It only takes a weak signal to get segmented. Have you ever looked at, say, a part for a toilet on some online bookseller’s website and had it follow you around the internet for a week? This is made possible by a dizzying array of “retargeting” companies and networks who have a very strong incentive to label you with a category, or segment, and a much weaker incentive to un-label you. Who says how long these labels last?
The toilet parts are just the tip of the iceberg. One can imagine a world where looking at a recipe for pot brownies affects your applicant score in a company’s H.R. system, or keeps you from getting a mortgage, or parole.
In the installation DataWorld 2021, booth #313: Maelstrom Networks, Inc., viewers get to experience their personal data being shared among a dozen machines created by the artist. The machines spread rumors about the visitors to each other throughout the installation—which is designed to feel like the trade-show booth of a fictional data management corporation.
The data is both observed from mobile devices—using wireless monitoring methods currently employed by governments and businesses—and collected from willing visitors by prompts on the devices. Visitors may choose to join a Wi-Fi network to provide additional information that is spread among the machines.” No visitor data is retained for longer than 15 minutes. But it could be.
The machines themselves were made with a mix of found objects, bespoke 3D-printed designs, commercial modules, and circuit boards designed by the artist.
By comparing marketing techniques to the connection-forming tendencies of conspiracy theorists, the fictional Maelstrom invokes the unexpected ramifications of small user actions in a brokerage-fueled information economy, and alludes to the wider implications of being a connected citizen when real-world governments and corporations have deployed widespread, surveillance-based tracking systems.
DataWorld 2021, booth #313: Maelstrom Networks, Inc. was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, grant number FY21 AHFP-07741, and the Derek Lieu Residency Program at HOLE IN THE SKY DC.