Monday, November 24, 2008

Surveillance Supreme

This is a highly ingenious, widely viewed, and justly acclaimed near-future artifact, in video form, produced for the American Civil Liberties Union. It was released in 02004 as part of a campaign to raise awareness about surveillance, and over four years later, the flash version remains live at the ACLU website. The brief but effective clip warns, with humour relieving some of the deadly earnestness of its agenda, about the possible privacy-endangering implications of joined up databases containing personal information.

I'd seen this some time ago, but only a short while back did some research and found it to be the work of one Micah Laaker, designer of interactive experiences. Micah kindly agreed to an interview by email, to explore the story behind this excellent in-scenario fragment of an electro-panopticon future.

SC: So if you could first say who you are in one or two sentences, then...

ML: I lead a team of designers and prototypers on Yahoo!'s efforts to provide platforms and tools to 3rd-party developers and publishers. Since joining 4 years ago, I've led teams on our efforts around adaptive personalization, RSS, user registration, My Yahoo!, and more. Before Yahoo!, I led the design efforts of Island Def Jam Music Group's artist and label sites, wrote two books, designed and illustrated a paranormal trivia game, directed a hip-hop music video, and worked with clients like Stan Lee, Zagat, Disney Channel, and Sprint PCS. I herald from the great city of Omaha, NE, and am a fan of tiny houses, illustration, semantic metadata, cryptozoology, and information design.

SC: What was the story behind the ACLU clip?

ML: The ACLU Pizza Surveillance movie came from the good folks at the ACLU. I'd been working with them for several months on a number of infographics when they asked whether I'd be willing to come up with a visual storyline to better present a recording they'd made. To be honest, I don't remember the whole back story in terms of how they decided to record the awkward pizza ordering scenario.

I do remember that I received an MP3 file, and began sketching out 5 visual accompaniments to the piece. Most centered on the people in the story (the order taker and the gentleman caller), but one flipped the focus to the screen of the order taker. I wanted to try that one out, as (after about the 50th listen to the recording) I began wondering, "What is this lady seeing that she isn't saying to the guy?"

I'd like to think it was the little details (like the Nancy Drew book checkout, the suggestion of seeing his voting record, and his eczema inflammation) that won them over. But, after reviewing the different proposals, the ACLU centered in on this approach quickly, too. (I showed 4-5 screens for each approach with a paragraph or two about how the visuals would unfold.) They were (and continue to be) great to work with, and really let me run with the visuals and animations from that point.

SC: What kind of reception has it received, and what lessons have you been able to draw from that? How has it affected your subsequent practice as a designer?

ML: Aside from the MF Doom music video, the Pizza piece continues to be one of the best-received works I've tackled. It won honors in resfest|10 and the Media that Matters 5 festival, and was the subject of Jon Udell's (and others') examinations of how social media moves through the Internet. It's been very flattering to have such smart and talented folks applaud the work, although I largely believe I get far more credit for the piece than I deserve. (Again, the folks at the ACLU who came up with the original idea deserve the real credit; I'm proud of the way we worked together to package it in a creative manner and extend its implications through the animation.)

In terms of changes I've incorporated into my design process since, it's rather technique-oriented. The video was intended to playback only on the ACLU website. As I built the graphics, I wondered whether I should spend a bit more time building resolution-independent versions. Considering the amount of time I've since had to spend to rebuild the movie, and the requirements from all the festivals for high-resolution footage, I've learned to build (when at all possible) for dimensions and media larger than what the project requirements dictate... you just never know when those requirements might change.

Most surprising, though, is probably the fact that I then went on to Yahoo! to work on its personalization efforts, where we work to tailor the network's content and interfaces to match users' behavior. Not surprising, however, is that I have made a priority of providing users with the control then to delete such data in such interfaces.

SC: How does the clip "work"? (For example, how does communicating "in-scenario" affect the message?)

ML: The decision to focus on the order taker's screen helped us communicate the extent to which an individual's sense (and reality) of privacy could be eroded. Anything lost by not showing the caller or visualizing the specific elements discussed is overshadowed by the sinister details exposed to the viewer of the piece. In several instances, you can watch as the order taker browses through caller's personal information (as just about anyone would, should they be given such a dashboard on another person's info).

This idea that the mundane task of ordering a single meal could expose extensive personal information has clearly resonated with a large viewing audience, likely because folks begin to see steps toward this future already. Whether via the request for your ZIP Code when buying batteries at Radio Shack or having your name announced to all around when picking up groceries at Safeway while using your club card, many of us uneasily participate in such exchanges and wonder if we're slowly being desensitized to the "master plan" illustrated in the video.

SC: What do you think these two fields of practice, futures (scenarios) and design, have to offer one another?

ML: Design is largely a process used to make something complex understandable and interesting. Whether text and image, interface, or tabular data, the source becomes far more engaging and meaningful after passing through this process. So, if by "futures" you are describing how to package and present possible scenarios of some yet-to-come moment or issue, design is clearly well suited for such a task.

By this, I simply mean that the design process can be useful to those looking to find meaningful ways of sharing their articulations of the future. Conversely, those in the practice of design generally enjoy thinking of "what if" situations, where the rules and dictates of everyday projects fall away; futures work would seem, in a similar fashion, complementary to design work and could provide inspiration for solutions yet to come.

SC: What other artifacts, videos, media (in any form) are you aware of that have this quality of inviting someone to "experience" a future?

ML: Hmm. Tough question. In many ways, what we did with the Pizza piece is really no different than film. We used a visual storytelling medium to walk the audience through a disturbing (and disturbingly possible) scenario... a scenario which, for all intents and purposes, is generally annoying already. (Who, after all, looks forward to giving up their credit card number to the underpaid high school student at the other end of the line?)

The staid answer to this, of course, is that video games would appear to run closest to this experience. Often set in the "first person," as is the Pizza piece, the game allows individuals to experiment with alternate (and some would say worrisome) behavior, and the in-game scenarios are often seemingly plausible. In other words, even when set in the future, many games leverage existing environments (such as specific cityscapes) and existing physics models to paint a realistic but alternate scenario.

In this case, though, the player of such a game is in control (to some extent) over which direction they head, whereas in the Pizza piece, we drive each viewer down the same disconcerting path.

Micah, many thanks again for your time.

Related posts:
> Permission Culture
> Future news-flash: your vote counts
> In memoriam

No comments: