Allison Burtch: 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.

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.