... in public spaces

Towards a Shared Digital Europe

Today, we are launching a project that i have worked on for the last 6 months: A Vision for a Shared Digital Europe. I started working on this while i was still at Kennisland (where the idea was born) and i have continued this work after my departure from KL with Centrum Cyfrowe and the Commons Network. This vision is an attempt to set the stage for a different way about digital policy making in Europe.

With our vision we are proposing a uniquely European way that refuses to the the digital space as a marketplace alone and that sets out to identify a number of principles that can guide policy makers in developing alternatives for the status quo that go beyond an essentially defensive approach that relies on curtailing and regulating practices and operators that are considered to be problematic. In publishing our vision we hope to kick-start a conversation about what kind of digital environment we want for Europe:

Today we are launching a new vision for digital policy making in Europe: Our Vision for a Shared Digital Europe lays the foundation for a new frame for digital policy making in the EU. We propose an overarching policy framework that brings together varied issues and policy arenas, including copyright reform, platform regulation, privacy, data-protection and data governance, antitrust, media regulation or innovation policy.

Digitalisation has led much of our interaction, communication and economic activity to take place through data or over online intermediaries. What kind of space should this digital sphere be? We believe that seeing this space as a market place only does not do it justice. This space is in effect our society – a society that is experiencing a digital transformation. Therefore we cannot accept the digital sphere as a place where only market dynamics rule. Society is more than an interaction between market players, and people are more than entrepreneurs or consumers.

As supporters of the European project, we believe that Europe needs to establish its own rules for the digital space, which embody our values: strong public institutions, democratic governance, sovereignty of communities and people, diversity of European cultures, equality and justice. A space that is common to all of us, but at the same time diverse and decentralised.

Over the past five months we have worked with a broad group stakeholders on developing a frame that can replace the existing Digital Single Market frame that dominates discussions about digital policy making in the EU. We propose a new, society-centric vision that is intended to guide policymakers and civil society organisations involved with digital policymaking in the direction of a more equitable and democratic digital environment, where basic liberties and rights are protected, where strong public institutions function in the public interest, and where people have a say in how their digital environment functions - a Shared Digital Europe.

The Shared Digital Europe must be based on four principles that aim to ensure that the balance between private and public interests is safeguarded. We believe that a Shared Digital Europe must enable self-determination, cultivate the commons, decentralise infrastructure and empower public institutions.

Combine these four elements with a truly European set of values and a new strategy presents itself. **A strategy that policy makers and civil society actors can use to counter the current lack of democratic oversight in the digital space, the deteriorating online debate, the monopolisation of the digital sphere, the enclosure of knowledge and the means of knowledge production and the increasing violation of human rights in the digital space. **

**Most importantly our Vision for a Shared Digital Europe provides policy makers with an opportunity to work towards a truly European idea about how society should function in the digital age. **

Are you working on digital policies and want to learn more or join our effort? Or do you want us to come by and share and discuss our vision with you? Don’t hesitate to reach out to hello@shared-digital.eu

On selling AI fever dreams to gullible publics

The Guardian recently had an op-ed by John Naughton on how the media is guilty in selling us AI fantasies at the behest of the technology industry. This scratches my long held belief that (a) AI is both poorly understood and as a result (b) completely oversold (at least when it comes to non-trivial problems of optimising consumption patterns1. In his op-ed Naughton primarily looks at how industry serving narratives about AI have come to dominate media coverage of AI, which he mainly attributes at journalists doing a fairly shoddy job:

The tech giants that own and control the technology have plans to exponentially increase that impact and to that end have crafted a distinctive narrative. Crudely summarised, it goes like this: “While there may be odd glitches and the occasional regrettable downside on the way to a glorious future, on balance AI will be good for humanity. Oh – and by the way – its progress is unstoppable, so don’t worry your silly little heads fretting about it because we take ethics very seriously.” […]

Why do people believe so much nonsense about AI? The obvious answer is that they are influenced by what they see, hear and read in mainstream media. But until now that was just an anecdotal conjecture. The good news is that we now have some empirical support for it, in the shape of a remarkable investigation by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University into how UK media cover artificial intelligence. […] The main conclusion of the study is that media coverage of AI is dominated by the industry itself. Nearly 60% of articles were focused on new products, announcements and initiatives supposedly involving AI; a third were based on industry sources; and 12% explicitly mentioned Elon Musk, the would-be colonist of Mars.

