The National Security Agency can read your email. Verizon knows where you are at all times. Amazon is confident you’re in the market for a new printer. We know these things about the weird world we live in, but few of us ever stop to think about what they really mean. Recently, a group of artists got together in New York City to change that.
Apple doesn’t have a retail store on Mulberry Street in New York City, but at a glance, you might think it does. The Glass Room exhibit borrows heavily from the Apple Store design aesthetic: white walls, white ceiling, white podium, and even helpful “inGenious” staffers in matching white hoodies (see the photo below). But nothing is for sale in The Glass Room. It’s a collection of art pieces designed to make you think of how you’re selling yourself, maybe without even knowing it.
The exhibit is curated by Tactical Technology Collective along with The Mozilla Foundation, maker of the Firefox browser. The subjects addressed in The Glass Room are digital: online privacy, location tracking, psychographic profiling, the gamification of security, and so on. But the pieces themselves are grounded in the real world; you can see them, touch them, and in one case, smell them. Here are a few that stood out to me.
Forgot Your Password? (Aram Bartholl): We’re so used to massive password hacks that we barely even notice them. In fact, Yahoo recently disclosed that it had compromised at least 1 billion more of its users’ passwords. Back in 2012, LinkedIn held the record for the biggest password hack—a paltry 4.6 million. For this exhibit, Bartholl printed all 4.6 million of those passwords alphabetically and bound them into volumes. (I looked for mine; it wasn’t in there.)
Random Darknet Shopper (!Medien-gruppe Bitnik): This artist collective created an online shopping bot and gave it a budget of $100 in bitcoins. They set it loose on the dark Web to make random purchases and have them mailed to the exhibition space. No drugs or pornography arrived; just random stuff. A copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a Hungarian passport photo, and—featured in the Glass Room—a pair of fake Kanye West Nike Air Yeezy 2 sneakers.
Online Shopping Center (Sam Levigne): Amazon does a great job of identifying what you want to buy and getting it to your quickly. As a logical (perhaps inevitable) next step, in 2014, the company was granted a patent for “predictive shopping.” Levigne’s art takes the concept even further. As a Glass Room “shopper,” you strap on a brainwave monitor and allow an algorithm to determine what your brain looks like when you’re shopping. When Levigne first conducted this experiment, he had his bot shop for him on Amazon and Alibaba whenever his brain was in the “shopping state.” I tried it, but so far, Amazon hasn’t sent me anything.
Not all the exhibits at The Glass Room are art. Some are demos of real-world products and services. The Texas Virtual BorderWatch, for example, was a real-time camera system (live from 2008 to 2012) that let volunteers monitor the United States–Mexico border from their homes and alert authorities of infractions. Another, the Silver Mother ($299), is a monitoring solution for seniors that gives medication reminders, tracks sleep, and gives front-door alerts. And then there’s Churchix, a facial-recognition system that enables churches to track attendance automatically—a whole new meaning for “witnessing.”
Finally, at the back of the room was a “data detox” center. For those who were moved by the exhibit and wanted to make a change in their digital lifestyle, experts at the counter explained their options. We’ve reviewed a lot of the tools used to manage your privacy, including Signal, Ghostery, Tor, and more.
If The Glass Room made anything clear, it is that technology is the dominant force for change in the world right now. It is affecting our jobs, our home lives, our relationships, our environment, and even our bodies. I’m a big believer in technological progress, but not all of these changes are for the better. PC Magazine is committed to getting you the tools, techniques, and information you need to thrive in this new world.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go clear my browsing history.
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