Conversations Below Sea Level: Rob van Kranenburg

Ambient Dominance and the Public — An Interview with Rob van Kranenburg


(Photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

For the last interview in this series, I sat down to talk to Rob van Kranenburg. Rob works at Waag Society, a new media think-tank that “wants to be on the forefront of developments by creating a consensus among as many of the stakeholders as possible (companies, government, citizens, European laws and professionals) to anchor values [such] as solidarity, sharing, learning to learn, creativity, beauty and a sense of change and innovation as deep as possible within the code and infrastructure.” Rob is head of the Public Domain program. A large part of his work deals with the problematic shift (evident in technologies such as RFID) from “privacy compliant applications to privacy compliant technology.” We met at the Waag offices in Nieuwmarkt, Amsterdam, on June 17.


Ulises Mejias: Since a lot of your work has to do with Ambient Intelligence, why don’t you start by telling us what that is? You have a phrase here, in one of the essays you gave me, about “outsourcing memory and agency to an ever more seemingly controllable environment on an individual level that is perceived as convenient.”

Rob van Kranenburg: Let’s start with the example of a pencil. As you write things down, you are outsourcing your memory into the environment. That’s how the Western notion of technology has worked. But now the idea is to hide all these functionalities into our environment. Like electricity, basically. It’s been hidden. All we see is the On/Off switch. Nobody knows how it works. If there is a power break, everything breaks. The same goes for our computer. The idea behind Ambient Intelligence, Pervasive Computing or whatever you want to call it, is to take the intelligence out of the computer box. I should make my environment ‘intelligent:’ I should make my clothes intelligent, my chair intelligent, so they recognize me. The walls in my house should sense whether I’m depressed. So this promise that the world can recognize you every step of the way, and give you everything you need, is very powerful. But the thing is that this notion of Ambient Intelligence can only work on a very stable environment. If the environment changes, it has very big consequences, on an interface level. Change must be minimal. It’s a totalitarian logic, within the whole system. Because it assumes it needs to be stable in order to “live.” We will have new generations growing up dumber in their interfacing activities with these environments, because there’s no need for them to think otherwise; they are being taken care of.

UM: What sort of projects are you working on at Waag?

RvK: There’s basically three tracks. One of them is called Smart Environments, and it’s kind of a full-fledged procedure or protocol to handle the Ambient Intelligence debate. We are trying to host the debate, to bring all these positions around the table, with the very naive and romantic view that we can actually get some kind of open source foundation for the infrastructure. It’s sort of the ultimate Dutch model, which is: We realize it’s inevitable, we are not going to try to stop it, we just want to make it… less bad! This is one track, and it flows immediately into another one called Smart Citizens.

UM: What’s that about?

RvK: This reflects my fear (I always see the dystopias; that’s what I do!) that despite the Internet, despite mobile phones, GPS, etc. …despite all these connectivities… people still have no repository of actions for making sense of what is behind the technology. All the kings before me did not have the tools I have now. All the philosophers before could not do what I do now. So people think they have all this connectivity, but they have no clue about the infrastructure that’s feeding the technology. And this infrastructure is saying: “Outsource all your interfacing to me! I’ll take care of it.” The result is that people cannot fix their own cars. No one cares about it, because everyone assumes the economy will just keep functioning the way it does. But even at a practical level, with 130 euros for a barrel of oil, and going up, it’s going to be very difficult to uphold this Ambient Intelligence dream. So we have this kind of citizens, who feel themselves kings, but have no clue about infrastructures anymore, and who’ve given up lots of solidarity moments also, because the Nation State is an empty shell… So what we need to do is script new solidarities with these new technologies, and not all this fear, and all this control. This is a major challenge.

UM: How does the Waag Society address this challenge?

