... in technology

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. ↩︎

Leaving Kennisland (pt. 2)

The text below is an adapted version of a text first published on the Kennisland website under the title “Time to move on: what we have done to improve copyright and access to cultural heritage”. Both texts are identical except for the last section. The version published here provides a more in depth reflection on the challenges ahead for digital policy making.

At the end of 2018 we will end our activities in the areas of copyright and cultural heritage. Kennisland has been working on these themes for over a decade but with the departure of Paul Keller, who has been leading these efforts, we have decided to focus our energies on innovation in Education, Cities and Care.

Internet access, civil society media and open content

Over the past fifteen years our efforts to create an open, knowledge driven society have taken a lot of different forms. Driven by the conviction of our founders that the technological revolution started by increasing access to the internet presented a lot of benefits to an open, inclusive and diverse society, we have worked on a wide range of projects that tried to leverage new technologies for social progress. This ranged from initiatives to improve internet access in disadvantaged communities like Digitale trapvelden (‘Digital playing fields’) to ideas ahead of their time like WIFI in de trein (‘WIFI in the train’)1.

The main catalyst in this area turned out to be the Digital Pioneers programme we ran from 2002 to 2010. Through this programme, designed to support small civil society organisations in setting up technology driven activities, we learned a lot about the potential and the challenges posed by the rapid digitisation of society. One of these challenges that we identified early on was how copyright and other forms of intellectual property were not evolving at the same speed as technology. This meant that technology enabled many activities that were in conflict with copyright and other laws. Therefore, in 2003, we started the project DISC (Domain Innovative Software and Content). Together with Waag Society we helped civil society organisations to leverage the power of open source software and open content. Our involvement in the emerging field of open content led us to set up Creative Commons Nederland, which Kennisland ran (together with the Institute for Information Law) from 2005 until 20182.

Working on the development and promoting the use of the Creative Commons licenses was our first step into the area of copyright, and brought us in contact with the copyright establishment. In the fall of 2007, after years of discussion and relationship building, we launched a pilot project with Buma/Stemra that for the first time allowed members of a collective management organisation (music authors) to share some of their works under an open license. This breakthrough later provided the basis for a flexible model that gives Buma/Stemra members more say over how their rights are managed.

Opening up cultural heritage

Also in 2007, Kennisland, together with the Dutch Institute for Sound and Vision, the EYE Filmmuseum and the National Archives embarked on an ambitious project to digitise the audio visual memory of the Netherlands. At the time, the project called Images for the Future was the largest digitisation project in Europe. Kennisland was responsible for the copyright, communication and business model aspects of the project. During the project (2007-2014) the project partners restored, preserved and digitised over 90,000 hours of video, 20,000 hours of film, 100,000 hours of audio and 2,500,000 photos.

As one of the initiators of Images for the Future our priority was to make sure that the digitised works would become available online under conditions that would allow reuse. With regards to this objective the project turned out to be less successful. Regretfully only a small percentage of the overall collections could be made available online, mainly because of unresolved copyright issues. Copyright turned out to be a much more thorny issue than we had expected. The original project plan was based on the assumption that copyright owners would provide permission for the digitised material to be used in return for payment. In reality, most of them did not, as the economic incentive never materialised3.

However, we did manage to demonstrate the impact of making cultural heritage collections available under open licenses through platforms such as Open Images4 and the collaboration between the National Archives and Wikimedia. The latter illustrated that by sharing content on open platforms, institutions could reach new and larger audiences. These experiments around opening up collections for reuse became very influential for the nascent OpenGLAM movement. Realising that opening up GLAM collections (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) was primarily a matter of working with public domain works and metadata, we worked with Creative Commons on developing the tools to facilitate this5.

From 2009 onwards we also worked with collective rights management organisations on a number of pilot projects that explored the possibility of extended collective licensing as a mechanism to get more digitised cultural heritage available online. These projects proved to be successful and in response in 2013 cultural heritage institutions and collective rights management organisations joined forces (article available in Dutch only) to ask the Dutch legislator to provide a legal basis for extended collective licensing6.

Based on our work in the cultural heritage sector we were an early partner of Europeana, the EU funded platform that brings together digitised cultural heritage from thousands of libraries, archives and museums across the EU. Europeana provided us with an opportunity to apply the lessons that we had learned in the Images for the Future project on a wider scale. Together with the Institute for Information Law and the Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg we developed a licensing framework that ensures full reusability of the metadata aggregated by Europeana. It encourages institutions to make their collections available for reuse under open licenses7. Today, ten years later, Europeana is the biggest aggregator of openly licensed cultural heritage resources, hosting more than twenty million freely licensed works8. The success of the Europeana Licensing Framework, which focuses on clear rights information for end users promotes reuse, has inspired other cultural heritage aggregators around the globe9, such as the Digital Public Library of America. Over the years of our collaboration Europeana has developed into one of the leading voices advocating for open access to cultural heritage and for the protection of the Public Domain10. We are proud to have been a driver of this.

Since 2016 we have also worked with Europeana on making sure that the ongoing EU copyright reform will improve the ability of cultural heritage institutions to make more of their collections available online. While the reform process is not concluded, there are indications that the EU copyright reform package will finally provide a workable answer for the copyright problems faced by libraries, museums and archives engaged in large scale digitisation efforts.

But our fight for better copyright rules11 extends further than improving the position of cultural heritage institutions. As a founding member and core contributor of the International COMMUNIA Association we have been advocating for a more user-friendly and modern EU copyright framework. Together with our partners we have been advocating for Europe-wide rules12 that benefit educators13 and scientists, and encourage innovation and broad access to knowledge and culture. The fight for a more sensible copyright system remains an uphill battle. The legislative fight over the Digital Single Market Copyright Directive14 is still ongoing, and while it looks like we (together with our partners) have achieved substantial improvements for the cultural heritage and the educational sectors, it is also clear that copyright will continue to serve as a major barrier to unlocking the full potential of digital technologies for public institutions and civil society at large.

What’s next?15

As we look back at almost fifteen years of activities, it is clear that many of the hopes that drove us to invest in these areas have failed to materialise. Instead of contributing to a more decentralised, democratic and equitable society, the digital revolution has brought us an increasingly centralised digital space that is undermining democracy and personal self-determination. At the same time, the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence is likely to raise an entirely new set of issues.

So why are we stopping our activities in this area when there is more urgency to act than ever?

We feel that after fifteen years we have exhausted our ability to intervene in meaningful ways. As an organisation that is entirely project-funded we need to find funders that are willing to pay for our interventions. Most funders that we have worked with prefer to fund activities/interventions that directly address a specific problem or issue that is relevant to their own mission (such as cultural heritage institutions for whom we have worked on copyright reform) or business (such as tech companies who have supported our copyright reform work). Such funding is usually tied to concrete opportunities or threats (like the ongoing EU copyright reform) and as such a lot of our work in the past years has been reactive to these kinds of threats and opportunities.

This has allowed us to change a lot of things for the better for the organisations and sectors that we have been working for. At the same time it is clear that we (as part of a bigger movement) have failed to counter the general trend towards an online space that is more and more dominated by a small number of powerful platforms that have built their dominance by extracting more an more of our private and public information. This situation poses a challenge for those like us who are part of the open movement. By advocating for opening up access to data, culture and information we have contributed to a favourable environment in which these platforms have come to dominate the online space.

If we want to reverse these developments and double down on our efforts to create a more decentralised, democratic and equitable society, there is a clear need for developing a more strategic, forward-looking policy agenda that furthers the policy objectives of the open movement.

Despite our long and successful track record in this field, Kennisland is no longer the place where this can happen. Both the funding model (dominated by relatively short-term project funding) and the relationship with our network of partners with whom we work on concrete social challenges (and who expect us to deliver concrete interventions in their immediate reality) drove us to the conclusion that Kennisland is no longer the place for long-term strategic policy work with an international focus. This is why I have decided to take these ambitions elsewhere.

Over the course of 2019 I hope to develop the foundations for a new entity that can be the host for these ambitions and that can become the basis for policies that rethink the digital environment in the light of what we have learned over the last decade and a half.

  1. Our 2005 project proposed to install WIFI networks in all trains. It took more than ten years before a majority of the Dutch trains were equipped with WIFI. These days most of them (with the notable exception of the “Intercity direct” service between Amsterdam and Rotterdam) broadcast our old project name as the SSID of their free WIFI networks. ↩︎

  2. In 2018 Creative Commons Netherlands was relaunched as a chapter of the Creative Commons Global Network. The Dutch chapter is chaired by Maarten Zeinstra (who previously worked at Kennisland) and our own Lisette Kalshoven serves as the global network representative. ↩︎

  3. You can find a more in-depth analysis of the results of the project in our publication ‘Images of the Past – 7 years of Images for the Future’. ↩︎

  4. Open Images became an important source of historical video content for Wikipedia, with large audiences. For example, in October 2018: 5,6 million pageviews↩︎

  5. In 2010 Creative Commons launched the CC0 public domain waiver which later became the de facto standard for sharing cultural heritage metadata. In 2010 Creative Commons launched the Public Domain Mark intended to label works that are in the Public Domain. ↩︎

  6. In 2015 the government responded by announcing that they intended to introduce Extended Collective Licensing into the Dutch copyright act. In the light of the 2016 EU copyright reform proposals this process is currently stalled. ↩︎

  7. To set an example, we developed Art Up Your Tab (together with Studio Parkers and Sara Kolster), a browser extension (plug-in) that shows users inspiring hi-res images from the rich collection of Europeana and the MET with every new tab or browser window that they open. The extension generates over 6 million views per year. ↩︎

  8. Since earlier this year our former colleague Harry Verwayen serves as Director of Europeana. ↩︎

  9. In 2016 together with Europeana and the DPLA we launched rightsstatements.org to better allow cultural heritage institutions around the globe to clearly communicate the copyright and reuse information of objects in their collections. ↩︎

  10. As expressed in the 2009 Public Domain charter which Kennisland drafted for Europeana. ↩︎

  11. Over the years we published numerous opinion articles on the subject of copyright reform. Read more about our efforts to modernise copyright law in the EU↩︎

  12. See copyrightexceptions.eu for research on the fragmented nature of user rights in the EU copyright framework that we have undertaken in 2016. ↩︎

  13. The education community (teachers, educators, lawyers, researchers, librarians, activists, experts on copyright) joins forces to ask for a better copyright for education. Check out the campaign website copyrightforeducation.eu ↩︎

  14. A controversial proposed European Union directive intended to ensure “a well-functioning marketplace for the exploitation of works and other subject-matter … taking into account in particular digital and cross-border uses of protected content.” Read more ↩︎

  15. You can find the (much shorter) original version of this paragraph that provides the perspective of Kennisland on the Kennisland website↩︎

Victims of digitization....

27 Dec 2014 | 5 words | technology

Guess who?

Dead stencil cutters

29 Sep 2014 | 419 words | drones technology future autonomous robots

A while ago i used this space to express my skepticism with regards to delivery drones becoming a major thing in the developed world anytime soon (and also hedged that by pointing to the fact that they may be much more useful and economically viable in developing countries). A couple of days ago i came across an excellent essay (Build cargo drones, get rich) by J.M. Ledgard in which he makes the most convincing case for cargo drones i have come across yet.

While his scenario is entirely focussed on the use of drones (which he calles donkeys) in Africa it is interesting to note that the first step in the scenario that het is working on is exactly the same as an experiment just announced by German logistics company DHL. Here are the opening words from Legards essay:

My goal is to help set up the world’s first commercial cargo drone route in Africa by 2016. It will be about 80 kilometres long and will connect several towns and villages. The first cargo drones will carry small payloads of blood to keep alive children who would otherwise perish.

and here is the relevant passage from DHL’s press release announcing their experiment:

For the first time worldwide, medications and other urgently needed goods will be delivered to the island at certain times of the day by DHL parcelcopter. This research project represents the first and only time in Europe that a flight by an unmanned aircraft will be operated outside of the pilot’s field of vision in a real-life mission.

Aside from the fact that it seems that Ledgard has lost its bid for running the world’s first commercial cargo drone route it is interesting to note that the business case is the same here: Emergency deliveries of life-saving, small things by drone.

This is indeed where commercial cargo drones seem make some sense in their current state. What is happening here should be seen in the light of another recent innovation that started as an expensive solution for a first world problem but dramatically changed the lives of millions of Africans once it became technological mature enough to be commoditized: The mobile telephone. So while he may have lost his bet to be the first, DHL is most likely doing a bit of extra R&D work for Ledgard’s scheme to get rich with cargo cones.

p.s. also notice how both implementation are targeted at rural, non-urban environments. the point i made in my earlier post clearly still holds.

On organisations stunning ability to absorb nonsensical claims about technology

20 Apr 2014 | 1046 words | cities urbanism smart cities technology

So i have finally managed to finish Adam Greenfield’s Against the smart city (i had lapsed soon after this picture was taken). The book is well worth reading and contains a number valuable insights but there is one passage that stands out for me.

