temporarily further down. Somebody says “No now we must stay here, we can’t change this, we have been changing too often, lets create an old value of this’. Suddenly, as this turbulence goes on, that kind of thing, there is adaptation and there is learning,

CN: So when does it go wrong?

GN: Almost all the time, perhaps very often. And I think as a leader that is my greatest challenge, Caroline. The leadership of Srishti is not about leading to success. If you allow openness, constant experimentation, flux, people coming and going, there is a lot of sometimes feeling unsettled, some people come with projects that succeed, other people bring things that do not work. To be able to get up the next day after something has gone wrong and bringing your team back together and say “So we failed, lets get up and do it again, and lets not worry about it”, I think that is the greatest challenge I face as a director of Srishti. But what is happening, people at Srishti are now less afraid to fail.

CN: Failing is crucial for learning?

GN: I think so, and also to know that the world outside is not very kind to you when you fail. The world outside does not really care. If you do something and you don’t get it right, you get a lot of criticism and comments from friends, colleagues, from other people in the same thing. But I think that is what makes you stronger.

CN: When we think about failure in a community, there is failure that leads to shame
and there is failure that leads to guilt. Failure of technology leads to no-match. So it is a very different dynamic how technology deals with failure and how human beings deal with failure?

GN: Technology deals with failure as a statistic, as a number. Human beings deal with failure with their hearts and their minds both. Sometimes your mind will tell you, and you keep analyzing, and you say “how can his be?” but your heart can feel “O God, why did I let that go wrong”. So the technology failure, part of it does not really mean so much because it provides you with data to make decisions.

CN: But technology becomes more and more intelligent. It starts making decisions, makes scenarios, and predicts possibilities?

GN: I don’t think we would let that happen here. No intelligence systems have been put in place in Srishti that actually allows you to do that. Srishti is in some ways a not-connected network.

CN: Is that conscious, do you oppose such things?

GN: I have been getting a little weary. You know Manuel Castells and the Network Society, all which has been written about the Internet and the information world, Bill Mitchell, I have been following the dialogue. Over the last 2 or 3 years, I go to Ars Electronica a lot and I meet a lot of people there who are thinking about these things, I have become a little weary that sometimes the network becomes so complex, that when you think the network is going to make decisions about things that are coming, it may actually not be getting the right decision or the right data.

CN: How do you know what is the right data?

GN: I do not know, I think it is contextual. It has to be much more local and much more contextual. If I may give an example of Google, 99% of my students if you ask them to look up something, they will do a keyword search on Google. And that become almost equal to knowledge. So they come back and say this is what it is about. And I say, “No that is what Google says it is about. Suppose I tell you that you can’t Google, how do you do it?” And that is the kind of exercise I like to set the kids. And than it is not just about going to the library and photocopying, because that is what my kids would do, say 10 years ago. It is about going out and meeting people, challenging and getting the information from the common man. This is a great society in India with oral traditions that go back centuries. So I really feel this is a time to question systems of knowledge.

CN: Can you elaborate on systems of knowledge?

GN: We have a project in Srishti, which is called the Kabir project, based on the Sufi poet Kabir. What Kabir says is that you don’t become a guru or a teacher because you read 20 books, you become somebody special because of the way you live, lived practices or the quality of your engagement with people and things in the real world and therefore you have to be part of embodied lived practices. And this is really where I am trying to argue technology and the self. I feel that systems of knowledge, which are created by a perpetuating thing of hits, and knowledge and tags, social media and things like that, are great for one kind of perception and one kind of knowledge. But there is the other knowledge, which is the knowledge of lived practice. And that lived practice is very rich in India. If you come back in 4 or 5 years Caroline, I might tell you that I know more about it, because that is really what I question. What are systems of knowledge? How can oral traditions of our country contribute to systems of knowledge? And what role can technology play in evolving these things rather than just self-organizing and so on. We have had the complexity paradigm now for a very long time. Self organization, complexity, co-evolution, adaptation, all words that come out of Santa Fee and that has been the dominant paradigm and that is where my doctoral work started many years ago. I think today I would like to see whether I can juxtapose that, come to position that with something else and understand and then maybe answer your question about
social engineering.

CN: I interviewed Jogi Panghaal, who you know well, about how the material changes people, and how the witnessing in a traditional community is very different from the witnessing in an urban environment. Would you say that your students today, who come from an elite background and have access to technology, do they have a different relation with material than your students 20 years ago?

GN: I think they do, and again I have to qualify my answer since there are many India’s. The India that I see in the school of Srishti, where students come from the upper middle class of India, has a different relationship with materials. And yet they have not reached the post-materialist consciousness of the west. They are on their way, there are very much in the use “Check” kind of way, they are not terribly sensitive when they come, of course after being at Srishti for sometime there is a change. If you look at the India of the streets, it is extremely witty and conscious. Everything is recycled and everything is re-used. It is almost the western educated new middle class India, who is buying packaged goods. The people of the streets are still getting it covered in newspaper. I think India is in this very funny position of having a small elite, which is contributing in this huge way to the urban “squalor” use you see all around you, with no consciousness of materials at all. And you have a large percentage of India, which lives in its villages and lives in its perils. Even the middle class India who are contributing to the squalor of the streets, in their own homes they have a different material aesthetic. Our grandmothers taught us to be very very careful with materials. So we live in strange times, it is hard to make order out of it.

