© 2014 Sofe Elana Hodara
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
BY Sofe Elana Hodara
Tis thesis is submited in partial fulfllment of the requirements for the degree
of Master of Fine Arts in Design and approved by the MFA Design ReviewBoard
of Massachusets College of Art and Design in Boston, Massachusets.
May 2014
Zachary Kaiser
Assistant Professor of Design, Tesis Advisor
Massachusets College of Art and Design
Brian Lucid
Professor of Design
Massachusets College of Art and Design
Jan Kubasiewicz
Professor of Design, Tesis Advisor
Massachusets College of Art and Design
For Ariel, Henri, Paul, Susan, and Wendy.
PART I User as Consumer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
What is a Consumer? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Consumers in Dynamic Media Society. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Identity. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Te Perfect Human Application. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Te Original . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Te Update. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Te Weeping iPhone. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Device as Emotional Expression. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Te Prototype . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
PART II User as Producer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
Producers in Dynamic Media Society . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
Producer as Reproducer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Te Almighty Algorithm . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
Te Algorthimand Te Reproducer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
iTones . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
Working with UBIQ. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63
Te Original . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Te Update. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73
iHear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
Mobile Melodies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87
Te Instrument . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89
Analysis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
Tis thesis addresses howour personal dynamic technologies— from
laptops and smartphones to email and social media accounts— shape
our perceptions of the world.
It puts the digitized interaction, as engagements with our technologies,
at the center of this investigation, and frames the world we live in as a
Dynamic Media Society. In this society, our interactions become author-
ing forces of value, with economic, cultural, and social implications.
Part I investigates the value of the digitized interaction as a newtype
of commodity fromthe standpoint of the user as consumer. Just as
accumulation of wealth and consumption of their favorite brands ofer
consumers validation, the digitized interaction becomes an indicator
of self-worth and identity. Facebook likes, endorsements on LinkedIn,
and a high number of followers on Twiter can be seen as valuable
commodities, informing the users' understanding of their role and
place in the world.
In Part II, I examine the user as producer of such interactions. From
this perspective, the technologies of production in a Dynamic Media
Society can be seen as an infrastructure of reproduction composed of
the producer and predictive computer modeling sofware. Hence, the
creation of value in society can be articulated through a negotiation
between the producer of data and the restructuring abilities of algorith-
mic systems of surveillance.
My particular interest in new media is instigated by a public outcry of aversion— as seen in the New York
Times, late-night talk shows, and a host of pop-scholarship— to the growing ubiquity of personal tech-
nologies. I believe this aversion is important, as it is a symptom of a drastic and revolutionary transition
in our communication and information infrastructures. But the validity of these concerns needs to be criti-
cally examined. My generation, due to its privileged perspective straddling a before and after viewpoint,
has a responsibility to reflect on what constant connectivity is actually changing.
FIGURE 1 This diagram illustrates the relationship between the capabilities of
production and consumer demand in a free-market industrial society, a relation-
ship that drives the economic or exchange-value of a material commodity.
In free-market industrial society, the economic worth,
represented by exchange-value, of a given material
commodity, is determined by a dynamic relationship
between the infrastructures of production and con-
sumption, respectively producer and consumer. Te
exchange-value becomes the governing determinant of
an abstract notion of value in an industrial society.
In Global Culture Industry (2007),
Scot Lash and Celia Lury’s book on
the impact of brand experience on
culture and identity, they discuss the
diferent types of value a commodity
can possess: “A good is a commodity
to the extent that it is characterized
by exchange-value. Te exchange-
value is an abstraction fromits
use-value… expressed in abstract
equivalents, in money” (5). In other
words, in a basic and traditional
viewof capitalismin an industrial
society, the infrastructure of produc-
tion and consumption determines
the abstracted worth of goods and
services — commodities— expressed
in monetary units.
Tis creates a direct relationship
between the exchange-value and
material quality, or distinct physical
properties, of a given commodity.
FIGURE 2 This diagram illustrates that the relationship between producer and
consumer determines the sign-value of a once-abstracted commodity: the brand.
Here, cultural desirability (sign-value) replaces economic worth (exchange-
value) as the structuring force of value in consumer society today.
Te corresponding diagram illustrates how in a post-
industrial society (also known as consumer society),
the value of a given commodity is determined not just
by the material costs of production, but by the cultural
success of its brand — “qualities of experience” (Lash, 7).
Te worth of a commodity is no longer measured by its
exchange-value alone, but by its sign-value — its logo or
brand — as well.
In Frederick Jameson’s Postmodern-
ism and Consumer Culture, he writes,
“… at some point following World
War Two a newkind of society began
to emerge (variously described as
post-industrial society, multinational
capitalism, consumer society, media
society, and so forth). Newtypes of
consumption… the penetration of
advertising, television, and the media
generally to a hitherto unparalleled
degree throughout society… mark a
radical break with that older pre-war
society…” (28).
Te main shif that Jameson refer-
ences was one froma value structure
based on material quality to one
based on cultural capital. As a result,
the value of a Louis Vuiton satchel
is no longer determined by its smart
construction but rather by the status
of its sign (Uricchio). Tis shif was
caused by a change in production
fromthe manufacture of goods to the
provision of services, as in a service
society. Newtechnologies required
less labor and accelerated mass pro-
duction, and, as a result, the factory
worker was replaced by the salesman.
Along with dropping production
costs, the media-scape changed in
post-war years, as well. Imagery was
everywhere: on television, in cata-
logues, on billboards, etc (Harrison).
Advertising and branding became
a decisive factor in the process of
consumption. It nowcosts less to
make a Coke than it does to advertise
Coca-Cola, the brand.
What’s great about this
country is that America
started the tradition where
the richest consumers buy
essentially the same things
as the poorest. You can be
watching TV and see Coca-
Cola, and you know that the
President drinks Coke, Liz
Taylor drinks Coke, and just
think, you can drink Coke,
too. A Coke is a Coke and no
amount of money can get you
a better Coke than the one
the bum on the corner is
drinking. All the Cokes are the
same and all the Cokes are
good. Liz Taylor knows it, the
President knows it, the bum
knows it, and you know it.
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy
of Andy Warhol (1975).
Te value of a commodity is emanci-
pated fromits material qualities and
embedded in its signage, represented
by its logo. In terms of cultural desir-
ability, the abstract sign becomes
more important than the commodity
it represents (consider howendorse-
ment campaigns drop celebrities who
fnd themselves in trouble with the
law). Te infrastructure of produc-
tion is responsible for the expression
of a brand experience that appeals
directly to the consumer on a per-
sonal level, signifed by its signage.
Te brand, or logo, gains authority in
structuring worth.
For example, advertising campaigns for Renault,
France’s symbol of industrial society in the way Ford
once was for the United States, present the company
as a ‘conceptualizer’ of automobiles. And Renault
actually does tend to manufacture an ever-declining
part of each car that bears its brand.
In the 1950s, Renault manufactured 80 percent
of each car that was delivered to the dealer.
Today it manufactures no more than 20 percent,
and Renault’s technology and design complex
at Guyancourt is the company’s largest ‘ industrial’
site. It is there that the costly frst unit is ‘manufac-
tured.’ Tere is a story (perhaps apocryphal, but
nonetheless illustrative) that Volkswagen’s head of
purchasing in Brazil expressed his satisfaction that
the company had succeeded in shifing the core of its
manufacturing operation ofshore, leaving the head
ofce in Germany to do what it did best: put the vw
badge on automobiles…In a time of globalization,
frms try to re-focus themselves on activities that are
planet-wide in scope, the ones that reach the great-
est number of customers. Immaterial activities, in
which the cost is in the frst unit (brand promotion,
for example), are much more proftable than the
fabrication of the goods themselves” (Cohen, 7).
FIGURE 3 This diagram demonstrates the development of social value through
the commodification of a digitized interaction simultaneously produced and
consumed by a single user (illustrated by the introduction of red text).
Today our digitized interactions with new dynamic
media technologies — the tap of a touchscreen, click of
a keyboard, or turning on of a Nike FuelBand — can be
considered a new type of commodity with authority
to create value and worth in society. Layered atop the
pre-existing systems of industrial and consumer societ-
ies, the production and consumption infrastructure of
clicks and taps becomes a new measure of social worth, a
power that I call user-value.
So we have three interconnected yet
distinct types of value. Economic
worth is a measure of the mate-
rial quality of a good, expressed as
exchange-value, or price. Cultural
worth measures the success of a
brand, or a commodity’s sign-value.
And the power of the social is mea-
sured through the quantifcation of
digitized interactions: user-value.
Social worth, in turn, has the power
to determine the cultural success
and economic worth of goods and
services at large (commodities other
than the click). Te value of, for
instance, a pair of Nike sneakers is
no longer measured solely by the
quality of the sneaker of the appeal of
the Nike logo, but rather by a user’s
digitized interaction with Nike: the
quantity of likes, links, followers,
hashtags, etc. — clicks.
Implicit in its name, social worth
correlates with the value of a social
network developed on dynamic
social media platforms. For example,
the worth of KimKardashian’s 12
million Twiter followers correlates
to the worth of the Kardashian brand
(sign-value) as well as Kardashian’s
marketing power (exchange-value),
but the social network has a value of
its own: social worth (user-value).
Tis is measured in the production
and consumption paterns of user-
generated digitized interactions,
whereby a greater quantity of interac-
tions gives Kardashian a greater
social worth.
In this system, an interesting rela-
tionship develops between the role
of producer and consumer. At any
given instance, the user of a digitized
interaction as a commodity acts as
both producer and consumer of that
interaction. A user acts as a consum-
er when she clicks to like a picture on
Facebook. because embodied in the
action of clicking is the consumption
of a service, i.e., the ability to like
that Facebook ofers. In this sense,
Facebook becomes a digital depart-
ment store of sorts, providing a range
of interactions-as-commodities — to
like, to share, to upload, etc. — that a
user can consume through clicking.
Simultaneously, a user also acts as
producer when she clicks to like a
picture on Facebook. By liking, she
produces a unique event on her time-
line —a newpiece of content on her
profle as well as on the newsfeeds of
her friends and followers.
Although it appears that the roles
of producer and consumer dissolve
into each other, it’s important to
diferentiate between the two as
they each shape distinct types of
social value. Consumers of digitized
interactions, or any commodity in
general, construct and af rmtheir
identity and social standing, or self-
worth, through what they choose
to consume. Consider howvaluable
KimKardashian feels when she
consumes her tens-of-thousands of
litle hearts or likes or whatever it
may be throughout the day (her life
must be worth something, right?).
It is a similar kind of af rmation of
her social standing as when she con-
sumes a certain level of luxury dress
or extravagant vacation. Part I of this
thesis investigates howidentity and
self-worth are shaped by consumers
of digitized interactions.
Part II of this thesis examines how,
as producers of digitized interactions,
a single user’s interaction acts within
a larger network of commodities. On
one hand, it is only through these
large networks that the power of
user-generated value is harnessed.
On the other hand, these incredibly
large quantities of interactions, or
data, are repurposed by algorithms in
the service of corporations and agen-
cies to shape value on a macro scale.
Part II explores the power dynamic
between this newmeasurable social
value and the algorithmas authoring
forces of worth in society.
Kim Kardashian, image from her Twitter account (one of the top ten most despised Twitter accounts in
2012, according to the
Image courtesy of Google Image Search.
Dictionary.comdefnes consumer as “a person or organization that uses
a commodity or service.” Tough this defnition appears straightforward
(I write this as I consume a cofee), there are several intricacies I’d like to
address about what constitutes a consumer. When considering its ety-
mology, Raymond Williams in Keywords indicates that the initial usage
of the word, in 15th-century English, “…had an unfavourable sense, it
meant to destroy, to use up, to waste, to exhaust…” as in “I amdevouring
my cofee.” As its usage continued into the 18th century, “…consumer
began to emerge in a neutral sense in descriptions of bourgeois political
economy” (78). In this thesis,, the earlier negative connotation informs
the word’s meaning.
For my purposes, a consumer is someone who fulflls the intended
function of a commodity. In other words, to consume a commodity
is to “use it up,” specifcally for the service it was designed or intended.
Te act of consumption, then, implies a completion or realization of a
process. For example, a plastic grocery bag as a commodity is consumed
when we fll it with groceries or delivery food. However, when I use a
plastic grocery bag to showkindergartners howto make plastic-bag
ghosts for Halloween decorations, the students and I are not acting as
consumers. Instead, we are producing— creating a newuse, and a new
commodity, fromthe plastic bag.
Tis distinction is important. As Williams writes: "In the newpredomi-
nance of an organized market, the acts of making and of using goods and
services were newly defned in the increasingly abstract pairings of pro-
ducer and consumer, production and consumption (78)." To consume
carries the weight of actualizing a commodity, while using an object
in an alternate way, such as making art, does not complete the cycle.
Instead, it creates a diferent cycle of production.
