Art

A Tech Collective Sets Up a Sleek Boutique — to Help Visitors Elude Big Data

From the street, The Glass Room may look like another boutique, but inside is an exhibit that makes visible the implications of corporate and government data collection.

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The Glass Room, view from the street (all images courtesy Mozilla/Tactical Technology Collective)

“What is this place?”

“What kind of store is this?”

“Is this a new Apple store?”

Such were the first words visitors uttered upon walking into 201 Mulberry Street one Sunday evening. They could be forgiven for thinking that The Glass Room is another trendy boutique, situated as it is on a Soho side street filled with shops alternately selling designer clothing and bags.

From the street, you can see the sleek lines of brightly illuminated white pedestals holding up tablets, monitors, books, or a pair of shoes. But inside, nothing is for sale. Rather, there’s an exhibit aiming to make visible the implications of corporate and government data collection, from invasions of individual privacy to the power accumulated by tech titans. The exhibit’s appearance is in fact camouflage, designed to draw in passersby who might not otherwise be interested in exploring these topics that can seem daunting to the uninitiated.

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Installation view of the Glass Room

“We hope people will come in off the street, people who might not otherwise come to this exhibit,” said Marek Tuszynski, one of the co-founders of Tactical Technology Collective, a Berlin–based digital activism organization that is co-sponsoring the exhibit along with Mozilla, makers of the Firefox browser.

Walking in, visitors are greeted by a series of provocative artworks that play with the use and abuse of data in our world. Tega Brain and Surya Mattu’s “UnFitBit” — a Fitbit activity tracker mounted to a metronome — initially appears to be symbolic commentary on our hamster-wheel lifestyles. But the mechanical chimera actually serves a very concrete purpose. Insurance companies offer discounts to those willing to prove their healthy lifestyles. Here, the metronome’s back-and-forth movement generates fake data, earning you the insurance discount without having to give your data to your insurance company.

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Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, “UnFitBit”

Mimi Onuoha’s “Library of Missing Datasets” takes a different tack. A simple file cabinet is filled with empty hanging folders, each of which is labeled with data that we do not have access to, either for reasons of political power (number of nuclear weapons Israel has, number of US citizens illegally held in detention centers) or scientific uncertainty (all extinct languages, reasons for the existence of dark matter). In a society defined so much by excessive data collection, Onuoha points out that the data we don’t collect reveals just as much about our collective motivations and interests.

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Mimi Onuoha, “Library of Missing Datasets”

The bottom level of the exhibit features examples of how “big data” is actually used. As someone who writes about technology for a living, I assumed this floor contained more artistic embellishments, since so many uses of big data seemed extreme or absurd. (“Surely, there’s no such thing as facial recognition software to track a church congregation’s attendance?” There is.) It was only when I made it to the pedestal on predictive policing that I realized these were all in fact real.

At first I was skeptical of the exhibit’s “pop-up shop” concept. I was not entirely convinced that the showroom did not look like an art installation and that people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But those concerns were misplaced; people have flocked to The Glass Room, purchases from stores next door in-hand. When I saw Tuszynski again after the exhibit had been up a few days, he admitted that the number of people who were stopping by had exceeded even his expectations.

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The “Ingeniouses”

Toward the back of the exhibit are tablets loaded with educational videos about how corporations actually acquire and use the data they collect, from how advertisers on news sites track readers, to the marketing profiles social media networks constructed about us. Behind that station is The Glass Room’s Data Detox Bar, modeled none-too-subtly off of Apple’s Genius Bars. This is where the exhibit’s public service mission is most evident, as staffers help visitors wrangle their data footprints with a weeklong “data cleanse” kit. It includes simple steps anyone can take, like uninstalling excessive phone apps and adding browser extensions that block advertisers from tracking you. As I walked by on Sunday night, an older couple was asking an “inGenious” about how to give less of their data to Google. “After what I saw in here, I need to starting taking this more seriously,” the woman said.

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The Data Detox Bar

The Glass Room is open every day at 201 Mulberry Street (Soho, Manhattan) 12–8pm through December 14. A schedule of free workshops and guided tours is available on the exhibition’s website.

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