• Politics
  • It’s a WikiLife: Anke and Daniel Domscheit-Berg


It’s a WikiLife: Anke and Daniel Domscheit-Berg

INTERVIEW: The first couple of open source lay everything on the table from their part in the Pirate Party and "bedingungloses Grundeinkommen" (guaranteed basic income) to feminism and liquid democracy.

Image for It's a WikiLife: Anke and Daniel Domscheit-Berg
Photo by Christian Vagt
The German press has already labelled them the political couple for our generation – a business-savvy feminist wedded to a nerd (r)evolutionary. Meet Anke (44) and Daniel (34) Domscheit-Berg, two of the Pirate Party’s prominent new members. Anke grew up in East Germany and studied textile arts before working for the likes of McKinsey and Microsoft for more than  a decade. She’s an expert in all things ‘open government’. Daniel – a systems engineer by training – dumped a lucrative IT job to work with WikiLeaks in 2007. After a highly publicised falling out with Julian Assange three years later, he published Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website. The couple recently left Berlin to live in a huge old house in Furstenberg an hour north of the capital – the HQ for Anke’s potential run as a Pirate for the Bundestag elections in autumn 2013 (the Brandenburg Pirates vote on whether she’ll be on the electoral list at the end of October) and Daniel’s new whistleblower technology project OpenLeaks. As we cross the street from the station, the first clues appear: signposts and trees have been wrapped in rainbow-coloured knit wool. Bearded Daniel opens the door; Anke rushes down the stairs a few seconds later, smartly dressed in a Pirate Party t-shirt and orange high-waist belt with matching tights. They have converted this imposing three-storey, 100-year-old house into a vast hands-on experiment in 21st-century self-reliance, as evidenced by the jars of homemade applesauce on the kitchen counter, the 3D printer built by their 12-year-old son and tons of IT equipment in every room. Out back, a former carpark has been turned into a vegetable garden. In a tiny windowless room in the huge basement, Daniel has set up a server rack sprouting cables in every direction. They use the top floor for workshops. They take us to the large open kitchen, where green tea is already brewing on the large farmhouse table next to Macbooks and a busy Iphone. (Our meandering conversation “under eight eyes” was to last nine teapots.) The house cat, named Schmitt (Daniel’s former WikiLeaks avatar), dozes nearby. In a corner, a vast basket full of knitting supplies… So, who’s the knitter here? DANIEL: I had a short phase of knitting in my pre-teens, and that was cool, but today I’d rather leave it to Anke… That’s a surprisingly conservative division of labour! DANIEL: We had a very long debate about it and decided it was a woman’s task! [Laughs] The knitting started when she had a lot of telephone conferences… ANKE: …I was bored stiff. It was every Friday afternoon for three hours! So, I started knitting again. It’s good to relieve stress. What is guerrilla knitting all about? ANKE: First I measure the branches, then I knit those long rectangles with wools of bright colours and finally I just sew it onto the tree… It’s about taking back urban environments. Making it more beautiful and playing a part in designing your outdoors. Anke, you’re known as a feminist. What type of feminist are you? ANKE: I’m the average type of feminist. As areyouafeminist.com tells you, whoever expects equal human rights for men and women is a feminist. So, I’m one. You’re probably one too… So everyone is a feminist by default unless you voice your sexism? ANKE: You don’t have to voice it. It can be inside you. I as a feminist don’t mean to be against men or have more rights than men. Ultimately it’s a global issue. It’s about allowing human beings to live their professional and private lives the way they want. For example, allowing people to step back and say, “Part-time work is totally fine for me; my wife or partner can go working.” Feminism is not just about improving life for women, it also opens up all spheres of life for men. But you’re for gender quotas, aren’t you? ANKE: Yes, I am for a quota on supervisory boards of publicly quoted companies, and I don’t consider that to give women an advantage over men. In Germany’s 200 biggest companies, we have something like two to three percent women on executive boards. So how can giving an advantage to women who have equal qualifications somehow disadvantage men, if they have 97 percent of the seats – and that will not change too soon? Even if we have a quota of 30 percent, men will still have 70 percent. But why is that? Women perform well at school these days, but somehow when it comes to jobs and business, it’s not working… ANKE: It doesn’t have to be like that. I come from East Germany. I was 21 when the Wall fell. I was raised in a society in which it was totally normal for both parents to work. Over 90 percent of women, many of them with kids, worked or studied full time. The EU target is 60 percent. It can happen. It’s not in our genes. Article three of our constitution says man and woman are equal. In the 1994 they added a sub-clause that said if that is not a reality, government must do something to make it a reality. The tax laws are doing the opposite, as is insufficient childcare. The women end up taking care of the kids. Many men don’t want to do it. And when they do want to do it, what kind of feedback do they get from their bosses, colleagues? It’s okay for eight weeks, but not if they want to leave for half a year or a year… So, it’s a cultural problem? ANKE: I was just complaining on Twitter today about this René Lezard catalogue that I got in the mail. Look at the man: he’s standing straight. He’s got self-confidence and composure, a really strong aura. Now look at the