Meredith Whittaker: Noah Biklen is an archi­tect, a prin­ci­pal at Deborah Berke Parntners, a crit­ic at the Yale School of Architecture, and he’s work­ing to for­mu­late the role of archi­tec­ture and pub­lic space in the preser­va­tion of pri­va­cy and civ­il lib­er­ties. Sarah Gold is a design­er and crit­ic of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies, and a co-founder of the WikiHouse Foundation. And Ame Elliot is the Design Director of Simply Secure, and a human-centered design­er and researcher. Thank you.

Ame Elliot: Thank you. Thanks, Meredith. I’m Ame Elliot, Design Director at Simply Secure. Really glad to be here. A cou­ple points of process. Bar is open. Should you get thirsty and need to excuse your­self, please do come back. This is sup­posed to be fun. We’re not doing Q&A inline with this pan­el. This is kind of a fire­hose of just get­ting ideas out, and we’re all going to be around after­wards to keep the con­ver­sa­tion going. So come and find us. We have some oth­er Simply Secure advi­sors here. They’re oth­er peo­ple that you could find to talk to.

So to kick it off, Noah, Sarah, could you just give us a quick overview— Oh, before I do that, we’re going to have some ambi­ent images here that we’re ref­er­enc­ing in the talk but not speak­ing to direct­ly. So let it wash over you.

So to kick us off, Noah, could you tell us a lit­tle bit about you?

Noah Biklen: Absolutely. My name is Noah Biklen. I’m an archi­tect here in New York. I work on projects at a range of scales, espe­cial­ly with arts insti­tu­tions and cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions in urban set­tings pri­mar­i­ly. Lately I’ve become more and more inter­est­ed in issues around dig­i­tal pri­va­cy and the role that archi­tec­ture could play in both pro­tect­ing it and cre­at­ing spaces in which peo­ple can learn the tools to pro­tect them­selves.

One exam­ple of that, I’m an edu­ca­tor and I recent­ly taught a course at the Yale School of Architecture where we asked stu­dents to design a hypo­thet­i­cal insti­tute whose mis­sion was advo­ca­cy for pri­va­cy and free­dom of expres­sion in Reykjavik, Iceland. So we trav­eled there and they spent the semes­ter think­ing about those issues. I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about that tonight. I’m super excit­ed to be here to talk to both of you.

Elliot: Great, thanks. So Sarah has a fab TedX talk [includes tran­script]. If you haven’t seen it, watch. It’s about the future of cit­i­zen­ship, and I’ll let you tell us a bit about you, Sarah.

Sarah Gold: Thank you. My name’s Sarah. I’m a design­er from London, as you can tell from my accent. I recent­ly fin­ished a Masters in indus­tri­al design, where I designed the Alternet, a pro­pos­al for a civic net­work where you get to own your own data. Since then, I’ve worked for var­i­ous spec­u­la­tive design con­sul­tan­cies and worked with the UK’s Government Digital Service, redesign­ing the way that gov­ern­ment hold data about us. I’m very inter­est­ed in the way that decen­tral­ized tech­nolo­gies may pro­vide us a way of real­ly decen­tral­iz­ing pow­er from one cen­tral author­i­ty to every­one, and how that might inform more demo­c­ra­t­ic futures, and ulti­mate­ly future dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship where we are, as Meredith was say­ing, empow­ered as indi­vid­u­als rather than just con­sumers.

Elliot: I’m going to keep this mov­ing. I want to hit three things dur­ing our time togeth­er: the domes­tic, the mon­u­men­tal, and the pub­lic. Sarah, take us away. What is the role of archi­tect in the domes­tic sphere, and the future of pri­va­cy?

Gold: Something I’m real­ly both­ered by at the moment with­in the home, which I think is quite an easy polit­i­cal con­ceit to start think­ing about because we all live in a place, and in the places we live in I think pri­va­cy is incred­i­bly impor­tant to us. We all have cur­tains on our bed­room win­dows, or blinds of some kind. But we are invit­ing these new smart objects, these black box­es into our homes. For instance the Nest smoke detec­tor you’ve just seen, but also the smart ther­mo­stat, and var­i­ous oth­er objects that ulti­mate­ly are kind of like sur­veil­lance devices because with each of these tech­nolo­gies they’ve got sen­sors embed­ded with­in them.

They har­vest an awful lot of data and most of the time you don’t even get to access that data. And as we’re giv­ing our homes this new lay­er of smart­ness and intel­li­gence, we’re giv­ing away its own­er­ship to very large orga­ni­za­tions. And as we become a gen­er­a­tion of renters, what I’m very inter­est­ed in is how do land­lords respond to that? What hap­pens if you rent a home that has a smart toast­er and a smart ther­mo­stat and so your land­lord can find out all dif­fer­ent kinds of data about you? There are cer­tain pri­va­cy restric­tions with­in your ten­an­cy agree­ments; how will they change because of this smart lay­er that we’re putting in our homes, which I think fun­da­men­tal­ly as home­own­ers or as renters we should own, but at the moment that does­n’t seem to be the way it’s going.