CN: Lets make the bridge to the witnessing of women and girls. The way women deal with materials today has changed a lot. The way my grandmother had to deal with the material world is very different from mine, and I am sure, the same counts for your grandmother. There is also a difference between how women and men witness and are being witnessed.

GN: I am trying to connect it to materialism and the change in women. I think the change to me that has come to women is not so evident in material terms as it is in educational terms. But yes, there is a material component to it. I think today, the government of India made a very significant rule in the last month, which is free universal public education for all. That has now become a fundamental right in our constitution and it is going to transform things. But over the last 20 to 25 years, more and more people of all backgrounds in India are sending their kids to school. Of course there are girls that do not go to school, but I think that the single greatest factor in India that is transforming women in India today, has been access to education. Access to education, whether they are rich or whether they are not rich, they use that education to fight for their rights. So I could have a young girl from Srishti, very well to do and upper middle class, trying to hold her own in terms of her job against her parents who may want her to just get married. It is her education and empowerment as a young designer to say, “I won’t, and I will be a practicing designer”. So I think that education has been singular the one factor that has transformed people.
The second one that has transformed women has been technology in the home. Indian homes have remained very traditional in one way that the Indian food has never changed. We still like to eat the food with pleasure that were made by our grandmothers and grandparents in many different ways. The food on the table has not changed. The way of making it actually has not changed; we are still making it in the same way. But the way women tend to it, the tools and the technologies that have been brought to make it more comfortable, have. And again there are levels. You can have the high end with the mixers, and you can have the low end with the smokeless tulas. So you have both ends that are improving. So the poor have no longer to get as fixated with the smoke and are getting technology through this, and on the top through mixes and gas, and now biogas is coming in. So for women’s lives technologies make a huge impact.
The third of course is the micro credit movement, which provides access to finance and which gives access to self-help groups. I think in India that is the largest thing on mobilizing, through its non-governments efforts, the mobilizing of the poor through self-help groups. I think you are going to see a huge feminine gender based transformation in this country in the next 20 years. And that will come through education, it will come through micro-credit let finance, and it will come through technologies that empower women to continue women to do what they want to do for their homes and families, but do not have to take so much trying and it does not have to be such a burden. The one problem I have not touched upon of course is water. And water remains a huge gender burden in our society.

CN: How do you mean?

GN: Because water is not continuous and women spend a lot of their time collecting water for cooking, even in the city and even in middle class homes. When does the water come, how much water can you collect and how much water can you store, how much water can you distribute. So water, clean water for cooking, is something that women can’t take for granted. And they do always need to remember that. On the streets of Bangalore water is a big problem.

CN: If you would rephrase your statement in terms of trust and presence, as with micro- credits it is a deliberate design of trust through presence, which is why it generates a better return on investment than any bank has. Or with education, which generates self-confidence, which is why they dare to stand up. Nevertheless, the witnessing of women in advertising campaigns, of the men on the street, generates a distinct witnessing of women which first qualifies a person as a woman and only after as a human being. Do you think so?

GN: I think it is a fact, I cannot deny it. I think it matters less today to most people as it did before. We ourselves at Srishti are extremely proud of the project of one of our students, which was a diploma project that was called “black noise”. The student started an artistic movement against street teasing, which was than a Srishti problem, but now it has become a global problem. They are wearing T-shirts where auto drivers, when they look in the mirror see words like “ what are you looking at”. So things like Black noise tell me that this won’t continue forever. A simple art resistance project of our Srishti, which started because of the experience of the Srishti girls when going home exactly what you were talking about, now has become a national and international movement against sexual harassment on the streets. It is not going to go away, but the simple fact that a simple art project can become a national movement, just shows you how ready people are for it. I think the more such projects come out, the less it will happen. I feel that if things got a lot worse, and you will have seen a lot of it on the streets of our metro’s, but I think that in the villages women are surely becoming more powerful, the self help groups are empowering them, the fact that they can manage their micro-credits is empowering them, I can’t tell you the problem has gone or will go away, but I can also tell you that there is so much more awareness about it today.

CN: How does performance influence power relations? To be professional is more and more like being in a performance. Women, empowered, also use performance as a strategy for survival?

GN: I think there is a link to performance and being witnessed. Performance is also an act of an empowered person. To be empowered enough to be part of this whole street performative act. I am not so sure whether I am answering your question, trying to get my words around it. I think there is a connection but I am not so sure what the answer is to it. I am confused. I can’t see the link.

