Datus-Nusas Workshop Reflections

For participants in the Datus-Nusas Workshop held in Singapore on May 27-28, I invite you to post a short reflection in reply to this thread. Or if you write a blog post or newsletter, please post the link in this thread.

Put together some reflections, with both my organizer hat on, and personal hat.

Organizer hat

As organizer, I was thinking of this workshop as an experiment with two goals. First, to see if the we could usefully and rapidly convey the essence of “protocol thinking,” in the sense we’ve been developing it in SoP, to a new group of people coming in cold. Second, to see if we could apply protocol thinking to a specific nebulous cultural hyperobject (specifically, Nusantara, the maritime subculture of SE Asia, and its adjacent highland subcultures) and get to somewhere interesting and useful. I’d say both objectives were satisfied.

On the first, as @Rithikha and Janna, both alums of SoP23 remarked, we got to a fairly literate level of protocol thinking in just 2 days where it took us weeks last summer. This was in part because some of us were already comfortable in the style of thinking and able to accelerate things, and in part because there was a very tangible and clear thing to talk about that had obviously deep natural protocol structure. I think this is a good principle to generalize: introduce the general discipline of protocol thinking in the context of natural protocols a group is already highly literate in. Don’t try to convey the discipline in the abstract. Abstraction can come later.

On the second front, I think we got to some real value over the two days, identifying some subtle but legible patterns and contours within the idea of Nusantara and adjacent subcultures. I wouldn’t say we succeeded in “protocolizing Nusantara” (which is probably not even a good idea) but as Visa put it, there was something like a draft of a blueprint beginning to emerge, capable of conveying the ideas of Nusantara to people not steeped in the region’s traditions, as well as allowing the culture to hold up a mirror to itself. In fact we went beyond and got to some generalizable insights (about “warm” vs “cold” protocols in a McLuhan sense) via the Nusantara particular case, that we had not thought about before. There’s already a chicken-and-egg loop here about protocol science advancing with the help of Nusantara ideas, and Nusantara ideas advancing with the help of protocol thinking.

One test of this virtuous cycle is the “German teachability test” – can some version of the Nusantara ethos be conveyed to a notional class of German college students (caricatured as the most “un-Nusantara” culture imaginable)? I think on Day 1 opening, we could not have done that. At the end of Day 2, I think we ended up with good starter ideas for how to do that. Even though I’m not from the region, with the experience of the workshop, I think I could give a 20 minute “how to rock the Nusantara vibe” tutorial. I’m probably not the best person to do that though. I don’t think I’m chill enough to pull it off.

Personal Hat

At a personal level, this workshop hit many of my favorite notes, particularly the interaction of history and technological evolution. A historical sensibility without a technological sensibility is blind to the future. The reverse is blind to the past. Neither is a successful way of being. You need to have a sense of history that opens up room for generative futures without either rigid constraints or ossified sacred memories. A good cultural ethos makes history a source of new possibilities rather than constraints. I think Nusantara and adjacent cultures do that, so they are “good” in that sense.

A cultural ethos like Nusantara is a living big-P soft Protocol to the extent it achieves this goal. It needs to be like a powerful operating system with a deep systemic memory and a flexible API, but also support powerful new programming. In this specific case, a true understanding of Nusantara can’t just wallow in nostalgia about traditional ways of life, boats, and fishing. It also has to embrace the current world of container shipping and electronics manufacturing, and the emerging future of blockchains, AI, VR/AR, robotics etc. And it has to open up specific futuristic possibilities around these technological vectors in a way that leverages the unique aspects of Nusantara.

One of the reasons I think applying protocol thinking to a cultural hyperobject like Nusantara is a good idea is that it gives you “handles” on it that provide a “strategic grip” on the latent possibilities to do just that. If people, both from the region and beyond, imbibe the ethos properly, the energy of the region can be properly unleashed. Protocol thinking is about doing that well, in a disciplined but relaxed way. It’s not about anxious and fretful high-modernist energy trying to legibilize the hyperobject. It is about a chill and relaxed high-agency mindfulness to evolution and change. I think SE Asia already does this better than most regions.

The specific effects of applying protocol thinking to a cultural hyperobject depend on the details. Applying the ideas of protocols to Nusantara will not have the same effects as applying them to Germany or East Africa. They key is to look for the nascent existing soft protocols and amplify the natural powerful tendencies. It’s a bit like paving the cowpaths of soft protocols with hard protocols where it is useful to do so, and adding emerging technological leverage cleverly in the right places, at the right times.

Many clear protocolesque themes emerged about the region:

  1. The natural ungovernability of the region (which, as Sam Chua noted, is not the same thing as anarchy or chaos but a kind of grassroots sovereign+mutualist sensibility) recognized by both insiders and outsiders. Not just in the highland cultures, but in the maritime “seapunk” cultures and the lowland “ricepunk” cultures as Sam put it.

