If you have ever wondered where your online data goes, The Glass Room, a free pop-up exhibit in Nolita, is a good place to start. Passersby may mistake the gallery for an Apple Store, but the shiny interior, replete with strategically placed iPads and whitewashed walls, houses a lot more than the latest tech.
Free to the public through December 14th, The Glass Room is a collection of artwork, ongoing projects, and sensory experiences that explore life in the internet age. The exhibit is timed to coincide with the end of Cyber Monday and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, a time when shoppers are handing over heaps of personal information at checkout counters. People who wander into The Glass Room in the midst of shopping won’t be able to purchase a holiday gift, but they will come away with a deeper understanding of the way personal data is used for profit.
Curated by Tactical Technology Collective, the show is meant to educate visitors on the myriad ways their data is used. The artifacts on display range from amusing, like an alphabetized collection of 4.6 million leaked LinkedIn passwords, to terrifying, like a remote-controlled fertility chip that might one day be used to control fertility rates in developing countries. At the back of the exhibit, a bar of “inGeniouses,” a play on the Apple Genius Bar, teach visitors how to avoid aspects of 21st century surveillance. You can learn how to encrypt emails, track your own data, and lighten your digital footprint.
The show is not meant to discourage people from using the internet. Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski, the curators of the exhibit, see the pop-up as a place that brings “questions to life about how technology changes social interactions in our society by making them both fun and accessible.” The exhibit is sponsored by Mozilla, which like most browser builders, has its share of security issues.
The Glass Room contains 54 artifacts arranged in four distinct categories, beginning with personal data collection and ending with government-sanctioned surveillance methods. The examples of surveillance on display grow more disturbing as you walk further in.
The artifact Unfitbit, located toward the beginning of the gallery, is a Fitbit clipped to a metronome. The “product” offers “freedom from the pressure of having to always be active” by creating false fitness data. Your insurance company that gave you a $50 rebate for using a Fitbit would love to know if you skipped the gym this week (or month) so that it can hike up prices later.
Deeper into the exhibit, two screens play a recreated video feed of the US-Mexico border. This piece of art, called The Interfaced Boarder by Joana Moll, is a response to the rise of e-vigilatism. A company called Texas Virtual BorderWatch gave unlimited access to 200 cameras monitoring the border for criminal activity. In 2008, 200,000 volunteers spent over 1 million hours of their time watching the border for Texas border authorities. After you’ve grappled with the real-world consequences of human beings monitoring each other for illegal activity, check out the enormous Unintended Emissions screen, which shows data transmissions from people passing by the gallery in real time.
The last part of the exhibit lets you look at your own data through the eyes of cellphone and internet providers in the form of short, animated stories. One video, The Scoring Society looks at how “scoring is applied to our lives, from Credit Scoring to Social Media scoring and terrorist Scoring,” and is strangely evocative of that Black Mirror episode where a girl’s life is ruined because of her low personality score.
Visitors may feel discouraged after journeying through the mystifying and often disconcerting world of surveillance — I certainly did. Luckily the Data Detox Bar offers strategies for managing your online presence. You can even take home a “data detox kit,” which is an eight-step process for making your digital life your own again.
This exhibit is based on an original concept presented by Tactical Technology Collective in Berlin in 2016. The curators hope to do more exhibits on this theme in the future.