Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Spectre: Data Dystopia at Doc/Fest 2019

415 1556292731
Hugh D'Andrade (EFF)

A project by Barnaby Francis (also known as Bill Posters) and Daniel Howe, Spectre is the winner of this year's Doc/Fest Alternate Realities commission. Exploring privacy in the digital age, the installation will run at Site Gallery from 6 to 11 June as part of Doc/Fest. Francis told us more about the 'digital influence industry'.

What is Spectre?

Spectre is an interactive installation that tells a cautionary tale of computational propaganda, technology and democracy, curated by an algorithm and powered by visitors' data. Comprised of six networked 'black box' monoliths, visitors are invited to pray at the altar of dataism. Spectre is a subversion of the digital influence industry.

How did you come to work with Daniel Howe and Craig Oldham on the project?

From the beginnings of the Spectre project in late 2017, Craig Oldham has been the lead visual designer for the project and his approach has been integral to the development of the Spectre installation. Dr Daniel Howe is a critical technologist and computer scientist based in Hong Kong. We share a broad range of principles and concerns relating to data, privacy, agency and the impacts of surveillance capitalism and the ad tech industry on society.

As a co-founder of Brandalism and Subvertisers' International, you have led the development of 'subvertising'. For readers who are not aware, what is subvertising and why is it important?

Subvertising - short for 'subverting advertising' - is a visual and performative form of street art that subverts the power and meaning of corporate advertising in public space. It is a form of creative resistance against the mainstream 'screams and piss' of advertisers and the logic of capitalism.

In the words of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, humans have "always created myths to unite our species and give a select few power". Consumerism is one such myth and, by intervening in ad spaces that usually celebrate and promote consumption, subvertisers aim to challenge and disrupt corporate power.

you can't have democracy without privacy

How does the Spectre project compare with your other recent work?

Over the last few years my practice has focused on interrogating and subverting computational forms of propaganda that define the digital influence industry, which reveals interesting new terrain for applying detournement theory, a French artistic term meaning 'rerouting' or 'hijacking'.

This is a natural progression into an alternate 'public', the internet. In the context of multiple UK state-level investigations into the coercive power and influence of the digital influence industry, the impacts that opaque forms of computational propaganda, behavioural profiling and behavioural sequencing are having on our democratic processes and our individual human rights concerning free will and agency are some of the most pressing issues that society is currently facing.

What do you mean when you talk about the 'digital influence industry' and what is its relationship with surveillance capitalism?

In a nutshell, the digital influence industry is made up of a wide range of digital and political strategists and consultants, technology service providers, data brokers, ad auction platforms, and social media and web publishing companies.

In the early 2000s, in a post 9/11 context, Google was facing mounting pressure to make its corporate business model viable and the egalitarian techno-utopianism that was at the heart of the founding of the company changed dramatically when they realised that the 'data exhaust' - the digital footprints and metadata left by people surfing the web using their platform - was possibly the most valuable raw material to be discovered in a century. It was also the information that powerful nation states needed in order to achieve total digital surveillance of human populations in response to the new age of terror that came to define the world after 9/11. A perfect symbiosis of military industrial complex, nation state and corporate agendas occurred.

Now, 25 years after the first digital banner ad revolutionised capitalism, ad platforms, web publishers like Facebook, Twitter and other intermediaries have developed an infrastructure of data collection, surveillance and targeting capacities that academics refer to as the 'digital influence industry' or 'digital influence machine'. This opaque industry and its associated architectures and infrastructures is weaponised daily, as all human experience - every sentiment, emotion, action, statement, hover of a mouse cursor and click - is recorded, extracted and processed by artificial intelligence to predict what you will do next as a result of all your previous interactions with software and hardware. All the time, everywhere.

Facebook makes the surveillance powers of the Stasi in East Germany look like amateurs. It's sole purpose isn't to 'connect the world', as its marketing professes. Its sole purpose is to use behavioural psychology and design practices to persuade you to reveal behavioural insights about yourself and those you are connected to.

Huge new markets are emerging for this new, infinite and profitable raw material: human experience. In her groundbreaking book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff states that the internet has been a lawless frontier where Google saw the internet as a space that allowed the corporation to develop 'permission-less innovation' for the best part of 20 years. Just think about that for a second. No laws, no oversight, no transparency. This dark continent offered up a new frontier for the logic of capitalism. It's crucial today for us all to begin to recognise and understand the conditions that have existed over the last 20 years that have allowed companies to privatise and control access to the world's information.

The digital influence industry is comprised of a new breed of dictatorships

Today, as majority shareholder, one man at Facebook has control of the company and over more than 2.3 billion people's personal data. A board of six people at Google has control of the world's information, having mapped the earth, profiled billions of users and created some of the most powerful and invisible technologies that have ever existed, all with no democratic oversight or judicial control.

History shows us time and time again that you can't have democracy without privacy. The digital influence industry is comprised of a new breed of dictatorships. Dictatorships that we willingly invite into our homes, our pockets and our intimate private spaces. Dictators that sit there, at our bedside, whilst we silently whisper everything about ourselves via our interactions with their products, even whilst we sleep.

Do you hold any hope for the internet as a force for subversion and positive change?

The internet has led to incredible social and political developments here in Europe, as well as Asia, Africa and elsewhere, and the decentralisation of information has been as evolutionarily important as the invention of the printing press that brought in the Age of Enlightenment centuries ago. However, the information that exists online now is not decentralised. It is owned, organised and presented by a handful of huge corporations that effectively control who gets to know what, when.

We are seeing UK, US and EU politicians frantically trying to even get a basic understanding of what the digital influence industry is capable of, after decades of blissful ignorance due to the economic benefits of big data. We too are so complicit in perpetuating the extraction of our personal data. We are the data inputters every second of every day, so we must make use of the amazing range of free privacy tools that developers and technologists are creating to help us reclaim the foundations of our privacy.

Until the boardrooms of the tech giants and the invisible, opaque and undemocratic infrastructures and technologies that they control and direct on a species-level scale are brought out into the light of day, with meaningful oversight and transparency so we can all make truly informed decisions, we are, in the words of artist James Bridle, ushering in "a new dark age".

Sam Walby

Spectre will be part of the Alternate Realities exhibition at Site Gallery during Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019, 6 to 11 June. Barnaby Francis and Daniel Howe will also speak at the Alternate Realities Summit on Sunday 9 June.

Filed under: 

Next article in issue 134

More News & Views

More News & Views