Is this thing on?

Is this thing on? Identity, robots, and spying through everyday objects, article by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, part of the Blowup Reader The Era of Objects.

Last week, I found myself in the basement of a London pub listening to Alec Muffett  speak about how to have an affair without being caught 1. His conclusions were: don’t use Skype, Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, play MMORPGs, send pictures or use work-related hardware. His advice on how to manage an extra-marital affair included: creating a disposable identity with a boring pseudonym, remembering your password in your head (don’t write it down), using a cash-only pay-as-you-go phone, using voicecalls only, never leaving a voice message and wiping your SMSs regularly -- a bit ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ in other words. It’s ironic that in an age where techno-enthusiasm is de rigueur, good old-fashioned spying techniques might become handy again in order to ensure an ‘acceptable’ state of privacy. As designers of modern technologies, devices, and services, we have to wonder if peace of mind becomes the ultimate cost of being ‘modern’, connected & available? Should we be designing with a benchmark of ‘privacy is dead’ or should we be re-examining ways of re-privatising our daily lives while still staying connected?


iPhones, cows, robots & a natural disposition

Back to spying for a second. Being spied on or stalked no longer necessarily implies a strange man in a trench coat following you. One of its modern equivalents is when a system shares your location without your knowledge. In May 2011, security researchers discovered that the iPhone logs your location regularly 2 without giving users access or control of that functionality (turns out it was in the terms and conditions). Instead of fear-mongering, creative minds decided to play with this functionality.

In an interesting test of memory, James Bridle, a London-based publisher and programmer, published a book 3 based on that data overlaid on top of OpenStreet Maps with annotations of past events he could recall.  The iYou 4 project allows you to ‘discover the stories saved in your pocket‘ – fear becomes opportunity in some hands. Other responses to emerging functionalities of mobile devices have included turning off Bluetooth sharing and buying anti-skimming shields for your NFC-enabled devices.

While we are allowed to protect ourselves from being tracked, for animals it’s quite the opposite: we prefer to tag them if we can. We use RFID implants to track cows in herds 5, we tattoo mice 6 to keep track of them, and we track our cats with RFID 7. This might be a simplified view, but one could argue technology has become a way of defining what makes us human and what doesn’t. In this case, the ‘other’ needs to be kept in check, measured, and tracked to be more easily understood and controlled. Another way in which we are refining this technological mirror is through the development of emotionally intelligent robots. A number of research projects including Lirec 8 are tasked with imagining ways in which robots can become more like us, more likeable, more lovable. The idea is if they are able to be like us, we might like them and interact with them (and thus technology at large) more easily. However avant-garde, this area of research mostly focuses on the design of robots that mimic the best in us, not the worst, which makes any resulting design inhuman by definition: likeable, perhaps, but inhuman. Humanity, it could be argued, is defined by our imperfections and unpredictability, not our ability to play chess perfectly.

Spying shouldn’t be confused with voyeurism, which we now indulge in aggressively. Reading someone’s tweets, blogs, LiveJournal (remember that?) are all examples of a self-reflecting, self-publishing self-expressing culture that emerged only recently. Pioneers of this movement go back to the late 90s with webcam performers such as Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam and early online diarists like Justin Hall ,9, and this progressed to fictional online diarists like Lonelygirl15 and the daily photo postings of Noah K10. Fast forward to 2011 and these cases have become almost banal, and it may even be that what makes them significant is how long they lasted. The data narrative becomes almost more important than the acts themselves as it turns into digital theatre. In our information-saturated age, we are now so bored of others and their online over-sharing, we long for the past when we could still be shocked.


Infrastructure and data as people

When the telephone was invented, it not only allowed us to communicate with each other more easily, it also allowed houses to be mapped; areas to be defined in terms of area codes; usage measured and charged. A gas bill now allows you to apply for mortgages, get a broadband connection and register for a bank account. If you had a home and a technological infrastructure running through it, you were someone, you existed in the system. Soon this will no longer apply. Landlines will be defunct, unless they can re-invent themselves as the ultimate ‘internet of things’ infrastructure for smart homes. Mobile phones will take over as our proof of identity, and social networking site usage will be monitored for security and health purposes. If you haven’t posted something in  twelve hours, you might get a text message from your local emergency services. Your mortgage might be refused on the basis of what type of photos you posted on Facebook. Customs officials might start Googling people passing through to see their latest tweets. Gaming (and therefore spying) happens when you know exactly how a system works and what its requirements are (thus the popularity of checking into a hotel under a fake name). This is trickier to do now. What sorts of devices will protect me? How will my status and the objects around me tell the story I want them to tell as opposed to rat on me? If objects are to have agency, surely it should be as malleable as I want it to be. How will I cheat in such a world? Will I get a new phone with cleaned-up data? Will my online history be hoovered up to increase my credit rating? Will my Fitbit account be cleaned up before an interview to avoid incriminating activity11 showing up? What new devices will I use to pretend I am exercising for my health insurance? We have to assume some of this is already happening in high-profile litigation cases. A broader question here is also: how much technology & data do we need to assume someone is using a system? If we strapped an unlocked iPhone to a cat and had that phone generate politically ambiguous messages to a fake Twitter account when the cat jumps, could the cat be sent to prison? What if there is no cat? Weavrs12 is a start-up that creates online personas that are generated algorithmically and have Twitter accounts that real people follow.  24% of Twitter accounts created are automated bots.13


