Transcript Parthasarathi

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CN: You have red the work on presence I wrote and the first question I like to ask you, is it possible to transpose a notion like Witnessed Presence to a context like India?

VP: There is some tuning required when we transpose these concepts, but I think the same experiences could be happening in different places. The idea of witness might require more translation than presence. When I take the two words separately, presence could be more universal where the idea of witness and witnessed presence could be more particular and therefore non-universal.

CN: How do you mean this? The basic concept of a witness is that when I do something, because you see it, my action becomes a deed. You can interfere, you can report about it, you can testify about it

VP: so it is really the idea of evidence?

CN: it is really the responsibility for what happens next. Here in India the differences between rich and poor are huge, people live in very different spheres. Is that a reason why being a witness in one sphere means something else than being a witness in another sphere?

VP: I don’t think that is the only reason, I am not completely clear. I think it is also possibly what is considered to be evidence or how one becomes a witness. Take for example of finger printing, where for the first time you have the idea of witnessed presence, one of the early technologies that also had a mandate in India. They give a visual illustration of a person’s identity outside of the person’s body. That works across rich and poor. It was also an option for the illiterate instead of signing. So in that case of signing, yes, there is a clear difference between the literate and the illiterate when being a witness.

CN: But also when two people meet?

VP: That is another thing. It depends where those people are; what kind of occasion they are meeting, whether it is a ritual occasion, is it a formal occasion or is it social. For instance in parts of North India where cast equations are still there, you can tell who people are by the clothes they wear. Because you are wearing a black skirt I will say you are from that and that region, or in Rajasthan I will know who you are by the colour of your turban, and the style of wearing the turbans. It gives an indication of what cast group you are belonging to.

CN: Are you arguing that people identify each other because of cues and therefore cannot be a true witness anymore?

VP: No, I am saying that that would layer the idea of witness, which can not be there in other places where clothes don’t give such cues. You can recognize a bankers guy from a non bankers guy in one street. But those other cues are more traditional and heavy coded. Only some people can read those cues. I would have to think more coherently about how this is connected to the idea of witnessed presence, but I think this is definitely something that would add a layer. In the sense that I can say that I met person from that community, but I do not know who that person is.

CN: It actually raises the question what it is that we need to be witness to each other. A lot of the time t seems that we witness each other, but we actually merely identify styles, heritage and cues of communities traditions and do not properly witness the person?

VP: True. Or possibly a scenario could be that we understand that person through prejudice based on those cues, which happens often. Anyway there is a gap between the cue and the person. All people who carry the same cues are not necessarily the same people.

CN: Would you say that people can read the cues of each other, and only when they can read each other’s cues, only than they can become a witness?

VP: Only if those cues are understood equally and fully, can there be a space for dialogue and transaction. Once they are in dialogue and in transaction, they can call upon being a witness. Can you have witness without dialogue and transaction? Is transaction important for witnessed presence?

CN: I am exploring this; I am not sure. When I see another person, when I witness or feel I am witnessed, I tune my presence. When I meet the big guy in the dark alley, I cue my presence. Or when I go to a doctor who is wearing a doctor’s suit, I will tune my presence, as all patients do. When I go to shop I tune my presence to that specific shop, to a Indian shop or to a Chinese shop or to a supermarket?

VP: So that than is in a sense a big micro context.

CN: But you point out a crucial dimension of witnessed presence where the witnessing is driven by prejudice or wrong reading of cues and signals or just ignorance?

VP: Ignorance can happen in cases where people are not capable of reading the cues, which can easily happen in India.

Example of the Bank with one gesture of the hand that can be red wrong: global bank uses local cues..

CN: You studied the history of media in India, what changed with the introduction of media?

VP: All kinds of things changed; the idea of relating to some human voice, in the case of music, at which I looked very closely, that changed in a sense. The idea of life performance underwent change when you had recorded music. You could now hear a piece of music at any point in time, because it was recorded. So time became a different factor. Distance changed in recording, in any recording. You can now here music at any time at any place, which traditionally was only to be heard in a specific place around for example a celebration like Holi. But now it is recorded and these things happen globally.

