Meet the Pioneers
In our new format “meet the pioneers” we talk to people who make courageous strides towards to make the world a slightly better place. Their motivation and will to create are for a future that is human, fair and sustainable.
From founders of innovative open source softwares to influential authors or digital social activists – we are fascinated by their ideas. This is what we want to share with you. Visionaries need spaces to be heard. With our “meet the pioneers” series, we have created one such space.
Martin Sambauer / DIVERSUS
Martin Sambauer is a civic tech enthusiast, media professional and founder. With DIVERSUS he has created an open source project, that aims to create the knowledge infrastructure of tomorrow. The idea: an online hyper player makes it possible for users to connect and curate information and content from any source, creating a “full picture”, as Sambauer says. This forms the basis of coming to new conclusions and and finding solutions for global problems.
Yannick Lebert: Today we want to talk about you and DIVERSUS, the project you founded a few years ago. What is DIVERSUS?
Martin Sambauer: DIVERSUS is a “communicative infrastructure” that gives you better access to data provided by other people. If you search for particular information, you will find it faster. Finding information faster is always important when knowledge is needed. And knowledge is actually permanently needed: Which doctor should I go to? What is the right workplace for me? Which school should I send my children to?
I want to know what is dangerous and what is best for me and my family. Knowledge building is the decisive technology that enables us to survive in our society. The internet is a knowledge platform, but we find that knowledge is not as easily accessible as it seems at first glance. That is why we want to develop and offer a new instrument.
DIVERSUS makes knowledge more easily accessible
Yannick Lebert: To what extent does DIVERSUS make knowledge more easily accessible?
Martin Sambauer: We see ourselves as the future hyperlayer over the current internet. Our data is always brought into the system by users in relation to other data. This creates a network where everything is related to each other. The network is set up by the users, perhaps later supported by artificial intelligence.
As a central paradigm for use and presentation, we are developing a “flower”. The middle of the flower represents information, while the petals attached to it in a circle represent other information that is related to the initial information in the middle. At first glance, this flower tells us something about the richness of a piece of information. We are interested not only in the inner richness of the information, but also in how much complementary information is attracted.
At this point we are reacting to a certain shortcoming of the current internet: If you are researching a certain topic, it is difficult to find the related complementary topics. Google currently directs us to the most powerful echo chamber of the keyword we are looking for. If, for example, we end up at Spiegel Online, we end up in an echo chamber, because like-minded editors often illuminate a topic there. So I am pushed twice in a certain direction: first by Google, which leads me to the richest echo chamber and then within the echo chamber to a certain view of the topic.
We are also interested in such information. But we are also interested in everything that is attached to this information, i.e. any conceivable complementary information. Every contradiction, every fact check, perhaps every joke. This is important if you are trying to explore a field in which you really need knowledge.
You are not only interested in the one answer that you are, in principle, already entering with your search query in Google, but you are interested in the whole picture that you are investigating, in all its contradictions and complexity.
“Full picture” instead of isolated information
Yannick Lebert: Could you illustrate this with an example?
Martin Sambauer: Whenever you don’t want to rely on a single medium or information because you want to gain a broader understanding of a topic, DIVERSUS is the right tool to use. Example: There is a petition for a referendum on the subject of the extinction of species and you want to decide whether you want to sign it or not. Then you look for the topic in DIVERSUS and get offered more information.
The “flower” around an information immediately tells you which information has attracted most complementary information. The colors tell you, for example, that there is a lot of contradiction (red) and at the same time a lot of support (green) – this could indicate that the source information is controversial, which may be particularly interesting. But there are also many scientific contributions (blue) and even some jokes (orange).
You are probably choosing the info that has magnetically attracted the most further information. Then you begin to explore this bouquet. Within a very short time you will find out what the most important concerns of the referendum are, what the critics say and where there are still unresolved questions. You get the “Full Picture” and not just a single piece of information. The more the system is accepted, the more topics it will cover. In this way, research becomes fast and easy.
Fighting climate change with accelerated knowledge building
Yannick Lebert: The association DIVERSUS e.V. will be founded in a few weeks. In the statutes of the association it says, “the ecological threat of mankind grows steadily. The challenge is to develop our technologies, social systems and cultures in a humane way in order to exist in such times in an equally humane way.” Can you describe how these threats are concretely expressed?
Martin Sambauer: When I look at the possible scenarios that we will face in the coming decades, climate change is always the dominant factor. Climate change may mean the consequence that agriculture is not stable. The loss of agriculture leads to unrest and migratory pressure in other regions. We want to avoid such scenarios and if they do come, we need to find social and technical systems to cope with them. All this has to do with building knowledge. The rapid development of knowledge, which is already so important today, will become even more important in the future. It affects the survival of the species, but also the possibility of having a good and safe life.
Finding the most sensible solutions together
Yannick Lebert: How did you come up with the idea? Can you outline your career a little?
Martin Sambauer: I worked as an art director for television stations and advertising. It was always about mass communication. You can’t help but make an ethical structural analysis of the media. You can’t overlook the fact that the media process is quite distorted. But today, in times of climate change, we can no longer afford that. Today it’s all about finding the most sensible solutions for all of us, not the most lucrative solutions for individual industries. In addition to my profession, I have always tried to find a structural answer: How can such distortions be offset? The basic idea is to balance every piece of information, within its spectrum of complementary information. In this way, it actually rectifies itself on its own.
