What would the internet look like if it weren't the greatest technology of mass surveillance in the history of mankind? Trevor Paglen wonders about this, and he makes art from it.
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To Paglen, art is a conversation with the past and the future – artifacts of how the world looks at a certain time and place. In our time and place, it’s a world dogged by digital privacy concerns, and so his art ranges from 19th-century style photos of military drones circling like insects in the Nevada sky, to a museum installation that provides a free wifi hotspot offering anonymized browsing through a Tor network, to deep-sea diving photos of internet cables tapped by the National Security Agency.
Paglen speaks with EFF's Cindy Cohn and Jason Kelley about making the invisible visible: creating physical manifestations of the data collection and artificial intelligence that characterize today’s internet so that people can reflect on how to make tomorrow’s internet far better for us all.
In this episode you’ll learn about:
- The blurred edges between art, law, and activism in creating spaces for people to think differently.
- Exploring the contradictions of technology that is both beautiful and scary.
- Creating an artistic vocabulary and culture that helps viewers grasp technical and political issues.
- Changing the attitude that technology is neutral, and instead illuminating and mitigating its impacts on society.
Trevor Paglen is an artist whose work spans image-making, sculpture, investigative journalism, writing, engineering, and numerous other disciplines with a focus on mass surveillance, data collection, and artificial intelligence. He has had one-person exhibitions at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington D.C.; the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; the Fondazione Prada in Milan; the Barbican Centre in London; the Vienna Secession in Vienna; and Protocinema in Istanbul. He has launched an artwork into Earth orbit, contributed research and cinematography to the Academy Award-winning film “Citizenfour,” and created a radioactive public sculpture for the exclusion zone in Fukushima, Japan. The author of several books and numerous articles, he won a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” and holds a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Geography from U.C. Berkeley.
I often do an exercise where I look at something that I'm critical of and try to imagine what the opposite of that might look like. Try to imagine, for example, what an internet might look like if it weren't the greatest technology of mass surveillance in the history of mankind, for example. What would space flight look like if it were not entirely organized around delivering nuclear weapons? And for me, that's an exercise, not so much of trying to recreate the world in a different image, but trying to get a tiny glimpse of what a different vision of the future might be.
That’s Trevor Paglen. He’s an artist who takes many of the issues that we’re concerned with here at EFF – things like online freedom, mass surveillance and data privacy – and turns them into fine art.
I’m Cindy Cohn, the Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
And I’m Jason Kelley, EFF’s Associate Director of Digital Strategy. This is our podcast series: How to Fix the Internet.
The idea behind this show is that we're trying to fix the internet. We're trying to make our digital lives better. You know, EFF spends a lot of time talking about all the ways that things could go wrong and jumping into the fight when things do go wrong online, but what we'd like to do with this podcast, is for all of us, is to give ourselves a vision of what the world looks like if we get it right.
Our guest this week is Trevor Paglen. And we started our conversation off by talking about one of his art pieces that tries to demonstrate just those things.
Autonomy Cube is a sculptural piece meant to be displayed in museums or other civic spaces – but it’s not just a static sculpture for people to walk by and look at. It contains several computers that provide a free wifi hotspot that routes anonymized browsing data through a Tor network.
The proposal there was to imagine what it would look like if the internet was built from the ground up in ways that preserved different civic values, right?
I love that piece because of this just really flipping things on its head. Even going to a museum right there, the surveillance architecture is ‘let's track everybody, see what they do and see if we can feed them more of what they like’. And what you built was exactly the opposite. Something that by design all the way down to the tor node, like all the way down to how the thing that's guiding you through the museum is talking to the museum itself is designed with you at the center and protecting you at the center.
Exactly, and in a lot of cases we were able to convince museums to run exit nodes out of them as well. So museums typically have, you know, a lot of bandwidth. And so our idea was, can you use this institution, and I think about museums as being akin to libraries, as a infrastructure with which to promote privacy preserving values, I guess.
