Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Envisioning Surveillance, Identity and Privacy

Last Thursday the Cranfield part of the VOME project (www.vome.org.uk) recruited some friends to spend an afternoon with design artist David Benque thinking about the interactions between technology and humans from a narrative perspective. The idea behind this was to give David our perspectives on the stories we might tell about technology, particularly technologies of privacy, online identity and personal information. David took us through a series of exercises designed to pull these ideas out of us a way quite different to the traditional academic format.

Our warm-up exercise involved using Scott McCloud’s Story machine to develop a narrative from a series of random moves across a grid of relatively abstract pictures. It was pretty fun, collaborative storytelling, although like a lot of things it is really strongly driven by group dynamics or the first person to spout an idea. Hence one story turned out to be a Cornish-set retelling of At The Mountains of Madness by H.P Lovecraft, and a couple more about Von-Daniken inspired alien corn mazes. From the other side of the room came a delightfully taut social-drama piece about the interruption of a park BBQ by the daughter of a newspaper magnate.

Now in a narrative mood, the next exercise was to imagine how stories are told about privacy and identity in tabloid newspapers. Having done a bit of this for the representation of surveillance in UK newspapers paper I felt quite at home with this and the rhythm of the stories. We pulled images out of context from actual tabloids and wrote new headlines for them.

One article told of a minor celebrity who had signed up for a facial recognition access to nearly all areas of his life (including accessing his computer, bank account and picking his children up from school). The picture we used was actually from a hair-transplant surgery ad in the back of the paper. Our story was that the designers of the facial recognition technology had planned for men losing their hair (that fitting within their world-view of things-that-happen) but hadn’t accounted for people suddenly going from baldness to a full head of hair, thus cutting the character off from access to large areas of his life. This article was, in full tabloid style, full of hair-cutting puns.

Another story drew upon tabloid Europhobia to tell a story of the unexpected implications of an imaginary EU ruling that gave online identities protection and legal separation from their ‘hosts’. In an attempt to counter the effects of identity theft, data corruption, surveillance etc, we imagined a law that separated the person from their online data double – in effect a ‘limited liability’ for decisions others make on the basis of your ‘identity’. However, our spin for this article was the mistaken assumption that this might result in online avatars being granted personhood, with the spectre of both Osama bin Laden and Princess Dianna living on online. Part of the purpose with these stories was to step away from the technologically and legally accurate and thing about the confused and complex stories that emerge about these things.

The next exercise was to pick a information technology policy issue and do some forecasting at 5, 10 and 50 year intervals. Alongside Brian Collins and Kieron O’Hara we tackled the issue of tax in an information society, with complex portfolio working, extended lifespans, complicated pensions and the capacity for ‘real-time’ taxation on the back of debit/credit cards and online banking. Apparently, accountants are on their way out, to be replaced by expert systems, remaining only as a symbol of conspicuous consumption for the ultra-rich. On the other side, a real-time variable and enforceable tax regime could be a nightmare for planning anything, and a powerful tool of disciplinary government. The other group looked at identification, which culminated in a kind of ‘butlerian jihad’ moment in 50 years time, where non-persons were excluded from transactions of any sort in the wake of a digital financial actors going nuts. There were predictions of chipping for always accessible ID. Some of this was obviously futurism and sci-fi, but the purpose was not to predict the technology (there wasn’t anything obviously reality-breaking or game changing, and we stopped short of the technological singularity) but rather to think through some of the social implications of existing technologies given wide reign.

An interesting afternoon, and it’ll be interesting to see what David and his collaborators come up with in the end. I was reminded of some of the smarter indie games such as Shock: Social Science Fiction that also engage with this sort of activity. There are also some useful classroom activities that can be pulled out of this.