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.