The (In)Discreet Charm of Openness
—Jacek Smolicki, artist, designer and doctoral researcher within the Living Archives research project, Malmö University, Sweden
In this text, I offer a somewhat flipped perspective on open data practices. Here, open data is not seen as a positive aspect of the proliferating digitisation of our cultures. It is no longer something we acquire for free by browsing on the Internet, but rather the opposite. Open data is being acquired from us, ever more often latently … on the basis of an involuntary transaction …
Rooted in my interest in the Internet, and more broadly, digital technologies as contemporary archiving and capturing devices, in this short text, I turn to art and media art for inspiration on how to both practically and conceptually move beyond the paralysing confines of skepticism with which we increasingly approach modern technologies.
On us as open sources in the realm of transactional media
Constituting an ever-expanding network, digital media (such as social media platforms and applications) ‘treat’ us, their regular or incidental users, as sources of open data. Or put differently, by interacting with these networked media, we voluntarily or involuntarily subject our lives to becoming open sources: open to the never fully known benefits of various industries, commercial agents, state-run agencies, and other third parties. Despite often being free of charge and open to everyone, such types of media have a transaction-like character. In order to gain access to the data that particular medium hosts (whether these are images shared by our friends on Facebook or music videos we view on YouTube), we (have to) open up and expose some aspects of ourselves.
This often happens with no given consent or only limited understanding of the potential implications and purposes that data points which emerge from our interactions might be used for.
The principles and complexities of such transactions are meticulously diluted in often endless lines of terms of agreements that, as some studies show, only about 7 percent of users put in an effort to go through.
Every day when we interact via such transactional media, our locations, decisions, choices and hesitations become subjected to various invisible transactions. These transactions are certainly not based on fair and transparent forms of exchange, but rather, they are highly unbalanced. In other words, there is an obvious, large disproportion between the extent, purpose, and scale of the individual’s singular act of accessing the web and acquiring or viewing data and the extent, purpose, and scale with which third parties access, scavenge, and potentially benefit from digital traces that such individual acts leave behind. Although we may have a clear purpose and goal in accessing or acquiring certain data, we can never be sure what the purposes and goals might be of diverse social media providers and the allies they sell our information to. Moreover, it is not only these purposes and contexts that we cannot be sure about, but also the time span over which our data points might remain circulated, exploited, and possibly misused.
Going online today seems increasingly like stepping into the woods filled with animal traps and lures distributed around to cause us to navigate in a certain way and seamlessly capture our movements.
Many online services, in particular social media, are designed to stimulate our behaviours and cause us to act in a predetermined manner. (Consider, for instance, Facebook guidelines on how to take a proper portrait picture. While seemingly serving the user, these guidelines also ensure that the face of the photographed is recognisable by the face recognition algorithms embedded in Facebook code.) Transactional media enforce certain openness on us hoping to increase the number of data points that can be extracted from our online wanderings. Consider the omnipresence of ‘like’ buttons, requests for rating, comments, and shares, not to mention the intriguing headlines and seemingly personalised advertisements we come across on a quotidian basis.
Every intentional response to these reveals yet another bit of our personality. It enchants our sense of privacy, unveils a degree of our personal taste and curiosity, delicately and unnoticeably widening the scope of our not necessarily intended openness. As a result, our digital presence (or ‘data double’ as Stephen Fortune, an open data scholar, calls it) gets labelled and tagged, so it can be more precisely returned to, tracked back, targeted, and addressed by, for example, advertisers, into whose hands the information about our interactions is imperceptibly transferred. Whether we want it or not, our movements across cyberspace are subject to recording, framing, tracking, and categorising.
