This is an update on my ITP thesis! Slow Net is an ongoing project - see slownet.work for more.
ITP Thesis Week 2019
Slow Net is a series of experiments that explore how slow networks can be used to protect against data-collecting entities that threaten our autonomy and influence our identities.
Privacy concerns have made many news headlines recently, and it’s become clear that our behavioral data is collected when we’re browsing online and using smart devices. Some of the data is used for improving user experience, but much of it is used to predict and influence our behaviors in real-time. By predicting what we’ll do next, data collectors can use the data to intervene and divert our actions in a direction that supports them economically. In this process, humans are reduced to interchangeable pieces of data in a homogenous population of data laborers. As a result, power and wealth is concentrated among those who are able to collect, utilize, and gatekeep vast amounts of information. Our identities get privatized and our autonomy is threatened.
Because real-time collection of data is enabled by fast Internet speeds, one form of resistance could involve co-opting a tactic from labor unions called the slowdown strike, in which workers deliberately reduce their productivity. My thesis project, Slow Net, aims to utilize this strategy of purposeful inefficiency in three pieces.
- A zine called A Quick Guide to the Slow Net provides conceptual context to the problems underpinning data collection.
- An online messaging application, Slow Chat, forces users to write longer messages and wait longer between messages as conversations progress.
- A Slow Router provides free wifi at a much slower speed than expected.
Each of these pieces functions with the goal of slowing the capture of personal data, encouraging more intentional action, and creating opportunities for idle time that allow for introspection and self-development. Collectively these actions attempt to preserve our autonomy and identity. My hope is that as users we can reconsider our relationship with many of the internet platforms we use that exploit us, and as technologists we can re-examine our role in working with and developing these technologies.
I originally started my inquiry by asking how we can build trust in our everyday technologies by exposing their underlying systems. I am fascinated with infrastructure and Hans Haacke’s work, especially “Condensation Cube”, which exposes an invisible system in action. Haacke’s “Shapolsky Et Al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, As Of May 1, 1971” was my main inspiration in trying to map where our behavioral data goes after it gets collected. After reading Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” and Jack Self’s article “Beyond the Self”, I eventually diverged to focus on the impact of data collection because I was alarmed by the imbalance of power between users and data holders. Our current ITP resident Se¿o’s “Postcards Computer” and Kevin Roose’s New York Times article “Is Tech Too Easy to Use?” helped me to develop a rationale around how complexity and inefficiency can be used advantageously.
For A Quick Guide to the Slow Net, I was inspired by Mimi Onuoha and Diana Nucera’s “A People’s Guide to AI” and and Amy Wibowo’s “Bubblesort Zines”. I really like how they discuss complicated technical ideas to broader audience. Slow Chat was largely inspired by my inability to text people back within socially appropriate timeframes. For the Slow Router, I looked to other artists using network infrastructure to resist against invasions of privacy like Trevor Paglen’s “Autonomy Cube” and Dhruv Mehrotra’s “Othernet”.
Research and References
INVISIBLE INFRASTRUCTURES AND UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
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
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
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)
ALTERNATIVE NETWORK (and thereby POWER) STRUCTURES
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
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
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
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
PRIVATIZATION OF IDENTITY
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
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
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
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.
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.
This post contains early concept development and research resources.
|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.|
Related / Similar Projects
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 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.
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.
- 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?
- Is the base of a trusting relationship with technology rooted in the product itself or rather in the creator of the tech?
- 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
- 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?
- 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?
- How can we reverse the power of user data collection? - Can we become our own data brokers?
- Influence of Print Technology
- 44% Concerned About Personal Info Theft Through Their Connected Devices
- How to build trust in emerging tech - 2018 - Peter Birh
- How Do You Ensure Trust in IoT?: A proposed framework for a trust model
- Blockchain Must Adapt to Build Trust in the Internet of Things
- Why Tech Is Starting to Make Me Uneasy
- Data / Privatization of the soul :,(