If swarm intelligence describes natural systems where individuals pool their resources for the benefit of the community, then Big Data can be considered a form of swarm intelligence appropriated by commerce: where commerce pools individuals’ resources, their data, for the benefit of commerce. In both swarm intelligence and Big Data the individuals involved are, largely, unaware of the extent of the interaction and resource pooling. Whereas however birds, bees, fish and ants needn’t be aware of such, we all really should be, that we generally aren’t making Big Data much more a demonstration of swarm unintelligence. If not swarm negligence.
With his participatory art installation Freiheit 2.0 Florian Mehnert visualises the permanent interaction between our analogue and digital lives, the ensuing tensions, and thereby aims to allow us a new, differentiated, view of where we are at and where we could end up.
Throughout June 2018 Freiheit 2.0 can be experienced in Stuttgart, and ahead of the opening we spoke with Florian Mehnert.
Originally staged in 2016 in Weil am Rhein, and in many regards a continuation of projects developed by Florian Mehnert since 2013, most notably perhaps his Waldprotokolle project which saw him bug forest glades and record, and publish, the conversations of passers-by, Freiheit 2.0 is a wide ranging intervention which seeks to make us consider, reconsider, our relationship to Big Data, Big Data’s relationship to us, and the associated questions of privacy, democracy and freedom in our digital, networked, age. And for all future considerations of such, how should future relationships be defined, how do we want to achieve that definition and how do we want to ensure that we keep control over how that definition evolves. Considerations which, and as we’ve oft noted, are currently the responsibility of us all, and not something we can/should delegate. Least of all to architects and designers.
Consequently it is very pleasing that a central role in Freiheit 2.0 is taken by the general public, most graphically and directly through a Self-tracking App specially developed for the project. Freely available from the Freiheit 2.0 website, once installed the App sends, anonymised, location data every 30 seconds to the central project computer, thereby allowing for the creation of individual movement profiles. Profiles which will be publicly displayed on a large screen at the project’s main base in Stuttgart’s Stadtpalais. A relatively low-tech, simple, tool, the App allows for a very effective visualisation of the trails we all leave in our daily lives and how much information can be won therefrom. And why we should all consider if we want that. And if not, what do we want.
In addition, for the duration of the project 26 businesses in Stuttgart are being renamed through the addition of the term “Freiheit”, smow Stuttgart, for example, being renamed “smow der freiheit”, the adjunct serving on the one hand to visualise, if you will, replace, the Freiheit being lost in our daily lives while also serving as an invitation for conversations on the subject; similarly the Guidance System, multi-coloured lines which lead from the 26 renamed businesses to the Stadtpalais, both visualise the data streams we all know exist, yet because we cant see them, pretend they don’t, and also serve as the basis for contemplation and conversation.
The fourth pillar on which Freiheit 2.0 stands is the Colloquium. Staged over the four June weekends the Freiheit 2.0 Colloquium will see a series of invited experts speak on aspects of data protection, privacy, the relationships between individuals and commerce, etc, etc, and complimented by podium discussions on the subjects raised.
Ahead of Freiheit 2.0 in Stuttgart we spoke to Florian Mehnert about the project, the Big Data industry and the nature of our current, and future, relationship to such, but began by asking how the Stuttgart project came about…..
Florian Mehnert: Dr. Stefan Brink, Commissioner for Data Protection in Baden-Württemberg, heard about Freiheit 2.0 in Weil and asked me if I’d be interested in bringing it to Stuttgart, which I was. On the one hand as project it was conceived with the intention that it could be undertaken in other locations, wasn’t site specific but should travel, and on the other was the interest to try it somewhere else, to see how it functioned in another environment.
smow Blog: In terms of how it had functioned in Weil am Rhein you note in the project publication that it “deepened my understanding of the attitude of society to the developments of Big Data.” In how far…..?
Florian Mehnert: For all in that it allowed me numerous insights into a lack of understanding within society, and also how many individuals simply don’t have the background knowledge, don’t understand the background to the various business models of Big Data and digitalisation. For example people often don’t understand that every digital utterance can be saved and utilised, even a google search, many think that the triviality of their existence, or the triviality of their utterances are not relevant, that was something I heard a lot, but exactly this triviality of daily life, what people are interested in, what they are not interested in, what they like, don’t like, with whom they are communicating, and how often, that is of central relevance for the commercial analysis.