CN: With and because of communicating via technology we make more and more images of people and we also represent ourselves. The performance of women in the system is very different from images of men?

GN: It is very complex because when you look at performance of women, where and how and what. Mrs. Hillary Clinton for example cannot be empowered as a politician in the United Sates as for example Sheela Dikshit, who is just elected as mayor in Delhi again. And why do I say that? Sheela Dikshit does not pay any attention to what she looks like. Indian women polticians, like her, do not care what they are dressed like, they don’t have to have pearls, earrings and coiffured hair and look like the woman, which Hillary Clinton and even Michele Obama has to do. Manta Banaji will come out of her house and whatever she is wearing, she will give a press interview and go back. Jaila Lita has got her own presence and so does Sheela Dikshit. She is just the image of anybody’s grandmother. But she is a very effective chief minister of the State. And here the Indian women in the performative role in politics are saying we won’t be bimbo’s, we don’t have to dress up in a classical woman like sense. I think this is one of the great strength of Indian women in politics, in medicine, in the workplace have brought. If they come into the thing they are gender assertive. They would remain the traditional mothers or grandmothers that they are at home, but they will become extremely erudite lawyers or doctors or politicians or whatever it is. They don’t have to conform to a brand image.

CN: The brand image, which is part of the mass media culture?

GN: Yes, so in real life there is a complete difference between the performative in your job and what you witness. However the growing concern is that I can’t say that will be the state forever. My growing concern is the whole westernization of the Indian woman and the Indian’s woman’s looks. That is happening through lifestyle magazines, through Bollywood, through the glamour industry through which India now has a huge economy. We witness these very gender stereotyped women been kept in the media and we have these very empowered individuals who are actually working in real life.

CN: The empowered individuals you refer to have lived in one time, one place, and one community?

GN: I am not so sure about that Caroline. I have chosen people who have lived in one place and who have done a lot for one area, but there are a lot of people who are lawyers, doctors who are married and who are moving with their husbands from place to place across countries and cultures and maintained this ability just to be themselves. And being comfortable being themselves, not changing who they are. I am afraid for my daughter’s generation. I think they are changing. I do not think that the same politician moves, my daughter is 30 today, when they are as old as Sheela Dikshit they may look like Hillary Clinton. I think that we have to fight that if we want people to keep the genuineness of Sheela Dikshit.

CN: In a time where you have to project yourself into virtual worlds all the time, professional or private, you have to create an image of yourself. Not only who you are, but also the image you make of yourself. The performative only has become stronger in the online worlds, in which the stereotypes of mass media play an important role. I struggle with what all these images are doing to the self? And also to our capacity to act?

GN: I think I always have resisted that. I think I have about 5 registered blogs in my name, but I never got them started. And after a while I asked myself why? I realized I could not create a virtual person that I would than have to perpetuate and keep going. That is at very personal level. I realized it; I understood that and I stopped it.
At an institutional level what I feel is that there is a conflict in India between this wanting to project a virtual web 2.0 kind of image of one self against just having a friend and just being together. This is where the orality and the systems of knowledge come in. But it is not going to remain the same. At the moment when I ask my faculty here How many of you blog? Maybe three people will do it. Some are on FaceBook and I am on FaceBook and I know it are the same ones who blog and nobody else is on FaceBook. I don’t think it will be the same in another few years: 100 % blogging, 100% FaceBook and 100% having their own websites and keeping their own virtual identities going. I think in India the problem that you feel and experience, is yet to come. But it will arrive here as well.
When I see the media with at the bottom the SMS and the responses that are coming to news channels, I find it a great cause of concern. On the one hand it is all open, participatory, everybody’s values are going out, but sometimes things can go very wrong. Mass hysteria is a very bad thing. I am not comfortable with it, I am not happy with it; I don’t know what I will do except perhaps always be conscious in my own self. There are real questions to be asked about it.

CN: Is there anything you would like to add?

GN: I think that the questions about the city, that is where we started. From the changes in Bangalore, we moved to learning and adaptation and the role of technology in determining the future, which was the underlying question there. And than how does it play of in the performance of real people, man and woman. That are the subjects I got of this conversation. And mine is a personal position, which perhaps is going to be a Srishti position, I feel that we all increasingly have to shrink our horizon, to bring it closer. Technology allowed us to go in sweeping landscapes. Over the last 10 years I have been in Europe, in America, in Australia, Srishti has been everywhere. I am now wondering whether we need say for the next 2 or 3 years that Srishti will be in one place. By shrinking horizons we need people into a limited geography and we can actually answer some of the very real and substantive questions you have posed. Because I think the complexity of networks is unviable and I think that is what I really want to look at. I want to focus on simpler networks and more meaningful networks, in smaller area’s and at smaller scale, and taking more time to do things. This is what I try to bring into the culture of this college right now.

CN: Thank you.

GN: Thank you, Caroline

Geetha Narayanan , CN