Before Techfestival‘s speakers and event partners’ dinner Thursday, Marie Louise Gørvild, Techfestival’s Director, and Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, its initiator, said a few words. Thomas cited the Copenhagen Letter from 2017 singling out how our tech needs to be embedded in the context of our democratic structures, and how innovation can’t be a substitute for our sense of progress and impact. The Copenhagen Letter, and the entire Techfestival emphasise humanity as not only the source and context for technology and its use, but its ultimate yardstick for the constructive use and impact of technology. This may sound obvious, it certainly does to me, but in practice it needs to be repeated to ensure it is used as such a yardstick from the very first design stage of any new technology.

20190905_201141At Techfestival Copenhagen 2019

Technology is always about humans to me. Technology is an extension of our bodies, an extension of reach and an extension of human agency. A soup spoon is an extension of our hand so we don’t burn our hand when we stir the soup. A particle accelerator is an extension of our ears and eyes to better understand the particles and atoms we’re made of. With technology we extend our reach across the globe by instantaneously communicating, extend it into the air, into the deep sea, towards the atom level, and into interstellar space. Tech is there to deepen and augment our humanity. In my daily routines it’s how I approach technology too, both in personal matters such as blogging, and in client projects, and apparently such an approach stands out. It’s what recently Kicks Condor remarked upon and Neil Mather pointed to in conversations about our blogging practices, what Heinz Wittenbrink referenced when he said “they talk about their own lives when they talk about these things” about our unconference, and what clients say about my change management work around open data.

Techfestival in Copenhagen takes humanity as the starting point for tech, and as litmus test for the usefulness and ethicality of tech. It therefore is somewhat grating to come across people talking about how to create a community for their tech to help it scale. Hearing that last week in Copenhagen a few times felt very much out of tune. Worse, I think It is an insulting way to talk about people you say you want to create value for.

Yes, some newly launched apps / platforms really are new places where communities can form that otherwise wouldn’t, because of geographic spread, shame, taboo or danger to make yourself visible in your local environment, or because you’re exploring things you’re still uncertain about yourself. All (niche) interests, the crazy ones, those who can’t fully express their own personality in their immediate environment benefit from the new spaces for interaction online tools have created. My own personal blog based peer network started like that: I was lonely in my role as a knowledge manager at the start of the ’00s, and online interaction and blogging brought me the global professional peer network I needed, and which wasn’t otherwise possible in the Netherlands at the time.

20190905_201346Techfestival’s central stage in Kødbyen, during an evening key-note

Otherwise, however, every single one of us already is part of communities. Their sports teams, neighbourhood, extended family, work context, causes, peer networks, alumni clubs, etc etc. Why doesn’t tech usually focus on me using it for my communities as is, and rather present itself as having me join a made up community whose raison d’etre is exploiting our attention for profit? That’s not community building, that’s extraction, instrumentalising your users, while dehumanising them along the way. To me it’s in those communities everyone is already part of where the scaling for technology is to be found. “Scaling does not scale” said Aza Raskin in his Techfestival keynote, and that resonates. I talked about the invisible hand of networks in response to demands for scaling when I talked about technology ‘smaller than us‘ and networked agency at SOTN18, and this probably is me saying the same again in a slightly different way. Scaling is in our human structures. Artists don’t scale, road building doesn’t scale but art and road networks are at scale. Communities don’t scale, they’re fine as they are, but they are the grain of scale, resulting in society which is at scale. Don’t seek to scale your tech, seek to let your tech reinforce societal scaling, our overlapping communities, our cultures. Let your tech be scaffolding for a richer expression of society.

Techfestival fits very much into that, and I hope it is what I brought to the work on the CPH150 pledge: the notion of human (group) agency. and the realisation that tech is not something on its own, but needs to be used in combination with methods and processes, in which you cannot ever ignore societal context. One of those processes is continuous reflection on your tech, right alongside the creation and implementation of your tech, for as long as it endures.

20190907_120354Our group of 150 working 24 hours on writing the TechPledge

As part of the Techfestival last week, the Copenhagen 150, which this time included me, came together to write a pledge for individual technologists and makers to commit their professional lives to. A bit like a Hippocratic oath, but for creators of all tech. Following up on the Copenhagen Letter, which was a signal, a letter of intent, and the Copenhagen Catalog which provide ‘white patterns’ for tech makers, this years Tech Pledge makes it even more personal.

