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.

Dave Winer writes “we all feel disempowered“:

… people who feel disempowered figure there’s nothing they can do, no one would listen to me anyway, so I’ll just go on doing what I do. I know I feel that way.

He’s talking in the context of the US political landscape, but it applies in general too. Part of the solution he suggests is to

Invest in local news. And btw, I have a lot more to invest than money.

Two things stand out for me.

One is, that we’ve come accustomed to view everything through the lens of individualism. Yes, we’ve gained much from individualism, but by now we’ve also landed in a false dichotomy. The false dichotomy is the presumption that you need to solve something as an individual, or if you individually can’t then all is lost. It puts all responsibility for any change on the individual, while it is clear no-one can change the world on their own. It pitches individuals against society as a whole, but ignores the intermediate level: groups with agency.

The second false dichotomy is the choice between either the (hyper)local or the global. You remove litter from your street, or you set out to save the ozone layer. Here again there’s a bridge possible between those two extremes, the (hyper)local and the global. Where you do something useful locally that also has some impact on a global issue. Or where you translate a global issue to how it manifests locally and solves a local need. You can worry about global fossil fuel use and with a cooperative in your area generate green energy. You can run your own parts of a global infrastructure, while basically only looking to create a local service. It is not either local or global. It can be local action, leveraging the opportunities global connection brings, or to mitigate the fall-out of global issues. It can be global, as scaling of local efforts.

Local / global, individual / society aren’t opposites, they’re layers. Complexity resides in that layeredness. To help deal with complexity the intermediate levels between the individual and the masses, bridging the local and the global (note: the national level is not that bridge) is what counts. The false dichotomies, and the narratives they are used in, obscure that, and create disempowerment that way.

Disempowerment is a kind of despair. The answer to despair isn’t hope but action. Networked agency, looks at groups in context to solve their own issues, in the full awareness of the global networks that surrounds us. Group action in its own context, overlapping into other contexts, layered into global context, like Russian dolls.

Enige tijd geleden is een groep organisaties, zoals Waag Society, het initiatief PublicSpaces gestart. Binnen deze non-profit zoekt een groep organisaties de weg (terug) naar internet als gemeenschappelijk goed, weg van de social networking platforms die uiteindelijk alleen een commercieel doel dienen. Hoe dat zou moeten staat nog open volgens mij, al is er wel een manifest, en ik weet ook niet in hoeverre gedistribueerd denken (de onzichtbare hand van netwerken) echt een rol speelt. Het maakt in ieder geval nieuwsgierig. Het thema is zonder meer van groot belang, en er ‘broeit’ op allerlei plekken activiteit op dit vlak. Soms ‘klassiek’ geheel op technisch vlak voor een toepassing (zoals Mastodon), en soms in de breedte (zoals Next Generation Internet). PublicSpaces kiest zo te zien ook een maatschappelijke insteek, en dat is terecht. In het verleden heb ik het er met Marleen Stikker van Waag Society wel over gehad dat je een ‘nieuw maatschappelijk middenveld’ nodig hebt, dat zich heeft georganiseerd en werkt langs de lijnen van onze genetwerkte digitale wereld, en zichtbaar genoeg is voor het ‘klassieke’ middenveld en bijvoorbeeld de overheid.

Komende week is er een bijeenkomst in Arnhem, onder de titel “Het internet is stuk” waar PublicSpace centraal staat. Georganiseerd mede door Marco Derksen, zal Geert-Jan Bogaerts, hoofd digitaal van de VPRO en voorzitter van PublicSpaces de ideeën en plannen toelichten.

Het maximaal aantal plaatsen is al bereikt, en er is een wachtlijst, dus ik zal er zelf niet bij zijn. Maar Frank Meeuwsen wel, dus ik verwacht dat er wel wat impressies in zijn blog of dat van Marco Derksen (die er al onlangs over schreef) zullen verschijnen.

heat wave in bryant park
De publieke ruimte is het originele social media platform. Onze tools lijken er nog te weinig op. (photo Laura LaRose, license CC-BY)

This is a start to more fully describe and explore a distributed version of digitisation, digitalisation and specifically digital transformation, and state why I think bringing distributed / networked thinking into them matters.

