Interview with Marleen Stikker, director of Waag

The Amsterdam Metropolitan Area benefits from digitization. But technological developments also bring threats: how do we deal with energy-guzzling data centers and how much power do we give big tech? Marleen Stikker talks about the responsible use of data and technology.

Over the past twenty years, Marleen Stikker was one of the few to warn for the flip side of technology and the dangers of big tech. The critical position of artists, hackers and human rights organizations received little support at the time. Meanwhile many are convinced of the fundamental values at stake. “Nowadays it is fortunately a no-brainer to take an active stance on this subject,” says Stikker. “The laws introduced by the European Commission have a major impact, not only the GDPR privacy legislation, but also the Digital Service Act, the Digital Market Act and the AI Act. Added to this are the many lawsuits that, for example, force Google Analytics and ‘behavioral advertisement’ is prohibited. Companies will have to drastically revise their business model. This also offers opportunities for organizations and companies that take public values as their basis. There is now a great demand for it.”

Philosopher and internet pioneer Stikker founded Waag in 1994, with Caroline Nevejan. It is a platform for artists, designers and developers. Waag has been the maternity room for Fairphone, has set up a network of maker education and maker places, including in the OBA, and is the initiator of the public stack, a roadmap for repairing the Internet. Waag is also involved in the energy transition, including the Internet of Energy, a global movement working on a new model for the energy sector.

The Amsterdam municipality has been using Kate Raworths donut model, for which Stikker has long been an advocate. In this economic model, growth is no longer central and a social lower limit is taken into account, as well as an ecological upper limit.

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Willem Koeman
Willem Koeman

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“We have become too dependent on systems. Our democracy is being undermined and ownership of data is unclear”

Public values and joint sources

“In Raworths economic vision the commons get a firm place. The economy is also about public values and how we manage joint sources. The city should think about such things now. How to translate that philosophy into future plans, calculation models, output indicators, tender procedures and governance? How to give public-civil cooperation more space? We should also implement this in financial and legal instruments. We operate in a global context. The support for this philosophy can also be found in other regions. The principles for responsible use of data and technology — what we are currently working on — are also based on public values.”

Responsible use of data and technology

“Digitalization poses major challenges. We have become too dependent on systems, our democracy is being undermined and ownership of data is unclear. At the same time, this digitization creates an enormous ecological footprint.

Stikker is working on a data agreement, together with Board members of the Amsterdam Economic Board. “The interesting thing is that we are broadening the subject here and thus getting a more integrated picture of digitization. I hope that we can show that we are not at the mercy of either China or big tech. We can create a new playing field ourselves by not using Chinese products and not using big-tech platforms. Then you have to think about new revenue models, about new ways of data exchange, such as what AMdEX is working on. At Waag we also get many questions from SMEs, from retailer associations, delivery services and taxi drivers who cannot compete with the capital-driven and monopoly-oriented platform companies. They need platform cooperatives.”

How about: data minimization?

“Sustainable digitization means that you include the entire chain. We are now filling the North Sea with windmills. We need that energy to get rid of the gas. But now it seems that hyperscale data centers are prioritized over local needs. Because both the wind farms and hyperscale data centers of private parties, we have handed over those considerations. If energy is supposed to be a utility function, and we also invest a large part of public money in windmills, why let it fall out of our hands? In addition, maybe we also need to do something with our drift to turn everything into data. Everyone assumes that data maximization is good, but shouldn’t we be thinking about data minimization? After all, data remains an interpretation of the world. And what applies to energy also applies to data. That should also be a utility function that is publicly managed.”

Data agreement anticipates regulation

“It’s too early to say something about what such a data agreement would look like. It could become something that the parties sign. That is the least challenging. I actually hope that we will also set up projects on it in the future and that we will use it to anticipate regulations. So the agreement would really invite action. For example, by formulating what we want with facial recognition or how we store data. We should also take a critical look at the software that use crucial organizations in the region: think of the flood defence, telecom organizations, the municipality. We must not give up our strategic autonomy. I hope that the agreement will ultimately make organizations more resilient, for example because they do not build their business on the wrong foot and run ahead of the troops.”

Text: Mirjam Streefkerk

Portrait picture: Jimena Gauna, Waag, 2022

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