Marco Polo Project – designing new practices

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

‘Lots of people talk about engaging with China. You’re one of the few who’s actually doing something about it.’ I received this affirmation from a business manager at the Sydney University China Centre in 2013, after speaking at an Australia China Youth Association event. A number of others have praised my work with Marco Polo Project in similar ways over the years. For a while, this caused me confusion, since my core skillset is about arranging words together. I’m too dim-witted to raise a question in reply to a compliment, so I was left to find the meaning of the statement on my own. Here is what I made of it.

Back then, there was a lot of money flowing to China-stuff, and associated opportunities. I benefited too. There were a lot of public events, roundtables and conferences, with recurring injunctions and recriminations: ‘We must do more of this. We must do less of this.’ As for the details of implementation, what precisely we should do more of and less of, this was not a matter for the future leaders of Australia-China engagement to define.

Major changes in global macro-structures require new micro-structures. Seating arrangements matter when people don’t share the same language, as does acoustics, and turn-taking rules. Good intercultural networking calls for clear instructions. Loose ‘discuss and mingle’ models only shift the burden on the more culturally intelligent participants. Online, sharp editorial choices are needed – or smart algorithms – to break the filter bubble. Established ways of doing things will only replicate existing structures and dynamics. New formats must be designed, and put to the test, then packaged, and shared.

Self-appointed ‘big picture thinkers’ stay well clear of those details, and the efforts involved. After all, public funding and other official accolades are mainly focused on outcomes. I’m an earthy guy at heart, and ill-suited to business as usual. I don’t put much credit in standard outcome frameworks. I like getting my hands dirty, and play in the mud of outputs. Or if I’m not, I look for impact at the nth degree. I guess that’s what they meant by ‘do something’.   

I was reflecting with an Indonesian friend, a few weeks back, on institutional failure to meet the core social needs of migrant populations and international students. For their well-being, as well as for professional success, newcomers need to form supportive, trusting relationships – personal and professional. Which means, at the very least, a chance to follow up on initial conversations. Migrants and international students must also find ways to integrate all the new things they learn about their new context to their existing understanding of the world, and their identity. Yet most events – networking and otherwise – are marketed as opportunities to ‘meet new people’ and ‘learn new things’, and designed in line with that goal.

You know the joke. A man is looking for his keys under a streetlight. ‘Is this where you dropped them?’ asks a supportive passer-by. ‘No, but it’s pitch dark where I did, so I’m looking over here.’ I always think of this when I attend an intercultural get together. I still remember a Facebook conversation on the topic. I was back from yet another disappointing event at some university, with boring speeches and no meaningful encounter. Yet there were prawns and scallops on the buffet table. I wrote a post about it. ‘Why do the people running those events spend so much on food, and nothing on experience?’ It sparked a lively discussion. It led me to finally realise – and accept – that improving participant experience must fall outside what most people consider even possible. Pretentious food and poor design may well not be matters of malice, cowardice, or laziness. Just a lack of imagination. This is where design comes into play. It’s not just about prototyping to figure out what could work: it’s offering something concrete, as a way to shift perceptions of where action is needed, possible, and fruitful. And this is what Marco Polo Project has done over the years. 

We have developed a broad range of new formats and resources. Some have achieved their final form. After numerous iterations, starting in 2012, we landed on Translation Club, a collaborative translation event to build deep intercultural empathy and trigger insights of cultural self-awareness, with low facilitation overheads. Using design-thinking as a template, we developed Design for Diversity, a one day program to train better intercultural collaboration in creative problem solving. Our Marco Polo Manual documents a number of micro-structures, components of facilitated events and programs trialled over the years. We’re still iterating on Culture Flip, a card game to support better language exchange by playing on conversational archetypes, and a few more tools and formats for better networking.

The doing certainly worked, yet we failed at one point in the process. We neglected the work of convincing. We fell short of producing sexy media to document our workshops, anchor assumptions in scientific articles, or get big names to vouch for us. And so, we stayed small. Maybe my new Dr. title will bring about an added layer of legitimacy? Or maybe now is time for scientific retrofitting? Time to make our assumptions explicit, articulate our practice to new trends in language learning, social health and psychology, and make academic sense of our efforts. Then we can focus on sharing the models, in hope to see them scale.

Marco Polo Project – The European dream

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

When you try to build something new, you’ll often be misunderstood. This is common wisdom, yet rarely presented when people share their sense of failure. I clearly remember how, on two distinct occasions, well-intentioned mentors took the wind off my sails. Those are among the bitterest memories of building Marco Polo Project. 

