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Paolo Volonté with Laura Curino

Ethics and technology, Theatre meets University

12 July 2022 — 21 minutes read

Inside the historic Piccolo Teatro in Milan, Laura Curino and Paolo Volonté, starting from the story of the play 'Big data B&B', created in collaboration between Piccolo Teatro and Politecnico di Milano, freely converse about the connections and gaps between ethics and technology.

We are guests today at Piccolo Teatro Grassi, this historic hall of Milanese theater, with Laura Curino, on the occasion of the show "Big data B&B," which Laura has written and is staging here at Piccolo teatro di Milano.
We are here, and with Laura, because this is a show that the Polytechnic has co-produced with the Piccolo Teatro, that is, the result of a collaboration between the university and the theater institution. Laura, what did you want to say with this show, on this occasion of collaboration? **

Big data B&B is the title of a show, a show done together with the Piccolo Teatro di Milano and the Politecnico di Milano to discuss technology.
I discuss, because I chat a lot, and the audience listens to me for an hour and a half, about topics that are not easy, but extremely fascinating.
Meanwhile, through you, Paolo Volontè I would like to say upstream thank you for this opportunity, because I didn't know I wanted to tell, before. But the moment this collaboration came into place I started to think so much about the topic and immediately wondered, "What will be the message?" I am always embarrassed, but I have to leave messages, like the classic bottle in the waves. But here it seemed quite clear to me: I wanted to leave questions, I wanted to tell stories, also because that's my skill in life, but above all to close the show by putting in the audience's pocket a series of questions, which then everyone can articulate and answer as they see fit, even very calmly. But here it is, more than a message in the bottle, though, it is one of those little rolls that are caught in the catches at the big fairs; to each one a little roll, I don't know what I left, what question I left for each one, but I am sure we left them with some questions.

This was exactly what we expected and what we hoped would come out of this collaboration with a person, a professional with a completely different way of speaking to the public than the typical Academy, University, scholars. More direct, gripping. Our problem was to make people, ordinary people, our fellow citizens, feel that technology today has become so important in our lives that we have to try to govern it, to master it. We cannot let it govern our lives, and this is something that we realized, in a technological University, perhaps sooner than elsewhere, and we realized that it is okay to develop technology that is always better, always more advanced, always more functional, but we also have to ask ourselves at all times, "Why are we developing it? For what purpose? For whom? For what?" And it is not a given that the for whom or in favor of what, is something good, something useful and something that is good for everyone.

It is true. Meanwhile, both the academy and the performance have a centrality, which is research, on the one hand, and addressing people, on the other. To use dialogue as a place - obviously - of teaching, but also a place of learning, because you learn by researching and you give back by teaching, and this is very similar to what happens in theater. Of course, the linguistic rules are different, it is the language that is different. And maybe there, theater is useful to us because if we have to ask ourselves, "this technology that is so pervasive, that has to do with our daily lives, even where we don't know it and we don't realize it, what focus should it have?" For me, but I think also for a faculty member, it is people, meaning I am here for people. If we forget the centrality of the person within both our process as artists and your process as teachers, the notion doesn't really exist anymore. In fact, the notion of theater is one on one side and one on the other side: if that other is not there, there is no more theater. The teacher is at least one over here, and one over there, if not, the notion of our work does not exist. So I think this partnership of ours, even so divergent on so many points, is very important, just to be able to talk about this, about technology.

I realized that I can talk about it from an artistic point of view, but the great strength right now is precisely the university, because I think that in order to talk about technology I can do-I don't know how to say-I can bring this matter up; within the university (which in theory should be a free institution, then you will tell me if that is always the case), I guess we are the only places where you can think about when, how much, where and for whom is the case. Because otherwise it is obvious how much this new technology is just a huge business, a monstrous business, like a monstrous business was the atomic weapons. Weapons are a place of economics, however there at some point you came to a deal with a technology, deciding where, when, for whom, if it is the case... Even at this moment we are there, we are at that point there. I really appreciated that the university asked me to speak, maybe even to make myself look good, but I have to say that I could not have done it on my own: I am curious about these issues, but I would not have been able to deal with them on my own.

Listen, in this regard I found your way of proceeding really fascinating, I knew how you work, but seeing it up close I realized that you are a researcher, as well as being a playwright and an actress, because you build your shows through a long work of research and investigation. How did you experience this, in the preparation of this play?

Very badly. No, not really badly, however with so much effort. That then at the end one chats so cheerfully, but it was not easy. In the meantime, I take great pleasure in putting my nose in business that doesn't concern me, that's why I'm quite well-known. Industry, science, economics, technology... I really enjoy putting Shakespeare or Goldoni or Pirandello on stage, but as an artist I really have a focus on talking about what's happening to humans now, even through Goldoni, Shakespeare and Pirandello.

