Eye to eye

From Chris Eckert, a maker of “little art machines”, has made what could be described as a surveillance sculpture.

A disconcerting installation featuring 20 blinking kinetic eyeballs that track a person around a room
San Francisco artist Chris Eckert, who wanted to make a point of increasing surveillance and decreasing privacy of the population, has created “Blink”, an absolutely incredible series of mechanically operating blinking single eyeballs in a row, each equipped with face tracking software to deliberately evoke a disconcerting sense of privacy violation.

Yes, that combination of a very realistic eyeball looking directly at you from a very unreal, robotic face is unsettling, but I think what really works well is what happens after, as Chris explains in this video.

“You would have these interactions with them, and hopefully enjoy yourself playing with these eyeballs, only to go around the corner to discover that you’ve been recorded and observed the entire time by multiple eyeballs. And that anyone in that room was watching those video feeds and observing you doing that. And it kind of shifted your view of what was happening there. It changed it from being fun to being kind of invasive.”

Look Out! Chris Eckert’s Machines Are Watching You | KQED Arts

There are many more remarkable art machines on his website, and here is a piece on his Privacy Not Included exhibition, that Blink formed part of.

Chris Eckert: Privacy Not Included exhibition at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
Privacy Not Included presents a sensorial experience that considers how we are viewed, followed, and tracked. As technology progresses and, in conjunction, as we continue to share personal data and information, what will be the consequences of our own privacy, our right to personal space, and ultimately, our freedom? In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 about omnipresent surveillance and public manipulation, the author writes, “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” The works in the exhibition challenge us to contemplate this dilemma. They reflect the conundrum we face in our contemporary society: appreciating the joy of convenience and technology’s ability to provide us security and safety, versus negotiating between the disconcerting, constant surveillance and intrusion in our lives.

And to really bring that point home, here’s an article from Aeon on the same theme, convenience versus surveillance.

Orwell knew: we willingly buy the screens that are used against us
One can easily imagine choosing to buy a telescreen – indeed, many of us already have. And one can also imagine needing one, or finding them so convenient that they feel compulsory. The big step is when convenience becomes compulsory: when we can’t file our taxes, complete the census or contest a claim without a telescreen.

Just because you’re paranoid…

Alexa’s been caught out again.

Amazon’s Alexa recorded private conversation and sent it to random contact
Although Amazon maintains this was a malfunction rather than proof Alexa is always listening, the company has filed patent applications in the past for functionalities that involve always listening, such as an algorithm that would analyse when people say they “love” or “bought” something. The patent included a diagram where two people have a phone conversation and were served afterwards with separate targeted advertisements.

Not to worry! Let’s buy more of these things, one for every room!

George Orwell predicted cameras would watch us in our homes; he never imagined we’d gladly buy and install them ourselves
By appealing to our basic human need for connection, to vanity, the desire for recognition, and the seemingly instinctual drive for convenience, technology companies have persuaded millions of people to actively surveille themselves and each other.

It’s fine, it’s all fine.

Computers, smartphones, and “smart” devices can nearly all be hacked or commandeered. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper reported as much last year, telling the U.S. Senate that intelligence agencies might make extended use of consumer devices for government surveillance. Webcams and “other internet-connected cameras,” writes Eric Limer at Popular Mechanics, “such as security cams and high-tech baby monitors, are… notoriously insecure.” James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg both cover the cameras on their computers with tape.

Big deal, right?

The thing is, we mostly know this, at least abstractly. Bland bulleted how-to guides make the problem seem so ordinary that it begins not to seem like a serious problem at all. As an indication of how mundane insecure networked technology has become in the consumer market, major publications routinely run articles offering helpful tips on how “stop your smart gadgets from ‘spying’ on you” and “how to keep your smart TV from spying on you.” Your TV may be watching you. Your smartphone may be watching you. Your refrigerator may be watching you.

How on earth did we get here?

Dry January, by the book

Don’t know why we make such a fuss over Dry January, it’s not as if there’s a problem, right?

From mother’s ruin to modern tipple: how the UK rediscovered gin
There are 315 distilleries in Britain – more than double the number operating five years ago. According to figures collected by HM Revenue & Customs, which hands out licences to produce spirits, nearly 50 opened last year, while just a handful shut up shop. Demand for interesting gins, made by small scale craft and artisan producers has driven a near-20% rise in the total amount of the juniper-flavoured spirit sold.

Not content to just drink it, there is now “the UK’s first gin spa, where visitors can indulge in a juniper foot soak and a gin tasting menu.”

But anything that’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for me.

The place of gin in Orwell’s 1984
One of the few permitted vices in Nineteen Eighty-Four is Victory Gin, which oils the outer party and offers suggestions of Englishness and party power: it’s always served with clove bitters, implying that Oceania’s boots are on the ground in Asia. Chemistry professor Shirley Lin wrote an interesting post about gin’s place in Orwell’s dystopia.

Oily gin: a chemist’s perspective on 1984
Can one shed tears of gin? Orwell describes one of Winston’s childhood memories involving an old man who “reeked of gin” to such a degree that one could imagine “[tears] welling from his eyes were pure gin” (page 33). In the last paragraph of the book, Winston’s tears at the end of the book are also “gin-scented” (page 297). While I was unable to find any studies examining the presence of alcohol in human tears, ethanol in the sweat of continuous drinkers has been detected and quantified.

Roll on February. I think.

George Orwell’s Whitehouse fans

Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 surge after Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’
Comparisons were made with the term “newspeak” used in the 1949 novel, which was used to signal a fictional language that aims at eliminating personal thought and also “doublethink”. In the book Orwell writes that it “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”.