Our ubiquitous personal technologies are changing the meaning of
consumption in two ways. First, they change howwe consume. Take,
for example, purchasing newshoes. Instead of going to the nearest shoe
store, we begin our process online. We read reviews and ratings instead
of talking to friends or the shoe salesperson; we price-shop, scouring the
Internet for coupons and upcoming deals, instead of windowshopping
and waiting for in-store sales. Tis process— this change in howwe con-
sume — is a direct translation of our habits as ofine consumers. Online,
however, the network is the mediumthrough which we go about the pro-
cess; the Internet becomes a middleman between the desire to purchase
shoes and the climactic atainment of shoes. What is notable is that the
Internet accumulates a record of this process (transforming these acts of
consuming into a formof production, addressed in Part II of this thesis).
Second, our newmedia technologies change what we consume. A whole
newmarket of goods and services— dynamic media commodities— is
constantly at our fngertips. In addition to material goods, abstract ideas,
and cultural trends, we can nowaccumulate sofware applications and
interfaces. Tese digital services are tools for entertainment, lifestyle,
education, business, etc. Like all consumable commodities, these
platforms have intended functions that are realized through a digitized
interaction— fromclicking the back buton on our web browser, to liking
a post on Facebook, to playing the latest iPhone app. It isn’t that we click
to consume the resulting information; rather, by clicking on a link or
The user of dynamic media
technologies is simultaneously
both consumer and producer.
trigger, we are consuming that particular buton or intended digitized
function, thereby fulflling its designed or consumable destiny.
Terefore, just as a customer may buy newsandals, users may click to
navigate their dynamic interfaces. For example, I have to tap to open my
Facebook app in order to consume the like my mother gives my Face-
book profle picture, to watch a video on YouTube, or to read Evgeny
Morozov’s latest article.
And by liking my profle picture, my mother acts as a consumer as well.
Her interaction consumes a service ofered by Facebook (the ability to
like). By creating unique content, and customizing Facebook for others,
she is simultaneously acting as a producer (producing consumable con-
tent for others). Tis is of interest as it demonstrates howdynamic media
create a dynamic relationship between consumer and producer. How-
ever, for the purposes of Part I, we consider the infuence of newdigital
commodities as they informthe identity of consumers, not producers.
When I click to consume the like my mother has given my Facebook
profle picture, I receive validation, support, acceptance — the way own-
ing the right pair of shoes afrms my identity. Simultaneously, when my
mother customizes Facebook with her like, she, too, afrms her iden-
tity— as a loyal mother, and also as an adept user of social media despite,
due to her age, an inherent lack of social media expertise, a skill-set
reserved for Millennials and the fewgenerational groups following them.
In this light, the act of consuming these newtypes of products becomes
a reifcation of howwe viewourselves, and consequently, howwe present
ourselves. All of our online interactions and digital places— fromappli-
cations like Vine or DouLingo, to our banking services— contribute to
constructing our identity. WilliamMitchell describes this process while
writing about the spatial/anti-spatial divide of the network in his book
City of Bits:
Traditionally, you needed to go someplace to do this sort of thing…
the bar, the pub, Main Street, the mall… and where you went pegged your
peer group, your social position, and your role. It also framed expectations
about howyou should represent yourself…(8)
While Mitchell is interested in place in an “anti-spatial network,” I am
interested in identity within this network. Instead of consuming a beer
at a bar, we are consuming our Twiter accounts, wherever we may be.
Despite the fact that the Tweet we consume may never take on a material
form, consuming it refects who we are in the same way that our choice
of drinking a particular beer at a particular establishment refects our
social standing. Te act of consumption serves, in the same way it always
has, to afrmour understanding of our status and value in the world.
Fromthe start, the Internet has ofered a means to explore and
experiment with identity, because in order to exist online we need a way
to refer to ourselves: we need a name, a login, a profle. Each newservice
— froma NewYork Times account to a newTumblr page — is tied to
a particular user, a digitized embodiment of identity. As we present
ourselves to diferent communities, our standing in relation to others is
taken into account. By looking at digitized interaction as a commodity,
the parameters by which we can assess our acceptance by others and our
self-worth become quantifable. Howmany friends do we have? How
many likes? Howmany followers? Howmany endorsements?
One of the inspirations for the following case studies is Sherry Turkle’s
book Alone Together. In it she examines, among other things, how
constant connectivity (especially among teenagers) allows users to
experiment with identity construction. At times her research feels dated,
ingrained with the ‘90s fear of networked anonymity resulting in online
sexual predators. Nevertheless, she identifes digital communities as
public places (be they fantasy worlds like Second Life or an SMS chain)
that are not separate fromthe real world, but rather opportunities to
explore the very “real” process of constructing identity.
Turkle considers being connected to one another as an obsession, even
an addiction. She quotes eighteen-year-old Roman: “If I get a Facebook
message or something posted onmy wall…I have to see it. I have to…” (171).
On a superfcial level, this echoes the negative implication of the word
“consumer” introduced by Williams. Te fervor with which we consume
is particularly evident with our newmedia technologies; we eat up apps
and devices ravenously, blindly, without considering the impact our
consumption may have on our ability to connect with others.
Terefore, for the purposes of this research, I defne this newfound
“tethered-ness” as a formof consumption. In the following case stud-
ies— the Perfect Human Application and the Weeping iPhone— I examine
howconsumption afects our perceptions of identity and our relation-
ships with others.
Te Perfect Human Application, highlights the impact of quantifcation
of the digitized interaction as a commodity that can be measured and
compared. It explores howwe construct our sense of self in the digital
age, and enables us to critically consider the efect of quantifying our
self-worth. Te Weeping iPhone explores some of the assumptions we,
as consumers, have made about dynamic technologies, and the efects
of these technologies on our relationships with others .
As with traditional goods and services, our choices about what, and how
we consume have worked and will always work to informour self-worth.
Yet given that these newgoods and services do not have a tangible place
in the world, the question arises: what kind of lasting philosophical im-
plications does the abstracted nature of digital interactions have on how
we understand and identity ourselves as physical beings?
Image courtesy of Kimberly Maroon
I recently atended a yoga class
with my sister. As we waited for
class to begin, we lay extended on
our mats. With her eyes still closed,
she turned to me and stated in the
quiet, darkened room, “I hate it.
I feel naked without my phone.”
It is an all-too-familiar, if not an
already trite feeling: the nudity of
not having our cell phones by our
sides, of not having our contacts
in our pockets.
As we spend more and more time connected online, we are
spending less time connecting with people of ine (as there are
only so many hours in a day). As a result, it is increasingly more
important to give meaning to those online interactions. Te
Perfect Human Application ofers the user the ability to under-
stand the life he or she lives online, not through quality but
through quantity. How else will we know how perfect we are or
how perfect we can become?
Te Perfect Human Application (PHA) is a social networking application
that tracks and aggregates the quantity of user interactions made on
smart devices and social media accounts in order to generate real-time
statistical information on a user’s functioning. Te PHA calculates a
competitive Perfect Human Score, which allows a user to track his or
her progress toward perfection, i.e., a greater (or lesser) quantity than
yesterday. Most importantly, the PHA allows users to compare their
perfection to that of friends and family as well as to a greater community
of users. Trough this process of scoring, the application metaphorically
turns the user into a set of dynamic data, making it easy for users to see
just howperfect they are, and even easier for themto gauge howperfect
they could become.
User interactions are divided into six categories, known collectively as
Te Anatomy of Perfection. Each category represents a diferent grouping
of online actions made by the user throughout a 24-hour period. Tese
categories are named afer of ine goals: for example, “Communication
Skills: Texting is the New Hugging” is an aggregate of all the minutes
users spend talking on their phone, as well as any text or voicemail they
send using their phone. It is analogous to the what used to be face-to-
face conversation. “Looks: It’s What’s Outside that Counts” measures the
number of photos a user is posted in online, referencing the misleading
beauty that a fatering angle and good lighting can produce. Each of the
six categories are presented in the application’s interface as glance-able
numerical and graphical data.
Te Perfect Human, Jorgen Leth
Te application was inspired by Danish flmdirector Jorgen Leth’s 1967
short flmTe Perfect Human, and updates Leth’s examination of human
perfection. By critically examining the measures of perfection apparent
in contemporary society, both the flmand the application question how
those parameters drive the existential construction of self-hood.
In the flm, Leth, simultaneously narrator and objective scientist,
investigated howthe perfect human of 1967 functioned — howthe
beautiful Danish man and woman adhered to superfcial societal ideals
of perfection in the 1960s. Afer enumerating a number of “perfect func-
tioning” activities, the movie’s focus pivoted during a “very delicious”
dinner, when the woman mysteriously disappeared. Her absence
provoked a strange turn of events. Leth narrated: “What is the perfect
human thinking?…About the food he eats, happiness, love, death?” And
in response, the young man, while chewing, wondered: “Why is joy so
quickly done?…Why did you leave me? Why are you gone?”
With this line of questioning, Leth was no longer investigating the
qualities of perfection, but rather asking: What is perfect(ly) human? He
urged us to consider the universal, timeless, and philosophical themes
that make humans human. Te smiling, lighthearted, handsome young
man is— regardless (and it is this word “regardless” that makes the
word “perfect” so perfect) of the era he lives in, the accumulation of his
grooming, his age, his experience, his knowledge, his lack of knowledge,
his confusion and his resulting loneliness. His confusion stems from
the unknowable questions of existence, fromthe desire to understand
the standalone I that he is. He longs for companionship and acceptance
among others as a validation of self in the face of inevitable death. And
so, as the perfect human must, he asks questions whose answers, if they
even existed, would ofer no comfort.
Te PHA comments on this quest. It turns this existential questioning
into a number— a number that has meaning only in relation to other
numbers. And though each number represents a possible sating of the
need for validation, the number is distanced fromits meaning and the
potential for companionship that it represents. As the user would only
be interested in his or her score, in winning the game, he or she would
forget that on the other side of the number is an interaction with another
user— another human. Leth’s young hero, the perfect man, revealed his
perfection through his fear of loneliness and constant questioning. Te
theme that defned Leth’s characters in the 1960s is unveiled in the PHA,
by the application’s ability to bring to the forefront the difculties of
negotiating “real” companionship in the digital landscape.
Tere is one fnal lesson to be learned fromLeth: he espoused the
western tradition of a scientist exploring empirical knowledge to expose
the abstract, the romantic, the terrifying, and the humane. At its es-
sence, the PHA is built upon the dichotomy between quantity (empirical
data) and quality (abstract and qualitative knowledge). Te application
updates Leth to refect and mock the concerns of the present age where
the amount of quantifable information is growing rapidly; through
its immediate accessibility, it calls atention to the copious amounts of
numbers always lying in wait for us to consume. But it does so face-
tiously. With its complex matrix of scoring and its slick, blunt graphics, it
turns contemporary survival skills into meaningless numbers as if to re-
veal the futility of quantity: no mater what or howmuch data we scrape,
there will never be an algorithmto answer our existential questions.
Te Perfect Human Application, 2012
By tracking and quantifying a user’s connected actions, the application
updates the desire of Leth’s perfect human for companionship. And in
imitating Leth, the application doesn’t simply ofer the user a quantifca-
tion of acceptance, but the opportunity to confront the fear of loneliness
and death in our tethered world.
Quantity not Quality
Te PHA speaks to its users as consumers. It collects what they do— who
follows themon Instagramand who chats with themon Facebook — and
turns those actions into numerical values. It is the digital formof the
interaction that allows it to be tracked and quantifed with ease, which
then allows it to be transformed into an indicator of self-worth. Te
categories that formTe Anatomy of Perfection divvy up our actions into
diferent sources of value. For example, in our initial user-testing, Ceren
Paydas (a student at MassArt) scored very high in communication skills.
Knowing her background (she is fuent in three languages and signif-
cantly younger than the others being tested), it was interesting to see her
numbers compared to others.
Designed to increase
individuals’ awareness of
food waste and recycling
behaviors, BinCam augments
a kitchen bin with a mobile
phone to automatically
capture and log individual’s
waste management activity.
Photos are uploaded to the
BinCam app on a social
networking site where
users can share and review
the bin-related behavior of
themselves and others.
Brush Smart: The Beam
Brush is the world’s first
smart toothbrush, a manual
brush that monitors your oral
hygiene habits and reports
them to a smartphone app.
This is the only bed
that puts all other beds
to sleep. The Sleep Smart
is composed of the most
sophisticated combination
of technology, and automat-
ed sensors to measure and
respond to body ergonomics
and movement. Comes
complete with integrated
Bluetooth connectivity
and the Sleep Smart app,
with a daily dashboard
to summarize essential
sleep statistics.
Te choice to divide digital interactions
into six categories comes directly fom Leth’s
examination of the Perfect Human functioning…
“Now we will see how the perfect human looks… Tis is how an ear looks. And here is
a pair of knees. Another ear.”
Narrator dictates, female puts on lipstick, zoomon female ear, zoomon male ear,
We are struck from the start by the beautiful actor and actress Leth has
chosen to portray perfection. Today, however, it is completely normal not
just to wear make-up, but to augment pictures of ourselves with filters and
photoshop. Once those manipulated pictures are posted online, they hold an
unexpected authority about our beauty. Just as Leth’s perfect humans need
to look young, today we need not only to be beautiful in a traditional sense
but to publicize those looks online. For more information on this topic, please
watch “The Hobbit,” South Park s17e10 found at
It’s what’s on the
outside that counts.