  2. The innate subversiveness, the sense of mischievous compliance with authority, the mastery of various “weapons of the weak,” the intuitive perspective-taking ability to triangulate situations and circumstances from more directions than other regions typically do.

  3. The ability to absorb and indigenize powerful external cultural influences without becoming defined or pwned by them, as in the case of Islam in the region as Imran explained, and before that in the way Indic “mandala” culture and Confucian governance cultures shaped the region.

  4. The uniquely local traditions of handling diversity and fluidity around gender and sexuality with a kind of relaxed grace, deep sense of humor, and generosity of spirit that is, frankly, entirely missing around such matters in most of the world. In this particular area, I think Nusantara has much to teach the world.

  5. The way the region is fundamentally built around flows rather than stocks – of currents, winds, commerce, shifting populations etc. with ports as “nodes” for all these intersecting flows.

There are many more items, so this is just an illustrative sampling.

Adding tasteful touches of “hardness” (with or without hi-tech or low-tech technological elements) to these natural dispositions, I think, is what it means to “protocolize” something as nebulous but powerful as Nusantara (and its adjacent highland cultures).

There is an obvious and clear tension between feeling and channeling the soft vibes of Nusantara as it exists today, and injecting new kinds of legible hardness in places that might feel like “productizing.”

Take for example, the challenge of doing something interesting with the observation (which we talked about a lot) that the region is full of myths about chimerical creatures composed of many real creatures, as well as ghosts, with a particular tradition around ghost stories.

A naive, on-the-nose approach to bottling the magic of Nusantara is to make a “recipe” for composing such creatures into city mascots similar to Singapore’s Merlion (which we discussed as both a modern construct and a creature with some history).

A less obvious way to capture the magic is to think in terms of a unique style of memeing, gaming and worldbuilding based on such mythologies, focusing on the fact that legends often center deceptively weak-seeming creatures like mouse-deer instead of charismatically powerful creatures like dragons or kaiju. We can imagine Nusantara as a genre of games built around the seapunk/ricepunk/chimerical creatures.

To take another example, we can imagine incorporating historical patterns of trade and negotiation around networks of ports into an opinionated style of legal reasoning.

Protocolizing a soft hyperobject is not itself about technology (you can harden and legibilize such things without any new technology) but there is a natural relationship between protocolization and technology adoption/indigenization/innovation. Some technologies are more “protocolish” than others in the sense that they can become part of the warp-and-woof of how a region’s cultural operating system works.

The important thing to note is that the current generation of protocolizing technologies – crypto, AI, VR, AR, IoT – is just the latest of many waves. The culture has previously absorbed techno-cultures rooted in Arab dhows, Chinese pottery and rice farming, and container shipping for instance, in addition to its organic endogenous innovations. Something like Nusantara isn’t a “pure” cultural essence that sits outside of technological evolution. It is the medium of technological evolution. In many ways, what a culture is can be partly understood as a function of what the culture does with every new wave of technology. The essence of a culture may be its approach to absorbing innovations, both technological and cultural, emerging from both within the culture itself, and irrupting from the outside.

One reason Nusantara and related SE Asian cultures is so interesting right now is that for various reasons the region is on the cusp of rapid evolutionary change driven by both technology and geopolitics. How, where, and why the cultures “protocolize” themselves in various ways determines what role they will play in the near future. Many approaches are emerging, ranging from traditional regional elite approaches, to high-modernist notions of “network states” (as I mentioned, I’m not a fan of that particular tack, but am happy to see the experimentation happen), to literary/artistic production as a catalytic force.

The approach I think I favor is one that is more “low naturalist” rather than high-modernist, is fundamentally driven by commons power rather than charismatic authority, and is tech-positive without being technocratic (Sam Chua’s definition of “punk” is “technology without technocracy”). I think that can amount to a recipe for leveling up Nusantara in the direction of maximal interestingness.

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Here’s my Participant Hat’s recap of the workshop

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And here’s my paper on irreverence in Kristang, building on tangents that emerged from the workshop!

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Short reflection.

I came with just a tiny bit of knowledge about the region and its dynamics and ended up with a broad, loose, abstract idea of what the Nusantara region means: basically impossible to define exactly (as with many other complex things) but with key overarching ideas/concepts/themes like ungovernable, specific sense of humor, fluid, changing, collaborative.

It was really interesting to see and notice the similarities and differences between the experiences of this region compared to latin america. I was surprised to find a tiny bit of common ground between the two.

This was my first experience with in-person protocol thinking and I was excited to see and learn from everyone in the room. In particular the final exercise on Day 2 was interesting to me as a designer, it was provoking and open ended in a way that some very cool objects could emerge from it.

