This reflexion was written after the presentation of my french thesis. It aims to present first the bases of my project contextualisation and then, develops a situational analysis of my graphic research.
You can download the pdf here
“Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. [...] But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity: we’ve lost control of our personal data, it’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web and political advertising online needs transparency and understanding.”
Tim Berners-Lee — March 12, 2017¹
Data are seen by many as the black gold of the 21st century. And because we are generating more and more of this, there is a growing sense of euphoria. We believe that algorithms can relieve us of the burden of making many complex decisions on our own, help us achieve a better understanding of our environment, or even predict the future². “Big Data” is the buzzword that is synonymous for some people with the hope that more data will mean more knowledge, transparency and a better economic prosperity. However, this must be balanced by a critical analysis of the effects and consequences because, through the “white noise” generated by data masses, we can still be identified and followed against our will³ by both web companies and States.
You may not be aware but we are constantly and continuously surrounded by data. The wind speed can be considered as data, and so can your IP address. Data are everywhere which means that from now on, we are evolving in a digital society entirely linked to Big Data and metadata issues. Data are the conventional representation of a piece of information which can be analogue or digital and which can be automatically processed too. Metadata on the other hand, represent a piece of information on another piece of information, where the Greek prefix indicates self-referencing, “data regarding other data”. To make it simple, in the example of a digital picture, the picture itself is the data and when it was taken (for instance the day or the time) is the metadata.
When we are surfing on the web, metadata are everywhere all the time: through our clicks, searches, requests, browsing history; through the time, the date of connexion; through our current or passed localisation. Acting like intangible tracks of our actions, some of them are collected by the visited websites⁴. Those tracks left during our virtual paths are mostly and generally unintentional but they are also generating spatial and temporal coordinates. Eventually, those invisible and intangible details enable us to be identified⁵ and tracked without our knowledge and against our will⁶.
Embodying the new black gold of the 21st century for the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), the current dominant companies of the web, we need to consider and ask ourselves how we can get back power on our data today, for tomorrow’s daily uses. Furthermore, I wanted to focus on metadata, about those tracks and paths in the web space which are invisible, intangible and hard to understand although they are at the center of the web economy⁷.
As a designer, and regarding the currently tense situation linked to the threats for our private life with the tracking on the Internet for instance, I do not want to stigmatize web users. On the contrary, I want them to be aware that they are leaving unintentional tracks which can be used to harm them. This highlights something paradoxical here: although web users create and generate data, they can not master them⁸.
Based on these observations regarding our current environment filled with security abuses, the following issue emerges: How can the graphic designer help web users to become e-aware users of their own digital data and more precisely their own metadata?
First, to answer this question, the neologism “e-aware users” means two specific things:
- e-aware meaning that web users are “electronically aware” of the value of their metadata, thus they knows the threats that could harm them.
- users meaning that web users develop an active behaviour, by becoming real actors, agents of their metadata. This way, they can understand who is trying to steal their metadata and what is more, they can control the safety of their metadata better.
Because metadata enable the tracking phenomena, we will try to understand how the graphic designer can use them as a real eye-opener to generate an alternative way to act on the web with a real activist involvement in order to strike a balance that will put a fair level of data control back in the hands of people. To do so, I have foregrounded three different but traversal project intentions. First, I want to help web users to become more active with their metadata, by giving them the opportunity to have more protection through some counterattacks and life hacks.
Then, I want to make their digital shadow and tracks more visible because they are still interlinked to some blurred concepts in people's minds. By making them more tangible, I think it will be easier for people to understand better what metadata are, what they represent, and how they can reveal some of our habits⁹.
Finally, I want to develop a sensitive relationship between web users, data and the computer screen. This project intention is more like an experimental one; I do not want to sacralize data, I just think this approach, perhaps more poetic, sensitive and eye-catching, will be better understood by people and will catch people’s attention better than just hundred raw lines of 0 and 1 which can eventually frighten them. This project may be considered as a utopia but I have decided to choose it because above all, something puzzled me: through our everyday digital uses how can data be exchanged without our knowing regarding their amount or quality? And even if design can not reveal surveillance, as a graphic designer
I will be fully involved in the process. I will act as a hacker, using hacks and tweakings to bypass preexisting rules in order to develop several strategies and tools for web users. At the same time I am advocating for a true private life online, my creative approach will be developed through two meaningful notions: ethics and integrity. And because they enable a clearer, a fairer, and a more transparent signal, those notions will help web users to start and to pursue by themselves their own activist commitment which is needed to counteract and to shortcircuit the growing power of GAFA and States on our data.
