[Reader-list] Any Questions?

Monica Narula monica at sarai.net
Sat Sep 29 15:40:08 IST 2001

Following is a piece by Saul Albert, which i agree with most deeply! 
(I am always unable to ask questions in the panel-floor designed 
public fora). Maybe its time for us to demand alternative design to 
thinking and speaking publicly...

Any Questions?

To my horror some people actually asked me questions during the 
inevitable question time that followed  a 15 minutes talk I gave 
about Open Source and Art practice at the Arts Council of England's 
"Open" event (www.thisisnot.com). I didn't really understand them and 
either ignored them entirely or spluttered incomprehensible and 
dismissive responses.

Although the substance of the talk I gave emphasised the value of 
Open Source strategies of distributed authorship, the physical set-up 
of the discussion (speaker behind mic facing chairs containing 
audience) was not , of course condusive to any kind of collaborative 
engagement. This was not  a bad thing in my opinion. It was a 15 
minute talk, not something you would think likely to be improved by 
everyone talking at once.

However, the traditional opening for other voices comes at the end 
when the chair asks for questions from the "floor". This lowly status 
of "floor" often seems wholly applicable to those poor wretches that 
inhabit it because
of the (often) poor quality of questions asked and the answers given.

There are good reasons for this:

1). The questioner is usually nervous.

I am always nervous about asking questions in lectures. My voice 
shakes and squeaks, my knees feel weak, I garble my words, or use the 
wrong ones, make non-grammatical sentences and am incomprehensible to 
everyone including myself. This is most probably because in order to 
ask a question in that environment you have to put up your hand 
(classroom traumas come to mind), a person with a mic rushes over to 
you and you hold it, Karaoke style, as the attention  of the room 
swings round 180 degrees to face you. Then you have to try to control 
your voice while worrying about your sweaty palms and the fact that 
you can't remember what it was you wanted to say anyway.

2). The questioner usually doesn't actually have a question.

After most lectures I have an opinion, and am occasionally roused to 
speak it because I think it will be useful or relevant to the speaker 
and the other audience members. Any direct questions that come to 
mind often seem
too banal to raise in that context. A question is usually something 
technical or simple, relating to the minutiae of the speaker's topic 
or experience "How many of ..." or  "Did .... work..." etc... What 
usually happens is that someone has an opinion that they want to make 
known, but because of the situation they feel forced into formulating 
it as a question. This leads to long, rambling, incomprehensible 
questions that often end with "What do you think about that..." or 
"Could you respond to that" when often the speaker's opinion is not 
really needed for the point to be made.

3). The speaker doesn't have time to think about it.

In the unlikely event of a good question being asked (occasionally 
someone skilled enough in public speaking and with a quick tongue can 
do this) the speaker doesn't have time to think of a good answer. The 
public context and
the shifting of attention (like a tennis ball) from speaker to 
audience to speaker adds a confrontational or competitive edge to 
most questions. It seems as if the speaker were to say "you've got me 
there" or "um..I don't
know" then they would have "lost". This is an extension of a long 
tradition of academic debate and public/peer review that is, as 
Michelle Serres puts it "Based on a militaristic model of 
truth-finding, where the strongest
competitor in an argument determines what is and is not true". The 
situation inevitably leads to the questioner and the speaker 
"defending" their arguments and really trying to cover up the 
weaknesses in their story rather than attempting to take on board 
anything that the other has said.

What I would have liked to see at this event is a more productive way 
of carrying on discussions. "Any questions" would be better replaced 
with "Does anyone have anything to say", and any non-technical 
questions could be
continued constructively in a bulletin board or a pre-arranged q&a 
e-mail session (where each party has time to think up a useful 

Saul Albert
Monica Narula
Sarai:The New Media Initiative
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110 054

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