Serendipity, Sagacity, Politics

An interview with Sebastian Olma about his book In Defence of Serendipity.

On Friday March 31st Sebastian Olma, Amsterdam-based writer and sometime critical consultant for the creative industries, will discuss his new book In Defence of Serendipity at V2_ in Rotterdam. V2_has invited the cultural sociologist Joke Hermes, the political scientist Paul Frissen and the artist Max Dovey to engage with the ideas put forward in Olma’s book. In preparation Arie Altena visited Sebastian Olma at the St. Joost Art Academy in Breda, as Olma is now Professor of Autonomy at the Centre for Art, Design & Technology at the Avans University of Applied Sciences. The interview took place on a beautiful sunny day, early spring, at Olma’s office. Before starting the interview in English they chatted in Dutch about their respective current projects and interests, the culture of the early 1990s, and the recent developments in the field of the creative industries.

Arie Altena: In Defence of Serendipity, For a Radical Politics of Innovation is a book on the creative industries, innovation, creativity and technology. Why did you choose the idea of serendipity as the anchor point for the book, instead of focusing on innovation, invention, or creativity?

Sebastian Olma: Serendipity… It’s an interesting term isn’t it? Many of the terms that circulate in the world of innovation and creativity have been emptied out of their meaning, including innovation, creativity, co-creation, cross-pollination… They have become vacuous signifiers, words that mean nothing. Serendipity is part of this world too, but there seems to be a linguistic peculiarity to the term that makes it somewhat resistant to abuse or misuse. It is a neologism from the middle of the 18th Century and quite peculiar to the English language. People use it in the context of the creative industries, particularly with reference to co-working spaces and creative hubs, it even became a reference in popular films, but if you look at the etymology and how the term evolved, you realise there is more to it than meets the Google-glassed eye. I thought, it’s a term that might resonate with people who are professionally involved in innovative, creative activities, often driven by the desire to make the world a better place – but it hopefully also has enough depth to go beyond the superficiality of the use of language that you often find in these scenes. So constructing my critique of the current innovation practice around the notion of serendipity was really a strategic decision.

In the book you suggest that when the idea of creative industries was first introduced, it did not at all seem to be such a bad idea...

The creative industries as a policy meme or programme was invented at the end of the 1990s in Britain. It was a first attempt to politically react to the immaterialisation of the economy, and a first step to deal with this structural transformation. Who wouldn’t welcome that? It is problematic today because it has become a discourse that seems impossible to change. This is strange. Who would expect policy makers to get it right the first time round when trying to cope with such momentous structural changes? There are a couple of reasons why the discourse around the creative industries is so difficult to change or improve on. At the core of the creative industries discourse is the idea of intercity competition. But if every city is trying to be the most creative and you want to get your creative industries programme assessed, then serious critique is really not wanted. Such critique would be a negative factor for the competitive struggle against other cities. To get their programmes assessed cities hire consultants –I was one of them – who will write more or less whatever is expected from them to write, in order to get paid. That is how the idea of the creative industries as the engine or flywheel of the economy got created. But it’s no such a flywheel – we can all see this. It’s a great problem that in the creative industries theory and practice are set up in such a way that they have become immune to constructive critique. Initially there was a lot of genuine enthusiasm around practices that arose in the context of the creative industries. Interesting experiments were done to transform local economic practices. Take the early co-working experiments. I remember seeing quite exciting places set-up in Berlin, Paris and London. But this has totally changed with the take-over by corporate giants such as WeWork and so on. Now it is just infrastructure provision for the precariat.

Is the immunity to critique reinforced by the fact that politics is increasingly seen as a pragmatic, and solution-driven ‘enterprise’ – instead of a practice focused on the negotiation of differences?

I think that’s the case. Evgeny Morozov talks about solutionism from a technological perspective, but you can apply these ideas to politics as well. There is another element that reinforces the immunity to critique: the deadly combination of technophoria – the almost religious belief in social progress by way of digital technology – and entrepreneurialism. Technophoria finds its apex in the idea of singularity of Ray Kurzweil and others. The focus on entrepreneurialism starts already in the 1980s with the first wave of neoliberal reform, the creative industries have been an incubator to give it a more flashy and hip veneer. The combination of the two is a serious problem for political thinking.

The idea of a technological singularity has always struck me as philosophical very reductive and shallow.