More than becoming e-aware users, web users will eventually become hacker users.
I. Design intentions
I.1 Helping web users to become more active about their metadata
One of my project intentions is to trigger and enhance an active behaviour regarding our own metadata, because they are an extension
of ourselves. Indeed, they tell third-parties where we are, who we are with, the sites we have visited, our favorite topics of interest,
and so on. While a single data point is not always sensitive, the loss of large amounts of aggregated data can be dangerous¹⁰.
As our private life is an essential part of our individuality, in a world where everything has been digitized, I was first interested in pre-existing tools, and more specifically their pros and cons.
After analysing several awareness campaigns, I have highlighted the fact that these campaigns always condemn the actions of the youngest especially with an anxiety-provoking communication [fig. 01]. Moreover, they convey a really negative view [fig. 02] on their behaviours using shocking images, and they never try to provide some solutions or suggest alternative ways to act on the web. From my point of view and as a concerned Digital Intuitive, those campaigns are useless and pointless because they only put the blame on us and make us feel childish using condescending speeches.
On the other hand, several solutions already exist and work well: self-hosting for emails and cloud, the use of alternatives to de-google-ify the Internet such as Framasoft network’s initiative for a free, decentralized and ethical Internet or even more extreme measures such as the use of Tor, a free software enabling anonymous communication. Those solutions may seem perfect but a problem still exists: unless web users have an experienced web server administrator and know their way around, those solutions are neither simple nor easily accessible. Their use is interlinked with some specific skills, and pre-existing awareness of those alternatives.
As a result, I do not want to stigmatize or to judge people regarding their actions on the web, I just want to provide them with easier tools than what already exists. In fact, I intend to facilitate web users’ access to different useful and graphic tools that I will especially design for them.
This way, web users will understand better how to manage their metadata and thus empower their behaviour. My challenge here will be first to help them to get back power and to alleviate the negative effects of this paradoxical situation: although we do not know our web browser well enough, we are all using this daily tool which keeps increasing its knowledge about us. In a second time, my aim will be to maintain web users’ commitment through a playful, civic and voluntary process. It will be necessary to highlight all the benefits of users’ actions and this can be an opportunity for the graphic designer to think about devices that create a reward or give a feedback which means something for them.
As a conclusion, helping web users to become more active regarding their metadata will happen in three ways: by putting web users at the center of the process, by creating devices which allow them to directly and easily get back power on their data and finally, by designing experiences which successfully awake and generate interest for their personal data and what is at stake with them.
I.2 Making the digital shadow and tracks more tangible
This intention is particularly a graphic research of the sensory transcription of metadata. Aiming to visually transcribe data collection and its influence on our digital shadow, I want to make the two of them more tangible. As a graphic designer, I will be a sort of translator who will give sense to something too complex which is not visible or meaningful for most people.
Actually, I will not be an imitator but an interpreter, and the challenge here will be to visually transcribe abstract notions, related to our virtual exchanges and paths. By revealing them, I still do not want to frighten web users; this is why interactive or playful experiences may seem relevant because of the need for a cultural and educational mediation needed that I can provide.
Like Click [fig. 03], the website created by the Amsterdam based interactive design studio Moniker which reveals browser events that monitor our online behaviour, I can demonstrate the amount of behavioural data that are collected today through several trackers i.e. web cookies¹¹ and browser fingerprinting¹². By using an ironic or cynical tone as Moniker did but playing more with typefaces, interactivity and the readability of information, my potential project would be less frightening for web users.
On the other hand, I can also develop a more experimental approach, which will question the web space as a real space with interactions, tracks and continuous information flows. By creating a sort of Internet topography of our paths like a video game map, I will be able to make interactions more visible and significant, make the virtual links between the visited websites more tangible but also question several notions such as real time and re-actualization which are deeply interwoven with the web.
