Farewell to Martin Warnke

2021-12-01 Martin Warnke, Professor of Digital Media and Cultural Informatics at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media, and Director of the DFG MECS Institute for Advanced Studies in "Media Cultures of Computer Simulation ", retired in autumn 2021. He will remain associated with Leuphana as a visiting researcher.

Prof. Dr. Martin Warnke ©Prof. Dr. Martin Warnke
“The most amazing and exploration-worthy aspect of the internet today is the large-scale shift in the economic structure, such as the distribution of entertainment material, music, or films."

Martin Warnke was one of the first researchers to come up with the idea of combining computer science and cultural studies scientifically. After the doctor of physics joined the former University of Lüneburg in the early 1980s, he initially conducted quite conventional computer research on the BS2000 operating system platform and the TRS-80 microcomputer system. "But my fellow researchers and I soon had the impression there was something missing," says Warnke. “For a purely technical approach to computer science leaves out parts, which means you no longer understand cultural developments." He observed that computer science systematically disregards large parts of its research subject: "Computer science is often only interested in the most advanced technical method, in 'something to make a song and dance about'. People often don't understand that both the development, i.e. the way there, and previous methods can also be interesting. If we only ever look at the technically most advanced stage, we also underestimate the fact that the solution and the question have to fit together: Sometimes, for example, it is more important that a solution is simple rather than top-notch." Warnke, appointed to the position of Akademischer Rat (senior lecturer) in 1984, consequently sought and found a connection to the humanities, but encountered another shortcoming there: "In literary studies and the humanities, experience with the rigidity, inflexibility and immobility of technology is often lacking, as is the mathematical training to be able to comprehend important basic concepts, such as complexity, growth, and susceptibility to interference."

In the nascent field of cultural studies of the 1990s and early 2000s, Warnke decided to merge the two fields and consequently, rather than entering it, invented the discipline of cultural informatics. This approach, highly unusual at the time, only became part of the scientific convention much later as "interdisciplinarity". While Warnke remained faithful to classical computer science in application-related terms by building and expanding the university's computer centre, he devoted himself entirely to cultural informatics in his research. In 1991, he and fellow campaigners launched the conference series "Hyperkult": "The basic idea was that we needed to invite people who understood a lot about the things we didn't understand well enough, in order to establish a common understanding of the phenomenon of digital media. In other words: artists, philosophers, and literary scholars. But we also invited computer scientists to discuss one focus of digital culture at a time. We wanted to do something that no one can do alone and that needs a shared commitment." Hyperkult quickly developed into a hub for exchanges on questions of media and digitality, attracting researchers from all over the world. In 2011, for example, Ivan Sutherland, inventor of computer graphics, joined in. The theme of that year's conference, "Trivialisation", is to some extent characteristic of Warnke's way of working: He focuses on a cultural practice that is virtually invisible due to its ordinariness, examines which technical mechanisms and preconditions underlie it and then shows how the cultural and the technical are mutually dependent: "The computer makes some things extremely simple, which are otherwise insanely difficult - for example, you can play music without having learned a classical instrument. This trivialisation is by no means intended to be negative, but is a characteristic of the development of information technology. In the case of culture, trivialisation concerns things that are particularly difficult to grasp and that are confusing. We can observe for ourselves that even toddlers are able to browse through photo collections on a tablet computer or smartphone. This is a breakthrough that could not have been predicted and has had a huge impact."

After his habilitation and appointment as an associate professor in 2008, Warnke left the computer centre to devote himself full-time to science. In 2010, together with Rolf Großmann, he founded the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media, led the DFG project "Meta-Image. A collaborative environment for the image discourse" and in 2013, together with Claus Pias, became director of the DFG MECS Institute for Advanced Studies in "Media Cultures of Computer Simulation". Being formatively involved in cultural informatics from the beginning allowed him to follow the macro-transformations of this discipline: "The topics and theories have shifted massively - from astonishment at the technical phenomenon to the fact that, at its core, it is no longer a technical phenomenon, but a social or economic and cultural one. The most amazing and exploration-worthy aspect of the internet today is probably more the large-scale shift in the economic structure, such as the distribution of entertainment material, music, films and the like: the shift in law and the emergence of internet companies that are more valuable than all the other companies that exist put together. This emergence of the internet's own economy and ecology is what needs a lot more explanation than the technical foundation, and is also now more important to underpin theoretically in order to understand the overall phenomenon."

If you read something on cultural informatics, you constantly come across Warnke, his “Theorien des Internets zur Einführung“ ("Theories of the Internet - an Introduction") has become a standard work. He digitised the Ebstorf World Map (and incidentally showed that this medieval world map anticipated the hypertext in its design principle of connected sections) as early as 1989 (before the invention of the World Wide Web), he had the privilege to meet Heinz von Förster, and he worked on artists like Anna Oppermann. When asked what was most important to him in his work, he says - it were the people he was able to stimulate, to move to participation, to encourage. "The most important thing for me was cooperation, to inspire people to come to Lüneburg. If Leuphana now has a certain reputation for working intelligently on digital cultures, then it is because people have come, for which I bear a certain small responsibility, that in fact they did come: Academics, but also students who now work here and elsewhere in IT and cultural institutions. Leuphana's IT infrastructure is managed by and responsible for graduates whom we trained. And this appeal, so to speak, is what I find important. That doesn't mean that it's my achievement, but that there have been effects due to an academic culture that also has to do with me, not exclusively, of course. It was always very important to me - and I appreciated it very much - that there were networks between people who realised that they could work well together and approach things in a similar way. When I look back, I think that is one of the most lasting effects: Having inspired people to come to Leuphana."