The politics of infrastructure

The Iran elections of 2010, the Arab Spring and the London riots of 2011 expose a tension between a community of people using tools that help them exercise freedom of expression and the government’s inability to understand or control these platforms when the message isn’t the one they want to hear. In 2010, the U.S. State Department reached out to Twitter and asked them to delay a network upgrade that was scheduled to protect the interests of Iranians using the service to protest the presidential election that took place the next day14. Facebook & Twitter were faced with some criticism as having been key to the Arab Spring15. In August 2011, the UK government asked RIM to hand over some BlackBerry Messenger data from the period of the London riots. A number of politicians, media commentators and members of the police force suggested that Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger in particular, had an active role to play16. These 3 cases highlight how difficult it is to isolate the tools from politics. When a builder makes a house that crumbles, no one would look to the providers of the hammer and nails. Can we build devices and objects that help us say ‘my ideas are not my tools’. Can robots protest for us? Can our identity be protected while still staying involved?


With and without

In this highly political, data-rich connected world, where is the space for new objects? If we look back, we might learn about the power of objects and their implied social affordances. The original Walkman had 2 jacks for headphones, implying a shared experience. This disappeared quickly after Sony realized they could sell more Walkmans by removing that feature. Enabling physical shared access to technology has mostly been replaced by wi-fi and 3G communication but if you had something to share physically, how would you do it now? During the Cold war, Russian military phones didn’t have a dial, as you weren’t the one making calls. You were simply being called. Power was expressed by absence of interface. What else could you eliminate to imply status? Matali Crasset’s ‘When Jim Came to Paris’ is modern even 15 years later. A mattress, an alarm clock, a light: the essentials of a nomadic life. What else would we add now? An anonymous ‘Twitter box’?  The Eames SX-70 Polaroid camera folds up to look like an over-sized lighter. There is very little to indicate how to open the device unless you read the instructions. In a world where instruction manuals are seen as antiquated, how can we still surprise and create a tension? The same applies to Fuse’s design of the One Laptop per Child. It’s fascinating to watch as people struggle to open it for the first time.17 It isn’t so much that these objects might deceive, but it’s the unexpected outcomes and tangible experiences that a user might encounter that become powerful.  These examples might help us think about the levels of deceit we can create with objects and how we could protect our stories, our interests and ourselves in times of technological turmoil. If these objects encounter new technologies, how do they react? How should we? By looking at how we coerce technologies to suit our ideals and beliefs, how we manipulate data, and how we design objects, we may be inspired to create systems, services, and objects where we create ambiguity and mystery -- and ultimately, preserve our humanity.



1 http://dropsafe.crypticide.com/article/5078

2 http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/20/iphone-tracking-prompts-privacy-fears

3 http://booktwo.org/notebook/where-the-f-k-was-i/

4 http://www.iyou.nu

5 http://criticalmedia.uwaterloo.ca/teattweet

6 http://www.somarkinnovations.com/

7 http://nermal.org/projects/catalog/

 8 http://links.net

9 http://www.sayeverything.com/excerpt/say-everything-chapter-one/

10 http://everyday.noahkalina.com/

11 http://techcrunch.com/2011/07/03/sexual-activity-tracked-by-fitbit-shows-up-in-googlesearch-results/

12 http://www.weavrs.com/static/about.html

13 http://mashable.com/2009/08/06/twitter-bots/

14 http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1905125,00.html

15 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/07/facebook-twitter-revolutionariescyber-utopians

16 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14442203 http://blog.phonografic.com/ wp-content/uploads/walkman_sony_tps_l2_phonografic1.jpeg  http://www.foreignpolicy. com/articles/2011/08/25/ agitprops?page=0,1

17 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTcpkRYXDAU (4:26 mns)


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