women: they look like they’re starving, depressed, ‘please save me’. They’re powerless. And René Lezard is supposed to be a brand for women executives! It’s ridiculous! It’s not an exception. This stereotype is promoted by marketing and PR. The message to women is: you are weak, you are fragile, you can’t do anything on your own. You rarely see a woman in an ad with a strong grip on something, even on their handbag. Models are often shown leaning on something because they can’t stand on their own – or they stand on one leg. When I train women managers, I always tell them: you must stand strong on both feet. Daniel, how does it feel to live with a feminist, after all that time hanging out with male computer nerds? DANIEL: Within the hacker clubs, there are a lot of people who are aware of these issues. It’s not like there are no stereotypes against them either – the nerds, the geeks and their supposed social disabilities and whatever… But you asked how it is to live with a feminist. The question should be, how is it to live with someone who knows who she is? Someone who knows how to hold her lipstick with a tight grip. [Laughs] ANKE: Or a tool! DANIEL: …and that’s really a great thing! In all my relationships before, that was the only thing I was missing. To be with someone who knows what she stands for. But Anke, when you switched from the Greens to the Pirates, were you really expecting to find more feminists there? I thought they were ‘post-gender’! ANKE: That has changed in the last 12 months. Most Pirates now realise that ‘post-gender’ is a nice vision that is far from reality. They have learned a lot. Compared to other organisations with a similarly high share of males, the Pirates have one thing that’s different: their value DNA, so to speak. The notion of equality is so hard-wired into every average Pirate that it’s an open door for women. I discovered how many were strongly against sexism, and had no problem voicing it openly. Many are open feminists. What is the proportion of women in the Pirates, 10 percent? ANKE: It’s somewhere between 10 and 15 percent. We have the same problem as with women in management in general: a lack of role models. We need more visible women in leadership positions, for other women to think it is possible. Merkel has done that. Recently, more and more great women have been visible in the Pirate Party. Marina Weissband and Julia Probst are two great examples of self-confident, intelligent, cool women. Pirates would tell me “If the only issue is the lack of women, then come and join us and help attract other women.” I think it’s right! So why did you both decide to join the Pirates last May? DANIEL: I have known a lot of Pirates for a long time. I sympathised with the Pirates in Sweden since the first minute. But I wasn’t really inclined to join a political party. I was not tired of politics, but I was tired of party politics. Life models are changing. Part of this is triggered by the internet, how we live today, how we communicate. You can talk to whomever in the SPD or the CDU – they haven’t the slightest idea where this is leading. That’s where the Pirates are different: they’ve acknowledged that something fundamental needs to change, and they are working towards that. I don’t agree with the culture 100 percent, but I think it is the only political movement looking at the bigger picture. And this triggered my decision to become active. The way you were describing it reminded me of the way people talk about holistic medicine… DANIEL: Holistic is the only approach! People don’t care enough about the implications of their everyday decisions. If I buy shoes, what’s the implication for somebody in a sweatshop in Southeast Asia? If I eat chicken, what are the consequences for the rainforest that needs to be burnt down to grow soya for that chicken? So you don’t eat chicken? DANIEL: Very rarely, and only if I know where it comes from. You have to look at it holistically. Blanking out everything because I am not immediately affected doesn’t lead anywhere. It leads to the destruction of society, the killing of the planet. ANKE: You will never solve problems if you just look at the symptoms. Our politics are trying to cure symptoms. They push a little here, push a little there, but the overall thing, our society, is not changing. Ultimately, it’s a matter of transparency and responsibility. To act responsibly, you have to know, and to know, you need transparency. Anke, you’ve been promoting a system by which citizens would apply the consumer experience – rating a restaurant online, tracking a parcel – to the public sphere… ANKE: Yes, because citizens are consumers, and consumers are citizens. Why can’t I track the progress when I apply for a building permit online? Why do I wait three weeks in one constituency and 10 months in another? People should be able to follow the progress of their applications, as they do with Ebay and DHL. We need very little education for that. It’s the entry stage, so to speak: to interact and perceive yourself as someone who has a right to know. But doesn’t total transparency feel a little bit like Big Brother? Is it good if civil servants only care about what rating they’re going to get at the end of the day? ANKE: Right now, they don’t get any ratings. A business consultant gets far more ratings than public employees. They are rated every six months. I had that for 11 years, so I know what I’m talking about. Civil servants don’t get any such feedback. I think they should. Who if not them? They receive my money as a salary. They work for me, technically speaking. It’s a very neo-liberal idea, in a way: value for money. ANKE: It’s not just the money: it’s what they are for. They are there to provide a service. Turning citizens into consumers is fine, but it seems more of a challenge to get consumers to act like responsible, altruistic