Though the controversy over government surveillance has been raging since Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks were first revealed in 2013, there’s a pervasive feeling that the American people don’t care about, or don’t understand, these hard won revelations. Last Sunday on the HBO news parody show Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver and his crew ventured out onto the streets of New York, asking people whether they’d heard of whistleblower Edward Snowden and if they believed the government could be monitoring their communication illegally. Most people both hadn’t heard of Snowden and didn’t believe the government program he’d exposed could be real. Oliver then asked the same people how they would feel if they knew the government could see their naked photos. No one wanted the government to see their dick pics, and though most didn’t believe it was happening, even the idea deeply concerned them.
This segment humorously demonstrates a central concern for tech activists and educators: how do we make people care about subjects that they can perceive as dull and technical? With the union of technology and design making it increasingly easy for people to stop thinking about how they’re interacting with technology, and considering why they’re offering up the personal data that they do, it’s clear that a reminder is in order. British arts collective Blast Theory believe it has found a way to summon people’s attention to these issues without resorting to dick-related paranoia or heavy-handed preaching.
Its new app Karen, presents users with a bubbly female life coach who interacts with them via video clips. Of course, Karen isn’t a real person, and this isn’t a real self-help app. Part interactive narrative, part game, Karen is played by British actress Claire Cage. The app itself, though in many ways similar to many data-mining self help products on the market, isn’t out to make money, or even to make you feel good. The real goal of Blast Theory’s project is to show how seductive and insidious tech can be even when it’s presented with a human face. Users find themselves drawn in to Karen and her invasive questions, only to be left with a feeling of subtle discomfort and a new awareness towards privacy issues in tech. By showing, and not telling, users are expected to draw their own conclusions on the matter, rather than adopting someone else’s.
Karen is an app meant to get under your skin, more like a haunting immersive theater production than a demonstration of technical genius. Users primarily interact with the app by answering questions posed by the video avatar over a period of a week–questions which are pulled from actual psychological personality exams–culminates with a conclusive report based on the data it collects.
Karen talks with convincing authority about how to set your life on the right course. But a few days into the week-long experience, Karen begins to show signs that she’s not just permanently cheery avatar–she’s a person, and her life is falling apart.
In a reflection of the user, Karen presents herself as someone who can help you, but whose tumultuous personal life is beginning to appear from under the surface, according to Adams. “She’s simultaneously being a professional and teetering on the brink of chaos.” As a result, you’re left questioning whether or not this is a person you should trust, and how much of yourself you should reveal.
The app was intentionally designed to be as “anti-sci-fi” as possible, Adams says. “We wanted something that could have been created by Karen herself,” he says. “The intention is for it to be so friendly and everyday that no one has a clue as to the sinister processes going on in the background.”
The choices that users make in their interactions with Karen, and what they disclose about their real lives, are carefully compiled using a combination of psychometric personality profiling tests, and served back to users at the end of the experience as a summary they can buy for $4. This includes a version of the “Big 5” test that measures openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The type of questions Karen asks don’t appear to be unusual for a life coach, but Blast Theory’s team crafted them specifically to measure these attributes.
In order to figure out how to make users comfortable interacting with Karen, the Blast Theory team consulted with a psychological specialist, and even hired a researcher who uncovered the methods by which the British military evaluated and recruited potential undercover operatives, with the goal of making the app as unassuming as possible at the outset.
Ultimately, what the group really wants is for us to place more of a stake in the systems we use and the information we give away, to at least consider what the impact that personalization and networked everything might have on us in the long term.
“The thing that fascinates me is our ambivalence around technical systems,” Adams told me. “I am wedded to my smartphone and it’s the most important thing in my life.”
Despite its criticisms of big data and the monetization of personal profiling, it would be unfair to call Blast Theory anti-technology. After all, it has spent nearly 25 years using the most cutting edge tech as the medium for its work.
Along with Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, the collective has been creating ahead-of-its-time work since the early ’90s. At the turn of the millennium, the artists were producing location based interactive experiences, like Can You See Me Now?, a chase game that played out on the streets using GPS devices. In the last few years, they’ve transitioned to working with mobile devices.
Karen’s spiritual predecessor was Ivy4Evr, an interactive piece commissioned by BBC’s Channel 4. The project put audience members in direct communication with a fictional teenage girl via text message, who would confess her problems and feelings to you in real time. Responding to Ivy’s texts would provoke responses that made participants feel they were really talking to her, and leave them unsure of how to feel about their new fictional, troubled young friend.
“We make interactive work that invites our audience to question their place in the world,” says Matt Adams, one of the three members of Blast Theory.
Blast Theory’s antics have even attracted the attention of those they’re criticizing. “There are a few people who are watching closely,” Adams admits.
At a presentation they were giving in New York last October, it came to Adams’s attention that a Facebook executive was in the audience, right after he had presented several slides on “the evils of Facebook.” They’ve also noticed an influx of advertising executives following them on Twitter. But Adams isn’t concerned about Blast Theory’s art backfiring. “My suspicion is that they’re way ahead of us,” he says. “We’re only a minor interest.”
In the end, unlike the incomprehensible privacy policies used by data-driven companies like Facebook and Google, and regardless of the information you offer up, Karen’s promise is simple, as Adams explains: “All the data you create in your app is yours and you can withdraw it at any time.”
Karen will be available in the iTunes App Store on April 15 as a free download. You can read more about the project here.