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.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.