CN: So what is the effect of that?

VP: The new idea of entertainment. And I think one interesting thing that happened is that the nature of performance changed. From happening in small halls, the performance now happened on a gramophone inside a house and the object of the gramophone was itself part of the performance. You have to key up the machine and so on. The site of the performance changed, the elements of performance also changed and of course the nature of the music also changed. A four hours piece of music in North India can become a 4 minute piece one can hear anywhere, like it happened in other parts of the world as well. It is not just playing music, it is re=playing music and in the act of re-playing music different kinds of things change: the context, the nature of the performance, the relation between the singer, or the voice and the ear changed, the relationship between where the voice is coming from, the stage or from a box underwent change.

CN: Would you say it emancipated the common people that they can now listen to any music and anytime and dance when they feel like?.

VP: Those who could afford a gramophone in the early years, I don’t know whether they would be called ‘common people’, because it was an expensive device. For those who could afford to buy the gramophone and listen tot it, for them one can talk about these changes. Access for those who could afford it became easier. From the other side, it also provided a new avenue of income for the singers. Singers were initially bound to a form of patronism, to a court, business houses, to a family. Over a period of time, these new avenues for singers to make money came into existence. However as a singer, you were not very clear, who you were performing for. You were now singing for an anonymous audience. So it became anonymous both ways. For the listener, because there is a voice but no face and for the singer because there is no presence of the audience.
Witnessed presence is very important for the performance, the interaction between the singer and the listener. The way the listener responds to what is being sung, that changes how the singer is performing. If a particular section of a composition is appreciated by the listener/audience in a life performance - and here there is not appreciation shown at the end of he concert but all the way through, so there is this constant dialogue happening – than the performer/singer would possibly play another variation of the same improvisation. There I think it is quite interesting the whole idea of witnessed presence in the rupture or break between the listener and the singer.

CN: What is the effect of this?

VP: What was that effect at that point in time? One could argue that the performances became relatively more similar. If you do not know, who you are singing for, than you largely sing a more standardized composition. If you assume who your audiences are and the recording does not go too well, the singer might change the kind of edition he had for he listener. I think to address this gap, between the singer and the listener. That gap was than addressed to advertising because advertising was than mediating the presence of the singer to the audiences. If know Caroline as a singer and what you sing, there is a certain relationship between you as a singer and me as a listener. If I do not know you, the only way I get to know what your music is, is through advertising. And I think there was this very clear idea in advertising to give life to faceless person, give life to a faceless machine, which is the gramophone in that sense

CN: I can also hear music on your CD player that otherwise I would never be able to hear. But if I follow your argument you say Yes you can hear the music, you can hear the concept of the music, but you can never hear the real music until you are listening to the singer him of her self because than there is interaction and the music really happens? Even music has become a series of signals but is not music itself?

VP: Yes the idea of musical performance takes a different shape. There are three scenario’s. You are in a rock concert for example in the midst of 5000 people. You can also watch the video of the rock concert in a bar on full screen with a hundred people in the bar. And you can listen to the rock concert on a CD in your house. It is the same composition, but there are three different kind of transactions between the singer and the listener and this generates three levels of presence.

CN: My research is about trying to find out how we adapt to technology that mediates the presence of the real singer. When I hear the singer on the CD I will attribute all kinds of qualities to the music I hear, not based on a real life interaction with the singer but nevertheless on my mental map, it can be sensorial as well, of this singer. It may change my behaviour, it may change my mood, change my sense of calm, it influences me deeply?

VP: Sure, and it also makes a difference whether you listen to the CD or on the headphones when you are walking, whether you listen to it in the metro or whether you are sitting at home and listen to speakers. I personally never like to listen with headphones, I like speakers but that is the process of mediation I prefer. So a mental map is made by an individual. But the making of that mental map is also informed by other sources of information like peer groups. For example I have not been to that rock concert but you have and we talk about it, so what you tell me affects my mental map of what that rock concert would actually be like when I listen to it.

