Hi, every­one. My name is Allison Burtch and I am cur­rent­ly a res­i­dent at the Eyebeam Art & Technology Center in Brooklyn, New York and teach­ing at the School for Poetic Computation, which I’ll tell you a lit­tle bit about my class. And I’m very hap­py to be here, so thank you Golan and Addie and the Studio.

I’m going to talk a lit­tle bit about some projects that I made and also sort of gen­er­al thoughts about mak­ing tech­nol­o­gy in the world we live in today. So I’m going to read this quote:

What is going on? Of what are we the half-fascinated half-devastated wit­ness­es? The con­tin­u­a­tion at all costs, of a weary world? A salu­tary cri­sis of that world, racked by its vic­to­ri­ous expan­sion? The end of that world? The advent of a dif­fer­ent world? What is hap­pen­ing to us in the ear­ly years of the cen­tu­ry – some­thing that would appear not to have any clear name in any accept­ed language?
The Rebirth of History, Alain Badiou

This is the first para­graph in Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History and I like that some­one can start a book off by say­ing What is going on?” because I feel like it’s a good ques­tion and I think a lot of the oth­er two talks were fair­ly melan­choly as well because we’re in a very dif­fi­cult place in his­to­ry. And it’s up to us to work togeth­er to move that tide differently.

So what was the goal of com­put­ers, or the Internet, this whole vision that we’ve heard I’m sure about how the Internet will change every­thing and it has. The beau­ty of the Internet and con­nect­ed devices is this idea of a self-stabilizing, inclu­sive, demo­c­ra­t­ic, peer-to-peer dis­trib­uted net­work where we’re free to pur­sue our own hap­pi­ness. The be this Randian indi­vid­ual. And the under­ly­ing idea is that if only we were able to hear more about peo­ple, some­how that will make the world a bet­ter place. And I feel like that has, and we can see espe­cial­ly with the protests going on right now. I feel like a lot of peo­ple have been rad­i­cal­ized by what they’re see­ing on Tumblr, Twitter, and moved to change. 

Yet at the same time what we also see is that the glob­al influx of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy has result­ed in an enor­mous con­sol­i­da­tion of wealth and pow­er. And so we’re at this impasse where we’re mak­ing tech­nol­o­gy in this realm where the peo­ple who are mak­ing mon­ey off of it are mak­ing a lot of mon­ey. I’m sure we all know that. There’s a mas­sive con­sol­i­da­tion of wealth and pow­er at the top. In 2010, 93% of the addi­tion­al income cre­at­ed in American went to the top 1%. And we’re see­ing that in the rest of the world.

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners

What I’d like to pro­pose is that what we see is that the major­i­ty of the world’s peo­ple, when it comes to tech­nol­o­gy are actu­al­ly these glean­ers. It’s a Biblical term, and it’s the act of col­lect­ing left­over crops from farmer’s fields after they have been com­mer­cial­ly har­vest­ed, or on fields where it is not eco­nom­i­cal­ly prof­itable to har­vest. And so as a tech­nol­o­gist I want to know how can I make stuff for the peo­ple in this realm. And real­ly how do we make stuff in this world where we see so many things that are messed up. 

So in this past year I came up with this idea of lib­er­a­tion tech­nol­o­gy” which I’ll talk about in a sec­ond. But first I want to show you this. Here we see two dif­fer­ent exam­ples of tech­nol­o­gy used in protest. Does any­one know what the thing at the bot­tom is? It’s called an LRAD, a Long Range Acoustic Device. And then the top is FireChat, which is this Bluetooth-enabled peer-to-peer chat­ting mech­a­nism that the pro­test­ers in Hong Kong used. So tech­nol­o­gists, espe­cial­ly at a place like CMU are faced with the real­i­ty that either we can­not con­trol the tech­nol­o­gy that we cre­ate, or often­times when we start mak­ing stuff we don’t think about the para­me­ters about which the tech­nol­o­gy can be used. I mean I’m sure there are some peo­ple who are real­ly stoked to make an LRAD, but that’s not me.