It’s totally bunkers. Ray Kurzweil has this idea that there will be a cosmic moment when digital technology will take over from us: the technological singularity. It does make for good films, but it’s also hilarious. If you entertain this idea the first question to ask is: ‘why would AI’s relation to humanity be benevolent?’ Humanity is quite a destructive force on the planet so why wouldn’t a superior intelligence get rid of it? In the book I attack the notion of technological singularity with the idea of singularity that you find in philosophy, for instance in the work of Bernard Stiegler. Stiegler argues that human being is an open-ended process, and a technological being to begin with. Moreover Kurzweil’s idea of singularity is based on Moore’s Law, which is not a law, but an observation of an exponential growth which seems to have stopped now. To believe in the technological singularity means to leave the process of enlightenment, which I think still is important, though we need to amend it, and bring it in the 21st Century. There are many progressive philosophers who think the human condition in a much more expanded political context that also includes other beings, things, and technology. This requires a complexity of thinking that none of the believers in technological singularity have. They’re nowhere near this complexity. Their thinking is infantile.

I have read your book also as a plea for politics, maybe for good old-fashioned politics as a negotiation of differences. Maybe we are slowly seeing a shift towards such an idea of politics again, now that the business-way of doing politics is culminating with Trump, and those, like Peter Thiel, who believe that big data and smart algorithms will make messy politics superfluous…

Some people have seen Trump as a shift away from neoliberalism, but indeed I think you’re right, it’s not. It’s just a more militant and properly right-wing variation of neoliberalism. Actually it’s neoliberalism without the liberal part. It’s fascinating to think about this, though there is a problem with using the notion of neoliberalism. It is too often taken as a sign for anything one dislikes about the contemporary world. It has become as vacuous a term as creativity or innovation. It is under-defined. Perhaps we could understand it as a form of programming that follows the logic of digital technology on the one hand and entrepreneurialism on the other; that would give us a sort of a workable definition. What you then have is indeed the destruction of politics, particularly of the space of politics as a struggle of ideas about a desirable future. It’s the destruction of the public sphere. The question then becomes: how to invent a new public sphere. For that we can also look at the past, because interesting things have happened. There have been times when the collective imagination was running wild, resulting in great innovations in both culture and technology. We haven’t seen that for quite a while now, although we constantly talk about innovation. The reason that we haven’t seen this is also because the public sphere is in decline, because entrepreneurialism has become so hegemonic. There are much more interesting ways to broaden our collective imagination than being entrepreneurs! Always thinking in terms of solutions to simple problems, or of making products, is extremely reductive. I have nothing against making products, it would be nice if the economy would go forward thanks to exciting and innovative products, but this is not happening. Instead we get totally uninnovative products that cost twice as much just because they are newer. The last iPhone is the prime example. I think it is great if we can use new technologies to create new products, but as Mariana Mazzucato has shown in her book The Entrepreneurial State, it tends to be public money that funds innovation. It usually is state funding that has enabled great product and service innovations, not heroic entrepreneurialism. So to become innovative as a society and economy we need more than entrepreneurialism and quasi-religious belief in technology. We need a public discussion about where we want to go to, and what the future should look like.

In the book you suggest that we are trapped in a state of ‘changeless change’. We are told to update constantly, but nothing really changes. To me it seems that the future promised to us by digital technology is pretty much the same as the future promised to us in 1993, with ubiquitous computing, VR, and location-sensitive information. The shift towards sustainability and post-fossil energy is due since the 1970s. In my personal remembrance the digital ‘future’ that we now live in, was summarised in 15 minutes by Willem Velthoven, in I think 1998 or 99, when he sketched the concept for the new Mediamatic website, ready to be browsed on a wireless mobile device, with GPS, intelligent software agents, profiles, algorithmic relations, tracking, what have you. At the time it seemed obvious and not overly exciting. It was all there. It was really a matter of designing a CMS to be robust and ready for the near future. The implementation was less easy. Now it’s almost twenty years later and we are stuck with Facebook. Indeed it seems that we are unable to truly envision what a future could be. As if there is something blocking that imagination – as you argue in your book. You also bring up the idea of kairos in this respect. Why is it so important, specifically in regard to innovation?

Kairos is one of the Greek terms for time. Kairos is the god who sits at the very tip of the arrow of time, piercing into the future, into the new. There is an interesting relation to serendipity, because Kairos is the god who inspired the proverb 'to take time by the forelock.' Kairos has a shaven head, except for a lock on his forehead. There is no heavy philosophy in my understanding of kairos. Others like Toni Negri have written entire books on it. What I find interesting is: how do you grab the serendipitous moment by the forelock, in order to then pull yourself into the future? One of the great fallacies of the celebration of entrepreneurialism is the idea of taking the future in your own individual hands. In the book I try to show that we cannot all do this. With entrepreneurialism it is almost like the Romantic idea of the genius of the late 18th Century has come back and has been transferred to the economic sphere. People are supposed to pull all the difference that we need for a better future out of themselves. It’s a very reductive understanding of how individuals work, and how innovation works. When everyone thinks the same, looks the same, works in the same environment – which is pretty much the case in the creative industries – and grabs the same moment, then where is this difference going to come from? I am trying to argue against this individualisation. Instead we have to think at the level of society. How do we create infrastructures that allow people to be different, to not just be entrepreneurs? Of course it is wonderful to have great entrepreneurs its just that we have not that many of them around. We are not exposed to what my recently deceased friend, the cultural philosopher Mark Fisher, called a ‘recombinatorial delirium’. He detected such ‘deliria’ in the experimental pop cultures between the 1960s and the early 1990s, when there were quite a few moments of invention in culture. Maybe it makes sense to go back to the pre-neoliberal era and look at what was going on then. Not for reasons of nostalgia, but to see what worked then? And how can we take that in a timely way into the future?

Are we locked in the past without being able to jump into a future?

I think you’re right. Coming back to kairos: the tip of the arrow of time has become blunt, it doesn’t cut anymore into the future. Radical philosophers like Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi talk about the loss of future. Is it possible to lose the future? In the book I try to show that the image of Silicon Valley has become so dominant and hegemonic for our thinking about the future that it almost blocks our view. There can be no question that Silicon Valley once was a hotbed of innovation. The point is how did it emerge as the centre of technological and economic innovation? If you look at the history of Silicon Valley you see that two serendipitous cultures converged here. On the one hand the cybernetic war- and postwar research in all the cybernetic research labs, with researchers like Norbert Wiener. They were endowed with massive government funding and they did what they thought was scientifically interesting. Of course this was in the context of fighting Fascism, and later engaging in the Cold War against the Sovjet Union. On the other hand there was the hippie culture. When these two cultures meet in the ‘60s you get the humus on which Silicon Valley could grow. These two cultures of serendipity had themselves a serendipitous encounter and out of it emerged something entirely new. But no-one ever set out to create Silicon Valley. Remembering this should help us to understand why it is false and counterproductive to think of the future as a template of a past wave of innovation. We really need our imagination to run wild, and that is not what entrepreneurs or managers do. And when politicians see themselves as entrepreneurs or managers, then you end up with what we have now.

But wait. Let me play the devil’s advocate: isn’t the platform economy, with AI and driverless cars not going to realise this future? It sure is disrupting our present society. Does it not make room for something radical new?

The platform economy is indeed disrupting society. But it is based on terrible business models. They are pumped full of money that does not find different or more sensible objects of investment in the real economy. All this money is pumped into brutal and highly exploitative business models that might end up as monopolies, not because of their superior business models but because they are overfunded. They have astronomic amounts of money handed to them from financial gamblers (a.k.a. investors) so that they don’t need to be viable as businesses. They are outside of the market. This isn’t economics; it’s financial bullying. And looking at the livelihood models for people that these platforms create, it seems pretty obvious that they are moving us back into feudalism.

Over the past few years accellerationism has have gotten quite a bit of attention for its ideas about technological progress, politics and capitalist life. They are not mentioned in your book. Why?

I did not want my book to be discussion of the latest fashions of cultural studies. You could put accellerationism in this box if you wanted to. The idea that you have to push the development of technology to make it faster, so that even capital loses its grip on it, and then it will propel us into a new world or society, is something we already find in Deleuze, before the accellerationist trope emerged. Some of my friends are in this crowd. They have an understanding of technology that is superior to mine, and they say interesting things. It doesn’t change the basic fact that leaving politics to technology is historically nonsensical, and a very bad idea. I don’t see a watershed in the development of technology that suggests that we should abolish the old notion of politics as public engagement with ideas about the future, critical discussion and so on. Should emancipatory politics today take on board technology: yes, absolutely. Can or should politics be replaced by technology: No. In reality political processes are increasingly replaced by technology. But it is not time to give up the struggle for politics. Accellerationism is not in the book because I wanted to reach out to a broader audience, and also because I don’t think accellerationism helps us a lot in thinking about technology and politics.

