“You’re allowed to have something to hide”

Nothing is a coincidence. His father moved to the Netherlands before the third Balkan war, after meeting a woman from Amsterdam on a holiday. “Grandpa stayed behind, along with the rest of my relatives. My father is a radio communications enthusiast. He has a license to communicate using powerful radios. We lived in a tall building in the Geuzenveld district of Amsterdam. He had attached a twenty metre radio tower onto that building. During the war, he was able to contact our relatives in the former Yugoslavia by radio. We had troubled families over very often, as well as organisations like Amnesty International, to contact the people there with the help of my father and his radio. That had a big influence on my life: I saw how wonderful technology is. I saw in my own living room how it could be applied. It could be applied in such a way that it would strengthen, add to and enrich people’s lives.”

What Mekić saw around him inspired him so much that he volunteered to be an unpaid intern at Het Net, one of the first internet service providers in the Netherlands. He was 12 years old at the time. “It was sheer curiosity. At home, I was the kind of boy that always asks why. Like: why do we have to wait for the bus? I still ask that question. Computer science wasn’t a school subject yet. I wrote an open application to Het Net and got permission to work for them, unpaid. We created clubs.nl, which you can think of as the predecessor to the later Dutch networking site Hyves. By 2000, we had one million users, just in the Netherlands. The internet was exploding. Venture capital gave us such a large budget that we could even have TV advertisements. It was in the days of World Online. Connected everywhere and at all times. It was a utopia we were working towards. Clubs.nl worked in collaboration with TV programmes De Bus and Big Brother. We provided those programmes’ contestants with fan clubs. These fan clubs were maintained by volunteers, who were often relatives of the contestants. It was amazing. You could see groups forming. Nowadays, we have ‘social media’. But those media aren’t social. They each create their own island. You have to sign up separately, and they’d prefer to make it difficult to exchange data between different platforms. So they’re more like antisocial media, really. But on Clubs.nl, a real social network was forming. Friendships, people finding each other, charity groups. Of course, in the offline world too there were community centres and discussion groups where you could meet people. But not this quickly, and not from your own living room. Now, you could establish more contacts in less time. And it was easer to just chat someone up. It really made things easier.”

Mekić is a heartfelt supporter of technological progress, but he is also aware of its dark sides. “People no longer count as a member of society if they stay behind in the analogue world. It’s a matter of ‘engage or die’. Even the government contributes to it: in many cases, you can’t file your tax returns offline any more. As a citizen, using the internet is mandatory. But why not leave an analogue option too? Suppose there would be a gigantic DDoS attack (Distributed Denial of Service, a malicious digital assault to an online service) on the tax office’s servers. If that would happen, the government would receive billions of tax euros weeks later. Being an analogue citizen is furthermore a waste of money, because there are all sorts of benefits that you need to be online to benefit from. And on top of that, people will think you’re some unworldly lunatic who’s out of touch with modern society. We have to join in. But the question is: to what extent do we have to join in? What is the outline of this digital world? Our members of parliament should be having that discussion, because they have the power to establish some ground rules. Yes, the government would like to put digital possibilities to use for greater efficiency, to save money. But if our privacy is at stake, we’ll just have to grit our teeth.”

Mekić has written many essays and newspaper opinion pieces on the subject of privacy in social media. “Privacy is a problematic term. It describes something you don’t notice, as long as everything is as it should be. That’s why it’s really time to replace the word ‘privacy’ with the word ‘freedom’. The freedom to be yourself. The freedom to have thoughts you don’t want to share with others, because people might react negatively to them or disapprove of them. Debates about privacy are about all sorts of things, but not about privacy itself. Recently, people are trying to shut down the discussion by saying: you don’t have anything to hide, do you? What? You’re allowed to have something to hide. This is being said with some air of superiority: you can’t have any secrets, because I don’t have any either; and if you do, you’re less valuable to society than I am. This is a very dangerous train of thought. It’s dangerous because right now, we are facing a choice: what do we store and what do we not store in these ever growing databases that are being connected more and more often? Databases which, more and more often, include incorrect information. Which are more and more often connected to automated actions. With their supercomputer Watson in mind, IBM has released a video showing a policeman waiting for a burglar at the store he wants to break into. It’s a joke, but this could become reality if we keep connecting everything. You might think: good thing big brother is there, because that burglar can’t be allowed to make his move. But if the system goes one step too far – if it makes a mistake, for example – then that video could be about you. And that’s what we don’t want. The problem is: we’re faced with a choice not just for today or for tomorrow, but for forever. If you say today that it’s okay for the government to know everything about you, because you have nothing to hide, then that’s a choice you’ve made for life. Maybe we should agree that privacy is also the right to prevent others from knowing more about you than you do yourself. This is interesting particularly because technology now occupies a different place in our lives than it used to. It used to be an extension of our social lives. You would use texting, email or Facebook to discuss what you were going to do together. Nowadays, it’s the foundation, the platform on which you arrange and organise your social life: you decide what film to see with whom by looking up on your phone what other people do. So now, the tables are often turned: technology is in charge of us, rather than the other way around.”

