Major Studio 1 | Final Project – Some Refined Research & Precedents for Moving Forward/Inspiration

Here are a few things that have been inspiring me with how to move forward with the next prototype:

Dark matter: Designing for privacy, in Icon 

This piece was an expose of a few different art/design pieces on Digital Surveillance and Privacy.  One thread I found exceptionally helpful was the idea that you can’t avoid your data being collected if you want to exist in today’s digital/connected world. We are all making tradeoffs. The key is about making people aware of this.

One artist, Vic Hyder said that protecting your life from data exploitation doesn’t mean “hiding under your bed and avoiding everyone”.

“It’s not about creating paranoia, because this is already a reality. To exist in the modern world means you have to give up data. I shop on Amazon and I use social media, but it’s a trade-off – a trade I consciously make. We’re trying to create more awareness about what you’re giving up when you do that trade.”

Stealfie very much seeks to make this tradeoff visible by connecting your in-app actions (usually thought of as relatively private) and making them glaringly public, an invasion of the implicit trust we have when using these technologies.

The article also discussed the idea that most of us think well I’m not doing anything noteworthy enough to raise attention, so who cares if I’m being tracked? This isn’t what should trouble us, it’s that there are very little laws that exist around the issue and “no defined set of rules regarding the information we willingly give up online”. We are now “fac[ing] an era where our personal data stock can be forever mined: the low fitness your wristband reveals pushing up your health insurance premium or a hasty tweet from years ago preventing you getting your next job.”

At the same time, regardless of this data being stored, the truth is that people are making money from it and the laws surrounding this are also ill-defined. “We now share so much data about ourselves that, by combining different sources, it’s possible to trace those packages back to real people, real homes, and real property, all of which is clearly protected by law.”

4425e00fb747194fb9ddae309cb128b4deb31aa2_400x225_q75 Listening device Conversnitch takes snatches on conversation recorded in public and private spaces and broadcasts them as tweets


d04015016dd08f146872e929cd0bdc97e602a231_400x225_q75 Conversnitch installed in public place


One piece I liked best from this article was Conversnitch. by American artists Brian House and Kyle McDonald.”The listening device takes snatches of conversation recorded in libraries, lobbies, parks, fast-food joints – and even bedrooms – and broadcasts them as tweets.” This is meant to create a confusion of public and private space in a world where we use mobile devices constantly and security cameras are everywhere.


Stanza: an artist’s engagement with surveillance, privacy, technology and control in Digicult

This piece reflects on the net art of UK artist Stanza, seeking to pull out themes among his work relating to surveillance, privacy, technology and control and to answer questions such as “how are these technologies and social practices facilitated by them represented in thought and language” instead of through the typical discourse of policy and procedural documents that from the very actors and technologies that make up our contemporary society.

 Stanza writes: “The patterns we make, the forces we weave, are all being networked into retrievable data structures that can be re-imagined and sourced for information. These patterns all disclose new ways of seeing the world.”

The author argues that surveillance art is usually limited to surveilling the human body in space, but Stanza is unique because his later works explore “dataveillance”, the idea that “contemporary surveillance practices, and particularly some of the most socially important ones, are often to do with the collection and processing of data rather than images”.

I thought this was a very interesting point to make. Stealfie is most certainly a critical design piece about surveillance, however that word has many connotations of being “physically watched” whereas terms as data-mining and tracking can be more ephemeral to people. I like that Stealfie really plays on both aspects of this trope, it both collects your image (and your location) and your information since selfies situate us so particularly in a time and space purposefully. I think that selfies really unite the idea of physical surveillance and dataveillance, but the irony is that both are triggered by the users continued usage of the app. By taking the photo and information from the questions, I am trying to pull out the hidden process by which dataveillance occurs and how it is intimately tied to our technological actions.

Another part of the article discusses the idea of “surveillance art” as represented in films, music, movies, design and other cultural representations, offer “new ways of perceiving and understanding surveillance”. Perhaps this will help us to think about cultures of surveillance that exist and have the ability to “criticize and counterbalance the alleged ‘rationality’ of the security and surveillance dispositive as well as expose the techno-fetishism that dominates much of the debate”.

In fact, an Economist article points out that proposal in America to make it harder to track people have traditionally fallen flat. The only regulation is “self-regulation_ where users can go online to opt out of being targeted with ads (but not of being tracked). Even users who delete their cookies are automatically opted back in and have to keep doing it over and over.

The final, and perhaps most insightful piece of this article regarding Ambiguity helped me to better understand and think about some of my questions and data collection combined with a lecture Sven gave las week where he mentioned a past students game that pretended to give someone’s sexual orientation upon completion.

The author writes that:

“Ambiguity is interesting because it offers the potential to highlight the politics of knowledge that relates to surveillance, including the frequent asymmetries of information between watchers and watched.”

Stanza has created several urban sensor network pieces exploring surveillance in cities, one such work called “Body”, However in the text associated with them it is often unclear what data is being collected and what is being done with the data. Although users know the piece involves environmental sensors, they don’t know if there might be more at work.

In other pieces he has that are more generative in nature, he purposely does not reveal what algorithms and software are that take in the data and convert it into art. Stanza does this deliberately because he is investigating the “malleability of data as a medium and how it can be reformed and remediated”. He also purposely allows the data he collects to be made open source and publicly available. This juxtaposition between the private mechanics and the public results allows for an interesting exploration of the biggest tension of big data.

“This connects to a central tension of big data, the ownership and control of data flows (including what gets recorded in which contexts, and how are decisions based upon that data enacted), as well as the transparency of systems, and the extent to which an outside observer can understand their processes. The answer to this tension is not necessarily simple transparency as descriptions of systems that rely too much on the technology can also cloud the situation.”

In his newest piece, The Agency at the End of Civilisation,  Stanza has CCTV imagery of cars on the freeway with a computer asking increasingly unlikely predictions of what is occurring – the name of the person in the car, timestamped locations of the particular vehicles.

The Agency At The End Of Civilisation from Stanza on Vimeo.

“The artwork then continues to make announcements that seem a little more of a stretch for such a system: that the occupant of one car might be considering suicide, that another suffers the increased possibility that lift will pass him by and be meaningless. The viewer is forced to make an assessment about the extent to which such extrapolations are possible from the data that might be gathered in such a system. A now familiar surveillance narrative is subtly ruptured, but also points towards the fantasies of big data. Such an extrapolation is probably not possible now, but might it be in the future? Would we want it to be?”

One big piece of feedback I didn’t list earlier (was saving it for here) was that out of the questions given and answers recorded, users liked the second set of questions much better which both collected a simple true or false value, and then made up 4 different possible responses that were somewhat assumptive about what they had said.

Question 1: Do you believe in God? Y/N

Question 2: Do you drink alcohol? Y/N

Answer 1: God – Yes, Drink -Yes – You are probably Episcopalian.

Answer 2: God – Yes, Drink No – You are a religious teetotaler.

Answer3: God No, Drink Yes – You are filling your lack of god with booze.

Answer 4: God No, Drink No – Your are a lonely alcoholic atheist.

Obviously none of these things are true – I just made them up late at night to test if booleans would work for logic purposes – but they made the biggest impact, and got the biggest laugh. Users would actually go back and play again trying to get a different result because they didn’t agree with the answer or wanted to see what the other answers were.

I think that this level of ambiguity could really benefit me moving forward. If on one level all the data collected would yield different somewhat humorous results that could be shared on Twitter, this would amuse users and keep them playing with the app – wondering how their actions  caused this outcome. However on the back-end, the actual data collected will be collected and stored exactly as is online elsewhere.

To this end, I also thought that I should have much less questions than I previously thought, but also record which filter the user selects, and make the questions more fun generally and weave together to tell a story about the app and selfie culture in general. I will then combine these answers together with the filters to create maybe 5 – 10 possible text blurbs that can be shared. They don’t need to include data from the questions exactly, just be true/false so I can do a bunch of different logic checks.

I could see this being an interesting gallery piece. The users play with the app in one room, post their funny message/tweet and then go on their way. A the end of the gallery there will be a display that has all the raw data they entered visible for the whole world to see, with their photo. A two-part shock.

Goals for This Week

  • Build out the question structure and prototype it (doesn’t need to be on the app or selfie app , just throw something together quick and dirty to refine my questions).
  • Consider how to store the information a bit more creepily on a website, or maybe sending the user an automatic email with a ransom note. Lol. “You’ve been stealfied!”
  • Figure out some custom filters that are just one filter but are more layered and descriptive with their names. Instead of letting users add a bunch of different effects, layer effects myself to create filters with names like “beauty”, “serenity”, “love” etc. that seem somewhat more interesting/emotionally evocative sounding.
  • Work on the user interface to make it more seamless and the important buttons more obvious.
  • Work on incorporating all of the research and insights I’ve gained through blogging and working through my research into a narrative for my presentation.

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