I like to study, I like the moment of preparing a work, and studying for that work. Umberto Eco, with an extraordinary text of his, taught me that it was not enough to do the photocopies, but also to read them; so I know that I have to prepare, at least for a year, because in the meantime I also work on something else, I do shows. So generally - especially if I have collaborations, but also if it's a personal production - I start from people first, that is, from interviews. As you saw, the first thing I asked you to do was to organize the dialogue, so that I can have a point of view, I can look for answers where I don't know. There is so much bibliography, I read all these books, I watch all these videos, I can do that. But the hardest questions are the ones that I don't ask myself, that I don't know exist, and in order to ask myself those questions, I have to talk to the people who deal with that very topic. So first thing: interviews, conversations and transcripts, recalling "what did you say?" "You told me this, but what does it mean?" Then I go to the bibliography: partly I ask my collaborators, partly I go and look for it in the bookstore but also in the library, but also online, and this, very elegantly, I call plowing the ground. I can't read it all: some of it I read, some of it a small group of people, who make kind of abstracts, summaries, where they mark the pages I absolutely have to see. And all of this I do without thinking about the show, but just to make sure that when I say that word it means just that, because it's not certain.
In the case of this show I had a lot of fun, because I learned how to write the numbers in binary as well. I know this is going to sound trivial, but I always wondered how translation worked. I wondered with the laziness of going to look it up, and then going to look it up.

So first people, then paper people, and light people (cinema), although cinema is already an elaboration of theory. Finally, if there are other performances, things already done. The first thing, though, is to go and look for conversation. Next I start, with a series of notebooks, but simply because I can't afford one of those huge screens with which to relate all the files, because I need to see the whole: some I can contrast, but in my little screen it makes them too small and I can't see; therefore, I need a comparison of both text and notes. I often put them on the floor, empty a room, open the papers and notebooks on the floor and start walking the text, partly because then on stage I am standing, not sitting behind a desk.

After I've walked the topics, I start to close some books and put them away; I won't need them anymore, and in that technology is so present in all the actions of our lives that it would have been too much, and from there on, perhaps, the writing of the text begins. But first the journey is all this, which ends by walking with all the texts, either on the floor or on big tables, which I close by saying, "This one not, this one not, this one not." I would like to - one time maybe film it - when I do this: they say it's nice to see, as I walk the texts. And then if you want I tell you how I make them up, though maybe later. In fact I ask you, "how do you do it? You guys how do you do it?" I'm not saying to prepare a lecture because that's not exactly what I wanted to ask, but Paolo Volontè META, which is referred to as the humanities unit of the Politecnico di Milano, do you feel like explaining how it happened? It is a question I never asked you, how did you aggregate around this name that is also very beautiful? META, meta-verse, this translation of meaning.

We didn't actually aggregate around the name META, but we aggregated and then gave ourselves a name, as it always happens. We gave ourselves this name and regularly people ask us, but META would stand for? Actually it is not an acronym, but it simply means "to go beyond," because the idea is this: we aggregated with the idea of bringing together those skills that are inside the Politecnico di Milano, of people who go beyond or stop on the side of the development of technology, scientific and technological research and from the outside look at them. That is, from the outside they reflect on what scientific and technological research is doing, how it is doing it, what the processes are, where it is going. In fact, it's not a humanities and social studies unit, but it's a humanities and social studies unit on science and technology, that is, we don't collect humanities like a humanities department inside a technology university might do, but we collect those scholars who stop and think about science and technology. Our goal is for these skills to grow inside a technological university like Politecnico di Milano, which wants to be a leader among technological universities around the world. We want this expertise to grow and become part of the DNA, as much as mathematics, or science-technology skills properly so called. That's kind of our goal, and that's where our idea came from to try, through the vehicle of the theatre show, to engage, channel and transmit these ideas.

Well, this is to say that META means to put together a lot of academics. I'll give you some acronyms however it's beautiful that it's called META really, it's just beautiful. But it's also true that you are not only humanities scholars, by the way, because I also met computer scientists and technology people there. I won't name all of them because there are really a lot of them, however, they were really helpful to me, each in their own field. In the show, of each one I put an idea, a suggestion, a thought, a story. I remember when I asked an academic, "Tell me a story," he was always a little embarrassed. " How a story?" "What story?" But then the stories came up anyway. There were those who were with me who were much more positive in their vision of the future, some more problematic, some bleak, but I have to say dark altogether none, that is, I had no anxieties on my shoulders, even though the topic-I say this even in the show-is treated very often in a dystopian way, right?