Elliot: So maybe robots are com­ing to kill us in our sleep? Noah, are archi­tects going to save us?

Biklen: I would say on the one hand, archi­tects have been fas­ci­nat­ed with the role of tech­nol­o­gy in the home for a real­ly long time. I think there was an image ear­li­er of the House of the Future by the Smithsons from the 1950s. There’ve been many such provo­ca­tions in which— in that exam­ple they cre­at­ed these sur­faces that basi­cal­ly engorged and enveloped appli­ances. A very 1950s idea, but also one that has rel­e­vance today. So on the one hand I think there’s a lot of opti­mism and inter­est from archi­tects think­ing about how tech­nol­o­gy could make the home more respon­sive and in some ways the users have some lev­el of con­trol.

On the oth­er hand I think you just men­tioned black box­es, the sense that a lot of the tech­nol­o­gy that’s going in, users don’t real­ly know what’s hap­pen­ing to the infor­ma­tion. And I would say that the way the archi­tec­ture pro­fes­sion is cur­rent­ly orga­nized, there’s I would say a blindspot or lack of crit­i­cal dia­logue about the pri­va­cy impli­ca­tions for this tech­nol­o­gy.

For exam­ple, a lot of the ways in which say the Internet of Things objects are insert­ed into the home or come to be insert­ed into the home either is through as a kind of retail oppor­tu­ni­ty, as lit­er­al­ly an object that gets placed, and then it real­ly is a black box. Or through maybe a secu­ri­ty or A/V ven­dor that oper­ates often­times direct­ly with the own­er, and I think at that lev­el, the con­ver­sa­tion’s real­ly about con­ve­nience or the home­own­er con­trol­ling their envi­ron­ment or mon­i­tor­ing their data. Or the con­ve­nience fac­tor of it, and there’s a real lack of dia­logue about the pri­va­cy impli­ca­tions.

Gold: And also how those net­works of objects get estab­lished. Recently, and I hate to use the same exam­ple but I am going to, these Nest mon­i­tors. There were a lot of par­ents using these mon­i­tors for their chil­dren, and they had this out­age prob­lem.” You might’ve seen it on Twitter. All these par­ents who sud­den­ly did­n’t have access to mon­i­tor their chil­dren any­more real­ly freaked out because the net­work went down. And I think this also asks big prob­lems. There’s oth­er exam­ples like the Samsung smart TV, a won­der­ful exam­ple where in their terms and con­di­tions there was a new clause that said any­thing you say in front of your TV may be record­ed and sent to third par­ties for voice recog­ni­tion pur­pos­es.

So we get to this point where the home might start to betray us because our TV might gos­sip more than our next-door neigh­bor, and these strange social con­tracts becom­ing embed­ded with­in terms and con­di­tions and pri­va­cy poli­cies that have replaced instruc­tion man­u­als. I think that that whole world of the home and pri­va­cy is going to become a real bat­tle­ground, par­tic­u­lar­ly with fam­i­lies with young chil­dren. And I think also asks ques­tions of what kind of new infra­struc­ture do we need for archi­tec­ture if we have all these smart devices and objects becom­ing data-conscious. Does this start to sug­gest things like home data ser­vice?

Elliot: Moving out of the domes­tic and into mon­u­ments and places. Noah, you men­tioned a cen­ter in Reykjavik that some of your stu­dents had worked on. Could you give us an overview of what kinds of chal­lenges and lim­i­ta­tions your stu­dents were find­ing in cre­at­ing an expres­sion to cap­ture sur­veil­lance and trans­paren­cy at a mon­u­men­tal scale?

Biklen: Absolutely. We found it was real­ly impor­tant to try to ground the project in a spe­cif­ic place. Reykjavik in Iceland was real­ly inter­est­ing to us. After the 2008 bank­ing cri­sis, I think there’s a lot of aware­ness in the coun­try among its cit­i­zens that there were some real cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal trans­paren­cy issues. So there’s also a group of activists cur­rent­ly work­ing in ice­land to try to make it let’s say the kind of Cayman Islands of dig­i­tal pri­va­cy, both inde­pen­dent­ly and also through the par­lia­ment. And the court’s had tried to end the bank­ing block­ade against the WikiLeaks at the time. There’s a sort of nascent data cen­ter indus­try in Iceland, based both on its cli­mate and also abun­dance of geot­her­mal pow­er. So in some ways that was the con­text for which we asked the stu­dents to think about what role archi­tec­ture has with­in these issues.

Elliot: So what’s the one sum­ma­ry sen­tence, because we’ve got­ta plunge on into the pub­lic sphere?

Biklen: So I could maybe return to it, but I think one of the major issues that peo­ple talked about was how pri­va­cy ends up being a fair­ly unsalient issue when we’re deal­ing with tech­nol­o­gy, and how do we make the work­ings of the Internet, or its infra­struc­ture, more vis­i­ble. So a lot of the stu­dents looked at both bring­ing data cen­ters, or under­sea cables, or mak­ing state­ments in which lit­er­al­ly that infra­struc­ture become less in the back­ground and more in the fore­ground as a means of build­ing aware­ness. That was one issue that we looked at.