Digitising stuff, digitalising routines, the regular way

Over the past decades much more of the things around us became digitised, and in recent years much of the things we do, our daily routines and work processes, have become digitalised. Many of those digitalised processes are merely digitised replicas of their paper predecessors. Asking for a government permit for instance, or online banking. There’s nothing there that wasn’t there in the paper version. Sometimes even small steps in those processes still force you to use paper. At the start of this year I had to apply for a declaration that my company had never been involved in procurement fraud. All the forms I needed for it (30 pages in total!), were digitised and I filled them out online, but when it came to sending it in, I had to print the PDF resulting from those 30 pages, and send it through snail mail. I have no doubt that the receiving government office’s first step was to scan it all before processing it. Online banking similarly is just a digitised paper process. Why don’t all online bank accounts provide nifty visualisation, filtering and financial planning tools (like alerts for dates due, saving towards a goal, maintaining a buffer etc.), now that everything is digital? The reason we laugh at Little Britains ‘computer says no’ sketches, is because we recognise all too well the frustration of organisations blindly trusting their digitalised processes, and never acknowledging or addressing their crappy implementation, or the extra work and route-arounds their indifference inflicts.

Digital transformation, digital societies

Digital transformation is the accumulated societal impact of all those digital artefacts and digitalised processes, even if they’re incomplete or half-baked. Digital transformation is why I have access to all those books in the long tail that never reached the shelves of any of the book shops I visited in decades part, yet now come to my e-reader instantly, resulting in me reading more and across a wider spectrum than ever before. Digital transformation is also the impact on elections that almost individually targeted data-driven Facebook advertising caused by minutely profiling undecided voters.

Digital transformation is often referred to these days, in my work often also in the context of development and the sustainable development goals.
Yet, it often feels to me that for most intents and purposes this digital transformation is done to us, about us but not of us. It’s a bit like the smart city visions corporations like Siemens and Samsung push(ed), that were basically devoid of life and humanity. Quality of life reduced and equated to security only, in sterilised cities, ignoring that people are the key actors, as critiqued by Adam Greenfield in 2013.

Human digital networks: distributed digital transformation

The Internet is a marvellous thing. At least it is when we use it actively, to assist us in our routines and in our efforts to change, learn and reach out. As social animals, our human interaction has always been networked where we fluently switch between contexts, degrees of trust and disclosure, and routing around undesired connections. In that sense human interaction and the internet’s original design principle closely match up, they’re both distributed. In contrast most digitalisation and digital transformation happens from the perspective of organisations and silos. Centralised things, where some decide for the many.

To escape that ‘done to us, about us, not of us’, I think we need to approach digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation from a distributed perspective, matching up our own inherently networked humanity with our newly (since 30 yrs) networked global digital infrastructure. We need to think in terms of distributed digital transformation. Distributed digital transformation (making our own digital societal impact), building on distributed digitisation (making our things digital), and on distributed digitalisation (making our routines digital).

Signs of distributed digitisation and digitalisation

Distributed digitisation can already be seen in things like the quantified self movement, where individuals create data around themselves to use for themselves. Or in the sensors I have in the garden. Those garden measurements are part of something you can call distributed digitalisation, where a network of similar sensors create a map of our city that informs climate adaptation efforts by local government. My evolving information strategies, with a few automated parts, and the interplay of different protocols and self-proposed standards that make up the Indieweb also are examples of distributed digitalisation. My Networked Agency framework, where small groups of relationships fix something of value with low threshold digital technology, and network/digital based methods and processes, is distributed digitisation and distributed digitalisation combined into a design aid for group action.

Distributed digital transformation needs a macroscope for the new civil society

Distributed digital transformation, distributed societal impact seems a bit more elusive though.
Civil society is increasingly distributed too, that to me is clear. New coops, p2p groups, networks of individual actors emerge all over the world. However they are largely invisible to for instance the classic interaction between government and the incumbent civil society, and usually cut-off from the scaffolding and support structures that ‘classic’ activities can build on to get started. Because they’re not organised ‘the right way’, not clearly representative of a larger whole. Bootstrapping is their only path. As a result these initiatives are only perceived as single elements, and the scale they actually (can) achieve as a network remains invisible. Often even in the eyes of those single elements themselves.