The website I-Remember [fig. 04], created by CLM BBDO, was based on this approach and concept; it represents something intangible, here a biological memory affected by Alzheimer's disease and the disappearance of its memories. The website is quite abstract and non-physical, this way the web user can virtually travel through a dark and complex universe only revealed by several shiny points representing memories.
This metaphor of a starry sky forces us to be immersed while we wander through the vestiges of past experiences which have been posted on the website. Interactivity allows us to roam through all those data and to discover them alternatively and provides a better understanding too, thanks to a graphic, phantasmagoric and truly immersive vocabulary.
With this kind of interactive experience, surprise and imagination can stimulate the interest of web users in other ways than just a simple presentation of texts or pictures.
I.3 Developing a sensitive relationship between humans, data and the computer screen
Reconsidering the human place in the interaction with the device is the first goal of this intention, because it seems necessary to learn how users interact with the digital world in general before imagining new experiences of and with their digital data. I want to create a more “human”, a more welcoming and caring experience in the web space and at the same time, I want to go further than just a simple data visualization which only allows a direct confrontation.
In my opinion, not only can screens be considered as boundaries because of the current develop-ment of new technologies such as virtual reality or augmented reality, but they are also an open window on another world – a virtual one – but as real as our physical and “in-real-life” world. We may just need to introduce more senses and emotions in this digital world by generating an environment that is fully compatible with our emotions and far from being frightening. I think about a poetic and contemplative abstract universe where web users could “play” with their own metadata by rediscovering them in a different way, with a new interaction, using sound or even touch. The project Reflexions [fig. 05], created by Dpt., a Montreal based interactive creative studio, uses precisely this sensitive approach. This interactive installation and mirror of the digital world represents an intelligent digital system that, like humans, uses sensorial data to adapt itself to its surrounding. The subtle graphics and animations invite users to get closer to the projection and, as they approach, their reflection on screen fades in as if passing through a veil into the digital realm. With the same idea of creating a new interaction, their project CLOUDS [fig. 06], an interactive, generative documentary that allows the viewer to explore different perspectives on the intersection of code and culture, was available on two platforms: first, an interactive installation across several screens where viewers use gestures to interact with a Kinect sensor and navigate the experience and a second, for individual viewing in virtual reality using the Oculus Rift, immersing users into the film.
Furthermore, I think anticipation and imagination combined with technology can bring new experiences for users. This intention may be more considered as a prospective one. I will try to anticipate how graphic design could imagine tomorrow’s lack of private life with a true critical process. Moreover, this critical approach is currently developed by an activist graphic design studio named Metahaven through a theoretical research that was exhibited in Berlin, in 2014. Named “Black Transparency: The right to know in the age of mass surveillance” [fig. 07], it exhibited several visual projects such as drawings, videos, gifs, interviews with activists in order to highlight two phenomena: first of all, the ambiguity and contradiction of the production and second the use of personal data. Nevertheless, the main issue of this exhibition was the fact that it was quite too “intellectual” and not easily understandable for most people because of the graphism and the creative process.
II. Design projects
These three intentions are transversal and were the basis for my design work. Thanks to them, I was finally able to think about and select several
project ideas that I could design to answer my main issue. From now on, I am working on four different projects:
- hack/olyte, a web plugin and user interface measuring the impact of trackers on our online browsing in real time,
- hack/tivity, a video game based on our browsing history (part of our online activity) allowing a new interaction with our data,
- hack/tion, a co-op board game denouncing the monopoly of Google on our data & where the players fight together against this villain,
- hack/cess, an interactive experience demonstrating the tracking on public wifi.
A device measuring the impact of trackers used by the visited websites on our online activity.
This idea emerged from a meeting with Olivier Desbiey who works at the CNIL¹³. Two years ago, he and other co-workers developed an open-source tool which is named Cookieviz, a real time tracking data visualization while we are surfing on the web. This tool is currently used to measure the impact of cookies but is still quite frightening and its user interface is not really welcoming or friendly. The idea here is to design a new interface and then, to add a real time graphic plugin which indicates where (and when) data are collected, meanwhile our online navigation.
