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I’m very excit­ed to come here and speak here. I’ve been try­ing to fol­low the work that is com­ing out of here, and am very excit­ed about see­ing very fresh ideas that are rel­e­vant to the work that we’re doing. I’m teach­ing at Shenkar College in Ramat-Gan, which is just out­side Tel Aviv, and vol­un­teer­ing with an NGO called The Public Knowledge Workshop that is doing work on civic engage­ment and gov­ern­ment trans­paren­cy in Israel. I’m slight­ly depressed, but hope­ful­ly it won’t show too much. (Politically only.) Anyway.

What I’m going to talk about today is a theme I’ve been work­ing with for the last decade or so, and devel­oped through my years in New York. I spent five years in New York between 2005 and 2010, and this is kind of a theme that as a design­er I’ve been work­ing with for many years now.

I’m going to dis­cuss the theme of inter­face and maybe the pol­i­tics of inter­face through the com­mu­ni­ca­tion cycle, the idea of pro­to­cols, and then I’ll try to sug­gest inter­faces for resis­tance, and ways for that to be addressed as well.

When we talk about life online we have all of the euphemism, it’s dis­trib­uted, it’s open, it’s inter­ac­tive, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, demo­c­ra­t­ic, social, eman­ci­pa­to­ry. At the same time, when we’re talk­ing about online life, we’re talk­ing about destruc­t­ing, con­trol­ling, intru­sive, abu­sive, repres­sive, shal­low. All of these terms, all of these hopes, all of these con­cerns when it comes to online life, we meet them through the inter­face. So the inter­face is this point of inter­face between us and all of this tech­nol­o­gy. It’s at the heart of the debate. So what is inter­face?

There are many def­i­n­i­tions. The one that I find inter­est­ing is a com­mon bound­ary or inter­con­nec­tion between sys­tems, equip­ments, con­cepts, and human beings.” This is one of many def­i­n­i­tions, but I think one part of it that I think makes sense and com­mu­ni­cates specif­i­cal­ly is this idea of com­mon bound­ary and inter­con­nec­tion. This idea of the inter­face being some­thing com­mon, some­thing that we share, some­thing that we con­nect through implies some kind of rela­tion­ship between these sys­tems, equip­ments, con­cepts, human beings. And it does­n’t imply nec­es­sar­i­ly a lev­el of con­trol, it does­n’t imply that one side should be stronger than the oth­er or so on. This idea of com­mon­al­i­ty is some­thing that has been dis­cussed through media stud­ies, and before for many years, this idea of mutu­al­i­ty and inter­con­nect­ed­ness.

In the com­mu­ni­ca­tion cycle, we have—it’s like in Sesame Street. I have an idea, I talk to you, you have the idea. You have an idea, you talk to me, we both have [the] idea. Now the two of us have two ideas, how great. In 1980 Stuart Hall wrote a paper called Encoding, Decoding” and at the heart of his paper was this cri­tique of this com­mu­ni­ca­tion cycle. He was say­ing that this is actu­al­ly not the way it works. He said this is basi­cal­ly too sim­plis­tic. What is hap­pen­ing there is a bit more com­plex. He called this tex­tu­al deter­min­ism,” this idea that one side can plant ideas, kind of dragged and dropped into the mind of anoth­er per­son, that’s not how com­mu­ni­ca­tion actu­al­ly works. He tried to focus on the process of how com­mu­ni­ca­tion hap­pens, and he said first of all there’s encod­ing. I have an idea, I encode it into a dif­fer­ent form (in the case of this illus­tra­tion into speech) so the idea is turned into sounds. So this body of knowl­edge is encod­ed into sound, and the sound is def­i­nite­ly not the body of knowl­edge. And as long as we have mean­ing­ful dis­course, as long as you can hear me and under­stand my fun­ny accent and so on, if you’re in the back and you can’t hear me well, then we don’t have mean­ing­ful dis­course and there’s room in the front. But the point is that this is assum­ing you can actu­al­ly hear me, and under­stand me to an accept­able lev­el.

Then there’s the process of decod­ing, decod­ing sound through lis­ten­ing in this case, into a new body of knowl­edge. So if in Sesame Street it was like I have a tri­an­gle and now you have a tri­an­gle, so I have a tri­an­gle and what you have is not a tri­an­gle any­more. It’s dif­fer­ent. I don’t know what it is, you don’t real­ly know what I had in my brain. This process, both the encod­ing process and the decod­ing process are cre­ative process­es, process­es where the infor­ma­tion changes.

I was real­ly inter­est­ed in that Stuart Hall was writ­ing about tele­vi­sion, specif­i­cal­ly, in 1980. That was the medi­um that was being researched, and there were a lot of con­cerns about what does tele­vi­sion do. He referred to three types of code. He was say­ing one way of decod­ing is through a dom­i­nant or hege­mon­ic code. The recip­i­ent decodes the mes­sage using the same code it was encod­ed in, as is basi­cal­ly. Think a weath­er or sports broad­cast, or a cer­tain type of radio host, that what­ev­er they say is being accept­ed as is. So when I’m lis­ten­ing to the sports fore­cast, for exam­ple, I don’t ask myself, Well they said it was a touch­down, but is it real­ly a touch­down?” It’s not real­ly rel­e­vant. In some cas­es it is rel­e­vant to ques­tion the mes­sage, but the hege­mon­ic code would be kind of accept­ing every­thing that is there.