Our societies, including the nodes that make up the network of this new type of civil society, lack the perception to recognise the ‘invisible hand of networks’. A few years ago already I discussed with a few people, directors of entities in that new civil society fabric, how it is that we can’t seem to make our newly arranged collective voices heard, our collective efforts and results seen, and our collective power of agency recognised and sought out for collaboration? We’re too used, it seems, to aggregating all those things, collapsing them into a single voice of a mouthpiece that has the weight of numbers behind it, in order to be heard. We need to learn to see the cumulative impact of a multitude of efforts, while simultaneously keeping all those efforts visible on their own. There exist so many initiatives I think that are great examples of how distributed digitalisation leads to transformation, but they are largely invisible outside their own context, and also not widely networked and connected enough to reach their own full potential. They are valuable on their own, but would be even more valuable to themselves and others when federated, but the federation part is mostly missing.
We need to find a better way to see the big picture, while also seeing all pixels it consists of. A macroscope, a distributed digital transformation macroscope.

When I talk about Networked Agency, I talk about reducing the barrier to entry for all kinds of technology as well as working methods, that we know work well in a fully networked situation. Reducing those barriers allows others to adopt these tools more easily and find power in refound ability to act. Networked agency needs tech and methods that can be easily deployed by groups, and that work even better when federated across groups and the globe-spanning digital human network.

The IndieWeb’s principles (own your own data, use tools that work well on their own, and better when federated, avoid silos as the primary place of where you post content) fit well with that notion.

Recently I said that I was coming back to a lot of my material on information strategies and metablogging from 2003-2006, but now with more urgency and a change in scope. Frank asked what I meant, and I answered

that the principles of the open web (free to use, alter, tinker, control, trust by you/your group) also apply to other techs (for instance energy production, blockchain, biohacking, open source hardware, cheap computing hardware, algorithms, IoT sensors and actuators) and methods (p2p, community building, social media usage/production, group facilitation etc.). Only then are they truly empowering, otherwise you’re just the person it is ‘done to’.

Blockchain isn’t empowering you to run your own local currency if you can only run it on de-facto centralised infrastructure, where you’re exposed to propagating negative externalities. Whether it is sudden Ethereum forks, or the majority of BTC transactions being run on opaque Chinese computing clusters. It is empowering only if it is yours to deploy for a specific use. Until you can e.g. run a block chain based LETS easily for your neighbourhood or home town on nodes that are Raspberry Pi’s attached to the LETS-members’ routers, there is no reliable agency in blockchain.

IoT is not empowering if it means Amazon is listening into all your conversations, or your fire alarm sensors run through centralised infrastructure run by a telco. It is empowering if you can easily deploy your own sensors and have them communicate to an open infrastructure for which you can run your own gateway or trust your neighbour’s gateway. And on top of which your group does their own data crunching.

Community building methods are not empowering if it is only used to purposefully draw you closer to a clothing brand or football club so they can sell your more of their stuff. Where tribalism is used to drive sales. It is empowering if you can, with your own direct environment, use those methods to strengthen local community relationships, learn how to collectively accommodate differences in opinions, needs, strengths and weaknesses, and timely reorient yourself as a group to keep momentum. Dave Winer spoke about working together at State of the Net, and 3 years ago wrote about working together in the context of the open web. To work together there are all kinds of methods, but like community building, those methods aren’t widely known or adopted.

So, what applies to the open web, IndieWeb, I see applies to any technology and method we think help increase the agency of groups in our networked world. More so as technologies and methods often need to be used in tandem. All these tools need to be ‘smaller’ than us, be ours. This is a key element of Networked Agency, next to seeing the group, you and a set of meaningful relationships, as the unit of agency.

Not just IndieWeb. More IndieTech. More IndieMethods.

How would the ‘Generations‘ model of the IndieWeb look if transposed to IndieTech and IndieMethods? What is Selfdogfooding when it comes to methods?

