Summary Presence and the Design of Trust (5000 words UK)

Designing presence in environments in which technology plays a crucial role is critical in the current era when social systems like law, education, health and business all face major challenges about how to guarantee trustworthy, safe, reliable and efficient services in which people interact with, and via, technology. The speed and scale of the collection and distribution of information that is facilitated by technology today demands a new formulation of basic concepts for our modern societies in terms of property, copyright, privacy, liability, responsibility and so forth. The research question assumes that presence is a phenomenon that we have to understand much better than we currently do.

The title of this dissertation “Presence and the Design of Trust” reflects the inspiration as well as the outcome of the research that is presented here. The research itself was focused on the design of presence. The question that guided the study was “How can presence be designed in environments in which technology plays a crucial role?”. I argue that presence as a phenomenon is influenced by technology, and that social structures that rely on presence will therefore be affected by technology as well. One of the major findings is the fact that the design of presence relates to the design of trust in social interaction. This study does not elaborate on trust as such but it establishes the connection between the design of presence and the design of trust.

In this study presence is understood as a phenomenon that is part of human interaction. The nature of being with another person in a certain place, at a certain time, involved in a certain action is undergoing change because of the fact that technology mediates, contributes, accelerates, controls and/or facilitates communication. The broad spectrum of information and communication technologies that mediate presence facilitates acting, connecting, witnessing and being witnessed in other places at other times.

While conducting the research I found that I needed to make trust operational from the pragmatic and normative perspective of individual human beings. I have chosen to use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it was was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 (United Nations, 1948). Even though the universality of the declaration has been contested since 1948, the text constitutes the only secular instrument that has functioned for over 50 years as a normative reference point for the quality of well-being of people around the world. It is part of the international political discourse as a mechanism of protection for human dignity as well as a tool of empowerment that helps people to realize their rights and articulate their suffering. Information and communication technologies have an impact on the realization of Human Rights (Hamelink 2000). I have taken the position that for trust to develop human rights have to be respected. The fact that human beings act to secure their survival and their well-being will prove to be crucial in constructing the argument that I present here. Therefore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been chosen as the essential normative perspective for the quality of social interaction, and thus for the potential building or breaking down of trust.


“Presence and the Design of Trust” is based on the analysis of two exploratory case studies of networked events, the Galactic Hacker Party and the Seropositive Ball, which took place in Amsterdam in 1989 and 1990 respectively, and in which I was personally involved as initiator and producer. A networked event entails a gathering of people in a physical space, and also these people and others who are not actually present in the same physical space gather together in an online environment. This study draws upon multiple sources, and it uses literature and methodologies from a variety of disciplines, and in this regard this study has chosen social theory as its context (Giddens 1984).

When I commenced this academic study I had already conducted extensive research into the design of presence from a variety of non–academic perspectives and professional roles. I wanted to bring to the surface the implicit knowledge that I had acquired throughout the course of these experiences. I identified three research concepts that helped me to embed the earlier non–academic work into this academic study: parresia (Foucault 1983), text laboratory (Latour 2005) and techno–biography (Henwood et al 2001). Parresia, a concept that was elaborated upon by the Greeks in the classical era, involves the revealing of truth through a process of revealing truth to oneself. The text laboratory aims to contribute to social sciences by doing experiments through rigorous writing and describing, which triggers new writing and describing, to reveal unexpected links and connections. In a techno–biography the researcher analyses the former self, possibly with the help of original texts written by the former self and/or archives and artefacts from that time.

Both in the data gathering and in the analysis these three concepts, and the classical features of an exploratory case study (Yin 2003), have been interwoven into one iterative research design, which has facilitated my professionally acquired knowledge to contribute to the academic context of this study. As a result, this study proposes a conceptual framework to support the analysis and the design of presence in social interaction.


