A deeper simulation fever (at the Berliner Gespräche)

Last Wednesday I was at a gathering by the Institue for Internet and Society here in Berlin in collaboration with Deutschlandfunk called “Berliner Gespräche” about how the internet influences society.

The internet is serious

What struck me mainly was that both a professor from the panel and a commenter from the audience held the position that the internet is in fact nothing new. That it is just another medium/channel for people to communicate through. Citing Clay Shirky, I would say that more and faster information flows are in fact different. More fundamentally the internet is the manifestation of a vast new kind of object that interacts with other objects (such as us) in a myriad ways. That alone makes it something new and very significant.

I was asked by somebody from Deutschlandfunk to comment on the proceedings of the evening and I gave them my superficial outsider’s view about privacy and journalism and how the status quo of both is vastly different in the Netherlands.

On the way home what stuck with me most is that every online entity comprises within itself a subjective view of how reality works and how it wishes to interact with that reality. Facebook has notions about the desirability of privacy that permeate through all of its interactions with its users. This is the same for any websites. They are simulations that run on a subjectively chosen subset of reality just like games do.

The tool that we often employ when talking about games is Ian Bogost’s concept of ‘simulation fever’ that says that subjective simulations cause people to either accept or reject the simulation based on their position. The critical alternation (or altercation if you will) between acceptance and rejection puts the user in a moral frenzy termed simulation fever.

The subjective values that websites impose most clearly on users right now are their views when it comes to privacy but there are a slew of other values that are inherent in any web application which users may or may not accept when using them. If you must generalize —as a populace— the Dutch mostly accept those subjective realities while the Germans mostly reject.

The Dutch use sites as means of communication and self-expression while grosso modo ignoring the consequences of corporate ownership. While Germans forced by social pressures to use sites such as Facebook, try to mitigate their complicitness by employing sabotage and other defensives strategies.

There is in both countries a minority of people who are aware of the issues and use these services critically. For any meaningful discussion about the internet, they the most likely people to turn to.

Early 2012 Events

The year has started nicely and the event line-up is already brimful.

Thursday a week ago saw the iBestuur Congress in the Netherlands where the winners of the Apps voor Nederland competition were announced. I’m happy to see this last app competition to a succesful end and I look forward to what more we can bring. See a write-up of them over at the Hack de Overheid site.

Last weekend I was joined here by fellow game makers from the Netherlands to participate in the Berlin Global Game Jam. We fought hard and managed to crank out the unparalleled Nakatomi Rider. Niels wrote it up for the papers (available over at Bashers).

This week in Berlin the Transmediale takes place to which I hope to go in the following days. I have a difficult relationship with art, especially when it is in the domain of media, but watching the Graham Harman lecture tonight and the introduction to it, it was clear to me that Transmediale is as on top of current developments and artistic relevance as they can be.


There will be a night in Pakhuis de Zwijger to celebrate the Nederland van Boven television series that the VPRO produced in the Netherlands. I will be joining the esteemed panel there as a board member of Hack de Overheid to talk about issues of democracy, participation and truth in cartography.

With Martijn de Waal happily having gotten his PhD, it’s now full steam ahead for the conference he is organizing together with Michiel de Lange called “Social Cities of Tomorrow”. I will be speaking in a brief time slot about Apps for Amsterdam and how data commons happen.

I will probably be attending LIFT to see a certain person speak.

Finally in the near future there is also an undisclosed Berlin event for which I will be speaking which will be my first abroad since I left the Netherlands.

Working theory regarding bureaucracy

German form terror

I’m revising my working theory for Germany based on experiences from last week and other things that have happened. My old one on Germany’s attitude towards modernity still holds, but talking with open government activists and my experiences with government here, have prompted the following.

One of the biggest mysteries for me is why Germany is so far behind when it comes to open government compared to the Netherlands. With Hack de Overheid we have been on a roll last year with nearly every institution coming forward and pushing towards more openness. We even got Minister Verhagen on television to pledge to our goal. All of this does not mean we have won yet, but it does show a momentum into the right direction.

The German situation in comparison beggars belief. The very fact that it is a good thing for government to open up their data in a machine-readable fashion, still seems to be up for debate in many circles. The open government movement itself is denied outright and not heard in official proceedings even when it would be total common sense to take their input.

