When I made a visit to East Berlin a few years before the wall came down, my teenage eyes wondered about shopping and customer service.

To visit a bookstore near Alexanderplatz I had to stand in line. There were a handful of shopping baskets available, and they were mandatory, so you stood in line until someone left the shop and return the basket. I stood there for a while, and then with a basket could browse the shelves. There were less than ten people in the shop. While many more stood outside waiting.

Visiting a cafe with two others, the tables were all the same size, only the number of chairs at each table differed. We were three. A table with two chairs was free. Next to it was a man on his own, I remember he wore a leather jacket sipping coffee and reading a paper, at a table with three chairs. We asked if we could have a chair, and pulled it up to our table. “Na klar”, he said. We looked at the menu. No service came. We waited. No service came. I went up to the waitress and asked if she could take our order. No, she said, “you’re with three people on a table for two so you’re not getting served.” I was stunned. I tried logic, “look the tables are all the same size!”, but failed. In the end we returned a chair to the table with the guy in the leather jacket and asked him to trade tables. He picked up his coffee and newspaper (it was the 80’s remember), and sat at our original table, while we moved to his. Within seconds the waitress was with us to take our lunch orders.

For years I shared these anecdotes of how odd it all was during that visit to East Germany.

Fast forward 33 years, to our pandemic times.

In our neighbhourhood most shops have introduced a system of mandatory baskets. They use it to cap the number of clients in the store to the maximum they can accomodate within the 1.5m distancing guidelines. Outside others wait their turn.

From next week cafes and restaurants can open again, and I see and read how those here in town are arranging same sized tables out on the market square, varying the number of chairs to make it all work, and setting tables inside for specific numbers of people to stay within max allowed capacity.

After 33 years I need to retire my anecdotes from 1980’s East Berlin it seems. It wasn’t odd, it was avant garde!

East Berlin 1987
Walking down Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin, in 1987

The Guardian has been playing with data that TomTom navigation software collects on congestion, the traffic index. The article has a range of graphs for cities worldwide, showing how city traffic is reduced due to various measures trying to stem the pandemic.

At the bottom of the article is a small search box where you can get the graphs for cities not mentioned in the article.
TomTom’s index contains it seems quite a few Dutch cities, perhaps because it’s a Dutch company. So I went ahead and grabbed a few screenshots for Dutch cities, amongst which my hometown.

TomTom sells services on the data they collect, so there doesn’t seem to be anything available to download for yourself. They do have a similar search tool on their site which gives slightly different perspectives on the data they have. Below for Amersfoort the traffic density for the past week. It basically shows us what we feel outside: every day is like Sunday traffic.

For the 12th year in a row I’ve send out Kiva Cards as Christmas gifts to clients. As many of the people I and our company work with are civil servants, it isn’t acceptable to give them anything of value. That’s why in the first year I worked independently I decided on a Christmas gift to business relations that doesn’t carry any risk of challenging the receiver’s integrity, nor mine as the giver.

That gift is a Kiva Card, a voucher for 25 USD. They’re perfect for my purpose. The gift can only be accepted by giving it away again. Kiva is a microcredit platform, where you can lend small amounts to entrepreneurs and others in developing countries. To use the card you have to apply it to a microcredit. Over time you get repaid and then you can lend it out again. If you do not use the card, it will become a charitable donation automatically after a year. In each case someone else will benefit, not the receiver or the giver.

My work is in open data mostly, and my interest in technology is about enabling more (networked) agency. In both those cases freely sharing is the starting point to create the potential benefits. Kiva Cards only can be used by sharing them again too, and turn into a donation if you don’t use them.

So these Kiva Cards are perfectly aligned with the spirit of my work, can’t call my or the receiver’s integrity into question, yet the joy of a gift remains.

Over time I’ve made over 300 microcredit contributions myself, forever re-using the funds I put in. I’ve especially tried to make meaningful loans in countries and regions where I’ve worked, in Central Asia, and non-EU Eastern Europe for instance, and most if not all to women.

It’s easy to join Kiva and start supporting an entrepreneur somewhere around the world

Screenshot of some of the people with Kiva microcredits I’ve contributed to

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.

20190906_163157
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.