Rethinking Growth: “Our economy is like an adolescent growth spurt”

An artist and an internet pioneer talk ‘growth’

What is growth? Rabobank Artist-in-residence Arne Hendriks discusses the question with thought leaders from various disciplines. Marleen Stikker is Director of the Waag research institute for art, technology and society.

In the early 1990s, Stikker was a pioneer discovering the possibilities of the internet. That’s when she became aware of the dangers of unrestrained technological growth and the ways this affects our lives.

Arne Hendriks: I want to know what growth is. Like other people, for most of my life I thought I knew what it was, and that in principle it was good. Now I just don’t know anymore. And that’s why I’m talking to different people – both inside and outside the bank – to try to find some answers.

So Marleen – what is growth?

Marleen Stikker: Growth is the theme of recent decades, which we need to transform into ‘de-growth.’ But we panic about reduced growth or shrinkage because our models, especially the economic ones, are focused on exponential expansion. At present, that can only be realized through incredible manoeuvres that are at the expense of the planet, human values or animal welfare. Our natural capital is already as good as exhausted, converted into financial capital.

In her book Doughnut Economics, economist Kate Raworth gives some interesting insights into the redefinition of growth. She talks about the current economy as a ‘Peter Pan economy,’ because it is never considered to be mature and always needs to grow. Raworth replaces the idea of infinite growth with that of maturation. So ‘becoming mature’ through developments such as reinforcement, deepening, balance and densification. The current economy is actually comparable to an adolescent with a growth spurt, who hasn’t yet reached a state of maturity.

When did we have that balance? And when did we lose control?

When I was growing up, there were no career perspectives in the existing system, so we started doing business ourselves. Not like the financially driven start-ups now, but more guided by the idea: how can I do something sustainable with my talent? At the end of the 1980s, an independent media scene emerged in Amsterdam: independent television channels, publishers, events, etc.

The first PCs came along, then the first desktop publishing programs, enabling independence. We were able to organize ourselves – this is what I especially recognized in the internet. I was fascinated by the internet’s distributed architecture and understood why it was so disruptive. The internet organizes power in a different way. It originally enabled people and organizations to communicate directly with each other without the intervention of third parties. Unfortunately, this has been negated by the ‘new economy’ at the end of the last century, and its interweaving with the capital market.

Did that begin in the digital domain?

The internet has become synonymous with exponential growth. So it’s a combination of what happened in the financial world and technological developments. Money creation, risk capital, projections about extreme future-value development, digitization, market operation, far-reaching centralization by platforms – all these developments and more have turbo-charged growth. And shoved thinking about maturation, reciprocity and the careful handling of resources into the background.

It’s the idea of the future that makes us greedy, the promise of a time that’s always ahead, free from any realistic restrictions…

If you remove the exponential nature of growth, many people will see it as ‘maturing.’ Growth changes its meaning when you see its future consequences – separate from yourself, time and place. Yanis Varoufakis, economist and short-lived Greek Minister of Finance, wrote a book in which he explains economics to his daughter, assuming that you only really understand something if you can make it clear. At the same time, he wanted to show her how much the economy affects our lives, and that the prevailing theories are part of the problem, rather than the solution.

He describes, among other things, how by extending credit into the future, you bring value and growth to the present, but at the same time lose part of that future. By creating money from nothing you go through the membrane of the future, as it were, and draw that value to the present, so that you end up shrinking the future.

You make a connection between growth and promise: growth as a promise for the future. Perhaps it’s this kind of elusive mental construction that I’m looking for through the question, “What is growth?” We are not talking about the ‘accumulation factor’ as in economics textbooks, but about a promise. We reward ourselves for things that still need to be realized; we’re counting our chickens before they hatch.

Yes, and a lot of chickens still need to hatch! Our generation has a limited lifetime, so I think it’s up to the generations that come after us to hatch those chickens. The baby boomers grew up in an era in which global economic growth reached an unprecedented speed. They reaped the benefits. This acceleration was accompanied by enormous ecological costs; that promise of ‘multiplication’ continues unabated for every participant. It’s a kind of pyramid scheme, and someone has to pick up the bill sooner or later.