The nego­ti­at­ed code is more crit­i­cal yet not com­plete­ly dis­mis­sive of the read­ing. Think NPR. NPR claims it does­n’t have a lib­er­al bias, you know it has a lib­er­al bias, but you see your­self as intel­li­gent enough to spot it. But it’s still use­ful, it’s still use­ful to lis­ten to it. You take what you can get.

Then there’s the oppo­si­tion­al code. In the oppo­si­tion­al code, the mes­sage becomes an oppor­tu­ni­ty to decon­struct the code. Think a fem­i­nist read­ing of Little Red Riding Hood” or The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen” or the Hitler Gets Angry” meme. We know that what the orig­i­nal mes­sage was sup­posed to be, but we refer to orig­i­nal encod­ing in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way. Most memes actu­al­ly are some­what oppo­si­tion­al.

For me, I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in what hap­pens when it’s not con­ver­sa­tion or tele­vi­sion. What hap­pens when com­mu­ni­ca­tion is struc­tured through inter­face, and specif­i­cal­ly web inter­faces. When the mes­sage is encod­ed, when we see a mes­sage on the web, it’s encod­ed through inter­face. We all cel­e­brate and enjoy how expres­sive the Internet is, and how expres­sive the tools of the Internet are, but this expres­sion is at the lev­el of cre­at­ing these web pages. When it comes to the decod­ing of these mes­sages, it’s basi­cal­ly the same idea. You get the mes­sage, you decode it, you under­stand what you under­stand from it. So far, pret­ty much the same mod­el.

The thing is what hap­pens when we’re try­ing to encode our mes­sage to the Internet” or to a web page. When we respond to the sys­tem or the web site, it is always through the sys­tem’s dom­i­nant inter­face. If inter­face is an impor­tant part of how we com­mu­ni­cate online, we don’t actu­al­ly get to choose what inter­face to use. We basi­cal­ly work with­ing the con­struct of the inter­face that we were giv­en. I’ll give you an exam­ple to make it a bit sim­pler to under­stand.

This is from a friend of mine Leila Haddad, she’s a Palestinian blog­ger and jour­nal­ist. She tried to order flight tick­ets on British Airways, and you’ve all prob­a­bly come across this drop­down, What is your nation­al­i­ty?” She’s look­ing down the list to find her nation­al­i­ty, and under P” there’s no Palestinian nation­al­i­ty. So the inter­face demands this lev­el of obe­di­ence. This is who you can be. But the inter­face also teach­es obe­di­ence. If you come into a prob­lem like that, that’s where you call the com­pa­ny sup­port, right? So she called the sup­port of British Airways, and the per­son on the oth­er side was say­ing, Okay I’m look­ing in my sys­tem.” and in that per­son­’s sys­tem there was anoth­er drop­down menu with no Palestinian iden­ti­ty or nation­al­i­ty or pass­ports or doc­u­ments or what­ev­er. So even when you talk to a human, that con­ver­sa­tion is mit­i­gat­ed through the inter­face. The same dom­i­nant inter­face was there as well.

Lisa Nakamura, who’s research­ing race online, she calls it menu-driven iden­ti­ties,” Interfaces that lim­it and define what we are allowed to be. Think how many years it took for Facebook to accept dif­fer­ent types of gen­der def­i­n­i­tions. It’s the same thing. Why is that a drop­down menu? Why can I only be one of these things?

Let’s talk about pro­to­col. To under­stand the role of user inter­face we need to dive deep­er into the com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­to­col. This work is inspired by the work of Alex Galloway and oth­er thinkers on this top­ic. Specifically I’m try­ing to think what is dif­fer­ent about the web in that sense. When we’re talk­ing about tra­di­tion­al media, we’re talk­ing about cen­tral­ized pro­to­col, broad­cast, one-to-many. That’s a con­sis­tent pro­to­col. Television is always one-to-many. Same with news­pa­pers and broad­cast radio. The fact that it’s con­sis­tent means that the ques­tion of the inter­face in the tele­vi­sion case is not that big of an issue. When you under­stand the inter­face of the tele­vi­sion, when you under­stand it’s con­sis­tent, you can move on. Same with an inter­ac­tive pro­to­col like tele­phone. This is one-to-one, it’s inter­ac­tive, but it’s still a con­sis­tent pro­to­col. It’s a pro­to­col that does­n’t change every time I pick up the phone.

When we go into dig­i­tal media, we have dif­fer­ent kinds of pro­to­cols. We have email, we have chat, we have net­worked games, we have voice over IP, and all of them actu­al­ly have a con­sis­tent pro­to­col. When I’m send­ing an email, I always need an address, it should be @-something and so on. I’m not get­ting every email try­ing to ask myself what am I sup­posed to do now? When talk­ing about pro­to­cols, there’s the idea of the sev­en lay­ers of the OSI mod­el. The OSI mod­el is kind of tech­ni­cal, but the things we should care about—this is the pro­to­col of the Internet, the dif­fer­ent lay­ers of the pro­to­col of the Internet. We have the Internet Protocol lay­er, that’s where TCP/IP lives, that’s basi­cal­ly how pack­et switch­ing hap­pens. Basically every­thing that we know about the Internet being net­worked and so on hap­pens there.