The amazing acceptance of the variety of technologies that facilitate the mediation of presence and generate the multiple presences that people are confronted with in their day–to–day lives is taken as a starting point for this study. It appears that the ‘presence’ of the other person and the ‘presence’ of one self can be mediated in such a way that this is accepted or rejected as ‘real’ presence within the context of social interaction. After discussing the current research into presence in the military, in industry, in the commercial realm, in the arts and in European policy making, I have concluded that presence research is a science of trade–offs (IJsselteijn 2004), and presence design is characterized by trade–offs as well. In the trade–off of presence design I have identified three basic dynamics that interact, construct and confuse the sense of presence of the self and also the sense of presence of other human beings. Natural presence, mediated presence and witnessed presence (which occurs in natural and also mediated presence) each trigger certain dynamics and influence the perception and understanding of the other presences.

A communication process that uses multiple presences is not a linear process. Time, space, action and the meeting of other people continually alter the shape of the process. Through the different configurations an image of the situation emerges, upon which a person will base his, or her, next actions. Any perceived presence, mediated or not, can mark a moment of significance in a chain of events or in a communication process. Therefore, at the start of this study I harboured the assumption that all presences and their hybrids may be equally significant to a human being in orchestrating his or her life. This assumption has been severely challenged by the research I carried out. I first formulated these three presence dynamics more profoundly and these are summarized below.

Natural presence: the quest for well-being and the drive for survival
A human being’s body, which is present at a certain moment in a certain place, defines its natural presence and this is perceived by the body itself and/or its environment. Human beings strive for well–being and survival; they want to avoid pain. This process takes place on three levels of consciousness (proto, core and extended consciousness), from the level of the cell to the organism as a whole (Damasio 1999). The sense of presence is part of human evolution and plays a crucial role in helping people to survive; it helps to distinguish between the self and the environment, between the different relationships in the environment and between imaginary events and what is actually happening. On each level of consciousness the sense of presence operates. When all levels of consciousness collaborate a maximum sense of presence is the result (Riva, Waterworth and Waterworth 2004). People make a trade–off between the multiple presences they perceive when constructing the reality upon which they will act. The claim that technology enhances the quality of natural presence is as viable as the claim that it is threatened by technology. The ‘new’ confusion between perception and deception, between truth and lies, between real and unreal in societies where technology is embedded and media are everywhere influences people’s natural presence profoundly.

Mediated presence: transcending boundaries of time and place
Human beings have been mediating presence for as long as humankind has existed. When they are moving around people leave trails of footprints, shelters and other signs that they ‘have been here’. For centuries people have mediated presence consciously by telling stories, making drawings, sending messengers and writing books. Via technology people can now mediate their presence to other places in real time. Via radio, mobile phones, Internet and TV we perceive other people’s presence in a variety of ways. In this study I do not focus on the media–industry and the way it operates; I focus on social interaction between people from the perspective of an individual human being. Even when it is possible to meet in real life, people regularly choose the partial perception of another person that mediated presence offers. In mediated presence one does not have to use all senses and one does not have to address the cognitive, emotional and social structures that usually have to be confronted in a physical encounter.

Through using information and communication technologies people develop media schemata that help them to operate and understand the machines, help them to accept the mediated presence of other people and help them to distinguish the one ‘agreed’ reality from the other. Media schemata are particular to a certain time and place, to a certain generation of people and to different social groups. When involved in mediated presence, processes of attribution, synchronization and adaptation take place all the time (Steels 2006). Because the senses have limited input and output in mediated presence — it is not the context but generally the connection itself that matters — these processes of attribution, synchronization and adaptation can become very powerful.

Witnessed presence is a catalyst for good and bad
The perceived presence of other human beings plays a crucial role in the social organization of communities in natural presence as well as of communities in mediated presence. Witnessed presence influences natural presence and mediated presence. An action that is witnessed becomes a deed. That is why ‘witnessing’ is an important action in social life. Witnessing, being witnessed and witness reports are part of the negotiation of trust and truth between people in communities, organizations and societies. Throughout evolution people have changed shape in each other’s eyes. ‘The other’ has acquired more and more identities over time. In general terms it is clear that the variety of divisions of labour, the development of science and technology, urbanization and globalisation have changed how people perceive each other.

