‘Sign up with a community that advocates a future based on digital human rights’
Ben Wagner’s inaugural lecture
On Monday, 15 May, about 150 people attended a lecture given by Ben Wagner, new professor Media, Technology & Society, in Amsterdam’s Pakhuis de Zwijger. Irrespective of what was going on outside, those inside were treated to a 90-minute disconnect from the ominous digital world sketched by Ben and fellow panel members. In a digital sense, our human rights are being abused, they argued. And this is exposing us to risks, both individually and for society as a whole. Fortunately, the lecture ended on a positive note of optimism and resistance. “Sign up with a community that advocates a future based on digital human rights.”
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The floor of Pakhuis de Zwijger is patterned with undulating grids that give the illusion that it moves beneath your feet as you walk across it. It is an illusion that Ben exploits in his short introductory film. "We live in a hybrid world in which we think the ground under our feet is stable. But the illusion here covers up the fact that our digital human rights are being continuously violated."
Tramping on our digital human rights
In his address, Ben leaves no doubt that the violation of digital human rights extends much further than mere discussions about privacy. "We’re talking about infrastructure and architecture, things that transcend the individual level and that we are therefore unable to avoid. Take democratic elections, for example. We all know about the attempted theft of information in the Watergate scandal. But stealing information online for political gain is a lot more commonplace than you might think, even in what we consider democratic Europe."
Are we just pawns in the digital world, or should we take control?
Knowledge, legality and power
He goes on to explain that we live in a surveillance society that is not going to change anytime soon. What can change, however, is how we deal with it. Should we accept that we are just pawns in this digital world? Or would we rather understand how the digital infrastructures work so that we can take control and deal with it all more consciously? “Three elements are important here,” he assures. “Firstly, we need an in-depth knowledge of how the digital ecosystem works. Secondly, there’s the legality, what exactly is allowed? And thirdly, there’s power; without power nothing will change.”
Be a part of the community
“It's not about me, it's about what I do for the community,” concludes Ben. “Without that community I can't do my job. So be inspired and get involved. There’s nothing stopping you. Be a part of the community that underscores a future that’s based on digital human rights.”
If you missed Ben Wagner's lecture, or if you'd like to read more about it, click here to watch the live cast on the page of Media, Technology and Society, or download Ben's publication, ‘The Ground Beneath our Feet’.
We take it upon ourselves to decide who has access to other people's treasures. We must learn to share.
Decolonisation of cultural heritage
The ensuing panel discussion, about realising digital human rights, is led by journalist, podcaster and author, Tracy Metz. Adriana Muñoz, curator of the National Museums of World Culture (Varldskulturmuseerna), says that, like Ben, she recognises an interesting challenge in the simultaneous digitalisation and decolonisation of cultural heritage and archives. “With most artifacts still being in the hands of western museums, we take it upon ourselves to decide who has access to other people's treasures. But we must learn to share.” Picking up the thread, Ben says that Adriana's project focusing on the development process of projects is of particular interest. "It brings to the surface the stories and voices of more people than just the owners."
If we are to restore democracy, we will need a counter balance to the power that is currently wielded by tech companies and governments.
Need for total transparency
Sophie in 't Veld, a European parliamentarian in the D66 Dutch political party, also makes her presence known during the discussion. She advocates that an unequivocal right to information and total transparency in the digital world should be basic conditions. "We should no longer make it the responsibility of the individual citizen; it is the system itself that needs fixing. If we are to restore democracy, we will need a counter balance to the power that is currently wielded by tech companies and governments. The rule of law has become the law of the ruler."
The research group Media, Technology & Society is a perfect fit with the spearheads of our university of applied sciences.
Sustainable living environment and a resilient society
Following the panel discussion, Marije Deutekom, a member of in Holland’s Executive Board, officially installs Ben as new professor. “Your research group,” she tells him, “is a perfect fit with the spearheads of our university of applied sciences. We advocate working from the perspective of social issues. Educating our students to become critical, responsive professionals who don't hesitate to stand up for their digital rights while working on a sustainable living environment and a resilient society.”
It’s gratifying to see more and more students becoming aware of their digital rights.
Sustainable Media Lab students
Didi Baas, a third-year Creative Business student is also someone who supports digital rights. “Last semester I followed a lab track themed on peace and justice. At the time our Sustainable Media Lab team focused on making primary school pupils in groups 7 and 8 media literate. Now I am doing an internship at the Digital Rights House Amsterdam, which is a partner of the Lab. I have a coaching role with new groups of students from the Lab who are carrying out projects on digital human rights, which include the digital rights of minors, hate speech and sexism. It’s gratifying to see more and more students becoming aware of their digital rights. This really should become a movement.”
Digital rights is work in progress, with a lot of work still to be done.
Work to be done
Jake Blok is a board member of Digital Rights House Amsterdam and welcomes Ben’s installation as new professor. “This research group is not a destination; it’s a stop along the journey. Digital rights is work in progress, with a lot of work still to be done. I am very curious how a large institution like Inholland University of Applied Sciences will grasp opportunities with this research group, the Digital Rights Research Team and a broad array of students from different backgrounds and nationalities. This is all about applied research, so I hope that Inholland also develops practical initiatives on digital rights and itself grows into a digital-rights-proof university of applied sciences.”