Keywords: designing digital shadows, global mass surveillance, metadata, co-speculation, performance


Meta(data)morphosis is a project concerned with designing digital ghosts: the proxy versions of ourselves that are generated based on the troves of metadata that we know are being collected on us all the time in the age of global mass surveillance. It could be the version of you that Facebook uses to show your targeted ads in your feed this minute, or the version of you that the national intelligence agencies use to determine whether you pose a threat. Metadata is data about data, examples being our physical locations, when we texted our partner, or the duration of a phone call made. What is the negative image being carved out by metadata, and how can we design the shadow in its place?

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Initially, I was interested in getting a better sense of how we think of metadata and our digital shadows. A first workshop held with design students at Umeå Institute of Design, on Jan 26, 2015, sought to address this topic. Below are two of the responses to a survey conducted during the workshop.

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Through its various experiments, MDM eventually took the format of a vicious cycle consisting of a three step workshop/performance.

(A) First a set of metadata would be extracted from a day in the life of participants using a combination of qualitative ‘metadata’ interviewing and quantitative tools such as Immersion by the MIT Media Lab.

(B) Each metadata set would then be transformed by the designers into a standardized short film script format, with e.g. GPS locations becoming locations in the script, friends on social media becoming characters based on their importance etc. Importantly, no content is reproduced, and thus the final scripts are featuring prominent areas of white space for dialogue. Another way to say this is that the metadata is designed into a particular framing of white space, where data can emerge.

(C) The scripts are then printed and shared among the participants, who are asked to fill out the white space in each other’s scripts, by speculating on each other’s lives using the metadata frame. Finally, the participants then read out and perform each other’s digital shadows. This is the point where the participants are confronted with a parallel, perhaps much more plausible, tedious, or disturbing version of themselves, acting out a tiny part of their everyday life back to them. In this potentially uncanny moment, they face one particular digital shadow, one of the infinite possible versions of themselves that reside in distant server farms around the world.

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Above: Documentation from the final workshop at Or Gallery in Kreuzberg, Berlin, held on July 31 2015, where the full MDM cycle was carried out over the course of 2 days as part of the annual JVEA event in Berlin. In addition to the transformed, co-speculated digital shadows produced and performed in the workshop, it is reasonable to assume that the mere participation (physical presence, emails etc.) in a project such as MDM, seeking to critically and speculatively engage with the topic of global mass surveillance, did alter the digital shadows of the participants in ways complimentary to the workshop outcome.

Above: Example of three co-existing digital shadows based on the same set of metadata from one participant, filled out by three participants.

Above: Example of three co-existing digital shadows based on the same set of metadata from one participant, filled out by three participants.

THANKS to everyone participating in the experiments. Meta(data)morphosis was carried out in collaboration with my then research assistant, Henrike Feckenstedt. The concluding experiment in Or Gallery was further done in collaboration with Régis Frias. Thanks to all collaborating artists, making up the MDM group exhibit in the workshop space: Heini Aho, Ryan Maguire, Emma Holten, Mario Santamaría and Timo Bredenberg. Thanks to Kempe Foundations for their financial support, and to all the great people who make JVEA happen. MDM is a project carried out as part of my doctoral research at Umeå Institute of Design, and is discussed further in my thesis (available here).