I wanna talk a little bit about what happens to a viewer when they go to a museum and see a piece of yours. Because you're talking about the kind of restructuring the museum itself. But then I think your work also has an impact on, you know, people who see it to rethink, sort of, different aspects of technology, for example. So I was just in Boston and went to a few museums and ran into your, um, Reaper Drone piece, which I loved. And it really stuck out for me partly because I was like, ‘oh, I'm going to talk to him soon’. But also because it just was so distinct from, a lot of the other things in the, in the area.
Right. And one of the things about it, for those who haven't seen it, is it's a photo of a sky, uh, that's a little ominous. And there's a very tiny dot that you don't really know what it is, and you probably don't even see the dot until you read the description and see that there is a drone in the photo.
Can you talk a bit about what you’re hoping to get across with that photo?
I think about art in a lot of ways, and one of the ways I think about it a lot is that when you're making art, you're learning how to see the world. You're trying to talk to the other people that are in the world, but you're also having a conversation with your ancestors, and you're having a conversation with the people in the future. And I always think about the things that I'm making as being in conversation with people before me from different times, and I think about artworks from the past as being artifacts that are trying to show us what the world looked like at that point in time.
So we're contributing to this conversation. You're saying, oh, well this is what the sky may have looked like to you in the 19th century. This is what the sky looks like to me here in the 21st century. So for me, the drone photographs were really thinking about what is the sky now? And the drone in the sky is something that it is very specific to our moment in time. However, it is participating in this very very long tradition of, you know, art is looking at the same thing and seeing it in different ways because they’re in different moments in history and different people.
And how did the image itself come about?
In terms of actually how the images are made, all the drones, you know, the military kind of assassination drones, in the world are mostly are flown from Nevada. There's a military base northwest of Las Vegas, about an hour, an hour and a half drive away called Creech Air Force Base. And the drones are all flown remotely by satellite uplinks from there. And they also fly them locally. They're doing training and things like that.
And when you drive out there, you kind of park on the side of the highway. You know, it's all dirt and desert out there. And you look up at the sky and when your eyes adjust, you notice there's all kinds of things that look like insects flying around. And you know, what you're seeing is them flying drones there.
So those images that you're referring to are just made by going out to that part of the desert and mostly shooting with an eight by ten camera, like a real 19th century style film camera, the huge piece of film, and photographing the sky. And when you develop the film you see these little insect looking things in it.
And those are the drones that are flying around in the sky there. It took a while to print them properly because the printer that I was working with assumed that they were like dust or bugs or something like that, were things I didn't want in the image. He was retouching them out and I was like, wait, what?
And so it had to, it took some, a little bit of work to get the workflow right on them.
It’s interesting how you had to work so hard to make the quiet part loud.
So I wanna talk about something that's near and dear to our hearts at EFF, which is the work that you've done to really make visible NSA's spying and NSA's mass surveillance. And one of the things you did was you learned how to scuba dive so you could go take pictures of the under sea cables.
I'm a diver myself, so that was just fantastic to hear about. You wanna talk a little bit about that imagery and why you thought it was important to kind of, again, make that invisible thing more visible.
Well, I have to give you a lot of credit here because I think that train of thought really started with the work you guys were doing in the mid-2000s with Mark Klein in the Hepting and Jewel cases that you worked on, and what was so interesting, I guess, to me about that work was saying like, no, here it's this building, it's this room, it's this piece of equipment on this cable, and that was just a, what you were articulating in that work that you did was the fact that the internet is an exquisitely material thing. It’s not clouds.
It's not magic?
It's not magic. Right.
So it, you know, I mean, he wasn't that wrong when he said it was a series of tubes. I have to say, I've always felt like the, you know, the criticism of that metaphor seemed always a little off to me - because it kind of is.
So when Edward Snowdown started being in touch with Laura Poitras, um, I've been friends with Laura for a long time, you know, and obviously I'd had a history of looking at government programs and mass surveillance and that sort of thing. And so Laura asked me to sort of informally be part of a group of people that were looking at these documents, and she specifically asked me to help. Research them, just trying to decode them. You know, it's these very cryptic PowerPoint slides and that sort of thing, describing infrastructures that were really unfamiliar to anybody who really wasn't a part of that industry. So trying to decode them and then trying to think about how do you create images that speak to these infrastructures that speak to these surveillance programs.
