Thesis Context Paper

Research and References


If we understand the mechanisms of a system, can we use that knowledge to alter it into a more trustworthy one? Complexities that exist beyond the surface level often reveal things we as creators have not considered when we design for “the user”. As regular humans, we often take things at face value, but hopefully exposing infrastructure can inspire more critical thinking.

Condensation Cube - 1965 - Hans Haacke
Category: Art
What: Small amount of water in Plexiglas cube, a closed system, reacts to conditions of the external environment

Shapolsky Et Al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, As Of May 1, 1971 - 1971 - Hans Haacke
Category: Art
What: Detailed info on properties and transactions of the Shapolsky family, which exposes several shell companies and activities of the real estate industry that was at odds with the minority communities where these properties were (LES & Harlem)


If we can’t trust the Internet, should we leave it? While I think it’ll be impossible to leave the Internet as we know it completely, I want to consider how other ways we can avoid being tracked, manipulated (hello, clickbait), and otherwise exploited by looking at alternative networking structures. If we can create alternative or evolving structures, we can make different distributions of power that inspire trust.

Contra Internet - 2016 - Zach Blas
Category: Article
What: Zach Blas discusses what would it mean to have no Internet or the Internet to disappear itself. Also alternatives to the traditional Internet network structure.

Autonomy Cube - 2014 - Trevor Paglen
Category: Art
What: Router inside of a cube creates a wifi hotspot that routes all activity over the Tor network. It is also a Tor relay that utilizes the bandwidth of whatever institution it is being displayed, which strengthens the Tor network.

Endless One - 2016
Category: Product
What: Computer & OS that is designed to work with little or no Internet access

Othernet - 2017 - Dhruv Mehrotra
Category: ITP Thesis Project
What: A smaller “internet” that connects a local, physical community that is separate from the larger Internet


Private companies are providing services that function as public, but these companies are also the ones who regulate these spaces, which means they are not truly public. We sign our rights away with the user agreement to get services that are necessary (e-mail, communication), but we lose control of our data and lose trust in these services. In addition to the insane amount of $$$ being made from user data, I think it’s starting to inform how we identify ourselves which is creating an exploitative cycle.

Beyond the Self - 2016 - Jack Self
Category: Article
What: A case against individuality as we are starting to view it now. Our quantifiable identities are being used to further an economic system that doesn’t benefit us. The market that drives this economic system reinforces these identities to keep furthering itself.

Machine Politics - 2019 - Fred Turner
Category: Article
What: How the political climate of WWII gave rise to the counterculture of the early tech industry and how its original utopian intent is at odds with status as a private, for-profit corporations. How individualism is key to (the idealistic version of) democracy, but now being leveraged & magnified using new media, algorithms, and identity politics. Social media != democracy. Long lasting change must be preserved in slower moving institutions and policy.

Dating Brokers - 2018 - Joana Moll
Category: Digital Art
What: Joana Moll purchased a data set of dating profiles and traced back to its origins, revealing “vast network of companies that are capitalizing on this information without the conscious consent of the users, whom ultimately are the ones being exploited”.

Me and My Shadow - 2018 - Tactical Tech
Category: Website
What: Educational website provides friendly walkthroughs and explanations of the data trail you leave when you are online and how you might be more careful with that data.

Thesis Statement/Rationale

My time as an engineer was strange for me. Very few of my peers ever talked about the implications of the technology we were creating and learning to use. Our main goal was to to solve the problems, but we never questioned whether we should or not. Because of this I feel paranoia and trust issues about the everyday tech we use.

I think that the intentions of most engineers and technologists are not malicious, and that it is more of a knowledge gap of the invisible infrastructures and unintended consequences around the technologies we’re developing.

This leads to my question – How do we build trust in the technologies we engage with everyday by creating a better understanding of their underlying systems? My focus will center around personal data and networked devices. Even if aspects of these systems are unpleasant for us to discover, I hope that bringing that knowledge to light can be an opportunity for change in our tech and in our relationship with technology.

