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Open letter to Dr Solomon Benjamin

Dear Solly,
My attention has been drawn to your post of 28 March on the Sarai Commons-Law mailing list.
I am usually pretty relaxed about criticism. After all, if our events failed to provoke discussion and disagreement, they would be feeble events indeed. One reason I was so happy to be introduced to your work, and then to be able to ask you to come to speak, was that you bring such clarity and sharpness to the issues we set out to understand and discuss.
I am especially sympathetic to your pointed question about “our attempt to constantly map our cities in a un-questioning way”. I raised similar questions myself, before and after Doors 8 – but your doubts are more sharply stated. You are right: we need to think far more critically about the use of cartography and mapping by designers in the context of research and product development.
But one sentence in your posting is upsetting and, frankly, demeaning. You write (about the programme) that it contained “Little on improving corporate accountability though, but then, the sponsors would hardly approve of that topic as a session heading”. The clear implication is that our corporate sponsors were able so to determine the agenda so that nothing that might have discomifted them appeared.
The facts are as follows. First, I did not solicit the approval of our sponsors, or their input, on any aspect of the the programme. The agenda for the Doors 8 programme was determined by me personally according to a policy that has applied very publicly to all Doors events since 1993: corporate agendas (or those of any special interest group, including designers) shall not influence or impinge on the programme in any way, period.
For Doors 8, we did discuss with several companies the content of one pre-conference workshop on “Service Design In Emerging Economies”; this was conceived and executed as a special interest event about business issues; it would have been strange (if not impossible) to prepare it without involving business people. But apart from that one workshop, which was one event among nine days of events, the entire programme was developed independently.
Second, the total amount of money contributed by commercial sponsors to Doors 8 was a rather small proportion of the total costs of the event when the time of staff members is counted in. We wish we had raised a lot more sponsorship. But by far the largest part of the global budget for Doors 8 comprised time and resources donated by the two organisers: the Doors of Perception Foundation, and the Centre for Knowledge Societies.
The suggestion of improper corporate influence is especially damaging considering that the event was only possible because our modestly paid staff colleagues worked 18 hour days for weeks on end. Another success factor in our event was the work, time and enthusiasm of dozens of unpaid student volunteers from Indian colleges and universities.
I am writing to you publicly like this because your comment follows a series of jibes that, until now, I had decided to ignore. During the months before Doors 8, we heard continuous reports of ill-informed chitchat to the effect that Doors was a “commercial” event at the service of corporate interests. The fact that such comments were, are are, totally untrue does not stop them being damaging. They should stop. Hence this letter.
For the record, I am as delighted now as I was a month ago to have discovered your work. The energy and insight you brought to the Doors conference was something special, and helped to make it a fabulous and memorable event. I look forward to inviting you to another Doors event as soon as possible.
With warm regards,
John Thackara