That brings me to this class that I taught at SFPC which is called Critical Theory of Technology.” What I would like to say is that dis­cus­sions about tech­nol­o­gy are actu­al­ly rarely about tech­nol­o­gy, they’re about humans, mon­ey, and pow­er. And so when you get artists togeth­er who make tech stuff, it’s so easy to start talk­ing about, Oh like, what [inaudi­ble] do? How can you add this to this to make this?” and it becomes all about this tech­nol­o­gy instead of about humans, and so the goal for this class is real­ly What’s going on in this world? Who are humans, and what do we need?” So with­in this tremen­dous mis­ery and injus­tice in the world, how can we deal with it, and then also how do we pay the rent? My goal for the class was to live in that ten­sion, to empow­er mak­ers, musi­cians, coders, and artists to con­tin­ue to make wide-eyed and yet still open-hearted— One of my favorite authors, Ursula K. LeGuin calls this the Grand Inquisitor’s Choice,” where you choose free­dom with­out hap­pi­ness, or hap­pi­ness with­out free­dom. The only answer one can make, I think: no. And so with con­tem­po­rary soci­ety and our col­lec­tive future irrev­o­ca­bly changed by this ubiq­ui­tous tech­nol­o­gy, the ques­tions that mak­ers, artists, and tech­nol­o­gists pose to soci­ety are increas­ing­ly relevant. 

So, lib­er­a­tion tech­nol­o­gy. I would like to define this by say­ing that it’s tech­nol­o­gy that exists to lib­er­ate peo­ple from unjust eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, or social con­di­tions. I am real­ly inter­est­ed in being real­ly clear about what that end result is, and what the actu­al pol­i­tics you’re look­ing for… We can toss around these ideas of democ­ra­cy, liber—stuff like that, but what does that actu­al­ly look like, and that’s not some­thing for this talk. But we can talk after­wards. So now I’ll dis­cuss a cou­ple of projects that I made and how I think they fit into this para­me­ter of lib­er­a­tion technology.

The Dumb Store is an open-source mobile app plat­form for dumb­phones. Hardware is con­stant­ly chang­ing and com­pa­nies prof­it from planned obso­les­cence, which dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects the poor. However I don’t think that peo­ple need to keep buy­ing things in order to access infor­ma­tion, and so the Dumb Store is a soft­ware plat­form that allows peo­ple to access infor­ma­tion that’s nor­mal­ly accessed through smart­phones. It was devel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ramsey Nasser and built pri­mar­i­ly at Eyebeam in 2013, and now my bud­dy David Huerta is also work­ing on it. You can text 6466663536 apps” or info” or haiku” and it’ll give you back some information. 

Another thing I made is a thing called Spyke, which don’t even try to use this, it’s ter­ri­ble and doesn’t work, but I tried so I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about it. Privacy I would say is a means to democ­ra­cy, it’s not an end in itself. And I also think that when we enter into a world where all of our com­mu­ni­ca­tions have to be pri­vate, some­thing has gone wrong. There’s some­thing that’s actu­al­ly real­ly impor­tant about hav­ing a soci­ety where peo­ple can be lead­ers or can have a pub­lic voice. But I think with the decen­tral­iza­tion of the Internet what we’re start­ing to see, and with COINTELPRO and all these dif­fer­ent things, is that peo­ple are pro­tect­ing them­selves from essen­tial­ly being decap­i­tat­ed by not hav­ing lead­ers. Spyke is an in-browser video chat that uses WebRTC, so you can just send some­one a link and chat in the browser. 

Another project that I made is a Firefox addon called the Internet Illuminator. On the Internet we have access to so much infor­ma­tion, so many names, cor­po­ra­tions, etc. But often­times, the real truth or the real con­nec­tions are being with­held. So this addon iter­ates through all the HTML text in your brows­er and when­ev­er it finds a per­son or cor­po­ra­tion from the data, it illu­mi­nates that rela­tion­ship a lit­tle bit. It uses LittleSis data, which is a non-profit called Facebook for the 1%” so it has a bunch of data sets and it shows how they’re con­nect­ed. I focused on things like tech acqui­si­tions, so the thing in yel­low is what you’ll see append­ed and it just works in HTML text, and that’s from the New York Times so it works in what­ev­er. Another tech acqui­si­tion or prod­ucts. That shows you who they’re owned by.

Another project I made that I would put with­in the con­text of lib­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies, safe spaces, and the need to con­stant­ly com­mu­ni­cate is this next one I’ll talk about. The prob­lem is no longer get­ting peo­ple to express them­selves, but pro­vid­ing any minis­cule gap of soli­tude in which they might even­tu­al­ly find some­thing to say. This brings me to the phys­i­cal world and how we’re inter­act­ing in the present. Who cares if you have a bunch of infor­ma­tion if you can’t deal with it, if you can’t talk to each oth­er. So I made a log jam­mer. The log jam­mer pro­vides a safe space in the woods in nature, a right to be alone. What a relief to have the right to say noth­ing, because only then is there a chance of fram­ing the rare, the thing that might be worth say­ing. And the log jam­mer is a cell phone jam­mer in a log. And just like cell phone tow­ers are dis­guised as fake trees, I made a real tree in real woods and put a cell phone jam­mer in it.