For my thesis, I will investigate this question by first building a visualization that gives visibility to hidden infrastructures. Next, I will choose a specific part of the system and build a tool to help people identify and take action when their trust is being violated by a piece of tech. I want my project to be accessible to people, so I want find a way for the project live on the Internet.


Preliminary Thesis Research

This post contains early concept development and research resources.


Research Description
Concept Building trust in the everyday technologies we engage with everyday by creating a better understanding their underlying systems. I think there are snapshots and details of different parts of the system, but not many things that I found that zooms out to look at the bigger picture. I think the most important thing about this content will be able connecting a bunch of seemingly unrelated dots.
Audience My project is geared towards consumers and creators of the daily technologies we use. I’d like to examine the most pervasive ones like smartphones, Internet/IoT, flows & gathering of data. I’d like my project to be accessible via the Internet, but have a physical component as well.
Context I want to frame my project around our commonplace activities and interactions. Likely to framed around places like “home” and “the internet”. They will probably be biased towards my habits, but I want to talk with more people to provide a fuller picture.
Content I need to gather info about various parts of these systems, and also delineate where I feel like their edges are. There will be a mix of library and exploratory research involved to find those edges.
Tech I’m feeling okay about creating websites and I think I might have to learn some new libraries. I’m interested in having a physical component, but no major fabrication, which should be okay for me.
Timeframe & Scope Not 100% sure. I think I still need to flesh out more details. I think I might make a couple prototypes on my way to making a proof on concept. I am kind of viewing this as an exploration at this time.

othernet flyer

Othernet by Dhruv Mehrotra

From the Othernet wiki - “While the internet continues to develop into a tool for institutional control and corporate surveillance, we believe that the local area network can function as a site for resistance, coalition building, and disaster mitigation. The Othernet is a community wireless network. It is not the internet, but something else entirely.”

firechat image


FireChat allows users to communicate through a peer-to-peer connection using bluetooth and wifi without connecting to the larger internet. It is essentially using mesh networks as an alternative way to connect people and share data. The company who makes it, Open Garden, also makes products that try to decentralize internet access.

trustable tech logo

Trustable Tech Mark for IoT

This essentially like getting the approval of the BBB (Better Business Bureau) except for IoT devices. This is less of a tool and more like a certification that the creators hope will help customers make more informed choices.


  1. Is it better to work within the limits of technology we already have to improve our trust? Or do we need to fight against technologies that exploit people, perhaps by creating alternative technologies Something in between?
  2. Is the base of a trusting relationship with technology rooted in the product itself or rather in the creator of the tech?
  3. What aspects of the system are most hidden and important to uncover? Product-makers like to draw attention away from negative externalities like the environmental, labor, access to tech, SEO/curated access, etc
  4. What pieces of data moving about the Internet/networked technology are most important to investigate? Maybe things related to our devices like MAC addresses or IP addresses? Or things related to our personal info like cookies?
  5. How important is the distinction between us and our data? Are we becoming our data? In other words, how are “data-driven” products exerting their influence on us (reprogramming us) and unconsciously changing our behaviors?
  6. How can we reverse the power of user data collection? - Can we become our own data brokers?

Reference List

Temporary Expert

What Do Plants Have to Tell Us?


This “final project” is definitely more of a piece in the process than an end-all. It is a tank full of air cleaning plants (golden pothos, aloe vera, sansevieria) that are trying to promote their value in a way that humans understand, which is through monetary value. They have little LCD screens to display their messages. The plants in the tank are able to support one person, so based on an extremely generalized calculation, I determined that my plants were producing about $0.01 per hour.

full view


Live Web   Computational Approaches to Typography

Typographic Awareness

For my final, I combined my finals projects for Live Web and Computational Approaches to Typography. I made slightly different versions for each class, but I would like to combine them into one fully functional Chrome extension in the future. My original idea is here.