But more important
than looking good is
sharing those good
looks with others.
SCORING for all
activity related to
photo and video
media via applicable
social media plat-
forms, +1 point.
“We will see the perfect human functioning…” Male adjusts bow-tie while wearing
black suit, 01:45:13-01:49:07.
“Walking. Running. Jumping. Falling. Look, now he falls. How does he fall?”
Male jumps three times in white outft, male falls. Male stands up wearing black
outft, 03:11:00-03:23:27.
Though Leth never articulates the ability to pick himself up, the Perfect
Human demonstrates the action of falling as well as standing up. This physi-
cal competence represents the perfect ability to persevere through hardship
(be it physical or emotional). Today, to be competent enough to metaphorical-
ly ‘pick yourself up from a fall,’ can be equated to one’s ability to organize and
manage her email accounts. These email accounts keep us tethered to our
responsibilities, and the ability to continually keep up with our emails (write
efficient and witty emails throughout the day) is a task which represents just
how perfect we are.
Emailing — best
paired with morning
SCORING +1 point
for every email sent
or received from
connected email
Texting in the new
hugging. We used to
have conversations,
make plans, and even
say I love you. Today
we text. It is the only
perfect way to show
you care.
SCORING compiles
all text-based com-
munication services
and awards +1 point
for every text sent or
“How is it to touch the Perfect Human? How is the skin? Is it smooth? Is it warm? Is it
sof? Is it dry? Is it well cared for? …the Perfect Human…makes love.”
Female and male make love in bed; aferward, male balls up in fetal position,
This is the first instance in the film when the two appear in the same shot,
and the only part of the film that involves direct physical contact between
two humans. But Leth doesn’t just narrate the humans connection, he asks
his audience to consider that touch, in intimate detail, from their perspective.
Just as Leth’s man and woman come together to make love, today we come
together via our constant communications. The physicality of that contact,
has been replaced by its consistency — a consistency the PHA turns into
measurable quantity. No longer is it important if we are good kissers; rather
we must constantly talk to those we love.
It’s 9 am. Do you
know where you
are supposed to be?
Managing a packed
schedule is a true
sign of perfection.
SCORING +1 point
for every event add-
ed to calendar. User
is not rewarded for
attendance, just for
“Listen to the human geting ready. Listen to the perfect human living. Listen to its
sounds. What is this human thinking.”
Narrator dictates, male clips nails and shaves, 08:03:24–08:52:18.
Leth’s Perfect Human, despite living in a “boundless” perfect world, still has
to get ready. However, when Leth calls on us to notice him “getting ready,”
we are not sure for what he is preparing — though the dinner shortly follows.
The act of “getting ready” is presented to the viewer in isolation, as an ab-
straction correlating to responsibility. Getting ready implies the act of prepa-
ration, the content of which is less important, than our ability to consider and
plan for the future. Today, the PHA updates this to award points for maintain-
ing the calendar — the absolute abstraction of preparation — while gives no
reward for attendance — as perfection, according to Leth, is measured not by
what we do, but by what we wish to, or prepare to accomplish.
“Yes, there he is. Who is he? What can he do?… Why does he move like that?… Look
at him now. And now. Look at him all the time.”
Narrator dictates, male dances, 04:24:01–05:22:09.
Nearly halfway through the movie, the Perfect Human appears with
sunglasses, as he dances to music only he can hear. As he smiles at his
audience along with his goofy dance moves, he wants us to smile back — and
the Perfect Human becomes the epitome of likable. He is young, handsome,
lighthearted, easygoing… most importantly, he is popular! Today, this popu-
larity, i.e., social media activity calculated via the Perfect Human smartphone
application, is an update of Leth prompting us to examine this interaction as
a plea for attention: “Look at him now. And now. Look at him all the time.” In
the ‘60s, the confident, laid-back jokester could easily become the center of
attention at any dinner party. Today, we seek to attain that attention online
receiving validation and affirmation of our worth in society.
We used to develop
friendships in the
high school cafete-
ria or by frequenting
our local bar for
after-work drinks.
Today, we hang out
SCORING +1 point
awarded for every
action performed
on applicable social
media accounts.
Cash is a thing of
the past. We have
all seen rappers
make it rain in the
club, but have you
seen the investment
banker flash his bank
statement on his
SCORING for any
action made though
online banking apps,
+1 point.
“Why is fortune so capricious? Why is joy so quickly done? Why did you leave me?
Why are you gone? … Very, very delicious!”
Subtitles, male speaks to himself at dinner, alone 11:20:14-12:21:18.
Followed by his grievous “Why is joy so quickly done? Why did you leave
me?” the “Very, very delicious!” stands out as an abrupt change in the Per-
fect Human’s temperament. Leth has aligned the Perfect Human’s perfec-
tion, in this moment, to the success of his activity: the delicious meal. This
success abruptly stops him from dwelling on his heartbreak, and reframes
his situation around his perfection (with the following lines: “Today, too I
experienced something I hope to understand in a few days.”
Currently, though, a good meal means nothing compared to the numbers in
our bank accounts, and as a result success should be measured by our finan-
cial presence online (not the qualitative assessment of dinner). Whether we
have a lot of actual money or not is unimportant. It’s the action of spending
and depositing — through Amazon’s “Buy now with 1-Click,” to checking the
status of our direct-deposit — which makes the contemporary Perfect Human
successful today.
Screen grab fromTe Perfect Human, Jorgen Leth 1967.
Tese six categories represent the divisions that enable us to understand
where and howwe need to improve our functioning. Without these cat-
egories, it would be difcult to evaluate what actually makes us perfect.
Perhaps diferent categories will take on diferent levels of importance
for diferent users. Tis freedommimics our material economy by creat-
ing a sort of digital department store where we can make our choices
known. One person values education; another values a newcar. Tese
divisions allowus to construct and understand our social standing in
evermore specifc ways.
Shareable and Comparable
In Alone Together, Turkle explores the repercussions of the intimacy we
have with our mobile devices. Using the experience of sixteen-year-old
Julia, Turkle notes how, for Julia, “things move from‘I have a feeling, I
want to make a call’ to ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to make a call’ or
in her case, send a text.” Julia even confates her phone with her friends:
“Even before I get upset and I knowthat I have that feeling…I’ll pull
up my friend…uh, my phone…”(175). According to Turkle, we used to
reach out to one another for assistance and companionship in times
of need or excitement, but today we can’t experience a feeling without
sharing it with others. While Leth’s perfect human was defned by his
loneliness, by his desire for companionship, today we need companion-
ship in order to even feel loneliness.
Te need for companionship shapes the heart of the Perfect Human Ap-
plication: “To share and compare makes perfection atainable.” It is only
through being able to compare one’s numbers, one’s measure of perfec-
tion, that a sense of self-worth in the digital age can be atained.
Te PHA makes it convenient to compare and share these numbers
in diferent ways. First, users can track their progress towards perfection
within the calendar interface of the application. Further, users can
compare their scores, as well as paterns of progress, to the aggregated
average or to one specifc fellowuser— perhaps a friend, family mem-
bers, or coveted celebrity. Te application allows users to compare the
anatomy of their perfection through pie charts. Embracing a bold and
clean aesthetic, these graphics easily make perfection both sharable
and comparable.
What makes the Perfect Human Application of interest is its context.
Today, the boundary between quantifable interactions online and
qualifable experiences outside the digital is permeable, and we struggle
to distinguish between them, just as much as we struggle to integrate
the online and ofine places we inhabit. Te Perfect Human Application
doesn’t goad us into prioritizing the quality we associate with ofine
experience or the quantity representative of online place; rather it asks
its users to refect on the relationship between the two.
Further, when higher scores translate into a higher perfection, this cre-
ates a more valuable user, or consumer. In a traditional sense, it works
in the same way consuming, or wearing, nice shoes does. We feel beter
about ourselves. Online, the self-worth we gain fromconsuming Face-
book likes— the digitized interaction — may be enough for many, to give
themconfdence that translates outside of the game.
Born out of the desire to update the existential questioning of Leth’s
perfect human, the PHA is a satirical commentary on companionship
and loneliness in a landscape drastically shaped by digital media. It
reveals a consumer whose focus is on quantity not quality, on scoring
rather than experiencing, thereby confating companionship and soli-
tude. Most importantly, it positions self and number side by side, calling
atention to the complex and entwined relationship between the two.
Photo by Erik Jacobs
for Te New York
Times of Turkle in her
Boston home, 2007.
Screen grab from Black Mirror episode “Fifeen Million Merits.”
Afer initial user testing, it
was determined that users of the
Perfect Human Application were put
of by the complex matrix of scoring.
Addressing that concern, the Weeping
iPhone is a proposed alert system, a
series of video notifcations to update
PHA users if their perfection scores
fall too low.
Because, in an era when our phones
are expected to take responsibility for
so many diferent tasks, why should
users have to check the application
to retrieve their results?
Screen shot from iOS 7.
While the pha is a comment on how we have given away so
many of our parameters of self-worth to social media and our
digitized interactions, the Weeping iPhone follows suit, asking:
when does tying our identity to technology interfere with the
most complex experience of self — our ability to express our
most vulnerable emotional states?
Te subtitle of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together reads: Why We Expect
More fom Technology and Less fom Each Other. Turkle is warning us that
we may be neglecting one another in favor of our intelligent and ‘always-
there’ technology. Te Weeping iPhone is a response to what Turkle arti-
culates as a transformation of responsibility fromus to ‘it.’ Te more we
use our devices as consumers, the more intimately we are tied to them.
Te Weeping iPhone takes this intimacy to the extreme and asks: Can I
someday expect my phone to take on the vulnerable role of expressing
an emotional reaction to the intimacy it so readily enables?
Characterized by their disruptive nature, the Weeping iPhone’s notifca-
tion videos interrupt the user’s ability to use the phone. For example, if
a user’s Perfect Human Score drops belowthe 10th percentile, the phone
assumes its user is feeling imperfect, unloved, and worthless: like a loser.
So it automatically plays a 30-second video — titled Loser Syndrome—in
which a woman’s voice tauntingly chants: “Loser, loooooser. Who do you
think you are? You are nothing but one big fat loser.” Accompanying this
intonation, a collection of Apple “x-in-a-bubble” icons accumulate in
mounting piles at the botomof the screen.
If lowscores persist over several days, the phone takes on the burden
of expressing the depression caused by imperfection — in a short video
called State of Despair. No longer able to function normally, the phone
plays the sound of a human sob in tandemwith fuctuations in its bright-
ness, thereby sending out an SOS to its nearby owner.
If triggered, the videos play through to completion. Tis imposes, to the
embarrassment of the phone’s owner, an audible outpouring of emotion-
al distress on the surrounding environment.
On the surface, the Weeping iPhone transforms the phone into a vulner-
able object. Te programprompts the user to atend to her phone, and,
in return, her “perfection” (as well as any emotional distress). Te Weep-
ing iPhone’s short videos ridicule the fervency with which we are atached
to our cell phones, and the reliance that ensues.
Te Language of Our iPhones
Te Weeping iPhone notifcations call atention to distinct norms
we have accepted in our interfaces, like push notifcations, the Apple
iconography, and iPhone screen brightness. Tough notifcations can
be turned of, the default setings on any Apple product ofers users
ongoing alerts and updates for their calendars, emails, games, and more.
For some, these notifcations are lifesavers. For others, they are nuisanc-
es ready to be promptly disabled. I fnd these pop-ups humorous. Tey
seemso serious— your appointment is now — yet their sudden appear-
ance and horizontal-rectangular format, is reminiscent of the colorful
pop-up advertisements that appeared on early web browsers.
Push notifcations, as visual interruptions, are an accepted part of the
iOS user interface. Turning this push notifcation into a video, thereby
adding the element of time, exacerbates the role of visual intrusion that
enables Apple’s notifcations to work so well.
Te Weeping iPhone repurposes the iPhone iconography of an x-out
bubble for deleting sofware and applications and the phone’s screen
brightness function (the ultimate batery drainer). It integrates these
mechanisms (that are unique to the language of the iPhone) with the
human voice — fromthe more traditional rant of Loser Syndrome, to the
universal and visceral expression of crying. By combining these two lan-
guages, the piece calls atention to the dichotomy that (western) society
has set up between technology and human.
Sooo pathetic. You are dumb! Loooooooser…
You are
the biggest
waste of
space and
that has ever
lived, in the
history of
all time.
You are nothing
but one big fat
Te video-stills below demonstrate the
30-second push notifcation which plays if a user’s
Perfect Human Score drops below the 10th percentile..
Increasing iPhone luminosity.
Te video-stills show the intrusive notifcation
which plays when low scores persist over several
days. In the video, screen luminosity fuctuates
in tandem with the loud sobs of a woman crying.
We have come to distinguish between the hard, cold science of technol-
ogy and the sof, warmabstraction of humanity. Te Weeping iPhone
questions: what is the relationship between them? Are they really distin-
guishable or comparable as two distinct opposites? When the user listens
to the iPhone crying, does he or she greet it with empathy or laughter?