More on this in the coming months I think, and in the runup to ‘Smart Stuff That Matters‘ late August.

Data, especially lots of it, is the feedstock of machine learning and algorithms. And there’s a race on for who will lead in these fields. This gives it a geopolitical dimension, and makes data a key strategic resource of nations. In between the vast data lakes in corporate silos in the US and the national data spaces geared towards data driven authoritarianism like in China, what is the European answer, what is the proposition Europe can make the world? Ethics based AI. “Enlightenment Inside”.

French President Macron announced spending 1.5 billion in the coming years on AI last month. Wired published an interview with Macron. Below is an extended quote of I think key statements.

AI will raise a lot of issues in ethics, in politics, it will question our democracy and our collective preferences……It could totally dismantle our national cohesion and the way we live together. This leads me to the conclusion that this huge technological revolution is in fact a political revolution…..Europe has not exactly the same collective preferences as US or China. If we want to defend our way to deal with privacy, our collective preference for individual freedom versus technological progress, integrity of human beings and human DNA, if you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilization, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution . That’s the condition of having a say in designing and defining the rules of AI. That is one of the main reasons why I want to be part of this revolution and even to be one of its leaders. I want to frame the discussion at a global scale….The key driver should not only be technological progress, but human progress. This is a huge issue. I do believe that Europe is a place where we are able to assert collective preferences and articulate them with universal values.

Macron’s actions are largely based on the report by French MP and Fields Medal winning mathematician Cédric Villani, For a Meaningful Artificial Intelligence (PDF)

Visited the photo exhibit by Eddo Hartmann on North Korea in the Huis Marseille museum in Amsterdam last week.

What struck me was the similarity with the Eastern block countries in the 1980’s in terms of design looking like it got frozen from the moment that outside influences were banned or blocked. It seems that the price for removing outside influences is reduction of inspiration or creative friction resulting in stagnation of artistic expression (other than those sanctioned)

East Berlin 1987
Friedrichstrasse, East-Berlin in 1987, at least it was busy, even if the design was like the 50’s

Also the contrast between the often inhuman scale of monuments, buildings and roads and the general absence of traffic or crowds. Except maybe for rush-hour on the metro (the exhibit contained some 360 degrees VR videos of that). The emptiness of the photos looks to be confirmed by aerial footage in Google maps, that also shows an absence of traffic and passers-by that doesn’t rhyme with Pyongyang having 3 million or more inhabitants. It reminds me of the emptiness of Second Life a few years back, where the entire environment was built up but no-one was ever there, except during events. Of cities we expect a certain activity level at all times. The whole ‘the city that never sleeps‘ mythology.


Google maps aerial photo of Pyongyang showing mostly empty streets


Elmine exploring some video footage of Pyongyang in VR

Last week was the annual Dutch Design Week. A good reason to visit Eindhoven in the south, which over the past years has turned into a innovation and creativity hub as well as a city renewal hotspot. I’ve visited regularly in the past years and every time you find new endeavours on the crossroads of high-tech, design, art and science, business, and citizen activism. When we were looking for a new place to live we considered Eindhoven because of this palpable elan (we ultimately decided against it due to travel times to other areas). Instead we visit every now and then, e.g. for Dutch Design Week.

We had a pleasant day browsing through various exhibits and expositions, and enjoyed talking to the designers, engineers and craftsmen who created the things on display. For lunch we had pizza from a mobile wood fired oven, outside on a surprisingly mild day.

One of the designers showing their products is Bas Froon, whom we know since our university days. In the past few years, after a decade and a half of business consulting, he went to art academy, and now exhibited a machine he built to create products from a single material (a fiber enhanced plastic fabric) The material is soft and flexible but can become hard and very strong when heated and under pressure. It is for instance used in the automotive industry to make car bumpers. Bas built a cross between a 3d printer and a clothing iron to be able to selectively heat and harden parts of a piece of this fabric, from a digital design. That way you can make a baby carrying sling for instance from a single piece of fabric including all the clasps and fasteners and the cushions for the infant.

Dutch Design Week 2017
Bas Froon’s machine

I got some ideas about temporary furniture for a possible next unconference at home, from a project by a local packaging company challenging designers to come up with other uses for their cardboard.