A crucial distinction in the diversity of other human beings we perceive is between those who we have a relationship with and those we do not know (Buber 1923). The relationship that we have, or do not have, with another person defines how we will orchestrate our own presence. I argue that witnessing the presence of other people, as well as being witnessed, influences the sense of presence of the self. Witnessed presence causes an acceleration in what occurs next; it can generate more that is ‘good’ and also more that is ‘bad’. It functions as a catalyst.


The Galactic Hacker Party explored ‘The Computer as a Tool for Democracy’ and connected the international hacker practice to scientific and political debates about the evolving information society. The Seropositive Ball was about ‘Living with HIV and AIDS’ and aimed to shatter the silence and social exclusion surrounding people living with HIV and AIDS, for which there was not yet a cure at the time, while many young people were dying. The Seropositive Ball connected Dutch national and international political movements, self–help organizations, health institutions, policy makers, artists, scientists, people in hospitals and many who were touched by or concerned about AIDS. In the Galactic Hacker Party electronic networks that already existed and the fledgling Internet were used and demonstrated. The Seropositive Ball utilised a variety of media and created its own network, which was also linked to existing networks.

Both networked events were produced and staged by Paradiso, a music venue with a distinct international reputation located in the heart of Amsterdam. Over the years Paradiso has developed a methodology, which I will discuss in this study, whereby it nurtures the direct experience of the artist as well as that of the audience. When organizing a networked event, in which a new sense of place is meant to come into existence, dramaturgical laws not only have to be applied to performance elements of the show, but also to the possible contributions of participants in the networked event. They will influence what happens and invent things that cannot be foreseen.

The basic dynamic of both events was influenced by the experience of multiple presences in Paradiso and of mediated presence for people outside Paradiso. Natural presence and also mediated presence were witnessed. Natural presence, witnessed presence and mediated presence were perceived in connection with each other, and in the experience of the event these presences ‘merged’ and influenced the ‘reality’ of the other experienced presences.

By focusing on brief moments of perception and by drawing on my experience as the producer of these events, through acts of parresia and the writing in the text laboratory, which was then contrasted with the more than 2000 documents that were archived in a techno–biographical manner, I conducted an analysis from four different perspectives. A primary analysis consists of reflections in which I share and elaborate upon insights that I acquired as the producer of these events. A secondary analysis deals with the clash between intention and realization that every actor has to deal with. A third analysis concerns the collaboration between people of different disciplines, skills, interests and cultures. The fourth analysis focuses on what can be formulated about natural, mediated and witnessed presence given the research done.

1. Reflections
In the reflections on the Galactic Hacker Party the conveying of trust between people in natural presence and in mediated presence, and also the trust people have in the technology, was an issue both during the production and the execution of the event. To address this problem, the notion of the ‘social interface’ surfaced. This is a person who bridges different realms of time, place, relations and networks, and who is dramatically positioned to be able to convey trust. The fact that ‘words act’ in digital technology made me realize profounder questions about the influence of technology on identities. I realized that in the first instance human beings deal with technology as actors. The notion of the ‘thinking actor’, who will use whatever works, became crucial in the development of the argument I set out in this study.

In the reflections that evolved from the text laboratory on the Seropositive Ball, the idea of ‘vital information’ was elaborated upon. In this event technology was used without hesitation because the interface was easy and beautiful and the need to find good information was a matter of life and death at the time. Information is ‘vital’ only in the exact time–place configuration where the receiving person is physically located and it has to provide this person with the opportunity to act. A person will only do this when he or she rightly or wrongly trusts what he or she receives. One of the ways to create trustworthy vital information is to gather what I formulated as ‘the crucial network’: thus everyone and everything that has contributed to the state of affairs and everyone or everything that has the potential to change the status quo has to be present. Orchestrating the crucial network involves the shaping of the space between the different disciplines, skills, interests and cultures. Collaboration in a crucial network requires a perspective that is shared by all and which has the capacity to synchronize natural and mediated presence and provides the catalyst effect of witnessed presence with a direction (which in certain conditions can also cause counter–directions).

