During our work on shaping the Tech Pledge last week, we looked into progress as it is mentioned in the Copenhagen Letter as being different from just innovation. The Copenhagen Letter was written in 2017 as output of the same process that now delivered the Tech Pledge.

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Thomas, Techfestival’s initiator, reading the Copenhagen Letter
at the start of this year’s CPH150

Progress is not a fixed point on the horizon we said. What is progress shifts, with public opinion and new ideas of what is good, just, true and beautiful emerging, and with the movement of time itself. When the first steam engines appeared their plumes of smoke heralded a new age, that drove industrialisation, nation forming and, through rail roads, changed what cities were for and how city and countryside relate to each other. Steam engines still exist at the very heart of every electricity plant in the world, but progress has moved on from the steam engine.
We also realised that progress does not have fixed and static definition, and so we are free to fill it with whatever definition we think fits in the context we are looking at.

In terms of technology then, progress is a motion, a process, and in our group we defined it as (new) technology plus direction/sense of purpose. Technology here, to me at least, being not just ‘hard tech’, but also ‘soft tech’. Our methods, processes, organisational structures are technology just as much as fountain pens, smart phones and particle accelerators.

So we named a number of elements that fit into this understanding progress as a process and search for direction.

  • It is a part of human nature to strive for change and progress, even if not every single individual in every context and time will be so inclined. This desire to progress is more about setting a direction than a fixed end state. Hence our use of “(new) technology with intended direction” as working definition.
  • We need to be accountable to how anything we make fits the intended direction, and additionally whether it not externalises human or ecological costs, or conflicts with our natural systems, as these are often ignored consequences.
  • We recognise that direction may get lost, or ends up in need of change, in fact we realise that anything we make is largely out of our control once released into the world.
  • So we pledge to continuous reflection on the direction our tech is taking us in practice. Not just during its development or launch, but throughout its use.
  • Whether we want to use the tech we created ourselves, or see our loved ones use it is a smell test, if it doesn’t pass our emotional response something is off.
  • What doesn’t pass the smell test needs to be explored and debated
  • We have a civic duty to organise public debate about the value and direction of our tech right alongside our tech. Not just at the start of making tech, but throughout the life cycle of something you make. If you make something you also need to organise the continuous debate around it to keep a check on its societal value and utility, and to actively identify unintended consequences.
  • If our tech is no longer fit for purpose or takes an unintended turn, we have a duty to actively adapt and /or publicly denounce the aspect of our tech turned detrimental.

20190907_120354Working on the pledge

Regardless of what the Copenhagen Pledge says in addition to this, this reflective practice is something worth wile in itself for me to do: continuously stimulate the debate around what you make, as part and parcel of the artefacts you create. This is not a new thing to me, it’s at the core of the unconferences we organise, where lived practice, reflection and community based exploration are the basic ingredients.

To me what is key in the discussions we had is that this isn’t about all tech in general, though anyone is welcome to join any debate. This is about having the moral and civic duty to actively create public debate around the technology you make and made. You need to feel responsible for what you make from inception to obsolescence, just as you always remain a parent to your children, regardless of their age and choices as adult. The connection to self, to an emotional anchoring of this responsibility is the crucial thing here.

So there I was on a rainy Copenhagen evening finding myself in a room with 149 colleagues for 24 hours, nearing midnight, passionately arguing that technologists need to internalise and own the reflection on the role and purpose of their tech, and not leave it as an exercise to the academics in the philosophy of technology departments. A duty to organise the public debate about your tech alongside the existence of the tech itself. If your own tech no longer passes your own smell test then actively denounce it. I definitely felt that emotional anchoring I’m after in myself right there and then.

Lesson 1 on crisis communication. Come. Clean. Fully. Immediately. Otherwise it is a drip drip drip drip of trust erosion, until everything crumbles. My university friend D did his thesis on crisis comms, in the aftermath of having lived through and closely experiencing a crisis in our home town. Just under 20 years on, the lesson is still accurate.

It is additionally hard on those who, based on the limited earlier disclosures chose to stand with you, if you then are found out to not have disclosed the entire story.

(previously posted on this.)

(ht Ronan Farrow via Hossein Derakhshan)

Read How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein (The New Yorker)

New documents show that the M.I.T. Media Lab was aware of Epstein’s status as a convicted sex offender, and that Epstein directed contributions to the lab far exceeding the amounts M.I.T. has publicly admitted.

“People only complain about their availability.”

Alper points to a good overview of the system in English. I’ve mentioned the Dutch public transport bicycle here almost a decade ago, but this is a good reason to revisit that post.

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Two people coming out of The Hague Central Station with a yellow and blue OV Fiets, just now as I walked past

OV Fiets, OV short for Openbaar Vervoer which means public transport, and fiets meaning bicycle, so PT bikes, was started in 2003 by the NS rail company at a handful of large railway stations. With public transport, especially rail, the last part of the trip, getting from the station to your destination is always the tricky part. Where walking is too far or inconvenient, buses or taxis might help but they take up way more time in inner cities, and buses still don’t get you to the door of your destination. Basically anything within 20 minutes by bicycle (meaning 7km or so), the bike easily wins over any other mode of transport. OV Fiets was set-up for those distances, as a way to stimulate more people to take the train. The reasoning is that if there’s less friction to get from the station to your destination more people will choose the train over taking the car. Everyone in the Netherlands already has a bicycle to get to the railway station from home, the need is in the last leg of a trip.

