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.

At Open Belgium 2019 today Daniel Leufer gave an interesting session on bringing philosophy and technology closer together. He presented the Open Philosophy Network, as an attempt to bring philosophy questions into tech discussions while preventing a) the overly abstract work going on in academia, b) not having all stakeholders at the table in an equal setting. He aims at local gatherings and events. Such as a book reading group, on Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Or tech-ethics round table discussions where there isn’t a panel of experts that gets interviewed but where philosophers, technologists and people who use the technology are all part of the discussion.

This resonated with me at various levels. One level is that I recognise a strong interest in naive explorations of ethical questions around technology. For instance at our Smart Stuff That Matters unconference last summer, in various conversations ethical discussions emerged naturally from the actual context of the session and the event.
Another is that, unlike some of the academic efforts I know, the step towards practical applicability is expected and needed sooner by many. In the end it all has to inform actions and choices in the here and now, even when nobody expects definitive answers. It is also why I myself dislike how many ethical discussions pretending to be action oriented are primarily connected to future or emergent technologies, not to current technology choices. Then it’s just a fig leaf for inaction, and removing agency. I’m more a pragmatist, and am interested in what achieves actual improvements in the here and now, and what increases agency.
Thirdly I also felt that there are many more connections to make in terms of open session formats, such as Open Space, knowledge cafés, blogwalks, and barcamps, and indeed the living room experience of our birthday unconferences. I’ve organised many of those, and I feel the need to revisit those experiences and think about how to deploy them for something like this.This also applies to formulating a slightly more structured approach to assist groups in organisations with naive ethical explorations.

The point of ethics is not to provide definitive answers, but to prevent us using terrible answers

I hope to interact a bit more with Daniel Leufer in the near future.

Kars Alfrink pointed me to a report on AI Ethics by the Nuffield Foundation, and from it lifts a specific quote, adding:

Good to see people pointing this out: “principles alone are not enough. Instead of representing the outcome of meaningful ethical debate, to a significant degree they are just postponing it”

This postponing of things, is something I encounter all the time. In general I feel that many organisations who claim to be looking at ethics of algorithms, algorithmic fairness etc, currently actually don’t have anything to do with AI, ML or complicated algorithms. To me it seems they just do it to place the issue of ethics well into the future, that as yet unforeseen point they will actually have to deal with AI and ML. That way they prevent having to look at ethics and de-biasing their current work, how they now collect, process data and the governance processes they have.

This is not unique to AI and ML though. I’ve seen it happen with open data strategies too. Where the entire open data strategy of for instance a local authority was based on working with universities and research entities to figure out how decades after now data might play a role. No energy was spent on how open data might be an instrument in dealing with actual current policy issues. Looking at future issues as fig leaf to not deal with current ones.

This is qualitatively different from e.g. what we see in the climate debates, or with smoking, where there is a strong current to deny the very existence of issues. In this case it is more about being seen to solve future issues, so no-one notices you’re not addressing the current ones.

To me there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with plans I come across where companies would pay people for access to their personal data. This is not a well articulated thing, it just feels like the entire framing of the issue is off, so the next paragraphs are a first attempt to jot down a few notions.

To me it looks very much like a projection by companies on people of what companies themselves would do: treating data as an asset you own outright and then charging for access. So that those companies can keep doing what they were doing with data about you. It doesn’t strike me as taking the person behind that data as the starting point, nor their interests. The starting point of any line of reasoning needs to be the person the data is about, not the entity intending to use the data.

Those plans make data release, or consent for using it, fully transactional. There are several things intuitively wrong with this.

One thing it does is put everything in the context of single transactions between individuals like you and me, and the company wanting to use data about you. That seems to be an active attempt to distract from the notion that there’s power in numbers. Reducing it to me dealing with a company, and you dealing with them separately makes it less likely groups of people will act in concert. It also distracts from the huge power difference between me selling some data attributes to some corp on one side, and that corp amassing those attributes over wide swaths of the population on the other.

Another thing is it implies that the value is in the data you likely think of as yours, your date of birth, residence, some conscious preferences, type of car you drive, health care issues, finances etc. But a lot of value is in data you actually don’t have about you but create all the time: your behaviour over time, clicks on a site, reading speed and pauses in an e-book, minutes watched in a movie, engagement with online videos, the cell towers your phone pinged, the logs about your driving style of your car’s computer, likes etc. It’s not that the data you’ll think of as your own is without value, but that it feels like the magician wants you to focus on the flower in his left hand, so you don’t notice what he does with his right hand.
On top of that it also means that whatever they offer to pay you will be too cheap: your data is never worth much in itself, only in aggregate. Offering to pay on individual transaction basis is an escape for companies, not an emancipation of citizens.