citizens… ANKE: I don’t see the difference. Service is service. I don’t differentiate between private industry service and public government service. There is a page where you can rank hotels and there are pages where you can rank public hospitals… People comment that “the food was great”, the doctor was “okay”. Why do people do it? Theoretically, for homo economicus, it’s a waste of time… still they do it! But if you look at the involvement of consumers with product and service development, you see the same thing. It’s like an iceberg. There are lots of people clicking: five stars, one star. Fewer people write an explanation of why they like or dislike something, and even fewer people make their own homepages and write about stuff. So as citizens you will have more low-level involvement, people clicking “I like” about this agency, and writing, “The clerk there treated me with dignity and I didn’t have to wait a long time.” At the tip of the iceberg you would have far fewer people getting involved in how to distribute a public budget or how to write a law, but that’s all right. Not everybody wants to do everything; nor do they have the capability or the time to do everything. So, citizen feedback is the key. ANKE: Yes. We need it, and if people understand it’s not a waste of time, they’ll do it more. Which does not mean that your input will be the final outcome, but it means governments should be transparent about what they do with the feedback, which feedback they adopt and why. It’s about having transparency of the process, the concrete notion that it’s wanted and really meaningful. This is missing in most cases. In February there was a TNS Emnid survey in which they asked people if they want more citizen participation in political decision making. Ninety-six percent said they do, the highest share ever, but less than a third believed that citizen feedback was considered in decision-making. So we can’t complain about why people don’t participate more: they don’t know how and they feel their input is ignored. You stand for two different ways of getting information: through open government or through whistleblowing, as in WikiLeaks… ANKE: One is top-down and one is bottom-up. The goal is transparency: either they do it themselves or somebody else does it for them. DANIEL: The crucial issue is, how do you engage people? How do you get people to care for their democracy? To make the right decisions for themselves? It begins with very important questions – such as, do I support military operations somewhere in the world? – and it goes to simple consumer decisions. What is the information basis I have for making a decision? I think it’s pretty bad. There is more and more information out there… But there’s a perverse effect as well – the more transparent the world becomes the more information there is, the more complex it gets… DANIEL: …and the less I will be able to distinguish between what is important and what is not important. What is actually real and what is just somebody’s hoax? That’s where the Pirate Party has a good understanding of what is going to come. It’s this understanding that there will never be less information in this world. The decisions will never become easier: there is going to be more globalisation, more information, more complexity. And it will become less likely that you will be able to intuitively make a non-harmful decision. We need to develop competences and skills, and one of these skills will be how to deal with all this… ANKE: But there is no information overflow, there is just filter failure. So do you think journalists or specialists will have a role to play in the open democracy you’re describing – where all information is available and any knowledge can be crowdsourced – as ‘experts’, or filters? DANIEL: Yes, I think they are a crucial part. It would be unrealistic to think that people will just take plain information without someone mediating it. You need context. If I give you a 160-page military document, you will not be much smarter in half an hour. You might start reading it, but you will drop out on page 10. Is that why WikiLeaks decided to work with big newspapers from around the world to release the Iraq files? DANIEL: That was step 10! It began just by dumping stuff on a Wiki… At WikiLeaks we tried many different ways to get people interested in a particular document. And the only thing that worked was working with people who can create the context, and usually that’s the media because they have the resources. I think there is big potential for citizen journalism – non-professional is the wrong word – but also for other alternatives: researcher networks, experts who are loosely working together. Is this what you want to do with OpenLeaks? DANIEL: We’ve come to understand that the only innovative thing we can offer is to provide the technical means for people who want to submit information. There is no real innovation in how people are working with the content. It’s not something we can really help with. Existing media and NGOs are good at this. So we need to get together with them, and we need to provide some of the tools and they need to provide some of the competence. And when these come together, there is potential. So how is that different from WikiLeaks? DANIEL: Practically, it’s different because we don’t run a leaking website. So you cannot go to OpenLeaks and give us a document. People should contact one of our partners. If someone has info on a scandal in Berlin and trusts that Taz is a good newspaper, he or she should give it to them. We take care of the technology. Ultimately you’re saying you’re making it safer and easier for whistleblowers, all the Brad Mannings of this world? DANIEL: Well, within limits. Because as far as we know, Bradley Manning allegedly identified himself. But that’s a really interesting question. If you provide