Mekić invests in a number of startups by young entrepreneurs. “They often solve a problem in the world. One of my startups concerns the world of concerts – those are mass gatherings. It’s still common for people to go to physical locations where some form of entertainment is being offered, but where you need to bring the digital world with you yourself. This startup is working on developing something that lets organisers and musicians make use of all those smartphones the concert-goers are carrying on them that night. That’s the way it should be. In order to let technology serve our needs, you should not start out by looking at technology, but by looking at the world around us, the physical lives we all have. That’s where you should look for ways to improve things. Here’s an example. We have a digital public transport card, but frankly we’d all rather just have our paper tickets back. Not because the paper tickets were more practical, but because the benefits of the digital public transport card are a disappointment. But now there’s no way back any more. Another flawed system.”

We are on the verge of important decisions of a strongly ethical nature, Mekić states. “We tend to form smaller groups. Technology is can facilitate that very well for us. You could produce food in a small group, and share with each other. You and me and ten other people could all buy one car together, or maybe two, and use those two cars very efficiently to still make all the same trips we now make. So far, 3D printers are all about just plastic. But in time, they will also be about making food. Before then, we always needed to go to the supermarket. But in time you’ll be able to just purchase a Mars cartridge and print your own Mars bars. In time, you might not go to a hotel any more, but spend a weekend in the apartment of someone who’s indicated they wouldn’t be home. We now have Bitcoin, a decentralised payment system. What do all those deglobalised and deregionalised initiatives have in common? They have in common that the current economic powers that be are resisting all of them. The government misses out on taxes. Automotive manufacturers want us all to keep buying new cars. Driverless cars: what would be left for the automotive repair and insurance people to do? Supermarkets don’t want us to print our own things at home. It’s a process that started long ago in the record industry. If you don’t innovate, you’ll have to close down. See also: the Free Record Shop. You have to innovate. But that often requires you to make important ethical decisions. Is a human judge really more capable of applying the law than a computer is? The answer is that in standard cases, such as revoking driving licenses in case of speeding, a computer can be much more meticulous at it. But would we prefer a mathematical verdict or a human one? These are the debates we will need to have. About robots with lives of their own. Would you prefer a human doctor who can make a mistake, or a computer surgeon where you’ll be all alone in the operating room? I’m not at all opposed to innovations. They’re wondeful. They make the world a better place. But we do need safeguards. And there’s another thing. Look at e-health: amazing. Right now, it saves money. But in the long run, eventually it will cost more money than it saves, because everyone will want the best healthcare robots. We are now building our social lives on technology, using computers that know more about us than we do. We need to think very carefully about what we’re doing here, and politics needs to be in charge of that discussion. Right now, it’s still far too reactive. We only act after something bad happens. We need a very fundamental debate to get going, regarding the question: to whom do my data belong? How can I remain in control of that?”

Technology can enrich lives and make things easier, but it shouldn’t become a compulsive behaviour, Mekić says. “Many things are still in their first cycle. We’re still in the first eight years of the iPhone. We don’t know what we’ll think of those devices in three years. I hear people say more and more often: ‘I’m going back to my old Nokia.’ It buys you peace of mind. Internet technology has made our world bizarrely complex. There are more and more people to whom it’s becoming too much.”

Mekić uses an example of a hospital where the robotic arm doesn’t work. Then what would we do? And what else could go wrong? After the interview, held at the headquarters of the Dutch broadcasting foundation NOS, the electronic access card that let us into the building malfunctions. The exit was blocked. Fortunately, there’s a human being there too: the doorkeeper comes to our aid and opens the door from the other side. The analogue way.

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