One more element is the suggestion that once such a transaction has taken place everything is ok, all rights have been transferred (even if limited to a specific context and use case) and that all obligations have been met. It strikes me as extremely reductionist. When it comes to copyright authors can transfer some rights, but usually not their moral rights to their work. I feel something similar is at play here. Moral rights attached to data that describes a person, which can’t be transferred when data is transacted. Is it ok to manipulate you into a specific bubble and influence how you vote, if they paid you first for the type of stuff they needed to be able to do that to you? The EU GDPR I think takes that approach too, taking moral rights into account. It’s not about ownership of data per se, but the rights I have if your data describes me, regardless of whether it was collected with consent.

The whole ownership notion is difficult to me in itself. As stated above, a lot of data about me is not necessarily data I am aware of creating or ‘having’, and likely don’t see a need for to collect about myself. Unless paying me is meant as incentive to start collecting stuff about me for the sole purpose of selling it to a company, who then doesn’t need my consent nor make the effort to collect it about me themselves. There are other instances where me being the only one able to determine to share some data or withhold it mean risks or negative impact for others. It’s why cadastral records and company beneficial ownership records are public. So you can verify that the house or company I’m trying to sell you is mine to sell, who else has a stake or claim on the same asset, and to what amount. Similar cases might be made for new and closely guarded data, such as DNA profiles. Is it your sole individual right to keep those data closed, or has society a reasonable claim to it, for instance in the search for the cure for cancer? All that to say, that seeing data as a mere commodity is a very limited take, and that ownership of data isn’t a clear cut thing. Because of its content, as well as its provenance. And because it is digital data, meaning it has non-rivalrous and non-excludable characteristics, making it akin to a public good. There is definitely a communal and network side to holding, sharing and processing data, currently conveniently ignored in discussions about data ownership.

In short talking about paying for personal data and data lockers under my control seem to be a framing that presents data issues as straightforward but doesn’t solve any of data’s ethical aspects, just pretends that it’s taken care of. So that things may continue as usual. And that’s even before looking into the potential unintended consequences of payments.

Next week it is 50 years ago that Doug Engelbart (1925-2013) and his team demonstrated all that has come to define interactive computing. Five decades on we still don’t have turned everything in that live demo into routine daily things. From the mouse, video conferencing, word processing, outlining, drag and drop, digital mind mapping, to real time collaborative editing from multiple locations. In 1968 it is all already there. In 2018 we are still catching up with several aspects of that live demonstrated vision though. Doug Engelbart and team ushered in the interactive computing era to “augment human intellect”, and on the 50th anniversary of The Demo a symposium will ask the question what augmenting the human intellect can look like in the 21st century.


A screenshot of Doug Engelbart during the 1968 demo

The 1968 demo was later named ‘the Mother of all Demos‘. I first saw it in its entirety at the 2005 Reboot conference in Copenhagen. Doug Engelbart had a video conversation with us after the demo. To me it was a great example, not merely of prototyping new tech, but most of all of proposing a coherent and expansive vision of how different technological components and human networked interaction and routines can together be used to create new agency and new possibilities. To ‘augment human intellect’ indeed. That to me is the crux, to look at the entire constellation of humans, our connections, routines, methods and processes, our technological tools and achieving our desired impact. Likely others easily think I’m a techno-optimist, but I don’t think I am. I am generally an optimist yes, but to me what is key is our humanity, and to create tools and methods that enhance and support it. Tech as tools, in context, not tech as a solution, on its own. It’s what my networked agency framework is about, and what I try to express in its manifesto.

Paul Duplantis has blogged about where the planned symposium, and more importantly us in general, may take the internet and the web as our tools.

Doug Engelbart on video from Calif.
Doug Engelbart on screen in 2005, during a video chat after watching the 1968 Demo at Reboot 7

Last week the 2nd annual Techfestival took place in Copenhagen. As part of this there was a 48 hour think tank of 150 people (the ‘Copenhagen 150‘), looking to build the Copenhagen Catalogue, as a follow-up of last year’s Copenhagen Letter of which I am a signee. Thomas, initiator of the Techfestival had invited me to join the CPH150 but I had to decline the invitation, because of previous commitments I could not reschedule. I’d have loved to contribute however, as the event’s and even more the think tank’s concerns are right at the heart of my own. My concept of networked agency and the way I think about how we should shape technology to empower people in different ways runs in parallel to how Thomas described the purpose of the CPH150 48 hour think tank at its start last week.

