By Roel van Rijsewijk
Inspiring conversations with Marleen Stikker – Waag, Amsterdam
This time, I am talking to Marleen Stikker: the “mother of the creative industry”, according to Job Cohen, an Internet pioneer and currently director of Waag, the research institute for art, technology and society. Not at my kitchen table, as we are meeting in the beautiful historic building that houses the Waag office: Huis de Pinto in Amsterdam’s Jodenbreestraat.
The curiosity of a systems thinker
I’m a bit early so I walk to the bookshop ‘Het Fort van Sjakoo’, “specialized in libertarian and radical ideas from the first to the fifth world and beyond”. A bookshop with activist and anarchist literature that has been here since 1977 in a former squat. I love to sniff around there and thought it would be fitting as a preparation for my conversation with Marleen, who was associated with the squatters’ movement in Amsterdam in the 1980s. I imagine that she also came here.
With some rebellious literature under my arm, I ring the bell at Huis de Pinto. I help to get the industrial coffee machine up and running with a lot of steam and bubbling while I wait for Marleen. With a cup of coffee that has cooled down in the meantime and is far too strong, we start our conversation. And I immediately start asking about the time that I would like to travel to with a time machine: the ‘80s in Amsterdam, where her fascination with technology was born.
“I always wanted to know how things work, I’m a systems thinker,” Marleen begins, “I want to know what’s behind it, whether it’s politics or behaviour or whatever. That’s a curiosity that I’m cursed with,” she chuckles. “And with technology you can understand the world. Technology is not a natural phenomenon but has always been created by people for a specific purpose. And that understanding, in turn, leads to an understanding of human behaviour and our society.”
I want to know whether she had this fascination with technology as a young girl.
She has to laugh about this too: “As a child, I wanted to tinker with things, but I soon realised that I wasn’t really handy enough to learn a craft. I also come from a literary family where there was more talking than tinkering. No, the real fascination with technology came in the 1980s with the advent of the personal computer.”
I am going to sit straight for this and hope for the exciting stories of the squatters and hackers in
The 1980s: from industrialisation to digitalisation
“In those days, you had a generation of young people that no one was waiting for; high unemployment among young people who wanted to improve the world by talking in Cafe Weltschmerz and going wild on punk music: this era marks the transition from industrial to digital. The personal computer comes into your hands and you know: this is a means of power and it can always go both ways. That realisation was already there, even in the hacker scene: the personal computer, so getting the means of production into your own hands, can democratise the system. And that was before the arrival of the Internet in the 1990s. It was immediately clear to me as a systems thinker that the internet protocol would lead to a new order. I fell a little bit in love with the internet protocol. Not as a user, but as someone who wants to understand how it all works.
“And if you can’t hack it, you don’t own it”, I try to add.
“Well, ‘if you can’t open it, you don’t own it’,” she corrects me, “the ‘maker statement’: that you have to open closed systems to know the world.”
“And then as a hacker want to do something with that system that it is not meant for”?
“I am often portrayed as a ‘hacker’, as someone who wants to destroy the system, but for me it’s about getting to the bottom of the system. That I want to create an equal game to prevent abuse of power. Then it’s about things like knowledge, skills, access and the rules of the game. I am not a hacker in the sense that I can manipulate a technical system, but there is also a meta-system that you can figure out. The supervisor and laws and regulations are also a system.”
“That awareness in the 1980s about information technology and the abuse of power, isn’t that also strongly associated with the squatters’ movement?” I try to get the conversation back to that fascinating time.
“Not entirely. The squatters’ movement is often completely misunderstood, it was very diverse. Everyone remembers the big clean-up actions and street fights, but the squatters’ movement was also a group of Amsterdam people who took responsibility for cleaning up the big mess that was here at the time; who started renovating buildings, making theatre and pioneering new living/working concepts. I also see it as the start of new activity in the city; not hoping for a job but starting your own business. The whole service and creative industry came into existence at that time. And that was partly made possible by digital technology.”
The stirring eighties as a link to better understand the nineties and everything that comes after. As a child of that era of punks and squatters, however, I cannot call her an anarchist. I need to adjust my perhaps overly romantic image of Marleen as the revolutionary anarchist a little.
A different view on mankind
“No, I am not an anarchist in anything,” she says decidedly, “Systems with laws and rules are always necessary, but you have to make sure that the system does not lead to a concentration of power or an abuse of power.”
I wonder what that ideal system looks like to her. What utopia was proclaimed in Cafe Weltschmerz? What kind of ideal world could digital technology lead us to?