First scene. I’m sitting in my mentor’s office, bright sun outside, whale songs playing on the computer. They’re offering to send introductions for me, and ask ‘help me write this email. Why did you start Marco Polo Project?’ I pause for a while. I’m a reflective extravert and at the time, didn’t have enough questions of the sort. After a moment, I reply: ‘Well, ultimately, it’s about world peace’. I was hoping for a follow up question, a chance to clarify what I meant, and why everything had been so difficult. I get laughter instead. ‘Well, what about we say it’s about bringing Australia and Asia closer together’. I nod, embarrassed, and they send their email. That introduction fell flat. I never asked for that mentor’s advice again.

Second scene. I’m sitting at a café table with my mentor. They’ve been helping me build a business case. I followed their lead, and did my homework. But something was missing – a sense of scope and purpose. On the third meeting, this is where our conversation went. ‘So, what will your project bring to Australia?’ I reply ‘Well, to be honest, I don’t care about Australia.’ The French accent probably made it sound more callous than it was. Yet indeed – this was always a global project, incidentally benefiting Melbourne. This mentor and I never really spoke afterwards.

Looking back, I fell into the common trap of assuming others share my experience of life. I grew up in Strasbourg. The European dream has always been a personal matter of civic pride. When I fell in love with an Australian and chose to migrate, I decided I would carry that European dream to the southern hemisphere. On my first visit, I experienced Melbourne as the cultural capital of a globalised world, where the traditions of Europe and Asia, colonial and indigenous histories, could come together. It had just been appointed as a UNESCO city of Literature, it could be the epicentre of global cultural integration. Here was a place where the European dream of cultural and political harmony could extend to the rest of the world. Marco Polo Project was a vehicle for that vision.

The European Union was explicitly developed as a peace project, a reaction to the Second World War. One of its achievements has been cultural and linguistic integration – mutual linguistic and cultural understanding, a sense of shared history, and of common destiny, among countries that only recently were sending armies against each other. Marco Polo Project was directly guided by the spirit of Europe, which I breathed in from as far as I can remember. It carried an aspiration to extend this peace-building project beyond Europe, through collaborative translation and cultural dialogue, and weave together distinct histories and narrative threads across the continents. It was naïve to believe that the vision would be readily shared – even understood – by people whose worldview was rooted in remote Australia. 

Sometimes, though, we reach our goals in unexpected ways. In 2016, I got a message from an old friend. They were looking for an atypical profile to serve as Chief Editor with the Global Challenges Foundation, in Stockholm, to work on global catastrophic risk. ‘Would you like to help us avoid the end of the world?’ Marco Polo Project was the reason for seeking me out. The peace-making vision I carried from the start had been finally recognised.

I said yes. Beyond personal validation I got precious experience, a good income, new networks, and prestige from this role. Yet for Marco Polo Project, a period of tension started. I would not be capable of taking on the new role, and continue to carry the organisation forward. We sought – and found – a new CEO to take over. With this handover, strategic clarity was crucial. I could no longer rely on my third eye to drive decision-making. Yet the direction was unclear. Should we accept that Australia was not ready for a natively global organisation, and focus on local matters – leaving Europe to look after the state of the world? Or should we take it as a sign that our global ambition was, in fact, at the core of our mission, and never to be compromised?

We didn’t give a proper answer to those questions. Rather, we skirted around. We focused our projects on Melbourne, more narrowly, as a space of experiment, and the direct environment where we would seek impact. Meanwhile, we welcomed opportunities to trial global partnerships – Translation Clubs in Mexico, Japan and Oregon, for instance – and kept our narrative global. We’re still misunderstood, often, but we’re more able to find allies, and ignore the rest.

Marco Polo Project – Follow the creative impulse

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

Marco Polo Project was born in Tianjin, on a beautiful night of insomnia, in December 2010.

Earlier that year, I passed the second level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, and received a scholarship to spend three weeks in Tianjin. It was my first time attending formal education in Chinese. On day one, I learned that Chinese people like dragons and the colour red.

Back then, I was working for the Victorian State, exploring e-government. Wikis, open data, gamified tools for bug reporting were the next stage in citizen engagement and service delivery. My partner had a blog, documenting daily projects, with fans in the US and invitations to Writers’ Festivals. I was excited by the possibilities offered by the Internet to share stories, ideas and practices around the world – create some sort of new cosmopolitan identity, and collaborative abundance. Those were the glory days of the sharing economy, when Facebook was about friends, Google about knowledge, and a different type of world seemed possible. I was also fascinated by the discourses of a burgeoning ‘online China’ that my language skills were still too limited to let me access. What was happening there? I wanted to know, but my classroom experience gave me no clue.

