The fourth industrial revolution has brought new meanings to surveillance in the digital age. In recent years, we have seen the rise of state and enterprise-driven surveillance – from the tracking of our digital footprint, to piloting facial recognition CCTVs, to eavesdropping on our private conversations - the panopticon is more ubiquitous than ever. Governments and corporations are increasingly data-hungry, arguing that more data beget better services, greater convenience, and higher levels of security. Convenience, however, has come at the cost of personal privacy. User data have been mined, analyzed, profiled in the name of “free services” and “personalized experiences”. Whilst researchers, artists, and activists have drawn attention to the threats posed by camera and video surveillance technologies, lesser attention has been given to audio surveillance technologies. These technologies, however, are often more covert and less visible than a CCTV. The hidden networks of audio surveillance obscures and yet fuels the reach of surveillance capitalism. In the past year alone, we have witnessed a myriad of privacy breaches and violations in the voice technology space. With the smart speaker market projected to outnumber the human population by 2021, I argue that a thorough and critical analysis of privacy, surveillance and their relationship to voice technologies is pressing.
I am particularly interested in the dynamics of the seen/unseen, the visible/invisible, surface/subterrane, public/private of surveillance and counter-surveillance. Surveillance, I argue, operates in duo-realms, serving different purposes and goals. While overt surveillance acts as a means of control, covert surveillance obscures the mechanisms of the loss of privacy and agency. My research aims to uncover, unpack and expose these multi-dimensions of surveillance/counter-surveillance and their manifestations. I am interested in the aesthetic of control and subversion, asking: “what does civic resistance look/feel/sound like in the age of surveillance capitalism?” My research has 3 key contributions i) employing critical design as a medium for reflecting on the cultural, social, and ethical implications of emerging technologies; ii) making hyper-visible the aesthetics of surveillance and counter-surveillance via DressKit, a hardwear kit for voice technologies; iii) amplifying camp as a methodology of subversion. DressKit is a low to high-tech hardwear kit for voice technologies that uses ultrasonic jamming and sound masking to reclaim users’ privacy in the age of surveillance capitalism. Each kit comes with a range of visual metaphors of sound jamming and masking, employing camp as a visual aesthetic i.e. “earplugs”, “earmuffs”, “plunger”, “hat”, “phone case. The kit is a play on “wearable technologies” by questioning who (or what) is doing the wearing. I use camp as an analytical framework to make hyper-visible the invisible forces of surveillance capitalism given its historical roots in subversion and performance of heteronormativity in black queer communities.
The research will culminate with 3 outputs: i) DressKit: a hardwear kit for audio surveillance technologies; ii) an exhibit of DressKit, placing surveillance on (literal) display; iii) a visual ethnography of the aesthetics of surveillance and counter-surveillance in non-Western contexts, particularly in Singapore. Success will be determined by a panel critique of the exhibit, feedback from participants in the visual ethnographic piece, and the extent to which conversations can be masked via jamming and masking. Further, I am interested in surveilling audio surveillance by conducting a short experiment investigating the extent to which Facebook (and Instagram) are listening in on our conversations. I will conduct several engineered conversations along key trigger words with a set of participants where they will self-monitor the types and number of related ads that show up on their feed after the conversation.
Ultimately, my work is about the de-centering and re-centering of power; de-centering power by exposing and unveiling the aesthetics of surveillance in order to re-center and reclaiming civic privacy and agency in the age of surveillance capitalism.