Big Data. This universe, more and more, is treated in a catastrophic, bleak, dark way... there is, rather than a cinematography, a series of small screen movies of a dark science fiction, where I don't want to go.
None of the people I met, perhaps because I met scientists, were particularly negative on the subject. I must say, however, I also found people within the academy who did not see the problem, that is, very detached from the idea that on this wonderful new world, where you can make, invent and improve life, there was the slightest problem to discuss. Even, hyper-super optimistic. I think the scientist a little bit has to be like that. Because he can't at first put problems and have too many people in that head. If you are the scientist, the critic ... too many people, you have to do your work.

But I have to say that, as a very normal person, I take great comfort that there is a unit of people who think whether that thing is compatible with life or not, that's it. Compatible with humanity, with not turning us into willing humans to be manipulated from the outside, either by machines or through machines, which is maybe even more likely.

You are absolutely right that it is not possible to put too many different minds inside the same head. However, our goal is that the engineer, the technologist of the future, who is increasingly a political entity in the sense that increasingly the choices of today's engineers, when they write their code strings, determine how we will live tomorrow. They are political choices because they determine people's lives, in part of course. Well, then what we would like is that at least back here, in the back of the brain, the sensitivity for the question "where does this lead?" remains inside. Because the scientific and technological culture is about separating the problems of life: you have to be able to focus on the technical problem in order to solve it well, otherwise we don't go to the moon, we only go if we solve all the problems one after the other, breaking them up and dealing with them in a technical way. But if then the result is the rocket that instead of taking us to the moon brings the bomb on our heads, then there is some problem. Then if the engineer from the beginning had the sensitivity inside his head to ask himself this question, perhaps the presence of technology in our lives would be less disturbing, let's say.

Less disturbing, true. I have to say that I have met several, that is, several engineers who pose the problem. I ask, "Isn't the problem upstream?" There is a need to build a university that poses the problem, that poses both the engineer and the humanist, that is, that makes this relationship visible, concrete and regulated. Because what I seemed to see is an objective separation between subjects, disciplines that even when there is - and there is - the engineer, a reflecting technology, cannot do it there, that' s it. What's interesting is if from the very beginning there were, I don't know if you can call them departments, don't make me say the exact diction because I don't know, but if from the very beginning, instead of separate compartments - and that's what the show says - they were provided, even regulated, even spatially, a space-time for people to meet on this subject. It might very well be that a humanist has problems and so does the engineer, but if there is no space-time for them to meet, then that does not happen. This is what interested me about the proposal of the Politecnico, because a show like the one we did here is a space and time for these issues to meet and talk with political and social subjects. This is powerful, because it happens. Launching the issue and then not finding the space; I mean, where do you publish? Where do you publish an engineer who raises ethics issues, where do you publish an ethics professor who wants to talk about algorithm engineering? I mean how do you do that?

You touched on an absolutely fundamental point, which is also what we are trying to do with META. As you were saying before you met engineers and other personalities, that is, META is an interdisciplinary network, and one thing we are doing is trying to include young scholars, philosophers and sociologists inside the research team of engineers, so that there is this physical space and time that is not a momentary intersection (as perhaps the evening at the theater can be): it is a life, a common professional growth, and this is what we are trying to do.
And so then what dramaturgical solutions have you found to deal with this issue, which I imagine is very difficult?

It is, in fact I even risked not doing it, because at one point I said "no, too much," but then I'm stubborn.
So, at first I thought I could get away with a shortcut: I do a minimalist show, modern, images, you know? A shortcut of those just (simple)... music, video, images... a multi-lingual show that means not talking about anything. But maybe it's emotionally beautiful too, though, right? Then - and you witnessed this - at one point I thought, "I'm going to set it all in a casino," these slot machines, this lottery, almost life bets, right? What's going to come out? This anxious betting... But it's not true that technology is; there is also this in contemporary technology. Usually in the casino the casino and the state wins. In contemporary technology, in some areas only the casino is likely to win, and sometimes only the state. Either politics or business.

So that wasn't good, that wasn't true, that's not the case. So I thought of the amusement park, that is, a place of great support of the mood of humanity, right? The creation of playful societies where everyone is manipulated from the outside, by the big ride maker, by the owners of the rides, however, you're not so bad, right? It makes your cotton candy; if you're a very energetic or moral one who needs the big scares you go down the roller coaster or you go inside the mirrors, and the life of humans is big roller coaster thrills, big cotton candy binges, music ... that's also a kind of society we could expect, all kind of asleep, whether with sugar or something else will depend on what they bring out. But this also really seemed to me, how shall I put it? Whip like image. I couldn't find...

And then the resolution for me was when I said, "but where do you live?". I live more in B&Bs (before the pandemic) than at home. Where do I live? I live in this one that looks a little bit like a circus, a little bit like a mess, because I never know if I'm going to end up in one that's really like the pictures or if it's going to be ... and every time it's a little bit of a gamble, but it involves my life. There have been places that I've had to sleep with my cap on, and they were 4 stars, where they would say, "I'm sorry ma'am, you know, our boiler broke". This dare where you have some indication, a very widespread environment, very much of a contemporary economy, which is no longer the key cabinet.

