The hunger for data is insatiable. We are no longer just buying things with money, but are paying for our digital experiences with the data we produce online. The data delusion even now touches the art world with museums tracking their visitors, which might even influence curatorial decisions.
Still, most people don’t have a relation to their »Data Selves«. Artist and technologist Hang Do Thi Duc now wants to change this with her project Me And My Facebook Data, that she carried out for Web Residencies No. 1, 2017 by Solitude & ZKM curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli on the topic »Blowing the Whistle, Questioning Evidence«. She wants to enable other users to track themselves to gain a personal perspective on data mining. Read an interview with the artist and find out more about your own data self uploading your Facebook data to the projects website.
Clara Herrmann: Your project Me And My Facebook Data for the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM is part of a larger project Data Selfie. You like to enable other users to track themselves rather than only having the data provided by Facebook. How does this work?
Hang Do Thi Duc: Data Selfie is a free and open source browser extension (only Chrome for now) that provides a personal perspective on data mining, predictive analytics and our online data identity – including inferred information from our consumption. The extension tracks what you look at and how long you look at it, what you like, the links you click on in your news feed, and what you type. The Facebook API does not provide this type of data – fortunately. In order for us, my collaborator Regina Flores Mir and me, to give users this data and show them the value of it, we programmed the extension to monitor what happens in the browser while you are browsing Facebook. Data Selfie presents a dashboard of a user’s usage and the predictions based on this data provided by machine learning algorithms from IBM Watson and the University of Cambridge Psychometrics Centre called Apply Magic Sauce. This includes a personality profile (OCEAN), religious and political orientation, life satisfaction, and leadership potential. It is a demonstration of the kind of insights that Facebook could be learning about users. The data points that Data Selfie tracks were chosen based on Facebook experiments, research, and announcements in the past years.
CH: What is the relationship users normally have to their data selves and what would you like to change about it?
HDTD: People are busy and admittedly often times there are bigger issues in society to care about. I think most people do not have a real relationship to their data selves. So, the first step is to get everybody to define that for themselves. It’s important to at least think about what you are ok with and what you’re not ok with. In the early stages of Data Selfie we interviewed a lot of random people in coffee shops in New York and a common statement we heard was »I haven’t really thought about that.«
»›In my projects that involve servers and computation I go by the principle of »Don’t collect it. If you have to collect it, don’t store it. If you have to store it, don’t store it long.‹« Hang Do Thi Duc
CH: So what does Facebook know about you? What did you find out testing your data, were there any surprises concerning the data evaluation?
HDTD: I have not found any surprising details during my explorations with my data. I remember the first time I have seen my inferred interests according to Facebook in the ad preferences – which they have changed now to show a lot less compared to when I checked a few months ago. There, I was able to read that they know e.g. that I am an expat from Germany and that I am a technology early adopter. I can see now how they came to that conclusion through my location and the different devices I have used in the past. I wanted to test different visualizations of the data to make it more digestible and to see if I can make the data more valuable in that way.
CH: In your blog you ask: What’s more important: the privacy of users or their security? What were the controversial topics and questions used for the legitimation of data mining that crossed your way during your work on this project? What would smart and useful data mining be like in your opinion?
HDTD: The privacy vs security question is a hard one to answer. I don’t have an answer. I think in some cases data mining because of security reasons have other benefits for some platforms. For example tracking my location could be useful for determining that it’s really who just logged in (I had to go through many security checks because of my VPN connection to authenticate my identity), but my location is of course also great data point to target ads and information to me. To me this is a design problem and there is not enough focus on design for trust. I think it’s possible to make privacy for users a core value and find solutions for security and for profit based on that. An ad revenue based business model however will probably always come with intrusive data tracking. Apple has a big advantage compared to Google and Facebook, they don’t need user profiles and histories, they can give the users convenience and the latest tech features while protecting their privacy (e.g. no persistent identifier in Maps and Spotlight Searches; computation of personal information locally on the device instead of aa server). In my projects that involve servers and computation I go by the principle of »Don’t collect it. If you have to collect it, don’t store it. If you have to store it, don’t store it long.«
CH: You work as an artist, designer, and technologist. What are the different projects and topics you have worked on so far?