2. Thinking actors
Being involved in a networked event, and any day in our regular lives can be considered a networked event, creates an unavoidable clash between intention and realization. This clash occurs physically, emotionally and cognitively and this clash provokes our ‘thinking’ as actors. The word ‘thinking’ refers to the fact that people are confronted with a discrepancy, which evolves from the clash between intention and realization, and which they have to resolve. In mediated presence concepts of causality change because the connection provides the context. The context offered by a place with an embedded culture has disappeared. Context, and especially local and implicit knowledge, can hardly be mediated. Mediated presence does contribute information that influences the mental maps that people have of a certain situation and it can influence how people may adapt this map following such a clash.

The emotional clash between intention and realization appears to be much more profound and significant than I had realized before I conducted this study. Emotions, basic feelings of pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, about what is good for life or bad, guide a human being towards well–being and survival on different levels of consciousness. This includes not harming others, which leads to the assumption that human ethics are grounded in emotions and the more elevated feelings like compassion, love and solidarity, which people acquire over time (Damasio 2003). In mediated presence the personal ethical experience is not as profound because mediation involves a limited sensorial experience. Strong feelings and emotions that may be triggered through mediating presence do not inform the body of how best to act to ensure well–being and survival. I conclude that when issues of an ethical nature are confronted, natural presence offers a better understanding upon which one can act towards ensuring well–being and survival because the sense of presence can be maximized.

3. On collaboration and incommensurability
For the accomplishment of an act, an actor is dependent of the work of other actors. When collaborating incommensurability (a fundamental not sharing of an understanding) between practices is a factor that has to be overcome for acts to be successful. Actors share terrains of incommensurability and terrains of commensurability. Project management, meta–cognitive skills, boundary objects and a shared perspective help in this. In communities of practice, taxonomies are built that represent conceptual schemes that define how actors act. In this context an act cannot be true or false. It is a result of the being–in the world that a taxonomy provides (Kuhn 2000). In the community that an actor operates in multiple mediated presences contribute to the evolving taxonomies, which influence and are a consequence of the way actors interact. Mediated presence contributes to the evolving taxonomies in communities in which witnessed presence plays a crucial role. I conclude that especially when vital information is generated mediated presence contributes significantly to the capacities that natural presence provides,
When actors have conversations about ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’, these also include the ‘what would be good to do’ and this is a question of an ethical nature (Pols 2004). I therefore argue that when questions arise, which also have ethical implications, people need to meet in natural presence. When people brainstorm, innovate, find solutions and evaluate, their personal ethical experience in natural presence, and the embodied presence of power positions, interests, disciplines and skills, contribute more significantly to the outcomes than a meeting via mediating presence could provide. Mediated presences add to taxonomies and these may reflect the shared ethics in a certain community, but they do not offer such a rich personal and collective ethical experience as natural presence does when having to invent or adapt to situations.

4. On presence
Natural presence is distinct and grounds ethical behaviour in one’s own, as well as other people’s, survival. Mediated presence can provide vital information and significant communication. Through social interaction, witnessed mediated presence may contribute to taxonomies of communities of practice. The dynamics of witnessed presence create grounds, rightly or wrongly, for trust to build up or to break down. Witnessed presence in mediated communication does not trigger a sense of responsibility and respect for human dignity in the way that this happens in natural presence.

