Terms of Service is a newly published digital graphic novel from Al Jazeera that explores the turbulent relationship technology users today have with services provided by big data companies.
The real genius of Terms of Service, is how it uses the comic book format to make dry and sometimes confusing topics compelling, easy to understand, and even funny. Around the time of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, journalist and programmer Michael Keller began to notice something strange: despite the constant news coverage of the government’s indiscriminate surveillance of citizens data with the co-operation of tech companies, no one he knew seemed to care all too much, and even fewer seemed motivated to change their behavior with personal data online.
“I remembered back to ten years ago when people thought that Gmail scanning you’re email was an invasion of privacy and I thought, that’s really interesting, how far we’ve come in just ten years,” Keller told Co.Design, fittingly, over a Google Hangout. “Where are we going to be five years from now? Or even two years from now?”
With this thought in mind, Keller got in touch with nonfiction cartoonist Josh Neufeld, determined to tell the story of big data in a way that was engaging for the average consumer, who might see the NSA leaks and think “How does this affect me?” Using that idea as a jumping off point, the pair went on an expedition across the world of big data and tech. They traveled across the U.S. interviewing senators, professors and scientists, and examined their own data habits in the process. Yet they came out of this experience still asking the same question that had spurred it: how much are we willing to give up for services the tech world promises us, and how will we end up paying for it?
Illustrating big data in comic book form is no easy task. “If someone asked me to show them the real harm of [big data], I’d be kind of hard pressed to show [them] this hypothetical thing,” Keller tells us. But Neufeld came up with a visual metaphor so fitting, its use almost seems preordained: a constellation.
“I saw a representation of data online, an infographic, where there were dots for data compiled on you from different sources in different sizes, and I saw how it was displayed sort of as a constellation. It reminded me of those draw by numbers kits you could do as a kid. Connecting the dots to make a picture.” he says.
Using this concept, Neufeld found a central motif for their story: a constellation of data which could be used to draw an “incomplete and skewed image” of an individual. Neufeld and Keller use this metaphor to help readers visualize how a insurance companies or employers could use seemingly harmless data from your Fitbit or Foursquare to paint a picture of you that could have seriously negative affects on your life. Even if this hypothetical portrait was inaccurate, the company’s opinion would be difficult refute. After all, they have the numbers.
Neufeld also felt strongly that there should be multiple layers of visual meaning in the comic, reinforcing their point about the pervasiveness of technological surveillance in today’s world. “You’ll notice that a lot of our characters, while they’re discussing things, [will] go through airport security or an ID check getting into the Al Jazeera office,” Keller says. Neufeld added, “[I wanted to] have us doing something as we’re talking, have something going on in the background that’s adding to the atmosphere of the story, as opposed to talking heads that are just saying something while [the readers] are not getting anything else from the visual aspect.”
Another example of these sneakily added details includes the scene where the pair talk with the senator who tried to pass laws against Gmail’s data collecting. A few frames in, the perspective widens to show that she’s talking to Neufeld and Keller over Facetime on an iPad. “It just seemed such a perfect summation of how technology has changed,” Neufeld said, highlighting both the shift from text to visual media and how all-encompassing Google has become in the last ten years.
Despite their criticism of big data in the piece, its authors emphasize equally that they don’t expect people to ever fully opt out of the benefits that come with exposing your data to companies. Instead, they encourage people to be “data critical,” to keep asking questions instead of accepting increasingly intense surveillance as just the way things have to be. They believe people still have ability to take back some control over their personal data and to set their own boundaries within this ecosystem, if they choose to do so.
“When you put a photo on Instagram, [the app says] it needs access to all of your photos. Why does it need access to all of my photos? Why can’t I just say, take this one photo and filter it and post it?” Keller asks.
Those with technological knowledge, he says, should be the most critical of these details, as they know better than anyone what data collection is essential to a program’s functioning, and what is a design element masking the company’s desire to gather as much information as possible.
“[You should] remember where your position on this issue was ten years ago when Gmail came out. What do you accept now?” Neufeld restates. “I think just reminding people of that is the most important part of the story.” So, what has Big Data done for you, lately?