Brick is a (deliberately unreleased) app created for the Stanford art class Let's Make a Monster: Critical Making. Using only publicly-accessible data sources, the app employs simple geo-filtering techniques to draw troubling lines from a standard Federal Elections Commission spreadsheet. It’s a provocation designed to explore the limits of acceptable political discourse, the monstrous power of supposedly harmless data, and the role of technology (and technology companies) in mediating our sociopolitical lives.
I’ve been worried about a trend I call Dystopian Efficiencies. These are systems that use technological efficiency to turn harmless and often completely public data against us. Take license plates - they’re totally public, exposed for anyone to see. We have no real expectation of privacy around them. They’re not our Social Security Number. But police are using automated license-plate camera technology to track our movements(https://www.aclu.org/issues/privacy-technology/location-tracking/you-are-being-tracked). Yikes. With a bit of Dystopian Efficiency, our totally benign license plates are transformed into a powerful surveillance apparatus. Or take the Cambridge Analytica scandal. None of the harvested data were particularly confidential - locations, likes, wall posts, profile photos. This wasn’t private chat history. Neither was the psychological analysis of these data particularly advanced or novel; any human analyst could get a far better read. What makes this so terrifying is not the type of data, analysis performed, or ad-targeting, but the sheer scale and ease with which institutions could collect information about us.
Techno-utopianism offers us an easy fix: democratize information, give ThePeoplethe same access to data and information held by the government, our banks, other faceless organizations.
Brick takes this “liberation technology” to its logical extreme, streamlining access to completely public political donation data, which happen to include mailing addresses. These spreadsheets and addresses are already out there for anyone to find. Brick offers nothing beyond information. But placing that information in the hands of the public (and framing it with violent intent) makes it monstrous.
As we generate more and more seemingly benign data and make it more and more accessible, it’s worth considering the unintended consequences. The big breaches of ultra-sensitive data (emails, credit card numbers, social security numbers) grab headlines, but with a little Dystopian Efficiency, even the most public information can be weaponized.