While voluntarily constructing an archive of our lives by posting multimedia content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogs or any other semi-automated, life-logging platform, the same digital traces contribute to the formation of a shadow archive, an involuntary constructed one to which we have no access. One example of this is found in Google’s aggregation of personal data resulting in a construction of our digital doubles. These digital doubles are estimates of who we are, how old we are, and what our preferences are, based on our daily interactions with online browsers. The realm of the web has turned into a location-less archive aggregating and merging both private and public, intimate and explicit, closed and open. By a location-less archive, I do not not mean one without a physical basis; but rather, location-less here denotes the lack of one singular physical grounding—a state of continuous, dynamic migration of the content from one location to another beyond us being fully aware of it. In other words, the content of such an archive, constituted by bits of our lives, persistently migrates in time and space, loosely changing its owners, agents, appropriators, and abusers.
What actions might we take to address these problems? In the context of pervasive media and network technologies, shall we fully embrace the fact that there is no escape from being exposed to the unknown and unintended deployments of our life-bits (Bell and Gemmell 2009)? Shall we altogether forget about the idea of privacy, secrecy, and ambiguity and fully comply with a new condition of post-privacy, total openness, and transparency?
On transparency and instrumentalisation of personal data practices
As Edward Snowden noted in a short interview around Christmastime in 2013, those born today (or what we might as well call them, ‘digital natives’) will have much difficulty trying to understand what privacy is, or was. Already tricky to clearly delineate today, the divide between private and public in the cyberspace of the future will be increasingly indistinguishable. Moreover, consider the further realisation of already operational concepts such as ‘smart city’, ‘predictive policing’, or the ‘internet of things’; for these concepts, the provision of personal data is an unquestionable prerequisite. It is required as a component of a large feedback loop, an inseparable unit of large data swarms fueling and setting in motion algorithmic procedures aimed at orchestrating the ways we navigate and behave, and consequently enhancing the ways we produce and further contribute with our personal data.
Perhaps one of the most revealing depictions of such a tendency to ‘cybernetically’ instrumentalise personal data practices has been offered by Dave Eggers in his critically acclaimed novel The Circle (2013). Although it is a (science) fictional speculation, Eggers’s text provides us with a handful of inspiring insights which are also informative for more rigorous and academic deliberation. Provided that some of the current trends in technology (such as wearables, self-surveillant gadgets, and network technologies) remain proliferating as fast as they currently are, we can read his text as a message from a near, and to some extent, plausible future.
An intriguing vision proposed by Eggers is one in which every single human behaviour can be easily detected, tracked, archived, and processed for the general betterment of humankind.
The vision of the world proposed by the Circle—a Silicon Valley based, techno-enthusiastic corporation aiming to unite all social media platforms into one, globally standardised tool—is basically a vision of the world with no privacy. As the founders of the Circle believe, privacy opens room for secrecy which instigates the majority of problems that humanity has to confront today. In other words, secrecy is an evil to be eliminated and replaced by complete openness. The openness (transparency) can be achieved through the disciplined use of tracking technologies (wearable cameras) and services that the Circle develops, implements, and propagates (such as TrueYou, a meta-social media platform). Tracking and recording technology and its democratic distribution is believed to be the most efficient way to counteract and ultimately erase all kinds of misbehaviour that secrecy tends to make room: criminality, corruption, injustice, inequality, racism, child abuse and poverty. In other words, in order to establish a perfectly functioning, unambiguous society, complete openness is what the ‘Circlers’ believe needs to characterise every single human act in the ever more tightly interconnected, self-surveilling world.
Does such a vision sound like an unrealistic, science-fiction scenario never to become fulfilled?
Or, taking into consideration our techno-politically aided desire to track, share, post, tweet, and snapshot—as well as the proliferation of data surveillance, aggregation of private data by ever fewer large corporations that increasingly monopolise and colonise the web—is this an only slightly exaggerated vision of where our contemporaneity is incontestably heading toward? Although a bit far-fetched, Eggers’s vision does not seem to intend to confront us with an entirely futuristic scenario, but rather, allows us to see in a new, media-technologically saturated context, the old desire to possess total insight.
