Longterm Social Crisis

This week several mainstream headlines quoted “experts” who pointed to signs of economic recovery on the horizon.  I think they were referring to Europe, but if you search the news, you’ll find other experts pointing out signs of the same for Japan and the United States. Of course after experts say such things they add the caveat: but there is still a lot of uncertainty.

As I ride through the streets of Amsterdam and my neighborhood, the young yuppie mecca known as the Oud West, I see “for sale” signs everywhere.  Most of those signs have been hanging there for most of this year.  As I drive the Red August around the canals of Amsterdam, I see more “for sale” signs on house boats then I’ve ever seen before as well.  Some disappear in a few weeks, some linger and have become part of the scenery.

Riding home from frisbee practice the other night I was chatting with a longtime friend who works as a freelance ICT person for the past few years.  Talking about his business and how things have been, he pointed out that in the past few years he was always swamped with work, in many cases having to turn down jobs because he was too busy.  In sharp contrast he described this year as one with hardly any work, for the first time in his freelance career he has had to approach businesses and potential customers in an attempt to convince them they could use his services.

Are so many people unemployed in the Netherlands? I suppose not as many as I’ve noticed back in Portugal or the United States.  But what about all these freelancers and those of us who are employed part-time for the past few years, how do we factor in to the statistics in these troubled times. Beyond that, do any of us realize how much worse it can get?

Economic experts and government representatives can point to industrial output numbers and so-called investor confidence surveys to justify holding a “the economy is going to get better” press conference.  But a walk down the street and a talk with your neighbors tells another story.  Seems like everyone, from the big corporations who needed bail outs, to the banks who traded in fake money, to we the freelancers/consumers, thinks that we can have economic recovery but just doing things how we always did, not need to learn any lessons from the past. Looming social crisis? 25 million unemployed by next year? We don’t want to think about it.

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Hacker Camp 2009 Impressions

In many ways it is as if we never left. 2 years ago I sat at a picnic table under a tarp on the Polish-German border on the site of a former East German military base with a couple of thousand hackers and general purpose nerds.  2 years later here I sit, this time somewhere in the Netherlands, in the infamous Metalab tent filled with Vienna’s creative and hilarious geek crew.  To my left and right, tiny laptops connected to several layers of wires. In front of me, beyond a few more piles of wires and what looks like a virtual reality unit from the 80’s, several pale and half-asleep campers are tending to the Austrian breakfast.  It’s 12:36pm. 2007, 2009, its as if we just unpaused after the last camp.

It is always difficult to properly describe the scale and degree of amazing these gatherings are. I’ve only been a member of the community since 2005, but in these few years I’ve fallen in love with the attitude, atmosphere, and insanity of hacker camp and hacker gatherings in general. Yet when it comes up in conversation with those who have never experienced it, my words are met with giggles and eyes rolling, again- how to explain what happens here?

Last night as I stopped by the Italian embassy tent, I was greeted, as per tradition, by Italian hackers with grappa and cookies. Earlier they were surely cooking pasta in huge vats right next to their own huge pile of wires and laptops.  As I attempted to drink the powerful drink, cheering from the Austrian village caught my attention. Overhead, some kind of balloon creation consisting of mass quantities of glow sticks and a well designed frame powerful by 3 oversized helium balloons.  2 members of the lab climb atop the circa 1980’s Austria Telecom phonebooth to get a better vantage point for holding the rope the balloons are tethered to. In the semi-dark, hordes of hackers stop to cheer on the flying contraption, some calling on the rope holders to “set it free!”  Eventually nature takes control and the cord snaps, the flying spaghetti monster fights its way through a line of trees and floats up into the night sky like some kind of rainbow creature heading towards the moon. More cheers, campers move on to the next big tent and whatever project those people are working on.

Blinking lights, house music, machines copying themselves, French hackers making crepes, and the last remaining imaginary soviet republic with its own tent embassy, the list of creative or uncreative ideas is neverending here.  I spent much of my second day walking from tent to tent asking different groups about their healthcare system.  I ran into enthusiastic Scandinavians, a Brazilian sitting between tents on his laptop, a Slovak on his way to the bar, and a friendly Romanian gentleman who has found the perfect shade trees under which to position his tents.  As he and I discuss the healthcare system in Romania, hacker children splash around in the small lake around which the camp is set up.  Just behind us is the rather un-camp-like American house, where a group of American hackers are housed, I can hear their loud conversations about some technical topics I don’t understand.  I’m told the American hacker house makes good breakfasts, something to keep in mind for my last few days here.

It is now 1pm. The sun is blazing and even more people are filing into this tent. They’re coming to watch the replicator machine replicate itself. It is behind me and the constant buzz buzz sound of plastic being cut or drilled or whatever that thing does, it provides great writing music.  Time to load up on water, grab my mobile internet device and camera, and head out to see how camp looks after yet another night of beautiful madness.

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On the EU Elections

I wrote a piece for the Guardian on the Dutch vote during last week’s European Parliamentary elections. Here’s an excerpt:

The headlines on Friday morning in Amsterdam looked not unlike those in the international press around the world: “Far right wins big in Holland”. This was followed by a few paragraphs of analysis, or at least background as to why a leader who says he won’t even show up for work if he is elected could progress in a party in a country that some people still consider as a beacon of open-mindedness.

Yet no matter how big the font or how many exclamation points they use, the power of the far-right voters in the Netherlands is not the only development in 2009. What failed to get much more than a two-line afterthought in all these reports over the weekend is that the Freedom party (PVV) was not the only party to have made gains for the Dutch. Among them, the D66, a progressive-liberal party that has historically championed issues like gay marriage, euthanasia, legalised prostitution and the decriminalisation of drugs, also gained seats. While the PVV Read more

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Labor Shortage Dutch Style

On line at the grocery store, I read the big sign in the window: Seeking new colleagues to join our team. Around the block at the caf there’s a small paper in the window that reads: seeking wait staff. The restaurant next door is full to the brim with customers everyday and employs only 2 servers and 1 cook, the entire staff looks overwhelmed.

No matter where I look in the service industry, the Netherlands seems to be lacking workers. Yet at the same time, I can think of many university students who would never take such jobs. I’m also reminded of my fellow university graduates who are seeking work in the field of their studies and would not take up work in a restaurant or a grocery store.

All this to make the un-scientific observation that there could be some type of labor shortage in this part of Europe. And it is getting worse.

Meanwhile I read about the situation of detained refugees in Belgium, who are currently on hunger strike. Belgium’s politics and economic reality is certainly not identical to the Netherlands, but I still think it says something about where this entire region is within the discussion of the right to work and immigration policy. For the neverending obsession with keeping people out, I’m wondering who they’re going to turn to when no one in the country will take essential jobs.

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