Book Review: Check in/ check uit. De digitalisering van de openbare ruimte. [The Digitalization of Public Space] by C. van ’t Hof, R. van Est, F. Daemen

On: September 26, 2010
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About Mareline Heijman
Prior to the master New Media, I've completed the ba Media & Cultuur at the University of Amsterdam. Interests: virtual reality, identity, future, creation, the way new media shapes us.


Is it still possible to check out? Check in/ check uit. De digitalisering van de openbare ruimte. stems from the assumption that new media developments such as OV-chipkaart and Google Street view are the visible parts of a fundamental development: the digitalization of public spaces. There’s an increasing layer of invisible intelligence round the earth, also called ambient intelligence, in which the surrounding reacts and anticipates to our behavior. Living in cyberspace is no science fiction. It seems like you and me no longer log on to the web, we’re increasingly living in the web.

Check in/ check uit. De digitalisering van de openbare ruimte. [The Digitalization of Public Space] by C. van ’t Hof, R. van Est, F. Daemen. Rathenau Instituut, NAI Publishers, Rotterdam, May 2010, Pages: 269, Microsoft Tags, ISBN 978-90-5662-740-9.

Check in/ Check uit is written upon instructions of the Dutch institute the Rathenau Instituut, which is concerned with mapping, investigating and analyzing the influence of technological developments on society. The text comes out as a plea for more control of the citizen and his own identity. It seeks to include citizens in decisions concerning the options, functions and uses of current information systems.

Because the digitalization of public spaceinfluences the way we experience and use that space, this book aims to confront the reader with his or her digital identity. Daily dealings such as using public transport, entering buildings and making payments leave traces. These traces add value to our virtual identity profiles and several parties yearn to use this identity data with different intentions. Personal data can in potential be highly beneficial for commercial and governmental purposes through behavioral targeting. What is striking is that more and more organizations actually are making use of them.

As you check in, you’ll receive information but you simultaneously give loads of ID-data (connected numbers and data that make up a virtual identity) away. When are you giving what away? To whom, where and why?

Check in/ Check uit is based on the claim that we just entered a new stage in the information society. This notion is illustrated by six recent cases typical to Dutch public space. These are the case of public transport involving the OV-chipcard, camera surveillance, mobile phone as key and Near Field Communication (NFC), the ‘networked’ car (TomTom), all the info on earth through Google Earth and Street view. Van ‘t Hof et. al add a hypothetical case that might be actualized in the near future, the ‘Living Map’ through ‘Realtime’ information. Via these cases issues are raised concerning Identity Management (IDM), on privacy and empowerment of the user. There is a constant tension between private versus public identity, between privacy (the protection of personal data) and empowerment of the user made possible by the usage of personal data. Privacy is further discussed in terms of possible abuse of Identity data, transparency (opt-in versus opt-out policy) and legal issues in laws of privacy (Wet Bescherming Persoonsgegevens, WBP). The book concludes by proposing 12 principals of design to guard the interests of the user within private and governmental policies regarding this new developmental stage. The suggestions include the avoidance of ‘function creep’, minimization of data and security of data. It all comes down to the main suggestion: Let the user decide whether he wants to check in or be anonymous and check out.

The issues raised in Check in/ check uit are very relevant and interesting regarding to ongoing debates on the subjects of the ‘Control Society’ by Deleuze and the all seeing eye of ‘Big Brother’ by Orson Wells. “Who is watching who?” The book offers practical insights into the technological whereabouts, and thus provides the reader immediate answers to these questions, relating them to fitting cases. My believe is  that the book successfully involves and includes the reader, or the citizen, in the issues on privacy and empowerment. By getting into the history and the current affairs of the cases, the book offers an understandable snapshot of the contemporary digitized situation in the Netherlands. It’s written in straightforward language, it’s easy to read, sometimes even a bit repetitive, and understandable for the reader. There’s no specialized knowledge required, but familiarity of the Dutch/ European public life. Although the cases are very specific to the situation in the Netherlands, it presents a brief context by providing some interesting insights in the advanced digitalization of public space in Japan. The structure of the text makes sense. The lay-out is very clear, suggestions and in-depth (technological) information is  offered on the blue pages. As an extra, the book makes appealing use of Microsoft Tags matching the text. Hence the physical book itself is provided with a digital identity. If you don’t have the opportunity to use a (smart phone) device to read these, the list of links is accessible here.

Although the book raises interesting questions, it not really challenging on a theoretical level. The issues raised stay at pretty much at the surface, and are linked to specific cases what makes it less interesting for citizens outside the Netherlands. The book seems a bit like an upscale, attractive informative brochure, including proposals for policy and warnings. It reminded me of leaflets usually provided by governmental institutions. Furthermore, the too abundant use of Microsoft Tags don’t add a lot of value to the product. It’s not necessary to listen to an audio intro to every paragraph. Instead of a tags (which were in my case not easily accessible, my phone was only able to scan tags on right pages) leading to static screenshots, they could have better printed those images.

Check in/ check uit is quite useful  for people who feel detached with and overwhelmed by the fast pacing technological developments. The text puts your feet back on the ground. It’s a n attractive way to catch up with the goings-on today.

The fact that it’s very case based and specific to the Netherlands might add to the idea that this book probably won’t reveal a whole new world of thinking for new media theorists. But that’s not the main aim of the Rathenau Institute anyway. It’s a call for the empowering of the user: to prevent us from getting trapped in the web. People who are interested in the digitalization of the public space, and new media developments in general might enjoy this book. This is an easy to read piece full of examples covering the most important digital developments in public space in the Netherlands. In this way it adds to the current debate of identity management in the field. To me, it’s comforting to know that an independent party such as the Rathenau institute critically examines the influence of technological developments and what they mean to the user. Check in/ check uit can be useful for all the parties involved. Finally, it doesn’t fail in leaving the reader ill at ease with the following quotation from the lyrics of Hotel California by the Eagles, my grandmothers’ favorite song:

“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”

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