That night, in the hotel attached to Tianjin Normal University, right next to the Balitai roundabout, I had a vision. What if we could gather a curated selection of texts from Chinese writers, cultural analysts and intellectuals publishing online, and offer them to the people learning Chinese around the world for collaborative translation. I imagined a thorough division of labour. Advanced learners and Chinese natives would scour the Chinese Internet for texts to share. They would propose a first version of the translation, discussing options in a comment section. Less advanced learners could read the translated texts, in bilingual format or English only, as a way to better understand China. There would be mutual support, a point system, and badges for various accomplishments, forming a grand online community. I went to the bathroom to keep my roommate asleep, took extensive notes, and got back to bed a few hours later, shaking with excitement.

Daniel Ednie-Lockett was the first believer. We met in 2009 through a Chinese language MeetUp. He ran a small company that took international students on local tours as a way to promote cultural integration, and would soon evolve into a language exchange network. It’s late December 2010, and we’re sitting at a café on Little Lonsdale Street. I share the vision with him. He jots down a few notes on a napkin. ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work,’ he said, ‘but it’s cheap enough to try’. With a thousand dollars or so, we could build a prototype. I was willing to lose that money. Dan introduced me to people who could help, I put an ad online, and gathered a first team. Three months later, we had a functional website running live, with a small selection of texts.

Human-centered design teaches you to look for a need – a problem to solve – through a systematic process, then go on to prototype a solution. There is certainly wisdom to that approach. Yet sometimes, the desire to create something comes first. This was the case for me, with Marco Polo Project. My creative impulse had a force of its own. I would not stop until I brought it to life. I believe this kind of creative imagination plays a bigger role than we acknowledge in entrepreneurship, as it does in creative ventures.

Yet the force of imagination comes with a downside. The vision may be clear, but it floats, disconnected from the world. Perspective only comes retrospectively. So, when things don’t work out, and compromises must be made, it is unclear where to hold on, and where to let go. Particularly, reaching a joint agreement on where to pivot is critically difficult.

By 2017, our website had fallen into disarray. With no business model or investment, the code was developed on the cheap. It was breaking apart. China blocked its online blogs and magazines one by one. Hardly anyone contributed to our translations any more. So, we decided to shift offline entirely, archive the magazine, and redirect our address to a new website focused on our workshop design activities. It made sense at the time, and has taken us where we are. Yet a bitterness remains. Something of that original creative impulse remains un-satisfied, and I often wonder if we should have simply kept on course.

I wish, in the early years, I had met someone who listened to me closely, took the time to sit down and ask ‘what exactly do you want’, work with me on the vision, and help me make the right decision. Either I met no such person, or I wasn’t able to recognize them. There was a lot of rush, narrow-mindedness, self-evidence and complex egos. I guess the texts in this series are a retrospective attempt at making sense, then – and figure out what I had attempted to do, in the hope that it will be useful for the future.

Looking back at Marco Polo Project

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. It started as a digital platform for collaborative translation of new Chinese writing, then pivoted towards workshop design, to support people who negotiate hybrid identities across languages and cultures. I handed Marco Polo Project over to a new CEO in 2019, hoping to see the organisation thrive. COVID put a spanner in the wheels.

We speak a lot about learning from failure. Yet in all the forums I have been to, failures are only shared if they can be reframed instantly as ‘actually a success’. I would like to take a different path in those reflections, and explore what we tried to achieve, where we succeeded, and where we didn’t. Where we made errors of judgement, let ourselves be carried away, or underestimated obstacles.

When I started writing this series, Marco Polo Project was on the verge of closing down. An unexpected grant from the City of Melbourne gave us a new lease on life. We were not able to deliver but redirected the funds to our long-term partner transcollaborate.

For now, the organisation is on ice, but not dead yet. I hope, by taking time to reflect on where we struggled and failed, to create conditions where we might eventually return to active life. Or at least, gain a little more clarity on what we’ve been trying to do all this time.

On polarisation

One on one confrontations have a certain appeal. It’s grand final day, and a 50/50 chance of either team winning. Who do you back? Us vs Them, and a sense of clarity.

We like to polarise – as does our media. Yet I tend to prefer triangles. They’re more stable, more fun, and allow for a bit of play.

Often, polarisation is a matter of framing. We choose to see the world as polarised, based on the categories we use. Recently, two maps I saw circulating on social media captured this very clearly.

The first was looking at the now-usual US vs China narrative, and how the latter is threatening to take over the world from the former. A scary shift from the blue world to the red world.

Yet a second one painted a different picture. I saw it on my friend Ray Taylor’s feed – Ray is and effective altruist, working with Allfed on global food solutions for catastrophic scenarios, and generally a good source of insights. So, the map he shared was this. (The source is unknown, but Google searches have yielded somewhat similar maps)

Here, the polarized world order is replaced with a three-kingdom narrative: US, China, EU. Fair, yet the result of a deliberate choice. The story now is very distinct. Not a global take-over in a game of economic go, but a shifting balance between three poles in a multilateral world order.

I like this map, because it reminds me of the role and values of Europe, as a beacon of global peace. In visual terms, it shows how the EU can serve as a global balance, and counter the war of superpowers – if we recognise its existence, as a coalition of states. The map tells a story of hope. It serves as a precious reminder that polarised situations are so because of the categories we use – hence, we may defuse them by inserting a third term.

Together, those two maps also serve as a reminder that images fascinate. There is a self-evidence to maps and graphs, pressing pause on critical thought. Yet just because a map or graph tells a compelling story, does not mean that story is true, or the only one. And because there is such strength to images, the best way to defuse them is make others. In other words – cultural work, artistic work, aesthetic work, is a critical part of peace making.

What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #14

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

29 december

In March or April this year, I sat down at a Turkish café inside the Queen Vic market, thinking of what I really needed to accomplish this year. At the very top of the list, I wrote, learn Chinese. Now, I believe I have done that. I can keep up conversations with Chinese people for four hours or more, I can read, I can write small messages and emails. I still need to improve – but I have become operational.

This has been the biggest change in me this year – I learnt about China, I integrated the country deeply. This scholarship and these four months have radically changed me and what I feel that I can do. I am now someone who can speak Chinese.

I also feel very drained, more tired than I was the previous years – cautious about my health, I should be. My brain and body are tired – I have lived on very limited income for 18 months (though I relaxed a bit during the time of my scholarship), and this has taken a toll. I have also lived with high uncertainty – where the money would come from, what would happen next. Am I losing faith in what I can do, or just getting old?

I have largely confused work, life, holidays – I don’t say I don’t enjoy it – but it’s making it very difficult to identify socially, what I do, how I generate income. Maybe it’s OK? Or I can learn for it to be?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #5

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [This text was originally written for myself only, and some of the sections therefore referred to personal interactions. I have given myself permission to leave them out – and so jump directly from December 17 to December 19] 

19 December

The need to consume is a strange thing. I spent over 100 yuan today, when I could have spent half that. 10 for a first coffee, 18 for a second, 30 for a third. 16 for a cake-treat. 11 for food. And 18 again for my evening milk tea. Yet these expenses were social. The second coffee – 18 – was to chat with Tristan – and had a positive result: he’s offered to join Marco Polo Project and do work for the Festival. The third coffee – 30 – was fruitful: I chatted to Zhang Jiajia’s assistant, and had in-principle agreement for him to join our festival. The tea was good spending: I watched a movie for cheaper than the cost of my 3G stick at home, and I actually relaxed. I had to pay for food anyway. The cake was the special treat. But hey – I did good and I deserved it

Could I have done things differently? I could have chosen better. I got coffee because I was lazy – I had too much, four cups in total, and might find it difficult to sleep. Intoxicating myself for the sake of ‘my work’, like people drinking at business dinners. Paying for my own intoxication. I remember at Hub when Jules had ‘peppermint’, not ‘coffee to be cool’. And how the café down from Hub closes at 3pm, because you shouldn’t have coffee later than that.

When I go back to Melbourne, I will have to watch my spending again. In the last month and a half – or since I came back from Beijing – I started spending more. ‘Lubrication spending’ I call it Not really counting when I have coffee. Eating out. Inviting people. Cinema. Books. Trips. I should slowly start cutting down on some of those things after the new year – to get back into the habit when I reach Melbourne. But then again – I’m in China, I’m learning, and networking, and running three projects – and I’m trying to cope.

Strange though, how ‘trying to cope’ – or finding balance – goes through spending.

Mapping Europe over Asia

There is an idea that cultural resemblance operates by proximity. That, therefore, there may very well be differences between the French and the Germans or Italians, but those pale in comparison to differences between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’.

Now I remember a guy once telling me that he’d been on a trip to Vietnam, and was amazed at how close the two cultures were. This is how he made his assessment: he went to see a French comedy, and people were laughing at all the right places. This would make sense: when the French established colonies in South East Asia, they chose the Vietnamese to rule over others – hence ongoing problems in Cambodia today.

We might make other comparisons. England and Japan: an obsession with rules, people moving away so they won’t come too close to you, high levels of personal repression, except on booze-fuelled evenings to release the tension. Punk teenagers and suited businessmen. Or Northern China may be like southern Italy: Harbin is the closest thing to Naples I’ve seen. People shouting out from their balcony to the street, addressing you spontaneously as you pass. A massive yearning after social contact.

So, rather than Europeans vs Asians, there may be just patterns of internal differences that we can trace on both continents, in an effort to better understand each culture’s own centre of gravity.