Before analysing the case studies I was inclined to think that we, as human beings, were dealing with multiple presences that each have their own reality and are of equal importance because the experience of each presence can be very immersive. By carrying out this study I came to realize that all presences are ultimately rooted in natural presence. Without natural presence, no mediated presence or witnessed presence can be received or generated. To be able to partake in mediated presence one needs to have enough physical and psychological energy, access to financial and technological infrastructures and attention. It is the different natural presences that are mediated by mediated presences. Mediated presence has to be comprehensible and acceptable to the natural presence where it is received, and the mediator has to have confidence that what he/she mediates will convey what is intended. Competent intercultural communication between natural presence contexts is indispensable for mediated communication to succeed. Catharsis is bound to natural presence, to have spent time here, now and with you. The fact that in natural presence the personal ethical experience is most profound, makes natural presence distinct.

Through mediating presence one can reach out to another human being in different time/space configurations, which is often not possible in natural presence alone, and people really appreciate this. When connecting in mediated presence, only elements of the human being can be mediated. Input is not output; only bits are exchanged. People can handle this very well because they contextualize and attribute missing elements to the communication. Mediated presence is edited and framed by the technology and it is also edited and interpreted within these frameworks by people using the technology. Mediated environments that offer both information and communication facilities are attractive. The more layers of consciousness that can be addressed, the stronger the presence experience. Previous knowledge and opinions (including prejudices), media schemata and processes of attribution, synchronization and adaptation define how people receive and contextualize the mediated presences they perceive. Other media also influence the media schemata of a particular mediated presence. Mediated environments contribute to the taxonomies of communities. When mediated presence generates vital information, it can add elements to natural presence which natural presence otherwise would not have possessed. Vital information creates the bridge between mediated and natural presence in a very convincing way.

Through witnessing each other, in mediated and in natural presence, people construct shared realities. Witnessing in natural presence and witnessing in mediated presence have different effects. Witnessing in natural presence changes the situation because the witness can also decide to act on his or her behalf. Also, the witness can change the nature of an action by testifying about it. For an act to exist in natural presence it has to be witnessed because the act itself elapses. Being seen, having certain interests or shared feelings recognized (without the social judgment and/or limitations that may be part of natural presence) is a powerful trigger for contributing to mediated environments. In mediated presence, which can be endlessly stored and copied by the digital technologies, acts do not have to disappear, which diminishes the need to testify.
In natural presence, being a witness includes having a responsibility for what happens subsequently and people sense this. In mediated presence the responsibility for what happens next is more limited and often people do not sense that they can or need to influence what happens next, they just enjoy being seen.

YUTPA (chapter 6)
The question in all social interaction is whether people will treat each other with the respect that their human dignity requires. In natural presence this is already problematic. In mediated presence, where responsibility is much more difficult to sense and act upon, this is even more so. As a result people adopt a moral distance towards others, towards their own actions and even towards themselves. Adopting a moral distance ultimately diminishes the sense of presence, the quest for well–being and the survival of the self.

Because human beings are for the most part thinking actors in their relation to technology, I propose to analyse and design products and processes from a conceptual framework, which I have called YUTPA. YUTPA is the acronym for ‘being with You in Unity of Time, Place and Action’. You, time, place and action can be understood as dimensions that can have different values between You and not–You, Now and not–Now, Here and not–Here, Do and not–Do. The word unity refers to the specific set of relations between these four dimensions that is designed in a certain product or process, which makes certain interactions possible while it excludes others.

To be able to act and receive feedback, and to be able to contextualize how one relates to other human beings, is essential when living in a world full of multiple presences in which the respect for human dignity is at stake. Certain YUTPA configurations of presence design foster respect for human dignity and create a basis for trust to develop, while others clearly do not. In a communication process, in which multiple presences are enacted, a certain YUTPA configuration is built through the multiple presences, which informs the actor in which time/space configuration he relates, or does not relate, to certain people in a certain way, based upon which one can act or not. In the design of information and communication technologies — in its infrastructures, servers, hardware, software and interaction design — a YUTPA awareness that is founded on respect for human dignity should reflect this, for trust to be built up in social interaction.