Plutonian Striptease XII: Gordan Savicic

Plutonian Striptease is a series of interviews with experts, owners, users, fans and haters of social media, to map the different views on this topic, outside the existing discussions surrounding privacy.

astounding stories of super science: phantoms of reality

Gordan Savicic (AT/NL) is an artist playing with software algorithms, experimental media and fine art. His project “Suicide Machine 2.0”, where you can kill your virtual identity on social media sites, attracted lots of media attention. His work includes game art, interactive/passive installations and speculative hardware. His participation in collaborative projects and performances have been shown in several countries, such as Japan (dis-locate), Germany (Transmediale), Spain (Arco Madrid), France (IRCAM) and the Netherlands (V2_), among others. Savicic lives and works in Rotterdam and Vienna.

Social networks are often in the news, why do you think this is?
Part of their numerous news coverage is due to the reason that the old dream of silicon valley is again revived. Any little startup company could all of a sudden become the next big thing; romanticizing the emergence of accidental billionaires. The recent movie “The Social Network” is another example where “nerdy” startups are being portrayed through mass media channels as a part of a larger picture. This basically shows how ubiquitous social networks became to our society. People actually want to see and hear about those hypes (mostly aggregated through information channels and opinion leaders). However, social network companies are paying lots of money to their public relation departments to spread the news of an ever-growing user-(fan)base. Especially Facebook is proud of its 500 million users (October 2010), simply ignoring that at least half of them are inactive, fake or accounts used for spamming and stalking.

In what way do they differ from older forms of communication on the Internet?
At first glance social networks seem more practical rather than aesthetic. This design paradigm is characteristic for recent web applications which are (what I would call) based on the principle of NUI (Network User Interfaces), rather than having a fancy looking graphical user interface (GUI).

First, the elementary thing about them is the potential use of network nodes. Each user is a dynamic buoy shifting within a melting social sea which makes them so attractive to use. They can specify their own content or share photos and movies with their friends, show off with their entourage and even work collaboratively on texts, while all accumulated data can be easily made accessible to a considerable wide range of people. Andres Manniste brings in a good comparison when he bridges the incorporated function of social network sites to cell phones. In his view cell phones became multi-purpose tools (game console, still and video camera, mail client, mobile network node), while their GUI is being kept rather practical. In proliferating social platforms like Hyves, Facebook, Myspace etc. the GUI acts like a cellphone. The trajectory from sluggishly slow loaded html pages and bulky three hours lasting battery time cellphones in the 90s over to powerful multi-purpose AJAX applications and the iPhone might be even more evident in that comparison. The webpage appears as an easy-to-adapt interface to a social tool, a NUI with potential applications which are modularly expandable by many features. Like the cellphone it has a very simple intuitive interface, but a much more complex social impact.

Second, they are not simply objects, but processes. These processes can trigger social interactions which are served and performed on external servers and rendered into social environments. In terms of a standard hardware/software schema, one could ascribe the NUI the role of Hardware by rendering all computations remotely on (mostly) proprietary systems whereas the human interaction (cultivation of profiles and avatars) can be referred to as Software. More precisely, software that is being executed and generated only through user participation.

Finally, social networks became a ubiquitous tool for augmented information within urban environments when accessed through a smart-phone. You can find your peers through your geophysical location and update your status-messages on-the-go. Social networks aren’t so much about point-to-point communication (like email or SMS for instance), but rather became hybrids of one-to-many communication models (retweets, un/like, check-in/out). Nonetheless we already had most of the “Facebook-like” features more than 20 years ago (IRC chat, status updates, file sharing, etc.) but the interface design made them inaccessible for the „standard“ user. With the implementation of all those functions into a single web-site, it became possible for any person to share, like, comment, etc. and be part of a larger social networking group. Additionally, prices for broadband services and UMTS significantly dropped in recent years.

Who is ultimately responsible for what happens to the data you upload to social networks?
After all it’s always the user and his free will to devote himself to those sites. Once you upload some of your data to any online service, you pretty much lost control of it. What most social networks have in common (except for diaspora p2p et al) is that they are totally centralized. Everything is being stored outside of the user’s hard disk; hence, even if you delete content it might be available to other users for an undetermined amount of time. On top of that Mr. Eric Schmid (CEO Google) is shamelessly suggesting that every young person will one day be allowed to change their name to distance themselves from embarrassing photographs and material stored on their friends’ social media sites.