From there I then thought about the key cabinet. One thing that has disappeared in hotels, there is no longer a key cabinet. First because there are no more keys, but we have cards; second because there is no more mail. In the key cabinet the concierge used to put letters, and now there is no more. It has completely changed the way we experience the elsewhere, which is not home, but it is the elsewhere. And I came up with this lady who opens a B&B near the university: this lady has a personal secret that she doesn't want to talk about, and she has taken herself off any online medium (Facebook, e-mail, etc.). She doesn't want to know anything about technology anymore, but she has her friend's daughter, who is a device enthusiast instead, run the B&B, and she has entrusted all the technological management of her business to this girl. She hosts all the people who have to do with the web in some way, so both scientists and sociologists and anthropologists - and everything you just described to me - and free from management - because Fabrizia takes care of that - she can devote herself to her second passion, which is making herbal concoctions. Concoctions for which she has no expertise, simply the expertise that all of us can have by flipping through a book, remembering memories of aunts, and so on. And these concoctions, these mixes, some of them even efficient for goodness sake, have become a metaphor - not even that subtle - for what can be done with these tools if left at the mercy of a madwoman like this lady.

Of course, the lady only has these little herbs of hers; she can't do much further damage. But through that metaphor and what happens to her, and what her guests, who are good people instead, are telling her, I tell a lot of stories to the audience. All these stories have to do with big data, AI, machine learning, automated judgmental systems, and everything else that now populates our lives. And it's curious: while with the others the ideas I would come up to a certain point and then I couldn't go on, - I don't know if this also happens when you do a film script - she at one point took the keyboard. She was writing herself. For the others I was struggling; she started writing herself, to the point that at a certain point I said "now shut up" because I couldn't make her do everything. But as you know, though, the first text was very long. And she wrote with a speed, at that point, that amazed even myself, a speed that, to finish it, I had to tie myself to the chair like Alfieri. Because after a while it was written, but then you had to clean it up, and I couldn't handle it anymore, I didn't feel like it.

I don't know if it happens to you that in the final broadside you don't feel like it anymore. So I even made sure to turn off the heat, cover myself a lot to work in the cold, saying "until it's finished you don't get up from here," and that I did.
She at one point took the voice and started to write, but she is such a person, she is one that just works, right? What do I know what's in my herbal teas, they do their job, as long as it works.

As long as it works, maybe the moral of this show lies in that, that we have to stop being satisfied that it works, that our computers work, that the web platforms we use work. We need to start thinking about how they work, why they work and what is behind them.

Yes, in the show I say, "they have to work well," period, pause "and well for everyone." When you do a staging you want to say a certain number of things, then when you do a meeting with the audience, the audience understands other things, but it's fine. I've been working with Lucio Diana, the set designer, for a long time, and he has interpreted very well the business of the key cabinet, which is no longer the key cabinet, but becomes a kind of place, that is, a checkerboard, a bookcase, like a Chinese bookcase, the ones that are extremely regular, and in each one there are left-overs from a person. For the scientist, there's a scientific model, there's a computer; in another there's a piggy bank for a particularly thrifty guy, but that one is like, a summary of the humanity that goes through there. And that humanity has to be the center of thinking, it has to work well and it has to work well for everybody.

These new technologies have a lot of power: in Lucio Diana's scene there is also a spiral staircase, ascending, which I asked him about because this theater goes very high compared to the width. I asked him, "we have to be able to go up visually and there has to be an elsewhere, an outside that is high up so that she is kind of holed up in the house." Well, someone in the audience - and I'm glad about this - but there was no such intention, but it's beautiful that they said that, read the spiral staircase as a DNA spiral. That is, the need to save human fundamentals. Always, through any transformation, without being afraid of change, without wanting to be people. The lady at one point says, "I don't want to go back to fetching water from the well, I'm not a Luddite but it's time to get our act together on these matters."

There would be so much more to say, I would have so much curiosity about what is going on at the Politecnico right now. I would like to open the doors of those laboratories, and I hope to have another opportunity, but what I hope most is that this partnership, which starts on so many fronts, not only on the show - because I have seen that there are so many initiatives in that direction - has had in the show a droplet of energy and courage as well. I hope I have made a show that people enjoy listening to: my goal is that people leave with more energy than when they came in.

I certainly think so, I saw it and I enjoyed it very much and I think and I am convinced that people come out with more energy, with more awareness and with more thoughts in their heads as well.
I thank you very much Laura and there will certainly be some other occasion to collaborate.

Thank you Paolo, you closed the ending for me because I wanted to say "well then let's do another one." Thank you and good work.

Same to you!