I have no clue how in this day and age such an opinion is tenable, but I will wager two possible explanations:

  1. German goverment is hideously complex. There are tons of layers of government because of the federal system and the scale of the country. There are also parallel governments and institutions that are similarly layered, so for each and every query you have, you may be pointed any way up, down or sideways into the hierarchy. This is a very easy way to get sent in endless loops and for the entire system to hold itself in gridlock.
  2. This one is more subtle: German government is very bureaucratical. The promise of open data and open government is ultimately to replace well defined bureaucratic systems with automation. At a point it no longer matters whether you send a physical form into government for human processing or whether you fill something in online and a computer performs the same operation.
    Whether they realize it or not, by filibustering openness in government, the civil servants are ensuring that they will still have a job in twenty years’ time.

And before you say the above is an unfair characterization of the ruling elites in Germany, you only have to read this recent missive by CDU Bundestag member Heveling (outtakes by Peter Bihr here) to confirm the ruling class’s difficult relation with the internet. Heveling has caused quite the uproar here. Though I wonder if the German twittersphere may let themselves be baited too easily. If we in the Netherlands went batshit crazy every time somebody from the CDA said something stupid about the internet, we would get nary a thing done.

Starting up self-employed in Germany

I’m reading up on German tax and trade rules because I’m going to incorporate here this month and most of the things I read do not make me very happy. They look like they are more suited to a 19th century gentry than to creative workers in the multipolar 21st.

One such thing is being a Freiberufler. The Freiberuflich status, which means you work in a free profession, strikes me as an archaic oddity.

In the Netherlands we had the same for doctors, engineers and other learned individuals which meant you did not need to register at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. You could just apply for a VAT number at the tax service and be in business. In the Netherlands this status got abolished and everybody was forced to register at that terrible excuse for an institution: the KvK.

In Germany being Freiberuflich rests on the same foundations but it also means you get a special tax cut (you don’t pay Gewerbesteuer) that other self-employed don’t get. This would seem to be along the division between people who create stuff from their knowledge and people who work in manufacture/trade.

That tax cut means that the Finanzamt examines your status a bit more stringently, because more people try to apply for the Freiberuflich status. There are a bunch of bizarrely outdated catalogue professions for which the decision has already been made. These number: blood type tester, ship compass rejiggerer and various other untranslatable things. In the digital professions the divisions are not very clear. A designer (in most cases) seems to be free, but a programmer (called by the humorous EDV —Elektronische Datenverarbeitung— term) usually not.

There are mainly two things wrong here.

The tax cut and the mostly arbitrary divisions that it entails seem unnecessary to me. For any enterprise, the difference between the cost you incur and the amount of money you can turn your time into, is your value add for which you already pay a VAT. Why then complicate matters with another tax designed especially to hurt the lower educated?

More principally, the division between being a free profession and not, at its core rests on whether somebody has undertaken higher education. Something you do for which you have been educated may be a free profession, while if you don’t have the education for it, this may become an issue. While in most cases, upon examination it won’t be an issue at all, the fact that this division exists and could have repercussions for your tax status, potentially has a chilling effect. It implies that your tax system and in effect most of your society is not based on merit, but on if you managed to pass this or that (university) gate. That strikes me as a very unhealthy signal.

Whither the theater?

Talking to two young theater makers yesterday, I remarked that the majority of the Dutch plays I see don’t deliver the relevant and socially engaged experiences I would want them to. To which they asked why I still bothered going to the theater, a question I hear regularly from those in the more modern performing arts. They themselves hardly ever go and they make participatory theater, not the stage dramas that first come to mind. That is a response I get more often: that theater is boring, irrelevant and really ‘Why would anybody want to go?’

I often think the same on my obligatory trips to the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam and other venues. What I need in theater is a visceral quality, acute social relevance and deep street savvy. One of those is hard enough to find most of the time, let alone all three. I went to 33 plays last year and only a handful of them delivered. The few that did, redeemed the boring, too long, too simple plays I’ve been to, but I think that there are irresolvable obstacles preventing the quality of theater from increasing.

On most of my visits I’m struck by how narrow a demographic (by age and social-economic status) frequents most theaters. This cannot but influence the performances to cater to the audience. The audience’s wishes notwithstanding, artistic autonomy would require boundaries to be pushed, but that too doesn’t happen all too often (see also ‘De studio uit, de wereld in’).

Having said that, the theater makers I would go to blindly in the Netherlands are:

  • Theu Boermans
  • Thibaud Delpeut
  • Eric de Vroedt
  • Ivo van Hove

Now having just moved to Berlin, I’ve seen a bunch of plays at die Schaubühne but nothing very titillating yet. That may be in part because I am yet to see something by Thomas Ostermeier, but it does beg the question why a theater would stage such wildly varying material and why the room still is full most of the nights. Answers to those questions are forthcoming after a more thorough sampling.

