SURF Magazine: discussion with board members about public values

With a series of seven online seminars for board members in education and research, SURF is initiating the discussion about how we as a sector can join forces to protect public values in IT. We look back at the seminar series with some of the board members present in 3 SURF Magazine articles.

Opname seminar publieke waarden in de studio

Review of the seminar series public values - column philosopher Marjan Slob

During SURF's seminar series for board members about public values, philosopher Marjan Slob was present to provide the sessions with the necessary reflection. She wrote the following column on the theme of the series.

That obscure place where impressions are not yet data

There is a fantasy in my life that is guaranteed to comfort me: 'I can always go to Liège'. As a youngster I once washed up for a few days in that city, then still wonderfully nondescript and run-down. Since then, Liège is for me the symbol of a place where you can walk around anonymously, where you don't need to have anything to do with anything or anyone, where you can escape to if you want to be elusive and untraceable. Because who is going to make up their minds that you have gone to Liège?

As data grows in importance, we have less room to be elusive for a while.

What interests me here is not my impression of Liège (which I am sure is no longer correct). What interests me is that longing for obscurity, vagueness and indeterminacy. Why do I sometimes crave it? What does this mental place offer me? It is difficult to put my finger on it, and yet I feel: that place is vital.

I would like to speak up for that area where impressions are still indeterminate, because I think that it is precisely this space that is besieged by the urge to cast everything in data. By definition, data should not be fluid and vague. Then they do not fit into the system and cannot be worked with. Strictly speaking, they are not yet 'data'. As data grows in importance, we have less room to be elusive for a while. To be in Liège for a while.

Seminarreeks publieke waarden - Marjan Slob

Debates about the personal damage that 'the data fade of society' can cause often revolve around privacy. And privacy is then usually interpreted as 'having control over your personal data'. I won't say that this is unimportant, but in my view another form of privacy is much more essential: for me, privacy is about protecting the zone between what is actually in me and what can be 'objectively' known about me. In this zone, I have a lot to find out for myself. And I want to be able to do that without worrying, without feeling the eyes of the world on my back. People may judge me - of course, that is unavoidable in social life. But only when I am ready. Yes, that's it: it's not so much that I have something 'to hide', it's more that I feel in myself things that are 'not yet finished'. And that I would like to keep to myself a little longer.

For me, privacy is about protecting the area between what actually lives inside me and what is 'objectively' known about me.

Such ideas and movements of mind still need to harden and dry and be cast into language, and something is always lost in the process. Shared language, shared signs, never exactly fit those intimate things in your own inner world. That is not a tragedy, by the way. In the words of British psychoanalyst Josh Cohen: "It may not be ideal to reduce the infinity that you are, that each of us is, to the small fragment that we show in public, but what would life be if we didn't?" That's just the way it is. And we actually manage quite well with language and signs.

Seminarreeks publieke waarden - Marjan Slob II

This situation does make it clear, however, that public data (which necessarily make use of language and signs) will never describe our inner world exactly. At best, they can fit nicely - and presumably all the better for those fragments of your inner world that are pretty average, because the words have usually already been found for them. Compare it to fashion: if you have a standard size, you will soon find nice clothes. Extravagant shapes, on the other hand, call for a couturier, for a fabric artist. Then creativity is called for.

Privacy protects the inner world in which the new and unique are given a chance.

That is why I want to cherish that twilight zone between highly personal sensations and public expressions: because it is the creative place par excellence. It is the place where innovation and exceptionality are given a chance. The data on which our software systems run are at the other end of that spectrum. They have to be standardised and interchangeable in order to function. What data can capture, therefore, is by definition not particularly original or innovative. Privacy protects the inner world in which the new and unique are given a chance.

A school can also be - on a somewhat larger scale than the individual - such an inner world. A place where you can, in confidence, experiment with yourself and each other. Such a place is essential for mental health, I am convinced. I grant you that place. And I hope you will protect it.

Marjan Slob


SURF en Kennisnet hebben een WaardenWijzer ontwikkeld. De WaardenWijzer biedt een gemeenschappelijke taal voor het voeren van een dialoog over digitalisering in het onderwijs. Door met elkaar te praten over de waarden die bij digitalisering voorop moeten staan, kan het Nederlandse onderwijs zelf betere keuzes maken bij nieuwe technologische ontwikkelingen.

About the seminar series

The corona crisis is increasing the role of digitisation in education and with it our dependence on dominant market parties. Reason enough for SURF to organise a series of seven online seminars about protecting public values. Under the guidance of journalist and moderator Frénk van der Linden and philosopher Marjan Slob, board members will enter into discussion with one another. The series consists of 3 parts, of which part I and II have been completed.

  • Part I consisted of three meetings that together explored the emergence of tension between cultural, private and public values in the process of digitisation. 
  • Part II of the seminar series, which is the subject of this article, was about public values and IT in the context of education and research. 
  • In Part III we explored how we can secure shared values in IT. We share the conclusions from these sessions in a third article.

'Review of the seminar series on public values - column philosopher Marjan Slob'  is an article from SURF Magazine. Monthly the newest articles in your inbox? Then subscribe to the SURF Magazine newsletter (in Dutch)

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