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A tussle between the past and the future

Sumona Chakravarty
Sumona Chakravarty | © Sumona Chakravarty

My first experience at the Kultur Symposium at Weimar took me back 100 years into the past as I immersed myself in the newly inaugurated exhibition on the Bauhaus school. In 1919 Weimar was going through a period of upheaval as Germany recovered from the battle scars of World War 1. A group of architects, artists and intellectuals set up the Bauhaus School as a pathway for building a new society, where the modern man would leverage technology to improve their lives, art and science would create a more effective and aesthetic world and design would be accessible to everyone. In the 20 years that followed the school eventually shut down while in parallel the Nazi party grew stronger and co-opted the idea of a perfect modern man to violently exclude those who did not fit their ideals.

By Sumona Chakraborty

The streets around the new Bauhaus Museum reflected these two contradicting faces of modernism, and were lined with portraits of the survivors of the concentration camps near Weimar, provoking us to think about what the visionary Bauhaus leaders were doing as the Jews were paraded down the streets. I wondered how such a progressive movement, could coexist with the rise of fascism?
These questions brought me sharply back to our 2019 gathering of progressive writers, artists, designers, journalists, activists, policy experts in the halls of the Kultur Symposium next door. 100 years after Bauhaus we too are in a time where opposing forces and ideas are coexisting. Like the Bauhaus members we too seem to be in a bubble, alienating many with our strongly held views, and becoming more of a minority. While this thought was disheartening, at the end of the three days of the Symposium, being in this utopic bubble and soaking in voices and perspectives from around the world, left me energized and excited to come back to Kolkata and reinforce our efforts to break echo chambers, and bring conversations about global issues back to our local communities.
In Kolkata, I run a community arts organization called Hamdasti, where we connect artists to communities to develop collaborative art projects that create spaces for dialogue and engagement. At first the conversations at the symposium around speculative futures, AI and data privacy and autonomy seemed too far removed from the lanes and bylanes of Chitpur, where we work. But a day into the symposium, it started becoming clear how the issues that plaguing our rapidly evolving technology landscape are the same issues that are we all feel intimately as are a part of our everyday lives and our lived histories.
Concerns around who is shaping the future takes us back to the concerns around who has access to technology. Concerns about the pitfalls of AI are rooted in everyday lived experiences of racism and misogyny, while whether we protect our data and autonomy is dependent on our agency and ongoing engagement as citizens in protecting our democracies.
At the opening keynote Anab Jain, a designer and futurist from the UK and India, spoke about using interactive storytelling to create alternate visions of the future, and using speculative design to shape policy and decision making. Nanjira Sambuli, from World Wide Web Foundation Kenya, however highlighted the challenges of making technology accessible to all so that we can all have the capacity to take control of narratives around the future of technology and its impact on our communities.
There were several eye-opening panels on AI, a particularly alarming one around AI powered killing drones. While I started off by wondering how our work on the ground in communities could have anything to do with AI, ultimately, once again the problems of AI seemed very much rooted in problems faced by communities in their lived experience- racism, misogyny, unequal access to technology and participation in democracy and decision-making. Panelists pointed out how AI is being shaped with white, male, western scientists and how as a result inheriting and exacerbating the racial and gender biases existing today. They also highlighted the how the power imbalances at a geopolitical level are shaping the development and use of AI.
Control of individual data and its manipulation to reduce the autonomy of citizens by authoritarian and right-wing governments was another issue that was discussed at length. The role of journalism, art and activism was highlighted as a way to counter this manipulation, with many inspiring examples of projects on the ground that are resisting and subverting authoritarianism. These efforts seemed small, but provided reason for much needed optimism.
After each panel, the participants and speakers alike gathered over food in the backyard of the abandoned tram station where the symposium was organized, and that’s when the conversations got even more interesting. These meals provided a rare opportunity to engage with participants from African, Asian and South American countries, as the voices from these regions are rarely amplified. It was especially meaningful to connect with participants from Bangladesh and Pakistan, given the vitriol of the past election, and we helped each other unpack the results and the aftermath.
The conversations continued right upto the train station as we left this small city that seemed to hold the problems and solutions of the world. My last conversation was with a music teacher from Frankfurt who was discussing how the symposium made him hopeful as it showed that we can start correcting the power imbalances by creating such forums that at least start to privilege diverse voices. Finally, the connection between rapid technology changes and the micro problems in our own communities was clear to me- at the end of the day it is ultimately about power, and redistributing power, wherever we work, in whichever capacity.
Looking back, the Kultur Symposium at Weimar was a tussle between the past and the future, optimism and pessimism. While we were deeply engaged in conversations about the future and the evolution of technology, we also listened deeply to speakers who unpacked how the problems and inequalities of the past and present continue to be exacerbated by emerging technologies. While speakers wanted no time mincing words about how technology is deepening the racism, misogyny and inequalities we face today, they were also compelled to examine how by shifting the centres of power we could harness the same technology for a better future.