But the top lay­er of the OSI mod­el is the appli­ca­tion lay­er. That’s where we have our dif­fer­ent appli­ca­tions like email clients, voice over IP, net­work games, and so on, and also a brows­er. When we open the brows­er, I think some­thing slight­ly dif­fer­ent hap­pens, because the browser’s pro­to­col is flex­i­ble. On the web, the pro­to­col is basi­cal­ly a ques­tion of inter­face. Every web page basi­cal­ly adds anoth­er lay­er of pro­to­col, anoth­er lay­er of pos­si­ble con­trol, and I would sug­gest that the OSI mod­el needs to be updat­ed with anoth­er lay­er when we’re talk­ing about the web, a lay­er of inter­face. Specifically user inter­face. If in the appli­ca­tion lay­er we are using a brows­er, then we can get dif­fer­ent kinds of appli­ca­tions that real­ly change the way we should think about con­trol and com­mu­ni­ca­tion online. We have to take into account the inter­face ques­tion is a gov­er­nance ques­tion. It’s a ques­tion of who sets the rules, who’s sup­posed to be abid­ing by these rules, what is the process of mak­ing rules?

You’ve prob­a­bly noticed that this is kind of a media studies-inspired thing, and I tried but I could­n’t resist includ­ing Marshall McLuhan.

We are in the mid­dle of a tremen­dous clash between the old and the new. The medi­um does things to peo­ple and they’re always com­plete­ly unaware of this. They don’t real­ly notice the new medi­um that is wrap­ping them up. They think of the old medi­um because the old medi­um is always the con­tent of the new medi­um, as movies tend to be the con­tent of TV, and as books used to be the con­tent, nov­els used to be the con­tent of movies. And so every time a new medi­um arrives, the new medi­um is the con­tent and it is high­ly observ­able, high­ly notice­able. But the real rough­ing up and mas­sag­ing is done by the new medi­um, and it is ignored.
Marshal McLuhan, tele­vi­sion inter­view

That’s his clas­sic spiel, the old medi­um is the con­tent of the new medi­um, so the books have become the con­tent of film, film has become the con­tent of TV, and then TV has become the con­tent of the web, right? Well, not only. There’s a lot of things going on on the web, not just the old medi­um. In a sense we can say this is what McLuhan meant by the medi­um is the mes­sage.” But that’s only true as long as the medi­um has a con­sis­tent pro­to­col, because I would say the medi­um is the mes­sage when we’re talk­ing about the kind of media that we have today. We can think about it as inter­face deter­min­ism. It kind of deter­mines that by point­ing at a medi­um, we are also point­ing at the inter­face. Maybe the inter­face is the mes­sage. Maybe that’s what McLuhan actu­al­ly meant, he just nev­er thought of media hav­ing dif­fer­ent inter­faces, which is what we have right now. Maybe the mes­sage and the rules that gov­ern it become ambigu­ous when the inter­face changes every time. Adopting from McLuhan can only go so far because I don’t real­ly share his techno-determinism, but this is kind of a response to him.

I’d like to bring up anoth­er impor­tant and influ­en­tial thinker, Donald Rumsfeld. Trying to make the case for the war in Iraq and refer­ring to the ques­tion of WMDs, Rumsfeld went on an inter­est­ing philo­soph­i­cal state­ment that you prob­a­bly remem­ber, there are known knowns, there are things we know that we known, there are known unknowns, there are things that we know that we don’t know, but there are also unknown unknowns.” There are things that we don’t know that we don’t know, there are things that are so far from what we can even imag­ine, and that’s a good rea­son to go to war with­out proof of WMDs.

When Slavoj Žižek came across this, it was too tasty for him to ignore and he enjoyed the rhetoric, but he said basi­cal­ly this is great, but Rumsfeld for­got the fourth option: there are unknown knowns. What about the things that we don’t know that we know. This is the real rea­son for the war. The sub­con­scious, that’s where the ide­ol­o­gy hap­pens. And Žižek actu­al­ly writes about the fact that that’s where design hap­pens, that’s how design works. Design uses the unknown known, the things that we don’t know that we know, things that work on us with­out us know­ing.

I would add that’s how inter­face works. When it comes to user inter­face design and usabil­i­ty, I think Steve Krug would agree, but the dis­course in inter­ac­tion design is try­ing to keep the known, unknown. So the fact that we don’t know that we know is kind of good for inter­ac­tion design, at least in the pro­fes­sion­al debate. Steve Krug wrote one of the bibles of user inter­face, and this its title Don’t Make Me Think. I’m sure some of you have come across it. It was pub­lished in 2000 and wide­ly quot­ed and vast­ly trans­lat­ed. It has framed a lot of the dis­course about the role of inter­ac­tion design as low­er­ing the cog­ni­tive load to a min­i­mum. And let’s put things in per­spec­tive: that is true, to a cer­tain degree. One of the terms that we speak about in inter­ac­tion design is affor­dance. Affordance is how inter­faces or how tools com­mu­ni­cate what you are expect­ed to do with them.

