Terms of Service: research paper 

This project explores the hegemonic yet decentralized power inherent in digital infrastructure. Usersonline often house an illusion of agency of emancipation, thinking of virtualarchitecture as “immaterial” and thus having no repercussions. However, “the more powerful or hegemonicactors within a network are able to govern and control the less powerful orsubaltern actors, not by directly commanding them … but indirectly orinfrastructurally, by structuring the field of possible actions” (Tully). The aim of my project isto remind viewers that control exerted online is just as robust a form ofbiopower as that which is exercised over our physical bodies, despite being“immaterial” and decentralized through network infrastructure. I hope to do thisby creating an architectural representation of digital surveillance that theviewer will have to engage with physically.

My research methodology whenentering this project was influenced by Susan Leigh Star’s call for anethnographic study of infrastructure. Star claims that we can find clues tounderlying power dynamics by examining the everyday, banal pieces of infrastructurethat surround us (379). I began to do research into internet privacy policy andits physical manifestations in facial recognition and location pinning in orderto analyse their deeper implications. Increasingly, facial recognition is beingused to create a more seamless and personalized experience for regular shoppersin high-end European stores (Facial Recognition). The constant collection,categorization and selling of user information allows these pieces of digitalinfrastructure to exert biopower over users, training us to be constant digitallabourers while regulating and cataloguing our movements and attention.Furthermore, “personal datagleaned from more and more “innocent” commercial and entertainment activitiesare now sought by the state” (Lyon 163), meaning that one’s data trails couldbecome potentially damning depending on the government in power: “surveillancepractices and technologies are becoming a key means of marking and reinforcingsocial divisions” (Lyon 166).

My piece employs vacant sites -places that data travels through - as an architecture to denote the physicalroots and repercussions of supposedly “immaterial” digital surveillanceinfrastructures. I am trying to create a visualization of branded or colonisednegative space: something we assume to be neutral yet has a hegemonic powerstructure woven through it. Fragmented 3D scans of negative space in Xpace’sinterior are translated into transparent, laser-cut acrylic barriers thatcurate the viewer’s movement. Manifesting ideas of transparency is a key conceptualstrategy in my project; I am fascinated by the illusion of transparency thatinternet infrastructure gives us while its inner mechanics are totally opaqueto the average user. “This smoothness of good design is also an anaesthetic. Itnumbs us to the huge changes in ourselves and our world. The cell phone triesto be as thin as it can be but actually there is nothing light or immaterialabout this object” (Colomina 247). The user-friendly interface of social mediasites and search engines exist in the same way: it is easy to forget you are ina public, corporate space when you are distracted by personalized content.

Star states: Infrastructureis transparent to use, in the sense that it does not have to be reinvented eachtime or assembled for each task, but invisibly supports those tasks.” (381) Shelater goes on to note, “The normally invisible quality of workinginfrastructure becomes visible when it breaks” (Star 382). With my use of the3D scanning application, I attempt to make the algorithm visible by scanning something thatis not intended to be scanned; emptiness. In scanning negative space, thealgorithm is forced to create materiality that does not physically exist,making the 3D scanning application itself hyper visible. Throughout the entireprocess of transforming 3D scans to texture selections, paths, and shapes to belaser cut, I rely on the built-in tools of applications and Adobe imagecreation software, attempting to totally remove my hand from the finishedproduct. My purpose is to reveal the infrastructure of assumptions that liebehind it and allow the algorithms behind the software to make their owninterpretations. This process can approximate the way a face is read through theeye of a surveillance camera: broken into chains of numbers, gradients andratios.

Another strategy I employ to highlightthe physical repercussions of biopower is the use of physical surveillancerelated apparatus to mount and display my work. The pieces of acrylic will bewall mounted on TV mounts and suspended from the ceiling with electrical wire.These materials remind us of the vast embedded infrastructure that our digitalcommunications require. Additionally, each acrylic piece ofimmaterial-made-material architecture has text cut into it. This text issourced from a variety of corporate bodies that perpetuate our state in thepersonalized panopticon: Instagram, Facebook, and Axis Communication (producersof facial recognition software).    

Upon entering Xpace, viewers arerecorded by a wall-mounted camera (similar to those in banks or pharmacies) andbroadcast through the transparent architecture, rendering them unpaid labourerswith little agency over their projection. The use of the viewer’s image as theinstallation’s content draws a parallel to the monetized data that we emitduring online and public participation. I also want to draw parallels betweenthe various types of exploitative labour that the production and usage ofnetworked devices entails; “These devices … are produced by people workingunder conditions near slavery” (Colomina 247). Late capitalism colonizes everymoment of networked user’s lives for production and consumption. The freelabour that my visitor participates in highlights the content that we createfor corporations to mine, and also links back to the low paid manual factorylabour that goes into making these devices for us.

Additionally, catching the image ofthe viewer on camera relates to the state of perpetual self-surveillence weintentionally subject ourselves to via social media. “Homo Cellular prefers to look backward rather than forward, to seeitself embedded in its surroundings, literally using the cell phone as amirror” (Colomina 250). Viewers will likely prove this concept further bytaking images or selfies in the gallery space and posting them online in orderto record their participation in the Toronto art scene. In this way, acorrespondence is also created between the gallery and the corporatizedinternet as institutional spaces that preach emancipation yet perpetuateembedded hegemonic hierarchies.


Works Cited

Colomina, Beatriz and Mark Wigley. AreWe Human: Notes on an Archeology of Design. Lars Müller. 2016.

“FacialRecognition: Who’s Tracking You in Public?” ConsumerReports. December 30, 2015. http://www.consumerreports.org/privacy/facial-recognition-who-is-tracking-you-in-public1/Accessed February 14, 2017.

Foucault, Michael.“Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” A History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Translated by Robert Hurley,Pantheon, 1978, pp. 135- 159. 

“How FacialRecognition Works: the Ghost in the Camera” ConsumerReports. January 4 2016. http://www.consumerreports.org/privacy/how-facial-recognition-works-the-ghost-in-the-camera/Accessed February 8 2017.

Lyon,David. “Surveillance Technology and Surveillance Society” Modernity and technology.Ed. by Thomas J Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg. MIT Press, 2003, pp.161–83

Mendelsohn, Ben. “Bundles, Buried & Behind Cosed Doors.” Vimeo. 16Oct 2011. Web. 17 Mar 2016.

“Privacy Policy” Instagram.2017. https://www.instagram.com/about/legal/privacy/ Accessed March 10, 2017.

Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure” AmericanBehavioral Scientist, vol. 43, no. 3, 1999, pp. 377-391. 

Using Format