It is my firm belief that my role as an artist is to imagine the unthinkable – to perceive beyond the horizon of the probable and to stretch one’s imagination beyond the limits of the normative everyday. By opening up such vistas it becomes possible to anticipate impacts and consequences of actions and decisions – acquiring uncommon insights into potential futures we may come to inhabit.
Daemons of the Shadow World is a proposal for an artwork that recasts privacy and the role of individual or personal data; that rethinks how data subjects are commodified; that explores what it could be like to unbalance how power is expressed and exercised through data analysis and use.
Almost every aspect of modern life is now measured, sensed, datafied, transmitted, analysed and transacted. Those transactions bloom like flower banks to encompass not just each individual’s data profile and traces, but everything and everyone they are connected to. This quantification and measurement of each interaction – the inferences that are drawn, the biases that result and the effects which ensue – is propelling us towards an ever more normative society. A social and cultural entropy. Each individual is becoming ever more tightly defined, less fluid. We are being reduced to a singular concept of identity, one that assumes repetition is truth, and that predictability is a desirable quality.
But, of course, the history of humanity is also that of diversity, divergence and struggle: especially by those upon whom power is exercised by those who wield it. There are many ways of enforcing conformity through such means as religions and ideologies, conventions and traditions. These have the habit of making people behave in a predictable and controllable manner – consumerism and the digital society is merely another manifestation of this. The inducements offered in our consumer society to accept socially normative concepts of identity are like a feedback mechanism that reinforces itself and entrenches asymmetries of power. In the same way, it discriminates against those for whom fluidity of identity is a necessity – people who are often the most vulnerable in society : anyone who diverges from the norm, whether by virtue of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or status – such as refugees.
Data profiling clearly is having normative effects, reinforcing and entrenching privileges for those who are already best served by society and status quo. What about those for whom no singular identity is possible or desirable? Those whose identities are fluid, in construction or even deconstruction. These are the people most at risk of being excluded, segregated and even criminalised. The subtleties, quirks and nuances that allow us to defy definition are all too easily captured, measured and sorted into data points to be exploited.
Any transparency in data traffic goes only one way – those of us who share our data with the big systems are not privy to how those acquiring it use that data to commodify our behaviours ever further, ever deeper – to trade them with whom they choose, and to extract whatever benefits they desire. We are only just beginning to become aware of how egregious such uses have been – from the manipulation of voting intentions in elections via social media, to ‘nudge’ systems adopted by governments and public agencies, to total digital surveillance by the Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies. Different cultures have markedly different attitudes to ‘privacy’ – as evinced by China’s state-sponsored social credit system (itself perhaps less different from Western commercial data capture, monetisations and behavioural nudges than we might suppose).
Privacy, as commonly defined in Western industrial societies, is itself a relatively modern concept – most likely emerging in Europe in the context of the reformation and counter-reformation period. Its roots are bound together with the rise of mercantilism and the equally modern concept of the individual. It found early articulation in the shifts in domestic architecture from the 1500s on – the creation of private spaces (such as rooms) in shared households, especially where there was a need to worship in secret as religious conformity began to fracture between Protestantism and Catholicism. It also found articulation in the commonplace books where a newly literate populace began to record their internal, private thoughts, interests and reflections. This individual subjectivity reaches a critical mass in Descartes’ formulation of the self as a discrete entity separate from all else.
It should, however, be no surprise that now, in an age of near total surveillance, privacy is on the verge of a complete reconfiguration. It is, coincidentally, happening alongside the realisation that western industrial capitalism is also facing its own zero-sum game in which not just humanity, but all life teeters on an edge. Unbridled consumption of finite resources, leading to rampant ecocide and mass extinction, presents a distinct trajectory that humans, our cultures, societies and civilisations, cannot sidestep.
To safeguard individuals and their personal data, privacy has for sometime been proposed as a human right that should be inalienable. But what if an alternative, perhaps even complementary, strategy could be to turn the tools of data analysis against those who seek to define us and measure us as singular commodities by synthesising a plurality, a multiplicity of identities – camouflage of a kind? What if privacy is re-thought as a condition not a commodity – a dynamic sequence of states that we flow through rather than a static position to cling on? How do, and have, other cultures navigated the duality of individuals within communities and shared spaces? What might we learn from cultures which do not privilege the sense of individuality as ours does?
MyLoki – a daemon for digital dazzle
This project is a thought experiment exploring how it might be possible to devise ‘autonomous agents’ (daemons) that synthesise and propagate additional data – using neural networks and employing techniques such as ‘generative adversarial networks’ – to mask our data traces and transactions across systems. In effect creating a ‘data dissensus’ in the accuracy of our individual ‘shadow profiles’, undermining their statistical value through massive duplication and generation of duplicitous activities that resemble our actions but, in effect, create multiplicities of possible identities. Overwhelm the algorithms of oppression with too many statistically similar variables that confound their ability to ‘predict’ and shape our behaviours.
Instead of referring to “Artificial Intelligence” and anthropomorphising it with qualities it is far from having, let’s call such software a “Model for Partial Statistical Probability”. How could we devise and use such programs to act as software agents – daemons – for each of us, to dazzle the data harvesters with a blizzard of statistically probable profiles, endlessly generated to camouflage the data traces of our actions and behaviours in the digital world? Whereby each would become a portal to an infinite number of selves, all bifurcating in myriad ways – perhaps by just a hair’s breadth – each one polluting the value of our data trail by injecting just enough uncertainty to render the value of the data as junk. A Trickster, like the Norse god Loki, working on our behalves to frustrate the will of the corporates, political parties, special interest groups and governments that seek to use personal data to commodify us and profit by our, often unwitting, collusion.
What could the features of such agents be? What limitations might need to be placed on their use? How might we need to re-think our entire digital economy – not to see data as a commodity, but as condition?
I invoke Loki and the figure of the Trickster, precisely because they are ambiguous – causing mayhem but bringing luck and fortune. Sometimes misfortune. Uncertain. Are they not the type of gods we might want to align ourselves with against the patrician, all seeing, all knowing Olympian Algorithmic gods of our datafied society? Or perhaps like a kind of Orphic mystery wherein the exuberance of multiple data selves being propagated into the shadow digital world allows us a moment of escape from being subjectified and commodified ad nauseam?
A Conceptual Projection
Since it is unlikely to built (from a technical standpoint) and could possibly present unknown dangers if released (from an ethical perspective) – this thought experiment requires some kind of conceptual prototype. It might take the form of a set of ‘blueprints’ for the conditions under which a MyLoki daemon might be activated and operate; or a diagram of the actions and possible consequences for what could happen when individual’s data become pluralities; not just duplicitous but multiplicitous.
And this is the next part – with such a set of blueprints, I would need to devise a forum or space in which I can invite a group of people with knowledges and skills from a range of disciplines and sectors to come together and explore the ramifications of such an idea. What theoretical frameworks could emerge from such an unreasonable, improbable and irrational possibility?
By proposing something, that is as lateral and excessive a conceit for resolving the conundrum of privacy and personal data as the Judgement of Solomon was for determining the maternity of a disputed child, I hope to explore things which might indeed be truly unthinkable in our current situation. If we can think beyond the bounds of reason and the horizon of the probable, what uncommon insights mights emerge that we cannot fathom now?
London, October 2019
(Originally developed with the support of the Open Data Institute‘s Data as Culture Copy That theme, December 2018)