CN: The thing is that we from our generation argue that the real aura of the performance can only happen when you are there in real life. Other people now argue, it is not important, even though more people go to concerts than ever before. So life experience gets more valued sine we have more mediated presences around us. Do I understand you well that you argue that the primary quality of the real singer and the real listener is the transaction between them. The moment it is mediated there is not this real transaction. So you actually argue that to be a witness there has to be a real transaction?

VP: In case of forms of music that are specially based on improvisation, rather than playing a set piece.

CN: If you now transpose this to other forms of communication, to for example hearing a voice by phone, or email, or chatting with people you don’t know?

VP: I think it is very difficult to compare CD with en early telephone for example, because over period of time people get used to a new idea of witness over the last 100 years for example. The difference would be though the difference between recall and record the voice versus hearing the voice live. In that case time is still the same, it is just the space that gets altered there. That is the key difference between the telephone and the gramophone. In the gramophone the voice can be replayed again and again at any given point in time and the voice will be captured. Where in the phone, there is dialogue at a particular point in time. It is synchronous in time. They are two different forms of presence the gramophone and the early telephone.

CN: I notice when I speak to people who phone a lot, this potential of transaction and change of perception a phone will do for many people. People will say I meet you and that means we phone. Phone is experienced as very close to real presence?

VP: Especially the mobile phone and how it is designed these days, it is a prosthetic. It is like wearing glasses now. And it becomes seamless like wearing glasses becomes. It is more like contact lenses than glasses, it is very attached to your body. So the earpiece of the telephone has become another part of the body. (…)

CN: Can you imagine that an autonomous system generates the same feeling of authentic interaction, being a witness of you and you being a witness of the system?

VP: In terms of a car or any system?

CN: Take a car and a search engine

VP: I am told that search engines are more and more developed in a sort of hyper personal direction. I you look for the word ‘Delhi’ and you search for it and I do, and we might get different results. That is one level at which things can get highly customized and that is already happening in a sense.

CN: It is amazing how we adapted to the mobile phone for example?

VP: Yes, but I find it interesting that in India for example the mobile phone is the first phone for many people. Maybe we should look at adaptation of people for whom the mobile phone is their first phone and look at the adaptation of people who had other phones before or other transaction devices. Is this adaptation the same? I have been using the landline for over 30 years in comparison to the person for whom the mobile phone is the first idea of a phone. The rate of adaptation is one thing, but also what we adapt to is an issue. What is the part of you that is adapting? The idea of doing something else while being on the phone that may be a thing that calls for adaptation. You find people on the streets who stop when they receive a call and you have people who keep on walking while having the conversation. So that seems to be two kinds of adaptations to the same device.

CN: You studied how people’s perception and sense changed because of technology?

VP: And that is both ways, you can also argue that certain activities of people call for changes in technology. The transaction happens both ways.
And some things are not so new, in language, journalism and telegraph where people were paying for each word they sent. (…) I saw SMS language being used in early gramophone advertisement, with using the number 4 instead of ‘for’ etc. Of course there are new kinds of use but also many of the changes you see now come from actually somewhere in the last 125 years ago. I would be a bit cautious saying things are completely new.

CN: In the other decades before a lot of experience was gathered with shortening language, making language efficient to be able to transport it, so now we have an interface where millions of people who were not part this history, easily adapt. It is also about human capability?

VP: That would assume that you doubt human capability. But if you belief anyone can equally adapt you would to be so surprised that people are actually adapting.

CN: But that is exactly what I make problematic, because we design a lot of stuff, which the ‘common people’ of the planet may only witness in 50 years. But the ground research is done now. And adaptation is a major issue because also social systems are designed at the same time. We design how people will see each other how people will witness each other, will be responsible and how people will formulate prejudice. Therefore I ask the question, adaptation to what? There are different directions of adaptation possible as well as different directions of technology?

VP: Sure and also there is adaptation possible within a certain parameter and how to embed that into design research. Some people may argue that you can constantly adapt, that there is no threshold there. Where others may argue that you can adapt in this direction up to that point after which you can adapt not in this direction but only in that direction.

CN: Have you ever seen such a threshold?

VP: I have not thought about this the possibilities and limits of adaptation to technology. I was told for example that the earlier phones of Nokia in India for example had a much higher sound level because of all the noise around here. That is a case where the firm is adapting to the environment of the user. You ask now how the user adapts to the technology or the interface.