Dutch Design Week 2017

Also fun to see plenty of Ultimakers in use.

Dutch Design Week 2017 Dutch Design Week 2017
Brabant Living Lab printing soundscapes, 3d representations of noise levels in the exhibition hall.

Dutch Design Week 2017Dutch Design Week 2017
local government involvement, and LoRa enable trashbins

Spotted on a t-shirt:
Dutch Design Week 2017

Now that I’ve formulated my overall perspective on Agency (part 1 on distributedness, part 2 on defining networked agency, part 3 on technology needs), this is a summary of the key points and their consequences. Half of these are general insights, condensed from what I’ve been exposed to and absorbed in the past 10-15 years or so. These points are why it matters. The novel combinations I think I contribute (marked in bold) provide the ‘how’ to that ‘why’ by delivering the agency towards increasing our agency. These points form my manifesto to act upon.

The key points in summary are:

  1. The agency deficit and potential.
    There are many issues where many people recognize they need or should find different solutions, because existing structures are failing, but do not see a viable path towards action for themselves. This is the current agency deficit. At the same time many existing tools and instruments are underused because of barriers to entry or the form in which they are currently available. This is the agency potential.
  2. The potential of distributedness.
    Distributed digital networks are similarly structured to human networks. Hierarchies and hubs superimposed on a distributed network are rigid edge cases that don’t fully use the flexibility distributed networks can provide. Human networks can more successfully use technology when the same type of flexibility and fluidity is present in the technology used. This is the path to agency.
  3. The relevant unit of agency is a person plus related group in context
    The unit of agency to consider is not the individual on her own, nor a general ‘target’ group, but the combination of a person and the subset of meaningful relationships for a real and given context. Agency is networked. That way both the individual’s capabilities and perspectives as well as those of the relationships involved can be leveraged. This means that to discuss agency it needs to be done for specific contexts, and with knowledge of the relationships involved. No generic answers are possible, although examples are.
  4. Networked agency is the sum of striking power, resilience and agility
    Because your context does not exist in a vacuum but in a global network of other contexts and connections, agency is not merely about what you can do in your context (striking power), but also how you can mitigate (resilience) or leverage (agility) the consequences of things propagating to you from outside of it
  5. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ technology need to be always used in combination
    Methods and processes that take human networks as a given in how we act, organize and learn (community building, networking, complexity management etc), in combination with distributed hard technology / science is the relevant scope of technology to consider. Not just ‘real’ tech. This combination is how you create the needed bridge and conduit between the digital and us humans, out of the combinations agency emerges.
  6. Technologies need to be ‘smaller‘ than us, barriers lowered
    We need to seek out, recombine, or create expressions of that technology that allows the context specific user group involved to deploy, alter, and trust or control it, without barriers to entry based on money, expert knowledge, or time consumption. This often means making the technology truly distributed, such that local expressions of it are independently possible in an interdependent global network. There is a range of promising technologies on this path that however need an extra push.
  7. Reasoning from a desired specific impact, not from technology features
    It is necessary to reason from the desired impact. Issues that cannot be solved by a single individual, nor on a general level by a group or mass, but only with the active involvement of the group of people it concerns are the ones to focus on. Issues are context specific, so is impact.
  8. Making it specific creates a design aid
    Putting a (list of) specific contexts (person plus meaningful relations) at one end, and a (list of possibly) desired impact on a specific issue at the other, with the lists of potential hard and soft technologies in between, such as in the image below, can be used as thinking aid and design aid.
    It allows you to explore possibilities based on selecting varying combinations of certain technologies, or specific combinations of technologies already available in the involved context, to see how to provide agency to contexts/groups towards desired impacts. This provides agency towards creating agency.

Agency by Ton Zylstra

In the past years Elmine and I have visited different cities for a longer time, to experience how it is to live there. For a month, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, we would stay in a city, and work from there, seeking out local entrepreneurs, while also enjoying the local food, coffee, and art on offer. Exposing ourselves to a different environment but not in a touristic capacity, provides inspiration, and generates new insights and ideas. We spent extended stays in Vancouver, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Berlin, Cambridge and Lucca, and are now exploring which city to set up camp in in the summer or fall of 2017. As I did in 2013 I asked around for suggestions, this time on Facebook. I got a long list of responses, which makes filtering and ultimately choosing likely a project in itself.