such a solution, how do you assess the risk for somebody who might just behave humanely? Who might have a very human notion that they need to talk to somebody? This is where we are completely away from the technical stuff. There’s the human issue. And that’s a challenge: what does the disclaimer on your website look like? (It should be) not too short and not too long, to explain to people how they should behave without scaring them away or sending them into something they don’t understand. What is the legal risk for OpenLeaks? DANIEL: There is not much risk. One of the simple lessons from WikiLeaks was that if there is just one organisation or one guy that’s taking all the heat, you’re an easy target. So you have to de-centralise that, distribute the heat. If we get 10 good organisations per country on board, that’s a powerful union of interests. If you attack one, you’re also attacking the nine others. This is how you can build something sustainable. Anything else is doomed to heroic failure. Coming back to that tension between privacy and transparency – how much information should be made available to the public? One claim against WikiLeaks is that it can put diplomacy at risk. In the field of politics, you still need to have private conversations… ANKE: I don’t want to live-stream every single meeting. But for members of parliament, I want a lobby register and a public calendar so that I can see when they meet someone from the nuclear industry, for example. Or Gazprom: I would have liked to know whom Gerhard Schröder was meeting when he was chancellor because I don’t think it was by accident that he got a job there. How far can you take it? ANKE: The Pirate Party is lobbying for more transparency about members of parliament’s side-earnings. Many have other jobs at the same time as entrepreneurs, lawyers or consultants…. Today we only have very limited transparency about what exact money they get and from where. For example, when an MP declares a side income of above €7000, you have no way to know whether it’s €7100 or €3 million. That’s not public! As a citizen, I want to know how the money is flowing. The Pirate members of parliament will do it: they’ll publish all of their secondary incomes. They have already inspired other parties when it comes to open government and participation, haven’t they? Maybe the CDU will be using Liquid Feedback soon. Could it become like the Greens where even Angela Merkel ended up being against nuclear energy? In other words, do you want to change the surrounding culture? ANKE: That is exactly what we want to achieve. Change the culture in two ways: the content and the process. We need to inspire a different behaviour among politicians, by publishing secondary incomes, by involving citizens in decision-making processes, etc. As for transparency, the general rule should be: make it public! Is liquid democracy a post-party democracy? ANKE: It’s a pro-citizen policy that would give power back to the people. I strongly believe in representative democracy. Many people think that the Pirates want to get rid of the parliamentary system. That’s not true. I would like to get rid of the party system as it functions in parliaments right now, with the obligation to vote as a party block or one coalition no matter what the issue is. I dream of a system of flexible coalitions depending on issues. You shouldn’t be locked into party coalitions and make decisions that don’t match your own values. I’m for a real democracy. Government by the people. We only vote every four years. How is that democratic governing? Liquid democracy sounds like a very grown-up democracy… a prerequisite for that would be grown-up, ‘enlightened’ citizens. Isn’t that utopian? DANIEL: There are really only two choices. Either we make it to a more enlightened society or there’s not much of a future left. Sooner or later, the shit will hit the fan and it’s probably going to be too late. In evolutionary terms, this is a chance. We’ve got to make something out of all the potential that is there. If we don’t, we’re probably going to go extinct out of laziness. We’re back to the main difficulty: getting people to care! DANIEL: But I think that is happening. A very interesting book on this is The Empathic Civilisation by Jeremy Rifkin. He explains that the interconnectivity made possible by social media is leading people to relate to each other, by realising how similar they are in their own pursuit of their own individual happiness. The understanding that you are as different as I am to everybody else, makes us the same again in some way. Another book (The Filter Bubble) says Facebook limits your world to the world of your friends. You feel that you’re in this wide world of social media and yet you’re only connecting with people you already know… DANIEL: Yes, Twitter is not really different. You’re trapped in an echo chamber with your own circles. But this doesn’t mean that my whole argument is void, because there is a bigger context. We will develop different tools and different ways to relate to one another… ANKE: Daniel is like a monk talking about sex: he doesn’t even use Facebook or Twitter! [Laughs] Facebook and Twitter are so different. I use them everyday! On Facebook you might connect with friends that you know, but when I look for a hashtag on Twitter I will find results from people I don’t have any relationship to. Total strangers. Twitter is the open social network; Facebook is the closed one. On Twitter I get so many inspiring things from around the world from people I don’t know. Daniel, why aren’t you on Facebook or Twitter? DANIEL: First of all, I am a big sceptic of these companies that want all your data. I believe more in decentralised things. Like Identi.ca, which is an open source alternative to Twitter. That’s the theoretical side. Practically speaking, I have the feeling that I lack