HDTD: I have always been interested in the relationship of media and society. Ever since I have discovered programming I like to use code in combination with design for communicating a certain perspective on an issue or status. Sometimes that can also be artistic. I have worked on an installation called the Nature of News, an interactive, audiovisual comment on the nature and perception of news. I tried to reconstruct the feeling of overwhelmingness and capture in an experience that we can only focus on so much.
In another project, called ham$ta, I designed and developed a Critical Design web app that addresses consumerism, camouflaged advertising and the power of social media through YouTube stars and their shared content.
In collaboration with Umi Syam, I created a visualization of the ethnicities of the directors and actors of the 1000 highest rated movies on IMDB (1920- 2016).
CH: How do you combine those fields in your (artistic) work and what inspires you for new projects and topics?
HDTD: I really enjoy the process of thinking of a concept while at the same time already imagining the end result and implementation. That has two effects, on the one hand I am very critical of myself and eliminate too crazy and not technological feasible ideas (for better or for worse), and on the other hand I’d like to think I’m able to have a greater imagination of actual outcomes because I know the technology side of things. Following politics and just being a millennial inspires me every day!
CH: »Art and social media« – this is a topic everyone wants to talk about these days and Facebook now even has an effect on art-making. What do you think about this trend and what is your relationship to social media as an artist?
HDTD: I think artists capture the time and society they live in. It makes sense to make social media a big part of art as it is a big part of life in the 21st century. Art and social media is a great combination! It’s good to think about the role of social media through art. As artist or designer or technologist or just normal human being, I probably have an unhealthy relationship to social media – caring too much about the metrics of it all.
»Art can engage people in a different way, I think. It’s a mode of communication to me. I care about the society and want to contribute to it. In a way by labeling myself as an artist, I claim to have a unique perspective or a unique way to do so, or at least I am trying.« Hang Do Thi Duc
CH: There is also an emerging aesthetic trend of data art and data visualization that offers a new interpretation of the world of data and information also blurring the line between art and information. Would you also consider yourself as a data artist?
HDTD: I would be honored to be a member of the club of data artists – one article about Data Selfie even called Regina and me »data activists«. Definitions are probably irrelevant, more important to me is data visualization and data art that have a message and a purpose beyond being just beautiful. Best case scenario data is presented in a way that makes an audience think and discuss the issues at hand and at the same time is visually appealing.
Get to know your data self
CH: How do you perceive your role as an artist in the context of this web residency call where art is seen as a mean for producing evidence or misconduct and wrongdoing, as well as a terrain of meta reflection on whistleblowing, leaking, and surveillance? What can art do here?
HDTD: Art can engage people in a different way, I think. It’s a mode of communication to me. I care about the society and want to contribute to it. In a way by labeling myself as an artist, I claim to have a unique perspective or a unique way to do so, or at least I am trying. Data Selfie is the project of mine that reached the most people (~90K current users) and started with the simple question of, »What can I learn about myself by tracking myself?« Self-surveillance. One approach to realizing the real value of our data. I think it’s wrong that Facebook tracks the time I spend on different posts or that they store my location data for such a long time. I am not ok with that. I hope by seeing the tracking practices and evaluation possibilities with ones own data, more people would categorize that as wrong, too.
CH: In an interview on data as the resource of the future, Kevin Kelly once answered the question »What comes after data?« with »More data«. The data delusion even now touches the art world with museums tracking their visitors, which might even influence curatorial decisions. What is your opinion on this, also as an artist?
HDTD: »If it’s possible, why not?«, one might say. I would say we should put our principles above our hunger for knowledge sometimes. I totally understand that as humans we are very curious, but we shouldn’t compromise our values (like we have been). If it can be done without implementing a system that makes the visitors uniquely identifiable and without monitoring their every move and reaction, this could potentially be acceptable, but hardly justifiable in my view. As an artist, I certainly would like to know how many and who is visiting my work and when – just like online tracking – but I also certainly don’t have to. I don’t track anything about the users of Data Selfie and won’t track anything about the visitors of the project in this web residency. I’ve come to realize that data (mining) can also be a big distraction from the real goal and mission.