CN: If the phones would weigh 15 kilo’s that would also be a serious threshold for a mobile phone. So there is a physical threshold of weight, size, sound level, clarity of the screen if you have a screen at all. I look for the deeper things of how people witness each other through the phone? For example we never used to say to each other "where are you? Only since the mobile phone we can communicate with someone without knowing where this person is.

VP: Unless of course in the forwarding call in a landline. These changes happen slowly and than suddenly there is an explosion. I think television is also interesting in that sense. Do you watch programs in a group, with a nuclear family or so. Or are there multiple TV sets in house. That changes witnessed presence especially concerning the news. If there are three generations listening to different networks what happens to the witnessing?

CN: If it is OK with you, lets make the conversation broader now to the whole media landscape. Half the population lives in urban areas now, with lots of media around them, TV, radio, Internet, SMS, phones and ring tones, games etc.

CN: Can you explain the notion of media governance?

VP: At a basic level there are two components to it. There is the governance of communication systems and there is the governance through communication systems. The first kind, of the communications systems, deals with ownership and regulations, agency of regulation etc. The second part, through communication systems deals with information transactions, accountability, transparency, efficiency, so they are using communication technology as one of the proponents through which governance takes place.

CN: So propaganda would be in that field?

VP: Propaganda could be in tha field, but propaganda can be in the first one as well. There is the entire ICT for development, e- governance, e- democracy, e- everything is all in the second realm, where the first one is more on regulatory, administrative and organizational issues.

CN: We could talk about this for hours. I would like to focus on two kinds of people. One who is in the system, as a media-maker, a policymaker, an administrator and how they deal in the system with witnessed presence, being a witness to the work of others and being witnessed in your own work. And secondly I would like to focus on me as not being part of the media industry, how do I witness media-governance? Can I see it? Start with the last one I think?

VP: Whenever one can track the transaction of information, or the transaction of an administrative protocol like filing your taxes or booking a train ticket, you have one bunch of activities that can be done online which earlier on had to be done in co-presence. And there are things you can do now which you could not do earlier, like tracking down information of who said what in the parliament. And maybe that was possible earlier as well but it would involve physical movement and administrative protocols as well. So there is a cut in the amount of steps that is required to do a task and you make that task relatively agnostic to physical space. To what extent it works that is another issue. So at that level there is more feeling of witnessed presence, be it differently than in physical space. A lot of e- governance is actually information dissemination and that is just one part of governance.

CN: It is interesting that you refer to intuition, to feeling?

VP: Apparently it gives that feeling, that you count, that you have access to something you did not have earlier. That is part of the issue. The question is then does that access then enable you to do what you could not do earlier.

CN: Maybe I misunderstood you words. Very interesting. I understood that even though you have limited access to institutes of governance, you nevertheless get a feeling of the value of the things presented to you. So you also get a feeling that whole body or structure. So you are more informed, but not in a precise way, but more in a feeling, an intuitive way?

VP: No I would argue that in a best case scenario if you are better informed, you are also informed possibly more accurately. But does your being informed help you towards action? That therefore is the question. And it is not only about governments. iI is also about the stock markets for example which offer a now a large amount of transparency compared with say 25 years ago anywhere in the world. Just because I can look at the documents of the company online, before I buying shares, does that mean that I, and my level of information is high, my level of being informed is also high, but does that incrementally contribute to me in a sense that it empowers me? This whole idea of social action, does that change that as well? If we fetishize the information part of it and the transaction part of it, one would than forget the social action part of it. Information transaction is not only there for it self, it is part of something else.

CN: What is the step between information and action?

I don’t think it is a step, I think it is two parts of the same thing. They are two sides of the same coin. But we tend to give more emphasis to access to information more than on the ability to act based on the information we’ve accessed.

CN: So what is the coin?