And if with laughter, is it out of discomfort — a discomfort resulting
fromthe unnatural sound of despair emiting froma familiar device? Or
is it a discomfort fromthe fear that technology will someday steal our
ability to weep?
Te Weeping iPhone obliterates the dichotomy between the language
of the digital (the Apple iconography) and the language of us humans
(ranting, crying). By anthropomorphizing the Apple iconography
and turning the expression of emotion into the function of a designed
afordance, the notifcations confate the distinct roles of human and
device in an evermore intimate relationship. Further, in theory of course,
the application asks us to consider what kind of afordances we take for
granted in our digital systems.
Te use of emotional expression raises an array of issues. By linking the
Weeping iPhone responses to particular scores fromthe PHA, the notifca-
tion systemparallels our process of naming and thereby delineating our
emotions. Tis simplifes the complexity of the human ability to feel.
Categorizing and medicating emotions like sadness, anxiety, fear is an
imprecise and undeveloped science (driven by the pharmaceutical indus-
try). When considering psychiatry as a science that aims to quantify and
control, it doesn’t seemfar-fetched to imagine a world where diagnoses
like depression, anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia are shifed into the
domain of technology.
At the same time, watching an iPhone cry is funny. It’s funny because,
frst, it doesn’t make sense. Why would an iPhone be able to express such
intimate emotions when we have such a difcult time doing the same?
It is also uncomfortable to see such a display of vulnerability in public.
In fact, as it is socially unacceptable to rant and cry in public, doesn’t it
makes sense to give that expression over to something else — like our
phones? Wouldn’t it be cathartic?
Just as the PHA pits quantity against quality, the Weeping iPhone sets
technology against humanity. By anthropomorphizing the cell phone,
the Weeping iPhone video alerts confate this divide. Te consumer—the
paradigmof emotion — takes the role of the heartless and annoyed
bystander, while the cold technology expresses the discomfort of emo-
tional vulnerability with an indulgent rant of self-hatred and the primal
wail. Caught of guard, the consumer may see his or her own vulner-
ability mirrored in the refective glass— if just for a fewseconds—and in
that moment, he or she is metaphorically transformed into the unfeeling
machine, until the humor and annoyance of the situation set in.
Tough the Weeping iPhone does not illuminate the digitized interaction
as a commodity, it does refect on the repercussions of such consump-
tion. As consumers in the traditional sense, so much of our identity and
self-worth are constructed fromwhat we choose to consume. Tese deci-
sions diferentiate us fromone another; they informour status and class,
dictate our standard of living, and embody our belief systems, morals,
and personal values. Our choices hold weight, and as they become tied
to the digital spaces we inhabit, they carry a similar impact as choosing
which neighborhood we live in or what car we should buy.
While the PHA looked at our entwined conception of self-worth with
our glowing screens, the Weeping iPhone is a refection on howthese
digitized interactions, as commodities that informidentity, relate to the
burden of emotional vulnerability. Te fears raised by Sherry Turkle can
be easily mocked, but they are grounded in a genuine concern about that
relationship. As our digital interfaces become more and more seamless,
and as issues of usability dissipate, we have to consider the impact on our
emotional awareness.
Image from Truck Éditions <>.
In Part I, we examined digitized interactions as
commodities of consumption: the user acting as
consumer. In Part II, we reverse our perspective to
examine the user, as a producer. As we consume on
Facebook — by reading and sharing a link to a Buzzfeed
article, for example — we are simultaneously producing
content that can later be read, or consumed, by others.
It isn’t that we create the article — we do not research,
compile, write, and publish it — but the act of sharing
reproduces the content, in a unique consumable link;
unique, if only, due to its very own timestamp and other
metadata created from the act of reposting. As Facebook
calls it , this “event,” creates a new type of user: that of
the reproducer.
In this context, the act of producing unique content on our digital inter-
faces— fromuploading a photo, to sending an email, to searching on a
browser — is straightforward. And the role of the producer, as discussed
earlier, is simultaneously, that of the consumer.
However, there is another way to understand this situation. Consider the
terminology associated with sharing already-produced content online:
we “re-blog,” or “re-tweet.” By partaking in these specifc interactions,
a user may take on the role of a consumer or a producer, but she is also,
always, a reproducer.
Because all connected actions are tracked by digital surveillance systems,
any and all digitized interactions are produced again, reproduced, by the
algorithmor services that collect, aggregate, and analyze them.
keeps track of not just what we watch but when and for howlong we
streammedia. Google AdSense knows which items we buy and which we
haven’t yet bought. Beyond our browser window, companies and govern-
ment agencies knowwhen, where, and howtheir services are being used.
Our clicks are reproduced as digitized records. Terefore, whether a
user is producing their own unique content or re-posting content from
another user, all digitized interactions become reproduce-able, turning
users, in whatever role they are playing, into reproducers.
It might seem logical that
the algorithm, which actively
reproduces the data, would
play the role of reproducer.
However, it is users who
create the data being repro-
duced as they choose interact
on digital platforms. To call
attention to that choice (and
its implicit agency or power),
I have identified users as
The red repro-
ducer indicates
that no matter
which role the
user plays, he or
she is always a
At this point, I'd like to acknowledge a particular context for which to
consider the terminology at hand. Consider Walter Benjamin's infamous
“Te Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In this
pivotal essay, Benjamin examines the repercussions of changes in the
relations and technologies of production, what Karl Marx calls the base,
on the meaning and value of a work of art— representative of Marx's con-
cept of a superstructure. Te abstract cultural and political ideologies
implied by Marx’s superstructure and in Benjamin’s essay as an object of
art, can be seen as parallel to what I call value in this thesis: an abstract
undercurrent of economic, cultural, and social structures.
Benjamin, specifcally, looks at the impact of these changes on "the re-
production of artworks" as well as howthese technologies are employed
in the service of artistic practices, "the art of flm" (102). However, I
bring himup, not to discuss artistic practice, but nod to the task he laid
out for himself as similar to the one in this thesis: an examination of how
reproduction via newtechnologies afect concepts of meaning and value
in society. We can also examine the newqualities of the technologies
of reproduction today, as their diferences account for a departure from
"the Age of Technological Reproducibility."
In “Inventing the Medium,” published as the frst of two introductions in
the New Media Reader (2003), Janet H. Murray describes digital media
with "four defning qualities: its procedural, participatory, encyclopedic,
and spatial properties" (6). Te former two properties allowfor “what we
think of as the defning experience of the digital medium, its 'interactiv-
ity.’” Tey allowusers to "specify procedures which will not merely be
recorded but executed," and manipulate "its processes and data." For
Murray these properties create an immersive environment, with an
illusion of space, or cerebral depth, created by links of information
resembling an encyclopedia. Murray likens the intricacy of the “digi-
tal environment,” frst to the poetic complexity of Jorge Luis Borge’s
“Garden of Forking Paths” (a short story that is a labyrinth of infnite
regression in both formand content). And second, she likens the depth
of this environment to the limitless and dynamic information trails of
Vannevar Bush’s Memex (a fctional computational desk envisioned by
the engineer in his 1945 Atlantic Monthly essay “As We May Tink”).
Lev Manovich, in Te Language of New Media (2001), undertakes a simi-
lar articulation of the properties of newand digital media. His principles
are: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and
transcoding (see chapter 1, “Principles of NewMedia”). Manovich’s
principles explain that all newmedia are numerically coded and modular
in structure. Tis accounts for manipulation by automated processes
(or algorithmic models) with “potentially infnite” (36) variable results
to create dynamic and interactive networked structures, which he calls
“media databases” or “hypermedia.” So, like Murray, Manovich recogniz-
es that the infnite reproducibility of digital media— by the reproducer
creates a limitless, branching, ever-evolving “digital environment.” In
poetic terms, reproducibility today possesses a unseen depth.
Te intricacies of this “depth,” reverberate in an abstract undercurrent of
economic, cultural, and social ideologies, which Manovich references by
his principle of transcoding. In my thesis, those reverberations structure
value. And the forces responsible for the constructing this digital land-
scape of dynamic media are the reproducer and the algorithm.
Codes are cultural objects embedded and
integrated within a social system whose
logic, rules, and explicit functioning work
to determine the new conditions of
possibilities of users’ lives.
Cheney-Lippold, A New Algorithmic Identity
For my purposes, an algorithmis set of systematic procedures that
make calculations. While the highly complex procedures and computa-
tions that computer models are capable of are above the grasp of most
laypeople, as well as lay-technology, the fundamentals of algorithms
are reminiscent of grade-school mathematics: they take an initial set of
input data and act on that data in a systemof successive procedures to
produce an output. Today, algorithms collect, scrape, and mine data;
they fnd paterns and make predictions fromoverlapping and interrelat-
ing datasets; they evolve and get smarter. Tey transformthe digitized
interactions we produce into valuable (or not so valuable) commodities.
In Rita Raley’s Dataveillance and Countervailance, she writes:
…we are thus in the midst of what is exuberantly called a ‘Data Renais-
sance’… Data has been fgured as a ‘gold mine’ and as ‘the newoil of the
Internet and the newcurrency of the digital world’…” (123).
She outlines the expansive newmarketplaces for data— like BlueKai,
where data is traded like stocks with “data-handlers and data-brokers.”
Of interest, is that the value of these datasets is ofen speculative. Te
data is raw; it “awaits extrapolation, circulation, and speculation.” For
our purposes, the termrawdata works like a charm. And it is the algo-
rithmthat transforms the rawdata we produce fromabstract quantity
into useful, and valuable information. If datasets are our tubes of paint,
the algorithmis our paintbrush.
Tere is, however, a forewarning to be considered before we continue.
Embedded in both of these components, the data and the algorithm, is
the objective neutrality associated with mathematics, science, and tech-
nology. In the introduction to their book “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron,
Lisa Gitelman and co-author Virginia Jackson elegantly describe data
as a complex concept because of its troubled historical relationship to
neutrality. Te authors aimto look “under data to consider their root as-
sumptions” (4). Teir point is that datasets, and the algorithmic models
at work, are designed objects created by an author with specifc purposes.
Gitelman and Jackson make a fewwonderful points on this mater.
First, quoting Lev Manovich, they write, “Data [do] not just exist, [they
need to be] generated.” Data “are imagined and enunciated against the
seamlessness of phenomena… so data garner immanence in the circum-
stances of their imagination” (3). Te very ability to produce particular
datasets— which allowtech start-ups to succeed in bringing us the next
newapp— is ingrained in our particular economic, cultural, and social
Furthermore, howwe analyze data is subject to the same forces. One
of Gitelman and Jackson’s fnal points is that data comes in the formof
datum— discrete units— in contrast to the fuidity of information. As a
result, data are organized into tables and charts, within which are hier-
archies. Te authors’ point, taken fromGeofrey C. Bowker and Susan
Leigh Star’s book Sorting Tings Out, is that these hierarchies are shaped
by social order. Yet when “phenomena are variously reduced to data, they
are divided and classifed, processes that work to obscure — or as if to
obscure — ambiguity, confict, and contradiction” (9).
However, interpreting our complex (and almighty) algorithms as
designed artifacts is difcult. In Te Real Privacy Problem (2013),Evgeny
Morozov features “Transparent Predictions,” a recent paper by Tal Zar-
sky, lawprofessor at Haifa University. Aligned with Manovich, Bowker,
and Star, Zarsky notes:
Analysts carry out extensive tasks and have ample opportunity to leave
an ideological (and potentially hidden) impression on the process. Tese
opportunities are evident fromthe very start of the predictive process; the
dataset must be actively constructed, at times by bringing together data
fromvarious sources. Tis task requires various decisions, such as which
databases should be used. Other decisions are more subtle, what counts as
an ‘event’ which will trigger analysis. (1518)
Te process of accumulating and mining data, along with the param-
eters and variables, are all decisions designed for a specifc goal. How-
ever, Zarsky’s interest is not in the lack of objectivity of data-modeling
algorithms, but rather in the transparency, or ability to interpret, of the
thousands of variables and decisions these systems are built upon:
“a non-interpretable process might followfroma data-mining analysis
which is not explainable in human language” (1519). Tough Zarsky
maps out the complexities of making the design process of algorithmic
systems ever-more transparent, he notes that even transparency of
predictive behavioral paterns does not necessary make adequate or wise
tools for predictive modeling.
In any case, the neutrality with which we’d like to associate with our
technologies and advanced mathematics is a problematic lens. However,
it is a lens that is easy to shater. Te algorithm, as a designed object, is
permeated with history, politics, and societal behaviors, rich with a
perspective all its own. In this thesis, we examine the algorithmas an
object whose purpose is to transformthe act of digital consumption into
an infrastructure of production, sans labor costs (as well as transforming
all users into reproducers).
Data are everywhere and
piling up in dizzying amounts.

Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson, “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron
As producers, our digitized interactions result in the accumulation of
massive quantities of data. Collectively, this amount of data is unfathom-
able — a 24/7, tirelessly changing, interrelated deluge of numbers. But
through advancements in computer science, with applied algorithmic
models, the digital infrastructure of a Dynamic Media Society gives
these numbers meaning. Tis is the infrastructure of reproduction —us-
er-produced data, reproduced by algorithmic systems, which structure
meaning, authority, and value. In the following examples, I will examine
the power dynamics between the algorithm— as a formof control reliant
on socially generated, reproduced, datasets— and the reproducer— the
agent clickers creating the data in question.