I pledge

  • to take responsibility for what I create.
  • to only help create things I would want my loved ones to use.
  • to pause to consider all consequences of my work, intended as well as unintended.
  • to invite and act on criticism, even when it is painful.
  • to ask for help when I am uncertain if my work serves my community.
  • to always put humans before business, and to stand up against pressure to do otherwise, even at my own risk.
  • to never tolerate design for addiction, deception or control.
  • to help others understand and discuss the power and challenges of technology.
  • to participate in the democratic process of regulating technology, even though it is difficult.
  • to fight for democracy and human rights, and to improve the institutions that protect them.
  • to work towards a more equal, inclusive and sustainable future for us all, following the United Nations global goals.
  • to always take care of what I start, and to fix what we break.

I signed the pledge. I hope you will do to. If you have questions about what this means in practical ways, I’m happy to help you translate it to your practice. A first step likely is figuring out which questions to ask of yourself at the start of something new. In the coming days I plan to blog more from my notes on Techfestival and those postings will say more about various aspects of this. You are also still welcome to sign the Copenhagen Letter, as well as individual elements of the Copenhagen Catalog.

Just a month ago I wrote here about my reservations concerning the use of mobile phones as hotel room key. A hotel I will be staying at in the near future yesterday started sending me multiple (unasked) SMS’s to download their hotel app to ‘make my stay smarter’. Sure, I will trust download links in unrequested SMS! Today as I’ve ignored their messages I received an e-mail imploring me to do the same.

The app they ask me to use is called Aeroguest, and their pitch to me is about easier check-in/out, using chat to contact staff, and using my phone as door key. The first two I’d rather do in person, and the last one is not a good idea as explained in the above link.

Why such an app might be seen as attractive to the hotel, becomes clear if you look at the specifications of the app. A clear benefit is direct repeat bookings, saving the expensive middle men that booking sites are. In my case I almost always book through the hotel’s website directly. And if I enjoyed my stay I usually book the same hotel in a city for my next visit. I do use booking sites to find hotels. In this case I’ve stayed in this hotel several times before.

The stated benefits for the guest (key, chat, check-in/out, choosing your room) are a small part of the listed benefits for hotels in using the app, such as up-selling you packages before and during your stay. An ominous one, when seen from the guest’s perspective, is ‘third party services’ access presumably meaning potential access to your booking / stay history and maybe even payment / settlement information, requested preferences etc. Another, more alarming one, is “advanced indoor mapping” which I take means tracking of guests through the hotel which can yield information on time spent in hotel facilities, time spent in the room, how often / when the key was used, and by matching it with other guests, whom you might be meeting with that is also staying in the hotel. In Newspeak on the apps website in the data and analytics section this is described as “With transparency, you can proactively accommodate your guests’ needs.” Note that the guest is the one who is being made transparant. That is quite a price in exchange for being able to choose your specific room when checking in with the app.

I’ve replied to the hotel my reasons for not wishing to use the app (linking to my previous blogpost), and told them I look forward to checking in at reception in person when I arrive. When I arrive I am curious to hear more about their usage of the app. For now “making my stay smart” reads like the “smart cities” visions of old, it may be smart, but not for the individuals involved, merely for the service provider.

Since the summer I am holding three questions that are related. They all concern what role machine learning and AI could fulfil for an individual or an everyday setting. Everyman’s AI, so to speak.

The first question is a basic one, looking at your house, and immediate surroundings:

1: What autonomous things would be useful in the home, or your immediate neighbourhood?

The second question is more group and community oriented one:

2: What use can machine learning have for civic technology (tech that fosters citizen’s ability to do things together, to engage, participate, and foster community)?

The third question is perhaps more a literary one, an invitation to explore, to fantasise:

3 What would an “AI in the wall” of your home be like? What would it do, want to do? What would you have it do?

(I came across an ‘AI in the wall’ in a book once, but it resided in the walls of a pub. Or rather it ran the pub. It being a public place allowed it to interact in many ways in parallel, so as to not get bored)

A full decade ago I heard a very interesting talk by an Elsevier employee who had thought long and hard about ways in which a scientific publisher can be relevant again, since their original function of multiplication and distribution has become completely obsolete. It was a very good talk diving into what a scientist needs from the start till the end of her career, and what type of services Elsevier could offer.

A year later that person didn’t work there anymore and in subsequent years in meetings with e.g. the European Commission all I heard from them was delaying tactics to please let them go on a bit longer without changing, before making open access publishing completely mandatory as well as free availability of any and all publicly funded research.

Since then the Elseviers of this world, and even ‘innovations’ like JSTOR, have betrayed their original purpose of multiplication and distribution exchanging it for an extortionist business model, that not only is a huge financial drag on many universities that have tax money to spend but also completely exclude all scientists around the world that cannot afford the rent-seeking practices of these publishers. They need to go.

Read Elsevier: “It’s illegal to Sci-Hub.” Also Elsevier: “We link to Sci-Hub all the time.” (Boing Boing)

Elsevier: “It’s illegal to Sci-Hub.” Also Elsevier: “We link to Sci-Hub all the time.”