But then the ques­tion that should be asked is what atten­tion do we afford or, in the case of the web, how is our atten­tion being afford­ed? Because when atten­tion becomes the most rare resource in the Internet, the atten­tion is becom­ing some­thing that we both use, but our atten­tion is being used. It’s being afford­ed, it’s becom­ing a cur­ren­cy on the web. So we’ve estab­lished that there are quite a few polit­i­cal issues involved, and when we’re com­ing to a site, we’re not too much in a posi­tion of affect­ing them. So how can we try to think of inter­faces for resis­tance, or resist­ing the par­a­digm of the inter­face? I would sug­gest a divi­sion of tac­ti­cal resis­tance, strate­gic resis­tance, and logis­tic resis­tance.

Around the so-called Web 2.0” around ten years ago, there was a lot of excite­ment about user-generated con­tent. They’re ask­ing us what we think, how amaz­ing is that? It’s like author­ship, all of a sud­den, can hap­pen because all of a sud­den the con­tent of the web is not just con­tent, it’s also inter­faces that would allow us to cre­ate con­tent. That’s when the inter­face is kind enough to allow us to express our­selves. I would call that the first depth of author­ship.

The sec­ond depth would be user-generated con­text. Think about mashups, embeds. This is built into the web pro­to­col. Think of tak­ing a Craigslist post­ings and putting them on a Google Map. That was a big deal when it hap­pened for the first time. Now cre­at­ing the con­text of tak­ing this and that and putting them togeth­er is a new type of author­ship. This kind of author­ship is built into the web’s pro­to­col, the idea that I can take one resource and anoth­er resource and put them togeth­er, that’s how the web works. It’s the same flex­i­bil­i­ty that also gives us track­ers and ad net­works. So it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly used on our behalf.

The third option I would sug­gest would be user-generated inter­faces. This is also built into the pro­to­col of the Internet. Having users change what the site allows them to do, usu­al­ly by mod­i­fy­ing the brows­er, main­ly with brows­er exten­sions. The idea that you can take your brows­er and you can change it and rede­fine what the brows­er can do is some­thing that can extend what we might want to call inter­face lit­er­a­cy, this idea that it’s not only about how do I read the inter­face in front of me, or how do I low­er cog­ni­tive load, but how do I mit­i­gate this polit­i­cal ques­tion of gov­er­nance that hap­pens on the web.

One way of address­ing that is through tac­ti­cal resis­tance. The tac­ti­cal resis­tance would hap­pen on the inter­face lay­er. This is a sub­ver­sion of the inter­face’s use. I think that a text­book exam­ple for that would be Google bomb­ing. This was around the time of the attack at the begin­ning of the war in Iraq. This was a par­o­dy of not find­ing weapons of mass destruc­tion. When you searched the web for weapons of mass destruc­tion, you would get that as the first result on Google. That hap­pened by a con­cert­ed effort from dif­fer­ent blog­gers that opposed the war. They all wrote the words weapons of mass destruc­tion” and linked them to this page, which raised the Google rank for this page and made it the first result for weapons of mass destruc­tion,” so turn­ing PageRank into an inter­face. PageRank is not sup­posed to be an inter­face, or a user inter­face. What this kind of tac­ti­cal resis­tance rep­re­sents is a hit and run. It’s lim­it­ed in scope, for bet­ter or worse. It’s a lim­it­ed invest­ment, for bet­ter or worse. A lot of hack­ing and culture-jamming hap­pens on this lev­el of resis­tance. It’s about learn­ing how the sys­tem works and find­ing its vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, tak­ing advan­tage of the inter­face’s open­ness. So the inter­face is open to a cer­tain degree; this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Kind of teach­ing the sys­tem some­thing it did­n’t know about itself. Most of these cas­es are sym­bol­ic ges­tures of resis­tance, so protest action and polit­i­cal art is main­ly tac­ti­cal in that sense.

The sec­ond type of resis­tance would be strate­gic resis­tance, and I would sug­gest that that’s the kind of resis­tance that hap­pens in the appli­ca­tion lay­er. That is basi­cal­ly say­ing yes we’re sup­posed to be brows­ing the web through these soft­wares, let’s try to see how can we change that, how do we change the brows­er itself? I delib­er­ate­ly chose an exam­ple that is not polit­i­cal but com­mer­cial. This is Book Burro. It’s not active any­more but there are quite a few sim­i­lar ones. What Book Burro does is some­thing that Amazon would nev­er do: tell you on each book page where you can find the book a bet­ter price online, and where you can find it in pub­lic libraries based on how far they are from where you are right now. We look at that and say, Oh. Yeah, I need that.” None of us would even think in the direc­tion of cre­at­ing an inter­face like that, because we’re com­plete­ly sub­merged with­in the pol­i­tics of inter­face that we are not a part of— that we are not sup­posed to have agency there.

Does any­body know what the most pop­u­lar exten­sion both on Firefox and Chrome? Adblock Plus. As soon as exten­sions became a thing on Firefox, this hap­pened. Because we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want to see ads, and in some cas­es we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want to be tracked by ads. This is arguably one of the rea­sons for the Google Chrome project. Adblock Plus was one of the biggest hur­dles for Google AdWords from extend­ing and Google had to be in a posi­tion of lever­age in front of Adblock Plus. It was obvi­ous that with all of the euphemism around Google being a great sup­port­er of open source, Chrome could not have start­ed with no exten­sions, and could not ignore Adblock Plus and say, This is a brows­er with no Adblock Plus.” But what they did, because they’re smart, they cre­at­ed lever­age of Adblock Plus’ destruc­tion. Google pays Adblock Plus. How many of you know that? Most of you don’t know that. Google pays Adblock Plus to change one thing about its inter­face. Adblock Plus added a check­box that says Allow inob­tru­sive ads.” [whis­pered:] Google ads.

