The Glass Room: Uncover the secrets of your online life in Mozilla’s new exhibition
“We know where you are.” The words by Google’s Eric Schmidt, from a 2010 speech, are enshrined in the middle of a intricate entanglement of brightly coloured string. The sprawl, built around a metropolis of nails in a table, maps out ‘The Alphabet Empire’. It’s an impressive sight; showing how recognisable names like YouTube and Android are connected to a tapestry of obscure ventures, giving an impression of just how vast the technology giant really is.
This visualisation is a centrepiece to a new pop-up exhibition on London’s Charing Cross Road, created in collaboration between Mozilla and the Tactical Technology Collective as part of MozFest. Most of us are vaguely aware that companies like Google and Facebook make money from our data, and that we should care a great deal about words like privacy, but The Glass Room takes this dim recognition and tickles its eardrums. The old adage that “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” has never felt so apt.
The Firefox creator has been banging the privacy drum for a while, but Mozilla’s presence is mercifully backgrounded in this pop-up exhibition. Instead, the showfloor is given over to the Tactical Technology Collective, which has worked with a number of artists to create a scattering of exhibitions that make intangible issues visual, grippable and funny.
James Bridle’s ‘Where the F**k was I?’, for example, is a book of maps charting 35,801 places his iPhone says he had been between June 2010 and April 2011. All this information, which remains the property of Apple, was unknowingly captured over this period by the company and stored in its databases.
Elsewhere, Manuel Beltrán’s ‘Data Production Labour’ uses sensors to monitor your hand and face as your scroll through Facebook, then provides you a printout of your emotions and how much money you should be paid for a two-minute period of “data production”. IMediengruppe Bitnik’s ‘Ashley Madison Angels at Work in London’ portrays six of the 436 “fembots” that were active in the vicinity of the building, as revealed by the 2015 data breach suffered by the adultery site. Adam R. Harvey’s ‘Megaface’ matches your facial features to those of people pulled from Flickr – all of which is stored on a database without the consent of the subjects.
These playful pieces are teasing illustrations of how our data can be misused, but more unsettling are the displays that simply present pre-existing projects and infrastructures. Close to ‘The Alphabet Empire’ is a small exhibit for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to fund a microchip that can be implanted in a woman’s body, intended to control her fertility for up to 16 years. Elsewhere there is a video for a device that can be attached to the bed or medicine bottle of elderly relatively, to track their movements.
Both of these real-life ventures are presumably well intentioned, but they raise serious questions about who ultimately has control over these structures that profess to improve life on earth.
“I’m not saying everyone who’s taking data has bad intentions, that’s not the case, but there needs to be some healthy critical thinking about what’s happening to our data,” Mozilla’s Mary Ellen Muckerman tells me.
“This idea of the internet giants is being discussed much more from a popular culture standpoint,” she adds. “It’s becoming much more of a kitchen table conversation.”
There’s plenty to have a conversation about in The Glass Room, although the Tactical Technology Collective is keen that people don’t leave the show feeling too bleak. “It’s very important for us that we don’t end up terrifying people,” says co-founder Marek Tuszynski. “The level of discomfort should be balanced, so you still feel like you have some power and agency to do something.”
The Glass Room is open until 12 November, on 69 – 71 Charing Cross Road.