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4 Comments

  1. Solomon Benjamin
    Posted April 8, 2005 at 08:13 | Permalink

    Dear John,
    Thank you for your letter and perhaps an opportunity to open up a much needed debate on the increasingly complex ways of corporate control and how we can strive to maintain autonomy and a sharp political edge in our work, as well as an open discussion space.
    First, I did enjoy DOORs-8 very much, and for the creative energies that it brought forth. I also very much appreciate the hard work put in by: “..our modestly paid staff colleagues worked 18 hour days for weeks on end. Another success factor in our event was the work, time and enthusiasm of dozens of unpaid student volunteers from Indian colleges and universities…”. My posting in the SARAI list, as well as this response does not in any way attempt to de-value those efforts and commitments. I also appreciate your attempt to keep corporate strings to a minimum.
    I would still however, like to maintain the importance of atleast two issues: First, as mentioned both in my presentation and also in my Commons Law posting, the effort to map in the ‘new war’. The second issue relates to increased and subtler forms of corporate control.
    I suspect that what we witness today, reflects increasingly centralized forms of capital and as a way of shaping public opinion and in parallel control new markets, their penetration in the arts, media, and discourse on technological innovation. There are several who focus on the nature of contemporary capital in more effective ways (Chomsky, Souras, Klein, and also Mic Moor), and several on the way these are located in the globalized connections in cities (Sassen).
    Let us consider what you may consider to be a useful session event “Mapping Our Hidden Links” for the next DOORs. The DOORs is terrific since it attracts a range of highly creative individuals and groups involved in cutting edge stuff. If so, can such a session focus attention on the sort of ‘hidden baggage’ that participants may be carrying with them, and explore to what extent these are inter-connected? “Mapping Our Hidden Links” is to map the relatively more hidden financial linkages (institutions, circuits, connections) that fund a particular installation, cases of innovations, experiments, and even urban design initiatives like the Times Square Alliance in NYC. Let us have a group of participants, with the aid of Internet access, ‘google’ their funders to open up their own links into the wider world: A sort of ‘whose connected to whom’ in un-packing corporate connections (see for instance, a bibliography on works on corporation
    http://www.rrojasdatabank.org/tncsbibl.htm; or http://www.theyrule.net/).
    Can the participants in undertaking this task, also reflect on the issue of ‘ownership’ of products created, of patent regimes as applied to them? Here, perhaps having a group of smart (but also politicized) lawyers may be able to help unpack how these subject the ‘creative edge’ to new forms of control and ownership. I am sure in undertaking such a mapping, we will also discover counter-narratives, scams that are often hidden under gloss and media hype. This is not just of the big business, but also of its connections to government too. Based on say an hour’s exercise, we could use an integrative mapping tool to place the various individual maps to see cross linkages to show up groups that gain and also those that loose out.
    Can we take this even one step further? Based on such an interactive exercise, can the participants think about how they might re-frame their installations and approaches to address the newer political realities thy might have realized?
    Let me give you a concrete example based on a 5 minute google search that I undertook while lounging in the SARAI’s ‘contested commons’ conference held in Delhi in January 2005. The current head of NASSOM (ex-head of Citi bank), India’s main IT voice and pushing for strong anti-piracy measures is also listed as ‘one of the ones who got away’, and has his full page photograph set in a wonderful book “The SCAM: Who won, who lost, who got away’ by Debasis Basu, and Sucheta Dalal (Ken Source, 1993,1994, 2001). Incidentally, he is also the nephew of the head of the country’s most well known IT firm, allegedly having bailed out that firm for $200 million in when it faced financial difficulties. On the IPR connection to NASSOM, it’s well known that the largest IT firms use IPR to shape power relationships against their smaller competitors, effectively control surpluses and capture markets.
    If we look deeper into these connections, we will also discover set within a very close circuit of these same actors, funds to use GIS and E-Governance in re-shaping property regimes that again target among other things, the ability of small firms to innovate and gain political autonomy (the topic of my presentation at the DOORs-8 and also SARAI’s Contested Commons). Located in this financial circuits are intuitions that fund media events, installations, and also publishing on women’s issues.
    To emphasize this point, some insights from Bangalore and a recent visit to Bombay: In both cases, we see their a much larger re-structuring of both economy and politics that create new contestations over space. What we also increasingly find, a congruence of financial institutions and circuits that gain substantial profits from access to cheap land, from reframing regulations (planning, property regimes, and IPR) against small firm clusters, and fund increasing corporate control over basic services like water. The use of IPR, forms of GIS and land titling, and “e-governance” are central tools.
    Significantly, and this is my main point, the same institutions also deploy substantial ‘un-tied’ resources to promote ‘art and culture’ events (often hiring ‘PR firms” to help feature these events in the ‘page 3’ type of glossy journalism), funds for architects and urban planners to undertake ‘conservation’, efforts to cultivate the media, and the promotion of elite based ‘civil society initiatives’. Not surprisingly, we see, architects and planners involved in protesting housing evictions, also getting grants to do conservation that effectively removes hawkers from the newly beach-fronts, or then small innovative based firm clusters.
    The media events, promotion of elite based civil society is very effective in shaping public opinion, and in a sense to ‘manufacture consent’. If so, than I suspect, that we will increasingly see forums to discuss technological innovations, ‘best practice’, have in attendance corporate groups to scout out what’s new, and ‘fundable’. Art and media has never been neutral, but to emphasize that unless one specifically addresses the new forms of controls that come with funding, and trace out the ‘backward and forward’ linkages (in the language of economist) one would hardly ever understand the way hidden levers operate.
    I hope this response to your open letter has been convincing to point to larger issues of corporate control (rather than any form of a personal attack). The issues are too great of concern to be caught up in triviality. I would very much look forward to more of DOORs, but also as a way to take on this debate and discussion further onto a more political terrain. Specifically an opportunity to draw via a “Mapping Our Hidden Links” the creative congruence of the participants that I have mentioned above.
    I appreciate your point that DOORs operates on the bare minimum of corporate funding. My argument is that explicit funding to an event is one aspect, but in today’s ‘new war’, it is the subtler forms that may be more all pervasive.
    Cheers
    Solly

