OP003: Where Are Your Ethics? PRISM and Design for Surveillance Technology

This week has been insane. It is rare in history that we are able to feel time shift before us. Many have looked down and noticed this and seen the event for its significance. Others continue on, as if treading water in a pool with an ever-expanding deep end. We now know what we only heard through spooky conspiracy theory circles and the occasional insight from whistleblowers bubbling to the surface. The U.S. Government is monitoring the communication of every citizen in the country and many more people in other countries around the world. While some well paid off spokespeople call for the head of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, the information he released also brought to light questions about the complicity of Apple, Google, and other tech companies in the NSA's secret surveillance software, PRISM. We may not ever know if their servers had been accessed with their knowledge because a gag rule prevents them from admitting to government requests of information. Zero transparency works in harmony with zero accountability.

Of course, these dilemmas are nothing new to the designer. We've sighed while overlooking the suicide reports from Foxconn, welcoming every Apple launch with drooling envy and some humorous jabs at their reliance on the skeumorphic. We've read about about the astounding number of compliances by Google with censorship requests by the FBI which considers Occupy Wall Street a threat to national security. Still using Gmail. Still love the iconography. And let's not forget the casual pop-in by the FBI director to Facebook back in 2010 asking for access to "easier wiretaps". Still tagging your friends? The difference now is that I think we are starting to feel how compounded these revelations are and they're adding up to a very real ethical problem for the designers working with the technology provided by these companies and the role design plays within these companies.

What this massive data capturing revelation confirms is that for the nine or so tech companies and the NSA it is the meta-content that truly matters. The form on the surface is really just the candy colored camouflage to draw users in and keep them occupied, keep them producing data that can be sold or analyzed. The surface of technology, a thing that many would call "good design" now covers over one of the most corrupt, invasive, and totalitarian info-mining operations ever conceived. Behind a pretty sheen, an ugly deed.

However, the PRISM PowerPoint deck that was leaked to the Guardian is decidedly not so "pretty." Don't fret, though, our design pundits have crawled out of their BrandNew cynicism to call it 'wonky, drunken, and child-like.'

"The slides published from the presentation have been shocking less for their content than their sheer graphic ineptitude."

(Prism: the PowerPoint presentation so ugly it was meant to stay secret by Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian)

In that fantasy world Mr. Wainwright belongs to the bigger story is the 'graphic ineptitude.' Back on earth it looks more like journalistic ineptitude (shocking!). Why does PRISM need to be 'eye-catching?' Has anyone actually asked this? PRISM as a logo is exactly what it looks like; sharp, authoritative, and un-fucking-trustworthy. PRISM as a concept is an ugly sign. A sign that signifies a deep, unsettling ugliness rapidly sliding on a nasty trajectory toward the sort of horrifying totalitarianism we have been warned about countless times by philosophers and historians alike. That's all lost on these amnesiac priests in the cult of neoliberal progress. The priests of this church have found that the form of the PRISM PowerPoint deck is something that simply needs perfecting, it is out of sync with surfaces of desire and consumption and needs to have a proper identity bestowed upon it. You know, something more like the surfaces we interact with everyday. Rounded. Friendly. Dereferentialized. So these sorcerers exclaim "it needs OUR magic." And in taking up the task, the saviors demand that you cite their benevolent work in several articles published around the web. Must link to portfolios. After all what is the point of designing if you cannot be valorized for it? Like. Re-blog. But don't rip me off!

I'm not going to link the designers who unwisely used their time to create these so I'll just refer you to the Gizmodo article that showcases them. The comments are a pleasant insight as well.

The Best and Worst Redesigns of PRISM's Atrocious PowerPoint

The plan? Gettin' mad government money and kickin' it on the dark side of history as long as they don't find out I bunked with a kid at summer camp that grew up to be a passionate human-rights advocate in his mid-twenties.

Why hide behind ugly? The Surveillance State can look as sexy as American Apparel underwear or as full of  youthful energy as a dystopian Dubstep rave.

"As an individual who does work for major government agencies, I often find myself as the only one who bothers to take the time to put at least a little polish on documentation, presentations and any other materials. It's amazing how ugly the vast majority of material can be!  

So, uh, I'm doing my part to make the government more aesthetically pleasing!" 
(AnxiousLogic, Gizmodo comments)

It is amazing. It's amazing that we're critiquing the ugliness of the vast majority of material of government, but seem unconcerned about how it is barely functioning as a democracy. Maybe some historical perspective will help. 

The New York Times published an article back in 2009 about the Bauhaus connection to the Nazi party. In the article we learn about Franz Ehrlich, a former student of Moholy-Nagy, Klee, Kandinsky, and Josef Albers. He worked for the Nazis as a prisoner at Buchenwald where his first task was to design and build the entrance gates to the prison:

"From then on, the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others who were brought to Buchenwald to be worked to death entered on foot under Ehrilich’s elegant rendering of the words “Jedem das Seine”: “To each his own.” It was a translation of a Roman legal maxim invoking the individual’s right to enjoy what is his, but — like the recently stolen “Work makes you free” sign at Auschwitz — recast with a sneer, in this case as a sort of cynical “Everyone gets his just deserts.” The stylish sans-serif lettering reflected Ehrlich’s training under the Bauhaus typography master Joost Schmidt."
(Deadly Style: Bauhaus’s Nazi Connection)

Aside from the irony, this passage sticks out as an important point. The things we design and develop may also be the elegant gates to our own prison. Perhaps it is not always so explicit as polishing a PowerPoint deck that details an architecture of oppression or drawing the blueprints to a gas chamber as another former Bauhaus student turned Waffen SS, Fritz Ertl, was responsible for. As much as we'd like to think we are as imprisoned by our life modes as Franz Ehrlich in Buchenwald, we are not; we do still have some choice about what kind of future we want to live in though it is becoming increasingly difficult to make. As Jacob Applebaum pointed out in his keynote speech at 29C3 (appropriately titled "Not My Department") the solution is not in fighting against these forces or trying to make them work more honestly for us. It is in designing sustainable alternatives. This process starts by asking: Does this thing I am working on help people become more free or less? Does it enable them to become better informed or does it work to deceive them or censor them? Does it allow for more conversation around the issues we face or does it suppress other voices in service of a singular voice? Does this frame information for the repetition of the same social patterns and behavioral interactions or does it open up new pathways? Does it bring us closer or further apart? This is where we should start when discussing PRISM or any re-design thereof. It is how real progress can be made by designers to create a habitable future, not one governed by further exploitation, precarity, and surveillance. 

Not serious.

 “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept, you can get up everyday, go to work and collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that’s the world you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is as matter as the public gets to decide how that’s applied… I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” (Edward Snowden, from his Guardian interview)

The general intellect has gone missing from the designer's considerations as with the rest of society. It doesn't help that publications, such as PRINT, once an effective editorial voice, now glaze over any contextual criticism and gain their share of the data land grab. Having been brought under HOW, their new role seems to be to generate click-bait articles that work more or less like 5 Ways To Tighter Abs; exploiting a depressing design economy and the competitive crisis that has spawned out of that. In short, the body disconnected from the head. This must be re-attached with proper criticism. If not, we'll just keep encouraging more designers to prostitute their work for even less glorification (and for possibly worse apparatus of control), destroying the integrity of an already fragile practice. In this time, maybe we deserve such a clumsy maxim as Good design is design for good. At least that's a start. 

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