VALLEY OF THE MEATPUPPETS
The Valley of the Meatpuppets is a new habitat, where we are forming complex relationships with nebulous surveillance sytems, machine intelligences’ and architectures of control, confronting questions about our freedom and capacity to act under invisible constraints.
With ever growing technological proliferation an increase in state and non-state monitoring and information warfare, a visceral sense of ambiguity, uncertainty and unconnectedness is becoming even more pronounced.
If we are to understand and equip ourselves better to decipher and decode the intricate nature of these complex relationships and mediated social fictions, we will need to find new conceptual tools and vocabularies. What are these tools? How can we apply them at scale?
This talk was delivered by Anab Jain as a keynote address at FutureEverything Conference 2014, and then an updated version at dConstruct Conference.
This is a mobile phone my 7 yr old nephew made. It has a projector, a biometric finger print system and a secret eye with a control system that sends him real time information whilst he’s in school.
Whilst he doesnt own an actual spycam, they are easy to buy, And ofcourse spycraft is very a old familiar genre of toys. A while back Barbie came out with Barbie Video Girl Doll, part of the class of toys that act to familiarise children with the realities of life through play. (also, whatever you do, please dont do a search for a “barbie webcam”.)
But nothing quite beats this playmobil security check point set. there is fun to be had in the police state One of the reviewers on Amazon says: “This toy is of little or no use as an educational tool: 1) everyone is smiling. 2) no way to do cavity searches.” Another says “Get it now as soon it will no longer be available. SA has requested that this product be removed from the market. It was deemed a security risk as it is virtually identical to the actual training material used to train TSA agents.” We learn early enough today, that watching and being watching is an integral part of our lives. Whilst the integration of spycraft into play goes back atleast as far as bond and dick tracy, nothing quite beats today’s real time assimilation of current events.
Like one min you see Edward Snowden on the 24 hour news cycle, and the next minute, your child might be playing with Snowden and aAssange action figures, as they attempt to make their escape through the playmobil airport security check point.
Earlier this year, you could purchse the Snowden action figure for $99 at thatsmyface.com, which until recenly offered a 10% discount using the promo code NSA. Whilst they claim that some of the proceeds do go to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, turns out the organisation has never endorsed this company. But the company no longer sells these figures, and no explanation has been given.
But don’t be too disappointed. My friend Dan Williams, made a Snowden calendar, that you might be able to grab a copy of.
3D action figures and a beam teleconference robot, just couple of examples to show how Snowden is gaining a place alongside James Bond as one of the most prolific, and obvious cultural entities around the notion of surveillance. Whilst the world that Snowden has brought from conspiracy theories into mainstream culture is vast and pervasive, the nebulous problems that he has exposed seem too difficult to grasp. We dont know even how to begin to understand it, let alone engage with it in some meaningful way. John Lancaster put it rather well – “there is an extraordinary disconnect between the scale and seriousness of what Snowden has revealed, and the scale and seriousness of the response”. The recently passed Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) is a great example of that.
But lets leave Snowden for a while and looked around us, to see how new forms of monitoring, big data and algorithmic intelligence, are penetrating more deeply in our lives. Today I would like to explore, through some familiar examples, our complex relationships with various architectures of control, from the domestic comfort of our homes, to the promises of our political leaders to wars. Our world where humans, thingbots, agents, actors and puppets cohabit. Where our perceptions are continually being designed. In the Valley of the Meatpuppets.
A meat puppet is used to refer a person who is invited to an internet discussion solely to influence it. A lot of what I am going to talk about is how various tools of influence are used to design and alter our various realities and perceptions, so that word fits quite well. But I would like to use this word to think about ways in which we are all being co-opted to becoming meatpuppets in our everyday life, as we farm data like livestock on facebook or walk around wearing awkward gadgets. We sit alongside thingbots, actors, agents and advertising zombies, helping create and propogate memes, spreading and reinforcing the reality bubble. Ursula Le Guin used this term for the first time – before the internet – in “The Diary of the Rose,” to refer to humans as unthinking bodies, which is a bit of stretch but does fit well. I am here to explore this space today, because I believe this would be useful in helping us think about how we as humans constantly negotiate our own agency whilst living within highly mediated networks.
