I gave a talk at ORGCON19 about my new project on the information environment in the Web2.0 era.
On Saturday 13th July Open Rights Group hosted their annual conference ORGCON. I’ve known the people at ORG for a few years as a volunteer and this year I was glad to give a talk about a project I’m working on.
FACT: In the space of a single decade, the most valuable companies (globally) by market cap went from being energy companies mostly selling oil, to only technology companies. Not only have tech companies totally displaced the energy companies, where the energy companies were worth between 200 and 300 billion dollars, the tech companies have gone far beyond, doubling these valuations (Facebook is currently valued at just shy of 600 billion dollars).
This is important because the WAY these companies have accumulated this wealth is by capturing information about our private lives and identities, and using it to influence our decisions to vote a certain way, or to buy a certain product.
Before moving forward I’d like to present myself. I’m Henry Prince. I’m an ORG volunteer, a law student and I work in music where I negotiate license agreements with music streaming companies, hardware manufactures and telcos to make our music catalogue available on their services. This means I have a good understanding of the commercial arrangements, and the flows of revenue and data from digital music consumption to labels and artists. Moreover, since 2014 I’ve run Not Like That, a record label and digital art production company in which I work closely with music, video and graphic artists to produce immersive A/V shows. My work with Not Like That has made me understand the power of immersive media as a means of conveying ideas in a profound, lasting way. I have found that the most effective way of communicating ideas is to appeal to both people’s intellect and also their emotions. Attaching the logic of an idea to an emotional state makes a much longer lasting impression.
This experience with Not Like That coupled with my legal studies led me to apply what I’d learnt to A/V installations addressing human and digital rights issues that I think need to be more broadly known and understood.
I will go into the details of the project I’m working on (which is the point of this post) but before, I want to open a bracket and talk about my personal history that made me interested to pursue this project. I grew up in a fairly middle class family, quite a modern household with an openness to new technologies. Certainly not luddites by any stretch. My parents have adopted smartphones with ease, they got on the social media train and have basically replaced TV with youtube on their tablets which is something I thought mainly millennials and up did. In spite of this, they have continually refused to take seriously my warnings regarding tech companies’ collection, storage and use of their data to influence their behaviours. It goes as far as them completely ignoring my pleas to stop tagging me on facebook when they check into locations or post group photos or selfies. My family insists on low-key doxing me whenever we hang out and they think I’m a prima donna for making a fuss about it. They tell me “why the hell would facebook care where I go or what I’m doing?” and “get over yourself”. Paradoxically, the times when I’m actually able to explain to them my concerns, their responses tend to swing between nihilism “what does it matter” and fatalism “we’re all fucked anyway”. Is this their way of humouring me by acknowledging the issues but disregarding their importance?
The truth is I suspect their behaviour is replicated across many many families and unfortunately even the Cambridge Analytica scandal hasn’t broken their spell of nihilism and fatalism.
The big idea behind my project is to highlight the contrast between what I call the individualised reality and the shared reality, in the context of the information environment. The shared reality is broadly how I characterise traditional media, which is to say media that is published in one set form that anyone can choose to engage with. Some newspapers or TV broadcasts, for example, might have certain political leanings but there is one limited spectrum of information being released into the world. The individualised reality is where each person’s newsfeed is crowded, different and curated to reflect them, so no two people have the same set of facts. The fact that the type of content facebook pushes to the fore is memes, which present complex issues in a grossly simplified, binary way leaving out any nuances that might give rise to necessary discussion, adds to the communication breakdown and pits people against each other.
My last installation/music performance hybrid in Feb 2019 had 6 projectors covering each wall in a room with visuals, creating what I liked to think of as a shared experience of a VR headset. The whole crowd was essentially standing in a 360 VR digital world. Recycling this idea, I thought it would be cool to illustrate the contrast between the shared and individualised realities by placing VR headsets inside this room. The outer screens would project a single but incomplete content feed and inside the headsets, participants would be faced with different images. In order to complete the picture in the shared reality, participants have to work together to solve a puzzle in the headsets. My reason for gamifying the installation is to simultaneously trigger an emotional response (pleasure - sense of achievement) and intellectual reaction in people when they realise that through their collaborative work in their individual visions, they managed to reveal the message or image outside. This game mechanic not only reinforces the message by tying positive emotion to action, but also reclaims a principle used by facebook (and the others) to make their apps addictive. It’s the principle of feedback loops and variable rewards that keep users coming back for more. When a user posts a photo for example, and gets a like or a comment, this triggers a small dopamine release in the brain which induces happiness. This leads the user to keep posting content and engaging with others to repeatedly trigger that reward. However, in order for this to work, facebook has to make sure users do not get linear rewards. They must get variable rewards. Sometimes likes, sometimes no likes. In the end, I want to encourage participants in my project to reflect on a question like “How is the way we access information affecting our citizenship?”, or “Do algorithms shaping our individualised realities have a knock-on effect on our perception of our common shared reality?”.
As you can imagine, this is a large scale project idea. Not feasible without decent funding and a dedicated team. So Ivan Isakov and I have devised a pared-back first iteration to gather feedback and spot challenges. The first iteration is an interactive web-app which aims to simulate the experience of a social media platform and highlights the way our personal data is taken as well as the effects of the processing of this data. The participant is drawn into a fake world where they are users of a new AI-assisted social media platform named Big Brother (working title). Where Apple has Siri and Amazon has Alexa, Big Brother has bb, the AI assistant. As participants scroll through the feed, bb will repeatedly interrupt them in a way not unlike Microsoft’s annoying Clippy, prompting choices like selecting a song to listen to on Spotify, Google searching something or engaging with content on Twitter. bb uses creepy language revealing how much it knows about you (like your heart rate and blood pressure from a FitBit) and records all your choices, forming an image of who you are. For context, facebook and google do this — they call the information about you psychographic data and they use it to target content at you and to help third parties target ads at you. The 5 minute journey through the fake social network ends with all content in the newsfeed reflecting you.
I am always looking to scheme with artists and collaborate on projects. If you’d like to get involved in this project or have an idea for a new one, you can reach me at henryjnprince (at) gmail (dot) com. You can visit my website too at notlikethatmusic.com.