Critically, AI products were often portrayed as relevant and competent solutions to a range of public problems. Journalists rarely questioned whether AI was likely to be the best answer to these problems, nor did they acknowledge debates about the technology’s public effects.[…]

In essence this observation is neither new or specific to media coverage of AI. Similar dynamics can be observed across the whole gamut of technology journalism where the media is breathlessly amplifying thinly veiled sales pitches of technology companies. A couple of years ago, Adam Greenfield did an excellent job at dissecting these dynamics for the “smart cities” narrative. Adam’s post went one step further by focussing on how these media narratives find their way into public policies via bureaucrats who are ill-equipped to critically question them.

Even if we assume that the current capacities and impacts of AI systems are massively oversold, it is still clear that widespread deployment of Artificial Intelligence has the potential to further wreck the social fabric of our societies in pursuit of optimising the extraction of value. Given this it is not entirely surprising that the purveyors of the AI driven future are anticipating on the inevitable backlash:

Another plank in the industry’s strategy is to pretend that all the important issues about AI are about ethics and accordingly the companies have banded together to finance numerous initiatives to study ethical issues in the hope of earning brownie points from gullible politicians and potential regulators. This is what is known in rugby circles as “getting your retaliation in first” and the result is what can only be described as “ethics theatre”, much like the security theatre that goes on at airports.

The term “ethics theatre” seems spot on in this context. So far the whole discussion about AI ethics does indeed resemble a theatre more than anything else2. On multiple occasions I have seen otherwise critical people become almost deferential to some imagined higher order of discourse as soon as discussions were framed as being about the “ethics of…”. Having unmasked the abundance of ethics talk as an attempt to proactively deflect regulation Naughton points out that what we really need is indeed regulation:

…in the end it’s law, not ethics, that should decide what happens, as Paul Nemitz, principal adviser to the European commission, points out in a terrific article just published by the Royal Society. Just as architects have to think about building codes when designing a house, he writes, tech companies “will have to think from the outset… about how their future program could affect democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law and how to ensure that the program does not undermine or disregard… these basic tenets of constitutional democracy”.

This is an idea that we should take very seriously. Now that our public spaces are more and more defined by code and data, it is high time to realise that ideas like “moving fast and breaking things” are the equivalent ignoring building codes when constructing schools in earthquake-prone areas.

  1. That being said, I would totally be in the market for an AI powered app that can reliably tell me if an avocado is indeed ripe to eat. i would imagine that it can’t be that hard to train a neural network to do so by feeding it thousands of avocado images labeled according to ripeness. ↩︎

  2. The notable exception is the 2017 MIT experiment about the who should be killed by autonomous vehicles, which probably kick-started this entire AI ethics trope. Although in retrospect that was not so much about AI ethics but about the personal ethics of the participants. In my case the strongly held belief that any “self driving” car must always attempt to minimise harm done to anyone not driving in a car, even if that comes at the cost of maximising deaths among vehicle passengers. ↩︎

Lille 3000

Absolutely no idea why it is called lille 3000 and not some other arbitrary number, but apparently the local government decided that 3000 sounds mighty futuristic (and 2006 would be so last year in three months anyway) and here we go… I am also not sure if lille 3000 is the same as the ‘Bombaysers de Lille’ (the sexual pun is apparently intended) exhibition that was opened with much French pompousness this weekend. Like the city of lille the exhibition is definitely worth a visit: Ashok has a great piece (called GPS) installed on the Place du Theatre and the ‘Maximum City’ exposition (after Suketu Mehta’s must-read book with the same title) is pretty impressive (although it contains too many pictures of black and yellow taxis, but then it is about Bombay so i guess you can’t avoid them..) and there is other gems hidden across the city (try to find the tourism office, without getting misdirected by the signage).

My favorite piece is the photo series ‘Monrachs of the East End’ by Gavin Fernandez, which is part of the ‘rich mix‘ group exhibition in the Maison de Follies de Wazemmes. I want some of of those, badly!