Elliot: That’s great. And Sarah, you have quite a bit to say about places and site-specificity. What’s on your mind when you think about mon­u­ments in this space?

Gold: 60 Hudson Street, where the Internet lit­er­al­ly reach­es the sur­face in the city, that’s a kind of inter­est­ing space because that has real­ly affect­ed the price of land around the build­ing because the con­nec­tion speeds are so much faster. So you have lots of bankers hot-desking in build­ings adja­cent to 60 Hudson Street. So it’s real­ly changed the whole eco­nom­ics of the area.

I’m also kind of inter­est­ed in how you can trace back to your web site, lit­er­al­ly where your own serv­er is, and we have these still phys­i­cal con­nec­tions to the Internet. There’s new tech­nolo­gies like blockchain tech­nol­o­gy. I don’t know how many of you in the room might have heard about blockchain. It’s the tech­nol­o­gy that pow­ers Bitcoin, and it has a decen­tral­ized net­work of com­put­ers. So we no longer have one cen­tral serv­er, nec­es­sar­i­ly, that pow­ers a tech­nol­o­gy.

And there’s some­thing quite inter­est­ing that I haven’t quite worked out yet, but this is some­thing I’m think­ing about, is what does that mean when you sud­den­ly have a whole net­work of decen­tral­ized servers that aren’t as eas­i­ly acces­si­ble through Google Maps? Is your serv­er for your own web site? What does that mean, and how does that change our rela­tion­ship to the Internet and to the tech­nolo­gies that we use? I have no answers for that, but I’d be real­ly inter­est­ed to talk to any­one after to con­tin­ue that.

Elliot: There was so much more that we can say, and I’m going to hand it to each of our pan­elists for a big grand clos­ing thought rel­a­tive to pub­lic spaces. We’ve talked about the domes­tic, we’ve talked a bit about the mon­u­ment, and I’d like to hear what you all think, each of you in turn about the pub­lic sphere.

Biklen: I would say very briefly that one project I worked on recent­ly as an archi­tect was help­ing a library in a major city begin to think about what its vision would be. What I found to be real­ly inter­est­ing and per­ti­nent to the issues we raised today was they were look­ing to expand their mis­sion from lend­ing books to some­thing which they had a much broad­er impact on the pub­lic sphere and in pub­lic space. Libraries end up being one of the few very free pub­lic spaces in which there’s a kind of democ­ra­ti­za­tion of knowl­edge, and have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do that with­in the dig­i­tal sphere. So they were look­ing at both bring­ing in fab­ri­ca­tion labs and space for mak­ing and learn­ing how to code. They were imag­in­ing them­selves to become a kind of gate­way in which peo­ple from vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties could come and learn about how to use the Internet and also pro­tect them­selves. So I think as kind of an exist­ing space and see­ing where, par­tic­u­lar­ly in cities, how phys­i­cal spaces are trans­form­ing, that’s one exam­ple of the way in which there’s a kind of very excit­ing insti­tu­tion that is tak­ing that for­ward.

Gold: Yeah, there’s the [Library Freedom Project] installing Tor nodes in libraries to allow you to access dark­nets, which I think is a fan­tas­tic idea.

In terms of pub­lic space, par­tic­u­lar­ly in London at the moment, we have an increas­ing num­ber of pri­vate spaces being built in pub­lic inter­ests. I was talk­ing just ear­li­er with Cory [Doctorow] about Thomas Heatherwick’s [Garden] Bridge being pro­posed in London as one of the most impor­tant pedes­tri­an bridges across the Thames, and you have to apply for a license if you want to be more than eight peo­ple cross­ing the bridge at any one time, to stop protests.

Another exam­ple is the Renew smart bins in the city of London that were track­ing MAC address­es of passers­by. The city of London is one of the most con­cen­trat­ed areas of bankers. So these bins were track­ing bankers as they went on their lunch breaks, and no one knew about it. Which is a total vio­la­tion of what pub­lic space should be. At the same time, there was the Taksim Square riots where in Egypt there was a pro­pos­al for a hotel in a pub­lic park. There were huge riots, and yet the Renew bins scan­dal in England I don’t even think made the news­pa­pers.

So for me the big ques­tion is how do we pro­tect pub­lic space phys­i­cal­ly, but also dig­i­tal­ly with pub­lic wifi that’s safe, with urban fur­ni­ture that does­n’t track us. There’s a big ques­tion and debate, I think, to be had of what is the future of [pub­lic] space that is built for com­mon good.

Elliot: Thank you. That’s Privacy IRL.

I just want to say that if this con­tent speaks to you, Simply Secure is a new non-profit. We’re inter­est­ed in form­ing con­nec­tions with peo­ple who want to work on these issues. The table at the exit, there’s a glass bowl, and if you’re inter­est­ed in con­nect­ing with us, put a card or your con­tact infor­ma­tion or email on a Post-It and we can find ways to col­lab­o­rate.


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