So, redefin­ing the ques­tion of why do we not want ads. Do we not want ads because we don’t want ban­ners, or do we not want to be tracked? It’s com­plete­ly rede­fined through Adblock Plus now, and this is one of the rea­sons there are a lot of forks to the Adblock Plus project that don’t have this check­box. This is also one of the things that makes the claim that Adblock Plus is black­mail­ing ad net­works true.

Audience: How much mon­ey? Do we know?

Mushon: Undisclosed.

I can talk about it lat­er, but one of the exam­ples I can bring up is my project togeth­er with Helen Nissenbaum and Daniel Howe, AdNauseam. We basi­cal­ly cre­at­ed an exten­sion that works with your ad block­er. Every ad blocked by your block­er is clicked by AdNauseam. We click all of the ads on the web, basi­cal­ly flood­ing the pro­files that the ad net­works are con­struct­ing and plant­i­ng a lot of mis­trust between adver­tis­ers and ad net­works.

This approach is more of a hit and stay” approach. It has larg­er scope, for bet­ter or worse, larg­er invest­ment, for bet­ter or worse. It’s about devel­op­ing alter­na­tive ser­vices. It’s a deep­er and less tra­di­tion­al read­ing of the pro­to­col. The polit­i­cal val­ue here goes beyond the sym­bol­ic, it’s more than a ges­ture of resis­tance. It’s a sol­id resis­tance to the inter­face’s demand­ed obe­di­ence, a con­crete polit­i­cal pow­er to be reck­oned with. (And it’s hard­er to make an art career out of that. Just FYI.)

And the third lay­er is logis­tic resis­tance. Now we’re talk­ing about resist­ing the Internet Protocol, chang­ing the deep tech­ni­cal pro­to­col like TCP/IP either through slow bureau­crat­ic process­es or through rev­o­lu­tion, that’s how big pro­to­cols change. If you get rid of a hege­mon­ic pro­to­col like TCP/IP, you basi­cal­ly need to cre­ate a new hege­mo­ny to replace it. It’s a big polit­i­cal and pow­er­ful and often con­ser­v­a­tive process through stan­dards com­mit­tees, and when one stan­dard is replaced with a new one, it breaks every­thing above it. So this is some­thing that is kind of tough, and the exam­ple for attempts to chal­lenge the TCP/IP pro­to­col is this: I haven’t seen any. We basi­cal­ly haven’t seen seri­ous attempts to say we can go beyond TCP/IP. You are the crowd who can tell me, No, you’re wrong. There’s this and this and that.” and I’m wait­ing to hear that after the talk. I’ve seen a lot of attempts for mesh net­works and oth­er things that are actu­al­ly built on top of TCP/IP, and none of the approach­es that basi­cal­ly say what­ev­er was invent­ed half a cen­tu­ry ago is not the way to go.

Evgeny Morozov, who can be seen as both an impor­tant and provoca­tive thinker, and an arro­gant and vio­lent troll (a bit of both, I guess), defines it as tech­no­log­i­cal defeatism, this belief that since a giv­en tech­nol­o­gy is here to stay there’s noth­ing we can do about it oth­er than get on with it and sim­ply adjust our norms. I think this cri­tique is actu­al­ly very valu­able. There are things that we don’t like about the way pro­to­cols are work­ing, but we don’t see enough seri­ous attempts to chal­lenge them. It’s like this con­cept that has been with us for fifty years, and it’s as if this is the way we’re sup­posed to work from now on.

All of this cri­tique of things that have to do with the Internet, it’s only online, it’s not real. Why do we need to wor­ry about that so much? But just try to think how many hours we spend in front of these screens. Most of our work days are in front of these screens, and then we spend more and more time in front of gov­ern­ing inter­faces, so most of our dai­ly expe­ri­ence in con­tem­plat­ing author­i­ty and new rule sys­tems is in front of web inter­faces. Because when we talk about the web demand­ing obe­di­ence, it’s 247. Every web page that I open has the sub­lim­i­nal ques­tion of What am I allowed to do here?” And I don’t even ask myself—this is the unknown known. The fact that I’m con­stant­ly think­ing about it, con­stant­ly made not to think about it, that is the most pro­found expe­ri­ence of obe­di­ence that we have on a dai­ly basis, on a page by page basis. And not only online. Away from key­board, these dom­i­nant inter­faces of con­trol are not new. To put it in con­text, we can see some exam­ples for resis­tance to inter­faces of con­trol that are not tech­no­log­i­cal or not dig­i­tal.

For tac­ti­cal resis­tance, we can look at This is a response to the hege­mon­ic code of the Iranian gov­ern­ment as part of the Iranian upris­ing in 2009. The bills were used as a form of protest, with writ­ings like death to the dic­ta­tor” and for free­dom.” It has become a real prob­lem. More and more bills are chang­ing hands with polit­i­cal state­ments that are against so-called counter-revolutionary” or counter-counter-counter-revolutionary. It gets com­pli­cat­ed with Iran. Money’s not sup­posed to be an inter­face for protest, but they made it into an inter­face of protest and nobody’s going to throw that in the garbage, even though Ahmadinejad tried to say that every bill that had a sign like that would not be accept­ed, but the phe­nom­e­non was so wide that they could­n’t do that.