VP: The coin of governance in that sense. Like I get to know there is all kinds of things happening in a particular company and because there is access of information I can read all sorts of documents that are available in the public domain, which I could not do earlier. But does this enable me, and hundred other people like me, to fight a legal case against that company in a better way than before? And that is not quite the case. Making larger organizations or larger governance systems transparent is one aspect of it, but how does that transparency than translate into social action or contribute to social action? That is another thing al together.

CN: Part of the reason why transparency is not enough is because of the dynamics inside these organizations and business?

VP: And structures

CN: As a professional you have to learn very fast, it is a hard reality. Please elaborate on witnessed presence in governance structures? And please include the performance aspects?

VP: How to identify witnessed presence in governments structures. I don’t think those structures exist in India yet, they are just practices in a sense. Assume there is a group of practices that contribute to a particular process and many processes together constitute a structure. I think it is still very much on the level of practices it has not gone to the level of structures yet. At the centre one of my colleagues argues that we have digital technology, but that we have analogue structures. That sums up how these structures are responsive.

CN: I understand witnessed presence in governance as a sort of self-incarnation of a certain performance of role in an organization. Because you are in this performance your actions change. And the way your presence is witnessed inside these structures is very different compared to being witnessed outside these structures. When I am the director of a large organization I mean the way I am witnessed, monitored, the way my performance is judged, the way my performance is even perceived. Part of this I can know and part of this I do not know. And that is very different from being outside of those structures. The way I understand media governance, it is also about invisible structures between people and machines play a role in this. Mostly between people in hierarchies, and in hierarchies that amongst them interact, also in those structures people are human beings and have to survive?

VP: And it is also the fact, that using machines does not necessarily remove hierarchies. There is this assumption in governance that the more mechanized and automated processes you have, the less hierarchy there is. This was an assumption of the early Internet for instance that networks were flat, which is not the case. Apparent invisibility, there are some characteristics of some structures which are speeded up, but the working of those structures is beyond the purview of just human machine interaction. Sometimes it might be possible, I have not thought this through,that human machine interaction might lead to scenario’s where you confront those structures more closely and more head on, than otherwise you would because it is not a progressive thing. You suddenly hit a wall as opposed to without machine where you over a period of time are hitting the wall. So what is the issue we are trying to pinpoint Caro?

CN: We try to find out about witnessed presence in governance structures. In any crises and in any day-to-day policymaking this usually defines what happens and what happens not?

VP: I think one idea is the idea of stakeholder as it has emerged. I feel that that has a lot to do with the idea of witnessed presence. Who is a stakeholder? And when we go back to the first idea of media governance, if you look at a relative structure or a relative framework and you identify a list of stakeholders, some will be listed, some will be regulatory, private players, all the way down the chain and they constitute the stakeholders, there is a process of deliberation between these stakeholders. Whether that process of deliberation is transparent or not, we leave that outside this argument, because it would make it more complicated. But assume there is a process of deliberation, a consultation between public interest, private interest and government interest, which is a standard kind of deliberation, and this is something at least in the telecommunication and broadcasting regulatory system, this is encouraged, that you have these public hearings. The idea of public hearings is the idea of witnessed presence in a sense. The Right To Information campaign began with the idea of public hearing in a traditional sense, where the problem is identified and action need to be taken is decided collectively, whatever that collectively may mean. In that process, and this is what connects the first and the second, is the idea of public hearing. You have public hearings on regulatory issues and on administrative issues, so the public hearing is the illustration of witnessed presence in processes of governance. When that public hearing than gets transformed to a set of mediated hearings in a television program or through Internet, or any form of multi dialogue thing, does it remain a public hearing? Does it become more public or less public? Is there more hearing and less talking? These issues pop up. If the public hearing is organized by the state, as opposed to non state, does it make a difference? If the public hearing is organized by a company, does it make a difference?

(Suddenly electricity fades out and we are in the dark. Nevertheless we talk on)

CN: A public hearing is also a performance; it performs a platform for people to speak.
But media also offer platforms? People in public hearings witness each other and are involved in social interaction. What happens when this happens in a mediated context?