Take the housing boom and the unprecedented increase in real-estate values. It’s a wonderful feeling and it’s happened ‘just’ by living. But it represents the separation of capital from underlying value, free-riding and a cycle of speculating on the future. The people who are now coming in – if they can get on the ladder, that is – how are they going to make a profit? “

“It’s like a pyramid scheme, and someone has to pick up the bill”

- Marleen Stikker, Internet pioneer

When you were a guest on ‘Zomergasten’ [a Dutch TV series featuring in-depth interviews] last season, you referred to the movie ‘The Matrix’ and the metaphor of the red and blue pills. If you take the blue one, you live a comfortable, ignorant life, and if you take the red one, you see the hidden dark side of the world. You’d take the red one yourself, but you also advocate a third pill: seeing the dark side, but exploring the possibilities of another world. This idea comes from the thinking of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

I thought, what options do we have now? You can find out how reality really works, and then end up in a battle with dark forces. The other scenario is to be completely ignorant of them, and manipulated to the max. I want to add another option to that: understanding how the world really works and taking the lead in order to change it in a positive way.

This also has to do with the ‘creative perspective’ that I want to talk about later: thinking in possibilities. That, in my opinion, fits with the path you seek as an artist: you consider what’s possible, then you find the way there. And that’s the attitude of many young people who are actively building a different world.

”I think reality is being created over and over again”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence

That appeals to me. I think reality is being created over and over again, almost literally with every glance. So there are constant opportunities and challenges for humans’ creative abilities. Like you, I’m making a conscious choice for myself to take a third way. Not just ‘for’ or ‘against’ but ‘in motion’ or continuously creative.

Some people thrive on confrontation – look at President Trump. But when it comes to working on that other reality – that new story – context, imagination, narratives and a common language are crucial. Those too are a question of maturing. Growing up is also growth, yet it gives new meaning to the concept. Look, I think growth is completely legitimate and I get why it’s fun: wanting and being able to run faster than the others, the competition, the perseverance, and the sweet success.

There is also the bias of right-wingers in relation to left-wingers. The first group is quick to think: “We shouldn’t do nice things anymore.” In the conservative Dutch political party, the VVD, you can at least laugh and take risks. But the alternative route is neither left nor right and doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself something. On the contrary, it’s about finding a dimension that’s very attractive, namely adult growth that’s not at the expense of the planet and other people.

When I started ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man,’ it was partly out of my frustration that no stories were told on that side of the spectrum, or none I could relate to. That led me into an adventure I could submerge myself in, wake myself up with. Not that I need a leader, but they weren’t there either. Another important motivation was the fact that it isn’t possible to give laughter and adventure a progressive character. There’s more beauty to be gained on that front than on the destructive ‘it really doesn’t matter’ side.

I always get annoyed when my values and ideas are put in a ‘leftist’ camp. Because it refers to the clichéd image of the swaggering, crocodile-smiling corporate jerk on the one side, and the acidic, idealistic activist who tries to counter the financialization of the whole world on the other. The categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t work anymore and belong strictly in the past. Or they should be, because meanwhile a new story is being written.

”The categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t work anymore”

- Marleen Stikker, Internet pioneer

You’ve been involved in internet development from the start. You realized early on that there were risks involved. That’s why there’s now such an interest in your work, because you warned against the negative aspects associated with the growth of digital technology.

The story of the internet is multi-layered. People think that the internet removes their privacy, but that’s the result of the way the technology is appropriated by business models, profit maximization and shareholder interest. If you look at the internet now, you see the capital sector. Not Amazon or Uber, but the credit lines they have. These companies have access to billions and with that they buy growth.

Behind their services is a much larger story about the capital market, which has exchanged an appetite for raw materials for a search for the new gold: data and algorithms. It’s no longer just about privacy; the whole idea of sovereignty is in question. Not only do you have no control over your elections, you don’t even know if you really want what you want, or if that’s just the result of your filter bubble.

