“Computer systems built to represent human identities have contained with them many ontological assumptions about what it is to be an individual and what personal identity is. These systems define the human as a ‘what’ ie: that which can be measured, not as a ‘who’ ie: our inner self.”– Sterling Crispin
Are you a bit tired of seeing all those Guy Fawkes masks at local and global protests? At first they seemed menacing enough to make their point, but then they evolved into an almost repetitive eyesore, as the original point of their appearance seemed to be lost in the crowd of the masks’ over-usage. Well, there’s a new (3D printed) mask in town — one that makes a more precise political point than the now omnipresent Anonymous mask ever has. And this one has a grand political message about technology, civil liberties, and surveillance culture, too. If the mask doesn’t leave you thinking, the technology behind the mask surely will.
Artist Sterling Crispin uses 3D printing technology to challenge the reduction of our individual selves to a repetitive, mathematical algorithm, by capturing the moment that photographed faces appear as data behind the scenes of social media companies. If you aren’t already uneasy about how social media, especially Facebook, uses your personal information and photos, Crispin’s artwork will probably unnerve you. In a statement from his website, he explains:
“Theoretically, I am concerned with the aggressive overdevelopment of surveillance technology and how this is changing human identity and how humanity interacts with technology. By technology I mean individual instances of technological devices and networked systems like cameras and software, but also what I identify as the ’Technological Other’, a global living super-organism of all machines and software.”
I thought I was really being clever when I joined Facebook years ago and chose an avatar for my profile picture. I vaguely understood that our collective sharing of photos and personal information was empowering a technological turn that will fundamentally alter the way humans relate to technology, each other, and ourselves. So Crispin’s kind of artistic commentary is right up my alley — but he makes such a sharper point than any Facebook avatar is able to make.
With every new photo you post on Facebook, its DeepFace System uses its algorithms behind the scenes to mathematically analyze your physical features. Yes, your eyes, cheekbones, noses, and chins become data points used to classify human facial features. This information can be used to identify individuals as photos are uploaded to the server. The data Crispin uses for his masks is culled from these algorithms, and made into representative forms — DATA-MASKS.
From the above example, you can see how facial recognition software can break the human face down into models and data points. To make these masks, Crispin relies on biological data collected by other groups that share his concern about the social implications of facial recognition technology. Crispin receives name-tagged photos from the web, feeds them into facial
recognition software, and breaks them down into patterns and data points. He then 3D prints these images, which become the masks that symbolize what the unique human face looks like behind a data wall. Technically, he is ingeniously reversing the engineering process Facebook uses. Facebook receives you as data first, but he starts with a photo and works backwards to the place where you are a blur, anonymous, just another blob of techno-data. And then he 3D prints it.
The technology behind facial recognition is daunting, and Crispin has designed an insidious aesthetic statement that adequately captures this technological feeling. Crispin’s philosophical and political concerns are expressed through his usage of technology to challenge it. But he points out that the “Technological Other” is way ahead of its subjects, recording and storing our facial features and personal information to be used… why, exactly?
The traditional American horror film still relies on the monster — vampires and zombies loom large in the popular imagination — but perhaps the 21st century’s true horror story lies behind the seemingly innocuous world of social media sites. Crispin’s DATA-MASKS look like Michael Myer’s ubiquitous “Halloween” mask, with no openings, while being exposed to extremely high temperatures; only it’s our techno-zombie-like exposure to and participation in surveillance technologies that Crispin suggests may be the true living horror story here. One part disturbing for its amorphous blob-like appearance, and another part disturbing for its post-apocalyptic mere semblance of its former self aesthetic, either way, when you look at a Crispin 3D printed DATA-MASK, you get the feeling something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. And he would concur that, yes, it has.
Do you agree or disagree with Crispin’s views on data collection? Let us know your feelings about the DATA-MASKS over at 3DPB.com.