Playing with Type

demo gif

I started by writing the code to create the interactions I wanted users to have. Mainly I wanted users to mouse over blocks of text and have it look like it was rippling. Here is a basic overview on how my code works:

  1. Use a Treewalker to get all the text nodes on the page
  2. Loop through all the text nodes, and put each text node into a new charGroup element.
  3. Replace the inner HTML of the charGroup string into individual character elements. If one of the charGroup elements was “word” it would be replace with “<character style=’display:inline-block;>w</character><character style=’display:inline-block;>o</character><character style=’display:inline-block;>r</character><character style=’display:inline-block;>d</character>”.
  4. Then I replace the new charGroup element where the original text node used to be.
    textnodes[i].parentNode.replaceChild(newNode, textnodes[i]);
  5. Finally, after it finishes looping through all the text nodes I can manipulate the individual character elements using the animate API and the ‘mousemove’ event listener.

I also used the ambient light sensor to change text opacity and the background color. I think the background color change doesn’t really work that well since the user needs to enable “Generic Sensor Extra Classes” in their Chrome flags. Regardless, I’m glad it worked and I liked this for a first iteration.

All the final code for the Chrome extension is here and you can download it here. Install the extension by going to chrome://extensions and then dragging the file into the browser. Activate the code on any website by click on the extension icon.

Adding more users with Peer.js

demo gif

The site is up here as long as my peer server is still running.

I was able to get Peer.js working within a Chrome extension, but then I had issues with keeping the same peer id as the user went to a new page. I think I needed to use the storage API to permanently store the peer id, but I borrowed a website from Frank De La Cruz at Columbia to show peer.js working for class.

I basically have peer.js sending the mouse and ambient light data as it is received from the other user. Users can choose their own peer id and then call other people whose peer ids they know. I wanted it to be intentional that the other user knows who they are contacting so it’s not totally anonymous and creepy.

All the final code for the web version is here.

I think this was good for a first iteration, but I’m hoping to fully combine the peer.js and chrome extension in the future. I’m also thinking about adding it to my website/blog so you can see if anyone else is also there (:

Understanding Networks

Clients and RESTful API Servers for VJ Machine and Mood Jukebox

For the VJ machine, Ellen and Ridwan built the API server and the screen output. Their code is on Ellen’s repo. Alden and I built the controller interface. Basically the controller sends POST requests to the server which is storing info on the state of the VJ machine. Then the screen output is constantly pulling with GET requests to update the visuals. Our code for the VJ machine is here.

vj interface

We also worked with Vidia and Lucas on their Mood Jukebox. Their API is available on Vidia’s repo. We built their Jukebox website which functions both as the controller and the output client.

mood jukebox

The jukebox sends a GET to get a song based on the mood and receives a reply with a song that is determined by the API server. Then the site will send a POST request to add the new song to the playlist. The jukebox site is pulling from the server using GET requests to keep the playlist updated and to determine if the jukebox state is in play mode. To change the state to play music, the site makes a PUT request when the user hits the play button, which returns the first song in the playlist. All the songs (sung by Lucas) were served from the sever so we didn’t need to worry querying another source for music.

Keep reading for more details on things we encountered while working on this project (CORS, Axios, and hiding your API key).


Temporary Expert

Another Idea Iteration

My previous idea definitely had some holes in it regard to why people would find value in the air space I was wanting people to buy. They buy it and it’s there but then what?

I think major idea around of air rights is that there is value in the potential of the space to become a development that will have a bigger return on investment. I want to use this same logic but think about valuing the potential of the space to be preserved. Because we live in a country of capitalism, how do we to put a value on preservation that is competitive with development?


Temporary Expert

Plans for Final

I’d like to create a small ecosystem inside of a tall terrarium that mostly consists of air cleaning plants and layers of urban detritus in the lower section. I’ll have a site that allows people to purchase rights to volumes of air/space inside of my enclosure. They can affect the air by “polluting” into the ecosystem at a fixed rate per square inch if they choose to engage in development activities that have a return on investment.