We can think of strate­gic resis­tance. My exam­ple here is Rolling Jubilee, which is a very strong hit and stay approach. What they do is they’re basi­cal­ly bail­ing out the poor. The way debt works, is if there are high-risk debts they are trad­ed between dif­fer­ent banks and com­pa­nies, and they’re trad­ed for much less than the deb itself. What Rolling Jubilee does is they fundraise to buy debts and strike them. When this screen­shot was take, just a bit more than half a mil­lion dol­lars abol­ished almost twelve mil­lion dol­lars in debts. So this is read­ing the inter­face for the finan­cial sys­tem and say­ing, We are going to play that game, but not in the way that is expect­ed.” And this is chang­ing things on the ground. These are peo­ple who are get­ting their lives back.

And the third lay­er, the logis­tic resis­tance is best rep­re­sent­ed by what’s been hap­pen­ing in the Middle East. Sometimes it looks like a very hope­ful attempt to say we’ll plant some­thing new in Tahrir Square and things will be dif­fer­ent. We’ll get rid of that pro­to­col and we have ideas for a new pro­to­col. Sometimes it looks a bit more grue­some, and we’ve all seen much much more grue­some pic­tures. My neigh­bors around the Middle East have had enough of the pro­to­cols that gov­ern them. Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and oth­ers got rid of their pre­vi­ous pro­to­col, and what we’re see­ing now can be seen as a pro­to­col war, redefin­ing the rules of play.

To con­clude, even though the con­flict is unavoid­able, I find it very inter­est­ing and quite impor­tant to con­front. I address it in my aca­d­e­m­ic and cre­ative work through dif­fer­ent tac­tics and strate­gies. Specifically I find the ques­tion of inter­con­nect­ed­ness to be crit­i­cal, espe­cial­ly from my geopo­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive.

Thank you.

Audience 1: You've painted this almost tiered or layered approach to thinking about the tactical, strategic and logistic forms of resistance to the obedience that you've laid out is demanded. I'm wondering whether, and you've sort of made a prompt at least in the online sense or with the digital technologies, to say that the logistic you don't have good examples of, or are looking for the good examples of it. I want to push you to think about why that is. Is one of them easier to do? Is one of them easier to understand? Is it a technology affordance, or a sort of philosophical affordance?

Mushon: I think it's both and beyond that. It's the way the technological world is constructed. The fact that we are led into these new political settings by companies who have their own interests and are the biggest players is a big problem. It basically puts us in a point of disadvantage. I also think you're lucky enough to be in the US, because the US controls the Internet, and from my perspective not being an American citizen, I'm not in a position of influence as you guys are. We're seeing that with the whole debate about Snowden is they're following American citizens. Is it okay to follow me? The answer is yes because I'm closer to terrorism, potentially.

Audience: The Constitution only protects the citizens.

Definitely not online. Definitely not the technological governance that we've built that is built from a certain ideology, to serve certain ideology. There's so much power involved. But the reason that I referred back to on the ground physical activism or the financial system is because my concern is that if we don't resist the interfaces online, then we don't expect to resist anything, because that is where we learn how to interact, that's where we learn what it expected from us on a civic level. And that is concerning.

I can say that in the case of the way technological governance works, we've come across it with AdNauseam.

Audience 2: This is more just a resource question if you have any thoughts. I'm interested to know how the enforcement or the setting in of the demand for obedience tracks with things like decline in health, advancement of problems with the environment, advancement of things like diabetes and certain other kinds of illnesses that are more… I'm looking at the epidemiology. I'm interested to know if there's any [resources?] that you know of to track on a very granular, incremental level, how the advancement of this kind of demanding, obedience tracks with other things. Do you have any sense of [crosstalk]

Mushon: It's not my field, so I wouldn't know how to research that, exactly. The statement I'm making is about political imagination, to a certain degree that is limited by our daily experience of obedience. So I'm concerned about our ability to imagine different relationships but I don't know how to quantify that.

Audience 2: Any sense of resources where I might be able to…

Mushon: Maybe someone else in the room. I don't know.

Audience 2: Okay. Thank you.

Audience 3: Maybe I missed this but you had this tantalizing lead at the ending about interconnection, and I kind of missed the connection of that concept with—

Mushon: With interface.

Audience 3: Yeah.

Mushon: Basically the definition of interface has to do with this connection between systems, people. We've experienced interface for so long now and so intensely through user interface that we forgot that. We forgot that there is no implied hierarchy in the concept of interface. There could've been a web where the power settings of site owners versus site users would've not been set as hierarchical. So in its core, interface is about relationships, about interconnectedness.

[Next question repeatedly drowned out by photocopier; may contain some errors.]