For me the unit of agency is the individual and a group of meaningful relationships in a specific context, a networked agency. The power to act towards meaningful results and change lies in that group, not in the individual. The technology and methods that such a group deploys need to be chosen deliberately. And those tools need to be fully within scope of the group itself. To control, alter, extend, tinker, maintain, share etc. Such tools therefore need very low adoption thresholds. Tools also need to be useful on their own, but great when federated with other instances of those tools. So that knowledge and information, learning and experimentation can flow freely, yet still can take place locally in the (temporary) absence of such wider (global) connections. Our current internet silos such as Facebook and Twitter clearly do not match this description. But most other technologies aren’t shaped along those lines either.

As Heinz remarked earlier musing about our unconference, effective practices cannot be separated from the relationships in which you live. I added that the tools (both technology and methods) likewise cannot be meaningfully separated from the practices. Just like in the relationships you cannot fully separate between the hyperlocal, the local, regional and global, due to the many interdependencies and complexity involved: what you do has wider impact, what others do and global issues express themselves in your local context too.

So the CPH150 think tank effort to create a list of principles that takes a human and her relationships as the starting point to think about how to design tools, how to create structures, institutions, networks fits right with that.

Our friend Lee Bryant has a good description of how he perceived the CPH150 think tank, and what he shared there. Read the whole thing.

Meanwhile the results are up: 150 principles called the Copenhagen Catalogue, beautifully presented. You can become signatory to those principles you deem most valuable to stick to.

Heinz Wittenbrink, who teaches content strategy at the FH Joanneum in Graz, reflected extensively on his participation in our recent Smart Stuff That Matters unconference.
We go back since 2006 (although I think we read each others blog before), when we first met at a BarCamp in Vienna. Later Heinz kindly invited me to Graz at several occasions such as the 2008 Politcamp (a barcamp on web 2.0 and political communication), and the 2012 annual conference of the Austrian association for trainers in basic education for adults.

He writes in German, and his blogpost contains a lot to unpack (also as it weaves the history of our interaction into his observations), so I thought I’d highlight and translate some quotes here. This as I find it rather compelling to read how someone, who’s been involved in and thinking about online interaction for a long time, views the event we did in the context of his and my work. And that some of what I’m trying to convey as fundamental to thinking about tools and interaction is actually coming across to others. Even if I feel that I’ve not yet hit on the most compelling way to formulate my ideas.

Heinz starts with saying he sees my approach as a very practice oriented one.
“Ton engages on a very practical level with the possibilities of combining the personal and personal relationships with the wider contexts in which one lives, from the local community to global developments. He has a technical, pragmatic and practice oriented approach. Also he can explain to others who are not part of a digital avantgarde what he does.”

And then places the birthday unconferences we did in that context, as an extension of that practice oriented approach. Something I realise I didn’t fully do myself.

“The unconference of last week is an example of how one can do things from a highly personal motivation – like meeting friends, talking about topics you’re interested in, conversing about how you shape your new daily routines after a move – and make it easy for others to connect to that. What you find or develop you don’t keep for yourself, but is made useful for others, and in turn builds on what those others do. So it’s not about developing an overarching moral claim in a small context , but about shaping and networking one’s personal life in such a way that you collectively expand your capabilities to act. Ton speaks of networked agency. Digital networking is a component of these capabilities to act, but only embedded in networks that combine people, as well as locations and technical objects.”

Speaking about the unconference he says something that really jumps out at me.

To list the themes [….of the sessions I attended…] fails to express what was special about the unconference: that you meet people or meet them again, for whom these themes are personal themes, so that they are actually talking about their lives when they talk about them. At an unconference like this one does not try to create results that can be broadcast in abstracted formulations, but through learning about different practices and discussing them, extend your own living practice and view it from new perspectives. These practices or ways of living cannot be separated from the relationships in which and with which you live, and the relationships you create or change at such an event like this.

Seeing it worded like that, that the topics we discussed, theorised about, experimented around, are very much personal topics, and in the context of personal relationships, hits me as very true. I hadn’t worded it in quite that way myself yet. This is however exactly why to me digital networks and human networks are so similar and overlapping, and why I see your immediate context of an issue, you and your meaningful relationships as the key unit of agency. That’s why you can’t separate how you act from your relationships. And why the layeredness of household, neighbourhood, city, earth is interwoven by default, just often not taken into account, especially not in the design phase of technology and projects.

Heinz then talks about blogging, and our earlier silent assumptions that novel technology would as per default create the right results. Frank’s phrasing and Heinz’s mention of the ‘original inspiration’ to blog resonate with me.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the people I had the most intensive conversations with have been blogging for a long time. They all stuck with the original inspiration to blog. Frank in his presentation called it “to publish your own unedited voice”. The openness but also the individuality expressed in this formulation was clearly visible in the entire unconference.