Towards the end of the book (or pamphlet as Adam refers to it) he explains why his method of examining the language of marketing and promotional copy of IT vendors is important even though the same vendors, when challenged on the claims contained in it are quick to dismiss its as mere marking language. This passage is one of the best explanations of how marketing language (and more particular: claims about technology) gets absorbed by organisations (in this case municipal governments):

But refusing to take this sort of language seriously means succumbing to a certain naïveté about the ways in which knowledge tends to be reproduced nowadays, and the processes through which it does its work in the world.

At the launch of any new corporate smart-city initiative, content promoting it and aligning it with the enterprise’s overarching brand proposition is generated by the marketing department, and released into the wild on the global website, where it will be indexed by Google in less than a minute. This initiative almost immediately comes to the attention of the planet’s several thousand technology bloggers, writing for outlets of various provenance, who generally have automated keyword searches set up to notify them whenever an item of interest is published. Because these bloggers are simultaneously under intense contractual pressure to post several times a day, are by definition enthusiastic about technology and are, by and large, unschooled in the arts of skeptical reportage, they tend to take the claims they are offered at face value. (This is true of bloggers writing for the Guardian or the New York Times every bit as much as it is of their less well-positioned peers.)

In a manner of minutes, talking points from the original press release are paraphrased in the blogger’s idiom of choice and bundled into a new post, and this may happen across dozens of competing sites in a very brief span of time. Links to these posts are, in turn, instantaneously produced by automated Twitter accounts, endlessly replicated both on Twitter itself and via other social-media channels linked to it through its API; these in turn spur a wave of response from a far larger number of people around the world who are equally excited at the prospect of living in the future, and within a few hours at most a rich loam of online commentary has been laid down. Very little of this commentary evaluates what is being claimed in any depth, or even compares the item at hand to previous assertions made by the same institution, but the volume of buzz is impressive. And due in no small part to the way Google itself works, this distributed colloquy creates an immediate impression that there is a there there. Over the space of a few hours, a framing or perspective originating in a deeply interested party has simply become an unquestioned part of the fabric of consensual knowledge.

What happens on the receiving end, inside the municipal bodies that constitute the primary presumptive audience for such a marketing campaign? Low-level bureaucrats, pressed for time and starved for insight, stumble onto this thicket of conversation via a cursory keyword search; they copy-and-paste a few lines from the first reasonably credible-looking search result into their PowerPoint slides, unmodified; and these slides then get submitted up the hierarchy. The language propagates across the institution — and, what’s more, it meshes with that found in the hurriedly-downloaded white papers on the subject that someone found on the website of a name-brand management consultancy. The savvier staffers start to feel confident using these terms: speaking in them, thinking in them. While misgivings may in fact be prevalent, there are likely to be relatively few in the bureaucracy who are able to express them forthrightly — that is to say, who are sufficiently comfortable with the technology to understand precisely what is being proposed, familiar with the way their city works to convincingly articulate why this is problematic, assured of their own position to feel safe in doing so and passionate about the issue to willingly shoulder the risk involved. (If, as the saying has it, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, it’s also the case that one may find oneself on shaky ground contradicting something printed straight from the IBM website.) When finally pressed to make a “recommendation as to how the city’s resources should be allocated, the easiest thing for a committee member to do is go with the flow, to at least outwardly agree with the person at the table who seems to know what they’re talking about, simply to bring the drawn-out process of decision-making to a close.

This sort of thing, of course, happens across the entire range of issues a municipal agency may be asked to face. But it appears to be especially true where questions of information technology are concerned, given the unusual amount of mystification that shrouds even consumer-grade products and services, to say nothing of the degree of intimidation otherwise competent adults routinely feel in their presence. Where there is a decision to be made, a confident point of view being advanced and no party with the necessary bona fides stepping forward to challenge it, the natural, the human thing to do is defer. And so this body of ideas gets reproduced, just as surely as code libraries are when they are downloaded from open-source repositories like Github or SourceForge. And every time this happens, a very particular set of valuations and priorities is reproduced alongside them. What was once merely a sequence of words crafted by a marketing department for their euphony, service to a business model and alignment with a particular set of brand values becomes inscribed in, or as, a city’s official program.

This, in broad outline, is how a premature and preemptive consensus formed around the desirability of something called the smart city. I should emphasize that the individuals

If you like this passage you almost certainly should read the entire pamphlet which can be obtained here.

