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Cyberfeminists Go Deep on Big Data, Privacy, and Surveillance

Still from the 'Deep Lab' documentary by Deepspeed Media (screenshot via Vimeo)
Still from the ‘Deep Lab’ documentary by Deepspeed Media (screen grab via Vimeo)

In mid-December, 12 hackers, artists, coders, and activists gathered to tackle issues of privacy, surveillance, anonymity, and big data as they manifest in our society. Over the course of one week, 10 presentations unfolded, a short documentary film was shot, and in a frenzy of production, an entire book was made. This was Deep Lab, a group of female cyberfeminists organized by artist Addie Wagenknecht at the Studio for Creative Inquiry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I am neither a luddite nor a cyborg. I learned how to code because I didn’t want a bunch of dudes in Silicon Valley telling me what to do.”  —Allison Burtch

Page from the 'Deep Lab' chapter "Privacy Illustrated," by Lorrie Cranor, Rebecca Balebako, Darya Kurilova, and Manya Sleeper
Page from the ‘Deep Lab’ chapter “Privacy Illustrated,” by Lorrie Cranor, Rebecca Balebako, Darya Kurilova, and Manya Sleeper

The issues that Deep Lab grappled with finally began making news headline in 2013, despite existing for much longer. We knew about China’s sweeping surveillance of its citizens, but few imagined the extent of the United States’ monitoring of much of the connected world, as revealed by Edward Snowden. Cypherpunk paranoia about mass surveillance, the dangers of data collection, secret back doors, and the need for strong decryption, all of which was scoffed at only a few years ago, has been proven appallingly relevant.

Suddenly, we’re grappling with relatively new questions, like: What does the collection of and reliance on big data mean to us as a society? What does mass surveillance entail when more than 75% of the world’s inhabitants have access to cell phones? How do we protect our free press when connecting the dots of communication has become so easy with unencrypted communication? Deep Lab doesn’t answer these questions, but it explores alternative ways of approaching and thinking about them.

“Most of us didn’t choose this co-dependent relationship with the data parasites, but many of us did choose the convenience that in turn sacrificed our privacy. But now we have the tools to become predator to the parasite. Code is code. They used it to invade. We’ll use it to subvert the invasion.”  —Denise Caruso

Screen grab from Deep Lab's chapter "Privacy Illustrated," by Lorrie Cranor, Rebecca Balebako, Darya Kurilova, and Manya Sleeper.
Page from the ‘Deep Lab’ chapter “Privacy Illustrated,” by Lorrie Cranor, Rebecca Balebako, Darya Kurilova, and Manya Sleeper

Early cyberutopians and cyberfeminists dreamt that online space would provide a sanctuary for those who couldn’t find it offline. In 2014, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone still believing in that dream. Deep Lab is a continuation of the cyberfeminist ideals, with an added 25 years of experience; the group rejects cyberutopianism but maintains a steadfast commitment to searching for, demanding, and hopefully building alternatives.

“I’m thinking about how to become more dangerous.”  —Jen Lowe

The chapters of Deep Lab are part poetry, part diatribe, part artwork, part investigative reporting, and part call to action. Starting with a bang, Jen Lowe, an independent data scientist and teacher at the School of Visual Arts, traces some startling ways that companies and governments could use the data they’re constantly collecting. While MasterCard says it imagines a world in which data can prevent famine, Lowe sees how you can be algorithmically targeted for potential offenses (precrime) and the creation or reinforcement of unequal power relationships around the world (data colonialism). The underlying goal of every chapter is to explore how participants and readers of Deep Lab can understand and resist each trend.

Writer, cartographer, and artist Ingrid Burrington details her research into and mapping of the physical infrastructure of the mystical internet. Showing responses to Freedom of Information Act letters and road markings all over NYC that detail what infrastructure lays below, Burrington makes it clear how the physical internet can be deciphered, at least preliminarily, by anyone. This work is invaluable, for how are we to oppose what we can’t see and don’t understand?

“While the difference or distance between online and offline life becomes increasingly fictional, the physical infrastructure of the internet — cables, data centers, towers, satellites — remains pretty opaque to the average user.”  —Ingrid Burrington

Ingrid Burrington's chapter for Deep Lab.
Page from Ingrid Burrington’s chapter for ‘Deep Lab’

Taking the magic out of the tubes and pulling back the curtain that enshrines Silicon Valley are necessary steps if we are to have a meaningful debate about the metadata of our lives. Because, as writer and artist Claire L. Evans writes in Deep Lab, “The Venn diagrams of digital and real life have edged into near-complete overlap, the problems of the real world have become the problems of the digital world … we are inseparable from the web.”

Of course, Deep Lab’s struggle is not entirely new, and Evans uncovers a largely ignored history of early cyberfeminist artists. While the story of the cypherpunk dudes of MIT and Berkeley is oft repeated, I was ashamed not to have heard Evans’s tale about an Australian feminist arts collective named VNS Matrix before. While many of the book’s chapters look to contemporary society for new tactics of protest and circumvention, Evans proposes that looking back on ignored histories may also offer insight.

While gathered at the residency, Deep Lab worked to develop tactics, tools, and frameworks for growing meaningful opposition, but their output offers little in the way of concrete suggestions. That may be for the best. Any tool or product claiming to ensure privacy today is a marketing ploy. This is no easy work, and there are no clear steps. Burrington expertly articulates the Sisyphean task of attempting to counter the infrastructure of the internet, writing:

Nonviolent civil disobedience has seen a remarkable resurgence in the U.S. in the last few years, but I can’t recall a recent time where a protest against regimes propped up by or dependent on technology went after the hardware itself. There are die-ins outside drone testing sites sometimes, and there’s virtual sit-ins and website defacements by Anons, but actually smashing up a server rack or throwing smartphones onto a pyre is both endearingly quaint and painfully ineffective. No matter how much we may rebel against Google or Amazon’s labor practices or role in transforming cities, late capitalism leaves us few choices (…she typed in the Google Doc).

Deep Lab is a momentary utopia, a beautiful but rare project. Its words, lectures, art, and programs offer an exciting — and hopefully more powerful — alternative to monkey wrenching a data center, and the group embodies what’s most needed right now: an open, safe, and free space to have critical discussions about the problems we’re facing. We need conferences, coders, and writers to listen to what the women of Deep Lab have to say, so that their ideas will rupture out from the deep web into the walled gardens of Facebook, and from there into the mainstream.

Deep Lab will be joining forces with NEW Inc and the Media Lab at MIT to continue its work this year, culminating in a series of public programming and exhibitions curated by Lindsay Howard and Julia Kaganskiy.

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