“Well, I certainly don’t have a utopian world view”, she begins with a laugh, “but I do want to focus on certain values: being able to take charge of your own life, being a ‘maker’, to take care of yourself and others. A view on mankind in which we are born to work together. And that was different from what we now teach our children at school and what almost all our systems are based on: the human being as a wolf. The homo economicus who drinks as much beer as he can handle until he is satisfied. A system that assumes that every human being maximises for himself and then everything will be fine. With this view on mankind, our systems are based on competition: you have a job at the expense of someone else and reward systems are based on how well you do compared to someone else.”
“It all starts with a different view on mankind.”
I recognise this in the corporate world in which I live. There, it is very common to use the metaphor of top-level sports and that we in the business world can learn a lot from top-level sports. The problem with that is that in sports you have a winner, but also always someone who loses, a ‘zero-sum game’.”
And Marleen adds: “And that, just like in top-level sport, you are rewarded for sacrifice. And if you don’t, you’re a loser. So if you possess a lot, you earned it yourself, and if you have nothing, you didn’t work hard enough for it. A view on mankind that ignores all kinds of circumstances such as where you were born and the opportunities you were given. And if you now see technology as a means for people to make (something of) themselves, then you understand that technology can change the system. Whether it’s a hammer or seeds or digital technology; when it’s in the hands of people, you give them the ability to shape their lives and to care for each other. And that is not a utopia but a starting point to eventually move towards. It all starts with a different view on mankind.”
“So most people are good (De meeste mensen deugen)”, I refer to Rutger Bregman’s book.
“Yes, most people are good, but above all, most people want to work together. Scientific research and game theories keep showing us that we are most successful when we work well together.”
Here I get to hear a bit of revolutionary thinking after all. One of the books I brought back from Fort Shakoo is by Pyotr Kropotkin. Kropotkin was an anarchist and he was also an evolutionary biologist. We often associate the theory of evolution with social Darwinism, “the survival of the fittest”, and that in mutual competition with winners and losers, the best in mankind will automatically emerge. However, the most successful species, including humans, excel in cooperation. Altruism and caring for each other is not a thin layer of civilisation but how we have been programmed over thousands of years. Because cooperation is the best way to survive.
“And then it is terrible to have to conclude that the dominant design principle of the systems is that people in principle cannot be trusted because they are only out for their own gain. We should start from the premise of trust in each other.”
“More trust and less control,” I confirm. “Because in over-controlled systems you get exactly the wrong behaviour: people stop thinking for themselves.
Naïve internet optimism
We talked further about the square behind Amsterdam’s central station, where various flows come together: the hundreds of travellers who walk in and out of the station, right across a cycle path that cuts through that flow, and then the ferries where travellers have to get on and off. And how do you organize that? Thankfully, there were a few brave civil servants who thought that we shouldn’t organize at all: a square has been built there without bicycle lanes, signs, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights or other rules. Everything comes together and you figure it out yourself. And that works.
“That works because in such a system people take care of each other” Marleen agrees, “you then make use of the intelligence that we as social beings have. ‘Body intelligence’ means that you somehow recognise the intention and behaviour of the other person: ‘look out, that’s one of those cyclists!
“And that was the utopia of such a sanctuary that I had when the Internet started,” I admit, “a world where everything is connected and nobody is in charge”.
“The way you sketch it is really a very naive version!”, is her immediate reaction. “Sorry”, she adds apologetically.
“No worries,” I tell her. “Naivety is also a beautiful quality”.
“The internet was never anarchic. It’s also just a system based on agreements, the internet protocol, which therefore contains positions of power. And as early as 1989, we warned against internet optimism at a demonstration in Paradiso; that it could just fall into the wrong hands. As early as 1993, you could see that governments in all kinds of countries started to take control of the internet. The internet once started with a small group of people, with a lot of trust, aimed at knowledge exchange. But with the explosive growth, the interests of governments and powerful companies became bigger and bigger.
“That warning didn’t help,” I state.
“Yes, I get that criticism a lot,” she laughs. “Back in the days with the digital city and XS4all, we should have done better,” I am told. The discussion back then was that it should actually have been a public infrastructure to ensure that public values were safeguarded in the internet protocol. But this was the 1990s, when EVERYTHING became a market, and the timing was completely wrong for this message. And you can’t expect that we had to fight alone against the big infrastructure companies with the huge interests.”
“Is it mainly about who has control over the physical infrastructure: the masts, cables and data centres?
“No, it is mainly about the protocols and eventually the applications. It’s crazy that there are only company platforms as places to connect to each other. As if we are only allowed to talk to each other in McDonalds and not in public spaces”.