So I did a lot of work on that. One of the things that I got interested in were cable landing sites, so the places on the continents where the continents are connected to each other with internet cables, and there's – these are sites that are not evenly distributed. There's usually a few on each coast and you know, there are places where all the internet cables come together and the Snowden documents contained a list of the places globally where NSA had put sensors in the landing stations for those cables, you know, so was showing the places where internet cables come together and where the NSA had put sensors on those choke points, for lack of a better word. And they also had a list of all the undersea cables that they had put taps on as well.
So I started going around the world and photographing the ocean at those landing sites. And again, this goes back to what I was talking about before, it's like how do you see the ocean in ways that are specific to your moment in time? And I was doing a series of images where it was just a seascape, but I was framing the seascape in such a way that if I had done my research right beneath the water would be one of these choke points, these places where the internet cables were coming together.
And then I thought, well, I could take this a little bit further. Theoretically, if I dove into the ocean here and looked at the bottom, I should be able to see these cables. And so it's a little bit easier said than done, of course. But I learned how to dive and learned how to do underwater navigation and learned a little bit of bathemetry and other things so I could sort of identify places on the ocean floor where I thought it was really likely that if indeed I'd done everything right, if indeed these cables were where they purported to be, that you'd be able to see them.
So started going out with teams of divers and basically just doing search patterns on the bottom of the ocean and, and indeed, yeah. You'd start finding these cables and started, you know, had to learn underwater photography.
But that was, that was really what that project was, is literally just see parts of these infrastructures that are so important in terms of the role that they play in our everyday lives, but that are at the same time very difficult to see, right. In this case, for physical reasons, but also conceptually, you know, because you don't, you don't imagine that the internet is, as you said, Cindy, a series of tubes.
Yeah. It's interesting because on the one hand, it feels so big to think of tapping into the entire internet. And that's absolutely true. But the other thing that you really brought out was how banal it is, right? Fiber optic cables don't look like anything special down there.
And drones look like insects in the sky. That they've managed to be simultaneously tremendously important and tremendously boring. All at the same time. And I think that there's a cognitive dissonance there that's, um, kind of important when we're thinking about, you know, how did we get to this place where at this moment in time we are so surveilled.
I think about that a lot. Like, I think about what the world would be like if there was a physical manifestation of a particularly online tracking. Like what would that look like if you could feel it? What, what would that look like if that were corporeal in one way or another? And I think it would be absolutely terrifying and nobody would put up with it for an instant.
One of our colleagues at EFF, Dave Maass always uses this rhetorical point that, you know, if you've got a surveillance camera on a street corner, maybe you've got one, maybe you've got five, depending on the shape. Would you, you might be okay with it, but would you be okay with five police officers standing on that corner 24/7? You know, because that's essentially what it is and I, I don't know if he's the progenitor of this rhetorical point, but it always struck me as a good one, to bring that up.
We have this project called the Atlas of Surveillance, right, where we're doing Freedom of Information Act request, and Dave leads this project to try to really make more visible what's invisible, and make sure that people who live in a community know all the ways that they're being spied upon on.
I want to jump in here for a little mid-show break to say thank you to our sponsor.
“How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. So a tip of the hat to them for their assistance.
Trevor’s work reminded me of a project that I’ve been working on at EFF. We’ve been traveling to the US-Mexico border to map out and take photos of the surveillance tech that’s down there by taking photos. Obviously my photos are nowhere near as artistically satisfying as anything Trevor does – but the point is to educate people about what these parts of surveillance look like.
And thinking about my goals for that project, it got us wondering about the responses and results that Trevor hopes to evoke from what he does.
I think that a long time ago I came to terms with the fact that art is weird. It's really different in what it kind of proposes to do than legal work or activist work. And it, you know, these are Venn diagrams and there can be blurry edges between them.