VP: Every mediation offers more constraints. It is possibly a paradox. With the different kinds of technology the possibilities of transparency are assumed to get higher, which then also pushes for higher levels of transparency in a sense. You can watch a public debate on television on a particular matter, which is not the same as a public hearing. Event though you now have television programs which show public hearings on for example housing issues. A public hearing is already a performance event, which than gets double orchestrated because it is on television, it is an event made out of an event. First of all does that increase transparency? Does it increase accountability? Just because I said something on television to 20 people who are there in the studio and 20 million who are watching it, does that force accountability on me?
If you keep watching the TV shows over a period of time, they are just part of a performance like a farce. You may have had one of such program 10 years ago, today we have 40. That does not necessarily mean that there are greater levels of public support for a thing like that. The moment it comes on television it becomes part of events and performances, which are delivered to television. It probably mostly ends up being a performance.

CN: People can easily take a distance from such an event, because they can not influence the performance. If we go back to the stakeholder, a stakeholder has to be able to contribute to the public hearing?

VP: A public hearing does not have to involve all stakeholders equally. Therefore with the same logic, a public hearing does not have to include all stakeholders equally. Some have a greater voice and therefore their voice will get amplified at a stakeholder meeting.

CN: So when mediating a public hearing it is important that the weight of the different stakeholders is visible?

VP: I think it should be, but because it is often commercial television that in itself changes the weight of the stakeholders.

CN: If we now think about a community of people and autonomous systems. Autonomous systems become stakeholders but only in so far as their weight and their stakes matter?

VP: I am not completely comfortable with this idea of autonomous systems in a sense.

CN: Lets take a crises, like a fire in a neighbourhood or the Mumbai attacks?

VP: When you take the locations of the Mumbai attacks, the landmark of the Taj Hotel was all the time on Television, while the railway station is the real landmark that most people know. In the presentation of the crises there is already a judgement of what is the most important location. Paradoxically the railway station is the landmark that most people know and it was hardly seen. There were choices made based on certain interests and also the life and experience of the reporters and presenters was of influence here. They may have been more familiar with the Taj and the Oberoi Hotel than with the railway station.

CN: Those reporters were a better witness to the Taj and the Oberoi than to the railway station?

VP: Right, in that leads us back to context in the idea of being witness and having witnessed presence. In that sense this is a perfect example when you talk about the location of witnessed presence. Also the class of the reporters was of influence, this made them more familiar with the hotels than with the station. The ownership of the networks had an influence, especially because that kind of network would hire reporters form that kind of class and one can build upwards to how this coverage happened.

CN: Could there be a reason in that the coverage of the railway station would have led to more unrest?

VP: I do not know whether it would be more of less unrest, it is about who is protesting. When the focus had been to the railway station, other people had been part of the demonstrations. In television reports class deeply influences what you can see. This is globally demonstrated that the class position of the reporters makes a huge difference. Also other issues of identity, race, gender and so on.

CN: So we get back to your statement that you can only be witness to something you recognize?

VP: Indeed, being witness is very context defined. And there may be various things, which may add to that context. But if you are not part of it or recognize it, indeed you cannot be witness. That is what happened to the reporters.

CN: So it is a huge effect that it is not recognized, which also deeply influences our social interactions?

VP: There is this corrective mechanism where does it start? Should reporters be trained differently, should the networks hire differently, or should we go back to different forms of ownership?

CN: With all the media around we are getting a different sense of being witness. The media create a different kind of being witness, which makes it hard to take responsibility? And are they self-correcting themselves?

VP: Are they socially conditioned to take responsibility? And when people self-correct, I assume this is most of the time for self-preservation. When an owner of a network makes a decision he does this as owner of the network and not as a human being.

CN: That is why I root this idea of witness presence in Human Rights?

VP: I am not sure whether that bridge can be restored when talking about commercial entities because commercial entities have reacted towards the Human Rights in a totally different way. You can’t integrate Human Rights as a factor of production and if you do, under what condition and then you are back at those structures. In an ideal situation it may be possible, yes, but with the current economic modelling, I guess not.

CN: But trust in an organization generates more profit?

VP: To propose that companies who respect Human Rights, may have a greater profit, may not be true globally. It may be true for certain companies in certain contexts at certain points in time.

CN: Lets stop, Thank you.

Vibodh Parthasarathi , CN