Yannick Lebert: Was there a specific incident that led to the idea?
Martin Sambauer: Ten years ago I was asked to do a show for a car manufacturer. I used part of the money to do interviews with well-known experts who explained the peak oil phenomenon and climate change to me. While typing the interviews I noticed that all the answers are interesting and all fit together like the pieces of a giant puzzle. Now I didn’t want to make another monoperspectival film out of the interviews, but rather I wanted every user to have this possibility. It made me realize that dialectics is the key, the pros and cons, the back and forth that has produced so much knowledge in politics and science. The interesting thing is the dialectical assembly of the puzzle pieces.
Dialectics as the key to insight
Yannick Lebert: And what do you mean by dialectics?
Martin Sambauer: I’ve thought about that for a long time and discussed it a lot. In Hegel’s philosophy dialectics refers to this great historical process, built up from thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which hopefully at some point will lead to an ultimate republic. Someone told me that Hegel even thought dialectics cosmologically. If we listen to the physicists explaining how protons and electrons were formed and then neutrons were added, then maybe that’s true. This is also a sort of a dialectical process.
But for me it’s more about the human processes of gaining knowledge, they are also dialectically structured. Example: What is the speed of light? Is it finite or infinitely fast? This discussion began in ancient times and lasted about 2,500 years. Today we know the speed of light to nine decimal places.
A dialectical process can start from any thought, which may be wrong or right, clever or stupid. It iterates inevitably more and more towards the truth – as long as the group of the discussants is diverse. This is important, otherwise we end up in echo chambers again. That is my concept of dialectics. We want to accelerate this process digitally, on a global scale, so that processes that used to take 2,500 years may now be completed in a shorter time, in a few months or weeks. That is the great vision behind it.
An infrastructure for knowledge production of the future
Yannick Lebert: This is a scientific vision. Where is the humanitarian vision?
Martin Sambauer: What I would like to achieve is that the DIVERSUS infrastructure gives everyone in this world the opportunity to dialectically participate in the process of building our future. Everybody, no matter if it is an African girl or a Nepalese boy or a European grandpa like me – everybody has an important perspective. That is why we are called DIVERSUS. Dialectics is most effective when everyone can really get involved. Because this shadowed phenomenon, which we call reality, can only be described from everyone’s perspective.
Yannick Lebert: Now to the project. You don’t do everything alone, but you don’t have a permanent team either. How does that actually work? How did you get here? Where were the difficulties?
Martin Sambauer: It was a long process. Years ago we were already thinking about various solutions. But there were no appropriate technologies to realize them at the time. We used video mockups to approach a prototype that demonstrated what the usage paradigm looks like on a mobile phone. These mockups have led us to have a support community of maybe 20 people who want us to proceed.
It is important to us that the project is not subject to commercial distortions at its core. That’s why it’s the right step for me to have a non-profit association at the center of the project. For the dissemination of the project we will look for business partnerships, as soon as a convincing demo is available. But the initial starting point is a non-profit corporation.
Decentral, open source and nonprofit
Yannick Lebert: Does the project have any funding?
Martin Sambauer: We currently finance everything privately out of this group. We have software engineers of different origins in the system. One of them works for a large consulting firm. Another is a senior developer at an aircraft manufacturer. At the moment, small financial impulses are coming from this to build the first prototype, the first demo.
As soon as the association is established we want to start a fundraising campaign. The association will remain non-profit and everything we do is open source. We have an interest in producing as much code as possible to build the paradigm and make it accessible to everyone, which means we like to go to different countries, especially underprivileged regions.
We pursue the thesis that stable peace in this world is only possible if there are no disadvantaged groups. Therefore disadvantaged groups must have an opportunity to participate in the design process of our world. Perhaps we see ourselves as a possible counter impulse to the centralist Silicon Valley. We are trying to build a decentralized structure where everyone from every country can participate in building the infrastructure.
Yannick Lebert: How is DIVERSUS technically implemented?
Martin Sambauer: At the moment, we have several teams that go slightly different ways. One team works on the basis of the Web Annotation Protocol, another team goes a different way. What they all have in common at the moment is that we work with React and D3. We are actually a Data Viz project dedicated to the task of correlating semantic coherencies of content with physical properties of information objects in a display. Colors, shapes, size, mass, velocity, attraction or repulsion of objects – all this makes a statement about what the objects – or rather the information – has to do with each other.
We use human’s innate ability to interpret physical events at lightning speed to make content easier to understand. We as humans are not optimized to constantly read lists, which we consider to be a relic of the 19th century. All common paradigms – Netflix, Facebook and Google – are based on lists. We ourselves become list objects in the permanent consumption of lists and that makes us unhappy. We feel redundant.
On the other hand, we see the future of data presentation in the manifold forms of representation of nature and physics. That’s why we are definitely shifting the focus of processor use to the area of graphics units (GPUs), which can perform much better here. It’s faster and more attractive.
Yannick Lebert: Thank you very much for the interview!
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