Week 251

Dropped in for a bit at the Wostel

Last week was my first week in Berlin in earnest and I was more than a bit eager to get back on the horse. On Monday I visited four coworking spaces, on Tuesday I met Marguerite Joly from the Hybrid Plattform and on Wednesday I visited a bunch more. Like I write over at Hubbub, I am looking for a studio space and much much more here in Berlin.

What is the collective noun for laptops? A tappering?

On Thursday I booked a spot at the beta breakfast at Betahaus through Gidsy where I met old friends and some interesting new people.

A somewhat more successful version of the modern concert hall

On Friday I had lunch with Rainer Kohlberger and then worked at betahaus for the rest of the day. I ended the week with drinks with the Gidsy and Third Wave crews.

This AAA washing machine is lit up like a Christmas tree.

Week 249

In the beginning of the week I spotted an interesting dataset on Sargasso, requested to play with it and got the following visual published the next day (our write-up).

Then it was off to Berlin to finalize things with the appartment and prepare the move.

My review of “Where is my Heart?” was also published in the nrc.next that week (tweet):

Finally my proposal to present on the Apps for Amsterdam project on the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference was aspected and I will be attending and presenting at that conference in Amsterdam. Data commons are a topic that is very near to our practice and I look forward to exchanging ideas with those attending.

Scepticism on the Filter Bubble

I think most of the thinking around The Filter Bubble comes from people who are not very procedurally literate to begin with. That is to say they are not very adept at understanding the rules that govern interactive systems nor are they well equipped at reconfiguring them to suit their ends. I touch on this because the same tired argument was parroted in this Zeit interview with Miriam Meckel, a leading German communication scientist. It starts off with some very sensible sentiments but then it quickly derails on the topic of algorithms and concludes on several sidelines.

There is a clear need for caution when it comes to algorithms, as has also been expressed by algoworld expert Kevin Slavin in his TED talk ‘How algorithms shape our world’ but there is no need for the undue fear being mongered by Eli Pariser and his pack. Meckel says the following (as also remarked by Basti Hirsch):

Es gäbe keinen kritischen Diskurs mehr, und damit würde unser System auseinanderfallen. Informationen sind der Kitt, der unsere Gesellschaft zusammenhält. In meinem Buch treibe ich diese Idee auf die Spitze: Die Menschheit schafft sich durch die Perfektionierung der Algorithmen selbst ab.

Bei manchen durch Algorithmen betriebenen Werbeangeboten hingegen bekämen Sie diesen Artikel gar nicht erst zu sehen.

While deploring the extremism prevalent in German discourse on the topic of the internet. She herself now takes an extremist and poorly nuanced position herself. The Filter Bubble argument that is currently in vogue (see this treatment by Alexander) is mostly hollow and it creates understanding on the back of fear. I work for the internet and I am sick of hearing this nonsense time and time again.

The Filter Bubble contrasts a previously filtered situation of redacted mainstream media with the new filtered situation of personalized online content and plays off of people’s fears. There are two main differences in the new situation.

The first difference is that the filters personalize content spheres for each person. I don’t think this is all that problematic. Having trained machine learning algorithms myself, I have seen how coarse they turn out no matter what amount of training. Training which is somewhere between a dark art and trying to hit a subjective target somewhere. Algorithmic filters resemble fractal surfaces more than they do smooth bubbles and personalization will never provide a perfectly sealed off environment. This means that as soon as you get into the technical details the whole thing very quickly falls apart.

The second difference is that filters are being applied by algorithms instead of editors now. Both are enigmatic creatures, but judging from the cold reception algorithms get, it seems that the traditional humanities are better equipped to deal with human entities than they are with the algorithmic variety. There is nothing new under the sun. Large scale social segregation and associated detrimental effects also happened using traditional media with people logging into their own newspaper or radio station. One of the most visibly polarized societies right now is the USA where the ‘debate’ between the right and the left is raging on talk radio, 24 hour news networks and, yes, also online. If anything the filters may help by making the groups of like minded people too small and too busy to be harmful to society.

My second problem is that while complaining about the lack of technical literacy in the general populace, her discipline and her research does not come over as very technically literate. She says:

Unser Land ist tendenziell eher technikfeindlich eingestellt.

The interviewer then adds that she draws from literary and philosophical sources. Those are interesting but hardly enough to thoroughly treat a subject. Deep talk about about information technology should draw from philosophy but it should also bring a literacy of the field itself. That means knowledge of its technical workings and affordances, the design practices inherent in the creation of technical artifacts and the procedurality and interaction that is so key to them.