But back to the lille 3000 business: the whole exhibition (which in a sense is the continuation of the the cultural capital activities of 2004 by other means but with the same esthetic and conceptual drive) seems to be part of an aggressive attempt to re-position Lille as a city of the future (the past can be seen in the extensive ruins of its former industrial glory around the northern suburb Tourcoing on the border with Belgium – a small scale version of Bombay’s mill lands that occupy much of central parts of the city).

Exhibitions and impressive architecture aside the fact, that lille is indeed about the future is most evident when one looks at the local population: This weekend it looked like two thirds of the people in the streets are teenagers, which makes me wonder what they do to the old people (they probably ship them to the Belgian coast, but that is something for the next post). Maybe this abundance of kids is the result of the city actively collecting kids that can be deposited at designated locations:

Even more futuristic are the public spaces (and i am not speaking of that but ugly Euralille complex, which shows once more that Mr Koollhaas should stop actually realizing buildings and continue to publish books instead) but the public parks. It is well-known that the french are nazis when it come to their parks: (‘no walking on the grass’ and closing them at 5 in the afternoon for no good reason other than to piss of park-goers) but encircling a park by 4 meter high, red, state-of-the-art prison fence (complete with diagonal supporting poles, so that the fence cant be pushed down), is quite an extreme measure, to keep the kids from lying in the grass and smoking a joint after 8 pm if you ask me (but then fences are fashionably european these days, so it might just be an esthetic statement):

Comes with built in bench! (tres chique!)

Milk in Afrika (revisited)

06 Aug 2006 | 114 words | amsterdam art public spaces milk

Looks like as if that giant milk bottle sculpture on my way to work did not really refer to africa at all. the whole thing got cleaned recently and that cleaning operation did not only remove the ‘milk free youth’ graffiti but also the ‘in africa’ typography, which i had assumed to have been part of the original sculpture.

This of course makes the original act of putting a giant milk-bottle sculpture on a playground even more lame! no references to far away continents anymore, just a plain disgusting milk bottle! how utterly disappointing:

On the bright side however, lame milk bottle sculptures do constitute fairly decent surfaces for posters to be glued on.

Dutch über alles!

Got reminded again that the Netherlands have turned into a society of discussing racist cowards less then 10 hours after arriving back back in amsterdam. on the front-page of todays Volkskrant there is an article titled ‘Verdonk: op straat alleen Nederlands‘ (link requires paid registration). In English this translates into ‘Verdonk: Dutch must be spoken in the streets’. Apparently the minster for ‘integration’ has completely lost her mind (not that this is any news). The local website for english speaking non-dutch speakers has the following summary the speech given by the minister last weekend:

Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk favors the introduction of a code of conduct for the public to emphasize Dutch identity, including speaking Dutch in the street

I really do not know what to say about this. What about the fact that the Netherlands have been in the front line for criticizing the turks for not allowing the kurds to speak kurdish in public for a long time? They even made this a requirement for Turkey in order to start membership talks with the EU. does that mean that the Netherlands should be kicked out of the EU?

And why would any sane individual want to have more Dutch spoken in the street anyway? It is one of the most ugly sounding languages in the whole universe (if in doubt try travelling in the bord-bistro of a sunday evening berlin amsterdam intercity train). I would rather listen to anything expressed in Arabic or Tamazight (the two languages that Verdonk really wants to ban with her stupid proposal).

Berlin, Alexanderplatz

09 Oct 2005 | 176 words | berlin cuba public spaces

Cycling past Alexanderplatz i noticed a group of people standing around a table in an otherwise deserted area on the northeastern side of the place. I stopped to take a closer look and it looked like they were playing some kind of game wile drinking and generally enjoying themselves on this unlikly location. When i approached them they told me that they where cubans and that they came to this very spot every day (as long as ‘the weather did not torture them’ as one of them expressed it to play domino, drink and be with friends. Asked why they had chosen this particular place they told me that this was because of the noise (it is right next to a mayor road) which would remind them of Cuba. Now i have always imagined cuba a bit different but if they say so i am fine with it. The whole thing somehow reminded me of my old mah jong set. guess i have to find someone to play with again…

domino players on alexanderplatz in berlin

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: