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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Identity and Open Space, Privacy and “Gezelligheid”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 16, 2007

Almost three weeks have passed since the Open Space Conference on Internet Identity held in Brussels under the aegis of the Liberty Alliance and deftly organized and facilitated by Kaliya Hamlin. For me, the conference was a revelation, a multidisciplinary exchange of ideas and accomplishment that brought me up-to-date on web identity issues and technology and in touch with a score of intelligent, energetic specialists on both the tech and visionary sides.

Flemish and Dutch

The siting of the conference in Brussels also gave me a chance to exercise not only my French but also my Dutch or, more accurately, my Nederlands Nederlands being the common language of both the Netherlands (Holland to many English-speakers) and the Flemish population of contiguous Belgium. Once an amalgam of dialects, Nederlands was standardized a little more than a century ago and is still watched over by an official academic commission that periodically updates and streamlines the language and symbolically guards it against foreign intrusions. Indeed, unlike English, which has evolved and mutated for a millennium on a foundation of mutual consent, many continental European languages have been artificially shaped by fiats from above. (More on the relation between languages and group identities in future postings).


One of the most stereotypical and possibly overused words in Nederlands is gezelligheid — literally “sociability” but better understood as a combination of coziness and conviviality. Despite its over-use, however, the word remains far from banal. Gezelligheid refers to the warmth one feels in the comfort of one’s own space and the company of close friends and acquaintances — a flush feeling of trust, security, and safety in the midst of a teeming larger society. Indeed, the Netherlands and Belgium are among the most densely populated states in the developed world and periodic enjoyment of gezelligheid is a key to sanity and survival. As distinct from the rugged individualism that many Americans claim to aspire to, Gezelligheid involves a retreat into immediate community rather than into monadic self-sufficiency. In gezelligheid, one transcends self by momentarily being part of a group of one’s choosing. Because the Netherlands is not only communal society but also a very successful commercial one as well, most Dutch-speakers know that all things have a price. The price of gezelligheid is continuous compromise, avoidance of conflict, and the acceptance of the presence and manifest self-interest of others.

On the surface, gezelligheid describes a number of features of the Brussels conference. The method of the conference, Open Space — the on-the-spot generation of an agenda by allowing each and every participant to post their interests — embodied gezelligheid at its best. A delicious, relaxed, laughter-filled, post-conference dinner at a street-side-cafe-restaurant arranged by Philippe Borremans and joined by Doc Searls, Adriana Lukas, Kaliya Hamlin, Ben Laurie, and this writer was a memorable case-study in leisure-time gezelligheid.

On a deeper level, the concept of gezelligheid lends insight into a number of identity-related issues, not least the debate over web privacy. At the conference, I noticed a distinct difference between the viewpoints and concerns of many US and Dutch attendees. At the risk of over simplifying, the Dutch seemed more relaxed about balancing societal and individual needs and less concerned than Americans about the potential malevolence of prying institutions, marketers and advertisers, and other data miners. The Dutch also seemed as much attendant to the the obligations of manifesting an online identity as to the benefits of creating one. A few examples follow …

Examples …

Dutch attendees seemed more focused on the pragmatic application of identity-related technology to specific needs and issues — personal, corporate, and private — whether at insurance companies, as represented by one attendee, or, in the case of another attendee, within the Netherlands’ complex notarial system (a parallel legal system for property and financial transactions, wills and estates, etc.). This contrasted with the approach of the US Vendor Relationship Management team at the conference. When asked by a Dutch attendee what specific issues and needs VRM will address and serve, the VRM panel replied: “… we don’t know; we’ll play with the technology and see what emerges.” (More on technology vs. user needs/desires as drivers for service development in a future posting).

Another Dutch participant suggested that those who post information on the web have an obligation to reveal at least some aspects of their identities and partly lift whatever veils of privacy shroud them. The example he used was the plethora of medical advice sites on the web. In lieu of other measures of rating and reliability, including compulsory peer review, we should at least know the qualifications of the authors of such sites before gambling our health or the health of our children on the advice they proffer. I would extend this to every information-based site; including Wikipedia. Contributors should reveal their sources, methods, and backgrounds — this might be the token price of what Andy Warhol once called everyone’s “fifteen minutes of fame” and would certainly enable the rest of us to properly sift, weigh, and compare the information we find on the web. At present, we have little more than “Google Juice” or “Technorati Authority” — measures of popularity rather than accuracy or reliability of information — to go by.

A third Dutch participant asked me in amazement why it is that many Americans appear so concerned about web privacy issues. What is so important about what others know about us? In a well-functioning open society what do any of us have to hide? And, isn’t most information that is compiled about us simply banal? Also, isn’t the web, like the society and economy at large, ultimately transactional? Finally, is it the information that is gathered about us that is so important, or is it the ways that we monitor and control our society, government, and other parties who gather information and use it?

Footnote: An Extreme Counter-Argument

A relatively small and inclusionary society, the Netherlands gathers and stores information on its citizens as input for processes that serve them and to which they assent. For the most part, the information is considered neutral, the processes beneficent, and the users trusted and responsible to the public. More than a half-century ago, however, this balance went awry when a user alien to the country’s ethos seized information and used it to fuel its own malevolent processes.

From 1940-1945 the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. The German invaders and their Dutch collaborators used the detailed registers of personal data maintained by every municipality in the country to tighten control and implement their own policies. Between 1941 and 1943, the Germans used details on confessional affiliations contained in municipal records to isolate and mark for deportation and murder the more than 150,000 Jews that were resident in the country at the time . The records were also used to identify communists and other potentially oppositional political and religious dissidents and, later, to select and round-up Dutch conscripts for forced labor in Germany. The Dutch ultimately responded but, inexplicably and tragically, far too late. It was not until 1944 that the Netherlands’ government-in-exile pressed to British to precision-bomb the municipal hall of records in the city of The Hague. During the same year, attacks were carried out on municipal archives in many other locales across the Netherlands. One informant, historian Machiel Kiel, recently described to me the 1944 attack on the municipal register he witnessed as a child in his native village, Wormerweer: “… local communists set fire to the town hall and the fire brigade took their time arriving; when they finally did show up, they worked by the book, slowly pulling tiles one-by-one from the roof of the building as the records went up in flames, this to the fury of Germans watching the blaze.”

Footnote 2: A Finely Balanced View

For a finely balanced take on the questions of web identity and privacy, see Kaliya Hamlin’s recent coverage in the New York Times. By the way, success to Kaliya and participants and the Internet Identity Workshop in California this coming week.

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