But art, art can be very strange in the sense that it's, it changes over time. How you see a painting from the 19th century is not how that painting was necessarily seen then. And this kind of goes out endlessly. And so it's very protean in terms of that relationship between an artwork and its meaning.
And the way that I think about it is much more about trying to create a vocabulary. Trying to create a sense of sense, you know, rather than saying, okay, here I'm gonna show you this image and it's, this is going to, you're gonna have some kind of political reaction to that, or it's going to inspire some kind of activist response or what, what have you.
I think it's much more similar to what you described about saying, this is what the world looks like, or this is my interpretation of what the world looks like, and do with that what you want. But There's a thing that you have now been taught to see. And I do think that that is quite important in the long term because it changes perception, it changes the relationship between what we see and the meanings that we ascribe to it.
And this is something that I learned from working with being been trained by the generation of artists that were involved in Act Up and kind of that moment of feminism and kind of queer activism in the eighties and early nineties where so much of that project was trying to redefine what identities were, redefine who was afforded what kinds of rights. And using symbolic languages as a way to make political claims, right? But in order to make the political claim, you need to invent the vocabulary with which to do that.
I love that. I mean, I really feel like the ambient culture, right, drives so much of what's going on in the political debate, but in ways that are kind of hard to track and hard to see. And I think that art showing us things that we didn't otherwise see as part of not only helping us think about what kind of world we wanna live in, the kind of sharp political decision making, but also just creating this space where we're all sharing, you know, in some cases the reality of our time in a better way or a more truthful way, right?
By showing us what's not seen, that helps create this space where political action can happen, but it's not linear, right? Again, it's more ambient. It's more like creating the space for people to be able to think differently. You know, changing people's minds is not easy and it's not a, you know, this is one of the things that we, I think we've all learned in this time, like a linear, logical argument that takes you from point A to point B to point C can be very helpful in certain situations. But most people's emotional state and ambient emotional state has a huge role here that just isn't gonna be reached by the very best legal argument I can craft in a brief.
We have several artists on staff at EFF and it's for that reason, right? The imagery and this cultural strategy of how do we build a better internet is, is not just, it's not just the, the, the language we use. It's also the imagery and the way that we play it and Hugh D’Andrade, who is our art director at EFF, always tells me, you can appeal to their logic, but you often have to appeal to their lizard brain. And, I think in some ways that's a little bit of what you're doing as well, although it's not direct advocacy.
You're trying to help us all have a lizard brain that's a little more grounded in reality you know, and the things that you can't see, as well as the things that you can.
And I have to give props to you and Hugh for that as well. I mean, you guys have really been masters at creating a visual culture around the causes that you take up and the, um, the questions that you're asking. And I, I think that's actually been enormously beneficial to you. You know, you have like literally a visual vocabulary that you've created that other people can adopt. You know, you go around a conference, you have your stickers and the logos and all this kind of stuff. It really does contribute to a culture, and I think that's really important.
I want to talk a little bit about one other piece that you have called The Standard Head. You do a lot around AI as well. Not just surveillance, but, but artificial intelligence in a variety of ways. And um, I wonder if you could talk about just what that piece is and how it came about.
So The Standard Head is a sculpture, it's just a bust. It's pretty big. It's about five feet tall or so. I've done a lot of work around AI and computer vision and from a lot of different perspectives, and one of the things that's interesting to me is what kinds of ideal forms are assumed in an AI model, a computer vision system, what have you. In other words, what are the underlying assumptions about what something looks like or what something, you know, how something should be interpreted.
And so The Standard Head was a sculpture that comes from excavating the history of facial recognition and the first facial recognition using, you know, digital images that I know of and, and I think are the first ones were done by a guy named, um, Woody Bledso in the early 1960s, and he ran a outfit in Palo Alto called Panoramic Research, and he had gotten a bunch of funding from the CIA to create facial recognition. He incidentally also had a bunch of funding from the CIA to work on MK Ultra experiments. He was also trying to, you know, uh, remotely control animals, I think was the other big project that he was working on. And so the CIA said, we want facial recognition to exist, here's some money, figure it out.