RvK: The role of a place like the Waag is to put these things on the agenda, and be able to talk to the ministries as well as the hackers. For instance, last week we hosted the Commission on Privacy and Ethics, a very high-level commission with the Chief of Police, and the Chief of the Council of Culture, and we were able to put together a very mixed group of young people, privacy activists, etc. This is one of the few places where you can do this, because we have the respect of all the different parties, and can bring them to the table. So at the beginning of the Waag the idea was to have public domain on the Internet. But the Internet is going to be the Internet of Things, so we are going to have to look out for the public domain in this Internet of Things, which is everyday life! That’s why Smart Exchange is the third trajectory, looking for what is common, not so much what is different. We are all confronting the same issues. Ambient Intelligence is everywhere. RFID is everywhere. China just ordered one billion Smart Cards. Chinese university students are monitored in highly surveilled campuses. It looks very friendly, and very nice, but throughout these wireless interventions, people are being steered in certain directions. Smart Architecture is around the corner: materials that can change color or shape if you have the right Bluetooth ring or something … it really gets to a Harry Potter level, where some people will be able to see a door and some won’t. So we need to focus on these common denominators. If there is a kind of perverse capitalism working in there, why can’t we work in there? They work through the protocols, so why can’t we have the protocols working for us? Or make our own!


UM: You argue that top-down policy making doesn’t work: “regulation is always a system failure as consensus should have been scripted into the design.” Can solidarity really be scripted into the code, as you suggest?

RvK: Maybe I don’t really believe it, but I think it’s our only chance now. It’s pointless to go to the RFID manufacturers and tell them “I’m against you.” But if I say: “Look, I think there is more money in privacy as a unique selling point,” then they will listen. Then you can start showing them things like RFID Guardian.

UM: You are somewhat pessimistic. In you writing you say: “Currently there is no alternative, no competition for the dream of pervasive computing, ubicomp, ambient intelligence, calm technology, disappearing computer.” But then I also sense some optimism, some hope being placed in the Open Source model. Is Open Source enough to counter the totalitarian tendencies of Ambient Intelligence?

RvK: I think it’s not enough. What is needed is first of all a place to articulate this opposition from. Even that seems to be gone. The universities, they just go with the flow. Companies offer intriguing research projects to the schools, who accept them without question. The teachers just keep an eye on the process and project management. The students implement whatever needs to be implemented. Then there are very few philosophers and political thinkers offering a critique, because one is immediately accused of being naive, of a sort of hippie optimism. Open Source as such needs to be investigated for all everyday activities. So we can talk about open source energies, and generic infrastructures, infrastructures that are of the people, out of the hands of the market, which is what we are trying to do at Bricolabs [“A distributed network for global and local development of generic infrastructures incrementally developed by communities”]. But right now Open Source is very much drenched in this ubicomp, pervasive computing model. IBM is really big into it. As long as it means “I’m opening up the sources, but I hold the key to the infrastructure,” it doesn’t really work. Corporations benefit because people are contributing their free time to building all these beautiful things for them.

UM: What happens to the concept of the public in Ambient Intelligence?

RvK: There really is no more public. The audience is really fragmented, their attention diverted from scandal to scandal. So we deal with experts, we talk to experts in the government, in companies, etc. But then what? When you try to reach out to people, they’ve got kids, and jobs, and no time. Everything that’s perceived as helpful is seen as good. For instance, Albert Heijn [a supermarket chain in The Netherlands] is going to begin experimenting with fingerprint scanning technology as a way to save time at the checkout lane, and that’s seen as good. In response to increased surveillance, people keep saying “I’m not doing anything wrong! I’ve got nothing to hide.” It’s very difficult to convince them that it’s not about what is considered wrong now, but what will be deemed wrong in three, four, or five years, when the infrastructure is in place, and all your movements can be tracked and traced and logged. But people don’t want to think about the ‘cool’ technology right now, they just want to use it! So the only way to make it a little better is to embed all these issues in the infrastructure. And that’s what we are trying to do with Smart Environments. Will this halt the machine? I don’t think so. But we can at least try to ease the transition. What else can we do? The Unibomber option is not an option for us, I don’t think. Adding more terror to already existing terror. One can also drop out, retreat. There’s people finding out which zones are not covered by mobile phone networks, and then buying that land. But maybe there is also a revolution somewhere in there waiting to happen. Something like the total fluke that was TCP/IP.

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1 Comment

  1. way too interesting…


    One more thing, that pic which is in the header, where in the world is that? It’s beautiful.

    Looks like the place i’d like to end up living with my family.


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