©Dries Depoorter
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Katleen Gabriels is a moral philosopher specializing in computer ethics at Maastricht University. She conducts research into the relationships between morality and computer technologies.

In recent weeks, Belgian artist Dries Depoorter managed to attract worldwide media attention with his new project The Flemish Scrollers. The art project measures how often politicians in the Flemish Parliament are distracted by their smartphones. During the live streams of parliamentary sessions, which are broadcast via YouTube, software tracks down Flemish MPs who are scrolling on their smartphones. Using artificial intelligence and facial recognition, the software then calculates how long the politician spends on their phone. Those figures are automatically posted on Twitter and Instagram.

The first (automatic) tweet sent by The Flemish Scrollers was “Dear distracted @JanJambon, pls stay focused.“ Jan Jambon is the Flemish prime minister. In 2016, Jambon, acting from his position at the time as Federal Minister of the Interior, wanted to make fingerprints on identity cards mandatory. Back then, he tried to appease critics with the motto “anyone who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear.” The artist can now use that excuse to placate Jambon. Incidentally, Jambon had already been caught on camera playing a game on his smartphone during a Flemish parliamentary session.

Offer critique and provoke discussion

Art does what it is supposed to do here: Offer critique and provoke discussion and thought. At first glance, the project seems comical, although the politician in question may think otherwise. Image-building is – unfortunately – extremely important in politics. Recently, for instance, there was the discussion about the Dutch broadcasting company NPO documentary that was following Sigrid Kaag (D66 MP/acting Minister of Foreign Affairs); D66 wanted to change or even manipulate some scenes in that documentary. Politicians are only too happy to put themselves in the spotlight. Social media enables them to campaign constantly. Now politicians are being exposed and criticized through art on social media. But the art project also demonstrates the real ‘chilling effect’ that the combination of live streams with facial recognition in real-time propagates.

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And yes, politicians may also be reading their work email on their smartphones. But as representatives of the people, they have an exemplary role and that persistent distraction resembles disinterest. In the Netherlands, the endless scrolling on the part of politicians was previously condemned with a Citizens’ Initiative. For a month, students polled how many politicians in the House of Representatives used their phones during plenary sittings. Sometimes this amounted to as much as 90 percent of the attending politicians. The Citizens’ Initiative demanded that their attention ought to be focused on the Netherlands and not on Big Tech. It was even suggested that the screen time of the MPs should also be curtailed.

‘Personalized penalty’

There is another interesting (art) project in this: MPs who spend (too) much time on their phones could get less screen time, just like when parents rein in their children. And how much less, well, that is for the AI to decide via machine learning. Because in combination with search queries, surfing behavior, etc., AI will understand the users the best and determine a ‘personalized penalty’.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.

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