Thomas Madsen-Mygdal: bootstrapping a new digital culture with the Copenhagen Catalog

A peculiarly California version of libertarianism has come to define the internet. It's time for a new, European vision to replace it. And the Copenhagen Catalog is a first step towards that.


Thomas Madsen-Mygdal is a Danish designer and entrepreneur with a long history of generating change and innovation.

In tech we have many beliefs and ideologies about the world. There’s even an idea that there’s a global digital mindset and laws we live by. But are they ours or someone else’s?

The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, by the late John Perry-Barlow, brought about an era when we thought we were better and cleverer than others. It let companies think they could do whatever they want, and that they could ignore the old standards and rules we set for ourselves.

We’re 25 years in, and we don’t have any new rules, possibly because of that declaration. It’s done more damage in the digital age than any other piece of text. Its only principle is that there are no principles. At best it is naive. At worst, it’s a west coat libertarian manifesto. Are we letting a handful of people in Silicon Valley define the rules of new technology for us? They are a few hundred thousand people in the villages around a provincial city on the West Coast of the US. Their culture is rooted in the rebels and the gold diggers of the old America, and now they call a successful digital gold prospector a unicorn. We have let them define the life and era we are in.

It’s a very different culture from Europe – or even the East Cost of the US.

This is not an anti-Silicon Valley talk. They’ve done an amazing marketing job. WIRED has spread their word around the world. But we failed to reinvent ourselves and our culture and DNA with digital technology.

The Copenhagen Letter

Last year we started doing that with the Copenhagen Letter:

We are a community that exerts great influence. We must protect and nurture the potential to do good with it. We must do this with attention to inequality, with humility, and with love. In the end, our reward will be to know that we have done everything in our power to leave our garden patch a little greener than we found it.

It was created in a difficult discussion last year at Techfestival in Copenhagen. You’re welcome to go and sign it. It’s not perfect, or the new ideology – it’s the start of a new narrative.

The Copenhagen Catalog

This year we did it again with The Copenhagen Catalog.

Two weeks ago, we started to have the discussion again. The conversations were very different, after all the skeletons fell out of tech’s closet over the last year. There was a lot of discussion, a lot of energy – and it was remarkable. In 48 hours we generated 150 principles and the posters that explained them.

Some ideas within:

  • Build to exist, not exit
  • Have a citizen mindset, not a user one
  • Obey democratic laws
  • The singularity is near… but reality is nearer
  • Tech is not a job, it’s a way of life – and that means it has responsibilities

We’ve learned all we can from Silicon Valley. I sense the European era starting.

We’ve neglected to develop social systems and democratic systems for cyberspace. We could lead that. It feels provincial and messy and tough, compared to flying around the globe. But we need to start engaging at a local level. That’s where the future starts.