Audience 4: I'd like to pull on this thread of what you say is a lack of subversion of the IP protocol. First, that's setting a very high bar. Even the engineering task force that wants to replace IPv4 and IPv6 has been struggling for a decade. Even the people who control the mechanisms of technological determinism can't change it when they want to. But I would argue that there've actually have been a large number of attempts successful to subvert it. I would argue that any content firewall that does content filtering is subverting TCP/IP because it's not letting packets that contain a certain message go through. I would argue that distributed denial of service attacks that use characteristics of the IP protocol, or Anonymous' Low Orbit Ion Cannon. [China and distributed denial of service attacks] That's subverting the IP protocols. Things like DNS cache poisoning that will take a web site our of domain name resolution, and people would talk about things like SOPA and PIPA, which are legal efforts to get sites taken out of the domain name system [are] a legal effort to subvert the way the IP protocol is supposed to work.

Mushon: I understand your point. I just think, at least the way I'm seeing it, this is using the TCP/IP protocol. This is what the TCP/IP protocol allows. That is maybe not the way we would've wanted or certain bodies would've wanted to use it, but this is a use of that protocol. This is a part of the problem with a protocol. I would say the fact that privacy is not embedded into the protocol is another problem with that protocol, beyond the problem of distributed denial of service attacks or packet sniffing. This is the protocol, this is what it allows. If this is done within that context, this is not challenging that protocol by saying here's another protocol. It's maybe exposing the vulnerabilities of that protocol, but not necessarily directing another way for going beyond what the protocol allows or does not allow.

Audience 4: [Mostly inaudible] oppositional the same way […] feminist reading

Mushon: I would just put it in one of the layers above the TCP/IP layer. But I think we understand each other.

Audience 5: The question I have has to do with your speak of interfaces and affordance. I do a lot of US and I do a lot of disability professionally for patients and people in healthcare. These are, in my experience, and this is the question for you, is you said these interfaces ask us to obey, they push you in a certain direction. Well, just like in the DDoS case, I almost wanted some kind of protocol to save me from these problems, but I didn't have any because I have "freedom." But now I find the interfaces that are bad or that don't allow you to really do what you meant to do or accomplish the task you meant to accomplish, which is what creates that relationship. I feel like a lot of that disconnect is sloppiness and not an agenda. So the question for you, I deal with the US government right now, who is forcing me to make it very universally usable. Great, right? It sounds fantastic, but it comes from the government as a mandate, a set of rule "I have to meet" or somehow prove to have met. But it's kind of opposite to my natural inclination, being a cyber-child, to say no, "No, I don't need you to tell me what to do. I will surpass your requirements, I will do something very different." So I just…a question of sloppy versus making it better for everybody. Individual choice versus a mandate.

Mushon: A version of this question was made to me yesterday. I gave a talk at MassArt about disinformation visualization, or how to lie with dataviz. My argument there was that we should not look at visualization like Edward Tufte claims we should look at it as beautiful evidence, we should look at it as beautiful arguments.

I think it's about the argument. It's not about "interfaces are there to grab us all." And I think the Don't Make Me Think book is actually good in the sense that there is a problem with cognitive load. It's a challenge. Cognitive load is a challenge for design, but when we are so obsessed about directing attention and making our users not thing, we also forget that we are representing different interests. There are the interests of the site owners and there are the interests of the users and I think the example of Book Burro, that's why I like it so much, because the difference of interests there is so obvious. When we are in the position of "designing" these user interfaces, we are doing political work. We are doing work that should be politicized. So I'm not going to politicize bad interfaces. It's not about making you think about things that are not political. I don't think people should make crappy user experiences just so you think about the face there's a crappy UX designer behind it. But I do think that if what's embedded within a certain interface is something that should be politicized, we should change the way we think about what we are allowed to do online. That's more of the critique that I'm making.

Audience 7: This is a follow-up to that. This seems particularly important now versus say, in 2002 or something because of the consolidation of attention on the Internet. So it seems like this is particularly relevant when you're talking about a site like Politicizing is very different than politicizing my personal blog or something like that because so much of the attention, so much of the personal data that is captured and extracted on the Internet flows to Amazon and Google and Facebook and Twitter and so on. So do you feel that that is part of this politics, this current geography of attention and data on the Internet?

Mushon: It makes a lot of difference but the playing with context on the Internet has changed dramatically as well. Out of the 100 most popular web sites on the Internet, 97 of them report back to Google on everything that you're doing, and it's not like 97 out of the 100 most popular sites are Google sites. So even your blog is exposed to these questions. And they don't even expose a user interface, it's just an implicit interface that by browsing the web you're reporting back to Google, because people are using Google Analytics or YouTube or Google Maps or whatever. So I think we can't actually say these are only problems in the big sites.

Audience 7: I was just thinking your argument about interfaces sort of demanding obedience would be in a sense less problematic if they were— It seemed like you were saying they would be less problematic if there were more of us producing those interfaces. If the task of who's owning the sites and who's using the sites is more equally distributed amongst people. Is that not—

Mushon: I don't think that if all of us build our WordPress blogs, everything would be fine. Which is happening less and less, by the way.

Audience 7: And also mobile mobile. There's nothing user [search—?] [crosstalk]

Man: And then there's Internet of Things, which brings interface to a whole new—

Mushon: Yeah, and if we continue along the previous medium being the content of the new, think about mobile apps and how the web is becoming the content of them. I think it has to do with literacy. And I actually think it has to do with political imagination. Can we imagine a different relationship? I don't think we can do that because we haven't thought of challenging the TCP/IP protocol. I think there's a lot to do even before we challenge TCP/IP. And I'm not trying to challenge TCP/IP, I'm far from being in these levels of action or technological level. I think there's a lot to do with both tactics and strategies that are inspiring politically as well, and technologically, and UX-ly and so on.