Lets start with one of our most recent, and popular news story: Facebook’s psychology experiment, where the feeds of 700,000 people were manipulated. From Facebook’s perspective it was legitimate, all they wanted to find out was if exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours. As one of their pscyhologist remarked, its not even that alarming or exciting. However, hundreds of people got upset, and so Sheryl Sandberg apologised.
But then Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OKCupid said “Well yes Facebook did it, but so do we. Everyone does it, because lets be honest, most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out.” (Here are some hastily added OKcupid profiles I found on google image search. The guy on the top right corner used to be on it around 2008, with his stated desire to meet “women from countries that have sustained political turmoil”. Western women, he wrote, are “valueless and inane”, something he might now regret.
Writer and scholar McKenzie Wark has an interesting thing to say about this. “People are really disturbed about the privacy side, but we realise slowly is that what we are probably really disturbed about is the opposite: the indifference. to them the data is of interest in aggregate, or the users are of interest in aggregate. Nobody really cares about your weird sex thing on the internet, other than as a way to sell you products related to your weird sex thing.”
It seems that it is inherently challenging for people to be critical of the decisions that machines make. And this is just beginning to get interesting, as we being to infiltrate our physical world with algorithms, making our material homes, “smart, intelligent”.
So this tiny black gadget is called Piper is a home security system. You place it in your front room or bedroom and you can then watch your home from work, whilst traveling or when you are in the garden or bathroom. watching your kids in their bedrooms. A tiny instantiation of crowdsourcing surveillance. As a journalist in new york times put it, instead of the entire space being private, there are going to be public areas in our home.
Piper is part of the growing generation of internet of things products. Like the internet-connected fridge which reminds you when you run out of milk (apologies to my iot friends for using this example) But recently a fridge apparently sent spam, in bursts of 100,000, three times per day, targeting enterprises and individuals worldwide. David Knight of Proofpoint the security agency investigating this incident said – and probably coined the term “thingbot” in the process.
But David Cameron still believes in them. Little does he or anyone of us know the implications of our emerging relationships with such thingbots. As billions of sensors begin to find there way into everyday objects, what are the new civic codes that will be created? Perhaps the spammy fridge is starting to hint at the reality of IoT beyond the current hype.
As we embed the world with sensors, we also find new ways of interacting with them. Sometimes we co-opt into exciting opportunities to become explorers, or meatpuppets, the wearers of Google glass, always looking slightly above the horizon, holding a finger to a pair of glasses, saying ‘OK’ way too often.
The awkward relationships with such devices are made easier as Google designs the polite rules of engagement, of what you should and shouldnt do with your glass. So far makers of technologies gave us instruction manuals, but now they are beginning to define our behavioural engagement with it in the public domain, which I think is a subtle but profound shift.
This code of conduct got attention because of this particular incident.
This is fascinating, and brings me to the famous Daniel Mendelsohn quote.
So far so good, toys, fridges and gadgets. Well, its all fun and games until your neighbour’s car narks on you. A Texas based company Digital Recognition Network runs its own version of taskrabbits. Basically it sells cameras to repossession companies who pay money to private car owners to instal this camera on their cars. The camera picks up 8000 license plates daily, storing time and location of each car. Their bot compares this to the list of cars that need to be repossesed and sends information to insurance companies, financial institutions, law enforcement agencies private investigators. Crowdsourcing, the very antithesis of control and surveillance is now the tool being used by private companies for that very purpose.
And ofcourse the CEO of DRN responds (quote on slide above). Whilst his words show a clear disconnect between raw technological ability and the intent behind that, in a way it also shows the tension that exists here, our desire to share but lack of understanding of where the data is going and what is being done with it.
This sort of crowdsourced surveillance takes on an even more sinister tone, when people in a protest are asked abandon their cause and turn on their allies for a cash incentive. Businesses or police can hire Tiltor to send a message to all the smartphones in a designated area, offering a reward to anyone who attempts to disperse the crowd from within. If the riot ends soon after, everyone who signed up to Tiltor (their website’s copy has completely changed in the last couple of months) gets a share of the total reward money. whilst the founder recommends that tiltor should only be used for riots that have arisen for non-ideological reasons such as after sporting losses or during large concerts, their blog is full of Chinese protests.
If you doubt that tools like this will be used, then look no further then the recent events in Ukraine, when thousands of Ukrainian protesters spontaneously received this text message on their cell phones “you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance”, as a new law prohibiting public demonstrations went into effect. Using a cell phone near a clash lands you on the regime’s hit list, showing how technology is already being deployed to “detect dissent”.
So this isnt a story about a govt trying to stop a riot, arguably the govt was responsible for perpetuating the riots. These images are from my home in India, taken during the communal riots of 2002, which critics have likened it to a Genocide. India’s National Human Rights Commission found evidence in the killings of premeditation by members of Hindu extremist groups; complicity by Gujarat state government officials; and police inaction in the midst of attacks on Muslims. The NHRC also noted “widespread reports and allegations of well-organized persons, armed with mobile telephones and addresses, singling out certain homes and properties for death and destruction in certain districts-sometimes within view of police stations and personnel.”
What is interesting is that the man who was accused for having a lead role in this, Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi and now India’s PM was given a clean chit, and has had a huge image makeover to this to the one who is bringing large scale growth in the economy and infrastructure, with projects like the GIFT CITY or the Gujarat International finance Tech-city.
The organisation who is supposed to be responsible for Modi’s image makeover is APCO Worldwide, the second largest lobbying firm in America. The firm specialises in helping corporations advance their goals by manipulating legislators, and drafting and advancing model legislation and regulations. Key tools include the creation of business coalitions and fake, corporate-funded ‘grassroots’ groups tailored to specific issues, a practice known as astroturfing.
Apco is not the only organisation who can design influence at such a scale, the other key players include donor-advised funds, such as Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund. One of their secretive funding route helped Conservative billionaires channel nearly £77million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change between 2002 and 2010. It helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives.
This is top secret memo from one of such thinktank – The Heartland Institute – who are developing the global warming curriculum for K-12 classrooms. They would like Dr. Wojick who works with the government to show the teachers how the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain, the two points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching climate science.
This slide might appear to be right out of a typical corporate deck.
But then as you progress the nature of the business at hand starts becoming ever more sinister.
These are slides from JTRIG, the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, a unit of GCHQ, who created this top secret document for the Five Eyes intelligence partnership that includes Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Their ultimate aim is to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse using the “4 D’s:” deny, disrupt, degrade, deceive.
This has echoes of OPERATION EARNEST VOICE, an online persona management system used by US central command. Basically it could secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda. The project was delivered by Ntrepid, an American software, hardware and cyber security company.
Psychologist Sarah King’s US military’s work has references to the kind of thinking JTRIG do, the “information-operations” thinking, which is defined as attempts to “influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making”. And today, we can see, how in subtle ways, it is stretching into the civilian world.
Whilst we attribute many of our technological developments to the military, the line between corporate, political and military tactics has never been more tortuous and intertwined in the pursuit for power and influence. Exemplified by the example of DARPA-funded big dog robots acquired by Google. Who is now called “Cujo” (dog-from-hell) and he’s just back from a test patrol with the US Marines, It walked for miles in across a difficult terrain carrying up to 400lbs of their kit and weapons.
