Now's the time to step up the fight
Internet pioneer Marleen Stikker shares her view of technology
The way that technology and the internet influence our lives is changing. We no longer visit the internet, because it's now all around us. Marleen Stikker, internet pioneer and Waag founder, describes it as a black box: a complex, hard-to-interpret system, where you don't get to decide what you can and can't read, or what you can and can't do. Stikker will be talking about her view of the internet at SIDN Connect 2018. Ahead of the gathering, she gives us a taste of her upcoming presentation and shares her persistently optimistic view of the future of technology and the internet.
Marleen: "I'm curious about the way that technology is changing our world. Technology consists of tools, artefacts, that we humans develop. Yet technology isn't neutral." The way that technology is developed isn't neutral, and its influence isn't neutral. "It brings about system change, and that's what fascinates me. How does it work and what are its effects? And how can you guide the process?" The last question in particular intrigues Marleen. Rather than observe from the sidelines, she engages with the issues, discovering and investigating the world around her. And Waag reflects her personality.
It's nearly twenty-five years since Marleen founded Waag: a colourful community of artists, researchers and active citizens working together for open, fair and inclusive technology. Waag approaches research from a do-it-yourself perspective. It is committed to the democratisation of technology and develops modern forms of education and interaction. From biotechnology to information technology, from themes such as digital identity and trusted internet to solutions such as the FairPhone. "All forms of technology have become intertwined with the internet; it's everywhere. So we explore everything around it," says Marleen.
Technology isn't neutral
Technology and the internet are therefore integral to society. That has both benefits and drawbacks. "I think that a lot of technologies are like a black box, not just the internet," Marleen continues. "There's readable code and unreadable code. Much of the technology in our devices is currently unreadable. You can't see its effect, its purpose or the choices made in its development." That's the case with the algorithms underpinning financial products, search engines and social media platforms.
As Marleen puts it: "We've built a society where technology has a significant role in defining inclusion and exclusion. What you can and can't read. What you can and can't do. Yet there's no democratic control over technology's influence, and no way of seeing exactly what it's doing. It's entirely bound up with capital and financial markets. Players such as the 'Big Five' have access to capital, enabling them to keep expanding. As a result, there's a concentration of power around the internet. Meanwhile, governments have unlimited access to our data – as Snowden showed us, of course. A USB stick... your phone... you can't really trust anything. We're nowadays hugely dependent on data, but data is being handled carelessly or even improperly on a massive scale." The public is only just waking up to such issues, although Marleen and others have been trying to draw attention to them for a long time.
"Now's the time to step up the fight."
Open and transparant
It's important that we don't accept the current situation. But what can we do to change it? According to Marleen, much of the responsibility lies with government. "We have a constitutional state, where all markets are subject to control. We need to have a regulatory framework that prevents the sale of technological products that aren't protected. Everything can't simply be left up to the public. In a democratic state, people should be protected against dishonesty." Of course, self-awareness and digital literacy are important. However, as Marleen pointed out earlier, a lot of code can't be read, even by the most digitally literate.
One thing Marleen would like to see, therefore, is companies making their algorithms accessible. If not to the public, at least to an impartial arbiter. At the moment, we are a long way from that. Another strategy supported by Marleen is taking decision-making responsibility back from technology. It's one thing to use technology to support decision-making, quite another to delegate responsibility to a machine. Decisions about things such as suitability for a job, entitlement to benefit or (with the arrival of self-driving cars) priority on a public road shouldn't be made by algorithm. And certainly not on the basis of factors that aren't even disclosed.
Data abuse, hacking and the transfer of responsibility for major decisions from humans to machines: our digital existence seems beset by problems. Problems so apparently intractable that many people might be inclined to give up the fight and go with the flow. Marleen isn't one of them. Now's the time to step up the fight, she believes. "We saw the first mini-rebellions against Facebook back in 2010," she recalls. "Along with the Facebook Liberation Army (FLA), we organised a Facebook Farewell Party at the Stadsschouwburg in 2014. It was an uncomfortable occasion, because a lot of people didn't want to leave Facebook. However, four years on, Arjen Lubach is part of the FLA and arguing the cause on national TV. Disquiet and pressure on Facebook are increasing. And European privacy legislation makes the imposition of huge fines possible. Meanwhile, journalists are increasingly exposing what's happening and how capital and macropolitical interests shape our social media. I see 2018 as a turning point: the year we stopped being naive about the concentration of power on the internet. We're at the start of a new narrative. European Data Protection Supervisor Buttarelli recently described the task before us as putting dignity back into digital."
It's a good point in time, therefore, for reflecting on the situation with the audience at SIDN Connect. "I think that we need to develop a new narrative together. Between us, we need to find a language, both for the technological domain and for the social and community domain, that appeals to everyone and that everyone can understand. A language that stirs courage. A language that can bring about policy change." Together, we'll be exploring ways of ensuring that the Next Generation Internet is a positive movement.