First, I was interested in using saturated colours in order to promote a reassuring and a more poetic vocabulary when data are collected; however, I realized that it was maybe too naive or childish, and that it did not fit the fact that I wanted web users to be aware of the reality of the environment in which they navigate.
That is why I decided to pay more attention to glitch effects and to computer bugs’ aesthetic, using several textures, transparencies and grainy masses determined by several parameters related to the data which are collected. The thing is that the web interface is currently too experimental and it is finally hard to understand or to read any information [fig. 08].
I am therefore reconsidering this interface in order to create a more pragmatic one¹⁴, to show the links between the websites we visited and third-websites which are collecting all data on us. On the contrary, my plugin will be more experimental and will act as a living and growing organism: when lots of data are collected, it will be impacted and, for example, the more data are collected, the faster it moves. This is one of the reasons why this plugin is not square, but looks like an irregular circle with an organic shape [fig. 9].
In a second time, I am currently developing a video game based on our online activity, enabling a new interaction with data from our browsing history. It actually builds itself from the tracks we leave when we are doing some requests on Google with our Google account.
There is a precise temporality: first, web users need to go on the web and do some searches during the day. Then, every evening or every week for instance, the video game acts as a reminder: the data collected from their browsing history are put into a text file, and loaded into Processing to be graphically and visually transcribed. Web users/players can then interact with their tracks in a different and unsual way from the list of their browsing searches [fig. 10].
In order to create more than just a contemplative game, I have decided to add a challenge: by bouncing onto their tracks, web users can (try to) delete them for about 1 minute. I want web users to be at the center of this awareness process and to do so, I have decided that their character will be impacted during their experience: the more searches, the harder for the player it is to move, or the more recurring the search is, the more space it takes...
Through this device, I am in fact interested in the graphic treatment or representation of tracks which have been deleted and those which have not. I am also questioning the notion of ruins on the web, the notion of an e-ghost town and moreover, data retention. Thus, I led several kinds of experimentations on these notions, developing the idea of a dual spatial reading [fig. 11].
hack/tion is actually a co-op board game denouncing Google's monopoly on our data, and where the players fight together against this new “villain”.
From now on, I just led a graphic watch but for this concept I contemplate hybridizing the digital dimension with a more tangible one, having a mix of interface and personal data with paper support which has a real materiality [fig. 12].
In order to report the several mechanisms of surveillance that are impossible to disclose while online, the board game here will help the players to conceptualize better those non-physical but harmful and damaging phenomena. I think that it will be more intuitive to play with some physical and tangible supports even if the players can animate or interact with those supports with augmented reality [fig. 13].
For this project, I aim to use simple tools or poor material because I would like to set up a device which eventually allows its fabrication by users themselves. As well as the rest of my previous devices, I want to design this project as free as open because all information should be free, as it matters to the hacker culture and its ethics.
My last design project is more an interactive experience demonstrating the tracking on public wifi in airports. The idea here is to reveal the hidden and invisible exchanges which are not secured on a public network, between a connected device (a smartphone, a laptop, and so on) and a wifi access point. Using some hacks on this network and thanks to an engineer friend, I am now able to easily pick packets sent on it and to retrieve the header of this packet which is not encrypted. Thanks to this header, I know the IP address of the connected device, its MAC address, but also which device sends a request to which website (without knowing what web users do on it).
I am conscious that this can be considered as a really terrifying and frightening project. But, by creating an unexpected and playful experience using an existing advertising panel which can broadcast video content, I want to catch people’s attention when they are bored or waiting for their flights.
First of all, I want to create a sort of interface that will tell them that this is an experience when they connect to the access point dedicated to the experience, and that they can start to navigate on the web with a protected connexion. Then, as soon as they connect, a first message will appear on the panel such as “hello”, “hi”, or “bonjour” in French; this message will be picked randomly in a dedicated database. All the future actions of people who will be connected, will be associated with a name, randomly picked too but different for all the users so their actions can be identified and related to each users without revealing their true name (which I can not find anyway) [fig. 14].
Then, as I can identity hundreds of requests, I have decided to select several of them, linked to some specific uses on a public network:
- using the most common social network apps (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube)
- using the weather app (often connected to The Weather Channel),
- surfing on the web (Google, but also the most common news websites such as Le Monde, The New York Times, The Guardian, and so on)
- and finally, receiving new emails.