These stories embedded in plastic toys, our smart homes, our cars, our devices, our personal relationships and our security are in fact meticulous social fictions woven through the fabric of our everyday lives with stealth and precision. The connecting thread that runs through them is the scale and diversity of ways in we are actually experiencing an increasing ambiguity about where autonomy lies in the ever growing intricate relationships between people (citizens), technologies (of machine intelligence) and architectures of control (state and non-state actors including JTRIG, 4GS, Serco and many more).
Together, these entities become the key constituents of the valley of the meatpuppets. A new ethereal habitat where people, agents, thingbots, action heroes, dolls, big dogs and –– many more ––cohabit.
And I am reminded of what Joseph Weizenbaum’s said: The only way you were going to get a world of thinking machines was not by making computers become like humans. Instead you would have to do the opposite – somehow persuade humans to simplify themselves, and become more like machines.”
And that’s becoming possible as we realise that one dominant class is emerging – the class which owns and controls the mode of information, becoming the most powerful one. The Vectoral class as named by Mckenzie Wark, because they control the vectors along which information is abstracted. OK, so we can play with our data, but they control the metadata. And in the process – Terraforming our landscapes to create large faceless data centres.
This new habitat brings big questions about our sense of freedom and our capacity to act under constraints. With an increase in monitoring, surveillance, AI and big data, this ambiguity, this sense of uncertainty and unconnectedness will become more pronounced. Invisible wars over autonomy will become a recurring leitmotif of the 21st century. And if we are to understand and equip ourselves better to decipher and decode the intricate nature of these mediated social fictions, we will need to find new conceptual tools and vocabularies.
The most important toolkit we need today is one that can help create a visceral connection with the complexity and plurality of the worlds we live in, in order to create the momentum that is needed to reclaim our right to re-imagine and reshape the worlds we live in.
Tools that help us see beyond the singular, linear past/present/future trajectory, that is presented to us.
To a more multidimensional world with plurality of histories, presents and futures will help reveal the manufactured promises, and give us the capacity to choose, navigate and manoeuvre our journeys. In this lies the idea of taking the long view, looking at long stretches of the past, to see these evolving new ways of being from an imaginary vantage point in a future.
Of course the question is – Why am I interested in this as a designer? A lot of design traditionally services, facilitates and lives within these conditions and is very much entrenched within this world. It is either sleek, seamlessly receding into the fabric of a singular vision, or in the service of those companies or organisations that seek to define that vision. Whilst as a design studio we also practice in this world, we think it is important to continually challenge and question one’s position. I am reminded of a great quote by Lebbeus Woods, and would like to paraphrase it for design.
And so part of our work also falls into what you might call speculative design or design fiction where we create stories, films products and experiences to explore the future implications of emerging technologies on people, society and the environment. Such work seeks to create new perspectives and consider alternate presents by embracing complexity and challenging established narratives. I’d like to share some quick examples to illustrate this.
In April 2013, UK’s Caldicott Committee proposed new rules for data-sharing which would allow the Government to build a DNA database of the whole population of England in the National Health Service by stealth, which many have likened to the idea of Genetic Panopticon. At Superflux we are exploring the implications of big data in the context of genetics, healthcare and personal genomics, through the lens of an ordinary citizen.
The project titled ‘Dynamic Genetics vs Mann’ is a superfiction, where we use techniques of mirroring real world organisations to reveal some of the intricate relationships and tensions between people politics, economics and technology. The project is presented though a detailed body of evidence from a near future courtcase.
The case centers around a protagonist Arnold who received this DNA sample kit from the NHI – the UK government’s National Health Insurance program, previously known as the NHS. It is mandatory to give a saliva sample to this program.
The NHI’s cost benefit algorithm calculates every individual’s insurance contribution to reflect the potential healthcare costs associated with their genome. If your genetic makeup revealed higher risks of heart diseases, you will pay a higher insurance premium.
This is evidence from the Revenue and Customs that collect the insurance contributions. Arnold who was previously paying £144 annually now has to pay £6127.20. For Arnold this pushes his already stretched budget over the edge.
Trapped between inflated premiums and the costs of private genetic therapy, Mann approaches a black market clinic that offers to use bootlegged gene therapies to modify his DNA, in order to lower his insurance premium. This is a covert surveillance photograph of Arnold getting treated in this clinic.
The illegality of his actions are quickly discovered, and evidence is gathered by the therapy’s licence holder, the biotech multinational Dynamic Genetics, who bring a case against Mann.
Their team presents further evidence in the form of forensic photographs documenting the layout of the black market clinic. On the right you see an Improvised CO2 Incubator used in the manufacture of illegal genetic therapies.
A batch of counterfeit therapies found in the clinic, and boxes containing mice which appear to have been used as test subjects.
Sections of defendant’s machine-readable DNA with matches to Dynamic Genetics copyright material highlighted in yellow. Looking at these strips, with tiny, indecipherable A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s, we don’t know what diseases he was at risk for, how much of a burden he would one day be on the insurance pool, or even if the pirated gene therapy has actually changed his odds of developing the disease. As Christina Agapakis wrote, “with increased health we must give up some of our expectations about genetic privacy”.
And finally, footage documenting Arnold’s interrogation. The lens of the court case helped construct a powerful narrative to expose the story of a vulnerable citizen who goes to extreme measures to mitigate the impact of healthcare premiums. Pieced together, these evidential fragments question the ethical, political and economic implications of innovations in biotechnology that are quietly transforming our world. Technologies dont exist in isolation, they interact with a rich and complex world and are subject to forces beyond their makers control. As designers we believe it is important to think about wider complexities in order to challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.
In a project called IoTA, we are bringing smart cities to people. Creating a grassroots platform that will encourage people to move beyond data spectatorship to engage in meaningful ways with the proliferation of sensor technology and data.
The platform encourages communities in gaining empirical understanding about the issues that matter most to them, from exposure to radiation or air pollution. It will not only show how data is made, how it is collected, how it can be read, where it lives, and but most importantly, what it can do collectively, how it can actually become an important tool for informing behavioural legislative change.
We are building demonstrators for the project, the first one was around aircraft noise pollution, and the second one BuggyAir, working with a group of 40-50 parents and carers to understand the impact of Nitrogren dioxide, and Particulate Matter on infants and toddlers. Our intention is that this data does not simply report the state of the world, but acts as political surrogates for a community advocating for its interests.
Another project I’d like to talk about it called The Open Informant. The NSA, GCHQ and other government security services secretly collect and scan our personal information and correspondence for trigger words; from the overtly malevolent: ‘anthrax’, ‘assassination’ and ‘bomb’ to the seemingly benign: ‘pork’, ‘dock’ and ‘storm’.revelations have not just exposed excrutiating details of this activity, but also confirmed extreme disconnect between people and state power.
Such techniques are often justified with an emotive narrative of safety, William Hague, in response to the Snowden revelations: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. Statements like these act to control the narrative around surveillance and close down public debate on the complexities of the issue.
Our response, Open Informant wants to confront this normalising narrative. It is an a phone app and e-ink badge that searches your communications for these NSA trigger words and then sends text fragments containing these words to the badge for public display.
By openly displaying what is currently taken by forceful stealth, we question the intrusive forms of mass surveillance. And in the process, it is our intention to shift the conversation around wearables from being about you and your body as machine, to the culture of machine intelligence and algorithmic monitoring.
Whilst these projects and others like them, work well for a certain audience, in their current incarnation they may not have the power to influence mass culture in the way advertising, pr and the film industries do. I wonder if we might be able to borrow some of the powerful techniques that these industries use to meet the core philosophical objectives of our work.
To help us progress beyond contracted, predefined archetypes of play and explore the ambiguous, nuanced multiplicity of our time. Moving from a state of ideological consumption to autonomous world building.
And break the manufactured state of compliance to encourage creative engagement in the way we interact with and respond to architectures of control.
And finally, to puncture the seductive layers of deception spread by special interest media campaigns, politics and PR strategies, through direct and critical intervention.