And what he did was, you know, he had to have, you have to create a mathematical model of what a face is, or what a head is in order to create a computer vision system that would be able to recognize what a head is in the first place. And so what he did is something that's quite typical of how this research has been done ever since was photograph all of the people that worked in his lab, and it's all white guys, of course. And then just measure all the facial key points, which are, you know, it's a system for assigning points to faces that actually goes back to phrenology in the early 19th century.
And so he then averaged them all together to create what the kind of ideal type of a head would be, and then use that as a template to try to measure specific heads or images of heads.
And I wanted to reconstruct that ideal type that was in this first facial recognition model. To me, this is akin to like Greek sculpture, things like that, right? At different moments in history, there's been different conceptions of what the human is, what the human should look like, and I'm really interested in that in the history of computer vision and AI models.
You see that conception change over time. So you see these experiments done by Bledsoe in the early 1960s, the next real generation of facial recognition kind of starts again in the 1990s and again,the military goes out, funds a bunch of, um, university laboratories to try to invent this stuff. The labs realize that they need a bunch of pictures of people's faces that are digitized to do the research on.
And in the 90s they do two things. They create a data set called the FERET data set, which becomes a NIST standard, and that one was made by photographing people mostly who worked at military bases in the DC area and created this huge data set of, of thousands of pictures of people that worked on military bases.
And then the second NIST data set came from mugshots. Right. So it's the nineties. You don't have Instagram. You can't just get all a bunch of selfies, who has a bunch of selfies? The FBI has a bunch of, well not selfies, but images of people made under very coercive circumstances.
And so to me that's just, it's interesting and telling that the foundations of facial recognition are really in phenology, in CIA, MK Ultra-adjacent experiments and experiments on the faces of prisoners. Right? So recovering those histories and recovering those models is something that, for me personally, I think there's something to be learned from.
Yeah. Yeah. I, I think a lot of people, as Cindy said, we, we make an argument that facial recognition is biased, and you can point out the, the statistics of that bias. But hearing that and getting that from maybe looking at some of your pieces, I think hits that lizard brain to say, oh, I see , I see in a different kind of ‘the vibes are off’ way that really feels wrong about, um, about its use, uh, looking at that history and things.
One of the things that I think you also bring to light, or at least walk the line of, is you know, we love technology. At EFF we're fans of tech. We want technology to make our lives better and easier. I don't wanna live in a world in which, you know, we just all pretend like there's no technology and go into the woods if there's any woods left and try to pretend like we don't have a technological benefit. And I think that trying to walk that line between loving tech and sometimes even noticing that tech is really beautiful. You know, I often think of that Leonard Cohen song, you know, ‘we're blinded by the beauty of our weapons’, right? It's very, beautiful and gorgeous to see some of the technology that is scary. Some of it's banal and we've talked about that, but some of it is really gorgeous and I was wondering how you think about that or if you think about that, like how sometimes we get romance by the beauties of our technology and we don't see the dark side and how to both recognize that and also, you know, be, you know, not be, not be romanced by it.
That's a very complex and interesting point that you're making and I totally agree with it. There's so many different ways to talk about that. I think over the years I've been criticized for, you know, people look at some of the work I do and say, you know, you're taking something that's bad and you're making it look good, or making it pretty, or making it look beautiful.
And I say, you know, if I take you out to the desert and I show you the night sky, there are few things in this world that's more beautiful than a spy satellite flickering like a star, you know, through the Milky Way on a starless night. That doesn't mean it's good. I would like to live in a world in which good things looked beautiful and bad things looked ugly, but that's just not how it works. And I think that we can live with those contradictions. And I think to me it's almost irresponsible to not inhabit that complexity. Right? But we don't live in a world that's simple. Aesthetics are not simple.