On self driving cars

17 Nov 2013 | 775 words | cars robots technology urbanism autonomous

In his most recent deezen columnDan Hill provides some much needed perspective on the self driving cars hype. I completely agree with him, that while endlessly fascinating, self driving cars are rather problematic idea. Instead of improving the way personal mobility is organised they primarily attempt to improve a deeply flawed system:

Here we see such companies are not actually interested in genuine change, for all their bluster about “radical disruption”. Self-driving cars are a sticking plaster over existing conditions. They actually reinforce the ‘Californian Ideology’ that underpins today’s mobility problems: suburban sprawl, based around the possibility of lengthy car-based commutes, in turn predicated on a highly individualistic view of society. It is an entirely conservative move. Self-driving cars provide a way of changing the veneer of this system, as no-one is brave enough to suggest changing the system itself. They replace who, or what, is holding the steering wheel, but not the underlying culture that contributes to mass depression, obesity epidemics, climate change and economic crises.

[…] The real way to prevent accidents would be to have fewer cars on the road, not just the same number with different control systems. But is the car industry really going to suggest that? Self-driving cars may move traffic a little more efficiently, but the laws of induced demand suggest that the supply of cars might also increase to counter any such benefits.

The most interesting question arising out of this observation is if this is just short sightedness of the people involved in pushing self driving cars (very much in the way that the first cars were advertised as ‘horseless carriages‘) or if this is a genuine attempt to extend the social acceptance of a failed system:

Few industries could get away with as much blood on their hands as the automobile business does. That we are prepared to expend so many lives – 1.24 million killed each year on the roads, and who knows how many other lives ruined – for the sake of our freedom to drive to work is fairly objectionable.

In his column Hill points to existing alternative to this failed system. Cities designed in such a way that individual car ownership does not make sense:

[…] Yet imagine the possibilities of a city oriented around people living closer to their work and play, and so built around cycling, walking, quality public transport and a massively reduced number of electric cars for individual errands. It doesn’t exactly have the airbrushed sheen of Google X, but it would be a city with a lower carbon footprint, healthier people, safer streets, more frequent social interaction, better air quality, quiet enough to hear conversations, to hear birds and to build lighter, more experimental building envelopes, with a higher economic performance through serendipity, agglomeration, richer mixed-use land use, and with increased citizen engagement in the city itself. The benefits are virtually endless, and few are even addressed by self-driving cars, never mind achieved.

[…] You choose the vehicle fit for your needs at that point, thus reinforcing the idea that mobility is a bespoke, mass-customised on-demand service shared across bike-sharing, public transport, and through shared self-driving cars for those times when you really need one.

For people lucky enough to live in places like Amsterdam this is not something that needs to be imagined. My personal mobility arrangements include pretty much all of the above: two different bikes (depending on what needs to be transported), a car2go account, a uber account, a car rental company around the corner and a yearly subscription for all public transportation in this (admittedly tiny) country.

I have never owned a car and will very likely never own one since proximity of work and home is one of the most important considerations i apply when considering alternative scenarios for the future.

So why am i fascinated by self driving cars then? Firstly because of the technology involved, but also because they are probably nicer (read more predictable) to deal with when cycling in the city. More importantly though, i would expect them to unify the rental-car/car2go/uber/taxi part of my mobility mix at some point. That will probably be to the detriment of the taxi drivers (in the end they are robots replacing manual labour), but should make shared individual mobility more attractive (hopefully to more people outside of my early adopter demographic). In his column Hill suggests pretty much the same:

[…] Folding self-driving systems into car-sharing schemes, as part of a wider rethink about how we live together in cities, however? I could share that vision. So again, what is the real question that suggests self-driving cars are the solution?

Catching up with the global south...

06 Dec 2012 | 370 words | CFL climate cange energy lights technology migration

Almost 6 year ago (on the first of january 2007) i started taking an interest in the use of Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) as exterior lightening. I first noticed this use of this type op lightbulbs on a new years day stroll to the recently bombed out southern suburbs of Beirut. A large number shops and market stalls has improvised lamps made from large CFLs. The next day i observed the same while visiting a number of recently destroyed villages along the Lebanese/Israeli border.

While this kind of eco-light bulbs where still relatively new and rare in north-west Europe at the time, their sudden appearance in Lebanon made a lot of sense: The Lebanon’s electricity generating capacity had been severely reduced by israeli air strikes during the previous summer’s war and in a situation where there is insufficient supply of electricity energy efficiency is a simple necessity (as opposed to the luxury it represents in the global north).

I later encountered large CFLs as (often improvised) exterior lighting in a large variety of places outside of Europe: In fast growing economies like China, Brazil and Indonesia (where supply of electricity does not manage to keep with the rapid growth of demand) and places like Cuba, Iran, Egypt or Syria, where the distribution infrastructure is often improvised and thus vulnerable to excessive demand).