For me blogging was a way of thinking out loud, making a life long habit of note taking more public. The result was a huge growth in my professional peer network, and I found that learning in this networked manner accelerated enormously. Even if my imagined audience when I write is just 4 or 5 of people, and I started blogging as a personal archive/reflection tool, I kept doing it because of the relationships it helped create.

Continuing on about the early techno-optimism Heinz says about the unconference

The atmosphere at the unconference was very different. Of the certainties of the years shortly after 2000 nothing much remains. The impulses behind the fascination of yesteryear do remain however. It’s not about, or even less about technology as it was then, it’s about smart actions in themselves, and life under current conditions. It’s about challenging what is presented as unavoidable more than producing unavoidability yourself.

Only slowly I understand that technologies are much deeper embedded in social practices and can’t be separated from them. Back then I took over Ton’s concept of ‘people centered navigation’. Through the event last week it became clearer to me what this concept means: not just a ‘right’ efficient way to use tools, but a practice that for specific needs deliberately selects tools and in doing so adapts them.

People centered navigation is not a component of better more efficient mass media, but navigating information in reference to needs and capabilities of people in localised networks. Where above all the production of media and content in dialogue with a limited number of others is relevant, not its reception by the masses. Network literacies are capabilities to productively contribute to these localised networks.

Just like practice is inseparable from our relationships, our tools are inseparable from our practices. In networked agency, the selection of tools (both technology and methods) is fully determined by the context of the issue at hand and the group of relationships doing it. As I tried to convey in 2010 in my Maker Households keynote at SHiFT and indeed at the earlier mentioned keynote I gave at Heinz’s university on basic literacy in adult learning, networked literacies are tied to your personal networks. And he’s right, the original fascination is as strong as before.

Heinz finishes with adding the work of Latour to my reading list, by his last remark.

The attempt to shape your local surroundings intelligently and to consider how you can connect them in various dimensions of networks, reminds me of the localised politics in fragile networks that Bruno Latour describes in his terrestrial manifest as an alternative to the utopies and dystopies of globalisation and closed national societies. Latour describes earth as a thin layer where one can live, because one creates the right connections and maintains them. The unconference was an experiment to discover and develop such connections.

Thank you Heinz for your reflection, I’m glad you participated in this edition.

This reads like a design approach for institutions, for what I call Networked Agency:

This is not the book to convince you that the world
is changing and our systems are currently under
stress. The purpose here is to begin codifying the
practises of innovators who are consciously rethinking
institutions to better meet the challenges of
today. We describe this as stewardship: the art of
getting things done amidst a complex and dynamic
context. Stewardship is a core ability for agents of
change when many minds are involved in conceiving a
course of action, and many hands in accomplishing it.

The Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) wrote this already in 2013, a certain addition to my summer reading list: Legible Practices.
The HDL was in operation from 2008-2013, and maintains their archive on-line under a Creative Commons license (BY-SA). There’s more stuff there to read through, on using projects as probes, on hiring, and how openness isn’t enough to scale.


image Helsinki Design Lab, CC-BY-SA

At State of the Net 2018 in Trieste Hossein Derakshan (h0d3r on Twitter) talked about journalism and its future. Some of his statements stuck with me in the past weeks so yesterday I took time to watch the video of his presentation again.

In his talk he discussed the end of news. He says that discussions about the erosion of business models in the news business, quality of news, trust in sources and ethics are all side shows to a deeper shift. A shift that is both cultural and social. News is a two century old format, representative of the globalisation of communications with the birth of the telegraph. All of a sudden events from around the globe were within your perspective, and being informed made you “a man of the world”. News also served as a source of drama in our lives. “Did you hear,…”. These days those aspects of globalisation, time and drama have shifted.
Local, hyperlocal, has become more important again at the cost of global perspectives, which Hossein sees taking place in things like buying local, but also in Facebook to keep up with the lives of those around you. Similarly identity politics reduces the interest in other events to those pertaining to your group. Drama shifted away from news to performances and other media (Trumps tweets, memes, our representation on social media platforms). News and time got disentangled. Notifications and updates come at any time from any source, and deeper digging content is no longer tied to the news cycle. Journalism like the Panama Papers takes a long time to produce, but can also be published at any time without that having an impact on its value or reception.

News and journalism have become decoupled. News has become a much less compelling format, and in the words of Derakshan is dying if not dead already. With the demise of text and reason and the rise of imagery and emtions, the mess that journalism is in, what formats can journalism take to be all it can be?

Derakshan points to James Carey who said Democracy and Journalism are the same thing, as they are both defined as public conversation. Hossein sees two formats in which journalism can continue. One is literature, long-form non-fiction. This can survive away from newspapers and magazines, both online and in the form of e.g. books. Another is cinema. There’s a rise in documentaries as a way to bring more complex stories to audiences, which also allows for conveying of drama. It’s the notion of journalism as literature that stuck with me most at State of the Net.

For a number of years I’ve said that I don’t want to pay for news, but do want to pay for (investigative) journalism, and often people would respond news and journalism are the same thing. Maybe I now finally have the vocabulary to better explain the difference I perceive.

I agree that the notion of public conversation is of prime importance. Not the screaming at each-other on forums, twitter or facebook. But the way that distributed conversations can create learning, development and action, as a democratic act. Distributed conversations, like the salons of old, as a source of momentum, of emergent collective action (2013). Similarly, I position Networked Agency as a path away from despair of being powerless in the face of change, and therefore as an alternative to falling for populist oversimplification. Networked agency in that sense is very much a democratising thing.

Yesterday at State of the Net I showed some of the work I did with the great Frysklab team, letting a school class find power in creating their own solutions. We had a I think very nicely working triade of talks in our session, Hossein Derakshan first, me in the middle, and followed by Dave Snowden. In his talk, Dave referenced my preceding one, saying it needed scaling for the projects I showed to alter anything. Although I know Dave Snowden didn’t mean his call for scale that way, often when I hear it, it is rooted in the demand-for-ever-more-growth type of systems we know cannot be sustained in a closed world system like earth’s. The small world syndrom, as I named it at Shift 2010, will come biting.

It so often also assumes there needs to be one person or entity doing the scaling, a scaler. Distributed networks don’t need a scaler per se.
The internet was not created that way, nor was the Web. Who scaled RSS? Some people moved it forwards more than others, for certain, but unconnected people, just people recognising a possibility to fruitfully build on others for something they felt personally needed. Dave Winer spread it with Userland, made it more useful, and added the possibility of having the payload be something else than just text, have it be podcasts. We owe him a lot for the actual existence of this basic piece of web plumbing. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and Ben and Mena Trott of Movable Type helped it forward by adding RSS to their blogging tools, so people like me could use it ‘out of the box’. But it actually scaled because bloggers like me wanted to connect. We recognised the value of making it easy for others to follow us, and for us to follow the writings of others. So I and others created our own templates, starting from copying something someone else already made and figuring out how to use RSS. It is still how I adopt most of my tools. Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.

That’s why I fully agree with Chris Hardie that in the open web, all the tools you create need to have the potentiality of the network effect built in. Of course, when something is too difficult for most to copy or adapt, then there won’t be this network effect. Which is why most of the services we see currently dominating online experiences, the ones that shocked Hossein upon returning from his awful forced absence, are centralised services made very easy to use. Where someone was purposefully aiming for scale, because their business depended on it once they recognised their service had the potential to scale.

Dave Winer yesterday suggested the blogosphere is likely bigger now than when it was so dominantly visible in the ‘00s, when your blogpost of today could be Google’s top hit for a specific topic, when I could be found just on my first name. But it is so much less visible than before, precisely because it is not centralised, and the extravagant centralised silos stand out so much. The blogosphere diminished itself as well however, Dave Winer responded to Hossein Derakshan’s talk yesterday.

People still blog, more people blog than before, but we no longer build the same amount of connections across blogs. Connections we were so in awe of when our writing first proved to have the power to create them. Me and many others, bloggers all, suckered ourselves into feeling blog posts needed to be more like reporting, essays, and took our conversations to the comments on Facebook. Facebook, which, as Hossein Derakshan pointed out, make such a travesty of what web links are by allowing them only as separate from the text you write on Facebook. It treats all links as references to articles, not allowing embedding them in the text, or allowing more than one link to be presented meaningfully. That further reinforced the blog-posts-as-articles notions. That further killed the link as weaving a web of distributed conversations, a potential source of meaning. Turned the web, turned your timeline, into TV, as Hossein phrased it.

Hoder on ‘book-internet’ (blogs) and ‘tv-internet’ (FB et al) Tweet by Anna Masera

I switched off my tv ages ago. And switched off my FB tv-reincarnate nine months ago. In favour of allowing myself more time to write as thinking out loud, to have conversations.

Adriana Lukas and I after the conference, as we sat there enjoying an Italian late Friday afternoon over drinks, talked about the Salons of old. How we both have created through the years settings like that, Quantified Self meetings, BlogWalks, Birthday Unconferences, and how we approached online sharing like that too. To just add some of my and your ramblings to the mix. Starting somewhere in the middle, following a few threads of thought and intuitions, adding a few links (as ambient humanity), and ending without conclusions. Open ended. Just leaving it here.

At State of the Net yesterday I used the concept of macroscopes. I talked about how many people don’t really feel where their place is in the face of global changes, like climate change, ageing, the pressures on rules and institutions, the apparent precarity of global financial systems. That many feel whatever their actions, they will not have influence on those changes. That many feel so much of the change around them is being done to them, merely happens to them, like the weather.
Macroscopes provide a perspective that may address such feelings of being powerless, and helps us in the search for meaning.

Macroscopes, being the opposite of microscopes, allow us to see how our personal situation fits in a wider global whole. The term comes from John Thackara in the context of social end ecological design. He says a macroscope “allows us to see what the aggregation of many small interactions looks like when added together”. It makes the processes and systems that surrounds us visible and knowable.

I first encountered the term macroscope at the 2009 Reboot conference in Copenhagen where Matt Webb in his opening keynote invoked Thackara.
Matt Webb also rephrased what a macroscope is, and said “a macroscope shows you where you are, and where within something much bigger, simultaneously. To understand something much bigger than you in a human way, at human scale, in your heart.” His way of phrasing it stayed with me in the past years. I like it very much because it adds human emotion to the concept of macroscopes. It provides us with a place we feel we have, a sense of meaning. As meaning is deeply emotional.

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
Seeing the small …

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
and the bigger picture simultaneously. (Chuck Close self portrait 1995, at Drents Museum)

Later in his on stage conversation at State of the Net, Dave Winer remarked that for Donald Trump’s base MAGA is such a source of meaning, and I think he’s right. Even though it’s mostly an expression of hope that I typified in my talk as salvationism. (Someone will come along and make everything better, a populist, an authoritarian, a deity, or speakers pontificating on stage.) I’ve encountered macroscopes that worked for people in organisations. But sometimes they can appear very contrived viewed from the outside. The man who cleans the urinals at an airport and says he’s ensuring 40 million people per year have a pleasant and safe trip, clearly is using a macroscope effectively. It’s one I can empathise with as aiming for great hospitality, but it also feels a bit contrived as many other things at an airport, such as the cattle prodding at security and the leg room on your plane so clearly don’t chime with it. In the Netherlands I encountered two examples of working macroscopes. Everyone I encountered at the Court of Audit reflexively compares every idea and proposal to the way their institution’s role is described in the constitution. Not out of caution, but out of feeling a real sense of purpose as working on behalf of the people to check how government spends its money. The other one was the motto of the government engineering department responsible for water works and coastal defences, “Keeping our feet dry”. With so much of our country below sea level, and the catastrophic floods of 1953 seared in our collective memory, it’s a highly evocative macroscope that draws an immediate emotional response. They since watered it down, and now it’s back to something bloodless and bland, likely resulting from a dreary mission statement workshop.

In my talk I positioned networked agency as a macroscope. Globe spanning digital networks and our human networks in my mind are very similar in the way they behave, and hugely overlapping. So much so they can be treated as one, we should think in terms of human digital networks. There is meaning, the deeply felt kind of meaning, to be found in doing something together with a group. There’s also a tremendous sense of power to be felt from the ability to solve something for yourself as a group. Seeing your group as part, as a distinctive node or local manifestation, of the earth-wide human digital network allows you to act in your own way as part of global changes, and see the interdependencies. That also let’s you see how to build upon the opportunities that emerge from the global network, while being able to disconnect or shield yourself from negative things propagating over the network. Hence my call to build tools (technologies and methods) that are useful on their own within a group, as a singular instance, but more useful when federated with other instances across the global network. Tools shaped like that mean no-one but the group using it itself can switch their tools off, and the group can afford to disconnect from the wider whole on occasion.

Jonathan Gray has published an article on Data Worlds, as a way to better understand and experiment with the consequences of the datafication of our lives. The article appeared in Krisis, an open access journal for contemporary philisophy, in its latest edition dealing with Data Activism.

Jonathan Gray writes

The notion of data worlds is intended to make space for thinking about data as more than simply a representational resource, and the politics of data as more than a matter of liberation and protection. It is intended to encourage exploration of the performative capacities of data infrastructures: what they do and could do differently, and how they are done and could be done differently. This includes consideration of, as Geoffrey Bowker puts it, “the ways in which our social, cultural and political values are braided into the wires, coded into the applications and built into the databases which are so much a part of our daily lives”

He describes 3 ‘data worlds’, and positions them as an instrument intended for practical usage.

The three aspects of data worlds which I examine below are not intended to be comprehensive, but illustrative of what is involved in data infrastructures, what they do, and how they are put to work. As I shall return to in the conclusion, this outline is intended to open up space for not only thinking about data differently, but also doing things with data differently. The test of these three aspects is therefore not only their analytical purchase, but also their practical utility.

Those 3 worlds mentioned are

  1. Data Worlds as Horizons of Intelligibility, where data is plays a role in changing what is sayable, knowable, intelligible and experienceable , where data allows us to explore new perspectives, arrive at new insights or even new overall understanding. Hans Rosling’s work with Gapminder falls in this space, and datavisualisations that combine time and geography. To me this feels like approaching what John Thackara calls Macroscopes, where one finds a way to understand complete systems and one’s own place and role in it, and not just the position of oneself. (a posting on Macroscopes will be coming)
  2. Data Worlds as Collective Accomplishments, where consequences (political, social, economic) result from not just one or a limited number of actors, but from a wide variety of them. Open data ecosystems and the shifts in how civil society, citizens and governments interact, but also big data efforts by the tech industry are examples Gray cites. “Looking at data worlds as collective accomplishments includes recognising the role of actors whose contributions may otherwise be under-recognised.
  3. Data Worlds as Transnational Coordination, in terms of networks, international institutions and norm setting, which aim to “shape the world through coordination of data“. In this context one can think of things like IATI, a civic initiative bringing standardisation and transparency to international aid globally, but also the GDPR through which the EU sets a new de-facto global standard on data protection.

This seems at first reading like a useful thinking tool in exploring the consequences and potential of various values and ethics related design choices.

(Disclosure: Jonathan Gray and I wore both active in the early European open data community, and are co-authors of the first edition/iteration of the Open Data Handbook in 2010)

My current thinking about what to bring to my open data and data governance work, as well as to technology development, especially in the context of networked agency, can be summarised under the moniker ‘ethics by design’. In a practical sense this means setting non-functional requirements at the start of a design or development process, or when tweaking or altering existing systems and processes. Non-functional requirements that reflect the values you want to safeguard or ensure, or potential negative consequences you want to mitigate. Privacy, power asymmetries, individual autonomy, equality, and democratic control are examples of this.

Today I attended the ‘Big Data Festival’ in The Hague, organised by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Here several government organisations presented themselves and the work they do using data as an intensive resource. Stuff that speaks to the technologist in me. In parallel there were various presentations and workshops, and there I was most interested in what was said about ethical issues around data.

Author and interviewer Bas Heijne set the scene at the start by pointing to the contrast between the technology optimism concerning digitisation of years back and the more dystopian discussion (triggered by things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and cyberwars), and sought the balance in the middle. I think that contrast is largely due to the difference in assumptions underneath the utopian and dystopian views. The techno-optimist perspective, at least in the webscene I frequented in the late 90’s and early 00’s assumed the tools would be in the hands of individuals, who would independently weave the world wide web, smart at the edges and dumb at the center. The dystopian views, including those of early criticaster like Aron Lanier, assumed, and were proven at least partly right, a centralisation into walled gardens where individuals are mere passive users or an object, and no longer a subject with autonomy. This introduces wildly different development paths concerning power distribution, equality and agency.

In the afternoon a session with professor Jeroen van den Hoven, of Delft University, focused on making the ethical challenges more tangible as well as pointed to the beginnings of practical ways to address them. It was the second time I heard him present in a month. A few weeks ago I attended an Ethics and Internet of Things workshop at University of Twente, organised by UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST). There he gave a very worthwile presentation as well.


Van den Hoven “if we don’t design for our values…”

What I call ethics by design, a term I first heard from prof Valerie Frissen, Van den Hoven calls value sensitive design. That term sounds more pragmatic but I feel conveys the point less strongly. This time he also incorporated the geopolitical aspects of data governance, which echoed what Rob van Kranenburg (IoT Council, Next Generation Internet) presented at that workshop last month (and which I really should write down separately). It was good to hear it reinforced for today’s audience of mainly civil servants, as currently there is a certain level of naivety involved in how (mainly local governments) collaborate with commercial partners around data collection and e.g. sensors in the public space.

(Malfunctioning) billboard at Utrecht Central Station a few days ago, with not thought through camera in a public space (to measure engagement with adverts). Civic resistance taped over the camera.

Value sensitive design, said Van den Hoven, should seek to combine the power of technology with the ethical values, into services and products. Instead of treating it as a dilemma with an either/or choice, which is the usual way it is framed: Social networking OR privacy, security OR privacy, surveillance capitalism OR personal autonomy, smart cities OR human messiness and serendipity. In value sensitive design it is about ensuring the individual is still a subject in the philosophical sense, and not merely the object on which data based services feed. By addressing both values and technological benefits as the same design challenge (security AND privacy, etc.), one creates a path for responsible innovation.

The audience saw both responsibilities for individual citizens as well as governments in building that path, and none thought turning one’s back on technology to fictitious simpler times would work, although some were doubtful if there was still room to stem the tide.