It is comparable to as if you were to go shopping and someone walked beside you the whole time noting what you do, in which windows you look, into which shops you go, if you bought something, what you bought, how long you were in the shop for, who you talked to.
And on the other hand I observed a general desire within society to maintain personal privacy and freedom, that such is more or less considered an essential, fundamental necessity, and that many are under the illusion that they have that, but can neither conceive nor imagine that they have lost it.
smow Blog: In context of losing such privacy, when one considers what has happened since 2016, that since then everyone has acquired a fitness tracker on their wrist and smart speaker in their kitchen, yet at the same time we’re all shocked by the news that companies are commercially harvesting Facebook data, can one say the Big Data industry is developing quicker than the comprehension of society as to the meaning of that development?
Florian Mehnert: Yes, significantly quicker, they are so much quicker that it can be hard to recognise how much faster unless you have a basic understanding and concern yourself with the subject on a regular basis. And so a fundamental intention of the project is to provide information and to discuss where we are at and just how many areas of our lives are affected. That it isn’t just the WhatsApp message or the google search, it is also autonomous transport or the relevance for future health insurance, real time insurance, for example, where your health insurance provider analyse your data on a daily basis and can regularly create a new tariff based on your recent daily averages.
smow Blog: You mentioned autonomous transport, which is naturally an important theme in a city such as Stuttgart, at the moment are we so focussed on the, let’s say, physical security of autonomous vehicles that we’re in danger of losing sight of the data security issues?
Florian Mehnert: I would phrase it so, the automotive industry isn’t that interested in discussing data protection because it makes things more difficult and could also damage business models they may be planning to introduce, and so they have little desire to discuss aspects of privacy and data protection rather want to keep pushing forward with their projects, and that at times with utopian projections. In the Colloquium I have invited Professor Günther Sabow who has been active amongst the car lobby and who I expect will find clear, realistic, words as to where we are currently at.
smow Blog: In terms of data protection in general, since the end of May the new General Data Protection Regulation is in force, will that make a difference to and for the Big Data industry?
Florian Mehnert: It will be more difficult, the companies must work more transparently, which one sees in their updated Terms and Conditions, they must also meet new standards, for example, getting permission before sending information to America, but the basic problem remains the private contract and when the individual consumer says “yes” the control is powerless….
smow Blog: … and so ultimately it all comes back to us and our actions and dealings…..?
Florian Mehnert: …. we need an ethical consensus upon which society is in agreement, also industry because industry is formed of people. When you consider, for example, genetics there there are certain taboos, you wouldn’t, for example, undertake human cloning. Genetic sequencing or disease research through genetic sequencing yes, but human cloning, no, and in terms of data we need something similar, that there must be certain, let’s call them, taboos, but the road to there is long, and we need informed responsible citizens, we need enough individuals within society who can see through situations and say “there is a problem here, we need to act.”
smow Blog: In which sense, and with a view to that future, in Stuttgart there is an event especially for school pupils, that’s new since Weil, or…
Florian Mehnert: In Weil I spoke with pupils and realised that there was a great desire amongst them to discuss many of the topics, but there wasn’t an extra forum, and so now in Stuttgart, together with the Data Protection Commissioner I have an extra platform with invited speakers……
smow Blog: …. and is that to reflect on what you refer to as many digital natives’ “undisturbed relationship with data and a digital world”?
Florian Mehnert: ….yes, but also because they need to understand the consequences that await a liberal society or a democratic society when we continue as we are and propagate a Dataismus in the belief that if we collect ever more data we can better govern the world, or guide society or identify illness. Algorithmic systems are programmed by humans, they can err, and algorithms can only approximate, you can’t define or even predict complex inter-associations with any high degree of certainty, the industry tells us they can, but the truth is that the potential for errors is large, which isn’t such a problem if you are just using the data for advertising purposes, but when, for example, your concern is the health of individuals or social development than it plays a very important role.
Freiheit 2.0 is being staged throughout Stuttgart from June 2nd to 26th, full details, including the Colloquium programme and the Self-tracking App, can be found at http://www.freiheit.florianmehnert.de/
More information on Florian Mehnert including information on his previous projects can be found at http://www.florianmehnert.de/