Similarly, Eggers’s The Circle is not merely a critique of the shortsightedness which characterises Silicon Valley-based capitalist entrepreneurship, but instead, it is perhaps a somewhat more universal critique of totalitarian aspirations to be able to infiltrate, make open, and record every aspect of human life. It is the questioning of a dream about the ability to control every current of our lives, whether it is a dream woven by a technologically-aided individual life-logger, state apparatus, private enterprise, or an alliance thereof. Circle, the corporation, promotes openness and transparency as forces capable of overcoming the conflict between individualism and collectivism (or capitalism and socialism, if you will). On the one hand, it advocates for the discovery of one’s ‘true self’ through submitting into an ever-visible contest in which, after applying proper tracking technologies, one’s daily performance gets upgraded from the mundane to the spectacular event widely exposed to the public and its ‘honest’ commentary. One’s daily life becomes subject to quantification, measuring, and rating with the exciting prospect of being awarded by other positively stimulated members of the globally interconnected community.
On the other hand, the Circle promotes a utopian vision of a perfectly synchronous collective working together towards making the world a better place for everyone. This collectivity is achieved by the exactly same means that promises to enable the aforementioned individuation. Due to the highly disciplined compliance of citizens in the on-going techno-political revolution through the consistent use of self-tracking technologies and wearable cameras, the reality which transpires in this utopian vision is united, intra-surveillant, and hence, results in safe and secure global nations (think of the everyday reality of Soviet countries where surveilling and spying on your neighbour was not only seen as a good example of civic duty, but also was, in fact, programmatically encouraged and rewarded).
Thus, we might say that in Eggers’s vision, what is often seen as polarised ideas, individuality and collectivity become reconciled. The reconciling medium is nothing other than the idea of complete transparency and openness—the ultimate and irreplaceable prerequisite to a perfectly organised society. In such a vision of the world built upon a hybrid of social and individualistic motivations, the figure of a big brother—‘traditionally’ an external eye of the centralised system monitoring the behaviour of the population—is not needed anymore.
It becomes replaced by many smaller, little brothers—the actual citizens who, either deliberately or because of not having any other choice, monitor themselves and their fellow citizens in the name of the good.
Surveillance becomes outsourced to the very people who are the subjects of surveillance. Citizens transform into cells and microbes forming body of no-longer physically consolidated, but rather fragmented, pervasively distributed, and hence, operationally much more effective ‘Big Data Brother’.
On how to life-log with the presence of ‘Big Data Brother’
Whether we want it or not, possessing a digital device with access to the network, to some extent, makes us all metamorphose into the microbes of a larger, ubiquitously operating, digital-archiving body—some of us to a greater or lesser degree. Some microbes voluntarily contribute their life-bits by choreographing their actions much in line with the grooves, patterns, and trends provided to them by ready-made technologies, protocols, and mainstream data aggregation services (again, social media), but some microbes attempt to resist such rules.
After Eggers’s novel and its critical stance on surveilling technologies, let me turn here to media arts, which in a similar way provide food not only for reflection, but also action. Consider the obfuscation of digital traces, a practice that has emerged as one of the techniques to overcome proliferating data surveillance.
In this sense, obfuscating is about sending false messages while remaining a part of the system, like consciously taking the role of a cancerous cell, simultaneously compatible and integral in terms of its operationality, yet incompatible and self-destructive when it comes to motivations.
Kevin Ludlow’s artistic work entitled Bayesian Flooding can serve as a good example; for several months, Ludlow has been feeding his Facebook profile with false information about himself. He deliberately pressed the thumbs-up ‘like’ icon under content he did not necessarily like, and he kept uploading fake updates on his health condition, location, religious orientation and much more. As a result, his online profile became polluted in a way that significantly disturbed usually more accurate advertising and automated recommendation models.
Other examples of a similar technique of obfuscation can be found among many critical browser extensions and scripts (such as Greasemonkey and UnFuck Facebook). Some of them aim to either encrypt one’s browsing by hiding one’s searches in a cloud consisting of other random queries (for instance, TrackMeNot). Others draw on Ludlow’s approach and automatically like and share every likable or shareable content detected on platforms such as Facebook. Digital obfuscation today has almost become a distinctive form of artistic expression—an act of poetic resistance. An interesting example of such, especially in light of the openness discussed here, is the work of Hasan Elahi.
After being linked to terrorist activities post 9/11, and stopped and even detained by security guards at the airport, Hasan Elahi was required to regularly report his international travels to FBI officers. Realising that, despite whatever effort he would make to resist, his life would have been monitored by FBI anyway, Elahi decided to start deliberately tracking and archiving his everyday life. Since 2002 he has, among many other things, been recording every geographical location he visits, every meal he consumes, every public toilet he uses and every expense he makes.
He subsequently shares these data directly with the FBI officers. As he ironically states, no technology or agency can track us better than we ourselves can.
The website he constructed for this project, entitled Tracking Transience, continuously updates its followers on the artist’s daily life and current location. In contrast to earlier examples of obfuscation, at first glance, Elahi’s project does not intend to confuse the addressee by projecting a falsified identity, but rather, quite the opposite. Elahi goes as far as modern tracking technology allows to achieve a state of complete openness. By deliberately opening up every mundane and boring aspect of his life, sending it directly to FBI officers, and by doing so, relieving them from doing the same, he subversively questions the very logic of extensive data collection and surveillance. As he mentions in one of his lectures referring to basic economical terms, his project can be seen as an unexpected intensification of supply over demand, which as a result drastically deregulates the value of what’s demanded. In other words, if you search for something, and I not only give it to you, but also to a million other people, the (market and symbolic) value of the given drops down to almost nothing.
Although expecting the sensational, the viewers of Elahi’s work are confronted with the most boring and prosaic. Paradoxically, this almost complete, compulsively constructed display of Elahi’s life events somehow does not seem to be truly accounting for it. It does not let us in, but rather, quite the opposite—it constitutes an unbreakable wall. Or put differently, it does invite us in while simultaneously forcing us to stay away. At the same time, it exposes and obscures, disambiguates and ambiguates.
As Simone de Beauvoir (2000) argued, ambiguity is a default condition of a human life. It is a continuous oscillation between one’s awareness of being free and constraints established by other people’s way of framing the freedom of the Other. The ambiguous character of Elahi’s work can be seen precisely in such a suspension. The exercise of an/the individual’s freedom can be seen in the act of voluntarily performing the total openness of the author’s life. Yet, the way that this act is executed, its techno-political context, might as well account for the other pole of one’s ambiguity, namely, the constraining gaze of the Other.
On moving forward
As this text addresses the notion of openness, drawing conclusions would be somewhat inappropriate; thus, a few open thoughts and questions instead. In this short text, I intended to draw attention to the fact that today’s major technological means of interacting with the world—the web and numerous services, protocols, codes, platforms, and algorithms that the web is constituted of—are increasingly conceptualised and practically programmed to treat their users as sources of open data. Yet, becoming the sources of open data, which is an increasingly unavoidable price for engaging with digital technologies, does not seem to be an upsetting or painful experience. Quite the opposite; if it is not pleasurable, it is definitely presented to us as such. In fact, a study conducted at the department of psychology at Harvard University proves that self-disclosure stimulates the same areas of the brain that are also activated by known pleasurable activities such as eating and sex. Thus, as the said eating or sex calls for being satisfied, so does the need to self-disclose. This is the point where cognitive capitalism finds its realm of operation; however, this is a subject located beyond the scope of this text.
Given that the need for personal openness, or self-disclosure as described above, is becoming an uncontested and somewhat successively naturalised phenomenon, a consequence is that the condition of becoming an open source for various industries (to use a technical term) increasingly constitutes a default setting for many digitally mediated behaviours. If there may not be a way back from such a condition, perhaps what needs to be emphasised is not the criticism of the very idea of personal openness in the context of digital media, but rather the question of according to whose terms this openness is to be determined and subsequently performed.
