Video still from Inferno

Digital inferno

A year ago The Forum opened in my home town Groningen. There was plenty to do on the opening weekend, including Inferno, a spectacular interactive robot performance. I had to be here! In this article I share about my dance to Inferno and what this experience did to me in relation to my research into an emphatic digital government.

Inferno is a performance by the artists Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers who regularly collaborate in digital art projects. They make a lot of robotic art to make the public think about future scenarios. Vice wrote about Inferno: “Hell is being controlled by robots: At a glance, the mech suit-like exoskeletons worn by the performers look like something out of Edge of Tomorrow or Armored Trooper VOTOMS, but when it’s revealed that the robots — not the humans — are actually in control, the horror becomes clear.”

I was an hour early. After I signed all the consent forms, I bought a coffee and waited on a bench. I felt excited. I didn’t know what to expect. It looked fun on the images I saw at home. No one panicked or looked scared. But there was also something ominous about it. More people came and waited until there were twelve of us. We were picked up and taken upstairs. We were about to be the dancers in this piece, but we had no idea of the choreography yet.

The perfect metaphor

I wanted to participate because to me it seemed a perfect metaphor for humanity in government systems. I write about this topic a lot and it is the reason for my portrait series about the compassionate civil servant. In my work, I often utilize intuition and experiences, with my participants as well as for myself.

For example, two years ago I asked passers-by on the street how they wanted to be connected to the government by using a yellow rope. I played the part of the government in this experiment. I experienced for myself how the other experienced that connection. That was very confronting.

How would I experience Inferno? When I would have to hand over control to a system that I had to trust wouldn’t do me any harm. After all, wasn’t that in the terms and conditions I signed?

We entered a room by way of the emergency staircase where overalls and gloves were ready. I had to take off my Fitbit and chain. “They can only get stuck.” When everyone was wearing their suits, we went to the room where the performance took place. It was dark, except for a few spots where the exoskeletons hung. Silent, as if they were just coats on a hanger that wouldn’t soon come to life and take control over me.

We’re inside of what we make

Marleen Stikker calls it sovereignty in her book The internet is broken. But we can fix it. She writes that ‘technology is not a higher power, not a deity, nor something that arises by itself. Technologies are cultural artifacts. Technology is human work. We design technology and technology reflects our cultural and political values.’

She quotes Donna Haraway who also describes this in A Cyborg Manifesto: ‘Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections — and it matters which ones get made and unmade.’

‘It matters what choices are made when developing technology and who is behind the drawing board. If the wrong connections are made, it fundamentally affects our democratic values. It’s about our sovereignty,’ says Marleen Stikker.

We were constricted one by one. With wide straps, the suit attached to me was like an extra back weighing twenty kilos. The arms of the exoskeleton were attached to my arms. I was still in control. I shook my shoulders to move the pack. The boy who helped me get dressed pushed a button. Suddenly I couldn’t do anything anymore. “See, that’s how it feels,” he said, taking the pressure off again. “Try to relax later. If you resist, it will only hurt.”

Video still from Inferno

By digital sovereignty, Marleen Stikker means ‘the right to act online, within the limits of the law, without being accountable for it. To be able to go wherever you want. Manage your own data to protect your privacy. The right not to be manipulated.’ To me it sounds like the right to control your own suit. The right to determine your own level of connection.

A machine’s world

It fell silent. The light went out except for some lights from the public’s filming smartphones. Slowly the music started. Suddenly the person next to me was in the spotlight and started to move. She also stopped immediately when someone else was put in the spotlights. Suddenly I moved. My arm. Holy shit. What was that?

Video still from Inferno

Reinier van Zutphen, the National Ombudsman argued in Trouw (a Dutch national newspaper) that the government has become a machine. I recently had a coffee with two of his colleagues about how they felt the relationship between government and citizens should be. They gave me the Fairness Guide (in Dutch: Behoorlijkheidswijzer), a booklet with standards that help the government to design a relationship with citizens. In it are values that help to shape that sovereignty.

Relax, I thought. The music grew louder, the lights got wilder. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the cramp out of my neck. The suit is set up properly, nothing can happen to you, I told myself, while my arms moved, up and down, faster and faster and my legs remained in the same place in the room but got more cramped up by the minute. The suit didn’t fit me well. I was too tall. My arms were almost torn out, or was that the intention and did it fit perfectly? What a mind fuck.

The relationship between the government and the citizen is a special one. As a citizen, it is impossible not to have a relationship with the government. And it is the government’s job to help citizens to exercise their rights, while also complying with their duties. As my colleague says, “At the end of the day you always have to do your job with the law in one hand.” When this relationship is digital, as is increasingly the case, it offers new opportunities but also difficult challenges.

Designing the choreography

When I opened my eyes I saw others dancing to the music. All the same, they fit in perfect choreography. Was I the only one who found it difficult to participate? Only… I did participate, because I could not not participate.

Video still from Inferno

Almost all ‘compassionate civil servants’ from my photo series talk about this tension. For example, Nico and Elian wonder where the boundaries lie in helping students make choices digitally. Mechteld wonders when you are compassionate enough on digital channels. And Cees-Jan talks about deciding when you let the computer or a civil servant make a decision about a student.

The dance became more extreme, the steps more violent. I was sweating and the suit was heavy, but I decided to participate. To let go of control and to surrender myself completely to the music, the exoskeleton and the programmed choreography. Meanwhile my arms moved aggressively towards my face and above my head. “Keep your head still,” I remembered the instruction. Relax, relax, relax. And then there was silence. And darkness. Ready.

On the one hand, the government can offer customization by using your data and therefore helping you better. For a lot of people this is good and it gives them a better grip on their lives. On the other hand, the government cannot always do that without taking control and directing people across the dance floor. It’s not black or white. Control or not. Trust or not. Every relationship is complicated and so is the one between you and the government.

Digital futures

Half an hour later I walked home in my own outfit. I was back in control. I was able to determine how fast or slow I moved. I stopped on a bridge near my house. I looked out at the canal and wondered what had actually just happened. And what I thought of it. Was it cool, like everyone said when we finished and took the overalls off again. Or did I actually not like it that much?

What do we want the relationship between the government and ourselves to be like? How do we want to dance together and who can determine the choreography? What choices is the government allowed to make for us, and what choices can they absolutely not make for us? Which ones do we want to make ourselves? Where does which responsibility lie?

Twenty minutes of dancing in a futuristic suit at the mercy of the system is a bizarre experience. Nice to talk about at the office. The rest of the day I had a headache and a clump of stress in my shoulders. What if this experience becomes real? And is it perhaps not already a bit real?

Video still from Inferno

In the exoskeleton, I felt powerless, and I was. Digital Inferno is not the future of digital government I want to envision. I am not powerless in making that future. Marleen Stikker writes that it matters which choices are made and who is behind the drawing board. So this is in my sphere of influence. I am a civil servant. I work in digital government and sit at that drawing board together with thousands of other compassionate civil servants.

So let’s dance.