So that's one avenue we could go down in terms of, of talking about technology in relation to aesthetics. There are many other avenues that we could go down as well, and we can think about. The fact that very often when we're talking about technology, we are very confused about what it is that we're actually talking about in the sense that, I guess in my mind, it's impossible to cordon off technology from society, from politics. There's politics IN technology, you know, um, that is literally what it's made out of. Um, we talked earlier about, you know, internet protocols, for example. Like there is a politics to the communications protocols, for example, that are used. So there's another question there about what work the aesthetics in relation to technology can do to either try to point out those politics or try to obfuscate them, right?
And these are very complex dances and I think something that we're both very interested in is, is kind of teasing out the mechanics of those dances and trying to see how technology, politics, society, and culture are interrelated by learning how to see better, I guess.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, I'm gonna circle you back to the question we started with. So let's say we start getting all of this right? We. You know, we're building a, a society where our technologies serve us instead of serving us up. We're using, AI and machine learning in ways that are really serving us rather than the other way around.
What are the signs of things you would see as an artist or that you would maybe not see as an artist, but what, how would things look different in this moment if we were, if we were doing better.
One of the things that I'm happy to see is I think that there is a generation of technologists, or at least technology adjacent people, that don't conceive of technology as being separate from politics. And I think this is really obvious when you're looking at machine learning kind of stuff, right? And you have the - not to create too much of a caricature - but you have this received idea in engineering that, ‘oh, we just build technology and it's neutral and it's something that's outside of society and it's a, it's a hammer and you can use it to, you know, do whatever you want.’
But I think that that idea is changing. And I think that that is becoming a more obviously untenable position to have. And I think the people that maintain that attitude increasingly look foolish, you know, in public. And I think that's a good thing. I think that that can lead to a more fruitful way of thinking about how technology changes society, and perhaps can lead towards a society in which we can understand what the implications of deploying different technologies might be, and then decide whether or not we want that.
That's really hard to do and it's really hard to do that under, you know, market conditions or capitalism or to do in environments that are essentially unregulated. However, that is a shift that I see happening around the edges of that conversation, and I think that's a really, um, a good thing.
I love that because it comes back to the people, right? That the people who are building, the people who are thinking about, the people who are interacting with technology are the answer, right? And part of what you do is try to make that visible so that we can grow that community of people. And that's one of the things that your art is trying to do, you know, what it really means to be alive right now is to, to see some of the things that are, are, are otherwise not very well seen in our technological society. And that's gonna empower more people to take the position that they wanna build something better.
That was really great. I really enjoyed that conversation with Trevor to talk about art and activism and kind of how he gets in the headspace of what it is that he does, which is really amazing and I think helpful for all of us. But Cindy, what about what Trevor said really hit you when you think about this, you know, later this week, what's the part that you're gonna really take away and keep thinking about?
I think the thing that struck me that was so lovely was really about art and this idea that art is, About trying to have a conversation with the past and the future about what it's like to be alive today, and that the pictures of the drones and the pictures of the undersea cables are part of trying to capture really, what our modern life is like, not just on the surface, but you know how the sky, you know, the people have been looking and photographing and painting and creating images of the sky, trying to recreate the sky, um, for generations past and will for generations in the future.
And that right now, reaper drones, right? Like things that really murder people are part of our sky. And making that visible and capturing it is part of the artist's conversation with the past and the future. I just think that's beautiful and exactly the kind of insight that, you know, art can bring to the conversation that is, you know, quite different than what we as activists and lawyers and, you know, people who are in the daily fights really bring. It's additive.
Yeah, yeah. I think that we are often kind of in the weeds and his exercise is a way of getting out of those weeds and just looking at, well, to mix my metaphors at the forest instead of the individual trees. But it was really beautiful and really helpful.
Yeah. And you know, of course, I completely agree with you that what Trevor is doing is a form of activism and comes from a place of really wanting to make our world better. And I think that I also really liked his looking at the things he doesn't like about the internet and trying to reverse them.
And all the way down to the museums, right? Thinking about how museums could be a place of service to us rather than a place of tracking to us. And how that’s possible and even, you know, making art out of it.
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Well that’s it for this episode of How to Fix the Internet.
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How to Fix the Internet is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program in public understanding of science and technology.
I’m Jason Kelley…
And I’m Cindy Cohn.
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