To begin, let’s look at the specifc example of identity in relation to the
user, or reproducer. I drawon University of Michigan researchers John
Cheney-Lippold’s “A NewAlgorithmic Identity: Sof Biopolitics and
the Modulation of Control.” Lippold looks at howalgorithmic models
of surveillance, ofen used in marketing and advertising, defne online
categories of identifcation, specifcally gender. His interest is in howthis
“algorithmic inference” acts as a formof control. He focuses on the web
analytics frmQuantcast:
Te algorithmic process that I will focus on in this article looks at the web
analytics frmQuantcast as it infers certain categorical identifcations
fromseemingly meaningless web data. As newinformation gets created
about an individual through the tracking of her web presence, a user’s
identity becomes more defned within the systemin accord with the logic
of Quantcast’s identifcation algorithms…Te implicit disorder of data
collected about an individual is organized, defned, and made valuable by
algorithmically assigning meaning to user behavior and in turn limiting
the potential excess of meanings that rawdata ofer. (169)
Tis is the process of reproduction, where user produced data is repur-
posed by computer models to structure meaning— in this case gender.
What is unique about this “cybernetic system”(170) is that gender is no
longer a straightforward category based on biology, but rather a fuid and
dynamic process:
Algorithms allowa shif to a more fexible and functional defning of the
category, one that de-essentializes gender fromits corporeal and societal
forms… Gender becomes a vector, a completely digital and math-based
association that defnes the meaning of maleness, femaleness, or whatever
other gender (or category) a marketer requires. (170)
In other words, gender, freed fromcorporeality, becomes “a modulat-
ing category,” responsive to algorithmic interpretation of user data, or
reproduction. But most importantly, gender becomes a category defned
to extract value fromrawdata in order to suit the needs of the market.
In the case of Quantcast, the category of algorithmically defned gender
determines what kind of content (in the formof advertisements) a
user comes into contact with. Because the systemis responsive to all
digitized interactions, not just individual users, control is not “a direct
political intervention” enacted on an individual, but rather “the capac-
ity of suggestion to sofly persuade users towards models of normalized
behavior and identity through the constant redefnition of categories
of identity.” Te algorithms ofer marketers the powers to tell “us who
we are, what we want, and who we should be” (177). Cheney-Lippold’s
warning is that the algorithmis being used as a tool of power and control,
by its ability to constantly render our data as meaningful, “making
relevant inferences about what that data can mean” (178). Te original
intents and purposes of our interactions, like our biologically defned
gender, are rendered meaningless.
Te ability to transformthe disorder of digitized interactions into mean-
ingful and applied information is terrifying, especially if we look beyond
advertising into howinfrastructures with legislative power could use
it. Consider research conducted by legal academics Ariel Porat and Lior
Jacob Strahilevitz, at the University of Chicago, examining how“big
University of Michigan faculty
in Digital Environments.
data” mining techniques of individual citizens can allowfor more “per-
sonal law”— including consumer contracts like trust and wills tailored
to individual citizens. Te algorithmic models transformuser data into
an automated application of legal authority. Porat and Strahilevitz aimto
reduce malpractice and boost efciency, but the greater repercussions for
litigation and legislation are frightening.
Despite the disregard for the individual behind the clicks, can we
consider the user, instead, as an agent producer and an integral force in
creating meaningful applications of information? By no means does this
question mitigate the fears outlined above, but it does grant us, as users,
a more empowered point of view. Data does not come fromnowhere. It
comes directly fromus as a society of clicks.
Take Uber (, the smartphone-based car-for-hire service. Tis
service ofers its consumers a variety of interesting choices including a
“style” scale (to order upscale cars for special occasions), as well as direct
payment froma credit card (“Cashless & Convenient,” their website
boasts). However, the most fascinating aspect of Uber as a service is
that it operates on surge pricing: as demand in a particular location for
cabs rise, the price of the fare increases as well. NPR’s Planet Money
podcast covered the economic pains and gains of Uber’s surge pricing
in Why Paying $192 For a 5-Mile Car Ride May Be Rational (Febru-
ary 7, 2014). Here, our interest in Uber’s pricing methodology has less
to do with the theoretical and applied benefts of surge pricing, but
rather howsurge pricing is implemented. As Zoe Chase reports, “Uber
knows what people do when they see a surge, and so they knowhow
many people close the app at three times or four times or fve times [the
normal price].” AndrewMcDonald, regional general manager of Uber
Midwest, responds, “So, we do have data— obviously most of that is
proprietary — but we trust the way the data and our algorithmwork right
now, which is that the multiple increases until the point where there is a
supply and demand equilibrium.”
Tough the invisible algorithmtransforms interactions into applied
value, the driving force behind the value of a car ride is the digitized
interaction produced by consumers of Uber at a given time.
Or consider, the media-streaming epicenter Netfix. In his recent New
York Times Magazine article, “Te Post-Hope Politics of ‘House of
Cards,’” AdamSteinbergh writes:
Netfix knows a lot about what you watch. Not just generally, but in a
granular, data-driven, clicks-and-duration-of-viewing time way. It knows
what everyone on Netfix watches, and howmuch they watch it, and how
all of this might translate into what people want to watch next.
Te Netfix algorithmtransformed user clicks into a valuable, or desired,
commodity: in this case, the hit series House of Cards. Tough the suc-
cess of Netfix’s algorithmultimately works to beneft Netfix— not the
user— might we see the algorithmas listening to our desires? We get
what we want: to binge-watch yet another hit television show. Of course,
not all of us want to escape into the fctional world of D.C. politics, but
this is not the place to debate the morals and ethics of television and the
entertainment industry. What is of interest is that the success of Netfix
is reliant on user consumption repurposed by the algorithminto mean-
ingful information..
With Uber and Netfix, the user as a reproducer becomes a direct force
structuring value in society. Even though the user is most certainly re-
duced, through the quantifcation of clicks, and not equal to but rather at
the mercy of the algorithm, the user is agent. Yet the user as reproducer
does not act alone; the power behind these newinfrastructures comes
fromthe collection of reproducers: the social network.
In Frontline documentary Generation Like (2014), producer Douglas
Rushkof sits down with Oliver Lucket, owner of the social media start-
up theAudience. Founded in 2012, theAudience works to build strategic
networks— social networks of fans— to increase clients’
popularity and fame. Trough a vast array of algorithmic tools, Lucket
mines and parses social networks to determine where demographic
interests, or likes, overlap with potential advertisers. Te social network
itself becomes a desired commodity for Lucket and his clients. It
becomes a coveted measure of success for musicians and actors, and
Lucket works tirelessly — social networks never sleep— to build and
expand these networks through strategically curating content and bro-
kering partnerships. As Rushkof narrates, the camera cuts to a computer
screen open to an image of the handsome Michael Trevino, star of Te
Vampire Diaries. On the screen, an intern is Photoshopping a Santa hat
onto his smiling face. Lucket’s business of audience analytics, though
reliant on economic and cultural opportunities, is focused on nurturing
social value, by any means possible.
Similarly, Boston-based Dito ( employs the power of the
social network. A trendy photo-analytics start-up, its “state-of-the-art
technology ‘reads’ photos shared in social media to fnd logos and the
people with them.” Its unique algorithm, featured with a beter-than-
yours quality, boasts of over-a-decade-in-the-making seven-proprietary
technologies developed by MITengineers. It not only enables logo
detection and social network analysis, but “people insights— who
takes photos of my brand? … What is the sentiment associated with
my brand?… What photos are taken before and afer the photos of my
brand?” Dito transforms the social network of consumers into produc-
ers of valuable content for its clients: “Social photos are like a 24/7 focus
group. We found that Gatorade wasn’t just consumed during exercise,
but by teens during meals.”
And though they are selling their ability to employ the infrastructure of
reproduction through existing social networks, I was drawn to a litle
sidebar above their “Get in Touch” information. It reads: “Did you
know? Current social listening tools aren’t designed to analyze photos.
Tey miss 85% of photos with logos in them. But not Dito…”
Founder of glamorous social
media start-up, theAudience.
Te choice phrase “social listening” seems to humanize the technology.
Te algorithm, despite its mysterious and threatening powers, becomes
capable of possessing the empathic quality of listening. Further, it
openly acknowledges the reliance of willing participants in already exist-
ing social networks— us. Tere needs to be a society of users to hear, in
order to fnesse the art of listening to our data.
Te algorithms of Uber, Netfix, theAudience, and Dito all transform
the consumer into a producer of valuable content, necessary to drive
their services. However, to refect, this infrastructure of reproduction
relies on willing— yet free — labor. Most of us don’t give this much
thought, assuming, perhaps that it is just an expression of free-market
capitalism. But why, despite arguments that the issue of free labor em-
ployed across the digital economy has historical roots in late capitalist
systems of consumer society (Terranova), don’t we recognize the user as
an empowered and necessary force in society? I believe we have a choice:
the user can be seen as manipulated, ofering unrewarded supplies in
terms of clicks for the success of others, or we can understand the user as
a contributor in structuring meaning and authoring value in society.
Regardless of howwe choose to answer these questions, it is still
uncanny to visit Dito’s “Photo Firehose” and see the warning: “Te
Photo Firehose contains unfltered public images sourced fromTwiter,
Tumblr, and Instagramand many may be inappropriate for some view-
ers.” In real time, anyone can witness the algorithmat work — photos
appear, featuring not only Chick-fl-A and Starbucks, but the names
and handles of users. Did the picture I posted earlier today of my late
pass through their system? Howwould I feel if it appeared for all to see,
unbeknownst to me?
Most of us are aware of the degree to which sofware surveillance has
permeated our personal data and habits as users of digital platforms.
It's not just that the NSA has access to our Facebook profles (thank you,
Zuckerberg), or that ad campaigns can nowbe tailored to our search his-
tories. Collectively, our connected interactions, embodied in our clicks,
reproduced as large datasets, are transformed into information used
by national security programs, marketing and advertising campaigns,
lawenforcement and law-making, and the list goes on. Te question of
the moment is whether personal privacy stands a chance in the face of
dataveillance systems.
To focus on privacy for a moment (with an slight yet important depar-
ture fromour role as reproducers), Morozov’s Te Real Privacy Prob-
lem discusses the threat of dataveillance. He makes the noteworthy
distinction that privacy, in and of itself, is not the end goal. Drawing
on the work of Spiros Smitis, Germany’s leading privacy scholar and
practitioner, Morozov explains that privacy is an ideal of a just and fair
democratic society: “…habits, activities, and preferences are compiled,
registered, and retrieved to facilitate beter adjustment, not to improve
the individual’s capacity to act and decide.” Morozov’s encourages us to
consider the future Internet in terms of privacy, but, he writes, “…it’s the
fate of democracy itself that should be our primary goal.”
Te gold, however, is Morozov inclusion of a warning by German phi-
losopher Jürgen Habermas. Morozov writes that “big data, with its many
interconnected databases that feed on information and algorithms of
dubious provenance, imposes severe constraints on howwe mature po-
litically and socially.” Citing Habermas, he writes, the challenge is “that
‘an exclusively technical civilization… is threatened… by the spliting of
human beings into two classes— the social engineers and the inmates of
closed social institutions.’”
Morozov refers to these “closed social institutions” as surrounded by the
“invisible barbed wire of big data” that “is not of our choosing and that we
cannot rebuild or expand. Te worst part is that we do not see it as such.”
Te reproducer, clearly Habermas’s inmate, is imprisoned inside the
Dataveillance is a term coined
by Roger Clarke in the 1990s
to name “the disciplinary and
control practice of monitoring,
aggregating and sorting data”
(Raley, 124).
barbed wire of the algorithm. However, despite her presumed blindness,
the reproducer may not be as impotent as Morozov makes her out to be:
for it is the reproducer’s willing contributions of digitized interactions
that feed the algorithmic regulation; can we see the inmate as the one
welding the wire for her fence, instead?
Treats to our privacy and to democracy aside, let’s focus on the power
struggle between reproducer and algorithm. Te capabilities of sof-
ware are reliant on the record of unknowing user interactions which are
transformed into applicable information to reframe and contextualize
greater questions of society. Further, it is a “social institution,” for it is
we, society at large, who produce the content governing the economic
and cultural value of goods, services, and authoring information. A lot
is at stake, but even if society is blind, might we examine the sofware as
empowering the social? Or does blindness render us powerless? Are we
mere pawns in this real-time infrastructure of dataveillance, rendering
our intents as individuals useless as they steal value and meaning from
behind our collective back?
With its ability to transformdata into meaningful applications, the algo-
rithmbecomes an invisible threat (Cheney-Lippold, Porat and Strahilev-
itz), but one reliant on a user-generated infrastructure of reproduction
(Uber, Netfix). Defning users as reproducers allows us to see themas
a necessary force, responsible for creating a powerful and valuable com-
modity: the social network (theAudience, Dito).