This reminds me of the concept of Fat Protocol. We are now dealing with a thin protocol layer called ‘TCP/IP’, which is a set of common agreements on how computers connect and share information. On top of that are very thick applications with lots of rules and all your data in them. Of which you have to hope that the software developer and the owner of that application have your best interests at heart. Fat Protocol means that you make the common protocol layer much thicker, containing most of the rules in the form of agreements and a distributed data model, with only very thin applications.
“Yes, then we are talking about the same thing,” Marleen agrees. “ Good examples are the corona detector which, after a huge European discussion, is based on a ‘privacy by design’ protocol with distributed storage of your personal data. IRMA (I Reveal My Attributes), a protocol with which you can prove that you have certain attributes, for example that you are entitled to something, without having to share your personal data. In De Waag we are working on such an initiative for your DNA, so that that data is not stored somewhere by an American company. In any case, it is about more than infrastructure if you want to be in control of your own data. Indeed, many of these initiatives are based on something next to or on top of the TCP/IP protocol, because that prevents you from having to tear down the house to replace the foundation.”
An internet of distributed protocols, a place where the control of the rules and the data lies with the people and not with companies. “So also an open source search engine that belongs to everyone without an advertising model behind it,” I think.
“Yes, of course they are already there. The problem is not the advertisements, the problem with the search engines is that before 2004 the search results were based on your keywords and from 2004 onwards increasingly on your profile. Why are companies profiling you? That should be forbidden, they are not intelligence services. And they are also strictly regulated. A search engine that does not build up your profile and shows you results based on your search words is allowed to show an advertisement. As long as it is not based on your profile, which is then put up for sale at an auction. This really needs to be reduced. The question is also whether these platforms are a kind of telco or publisher, in other words whether they are just an intermediary or also responsible for the content.”
The good conversation
She is now starting to speak with increasing intensity; it is clear that this is an important issue for her. I tell her that I experience it as a dilemma. That I am strongly leaning towards freedom of speech, so the platform as a conduit. But then you also get very wrong things. But on the other hand, you don’t want the administrators of these platforms to decide what is and isn’t allowed.
“There is a very simple solution to this”, she responds. “We also determine for other media what we can and cannot allow, where the boundary lies for freedom of speech.
“Yes sometimes it is simple. Everyone agrees that we don’t want child pornography. But there are also grey areas, especially for a globally operating platform, where it really starts to clash if you have to decide for the whole world what is and what isn’t permissible”, I try to explain.
“Yes, you can’t expect a Facebook to decide what ‘the global conversation’ should look like. A more distributed protocol would also work much better for Facebook. That you have different groups of people on different themes who determine among themselves how the conversation should be conducted. And that you then have the choice to participate or not. Nobody puts time and energy into how to have the right conversation. Technology really can’t solve this, it’s just people doing it.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean, we do it ourselves,” I agree. “The platform is just a conduit, so the conversation that happens there is us. Also the dark and the ugliness; that’s not Facebook, that’s us. It’s really just a mirror in which we see ourselves.”
“Look, if you don’t give someone water and food, then you are also going to look bad. If you don’t give emotional attention, then people will become nasty. That mirror shows a lack of attention to each other, because we think that technology and algorithms are going to solve it for us. This narrative is so persistent and wrong: that data and algorithms offer us objective reality and that this would be superior to our own subjective truth. So the police use data and algorithms to determine whether a group of people can do wrong things. So we go in there armed and then you get an aggressive response and they think: ‘see, the data is right!’ What you said about Facebook being a reflection of ourselves is not true at all.”
“So Facebook is actually some sort of funhouse mirror?”
“Algorithms optimise for something; for attention they trigger our neurotransmitters to anger, excitement, fear. You can also optimise for infatuation, wonder and compassion but those platforms are not made for that. Playing on fear is just easier to get and hold attention.”
Trust in the digital world
“That is also what you see in cybersecurity.” I try to build a bridge to my field of expertise. I am very curious what Marleen thinks about this. “The temptation to sell cybersecurity by spreading fear about all those angry hackers. I have major problems with that. If our task is to ensure confidence in the digital world, then you must not spread fear. As you just pointed out, I’m a bit naïve; in any case, my survival strategy is optimism and enthusiasm so I like to focus on the ‘upside’ of cyber risk!”
And I tell her about my book ‘Cyberrisico als kans’, in which I have tried to offer a more hopeful narrative about cyber security, full of confidence. That these risks arise through innovation, connection and the use of data. And that companies should invest in cybersecurity primarily to enable these things, and not out of fear.
“You can also avoid these risks by minimising the use of data. Seems like a huge solution by just not doing a lot of these things”, she responds.
I do agree with this. “The provisions of the AVG also make sense to me business wise: collect only the data you need, use it only for that purpose and don’t keep it longer than necessary. That’s also just a smart thing to do.”