Afterwards, those uses are then automatically linked to some random and senseless phrases such as “trying to connect to Facebook”, “refreshing my mails via 13 Google unknown servors”, ... [fig. 15]
Those absurd phrases gathered together create a foolish dialogue that people can print thanks to a thermal printer next to the panel. And at the end of the printed ticket, they will find a tutorial that will help them to protect themselves and their data on a public network. They will also find more institutional information related to the CNIL or La Quadrature du Net, to promote their actions on our data protection.
Notes et références :
¹ Berners-Lee, T. (2017, March 12). Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor. Retrieved from http://webfoundation.org/2017/03/web-turns-28-letter/
² Wire (2013). WHITE NOISE – Why a Data-driven Society Needs More Common Sense. ABSTRAKT, n°12.
³ ARTE FRANCE (Producer), and Valenti, A. (Director) (2015). Un oeil sur vous – Citoyens sous surveillance ! [Film].
⁴ Fogel, J-F. & Patino, B. (2013). La condition numérique [The digital condition]. Paris: Grasset, p. 37.
⁵ Guilford, G. (2015, January 12). Facebook Data Know You Better Than Your Own Mother. Quartz. Retrieved from http://www.qz.com/325129/facebook-data-know-you-better-thanyour-own-mother/
⁶ Borman, M. (Producer), and Stone, O. (Director). (2016). Snowden [Film]
⁷ Fogel, J-F. & Patino, B. (2013). La condition numérique [The digital condition]. Paris: Grasset, p. 37.
⁸ Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data (2012, August 30). Retrieved from https://www.edge.org/conversation/alex_sandy_pentland-reinventing-society-in-the-wake-of-big-data
⁹ Rolston, M., (2014, November 27). The Next Era of Designers Will Use Data as their Medium. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2014/11/rise-of-data-artists/
¹⁰ Babinet, G. (2015). Big Data, Penser l'homme et le monde autrement. Paris: Le Passeur Éditeur
¹¹ A cookie is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored on the user’s computer by the user’s web browser while the user is browsing. Cookies were first designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) but now they can record the user’s browsing activity, including clicking particular buttons, or recording which pages were visited in the past.
¹² A browser fingerprint is information collected about a browser’s configuration, such as version number, screen resolution and operating system, for the purpose of identification. It can be used to fully or partially identify individual users or devices even when cookies are turned off.
¹³ Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés. Beyond raising awareness and sharing information on data protection culture, the CNIL has an advisory power, an onsite and offsite investigatory power as well as an administrative sanctioning power. It analyses the consequences of new technologies on citizens’ private life and collaborates closely with its European and international counterparts.
¹⁴ Walter, A. (2011). Designing for emotion. New York: A Book Apart.
[fig. 01] Action Innocence. Awareness campaign 'Le Masque'. 2006. Posters.
[fig. 02] Action Innocence. Awareness campaign 'Ne laisse pas ton image t'échapper'. 2010. Posters. [fig. 03] Screenshots from the website Click.
[fig. 04] CLM BBDO. I-Remember. 2014. Interactive website.
[fig. 05] Dpt.. Reflexions. 2012. Interactive installation.
[fig. 06] Dpt.. CLOUDS. 2014. Interactive installation & VR.
[fig. 07] Metahaven. Exhibition "Black Transparency: The right to know in the age of mass surveillance". 2014.
[fig. 08] Graphic experiments of a new interface
[fig. 09] Graphic and interactive experiments of a new plugin
[fig. 10] Screenshots of a first experiment for a video game
[fig. 11] Graphic experiments developing the idea of a dual spatial reading
[fig. 12] Charron, Louis. Alma — Matière algorithmique. 2016. 3D printer & mobile application
[fig. 13] Fache, Aurélien. Experiments using augmented reality.
[fig. 14] Graphic experiment of the loading page when nobody is connected to the wifi access point.
[fig. 15] Graphic experiment of several salutations when people connect their phones to the wifi for the first time.
[fig. 16] Graphic experiment of the sentences that can appear when people surf on the web connected to the wifi.
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