  2. Caroline Nevejan
    Posted April 8, 2005 at 12:34 | Permalink

    What Solly Benjamin calls the new war, is in my opinion a very old war and
    over time people, movements and communities have found their ways in dealing
    with this. In my experience I have learned that the hard fight and the
    shaping of life happen at the same time. Also the unveiling of hidden links
    and the creation of new work and new links happen at the same time.
    Sometimes by the same people, sometimes not. But both elements need each
    other as a perspective I think. For good analysis, for keeping an open
    environment, for being able to share knowledge and shape life in our
    communities, we need open space in my experience. An open space where the
    conversation can take place, where the debate can be organized, where
    innovations and interventions supported by many people can evolve. I
    consider political awareness as one of the functions of such a space.
    Politicizing as a goal in itself though, is a dangerous route I have found.
    It will exclude your best allies (family, friends and young people), it will
    dehumanize other people (in this case people who work for companies), it
    will limit the debate within a very short period with the very unproductive
    result of being able to say ‘he is right and he is wrong” and then the wrong
    get excluded and the right can be happy with themselves for being right.
    Living in an Amsterdam community, raising children and taking care, this is
    not a route I want to support.
    The hard work of unveiling the hidden links, of unveiling abuse of power,
    has to happen. But in my opinion it should never want to dominate the
    debate. It is a partner, like many other peoples perspectives. It should
    realize and being honoured for its hard work, and it should know its place.
    Doors of Perception is one of the platforms where people meet unexpected
    others. Here conversations happen like in very few other places, because
    activists and company people partake in a context much broader than the
    usual fights that happen as well. Because a variety of perspectives is
    present young people can contribute. In a globalized fragmented world this
    is utterly valuable. Most people who attend live and work at the edge of
    their daily environments. They dare to come out and participate in the
    debate. Political activists, company people, artists, teachers, students,
    social innovators, philosophers and more. Like we do speed dating at Doors
    we can also invent a game in which the complexity of the network will become
    more transparent. It will be fun and worthwhile, it can never serve a goal
    as to point out who is right and who is wrong. We may find bad trends,
    dangerous hidden links, and great opportunity and than we can discuss where
    to go from there.
    So I strongly belief in the need of open space for conversation between
    unexpected others. The ‘hidden’ links that we all have are part of this
    conversation. I appreciate Solly’s contribution in pointing out how deeply
    connected certain interests may be rooted in our collective (un)conscious.
    It is good to discuss and find out about the dilemma’s and possible
    implications of certain chains of interest. I do think that shaping open
    space is one of the ways to learn about, and possibly attack and/or
    neutralize such influences. This is why I support Doors.

  3. solly benjamin
    Posted April 9, 2005 at 08:30 | Permalink

    rather than get into the definations of being ‘politisized’ and if this should dominate debate or not, I aggree with Caroline the use of playing a small game (that we both refer to, Caroline in her last paragraph): of helping to reveal ‘connections’. I quite aggree that pointing out fingers on whos right and wrong is less important. .. lets play on..! perhaps that will help us to return to the issue of being politisized. Perhaps its may show us how spaces ‘open and close’ and if so, for who.

  4. Tamal Dasgupta
    Posted October 9, 2005 at 21:44 | Permalink

    a debate closed is a debate lost.corporate control over urban space is an inevitability. how does the preexisting culture appropriate the invading affluence?is a space a palimpsest or a pastiche or a tabula rasa?shouldn’t the contact problematics be theorised keeping in view the dialectics of space,sir?
    Tamal,Jadavpur University,Kolkata

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