To conclude, I’ve touched on the issue of privacy and dataveillance, one
at the heart of contemporary media discussions about technological con-
trol. Te preceding survey of ideas and services of the Dynamic Media
Society ofers a superfcial examination of the complex power relation-
ship between the algorithmand the user as reproducer. My hope is that,
if we ignore the issue of free labor, we can begin to see the production
of clicks, in and of itself, as a measure of user-generated power, a new
utopian structuring force of social value. Can we cultivate this social
value as users, to reclaimagency or authority over our data? Tough the
utopian ideal of controlling where and howour data is used may be com-
pletely out of reach, is Zarsky’s promotion of transparency a reasonable
and empowering compromise?
Te next two case studies, iTones and iHear, highlight the relationship
between the reproducer and the algorithm. Tey examine each as agent,
though ofen not equal, forces in structuring value. Teir goal is not to
revolutionize value structures, but to refect howto beter understand
our role as unique individuals producing digitized interactions. Tough
at the mercy of the algorithm, the creation of meaning, power, and value
in our Dynamic Media Society is reliant on the production of clicks
by agent, though unredeemed and ofen unaware, users. To begin, as
clickers, and willing ones for that mater, can we try to see ourselves as
User testing with UBIQ, Massachusets College of Art and Design, 2014
Apple Store, Stanford, ca
For the following two case studies, I have been working closely with
anonymous sound artist UBIQ, short for ubiquitous, the Robin Hood of
Sound. His work includes public performances, which he calls Sound-
ings, in which he illegally takes control of existing public sound infra-
structures to play (and give newmeaning to) the iconic sounds of “new”
dynamic media technologies.
UBIQ is most famous for his work as the “Apple Bomber.” His frst “atack”
happened in December 2010 during the Christmas rush at Boston’s
Boylston Street Apple retail store. Trough unknown measures, he was
able to gain control of the store’s speaker systemfor 15 seconds and
played the Apple ringtone “Sherwood Forest” three times in a row.
At the time, the event was met with security concerns, but over the years
UBIQ’s short concerts using Apple store speakers and the pre-fab sounds
fromthe iPhone have found themselves in the good graces of the public.
He has proven himself to be a globetroter, with impromptu Soundings
in major cities including NewYork, Berlin, and Paris, as well as in sub-
urban malls in the middle of Iowa and Kansas. It is generally considered
good luck to be present during one of his Soundings.
Tough the meaning of these Soundings is contested, over the years
they have come to be seen in two diferent lights. First, the Soundings
comment on the absurdity of our intimacy with our mobile devices,
especially the Apple iPhone. By using Apple and other retail outlets as
his performance venues, UBIQ subverts and undercuts the corporation,
as well as the almost religious fervency of consumerism. Further, by
playing these familiar yet ofen overlooked and unconsidered sounds of
digital media at the exaggerated scale of complex sound systems, he calls
atention to the immense role these media play in our lives.
However, optimists and humanists, who receive his work with joy and
wonder, experience the Soundings as examples of the beauty that new
technology can bring into our lives. Spontaneous and loud, they ofer
viewers a rare chance to hear the sounds of their devices in a diferent
context — one that interrupts the group at large and entices individuals
to be silent, to listen together.
UBIQ is asking us to accept and recognize these sounds as symbols of our
growing entanglement with the newcommunication and technology
infrastructures of our Dynamic Media Society. He is urging us to pause
together— as group alongside machine — to listen, and celebrate, and
consider howwe can beter harmonize with our devices, not as sounds,
but as newinfrastructures in our lives. Further, he wants us to assess
our agent role in the modern soundscape. Our cell phones, whether they
vibrate or ring, create a chaotic, unregulated, and novel chorus fromour
pockets and purses and the palms of our hands.
My interest in UBIQ began as a simple introduction — he was dating an
old college roommate of mine. When I started to pursue my Master’s at
the Dynamic Media Institute, apprehension about how“new” technolo-
gies were ruining society seemed to be running rampant through public
media outlets. Comedian Louis C.K. appeared on Conan O’Brien (Sep-
tember 2013) to tell the world howcell phones were ruining our ability
to empathize. Fears of a technological regime of dataveillance, funded
by the NSA, made texting feel like undressing in public and selling your
soul to federal agencies. I was impressed by UBIQ’s work as an alternative
to the single favor aversion to contemporary media. With what appeared
to be magic, he overpowered digital security infrastructures— the sound
systems of Apple stores, Wal-Mart, public intersections. Further, he
used the very sounds that were feared to be pulling people apart— cell
phone ringtones— to bring people together. His work made me aware of
Anonymous sound artist.
More at
Legendary English home of
heroic outlaw Robin Hood and
his band of Merry Men. Also a
classic ringtone on the iPhone
operating system.
a diferent type of musical infrastructure — the ever-present orchestra
around me, created by not only the sounds, but also the glowing screens
and specifc gestures that come with interacting with mobile personal
I decided to join forces with UBIQ in order to embed his optimisminto
the relationship of reproducer and algorithm. With iTones and iHear, our
goal was to create gallery experiences that articulate the situation of the
reproducer as an empowered albeit threatened user.
Citizen documentation of one of UBIQ’s Apple Bombings, 2013
Te Personal Instrument, Krysztof Wodiczko, 1969
Te Personal Instrument, 1969
I approached UBIQ with a proposal to update the Personal Instrument
(1969), an early piece by Polish-born artist Krzysztof Wodiczko. Tis
interactive, wearable artwork addresses the façade of freedomof speech
in the “state socialism” of Poland during the 1960s. In his piece, the
sound of public space becomes the contested ground where citizens and
government metaphorically negotiate freedom.
His Personal Instrument was the frst in a series of public interventions
that aimed to “…metaphorically defne the situation of a human being as
‘citizen’ in a totally controlled environment…”— a public space dominat-
ed by a repressive Polish state. As a young industrial designer, Wodiczko
found himself making mass-media products to broadcast propaganda for
the government. In response, he wanted to create a “…critical and ironic
dialogue with a real and monstrous designer— the communist state
itself — who was in total control of the entire society and treated it as a
single work of art or design.” (102) For Wodiczko, the Personal Instru-
ment was a “metaphoric articulation of the boundaries of freedomand
of the ways of practicing it, as well as of the individual Polish citizen’s
reserves of power in relation to the use of space.” His goal was to articu-
late the voicelessness of the citizen who was forced to listen to repressive
state directives, but unable to make himself heard:
Under the conditions of life in existing public space, democracy is the
practice of making oneself heard (instead of passively listening to someone
else’s voice)… Howis one to treat such a crowded space as an instrument of
democracy when this instrument is not in our hands and when public space
is barricaded and sealed of by the colossal bodies of the great speakers
(demagogues), ringing with the choirs of advertisements, and occupied by
armies of heroic memorials? (142)
My work attempts to heal the
numbness that threatens the
health of democratic process
by pinching and disrupting
it, waking it up, and inserting
the voice, experiences, and
presence of those others who
have been silenced, alienated,
and marginalized.
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Why
Critical Vehicles?
Wodiczko’s Personal Instrument was an otherworldly costume. Te
headpiece consisted of an oversized pair of metallic headphones and a
microphone, perched on the forehead in lieu of a third eye. Tis bizarre
contraption was wired to a simple pair of black gloves, with discrete pho-
tocells sewn into them. Te microphone captured the ambient noises of
public space — an outdoor plaza, park, or busy street. Tose sounds were
fltered through the photocells in the gloves— the lef hand controlling
a high-pitch flter, the right hand a low-pitch flter, so by waving both
hands the wearer could create a “glissando sound efect.” Te trans-
formed noises returned to the helmet, playing in the private space of the
wearer’s enormous headphones.
A description from1973 states that “the instrument is for the exclusive
use of the artist who created it.” Te images of Wodiczko wearing the
costume in public, altering the ambient sounds of public space or “mak-
ing artwork out of the art of listening” depict a man embodying the
“haunting silence” of the citizen. According to Wodiczko, the Personal
Instrument relies on a “socially active environment”— it needs a passerby
to observe its silence. Yet that same bystander is also witness to “a public-
private exaltation of the citizen’s freedom. It is an art of private coun-
tercensorship.” By performing in public, Wodiczko fought censorship
through his ability to orchestrate the contested sounds of public space
privately. As Wodiczko explained: “I aman artist in the listening, not in
the speaking, and though I do not have the right to say what I really want
to say… let me at least be allowed to listen to what I want to hear…’’
Professor in Residence
of Art, Design and the Public
Domain, at the Graduate
School of Design of
Harvard University.
Original description
published as “Instru-
ment Osobisty/
Personal Instrument,”
in Autoportret/
Self-Portrait, exh.
cat (Warsaw: Galeria
Foksal, 1973).
The instrument transforms the sounds of the environment.
The instrument functions in response to hand movements.
The instrument reacts to sunlight.
The instrument is portable.
The instrument can be used in any place and in any time.
The instrument is for the exclusive use of the artist who created it.
The instrument permits him to attain virtuosity.
On one hand, the citizen, represented by Wodiczko as wearer or
performer, is emancipated as free to listen. However, the silence of the
performance exposes the inability of this same citizen to be heard. So in
an elegant double-entendre, Wodiczko empowers the citizen by reveal-
ing his situation as controlled by the state.
Te piece is an expression of the need to challenge a repressive sociopo-
litical situation. Te metaphor of turning the noise and chater of every-
day life into a private chorus for the wearer’s enjoyment is inspirational.
However, at its heart, the Personal Instrument is a piece of critical refec-
tion — necessary in only the most dire of circumstances. Today, in the
newdigital spaces of our Dynamic Media Society, we can fnd ourselves
in a situation of similar duress.
UBIQ and I agreed that the Personal Instrument needed to be updated to
refect this newpower struggle, not between government and citizen, but
between algorithmand user as reproducer. In our version, the sounds
of public space, which represent freedom, are replaced with the pre-pro-
grammed cell phone ringtone of a user, to represent the user’s personal
data repurposed by the algorithmic systems of dataveillance for ulterior
means. Just as Wodiczko revealed the dominated citizen by empowering
himas a conductor of the sounds of public space, our update, iTones,
reveals the user as a used user, or reproducer, by allowing her to trans-
formher ringtone through gesture. Te goal is to ofer users of iTones
a means to metaphorically negotiate agency as reproducer in the face
of algorithmic control.
Updated description
published as “iTones,”
in Sound & Subversion,
Dynamic Media
Institute Press (Bos-
ton: Massachusets
College of Art and
Design, 2014).
The instrument transforms the sounds of the user’s personalized ringtone.
The instrument functions in response to hand movements.
The instrument can be used in the gallery.
The instrument is for smartphone users, exclusively.
The instrument permits users to attain virtuosity.

Compatible with iPhone 4, 4s, 5, 5s, and Samsung Galaxy S4, S5.
iTones, Tower Gallery, 2014
iTones, 2014
iTones is an interactive gallery piece that transforms a user, and her
smartphone, into a musical instrument. A user is confronted with a
minimal set up: a simple black set of earphones hanging on the wall
next to a repurposed iPhone armband. A drawing, done directly on the
gallery wall and labeled “iTones,” demonstrates howthe piece is worn.
Tere is a short wall text belowit (see opposite image).
Te user is required to use her own personal smartphone, which she
inserts in the wristband and plugs into the earphones. At the moment of
plugging in, the user initiates code on a hidden chip in the headphones,
which discovers the pre-assigned sound sets on her cell phone. Te
earphones, however, are not wired to the audio-jack of the smartphone;
instead they connect wirelessly via bluetooth to a 13” Macbook Pro
(mid-2010) hidden in the gallery. Te gestures of connecting the phone
into the earphones, the act of “plugging in,” and puting on the ear-
phones are together an important initiation into the experience. Te act
of plugging in imitates the insertion of an IV or a lifeline, yet simultane-
ously suggests the injection of intravenous drugs, a gesture of escape, de-
nial, and self-destruction. Tough the act of hooking up references users’
reliance on their smartphones, it also enables themto give the sounds of
their personal data a new, audible life.
Te moment of plugging in also triggers the hidden computer and Kinect
to begin mapping the manipulation of the sound to user-gesture. Te
computer runs a series of open-source code in Pure Data Extended
(PD) and Synapse. Synapse sends user-skeleton coordinates (X, Y, and
Z) captured by the Kinect to PD, which translates the coordinates of
a user’s armmovements into sound flters in order to transformthe
ringtone. As Y coordinates of the arms increase, the frequency of the
ringtone increases until it plays 1.5x faster than regular speed. Likewise
as Y coordinates decrease, the frequency does as well, until the ringtone
is playing 2x slower. As X coordinates move outward fromthe core, a
reverb and delay flter distort the ringtone. It is integral to this systemof
sound manipulation that the user be able to disrupt the sound of a famil-
iar ringtone. Te flters transformthe sounds to the point of annihilation,
yet leave room— literal points in space — for moments of recognition:
when hands fall close to the core of the body at the level of the heart,
either at rest or in gesture, the efects turn of and the ringtone plays at
normal speed and pitch.