Do you read Terms of Use or EULA’s and keep up to date about changes applied to them?
I do read them from time to time, but I am not really tracing their changes. Terms of Use are written by lawyers in the interest of their respective clients which means that they are pretty much “unreadable” for standard users. In most cases friends and peers are keeping me up to date with changes that seriously affect privacy issues on various platforms.

Do you think you’ve got a realistic idea about the quantity of information that is out there about you?
About 22,700 web results (0.16 seconds).

How do you value your private information now? Do you think anything can happen that will make you value it differently in the future?
I keep most of my private information on servers where I have full access on their permissions and availability. Hence, their future is pretty much in my own hands ;). Nonetheless, with the rise of user-generated content the general question is whether we can keep track of the information other people are posting and sharing about us. Thus, even if you try to stay outside of the whole web2.0 shebang, other people will voluntarily drag your name into social networking sites and (for example) tag pictures with your name.

How do you feel about trading your personal information for online services?
I do have very controversial feelings while using my Android-based smart-phone which repeatedly asks me to re-connect to my associated Google account! Even though I am rarely using my Gmail account, it does feel a bit awkward to carry a Google firmware-flashed phone in my pocket. The crux of using online services owned by private companies remains always the same. On one hand they are very handy, easy-to-setup and quite reliable to use. Many people like the fact that they can practically control most of their digital identity from mail to sharing documents via a standard web-browser. On the other hand these online services are claiming more and more of/for our personal information; directly making us depend on then more and more. Since the advent of smartphones and 3G networks, both business and consumer people are carrying the information about their geographical movements and habits in their pocket day-by-day.

What do you think the information gathered is used for?
It’s pretty obvious that most of the gathered information is used to generate targeted advertising and is subsequently sold to 3rd party companies. If people decide to curtail their information sharing, Facebook will have a hard time to maintain their business model which depends on the ‘social graph’ and information sharing. There has been a growth in the technology for information sharing but not a commensurate education in what information we should share. Then there is the conspirative fact that we don’t know how much personal information from social networks is being handed over to governments and secret agencies.

Have you ever been in a situation where sharing information online made you uncomfortable? If so, can you describe the situation?

What is the worst case scenario, and what impact would that have on an individual?
We will reach the worst case scenario when people and organizations will stop fighting for their privacy rights. Imagine that insurance companies will soon rate your fees by gathering data from your health record, we could easily portrait ourselves already within the “worst case”. We depend on critical thinkers, activists and artists who challenge the way of how future technologies will affect our society.

Nowadays, most of the “reading” of what is written online is done by machines. Does this impact your idea of what is anonymity and privacy?
Machines are perhaps reading most of the online stuff, but they are definitely far away from understanding any meaning. Given that it’s quite error-prone, semantic interpretation isn’t really what it’s made up to be because most of it is based on an interpretation of massive piles of statistical information (obtained through huge databases).

Can a game raise issues such as online privacy? And if so, what would you like to see in such a game?
I was trying to raise issues related to online privacy with one of my projects, called PlaySureVeillance. The project should stress a conflation of playsure and surveillance. Play/sure subdivided into play and sure, the latter underling the increasing ubiquitous use of play and games in our society. In PlaySureVeillance the idea was to generate a twisted parallelism between decisions made within a game and the creation of a virtual “doppelgänger” which is then publicly profiled on Facebook. Back in 2008, I was fascinated by the amount of games offered on Facebook and their massive usage. By installing a third party game, you pretty much give full access to your whole profile. Games have one basic criteria. The player’s free will to devote himself to he game. PlaySureVeillance was an attempt to profile a new subject out of (game) data. This subject is what Matthew Fuller calls Flecks of identity.

I’ve programmed two games for the Nintendo DS which deal with topics such as Terrorism and Nudity. The games have been put back into their capitalistic enclosure, into an innocent-looking game cartridge. The program code made use of one of the key features from the DS, namely the built-in WIFI function. The games themselves were casual games where each player bypasses certain levels of interaction. During the game-play critical questions about sexual, political and personal preferences are being asked and automatically uploaded to an external server. All the information gathered is then being used to create an automatized Facebook profile of the player. Social interaction is always a game of control, as all of David Lyon’s work on surveillance has shown. It is therefore always the question how far the player can break the code of the game.

Regardless of that, I envision our latest project (the web2.0 suicidemachine) as a sort of game!

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