“Now a lot of the responsibility for this lies with companies but they don’t have to,” is her response to my company perspective. “This thinking goes so far that the ‘privacy by design’ solutions we were just talking about, such as an app that allows you to prove that you are over 18 but without having to reveal your age, should be left to a company. I find it bizarre that you would want to place this kind of critical function as identity with a for-profit company. This includes ‘bashing’ the government; that we think the government is so incompetent in the field of ICT that we should not place these kinds of functions with the government. But we do not always have to choose between market and government, there are so many other models possible. A good example is the ‘Common Ground’ initiative of the Dutch municipalities, inspired by the Estonian X-Road.”
“Common Ground is a project of VNG that is actually quite similar to the idea of Fat Protocol that we have been talking about. It is inspired by the Estonian X-Road. It aims to create a centrally managed, distributed layer of data exchange with privacy safeguards, the Common Ground, on which municipalities can then build applications. This prevents the personal data of citizens from being in all kinds of company-managed applications from all kinds of municipalities, which would make you lose control.”
“So technology is already able to connect people and make use of data without having to give up privacy. There are already many examples of applications based on distributed models where the power does not lie with one company or institution.”
“I don’t think you’re that naïve at all”, Marleen returns to her earlier statement.
Of course I must response to this “I think that a little naivety is an inevitable consequence of an image of humanity that is based on trust in each other. Trust is something you give and then it can happen that your trust is betrayed. Then it turns out afterwards that you have been a little naïve. “
“So I don’t trust the intentions of someone like Zuckerberg at all. And that’s an important point; technology is not the problem, technology has no will of its own. So you shouldn’t start bashing technology either, as if the problems are caused by all the new technology. It’s about the people behind the technology and what they want. By understanding the design of the technology, you gain an understanding of what people want to achieve with that technology and what values are embedded in it.”
The internet is broken but you can fix it
I would like to ask one last question before we conclude. I have learned in this conversation that there have been plenty of people who have fathomed and understood the new technology since the 1980s and have been warning of the dangers ever since the Internet was born. And there are also plenty of people who know, and the technology is ready, that it can be done differently. But still it doesn’t happen. So my final question is, how are we going to make this happen?
She is sitting straight for this one. “The title of my latest book is ‘The Internet is broken’. That is a warning, not a solution. But the subtitle is: ‘We can fix it’. I had to do some soul-searching to find out if I could substantiate that claim,” she begins.
“Or was that a bit naïve?”, I add, laughing.
“Indeed! Or am I naïve!” she laughs. “Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’. You have to take a lot of factors into account to fix the internet. Part of that is in legislation and its enforcement. Look how it is with food safety; that with legislation and good enforcement you can trust the food on your plate. With the internet, enforcement cannot cope and legislation is not yet in order. But that is only part of the solution. There also needs to be a broad understanding of the technology amongst all people instead of just the techies. Indeed, this problem requires an interdisciplinary approach. The alternative models are there, just like alternative energy in the context of sustainability, for example. You then have to ensure that it becomes attractive for companies and institutions to pursue public values. The government can also do that in their tenders, for example, by supporting open source developments. There are also many projects, at the Waag and elsewhere, to deploy technology in a different way.”
I am beginning to understand more and more that people sometimes talk about Marleen Stikker as a mother figure. I, too, feel the urge to make myself vulnerable in front of her and have the feeling that she will take care of us all. “You know what I struggle with,” I begin. “That there is so talking about how things should be done differently, but then it only stays with talking.
“I recognise that,” she says. “But the political path must also be followed. It has to be on the agenda and the fact that more and more members of parliament are specialising in digital technology is a huge step forward. And then you see that politics, look at the example of the VNG with the Common Grounds, also start to make something.”
And that completes the conversation. She told us about her literary origins, about talking about problems. But also squatting and fathoming technology for more understanding. And finally, from that understanding, you have to do some tinkering. What I have learned is that technology is not a force of nature that happens to us; it is and remains human work. So the fact that the internet is broken is not a pessimistic message but actually a very optimistic one. Because it can be better. Digital technology is not deterministic, for example, that it would inevitably lead to great power for a few tech companies. It doesn’t have to, it can all be made.
And I say goodbye with more confidence in the future. We have been chatting for almost an hour and a half and I have gained a better understanding of technology. And Marleen expresses the hope that I will make a beautiful article out of our conservation.
About the author
Roel van Rijsewijk is a cyber security consultant and evangelist with over 20 years of experience helping organizations become cyber resilient. He is a key note speaker and author of ‘Cyberrisico als Kans’ (The Upside of Cyber Risk).