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Hi folks! Sam Chua here.

As a protocol-curious Southeast Asian and longtime nerd of tech, culture, and history, this was a really fun workshop that left a lot to think about. So here’s some extended reflections as a participant.

First, it feels like there’s a current ‘Southeast Asian’ moment of emerging regional-self-awareness that this particular workshop is smack in the stream of. Ten years ago, I led a Southeast Asia-focused culture research lab for a global tech company, but despite our Southeast Asia (SEA) scope, the way we conceived SEA for our research was from the outside looking in (e.g., what are the trends and opportunities for us?). Historically the term ‘Southeast Asia’ itself came into modern usage in reference to the WWII regional theater of war. For our lab, Southeast Asia was essentially our theater of study. But the view this year feels different.

More recently, over the past six months, I’ve noticed several unrelated communities start to coalesce around questions of Southeast Asian identity, networks, and futures. A couple of workshop participants remarked on how the SEA POV of the workshop felt surprisingly fresh (underattended to) despite having engaged in all sorts of initiatives and explorations over the years. So at least in some circles, there’s an active search for what it might mean to be SEA (and how that could be explored from the inside and ground-up).

What might it mean to be SEA? Maritime SEA (the focus of this workshop) doesn’t have a single unified history as a polity or empire despite having been colonized by multiple masters but, over the course of the workshop, a shared sensibility emerged.

Some of the themes that surfaced include (as Venkat and others have described):

  • Lightness, smallness, irreverence: a culture of not taking oneself too seriously, good humor around misunderstandings, SEA lore is not crusades but cautionary tales, typical protagonists like a small but quick-witted mousedeer
  • Fluidity and non-permanence: SEA is where one might change even cultural identities by adopting the right protocols / customs when moving around, and where ‘even hell isn’t forever’ (a phrase recounted in one of the groups)
  • Adaptability, bricolage, exaptation: SEA routinely repurposes all sorts of global-trade-route imports from foods, languages, rituals, and even gods!

(Note that this is an initial sampling, and also mostly derived from culture / literature / history that pre-dates the modern nation state era of SEA. It’s arguable that many of these patterns have become less culturally salient over recent modern internationally-educated generations)

These themes suggest a culture not of grand universal meaning, but of rough consensus and running code. Where, regardless of the ruler of the season, life has to and will go on. Perhaps the essence of SEA is punk; not in the sense of revolution, but in the spirit of a tree that insistently grows out the side of a cliff.

As our first exercise in the workshop, participants were invited to share one word each, relating to the workshop’s themes and the notion of possible Southeast Asian futures. For me, the word that came to mind was ‘seapunk’ (partly an allusion to sea pirates, nomads, and ‘ungovernable’ Southeast Asians; partly a curiosity about what good ‘solarpunk for SEA’ futures might entail). Over the workshop, I came across many more elements of SEA lore and logic that resonated with this notion of a ‘seapunk’ ethos and sensibility, to the extent that the term feels to have really taken root, and might perhaps sprout further life of its own.

What might something like ‘seapunk’ have to offer the world (or at least the protocol-minded)? If we think of culture as an adaptation to the realities and vagaries of a particular environment, we might imagine how a harsh maritime environment (prone to violent storms, tropical rot, political upheavals, and twists of fortune) might reward flexiblity, adaptability, and a sense of smallness and nimbleness towards the world (as opposed to, for instance, a control mindset to redirect rivers). Perhaps, in navigating the challenges of the Anthropocene or imagining solutions and protocols of the future, there will be occasions that call for thinking small, or fluid and protocolizable identity, or designing for adaptability and resilience, under which we might then find appropriate SEA-derived inspirations to draw from.

Did the workshop live up to its aims? We had a couple dozen participants over two days, and while it feels on one hand we’ve only begun to scratch the surface, it also feels that the first digs have been rich and generative. The goals and promises of the workshop were (a) to explore creative new possibilities for Southeast Asia via examining historical regional traditions, culture, and governance through a protocol lens, (b) that participants would leave with fresh perspective and a sense of new possibilities. On both counts, this feels to have been an energizing yes.

What might be worth doing next? Some initial ideas (happy to brainstorm further!):

  1. A SEA-focused culture-x-protocols imagination-fest (current humanities/social science scholars, artists/writers/philosophers, protocol scientists, etc.)
  2. Seapunk futures cum memetic workshop (speculative nonfiction a la Cascadia and other pills)
  3. A SEA-perspective general teaching curriculum, perhaps open-source (most teaching in the region is still narrowly nation-centric)

And a final closing thought. If protocols deserve to be first-class concepts for thinking about the world, then I think this workshop has made a strong case that SEA worldviews and sensibilities deserve to be non-peripheral logics or lenses in both our mental and developmental toolkits.

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