Thank you for being there!

This text is more than four years old – I can’t believe it’s that long. Time truly flies. It’s still a very important text for me. I would even go that far and say one of the best texts I’ve ever written. I just found it on my laptop – and coincidently I am right now on the same train where I was when I wrote itthe night train from Khajuraho to Delhi and then a flight back home to Europe.

My tribute to Peter Kruse!

Ours was a journey spanning some ten years that came to an abrupt end last week. Peter Kruse is dead. With him I have lost my key sparring partner in issues of the internet and networks. And I have lost my mentor – an inspirational man with an incredible ability to get right to the point and express his thoughts in marvelous language. What I admired about him most was that here was a man who really did “Walk his Talk”. He stood for everything he said and never said a word that he couldn’t back up. Bending, compromise, was not part of his nature. I consider myself highly privileged that he took me with him on his journey through the world of networks and the internet and that over the years and over many milestones we gradually moved forward – even though we never finally arrived. But that doesn’t matter because never arriving at some final point was part and parcel of the quest we were on. (I will miss his companionship badly on my further way.) Peter was my constant guide and the guidance he gave in the shape of his analyses and pronouncements gave me the reassurance I needed to continue to forge my own way.  

Our travels were in the realm of networks. Sometimes we called them internet. Sometimes open systems. Sometimes we. We mainly travelled alone at different ends of the globe – but the mental bond connecting us was always immediate and strong. A mental bond composed of shared values we both held dear. Physically separated yet very close. Just as happens so often in networks. Peter once called me an “impassioned maverick” and I took this as a huge compliment because passion and a disregard for all kinds of restrictions and marker boundaries were exactly the qualities that distinguished him from so many others. And I recognized that he saw something similar in me.

I will never forget that first meeting of ours. Lutz Berger, a colleague of mine from Heidelberg, asked me to do an interview with him. I’d never even heard his name. But in that first interview in Bremen I was at the receiving end of a true intellectual tour de force. When I finally emerged from those two hours I was literally shattered. I’d only managed to grasp a few bits of what he was saying in answer to my questions. He spoke so quickly and his arguments were so compressed and precise and couched in such academic language that I’d have needed a dictionary to decipher it. I struggled vainly to keep up. But somehow I muddled through and Lutz behind the camera managed to show me in not too bad a light. We produced the video and published it on YouTube in little one question one answer excerpts. It was about creativity, networks and in a tentative kind of way about the potential packed by the internet. The videos went viral and have now been viewed over one million times. It was the beginning of an extraordinary and unusual partnership which over the years grew into a beautiful friendship.

Following from this interview we launched into experiments with various interactive event formats. Peter was especially fond of live streaming where without any kind of preparation he could grapple with the questions viewers posed. These events were always excitement-packed high octane occasions. For everyone involved.

As I began to understand the market research tools Peter used and his analyses, I began to get a much clearer idea of the parallels between them and networks. Peter‘ s way of approaching and understanding the internet, hesitant at first, came from a completely different background to my own which made it fascinating to watch. Yet as a system theorist and network analyst he soon became enthusiastic about the possibilities inherent in this new infrastructure. Like no one else in Germany – and I could also say like no one else in the entire world – Peter explained the internet and made it understandable. He supplied the theoretical framework to those suddenly eruptive resonance effects, a new phenomenon at the time. And the internet community embraced him and loved him for this, especially after his spectacular lecture at re-publica 2010. They had found a new leader, a new guru.

Yet these were mantels Peter resisted putting on however much people might urge him to do so. Right up to his death he remained a critical admonitory figure tirelessly advocating use of the internet for what it is – an open system with its own unprecedented level of dynamics and unpredictability. His writings in favor of an understanding of the internet as a new system in its own right, not one that improves on what was already there or adds new elements to it should live on after him. Seeing the network as a possibility for understanding complex problems and moving collectively to solve them is a huge – and as he saw it – largely untapped potential. And what I would love to see is that Peter‘s numerous followers and all those people he enthused with his talks would begin to realize this potential. That would be a good way of keeping Peter among us.

I’ve lost count of the many hours of video I spent producing with him, of all the draft texts I’ve worked through and of the many hours spent puzzling over the right word with Paul Morland, his English translator. Words were important for Peter. They weren’t just “used” by him –they always had a definite meaning and were always well chosen. Each of his tweets was a minor literary masterpiece – now cautionary, now encouraging. Never basely self-serving. Always with something vital to say. He was always precise and meticulous in his dealings with language. For him mutual understanding, debate and discussion were the bedrock on which collective action was based. This is why among things he also joined DNA digital – the dialog between digital natives and managers – which he saw as a light at the end of the HR tunnel. It was the process of dialog built on DNA digital that fascinated him.

Our common way had many high points. Each of them brought us a little nearer to understanding the unique qualities of the Net and how we could exploit them for tackling problems. And they also brought us forward in our own mutual understanding. From that first – and in my view horrendous – interview where I was completely at sea, a succession of stages like SCOPE, DNA digital, a two hour recording of a Skype call on “The Meltdown of Corporate Values”, “Think Quarterly” the first Google book, Peter‘s participation in the German Bundestag’s enquiry commission, our NATO workshop in the run-up to the NATO Summit in Chicago 2013 and finally last year the Forum on Good Leadership have nurtured a ready mutual understanding such that I no longer need to reach for the dictionary to grasp what Peter intends to say. I have a much clearer appreciation of his statements and thoughts.

The most enduring of our concerns was Peter’s idea and desire to found an institute for inculcating a better understanding of the complex processes that underpin our co-existence in society and for promoting dialog to make the world we live in a better place. He was extremely worried about the increasing number of rifts and gulfs opening up in our society which, as the number of surveys he conducted made only too clear, large sections of the population now perceive as serious threats.

My first interview with him on this issue took place three or four years ago. Yet the pressing sense of urgency with which Peter drove this idea only increased in the meantime. This unprecedented sense of unease was also very apparent in the last interview I made with him – just four weeks and a whole world ago when we were sitting beside the pond in the garden of his house in Barnstorf. I had flown in from India specially to make it. The interview was actually about something quite different – about the fifth anniversary of the OUBEY MINDKISS online project, a highly unconventional interactive art project that Peter had watched and supported from its inception. In the way that this project willfully ignores and circumvents the established art business – in its “provocative stance” as he called it – he saw the exciting beginnings of a new art market system in which art would once more be a major force for the creation of cultural values and stop being debased as an investment asset in the world of financial capitalism. He took this conversation as an opportunity to call on each of us to rethink such fundamental questions as “What kind of a society do we want to live in?”, “Don’t we need to redefine the concept of capital?”, “What happens to a system when it loses its favorite bogeyman?”, “Don’t we need spaces free of commercial market mechanisms?” It were precisely questions of this kind that his cherished institute would have addressed.

And these are the questions I shall continue to devote myself to after his death and, as he would have wished, use the network and its inherent collective intelligence as a means for supplying answers.

Now once more I am travelling from India to Bremen. The last lines of this text were written in the night train from Khajuraho to Delhi. Then comes the evening flight to Germany. An acutely painful last journey. In a time of great tumult. The future of the internet hangs in the balance as great inroads are now being made into the democratic free spaces that seemed to spring up so effortlessly.

I still can’t fully comprehend Peter’s death but one thing is certain – I will miss him dreadfully on my further journey – somehow something in me has also died.

Peter in a beach chair in front of his office in Bremen.
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