While wearing the costume the user becomes an instrument, capable of
distorting the familiar sound of her personal ringtones. With practice,
the user can learn howto harmonize with the flters. Tis process of
transforming the familiar, disruptive, and nagging ringtone into a musi-
cal experience empowers the user. However, if we viewthese ringtones
as a metaphorical stand-in for the personal data she produces— as they
iTones, Tower Gallery, 2014
are intended to be understood— the user is revealed, in her moment of
agency, to be at the mercy of the digital infrastructure of dataveillance.
Te costume is worn as a reminder that we choose each day to continue
to participate in this systemof dataveillance: we willingly produce
information that feeds the infrastructure of reproduction, transforming
our everyday clicks into valuable information which they were never
intended to be.
With iTones, Wodiczko’s citizen is updated as the user of digital technolo-
gies, while the “monstrous…communist state” is replaced by the algo-
rithmthat repurposes the data we, as users, create. With the Personal
Instrument, Wodiczko empowered the citizen through the metaphor
of transforming the ambient noises of public space into music. Yet he
unveiled the futility of the instrument through its public silence (its
music was heard only in the privacy of the artist’s earphones). Tus the
citizen was rendered voiceless by the repressive regime. Similarly, iTones
empowers its user by giving her the brief ability to repurpose her data,
iTones, Tower Gallery, 2014
symbolized by the ringtone, and transformit into music. She takes con-
trol instead of the algorithm. But, as with the Personal Instrument, iTones’
outward silence reveals the same impotence: the regime of algorithmic
control is always at work.
Tough each piece ofers a glimmer of hope in the formof musical beauty,
the goal isn’t to empower or defeat but rather to articulate a power
struggle between two agent yet unequal components. For Wodiczko,
the Personal Instrument represented an atempt, not to give voice
to the voiceless, but to call atention to voicelessness: “operating in a
space that was completely politicized by the state I abandoned direct
speech and proposed instead a technique of indirect but public speaking
through the half-silence/half-truth; a grotesque exaltation of virtuosity
in creative listening.” (141) What Wodiczko calls creative listening is
the power the Personal Instrument ofers the wearer by giving himthe
ability to actively compose what he hears. Wodiczko’s aimisn’t to shout
louder than the repressive government but to spotlight the nightmare:
the citizen only has the power to hear.
In this tradition, iTones portrays the situation of the reproducer as an
agent yet unequal force, at the mercy of algorithmic control. Te piece
brings into focus the illusion of freedomwe feel when we navigate our
digital interfaces, when in fact whether we consume or produce the
digital commodities at our fngertips, we are always transformed into the
reproducer. By using the instrument, the user becomes aware that there
is no innocent like or post. She is encouraged to re-examine the com-
plexities of her relationship with the digital infrastructure of constant
connectivity, and to understand that our data is constantly being repur-
posed in ways that beyond our control.
iTones, Tower Gallery, 2014
iTones, Tower Gallery, 2014
iHear, Nave Gallery, 2014
iHear, Nave Gallery, 2014
We concluded our evening over
dinner, our dishes sharing table
space with our matching iPhones.
When the cell phone at the table
across fom ours began to ring,
we both instinctively glanced at
our own phones, and then back
into the restaurant, annoyed and
hoping that the culprit would be
noted and silenced without
further intrusion.
iHear, Cyber Arts, 2014
Our personal computing devices have become like shiny
new appendages, extra helping hands that keep us constantly
connected. Yet, like the itch of a phantom limb, the sounds
and vibrations of these devices exert a power over us, fom
our ofce desks to our purses and pockets.
iHear is an interactive instrument designed for the gallery that uses
the artifact of the cell phone ringtone to represent our technological
infrastructure of communication and information. Te user plays the
instrument like a theremin, manipulating the frequency of four uniden-
tifable tones. Only through sustained interaction do the notes resolve
into four familiar cell phone ringtones. By calling atention to their rec-
ognizability, the work comments on the ritualization of these ringtones
in contemporary society as a newkind of pop. Cell phone ringtones are
usually heard as nagging or annoying intrusions. iHear encourages users
to listen to these iconic sounds diferently: as melodies, as music, as
sounds with which they might even harmonize.
• Create a gallery experience for the user to explore,
through creative play, abstract musical forms, only to
discover that the sounds they are playing with are iconic
cell phone ringtones.
• Enable user to hear the ringtone not just as a beep or
alert but as a musical experience with which they have
the power to harmonize.
• Enable user to reflect not just on her relationship
with the sounds in iHear but on her relationship with
dynamic media technologies at large.
• Create a system where user interacts through hand ges-
ture as opposed to looking or direct contact.
• Create a system where user intuits that hand motion
directly alters the sounds playing.
• Create a system where user intuits the final goal of bring-
ing the hand closer to the face of the box (where the sen-
sors are) in order to create a moment of reveal: when the
ringtones play at recognizable speed.
In the gallery, iHear sits on a simple white shelf. It is a small black
box — the size of a Harry Poter novel. On its refective surface an etched
circle reveals some naked electronics: four photocell sensors and four
blue LEDs. Te sensors, which measure the light levels in the room,
are mapped to play four corresponding cell phone ringtones through
headphones, which are found hanging on the gallery wall. Te amount
of light hiting each photocell determines the frequency — the pitch and
speed — at which each ringtone will play.
Light levels are measured in a tuning process during install and scaled
froma maximum(most light) of 0 and a minimum(least light) of 1, us-
ing code writen in PureDataExtended. Tis scale correlates to ringtone
frequency; at light level 0, the ringtone plays 2x slower (correspondingly
lowered pitch as well). At light level 1, the tone plays at normal frequency.
Tough there is roomfor variation in the tuning process, when the piece
is at rest and sensors are completely lit, the ringtones play slowly, their
decreased pitch and frequency rendering themabstract and unrecogniz-
able, as well as hauntingly ominous. Users of the box cover the sensors,
thereby lowering the light levels. As the sensors receive less light, the
ringtones play faster, until they become recognizable at full speed.
As mentioned, tuning the object, through code hidden on a computer,
dictates howthe light levels correlate between 0 and 1, and in turn deter-
mines howhand gestures directly afect the abstraction of the ringtone.
To facilitate this, I enumerated three objectives (listed opposite), to be
achieved through the design of a box. First, on initial engagement with
iHear, the user must be able to intuit a non-hierarchical (no one sensor is
more important than another) interaction through hand movement, as
opposed to touching or looking. Second, the user must be able to infer
that vertical hand movement above the face of the box directly afects
sound manipulation. Finally, the user must intuit a systemwhere the
experience climaxes as she brings her hand close to the face of the box;
a climax where she discovers that the noises she’s been exploring as an
abstract musical experience are actually familiar ringtones.
To design for hand movement, I borrowed froman already existing
household object that relies on direct intervention with a user’s hand:
the rotary phone. To allowthe piece to speak directly to a single user’s
hand, I frst mimicked the tilt of the face of the phone on iHear. I
replaced the circular rotary butons with a circle of sensors, enlarged
slightly to mitigate the emphasis of contact through fngertips and refer-
ence a more fuid, neutral gesture. In initial testing, the sensors and their
corresponding LEDs were placed in parallel lines or half circles, echoing
the shape of a relaxed handprint. However, taking fromthe rotary phone
made for a more intuitive interaction: all sensors were represented equal-
ly, and the circle didn’t prescribe a particular type of movement. Instead,
it was open to any type of hand motion that could facilitate creative play
until the moment of recognition.
To maintain a sustained interaction with the user, I developed a system
of visual feedback based on the luminosity of the LEDs. In early itera-
tions, when the box was fat-faced, the LEDs indicated a simple on and
of switch corresponding to their respective ringtones. Afer initial user
testing, it appeared that users didn’t understand that they needed to vary
the distance between their hands and the photocells situated in the face
of box in order to manipulate the frequency of the ringtones. In other
words, users didn’t knowto bring their hands closer to the box, which
meant they were never hearing the ringtone at regular or recognizable
speed. In the fnal iteration, LED luminosity, like ringtone frequency, is
mapped to the light levels. At higher light levels, and lower ringtone
frequencies, the lights switch fromof to a dimshine or ficker. As light
levels decrease, and ringtone frequency increases, the LEDs begin to
shine more brightly. Because the sensitivity of LED luminosity directly
corresponds to changes in the audio, the result is a more fuid user expe-
rience. Further, the LEDs ofer visual feedback necessary to indicate to
users that their interaction is indeed changing the audio they are hearing.
Te systemof reward, through LED luminosity, enables the user to intuit
the necessary movement downward, closer to the face of the box, in
order to complete the interaction.
iHear relies on a process of discovery, an aha moment at the recognition
of the iconic ringtones, as a result of creative play. However, a system
created through an interplay of light, shadow, and sound is useless unless
it draws in a prospective participant. Initially, the piece was meant to
be enjoyed collaboratively, over loudspeakers. To entice user interac-
tion, it would have been tuned to play the slowand abstracted ringtones,
reverberating ominously in the gallery, even without any input. However,
instead of enticing users to explore the sounds they heard around them,
they just accepted the piece as it was. Until directed, users didn’t realize
that the piece was interactive.
To the joy of the curators with whomI have had the pleasure to work, I
relied on some conventions of the shared gallery environment to solve
the problemof invitation: I decided to use headphones. Within the tradi-
tional white walls of the gallery, the sight of hanging headphones acts as
an invitation to a single user to participate with a given piece. By puting
on the headphones, the user enters into a tacit agreement to interact
directly, through the act of listening, with the piece in question. By using
refective black Plexiglas and simple blue LEDs, I aimed to drawthe user
into the space above the box while wearing the headphones to discover
that movement above the box afects the sounds. I was particularly
drawn to the solution of headphones because of the type of interaction
they enable. Listening in the privacy of one’s own space encourages a
specifc type of direct focus. Te piece thus became less about collab-
orative interaction, instead ofering the user the silence necessary for
contemplation and critical listening.
Electronics for iHear, courtesy of Fred Wolfink, 2014
iHear, Nave Gallery, 2014
Reliant on the user’s ability to recognize cell phone ringtones, iHear is,
on one level, a commentary on society’s dependence on mobile technolo-
gies. Over the past decade, these sounds have become fxtures in our
lives, helpful reminders of our responsibilities as well as potent signals
of companionship and connectivity. Tough the actual ringtone melody
may change over time, the tones share a certain digital aesthetic: short,
catchy, an atempt to balance a façade of bearable (and hopefully pleas-
ant) calmness with urgency. In iHear, these melodies represent our blind
acceptance of the roles our phones have come to play in our lives. And
though we hear the sounds, we don’t listen to themas music — just as we
don’t critically examine the role of the smartphone in our lives, or if we
do, we still pledge our allegiance to its literal beck-and-call.
iHear ofers an opportunity — in the instrument’s moments of silence
provided by the abstracted noises of the slowed-down ringtones—for
its users to consider their relationship with their personal cell phone.
By presenting these sounds out of context, iHear repurposes their role:
no longer do the ringtones infer action or insist on a response; instead
they exist only as form— formthat can be manipulated by the user. Te
slowed-down ringtones can be mixed together to create a harmonious
musical experience, one that blends abstraction with familiarity and
turns noise into melody. Te instrument empowers users, suggesting
that they can also decide howwould they like to harmonize with the
dynamic technologies of communication and information in general.
Te responses I have received fromvisitors interacting with the there-
min-like music box were less about the recognizable ringtones and more
about the ability to transformthe sounds through gesture. One woman,
a student of architecture at MassArt, remarked while watching her
colleague play the sounds: “Just look at howher fngers move — it’s as if
they dance!” Another woman challenged me to a thumb war over the box
and was delighted by the sounds our dueling thumbs could make. I was
surprised by howmany participants shared the piece with someone else.
I watched numerous visitors put headphones on their partners, and com-
pose for them, demonstrating howvarious gestures afect the sounds.
Tough the greater metaphor of considering our relationship with our
cell phones may have been downplayed, the piece spoke to the innate
curiosity of its users, and their ability to explore and discover through
creative listening.
Further, the piece comments on the human capability to listen — as
opposed to hear; an act of contemplation that allows us to give meaning
to the world around us. By stripping the sounds fromtheir trigger, the
innate meaning implied by the ringtone is ripped away. Consider remov-
ing the refrigerator fromthe vibration it creates. Couldn’t the eerie,
reverberating humbecome the subject of contemplation, separate from
the contents inside? In this way, iHear is a reminder of human author-
ity. Tough our digital interactions may be at the mercy of algorithmic
control, reproduced to serve the systemof global capitalism, can’t we still
fnd empowerment in our ability to experience beauty?
In one regard, iHear asks, if we can rip the nagging cultural connotation
fromthe beeps of our phones, and replace it with a mysterious musical
experience, can we learn to harmonize with our digital infrastructure
as well? Yet looking beyond its metaphorical ideals, the instrument
confrms that we, as humans, have a powerful ability to listen or observe
and fnd joy and beauty in the world around us. In this regard, iHear acts
as a prompt to empower its users— roles of consumers and producers set
aside — to spend a fewmoments authoring joy, humor, and beauty, where
it is least expected.
One fnal thought: both fashion and technology never stop evolving.