For us, for a city to qualify as a candidate it needs to be in Europe (as we want to drive there by car, given we are bringing our young daughter plus all the gear that entails), needs to have something to offer in terms of culture, and food, and good places to hang out in, but above all needs to have a few communities around new tech, start-ups, or other topics that we are interested in. This because we want to seek out new conversations and connections (such as when I organized the first Danish Data Drinks in Copenhagen in 2012).

Here are the (over 50!) suggestions we received, on a map:

Or see the list.

A number of weeks ago I read Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide in which he describes his and Edward Snowden’s personal experiences around, as well as the scope and depth of government surveillance disclosed by, the major NSA leak that has been rightly on our front pages for a full year now. What struck me after reading it is the curious gap between the personal impact and sense of enormousness of it all that Greenwald describes, and the blandness with which a lot of the factual material struck me personally. Somehow the emotional response to ‘they see everything’ is missing when you have no real clue as to who ‘they’ are, or what ‘everything’ really means, until e.g. your partner gets stopped at an airport because of it. Which in turn means that it will not trigger a lot of action for lack of short enough feedback loops. Yet, the precise point of leaking actual material and not just describing what is going on, is to trigger such a response.

Witchhunt Snowden
Witch hunt Snowden, part of a ‘walk‘ in Berlin I came across last May

The shocking bits of the NSA story to me are 1) the generic nature of capturing any and all data, 2) that it is mostly about economic advantage and only notionally about national security, 3) the callousness with which the overall internet infrastructure is purposefully weakened for all to gain what can only be a temporary information advantage, 4) the systemic lack of oversight in an opaque-by-design legal framework and a complicit tech-industry. They are shocking however on non-emotional abstract levels.

I can emphatize with the growing sense of excitement, anger and dismay that Snowden and Greenwald describe, but the factual material does not have that same emotional impact on me when it is presented to me, not having made that journey. Mostly because the really important part is of a statistical nature: the NSA is tapping into everything all the time, but that is hard to grasp or translate to my personally felt context. Whereas the singular stories on the NSA’s capabilities that do trigger emotions if I project them on my own situation, are predominantly about situations where someone is specifically targeted, which I’d say is the regular description of espionage and not the thing to be concerned about.

I had the same with several Wikileaks stories, and reading accounts from those that were part of it: if you’re in it, discovering it, building the narrative, it is emotionally way more important and exciting than when you only see the finished result, regardless of the injustice exposed. My wife gets bored easily with my university fraternity stories for much the same reason (as they can’t really be boring, can they?). It is also why the German Chancellor is livid about her own phone being tapped, but not about 85 million German citizens being tapped: the small and personal trumps the enormous but general.

This is not to say I haven’t responded in practice: I have changed my on-line toolset and processes, and stopped using various US based data services such as Dropbox and Amazon’s Elastic Cloud where I was a paying customer, in favor of using European based and owned, alternatives. Those are all rational responses though, and are actually saving me money as well as making me generally safer online even disregarding the surveillance question. While the NSA leaks fed my existing unarticulated uneasiness concerning online security, it was spotting specific steps within my own sphere of influence that led me to act this spring, unrelated to the NSA leaks.

How do you make the abstract a personal emotion that triggers responses? Because responses to the NSA-leaks are certainly needed. How do you make systemic absurdity emotionally tangible? Vonnegut, Kafka, and Orwell come to mind but that type of literary processing is far removed from acting or working change in the here and now. Art can be a powerful way to tap into emotional responses though, and there are likely other ways. More on that in a next posting.

As we are in Berlin this week, we had the opportunity to visit the Ai Wei Wei exhibition ‚Evidence’ in the Martin Gropius Bau, just off what used to be Checkpoint C.

We have seen Ai’s work in several places, but never a large collection as this. It helped understand much more of the layers in his work, trying to make sense as well as show the absurdity of the rapid societal changes China has seen in the past few decades, and this being an authoritarian country thus very much blurring the lines between political activism and art.

Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei

The police demolishes your studio, they previously invited you to build to help create an art scene in Shanghai? Turn the bricks and other remnants into a monumental installation and call it ’Souvenir from Shanghai’. Or exhibit the hard drives and usb sticks that were confiscated during a search of your home, with the ‚evidence’ stickers attached to them.

Ai Wei Wei

Want to discuss the shoulder shrugs caused by the destruction of ancient city neighborhoods in favor of new concrete tower blocks? Destroy and spray paint even more ancient vases to cause an uproar and point out the hypocrisy.

Is the government refusing to discuss how corruption that led to bad quality buildings costs thousands of deaths amongst school children during an earthquake? Collect the names yourself, and use 200 tons (!) of concrete reinforcement bars pulled from the rubble as material for your installations, or turn them into marble as a memorial.

Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei

What also very much stood out for me is that the installations we see are merely the endpoint of a long process where the final work’s contours only emerge at the end. They are illogical as a sudden appearance but a logical outcome of the process involved. That process contains investigative journalism, diving into science and history just as much as reflecting on (western) art.

These glimpses of an artist’s process or his studio, the endless trying, the slow slog towards an object, is enormously fascinating to me. We can’t do enough to break the fiction that all the expressions and objects we laud as art are like Athena born ready made from the mind of the artist, but the result of time consuming exploration and hard work.

Thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition both as a window on how this particular artist works, as well as on China, of which we assume much but really know little.

We went to hear an interesting talk by Dutch investigative journalist Brenno de Winter on privacy and related issues this weekend. It is part of a series of privacy related talks and workshops held in our town in this and coming weeks.

To me, as I blogged in 2006 after that year’s Reboot Conference privacy is a gift by the commons to the individual, and not so much an intrinsic individual thing. It allows the individual to be part of the commons, to act in the public sphere. It also means to me that privacy is part of what makes the commons work: withouth a certain expectation of privacy no-one can participate in the commons, resulting in the absence of commons.

privacy in public
Privacy in Public, photo by Susan Sermoneta, CC-BY

That doesn’t mean privacy can do without protection. The commons collapses easily, especially when your information is disconnected from your physical presence, as is usually the case in our digital age. Where the commons collapses, because i.e. the social distance increases, or contexts change or fully drop away, there rules and instruments are needed.

In that light Brenno shared a few notions I wanted to capture and put in this context of the commons:

  • The “If you have nothing to hide, why bother?” argument introduces a false dilemma. It puts the onus on the individual who seeks privacy, and not on whether the other entity complies with existing privacy rules and laws (=a responsible member of the commons). It may also well be what is ok now, will carry dire consequences in the future (e.g. homophobia in Uganda) when the character of the commons changes especially radically.
  • In the Netherlands there are no consequences for disregarding privacy rules around data inside a data-using entity (e.g. staff nosing around in data they have nothing to do with, like doctors looking up medical files from famous patients they are not treating themselves). Others can act as if outside the commons without social scrutiny.
  • Whenever there is a data security breach the data holder is generally portrayed as the victim, and not the people who’s personal data it is, or who are described by the data and who’s expectation of privacy in the commons got damaged. (as well as disregarding the fact that in the EU my personal data at company x is my data.)
  • The Dutch privacy watchdog CBP has 86 staff, compared to 1 million companies and government branches they need to watch. The watch dog has no teeth. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Privacy has weak anchors in Dutch law. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Why are there no (routine) impact assesments of measures that erode privacy in the name of security? If erosion of privacy is to be tolerated, the damage it constitutes to the commons needs to be not just balanced but surpassed by the benefits to the commons on other aspects.
  • All of these points are relevant to the question of how to maintain or extend the commons with rules and instruments, so that the gift of privacy can be given. By making sure the ‘infringing’ party is under similar social pressures to behave. By making sure we maintain a realistic balance when privacy needs to be temporarily eroded for the sake of the commons (that is the source of privacy).

    When privacy breaks down also the commons itself breaks down, as privacy is the pathway and the trust base for taking part in the public sphere.