Whatever the reason it appears that all of these countries were leapfrogging the developed world in use of energy efficient lightening, not because they cared so much about their carbon footprint, but out of sheer necessity (which of course nicely contrasts our self perception as moral champions of energy efficiency in the global debate about climate change).

In this context it is somewhat refreshing to notice that apparently we have started to catch up with the developing world. On my bike ride home from work the day before yesterday i noticed a number of stores (run by immigrants) that used CFLs for exterior lighting in pretty much the same way that they have been using them in Lebanon since 2007:

i am pretty sure we will see much more of this type of immigrant driven technology transfer from the periphery to the center in the years to come…

The internet giveth and the internet taketh away (piracy edition)

02 Sep 2012 | 295 words | art music piracy technology

Turns out that theverge does music reporting of sorts. their recent history of dubstep music (‘beyond lies the wub‘) contains two short passages that highlight the impact of digital technology on art (in this case dubstep music).

The first passage highlights how digital piracy killed the music industry might have actually driven the quality of music production in the past dececade or so:

“They cost nothing if you know how to get them for free, which most people did,” says Martin Clark. “The VSTs [Steinberg’s audio plug-in architecture] were available on peer-to-peer sites. So suddenly it’s democratized, right? You have zero cost to acquire a studio. You have this like, infinite [potential]. Anyone can be a producer if they can get a hold of these. From that pool you have a much larger pool to select who makes interesting music, as opposed to just who can make music. It’s no longer a question of whether you can make music, because the software is distributed, it’s accessible.”

On the other hand it seems that the same technology has also contributed to the decline of the very pirate radio stations which were once considered the backbone of London’s urban music culture. turns out that the same developments that allow pretty much everyone to become a producer, make running a pirate radio station a pretty silly exercise:

“It’s totally changed,” according to Boomnoise. “I mean, if you sit down at a computer with an internet connection, you can find pretty much anything you want to listen to, whether or not it’s in the radio format. And what happened was, I think with the internet was a shift from the local to the global, essentially, a shift away from having a very localized audience.”

Read the full article here

Rio de Janeiro as a smart city

04 Mar 2012 | 499 words | brazil rio smart cities streetart urbanism technology

The New York Times has a longish article portraying the Operations Center of the City of Rio that has been build by IBM’s smarter cities unit.

In the article both the city of Rio de Janeiro and IBM portray the operations center as some kind of magic wand that enables the benevolent city government to steer the daily life of the city’s population using video feeds and text messages:

City employees in white jumpsuits work quietly in front of a giant wall of screens — a sort of virtual Rio, rendered in real time. Video streams in from subway stations and major intersections. A sophisticated weather program predicts rainfall across the city. A map glows with the locations of car accidents, power failures and other problems.

[…] Rio represents a grand challenge. A horizontal city sprawled between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, it is at once a boomtown, a beach town, a paradise, an eyesore, a research center and a construction site. Oil-industry giants like Halliburton and Schlumberger have been rushing to build research centers here to help develop massive oil and gas fields off the coast.

Special police units have moved into about 20 slums, called favelas, in an effort to assert government control and combat crime. Rio is also reconstructing major arenas and building a rapid-bus system ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

This is a city where some of the rich live in gated communities while some of the poor in the favelas pirate electricity from the grid. And where disasters, natural and otherwise, sometimes strike. Rainstorms can cause deadly landslides. Last year, a historic streetcar derailed, killing five people. Earlier this year, three buildings collapsed downtown, killing at least 17.

[…] In real flood conditions, the operations center decides when to set off the sirens. That decision is based on I.B.M.’s system, which uses computer algorithms to predict how much rain will fall in a given square kilometer — a far more precise forecast than standard weather systems provide. When the program predicts heavy rain, the center sends out text messages to different departments so they can prepare.

The article lists a number of criticism of this surveillance based approach to smart cities:

Some wonder if it is all for show, to reassure Olympic officials and foreign investors. Some worry that it will benefit well-off neighborhoods more than the favelas. Others fear that all this surveillance has the potential to curb freedoms or invade privacy. Still others view the center as a stopgap that does not address underlying infrastructure problems.

Which seems perfectly summarized by this graffiti that i came across in central Rio last january (two days after the building collapse mentioned in the NYT article above, which took place within 10 minutes walking distance from the location of the graffiti).

Smart city graffiti

Makes me wonder if the graffiti artists was referring to a general tendency or to the Operations Center of the City of Rio in particular.

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: