Sniff, Scrape, Crawl - Part 1

Bringing together artists, programmers and theorists, these interdisciplinary panels will look at how surveillance and data-mining technologies shape and influence our lives and the consequences they have on our civil liberties.
Tuesday, 20 September, 2011 - 09:00 - 10:30
Chair Person: 
Renee Turner
Seda Gürses
Nicolas Malevé
Amy Suo Wu
Birgit Bachler

Chair: Renée Turner

We are living in a time of unprecedented surveillance, but unlike the ominous spectre of Orwell’s Big Brother, where power is clearly defined and always palpable, today’s methods of information gathering are much more subtle and woven into the fabric of our everyday life. Through the use of seemingly innocuous algorithms Amazon tells us which books we might like, Google tracks our queries to perfect more accurate results, and connects us to people with similar music tastes.

Immersed in social media, we commit to legally binding contracts by agreeing to ‘terms of use’. Having made the pact, we Twitter our subjectivities in less than 140 characters, contact our long lost friends on facebook and mobile-upload our geotagged videos on youtube. Where once surveillance technologies belonged to governmental agencies and the military domain, the web has fostered a less optically driven and participatory means of both monitoring and monetizing our intimately lived experiences.

Bringing together artists, programmers and theorists, these interdisciplinary panels will look at how surveillance and data-mining technologies shape and influence our lives and the consequences they have on our civil liberties.  The aim is to map the complexities of ‘sharing’ and examine how our fundamental understanding of private life has changed, as public display has become more pervasive and normalized through social networks.

“Sniff, Scrape, Crawl…”  is an ongoing interdisciplinary research project. Through a series of workshops, debates, lectures and presentations, the thematic project was initially launched in the beginning of 2011 at the Piet Zwart Institute, Master Media Design and Communication in the department of Networked Media.  The formation of the panels at ISEA, is an opportunity to show documentation and expand upon earlier research.

Paper Abstracts

A failed coup attempt with folk songs (Part III): Anonymity and the anonymous in a culture of sharing

by Dr. Seda Guerses

In dystopian debates on digital privacy, it is suggested that privacy can only be protected if we hide our personal information or practice control over it. Underlying this important political and technological turn is the fact that "my data = i". Following this line of thought, computer scientists, companies and other dedicated persons from civil society have proposed a number of tools to unlink or manage the relationship between the "i" and the data bodies that individuals leave behind. These can be categorized under the title "anonymity tools" or "identity management" tools. If used correctly, the former guarantees to some degree the anonymity of users traces, while the latter provides the individual with "control" over traces left behind.

We are not new to anonymous traces and the attempts to control what we leave behind. "Anonymous", for example, is also a term used to refer to works without authorship or of unknown origin. A popular form of anonymous works are folk songs. They are melodies that travel, which get a new life blown into them every time they move in time or space. Interestingly enough, the lack of authorship and origin invokes questions of authenticity and evidence, as it is shown in the film “Whose is this song?" from Adela Peeva. This also becomes evident in the film "I Love Alaska" where the query poetry of an "anonymized user" becomes the script of a film at the edge of fiction and non-fiction. Anonymous has also been revived recently as the label of a digital anarchist movement, questioning the boundaries between the physical and digital. In my paper I will look at the strengths and weaknesses of anonymity in each case, both as a technology as well as a strategy. I will also delve into its relationship to control, meaning how it evades and replaces different forms of control.

My meta is your data

by Nicolas Malevé

A mysterious thing called “data” flows from computers to computers, laptops to servers, servers to mobile phones. But data is useless without a context of interpretation. Already, the battle over the production, ownership and control of these contexts has been waged for quite some time in the world of web 2.0 and ubiquitous computing. A proliferation of gray literature plays a powerful role in this dynamic, which is articulated through diverse terms of use, licenses, national and international legal frameworks and multilateral agreements.

My paper will examine different data practices, taking examples from “social” networks, activist collectives and open source communities in order to compare the key elements of their economic and political organization. Examining these examples in their diverse forms, I will look at the recent decisions taken by major forums such as the EU Council, various national parliaments and ACTA negotiators, in order to show how they privilege a very specific form of social interaction based on specific data practices. I will analyze how these decisions threaten a wide variety of spontaneous as well as organized collaborations, social interactions, and cultural and economic developments. In conclusion, I want to emphasize the importance of caring for contexts of interpretation and suggest simple as well as more complex strategies to do so.


by Amy Suo Wu

"We used to think that our fate was in the stars. Now we know that, in large measure, our fate is in our genes." James Dewey Watson

Benji is a fictitious entity that journeys into the world of bio-information as a commodity and consequently envisions the prospects of genetic discrimination and the increasing personalization of marketing strategies. Named after the child of Sergey Brin, co-founder of and Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of (a privately held personal genomics and biotechnology company), Benji represents the ideological and economic union as historically practiced in royal political marriages and commonly witnessed in corporate mergers.