Since 2004 when my work meant much more travel, I use the train as much as possible. On a train I can still work (or blog, I’m writing this on a train that just left The Hague), which isn’t the case in the car . That more than makes up for situations where a car might be faster. I started using OV Fiets early 2010 when their availability was expanded to general availability at railway stations across the country, beyond just the first handful they experimented with and some other bigger cities. Currently all railway stations provide OV Fietsen, large railway stations from multiple locations, and increasingly fully automated.

You pick up a bike when you arrive by train, and return it before taking your train home. Over 20.000 bikes are available across the country.

Wherever I go in the Netherlands I can pick up a bike and be on my way well within 5 minutes from getting off a train. My (free) subscription is connected to my public transport payment card. I swipe the card and get a bike. Each time I pick up a bike I get billed just under 4 Euro’s, which covers 24 hours. Once a month I get e-mailed an itemised bill, which is automatically paid from my bank account. A subscription allows you to pick-up 2 bikes at a time, which also comes in handy when we have guests for a day or two, to provide them with their own bicycles through my and E’s subscription. Tuesday this week I used an OV Fiets with a colleague in Haarlem, where my client’s offices are located a 20-25 minute walk from the station, which can be covered by bike in 5-6 minutes. That’s a typical example.

In 2011 over 1 million bicycle pick-ups in a year were logged for the first time. 3 million in 2017, 4.2 million in 2018. The first 5 months of this year saw 2.2 million bicycle pick-ups already, a 30% increase compared to the 1.7 million pick-ups in the first 5 months of 2018.

When you get to public buildings or event venues it is very common to see a large number of the bright yellow and blue bicycles parked out front. All are numbered, and that number is also on your key, so it’s easy to find your own bike back.

In a decade of use I never had any issue with the public transport bikes. The only complaint is that sometimes, when I arrive shortly after the morning rush hour, large city stations may have run out of bikes. This happened to me a very few times. It is also the only common feedback on the system, as quoted at the top. Because bicycles are picked up and returned at railway stations which all have bike parking facilities, they don’t clutter up sidewalks and don’t require infrastructure on the city streets themselves.

More OV-Fiets
OV Fietsen in a railway station bicycle parking. (Image by Alper, license CC BY)

A project I’m involved has won funding from the SIDN Fund. SIDN is the Dutch domain name authority, and they run a fund to promote, innovate, and stimulate internet use, to build a ‘stronger internet for all’.
With the Open Nederland association, the collective of makers behind the Dutch Creative Commons Chapter, of which I’m a board member, we received funding for our new project “Filter me niet!” (Don’t filter me.)

With the new EU Copyright Directive, the position of copyrights holders is in flux the coming two years. Online platforms will be responsible for ensuring copyrights on content you upload. In practice this will mean that YouTube, Facebook, and all those other platforms will filter out content where they have doubts concerning origin, license or metadata. For makers this is a direct threat, as they run the risk of seeing their uploads blocked even while they clearly hold the needed copyright. False positives are already a very common phenomenon, and this will likely get worse.

With Filtermeniet.nl (Don’t filter me) we want to aid makers that want to upload their work, by inserting a bit of advice and assistance right when they want to hit that upload button. We’ll create a tool, guide and information source for Dutch media makers, through which they can declare the license that fits them best, as well as improve metadata. In order to lower the risk of being automatically filtered out for the wrong reasons.

Open Nederland heeft een eerste podcast geproduceerd. Sebastiaan ter Burg is de gastheer en Maarten Brinkerink deed de productie en muziek.

In de Open Nederland podcast komen mensen aan het woord komen die kennis en creativiteit delen om een eerlijke, toegankelijke en innovatieve wereld te bouwen. In deze eerste aflevering gaat het over open in verschillende domeinen, zoals open overheid en open onderwijs, en hoe deze op elkaar aansluiten.

De gasten in deze aflevering zijn:

  • Wilma Haan, algemeen directeur van de Open State Foundation,
  • Jan-Bart de Vreede, domeinmanager leermiddelen en metadata van Kennisnet en
  • Maarten Zeinstra van Vereniging Open Nederland en Chapter Lead van Creative Commons Nederland.

(full disclosure: ik ben zowel bestuurslid van Open Nederland als bestuursvoorzitter van Open State Foundation, waarvan CEO Wilma Haan in deze podcast deelneemt.)

SimCity200, adapted from image by m01229 CC-BY)

Came across an interesting article, and by extension the techzine it was published in: Logic.
The article was about the problematic biases and assumptions in the model of urban development used in the popular game SimCity (one of those time sinks where my 10.000 hours brought me nothing 😉 ). And how that unintentionally (the SimCity creator just wanted a fun game) may have influenced how people look at the evolution of cityscapes in real life, in ways the original 1960’s work the game is based on never has. The article is a fine example of cyber history / archeology.

The magazine it was published in, Logic (twitter), started in the spring of 2017 and is now reaching issue 7. Each issue has a specific theme, around which contributions are centered. Intelligence, Tech against Trump, Sex, Justice, Scale, Failure, Play, and soon China, have been the topics until now.

The zine is run by Moira Weigel, Christa Hartsock, Ben Tarnoff, and Jim Fingal.

I’ve ordered the back issues, and subscribed (though technically it is cheaper to keep ordering back-issues). They pay their contributors, which is good.


Cover for the upcoming edition on tech in China. Design (like all design for Logic) by Xiaowei R. Wang.