Or take the algorithms embedded in all social processes, allowing companies and governments to manipulate our behavior. We as individuals, as well as a society, have to claim back sovereignty over the internet. It’s possible to make tech applications with respect for personal environments and identity. Fortunately, these developments are in full swing.

Stikker: “We as individuals, as well as a society, have to claim back sovereignty over the internet.”

It’s interesting to be an artist-in-residence at a bank, because it’s an institute where real changes can and should be made. If you look at the banking sector, are there areas where you’d say, why don’t you do this?

In the conversations I have with banks, I get the idea that they can do a lot, as long as they show growth within the existing system. This makes it almost impossible to finance ‘commons,’ for example. A commons is an public initiative whereby people jointly develop activities and agree on new rules among themselves. The platform can, for example, be a farm, but it can also be activities in the field of energy extraction, education, housing or care. Banks have scarcely any opportunities to finance these initiatives that escape economic market thinking. Even if they want to, they are not covered by the regulations overseen by DNB, the Netherlands’ central bank.

So one of the issues is: can we come up with new financial instruments to safeguard and help initiatives that are not focused on exponential growth? The difficulty is that even the world of sustainability is often based on exponential growth. So all the activities inside might be circular, except for the value development of the organization itself, because that always has to increase.

”Even sustainability is often based on exponential growth”

- Marleen Stikker, Internet pioneer

Large systems are complex and vulnerable. At the same time, they demand a huge capacity for innovation. Take the example of the dinosaur that changed into a bird. The main evolution towards the strong, lighter bones needed to fly could probably have arisen when the dinosaur was huge. But when it started to shrink because of climate conditions, it took this knowledge into its DNA. Eventually this led to a magical new species that could fly. In other words, what can we learn from this time, and what is the bird in bank terms?

The example you give is about the concentration, refinement and sophistication that develop innovative power. A concentration of everything that’s good. The first thing a bank has to do is ensure that it understands its own processes, transparently and with accountability. It is crucial to review the dynamics of the quarterly figures, growth expectations and shareholder returns. Re-invent the bank as a commons.

In general, we’re all in an unprecedented transition and we’re searching for the bird. I strongly believe in using technology on the basis of human values, and using art and science to guide this innovation. Again, I’d also like to make the case for the third pill. Only by changing the collective consciousness can we shape the way in which the world develops. We see the shadow of a solution, but we still have to create its form.

Who is Marleen Stikker?

Marleen Stikker (born in 1962) trained as a philosopher. In 1993, she founded The Digital City, the first free internet portal and virtual community. This initiative was the basis of Waag: a research institute for art, technology and society, of which Stikker is co-founder and director. There she develops technological prototypes, such as the sustainable Fairphone and FairBnB – an alternative to Airbnb. The former Mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, called her the ‘mother of the creative industries.’ New technologies are her playing field, but questions them in a critical way. Nowadays Stikker organizes PICNIC innovation festival. She is also a member of the European Horizon 2020 committee, High-level Expert Group for SRIA on Innovating Cities / DGResearch, and of AcTI Dutch Academy of Technology & Innovation. “If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It” (the Maker’s Bill of Rights) is Stikker’s credo. She is actively involved in the Open Design and Creative Commons movement, and believes that open technologies are needed to meet societal challenges. In 2018, Marleen Stikker was a guest on the VPRO TV programme, ‘Zomergasten’.

Artist-in-residence: Arne Hendriks

Growing, getting bigger, is positive – that’s what we learn from an early age. For eight years, artist Arne Hendriks (born 1971) has been researching why, and turning the proposition around: what if we didn’t always want more and more; what if we were to strive for less? With ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ Hendriks asks fundamental questions about our obsession with growth – down to our own height. He works with examples of people, animals and living systems as sources of inspiration. Banking4Food Innovation Centre, Rabo Foundation and Kunstzaken invited Hendriks to work on his research at Rabobank. Recently, in the middle of his exhibition, he talked to opinion leaders from various disciplines about the question: What is growth? For more information about his project, The Incredible Shrinking Man, see www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net.

The published interviews in the ‘Rethinking Growth’ series are a collaboration between Arne Hendriks and writer Jens de Jongh.