Can we, as individuals, gain more agency in terms of defining how open our personal records are and according to whose rules and conducts this openness is to be constructed and then mediated?
In one of the last interviews before his death given to War for the Web, Internet activist and programmer Aaron Swartz speaks of a polarised image of which the Internet is commonly being discussed. While some see it as liberating and democratic, others tend to perceive it as a spying and constraining tool. As Swartz argues, the Internet is, and always will be, both—and, because it has these two sides, we cannot easily pinpoint and define its nature. As perhaps the most complex human invention, the Internet only reflects the ambiguity of human nature.
As I tried to exemplify by turning to the artistic project by Elahi, deliberate stubbornness, ambiguity, and perhaps irony, may constitute a resonant response, allowing us to be simultaneously synchronous and asynchronous, tuned and out of tune, open and closed, in relation to numerous forces constituting the complexities of the web (as opposed to either on or off, with or against, present or absent). Although Elahi’s project is quite a literal response to the techno-political condition of our times (in other words, it constitutes a balancing point in the axis where the other point is the spying eye of the authorities), there are other artists whose practices, characterised by the qualities drafted above, but unhinged from such a relation (in other words, not directly addressing the problem of the infiltration of one’s personal life), might also be inspirational for conceptualising methods to take back control over how open our lives should be in the age of total traceability.
Here, I have in mind the practice of Roman Opalka, a representative of a group of artists who emerged from the minimalist, conceptual art scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and who worked with the idea of a personal structure as a basis for artistic practice. In such practices, life becomes an artistic medium subjected to meticulously conceptualised and implemented rules and conduct. From 1967 to the end of his life, Opalka was committed to highly artistic and punctiliously crafted methods of opening his life onto the public view and with highly idiosyncratic methods of coding it (such as painting numbers from 0 to infinity or audio recording his voice during this daily process).
Other practitioners working in a similar manner include On-Kawara, the Japanese conceptual artist who consistently kept painting dates on which the very painting was executed, and Alberto Frigo, one of the pioneers of manual life-logging who, for the past ten years, has been documenting his life through photographing every object his right hand uses. Also, Janina Turek, a Polish diarist who for more than sixty years encrypted her life in accordance with a highly personal set of rules, and Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian-American video artist, who over time built his personal and not easily accessible visual dialect through painstakingly video-documenting his daily surroundings.
A deeper look at the idea of personal structure, which all of the aforementioned artists have been exercising, might provide a productive and constructive perspective on (personal) openness in the context of digital technology, data aggregating, and life-logging services. A perspective that, while pointing to the significance of poetics and aesthetics, not only inspires methods for resisting the very data surveillance mechanisms other than those intervening into the digital code, but also, in a more general sense, lets us rethink the idea of openness in relation to one’s personal life and the forms of its mediation.
About the author
Jacek Smolicki is an artist, designer and doctoral researcher within the Living Archives Research Project interested in aesthetics, poetics and politics of personal archiving practices that utilise, subvert or appropriate diverse recording, tracking and archiving technologies. Since 2008 he has been documenting his presence and mapping the space according to personally conceptualised and consistently performed conducts and rules. The project is showcased on www.on-going.net.
The illustrations used in this article come from ‘Misquoting’, one of Smolicki’s practices constituting the life-long, On-Going Projects’ framework. Started in 2012, ‘Misquoting’ is a collage-like, visual record of fragments of news, advertisements and charts extracted from freely distributed newspapers picked up every week.
Prior to further copying, using or appropriating the images, contact the author on jacek(at)smolicki.com
Bell, G. Gemmell, J. (2009). Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything. Penguin Group.
De Beauvoir, S. (2000). The Ethics of Ambiguity. Citadel.
Eggers, D. (2013). The Circle. McSweeney’s.