Witnessed Presence

Human beings, in the act of being witness and bearing witness, have been mediating presence for centuries by leaving traces, telling stories, making images and music, and writing text. However, digital technology facilitates mediation of presence at scales and speeds unknown before and as a result of this mediation, the dynamics of being witness and bearing witness are changing.

Personal, organization and business communication is deeply affected by new ways of connecting, sharing knowledge and doing transactions. Social structures adapt and constantly restructure processes impacted by the rapid pace of changing information and communication technologies. Foundations of social structures, including power relations, identity building, trust, liability, and justice, are being challenged. As Manuel Castells formulated already 15 years ago in his impressive trilogy on the rise of the networked society:
‘Thus, people do still live in places. But because function and power in our societies are organized in the space of flows, the structural domination of its logic essentially alters the meaning and dynamic of places. Experience, being related to places, becomes abstracted from power, and meaning is increasingly separated from knowledge. The dominant tendency is toward a horizon of networked, a historical space of flows, aiming and imposing its logic over scattered, segmented places, increasingly unrelated to each other, less and less able to share cultural codes. Unless cultural and physical bridges are deliberately built between these two forms of space, we may be heading toward life in parallel universes whose times cannot meet because they are warped into different dimensions of social hyperspace’. (Castells 1996, 428).[1]

For the building of such bridges, a better understanding of witnessed presence is essential. When building bridges between the space of places and the space of flows, an ethical position of the witness seems unavoidable. How else can social structures that offer well-being and survival emerge? The construction of such bridges needs to include elements that allow for human presence and human consciousness to partake in a variety of modes. Physical and sensorial elements need to allow for immaterial interaction to emerge. This special issue of AI and Society aims to identify possibilities and hurdles in such a quest.

Note 1: Castells distinguishes between the space of places and the space of flows that consists of mediated presences and endless data streams which structure the financial, economic and social structures in the global networked society (Castells 1996).