So yes I very much agree that we need to instill a large scale procedural, data and media literacy in people and we may well need to start with the humanities. That may be the only way to fix their relevance problems when it comes to digital things (see also Ian Bogost’s two part essay ‘Beyond the Elbow-patched Playground’ on that).

So with those skills in hand, we could discuss the filter bubble drawing from applied research. One finding I would like to see is a technical assessment of the feasibility of trapping people in filter bubbles and measurements of the amount of information isolation that can be achieved. Another would be to research real life internet users and see if in fact they shut themselves off more from other influences and how far this affects their world views. Only with a praxis firmly based in reality can we talk about this subject in a way that is not gratuitous.

Update: This review of the Filter Bubble by Olga Goriunova in Computational Culture mostly vindicates my argument and I agree that we need more writing, not less to bridge the gap of literacy that stands ahead of us.

Cultural Criticism Without Borders

When I just got into Germany we managed to pin point something I had noticed before. It is striking how conservative people in Germany are when it comes to the internet and especially people who work in cultural positions. Compared to that, the Netherlands of the past five years has gone through a rather tumultuous revolution.

This was prompted a bit by responses are to the new play “Edward II” directed by Ivo van Hove at the Schaubühne here. I am yet to see the play, but I hear it’s pretty good. Judging from the set pictures and the trailer it is one of the more modern pieces at this particular theater. It seems to have been rather poorly received in the papers, which have treated it not really on merit, but with thinly veneered hatchet jobs where critics employed their position to jab at this or that enemy in the German cultural landscape. One particular critic even projected his own frustrations and personal perversions onto the play in a national daily. Germany still seems to be that place where personal gripes are written down and nailed to a door somewhere.

The modern look of the play seemed to draw particular ire and especially the liberal use of video projections on the stage (a staple at Toneelgroep Amsterdam). It seems that German theater viewers cannot deal with mixed media and are either confused on where to look or too closed minded to accept projected images alongside the action happening live on the stage. This is one symptom of a lack in media literacy.

Ivory towered gentlemen with a strangle hold on culture may be one extreme, in the Netherlands we suffer from the other. Reviews of works of culture in the papers are oftentimes as thin as the paper they are printed on. Usually they superficially treat a work and tack on a bit of buyer’s advice. It is painfully obvious that they are written by people who have to write twenty such pieces a day lest they are fired. I write video game reviews in Dutch periodical nrc.next myself, but looking for my piece in the paper one day, I read a review for a movie I’d been to that was so bad, it brought tears to my eyes. Theater reviews have held their own, but they are hit and miss and you’re better off reading only those written by Simon van den Berg.

As I see it a piece in a newspaper treating a work of culture should be some parts of either a review or a critique and probably a bit of both. A review is a brief summary of a piece without giving much away, explaining how it will fulfill the expectations of a prospective audience so they can decide whether to go/buy/use it or not. A critique should be a deep diving treatment of that piece, how it compares to all other works and how it is relevant to society in any subset that the critic deems relevant. Such a critique should contain judicious amounts of post-modern literary theory, internet savvy remix, unit operational analysis and it should bridge clefts of continuity, medium, style and social stratum. Above all both reviews and critiques must be entertaining to read and they must bring something new to the table.

I get to write 80 words or so for the paper and in that little space I try to do the above because we want to further discourse around video games in the Netherlands. As we see it procedural media are busy upending the entire traditional cultural landscape and strict divisions of any kind in culture and art will not be tenable in the future. The institutions are crumbling and that is a good thing. This is unfortunately a radical notion even in the Netherlands, I have no clue how it will hold up in Germany where institutions are even more conservative and society is much more stratified.

In any case we cannot fill the entire newspaper by ourselves, nor should we want to. We can only strive to educate and elucidate by writing and talking about media in this particular way and hope that it catches on. I’m interested to see if my notions are at all true and if the German or Dutch discourse can be inched forward in the coming year with some choice interventions. Help to achieve that or explanations in how I am completely wrong are always welcome.

Working theory for Germany

I have been in Berlin for a couple of hectic days now and I’m trying to come to terms with my surroundings. I have got a new working theory to use for the foreseeable future. Let’s see how well this holds up:

Germany has not quite recovered from their catastrophical experiment with modernism in the ’30s-’40s. This caused them to fall back and get stuck in a sort of classical romanticism. This stuckness has caused them to skip post-modernism and the developments that came after and is the main reason why its cultural velocity is slow. Some individuals have modernized to a greater or lesser extent and the developments of ’68 have had an effect, but the institutional parts of the country remain firmly entrenched in the past.

As I said, I’m new here and this is two days’ worth of rumination thinly sliced. Comments for amending it are very welcome.