Anything that is iconic or pop has a fnite lifespan. Just as Tamagotchis,
Napster, etc., have gone out of style, the ringtones of our cell phones will
change. So, too, will our technology. One of my frst conversations with
artist Fish McGill was about the lifespan of a hard drive: it will break,
he reminded me. So by turning our ringtones into sounds that can be
pushed around with our hands, by giving themphysicality, we are con-
fronted by their very mortality. Tese sounds and technologies are not
so diferent fromus. Tey, too, will dissipate into the abyss.
iHear, Nave Gallery, 2014 iHear, Cyber Arts, 2014
FIGURE 4 Reality is made of chaotic and diverse points of view, all of which hold
versions of the truth. In a work of fictional design, though, a world can be built to
call to light a specific truth held in a single point of view.
Most research done at the Dynamic Media Institute relies on a methodology
of user-testing, analysis, and iterative prototyping in order to refne success-
ful interactive experiences. Tis methodology, taught at the institute, has been
integral to developing my interactive work (the Perfect Human Application,
iHear, and iTones in particular). However, I have approached my Master’s thesis,
comprised of the projects presented in this book along with its sister publication,
Ubiq: Sound and Subversion, with the additional component of fction, employ-
ing the methodology of speculative or critical design. Tis approach subverts the
traditional role of the designer as one solving the problems of communication.
Instead of producing solutions, the designer of fction reveals and defnes prob-
lems and articulates critique. Te goal is to create projects of refection, ones
that unveil specifc truths hidden in the chaos of reality.
Troughout the process, I have rigorously adhered to the three guiding pillars
inspired by those of speculative methodologies: humor, the “unreal” real, and
metaphor as medium.
While traditional designers transformfction into reality, designers of specula-
tion weave reality into fction. Tey do so through the “unreal” real. Formally
this thesis work, as a deliverable, relies on the believable (the real) in its narrative
(the unreal). Without this line of truth, an audience would dismiss the projects
and the ideas behind themas false. Readers’ subsequent refection would be
mediated through the institution of art, design, and academia: the lens through
which they feel they are supposed to look. Presenting work as fact, frees the
audience fromunnecessary doubt caused by a tainted point of view.
Further, when wavering on the divide between the real and the unreal, I can
direct my audience in a more pointed fashion. An audience who wonders, “Is
it real?” then has to ask, “What if it is real?” Te contemplation of “what if ” be-
comes a powerful tool of critique and refection ofen missing from“what is.”
The pillars I have named are
artistic appropriations of
concepts laid out in Anthony
Dunne and Fiona Raby’s book
Speculative Everything (2013).
Te success of these projects relies on humor as a structural tactic to keep my
audience engaged with the work. However, as a tool of fctional design, humor
becomes a vehicle for the gestation of difcult truths.
At frst consideration, moving beyond the limitations of reality can appear
daunting, boundless, and chaotic. But as a methodology of design, fction is a ve-
hicle of pointed accuracy. Te forms my projects take are determined by the con-
cepts and critiques they communicate — critiques found in reality. Te freedom
granted by using metaphor as a mediumis the ability to sculpt only the story of
import: there is no fat to cut. As a designer, I create the dream— the ideal cut of
meat as it needs to be.
Te line between fction and reality is dependent on one’s perspective. In this
thesis, I have recounted my perspective with liberties, but what I have writen
remains in the realmof truth. Whatever fabrications I have woven into the texts
are subservient to the truths they recount. For that mater, they are generous,
elegant, and efcient vehicles for the truths they carry.
It's by donning the fctional garb that
the nakedness is achieved.

Te Yes Men
Tis book takes a circuitous journey, ending with an examination of two
of the forces that author an abstract notion of value in a Dynamic Media
Society: the reproducer and the algorithm. 
Te introduction briefy contextualizes this investigation historically.
It explains howchanges in production and consumption infrastructures
determine undercurrents of economic, cultural, and social value in soci-
ety. Tis book does not ofer a history lesson in the ideological underpin-
nings of capitalism, nor does it trace the dramatic transformations of
technologies fromindustrial to post-industrial society. It does, however,
lay a groundwork to facilitate the analysis of the forces structuring mean-
ing, value, and worth in today’s Dynamic Media Society.
Before continuing, I would like to address my choice of the term
"Dynamic Media Society." It is a playful twist on the name of the pro-
gram— the Dynamic Media Institute at Massachusets College of Art
and Design — but it has also assumed a distinct signifcance. Te phrase
"Dynamic Media" references the dynamism— the constantly chang-
ing and interactive, or responsive, nature — of our newcommunication
interfaces and technologies. Dynamismsuggests resonance and fuidity;
it evokes the moment when the mediumof interaction takes on a life of
its own, when it exceeds its own expectations, and reveals the intricate
and variable character of communication.
And so the termis a pointed description of what diferentiates today's
newtechnologies fromthe “new” technologies of the past. It references
the formal qualities of our newmedia and their underlying vigor of
activity. My desire to extend its meaning to describe a marked change in
society refects my belief that the newtechnologies of today, and those
In return, the painting becomes an assertion of physicality. My desire
to come to the Dynamic Media Institute began as an atempt to explore
the function of physicality in the digital world — the world of the screen.
I wanted to knowwhat are the existential repercussions when the no-
tion of perspective in spatial depth doesn’t actually exist? What are the
ramifcations when depth is replaced by dynamic links, and light is an
artifcial constant? It is fromthis esoteric place that the Perfect Human
Application and the Weeping iPhone emerged.
While these projects can be interpreted in various ways, they both
approach their subject with humor. Tey wrap an uncomfortable real-
ity in comic appeal, in an atempt to ease us into the truth that quan-
tity — likes, followers, posts— has real import.
At their heart, my projects are ruminations on a newdigital network of
communication and information within our physical world. Tey aim
to fnd an existential foothold, within the realmof Dynamic Media, as
our technologies of communications evolve. Specifcally, I recognized
an important addition to the traditional language of representing the
world (perspective drawing) within the tools of our dynamic systems.
As painting afrms human existence by documenting corporeal being in
the formof paint, digital interfaces quantify our existence through our
interactions with one another.
Ironically, fromthe perspective of an artist, I amlef with the same ques-
tions I started with. Howdo these newtools of communication afect
notions of urgency, ferocity, and mortality? Howwill artists appropri-
ate themto abstract and distort the digital world in order to unveil its
mysterious truths?
At this point, I begin to examine the user as a producer. Ingrained in
the termproducer is a sense of empowerment that can be embraced the
masses of the social. However, the social power harnessed through these
dynamic communication interfaces should not be glorifed as a new
of tomorrow, are deserving of a newname. Dynamic Media Society
conjures the ever-shifing nature of these technologies, fromthe fuid
algorithmic models of John Cheney-Lippold to the perpetually evolving
operating systems of our smartphones and laptops. Most importantly,
the name alludes to our dynamic, responsive nature and our readiness to
participate as users. For at every moment, newcommunication technolo-
gies give us the choice to abstain fromgenerating and regenerating data.
Part I of this book examines the impacts of these technologies, and the
constant connectivity they enable, on the user. Fromthe viewpoint of a
consumer, the user becomes the stand-in for Jorgen Leth’s perfect hu-
man, navigating the philosophical questions of existence and identity in
a newcontext, with the afordances ofered by the unique formpresented
by newcommunication technologies.
In particular, the Perfect Human Application and the Weeping iPhone
refect on the consumer as he or she negotiates a sense of self along the
difuse boundary between the quantifable digital interfaces of new
media and the qualifable physical world.
As I began my research I wanted to contrast a greater existential
understanding of physicality with the contemporary digital world we
inhabit. As a painter, I critically examine the practice of perception in
the formof paint. I undress the intricacies of the physical and see-able
world of spatial depth by translating light and shape into a fat plane of
pigments. A functional understanding of the nature of optics and percep-
tion is central to my practice as a painter. Deconstructing physical space
into the two-dimensional relationship between color and formfunctions
as an afrmation of a philosophical understanding of perspective.
In the physical world, perspective is a specifc point of view, but within a
painting it also becomes a unique and personal moment in time. Paint-
ing is a way to immortalize physicality, transforming the ever-changing
nature of the physical world into the relatively static surface of a canvas.
as a reproducer. One who is at the mercy of the algorithm, designed to
repurpose and restructure our digitized interactions.
However, by giving us the agency to manipulate the formof the ring-
tones-as-metaphor, Ubiq asks us to recognize our role as author and
designer of these algorithmic systems, as well as of the systems within
which they are employed. His work can be read as a call to the reproduc-
er to see herself as agent despite threatening systems of dataveillance.
For Ubiq, it is all a mater of perspective. By recontextualizing familiar
sounds of newmedia, iTones and iHear teach us to listen to these sounds
as form, as opposed to the functions that they blindly imply. By making
the act of listening the forefront of his endeavor, Ubiq asks us to ac-
knowledge that the ability to author meaning is fundamental to human
nature. Despite our repurposed digitized interactions, as humans we
have the authority to bring personal value to the world we inhabit. If
we can listen to these annoying sounds as form— and experience them,
through UBIQ, as beautiful— might we see our role as reproducers as
potentially empowering as well?
As I refect on my work with UBIQ, I amlef with a fewquestions. Can
the user truly feel agent and empowered in the face of predictive model-
ing with rawdata? And, is this actually a meaningful endeavor? Does the
three-pronged role of the user— as simultaneously consumer, producer,
and reproducer— distinguish this power struggle fromthose of the past?
Or are we beter of examining Ubiq’s message through a more universal
or timeless lens? For his message is fundamentally one of hope, despite
being dressed up in the ominous and refective black casing of iHear. No
doubt the box is refective for a good reason.
voice of democracy. Te oferings of dynamic digital interfaces fall far
short of any utopian ideals. Because these media enable user-generated
clicks, in mass quantities, to be repurposed by the algorithmic infra-
structure of dataveillance. In this sense, the interfaces of dynamic media
are the shortcomings themselves, redefning the meaning of digitized
interactions and disempowering the user.
Which leads me to my use of the term"reproducer."
To reiterate, the reproducer in a Dynamic Media Society can be un-
derstood on two levels. First, she reproduces already existing content
by sharing, or re-posting. Tese are the actions that create a dynamic
systemof links and connections, the defning formof the Internet or
Cloud. Second, the reproducer is a user whose clicks and navigations are
reproduced by the algorithmic models of dataveillance.
Te concluding case studies, iTones and iHear, examine the two agent
forces— the reproducer and the algorithm— as they forma dynamic
network of technological reproduction that structures value in society.
In “Te Algorithmand the Reproducer” section, I examine the threat
that predictive modeling sofware poses to freedomand privacy, while
acknowledging the reliance of these algorithms on user-generated input
(fromthe reproducer). Between the interaction of the reproducer and
algorithm, digital social networks become a newarticulation of social
power. Depending on our perspective, we can viewthe network and its
power to infuence authority and value in society as either subservient to
global capitalismor a tool ready to be employed by democratic ideals.
Tis raises an age-old issue — the distribution of and struggle for power.
And this is where the work of Ubiq comes in. Trough his Soundings and
the pieces presented in this book, iTones and iHear, he asks us to re-hear
the iconic sounds of cell phones. Te ringtone becomes a metaphor for
users to refect on their roles with personal technologies, and in their role
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I would like to take this space to acknowledge the
numerous people who have worked with me over the
past two years on this thesis — the many who provided
support in the form of cofee and conversation, as well
as those who have read, reread, ofered comments, and
assisted in editing, proofreading, and design.
A special acknowledgment goes out to my
thesis advisors, Jan Kubasiewicz and Zach-
ary Kaiser, for their continued support,
dedication, and extensive knowledge.
Further, I would like to thank the faculty
and colleagues who have contributed to
the unique and incredible environment of
the Dynamic Media Institute throughout
my two years there: Qazi Fazli Azeem,
Saul Baizman, Cindy Loo Bishop, Brian
Lucid, Tien Huang, Gunta Kaza, Kimberly
Maroon, Fish McGill, Ceren Paydas, Ga-
briel Schafzin, Nicole Tariverdian, and Jo-
seph Quanckenbush. Fromthe classroom
to the late nights at studio, I have learned
much fromall of you.
I would like to acknowledge the support
of the MassArt community, in particular
Fred Wolfink and Lee McDonald. Your
generosity and technical expertise have
enabled me to build projects I could only
I would like to thank my mother who
has read and reread my writing, discussed
my projects extensively with me, and acted
as a sounding board since the beginning.
Te process has been full of laughter
because of you.
I would like to express my appreciation
for the incredible support of Wendy
Richmond: you are a constant source of
inspiration and encouragement, and I am
looking forward to nurturing the seeds
this thesis has planted with you.
I would like to extend my gratitude to the
family and friends without whomI would
not have completed this project: Angela,
Ariel, Henri, Ingrid, Nadine, Nate, Paul,
and Selma.
And fnally, a special thank you must go
out to John Howrey: I amincredibly grate-
ful for your expertise, intelligence, and
friendship. You have been a mentor to me.
What I learned fromyou, evident in every
page of this book, exceeds the design.
You have changed the way I see a piece of
paper, as well as howI approach a problem.
Tank you.