time anyway. I am in my own personalised filter bubble, managed by Anke! I have a real problem with all this information. There is too much going on. It’s going too fast. This real-time society we are in today, enabled by all these technologies, is a real problem to me. In the days of the old media, you would read the newspaper or watch TV once a day and that would be it. Now it’s coming at you every minute on your phone… ANKE: More information brings problems, but it also means that I can choose for myself what topics I consider to be of relevance. We’ve only had this for less than 20 years. We have to learn how to filter. In the future, one of the most important competences will be how to find stuff, how to deal with contradictory information, how to filter it. We need to learn these things. For most of us it’s like learning a foreign language at age 60. It reminds me of friends from the Eastern bloc who were dizzied by the overwhelming abundance of consumer choices when they came to the West… ANKE: I still suffer in every single supermarket! At 21 I was too old to really learn that. I feel really stressed when I have too many shopping options. But kids nowadays don’t have that. Something differentiates this generation from all other generations before: they’re growing up in a society in which they can create everything they want. They just try out everything, they customise everything. They’re not just slaves of their computers the way we are. The 3D printer generation, so to speak. My 12-year-old son is building a 3D printer that can print its own parts, so it’s this endless thing. We can’t even imagine where this will lead to. DANIEL: They’re already printing veins and organs today. So this is limitless. The Pirates have understood this long-term impact. This is a fundamental change. In the future when your camera breaks, you will just create the spare part yourself using open design data fed to the printer. It will be normal to have such a device at home in 10 years. The whole way we can participate in the world is fundamentally changing. And this will radically change the nature of our society as well. DANIEL: In the future we will depend on the creativity of people. When I finished school in 1998 I read a book called How we will be working (Wie wir arbeiten werden). It shocked me with stuff like the 20/80 society, where only 20 percent will have work and 80 percent of people will need to be kept busy! But you can have a different view. Eighty percent of people will have time to do something other than stand in a production line. Wherever technology can liberate people from intellectually stupid, boring or dangerous work, the more we should be able to tap into people’s creativity, and the more we can benefit. Right now most politicians just say people need jobs. DANIEL: We are facing a very fundamental paradigm shift. They don’t understand, they don’t even see it coming on the horizon. Full employment? It is so outdated that nobody would actually want it! Why don’t we talk about how we can maximise this technological advancement in order to reduce the amount of work people have to do so that they can take care of their kids again? Or do something else useful that they’re good at? This is what we need to talk about. How do we create a society that does not turn a huge share of its citizens into some worthless ‘redundant’ quantity forced to request Hartz-IV? Which is how you get to an idea dear to the Piratenpartei: the guaranteed basic income. DANIEL: Yes, with the guaranteed basic income (bedingungloses Grundeinkommen) you give people the money they need to survive with dignity – then they can start using their talents. The question is always: how do you finance that? ANKE: I have never seen a statistic of how many civil servants work in Bafög offices, Hartz-IV offices, unemployment offices, in the courts where people deal with appeals against Hartz-IV decisions. These are hundreds of thousands of people sitting in office buildings, all paid by tax money only to hand out money. It’s totally inefficient! With the Grundeinkommen, everybody gets it unconditionally. You don’t need a lot of overhead. You just need proof that you live in Germany. The Pirates can’t draft all of the solutions alone; it has to be debated by the entire society. First we have to make the current process transparent. Where is the money being wasted? So will the Grundeinkommen be part of the platform for next year’s election? ANKE: We want it to be examined in more detail. Just recently there was a tweet from the Greens inviting the Pirates to discuss the Grundeinkommen. The FDP has had some ideas about it with the BürgergeldThe end of the money-for-labour equation would be the end of the economic structure the way we know it. How far are we from a post-capitalist society? DANIEL: This is not hot air. This is even something that the EU and the European Council have adopted. The city of Rome is working on becoming the first city in the world ready for the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’. I don’t think we’ll get rid of this economic system while I’m alive, but it’s clear to anyone with more than two brain cells that it is not the future. The established parties don’t dare question the big picture. Maybe they’re afraid that people will lose their sense of security. DANIEL: Our kids’ generation doesn’t have this illusion of security. I don’t have the same illusion of security as my father. When I quit my day job to work on WikiLeaks, I was giving up a career for something that paid no money and it wasn’t even clear if that project would survive. My parents said, so what about your pension? What about your future security? I wasn’t really concerned with this, because I don’t think this system will survive for another 40 years. And I will probably appear conservative to our son in 20 years’ time.