Audience 5: An example that really drives me insane in terms of modern development of design is, we've all known BBC Online. We've used it maybe, for news, resources, etc. Now anybody here has a mobile app. It is like back to TV land. I feel even less engaged, less powerful, less able to learn. For example, you can read the article but there's never related content or links to the embassy of Nicaragua and the embassy of the US who are having an issue. There's no comments or even a name of the person or people who wrote it. And I feel like here we are after the 90s and the first ten years of 2000 after we've seen this culture explode, seen this content being created by all us, see some people percolate up and being new types of journalists, and now I feel like easily reversed—

Mushon: I have an answer for you that might actually address what you—the answer that I haven't given you. [Audience 7]

I'm working on a client project. This is public radio in Israel. When I was talking with the company that built the previous site that we're now redesigning, I said we will need an API as part of the new redesign. The same company was supposed to build the new site as well and said, "We don't want to build an API for them. If we build them an API, they'll be able to get rid of us."

I was like, "What? I can't believe you even allow yourselves to say that." (The good news is that this company is not going to build it.) But there is a future that we can get to, that is not very far, where we all instead of providing web sites, we would provide APIs. So your blog would be exposing an API. It actually was like that, that was RSS. I think when RSS happened, and since it kind of died, we didn't understand it yet because technology wasn't there yet. Ajax was—the "X" was for XML; it came after. I think this is still valid, and I think it's becoming valid again ten years or so after. Now there is this need for us to expose APIs, and to allow other people to do other things with different interfaces over different data. I can see a trend towards that, and that would be a very interesting place both for data literacy and interface literacy.

Audience 9: To follow on that. When you talk a lot about the literacy, one approach to the— There are assumptions or decisions or just sloppiness in these interfaces that restrict what I can do with it. Obviously the sort of personal response is build toolkits to allow people to build their own interfaces, which you've done. Is that primarily an argument or response about literacy, or an argument or response to say hey, I was able to make my own interfaces so now I'm liberated from at least the top layer of restrictions that were imposed on me. Is this sort of an argument about utility or a meta-argument about "Oh, now I know how to build these things, so I've become empowered in general to think about the assumptions in what I'm allowed or not allowed to do…"

Mushon: I think the answer is bo— You know the answer is both, but I think the only way to get to the first assumption, the one about literacy, is through utility. Because this might be an interesting debate to have, but until it becomes an actual— That's what I like about Book Burro. I need that. I use that. The fact that Book Burro not only recommended other places to buy but actually sent me to my public library is super powerful. I was in a consumerist mode and it sent me to a civic mode. And there was value, financial value and civic value for me there. Same with Adblock Plus, in a different way, obviously. Civic value in Adblock plus, you wouldn't find, but it's solving a problem. And while doing that it exposes the differences of interest between me and the site itself

So I think there should be more initiatives that do think about services in that sense and are not only about literacy or political statements about information, but also about what do people want.

Audience 9: And this is a difference between your AdNauseam example and Adblock Plus

Mushon: True.

Audience 9: Adblock Plus is providing utility for me, and has none of these sort of activist endpoints whereas your AdNauseam is providing utility if it does the blocking or piggybacks on the blocking, but then it's making this aggressive stance to say, "Hey, I'm also going to try to disrupt the system that I'm checking out of rather than just checking out of it" I think a number of the tools that you mention or that I can think of off of my head are more of the "I'm checking out of this" rather than the "I'm checking out and I'm trying to mess it up for everyone else."

Mushon: That's a problem that I have with the privacy debate. It's super depressing. We didn't go online to hide. We go online to communicate. We go online express ourselves. We enjoy that. It's fun, it's social. The whole privacy debate, it gets people to either hope for the best or know that you're being fucked but that's just how it is. Or you're tech-savvy enough to encrypt every little thing that you do and to use exactly the right set of tools to circumvent any attempt of data being collected on you by someone who you don't know. There's something so materialistic about this, and it's super depressing. It's no fun.

I've never enjoyed protecting my data. Until we've started to go the complete other way with AdNauseam. The whole idea is that we want to be expressive, let's be super expressive. Let's celebrate it, let's perform it. If you want me to tell you that it's a solid way of avoiding data collection? No, it's not. It's not going to compete with the latest encryption algorithm in the next data security conference. But it is trying to compete with this idea that security is something for extreme activists or terrorists or uber-geeks or whatever. We need to change the language around that, and come from that point where the web people want to be, that expressive point that is playful. It's not only protecting myself, it's actually inflicting pain and getting back to the point of leverage, which is what we're lacking there. Because the background of AdNauseam is the failure of the Do Not Track standards committee. This is exactly the political process that did not give us a valuable or valid solution, while the solution is there.

You can basically already on Firefox you can already check a checkbox, even in Internet Explorer. You can check a checkbox that says you do not want web sites to build a profile on you. The only problem is that they don't respect that. That's what the committee was built do set. To set the rules of how this checkbox is going to be respected. But apparently, three years after it started, the companies sitting on that committee are there to make sure it never leaves the ground.

Further Reference

Some attendees of this presentation published collaborative notes at the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

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