Inheriting strands from both parents, Benji's mission is to be the world's leading DNA search engine. Using state of the art technology, Benji matches you directly to personalized advertisements based on your class rank which is determined by an advanced analysis of your genetic code. So revolutionary is it, that even behavioural patterns can be detected to predict and preempt every decision so that your consumer cravings may be satisfied. This narrative also touches on the supernatural powers that users imbue in search engines or perhaps technology in general. Reflecting on the irrational and yet convincing mechanisms of belief experienced in fortune telling and horoscopes, a certain willingness to believe is perhaps key in creating more possibilities to discriminate.

A Place for Invisible Friends

by Birgit Bachler

Profiles on social networking sites make it easier for algorithms to analyze us, and the information we voluntarily share with people can also be seen as a form of participatory surveillance. Connected through constant update messages, pictures and the possibility of immediate response, we become subject to the feedback of our circle of friends. When communicating online we not only conform to the rules of the platform we use, but also seem to control and govern each other by always keeping an eye on each others thoughts and actions. Just as we need to define what we are comfortable with showing and sharing, we are also responsible for managing our multitude of identities before and amongst a mediated public. However, within the mainly visually oriented environment of social networks, we can never be sure who is hidden, visible and actually watching. Instead we are left to discover our sense of privacy through making choices within a set of binary options and as a result experience the limitations of online social spaces. Openness can be mistaken for over-exposure and reticence might evoke suspicion. In an economy of sharing and being shared, my talk will ask if screen-based technologies are the only key to our social life or are there possible ways of escaping the never-ending feedback loop.

Bios of the Participants

Seda Guerses

Seda Guerses is a researcher working in the group COSIC/ESAT at the Department of Electrical Engineering in K. U. Leuven, Belgium. Her topics of interest include privacy technologies, participatory design, feminist critique of computer science, and online social networks. She has a keen interest in the subject of anonymity in technical as well as cultural contexts, the spectrum being anywhere between anonymous communications and anonymous folk songs. Beyond her academic work, she also collaborates with artistic initiatives including Constant vzw, Bootlab, De-center, ESC in Brussels, Graz and Berlin. You can find more information about her dwellings here:

Nicolas Malevé

Nicolas Malevé is an artist, software programmer and data activist developing multimedia projects and web applications for and with cultural organizations. His current research work is focused on cartography, information structures, metadata and the means to visually represent them. He lives and works in Barcelona and Brussels. Since 1998 Nicolas collaborates with Constant, a non-profit association, based and active in Brussels since 1997 in the fields of feminism, copyright alternatives and working through networks.

Selection of works: *Copy.cult and the Original Si(g)n*, a project of investigation on the alternatives to author's rights.  *Yoogle!* an online game that allows users to play with the parameters of the Web 2.0 economy and the marketing of personal data.

Amy Suo Wu

Amy Suo Wu was born in China, raised in the suburbs of Sydney and currently resides in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She graduated from the Willem de Kooning Academy (Rotterdam) with a BFA in Graphic Design and is presently furthering her studies at the Piet Zwart Institute, Master Media Design and Communication: Networked Media (Rotterdam). The nature of her practice explores the peripheries and overlapping edges where familiarity meets its unfamiliar counterpart. Her research reflects her interests and contemplations on the relationship between science, religion and spirituality, the interplay between history and fiction, and the nullifying contradictions between personal and collective truth.

Birgit Bachler

Birgit Bachler is an Austrian new media artist living, working, and studying in Rotterdam (NL). She holds a BA in Information Design/Media & Interaction Design and is currently studying at the Piet Zwart Institute, Master Media Design and Communication: Networked Media (Rotterdam). She has a background in interactive, audiovisual media and programming, and her past research has focused on the influence of emergent media on our everyday lives and how technology influences and manipulates social behavior. Bachler’s recent work features a dating-like website built upon grocery shopping data, an alternative map of Rotterdam based on people's window decorations and a location-based social network of audible content.

Renée Turner

Renée Turner is an American artist and writer living in the Netherlands . She received her MFA from the University of Arizona, was an artist in residence at the Rijksakademie and a researcher at Jan van Eyck Academie (NL). Since 1996 she has worked with Riek Sijbring and Femke Snelting under the collective name, De Geuzen: a foundation for multi-visual research. Their collaborative projects have showcased in Manifesta, Rhizome, Mute, and Internet Art (Thames & Hudson). In 2006 she was awarded a scholarship from the Institute of Creative Technology and received an MA in Creative Writing and New Media from De Montfort University. Whether writing digital narratives or working collaboratively, Turner’s work often engages with feminist issues and online media ecologies. Next to these activities she has taught fine art, design and theory at the Willem de Kooning Academy (NL), St. Joost Art Academy (NL) and the Bergen National Academy of the Arts. Currently she is the Course Director of the Piet Zwart Institute, Master Media Design and Communication: Networked Media (NL).