“AUAS students must be critical about digitalisation"

Interview with Marleen Stikker, new Professor of Practice at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS)

19 Jan 2021 15:29 | Faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries

Marleen Stikker is known for the acclaimed Dutch TV programme Zomergasten (‘Summer Guests’) and is one of the founders of research institute Waag. She says that it’s possible to have a different internet. A fairer internet, in which our rights are safeguarded: the right not to be manipulated or nudged, the right to not feel constantly watched. The AUAS will officially appoint her as Professor of Practice on 28 January. What can we expect?

An angry mob recently stormed the US Capitol. Media on both the left and the right agree that President Trump’s tweets played an important role during and before the insurrection. It is a current and serious example of how the internet can undermine a democratic society.

Internet pioneer Marleen Stikker has been clear about this for some time: we cannot afford the luxury of waiting when it comes to digital technology. The internet and all related technologies, such as AI (artificial intelligence) are too important to be left to a handful of large companies, because our values as individuals and society are at stake. It is therefore time to change this, and to take back control.

What are you going to change at the AUAS?

“My role as Professor of Practice concerns three areas: education , research and the organisation. For education, we want to develop a critical attitude towards digitalisation in all degree programmes. Because this awareness is too important to include only in the ICT programme. You need to know about this for your profession even if you are training to be a secondary school teacher, or if you become a controller.

Among other things, I will be giving guest lectures; because my appointment is for half a day per week, I will do that together with my colleague Sander van der Waal from Waag and others. In addition, students can participate in projects such as developing a safe digital Amsterdam for 2025, as part of Amsterdam’s 750th anniversary celebrations. And Public Spaces, in which we develop safe alternatives to social media.

I am also looking forward to the practical translation of these concepts into the operational processes and organisation of the AUAS. What types of systems do we use at our institution? Do students control their own data? We want to give students a say in this area as well. But also think of purchasing criteria: ultimately this should lead to very simple, clear choices; as is currently happening with regard to sustainability and the recycling of disposable coffee cups.”

As far as research is concerned, I am going to get professors involved in Public Stack, a framework for an alternative internet, which Waag has developed with its partners. I will also contribute to existing research programmes, such as the AUAS-wide lab Responsible AI”.

How do you feel about internet users who aren’t critical? Some students really want to work for Silicon Valley, or make money with an app.

“Technology is not neutral, which is why a critical attitude is important. Technology is an extension of power; you need to be aware of that. Especially if you’re enthusiastic about it and want to play an active role.

It’s good if you can ask yourself questions. How much power should technology companies have over our lives? Can I justify using people’s data to influence their behaviour? What is the ecological footprint of all those data centres and the digital infrastructure, and is it justified by the benefits? Is artificial intelligence really more ‘intelligent’ than social or emotional intelligence?

As a student you can also make conscious choices about who you want to work for: for companies that abuse their position of power, or for companies that are committed to public values. And if you want to start your own business, make sure you don’t end up with the wrong kind of capital. Many start-ups get caught up in the same revenue models as the big tech companies, which is not sustainable in the long term. In short, take responsibility for ensuring that technology remains democratic.”

Is the AUAS just getting started when it comes to having a critical approach to digital technology?

“The awareness is here already; that’s evident from my appointment. Digitalisation is an important theme for the AUAS, which is why I am becoming a Professor of Practice (PoP) here. Kate Raworth has already been appointed Professor of Practice for Sustainability, and there will be a third PoP for Diversity.

The fact that the AUAS is open to this means that it is also committed to making changes regarding the big issues that affect society. There’s no getting around it. Inclusive and safe digitalisation should become like food safety; you have to be able to trust that it’s been handled properly.”