But doesn’t one’s stance in this depend on one’s view of what politics is? In a Latourian view the political can never be separated from the technological (and the other way around).

Technology is indeed never neutral. Political decisions are hardwired into technologies. This is one of the crucial points of Xenofemininism and I think they are absolutely spot on here. The crucial question is: how do we want our technologies to be designed. Currently there is a technological development that creates a hiatus between us, the demos, and politics as a technological affair. I don't think we should celebrate that. I think it is defeatist. The right is of course very happy with it. But the left shouldn’t.

Sagacity is the central word in the second part of your book. What is the specific importance of sagacity in the context of serendipity and the imagination of a future?

The word serendipity was invented by Horace Walpole, who came up with it after reading an Old Persian fable, entitled The three Princes of Serendip. Serendip is the Old Persian name of Sri Lanka. Walpole writes to his friend Horace Mann how the three princes’ discoveries are based on a mixture of ‘accident and sagacity’. Though there are some problems with the story and Walpole’s definition of serendipity, I thought that this combination gives conceptual depth to the notion of serendipity beyond the popular definition of ‘finding something without looking for it’. When chance or accident, and sagacity meet, something new can emerge. I think I used the notion of sagacity as a way of articulating what I believe to be a necessary shift in perspective from the individual entrepreneur to the structures in society that make serendipity possible, because there you find diversity, and a heterogeneity of reality. Mark Fisher untimely death left us with an unfinished project on what he called “acid communism”. I find the notion of acid very interesting, coming out of psychedelic culture. What is important for Mark is not so much the drugs, it is the idea of plasticity, i.e., the possibility of the changing the world collectively into whatever the collective wants the world to be. We don’t have that idea of plasticity anymore. The plasticity of the future is now defined within the narrow confines of entrepreneurialism and digital technology, it is confined by the thoughts that the image of Silicon Valley allows for. In his unfinished manuscript Mark looks at the social structures in Britain at the early 1970s. Economically this was a time of deep crisis but culturally, it was a time of invention and innovation. People weren’t working, they weren’t hypnotised by their jobs, there was a culture of being on the dole. People stayed in bed and were thinking up new things. I’m not saying at all that we need to reproduce the past in this way. However, there was a structural relaxedness that allowed for collective imagination and I think that this might be something that could inspire our thinking about the conditions of collective innovation and creativity today.

This is I guess also true to some extent for the Dutch scene. In the Netherlands for instance both V2_ and Mediamatic had a squatting background when they started in the early 1980s, and for a long time people who worked or volunteered there were either unemployed or on some sort of government scheme. They emerged in the 1990s as art centres that later become grouped under the term ‘creative industries’.

Also many successful artists and designers in the creative industries have attained their professional success thanks to public funding. Some now act as if they are self-made entrepreneurs that never needed any public funding. It would help enormously if they would acknowledge their debt to public funding, especially because they are so revered by young students. I think we really need a public sphere. It will look different from the one in the 1970s. We need discussions about the future. Technophoria and entrepreneurialism are limiting our political imagination.

What is the role of art in all this?

That question is for another book on which I am now working, it builds on my inaugural lecture Autonomy and Weltbezug, Towards an Aesthetics of Performative Defiance. A lot of political discussion has moved in to the arts, even into the white cube. Big museums and large galleries have accommodated conferences on radical politics. These have led to the idea that art is the last bastion of emancipatory politics – which it cannot be. The role of art lies not so much in showing us another world, even if this thought is tempting in a time when neoliberal culture leaves so little space for public political discussion. Art, for better or worse is concerned with questions of aesthetics. Art can constantly renew and expand our aesthetic sensorium and thereby provide other social systems, like politics and education, with an kind of alphabet, a greater pool of symbols, to think about the world and the future. Politics is not the core-business of art. It’s aesthetics. Which doesn’t mean that art doesn’t need a stronger political defence.


Sebastian Olma is an Amsterdam-based author, critic, and sometime consultant with a critical view on creative industries policies. He is Professor of Autonomy at the Centre for Art, Design & Technology, Avans University of Applied Sciences in Breda, The Netherlands. Trained in a variety of social sciences and humanities at universities in Germany, the US, and Great Britain, he holds a PhD in cultural sociology from Goldsmiths, University of London. He’s worked at the University of Amsterdam and was research fellow at the Institute of Network Culture.

Arie Altena works at V2_Lab for the Unstable Media and writes about art and technology.

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