In a case of synchronicity I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway when I was ill recently, just as Bryan Alexander scheduled it for his near future science fiction reading group. I loved reading the book, and in contrast to some other works of Doctorow the storyline kept working for me until the end.

Bryan amazingly has managed to get Doctorow to participate in a webcast as part of the Future Trends in learning series Bryan hosts. The session is planned for May 16th, and I marked my calendar for it.

In the comments Vanessa Vaile shares two worthwile links. One is an interesting recording from May last year at the New York public library in which Doctorow and Edward Snowden discuss some of the elements and underlying topics and dynamics of the Walkaway novel.

The other is a review in TOR.com, that resonates a lot with me. The reviewer writes how, in contrast with lots of other science fiction that takes one large idea or large change and extrapolates on that, Doctorow takes a number of smaller ideas and smaller changes, and then works out how those might interplay and weave new complexities, where the impact on “manufacturing, politics, the economy, wealth disparity, diversity, privilege, partying, music, sex, beer, drugs, information security, tech bubbles, law, and law enforcement” is all presented in one go.

It seems futuristic, until you realize that all of these things exist today.
….. most of it could start right now, if it’s the world we choose to create.

By not having any one idea jump too far from reality, Walkaway demonstrates how close we are, right now, to enormous promise and imminent peril.

That is precisely the effect reading Walkaway had on me, leading me to think how I could contribute to bringing some of the described effects about. And how some of those things I was/am already trying to create as part of my own work flow and information processes.

Peter Rukavina regularly sends us printed artefacts. The most recent one was a map of Europe. On it Peter printed “A map is the greatest of all epic poems”, quoting Gilbert Grosvenor, founding editor of National Georgraphic.

Maps in 1975-1980
Maps have always been highly fascinating to me. As a kid I endlessly pored over maps, and drew them and copied them at different scales as a pass time in primary school after having completed the regular work. I remember being shocked as a kid that maps could change more or less arbitrarily. I saw them as rock solid descriptions of how things were and would remain. When Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe in 1980, it all of a sudden meant that the world map on the classroom wall and my lighted globe and atlas at home were incorrect. The horror. Those changes I now see as what makes maps fascinating, and turns them into epic poems in the words of Grosvenor.

A map from 1918-1940
Take the map Peter sent us for instance. At first glance it’s a basic map of Europe, but upon closer inspection it’s a map of Europe valid for just a short time.

The map Peter sent us, photo by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA

It shows Austria and Hungary apart and Iceland independent, so it must be from after 1918. But it also shows Istria as part of Italy and the Baltic states as independent, which both place it after 1920. It also shows Yugoslavia, a name officially adopted in October 1929.

The map can also not be more recent than 1940, as it as stated shows Baltic independence. That Lviv, currently in Ukraine, is shown as Polish (and Poland being further to the east than now), places it before September 1939. That it shows Austria, which by 1939 was part of Nazi Germany, means it dates from before March 1938. It mentions the Irish Free State, which dates it to before December 1937. But wait, it shows Istanbul as being named Constantinopel. Istanbul was officially renamed in March 1930.

So this map represents the geopolitical lay-out of Europe as it was between October 1929 and March 1930. It was a valid representation for a mere 6 months!

A map in 2018 isn’t one from 1929
In my current work geographic references are as important as ever, as they make it possible to combine and thus make useful a myriad of other data sources. Almost everything we as humans do has a significant geographic connection. Maps famously are not the same as the terrain. Yet in digital times, the map is not only not the terrain, the terrain isn’t what it used to be anymore either.

Useful geographic data in the digital era are more and more fluid, and increasinlgy invisible to the user. When I grew up we mostly used maps while we were on the move long distance, figuring how to drive from the Netherlands to the Austrian alps in the summer for instance. Nowadays if I e.g. look at my location history in Google maps, the most eye-catching movements are the least informative. Large movements are like taking an underground, you sit down in a chair with no leg room in one city and are spewed out at the other end in another, with no notion of the fly-over country in between.

A random month worth of my travel. The most striking lines are the least informative, the dots are more important

Key has become hyper-localized geo-referenced socially contextualized information: where in this city that I find myself today can I find good coffee, according to my network, within 350 meters? For that type of movement maps become part of the engine under the hood, but often no longer are necessary to display. My phone vibrates in my pocket, short long short short, or L in Morse code, at a left turn, and short long short, or R, at a right turn, while I make my way to the coffee place with the confident swagger of a local.

Peter’s map is a relic, and not just because it was only correct for 6 months in 1929-1930 to begin with. Still just as fascinating though as it was to me as kid in the 1970’s.