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.