I’ll go into it very briefly. This screenshot’s from Eagle. The top is a screen­shot, the bot­tom is an actu­al milled cir­cuit. This is actu­al­ly just GSM-1900; it’s what my phone oper­at­ed on. I found this schemat­ic online and went through dozens of iter­a­tions. It’s all open-source. I also want to say that it’s ille­gal, so I didn’t actu­al­ly mess with peo­ple. I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in mak­ing con­sen­su­al things, not mess­ing with peo­ple. But I did make it and it did work. I milled and drilled the PCB and cre­at­ed a sten­cil for sol­der paste, and then made it, etc.

My cur­rent project right now, I wish I had some bet­ter doc­u­men­ta­tion for this but it’ll have to do. It’s going to be released at the end of January. We know through the Snowden rev­e­la­tions that the NSA can basi­cal­ly just tap into your phone micro­phones and just turn them on at will. And then also cor­po­ra­tions can buy time from apps who have access to your micro­phone. So many apps just ran­dom­ly want your micro­phone. So what I want­ed to make is a sep­a­rate hard­ware project that would ambi­ent­ly block that micro­phone and that wouldn’t be used to mess with peo­ple, so it’s not going to work across the room. It’s going to be placed direct­ly next to your phone. What it does is it cre­ates noise at around 24kHz. That essen­tial­ly over­whelms the mic so that you just hear white noise when you press play, but it’s inaudi­ble. So that’s what I’m work­ing on right now.

In this project I took over 10,000 sur­veil­lance pic­tures of myself and a class­mate back at NYU using Processing, an open-source pro­gram­ming lan­guage. I want­ed to tell a sto­ry that high­light­ed our inter­ac­tion or lack there­of, and basi­cal­ly what can you tell from sur­veil­lance when every­one says, Oh well I have noth­ing to hide.” What can you make out of noth­ing, basi­cal­ly. And is a sto­ry still a sto­ry if it’s told through sur­veil­lance cam­eras which are the truth.” But I also want­ed to com­ment on this idea that I call cop art.” Cop art is a form of sur­veil­lance art where you just mim­ic the oppres­sor, and I feel like I see it a lot with peo­ple who make sur­veil­lance art where it’s just like, Hey I stalked some­one and called it art.” and it’s like no, you’re being a cop. You’re lit­er­al­ly copy­ing the NSA, you’re not mak­ing art. So I cre­at­ed this sort of trans­ac­tion where I put my body and all of my emo­tions as a gift to the audi­ence. I’ll show it to you.

https://​vimeo​.com/​56958834

When I showed that at the ITP show I actu­al­ly put a sur­veil­lance cam­era on peo­ple as they were watch­ing it, and I trad­ed their data back to them. So if they wrote an hon­est emo­tion on their pic­ture, then I would delete their pic­ture from my com­put­er and it would be on the wall. I was actu­al­ly real­ly sur­prised at how vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple were. It was kind of an incred­i­ble moment in a space where so many peo­ple were try­ing to sell apps.

So lib­er­a­tion tech­nol­o­gy, tech­nol­o­gy that exists to lib­er­ate peo­ple from unjust eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, or social con­di­tions. So what is our com­mon hori­zon? I just want to end with this. Discussions about tech­nol­o­gy are rarely actu­al­ly about tech­nol­o­gy. They’re about humans, mon­ey, and pow­er. And as a frame­work for think­ing about what you’re look­ing at, just some ques­tions to bring up:

Do you under­stand the polit­i­cal end to this art? Does it glo­ri­fy the indi­vid­ual? Does it focus on indi­vid­ual rights, or col­lec­tive rights? Does it bring peo­ple togeth­er, or does it frag­ment them? Those are some things that I’m think­ing about in regards to what to make and ana­lyz­ing what oth­er peo­ple make. And I’m real­ly excit­ed for this week. So thank you every­one for lis­ten­ing, and if you want to con­tact me you can hit me up on Twitter or email me or after­wards, etc. That’s it.


Help Support Open Transcripts

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