A chronic lack of transparency
DSOI followed on from a trilogy of programmes Roland made about the digital economy for the Dutch television programme VPRO Tegenlicht (Backlight). The first was ‘Shopping the Chinese way’ (Shoppen volgens China), the second looked at the gig economy, and great data robbery (De grote dataroof) was the third.
“As you can see, I’ve been working on this theme for a few years,” he says. “And even before I started focusing on the digital economy and all its consequences, I made programmes aimed at giving people greater insight into what they eat and how it is produced. For me, it was a logical next step to examine the digital realm, because there is also a clear lack of transparency there.”
The vital difference between declared and inferred data
For the four DDW TV shows, Roland interviewed designers, a philosopher and decision makers.
“Tijmen Schep, for example, made the distinction between declared and inferred data,” he says. “Declared data is what you are aware of giving: name, address, date of birth, credit card number, stuff like that. As consumers we are always very protective of this, and yet, actually, it’s pretty uninteresting to the technology companies. The real game is about inferred data.”
As Roland points out, nobody sees this, or gets the chance to understand it, yet it’s used to make decisions that affect so much about our lives. Let’s take the example of a smart lamp. Data it collects about when you switch it on and off may suggest sleeping irregularities, which could point to possible Alzheimer’s, which in turn negatively impacts your chance of getting an insurance policy. “It’s truly scary,” he says. “Inferred data is mined and used for all kinds of purposes, yet we have no control over it. It’s become so fundamental to how we live; I believe every primary school kid should be taught about it.”
Julia Janssen also features in one of the shows. “Her design exploration had 3600 ping-pong balls with data printed on them to illustrate how you are being monitored every single second you are on-line,” he continues. “Even though we suspect this is happening, it’s shocking when you’re directly confronted with it through an installation like this.”
Pointing the finger at ourselves
Philosopher Hans Schnitzler made an appearance as well. “He was very inspirational, because he says we all have to make our own way,” says Roland. “In life, but also through this digital jungle. You have to ask yourself some investigative questions, rather than just pointing the finger at Big Tech. Yes, of course they should be accountable, but, like Hans says, so should we as individuals.”
Helping or hindering citizens through data?
Roland also took part in a discussion that included Marcel Thaens, chief information officer for the Dutch province of North Brabant, and two designers who questioned his ideas on smart cities. “They asked him quite challenging things like, ‘Do you really need to collect all this data?’ and ‘What is it used for?’” he says. “Again, it’s about striking a balance. Marcel has good intentions, and wants to empower citizens through data. If that data is used only to get you safely from A to B and is then deleted, fantastic. But what if it’s used to label you as a (potentially troublesome) climate activist because you always visit the park? Then it’s disastrous.”
All in all, Roland’s four DDW TV shows really hit a nerve. “I got so much positive feedback,” he says. “The general sentiment was: finally! Especially now, with many people having seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Data privacy is a hot topic. There is definitely a momentum building up, and maybe the time has arrived to start changing things.”
Working towards a more humane Internet
Roland is certainly playing his part, by investigating how to create a more humane Internet. “I’m currently talking to as many people as possible about new platforms that are fairer than those which currently exist,” he says. “I’ll then formulate five or six topics that I refer to as ‘low hanging fruit’ which I can use in discussions with politicians and decision makers.”
Ethical seal of approval
“As an example, I’d love to see a watermark for digital content, so you can see whenever it has been tampered with. Or how about an ethical commission for algorithms, aimed at tech companies, web builders, app makers and the like? You could give a kind of seal of approval when a digital platform had been ethically designed, rather than it being full of addiction mechanisms which are almost impossible to resist.”
“Designers are optimistic, and think in terms of solutions”
Roland is enthusiastic about his DDW collaborations. “I find designers very inspirational; they are critical but generally kind-spirited and optimistic, because they think in terms of solutions. Maybe my world, journalism, can learn from their positive spirit, so we don’t just focus on a fire that grabs the headlines, but more on how to actually put the fire out.”
Saving Big Tech from itself
He certainly claims to be more optimistic about the future after his involvement in Dutch Design Week. “I read a great article some time ago about saving capitalism from the capitalists,” he says. “In a similar vein, maybe we – designers, journalists, storytellers, companies, policymakers – have to save Big Tech from itself. It’s a challenge I’m willing to accept, and many other people are already doing so too. I think it’s to everyone’s benefit. I genuinely believe that many Silicon Valley companies will be relieved when they are no longer a monopoly or have so much responsibility.”
Roland is probably best known in the Netherlands for presenting Keuringsdienst van Waarde for eight years. The show provides insights into the production of food and other consumer products. He contributed to TV series about the fashion world and our addiction to cheap stuff as well. In addition, Ronald is a columnist and published writer.
You can watch the four DDW TV shows 'The Battle for the Internet' here.