Data artist Paolo Cirio takes on big tech’s social manipulation

Sociality aggregates and sorts 20,000 social media patents into a searchable database that reveals just how invasive our digital devices have become.


For years, Paolo Cirio has been turning data into digital activist art in inventive ways. His Obscurity social justice project, for instance, took on the predatory online mugshot industry that charges people with even minor arrests exorbitant picture removal fees. Cirio cloned the sites and shuffled their data, obfuscating the records.


The Italian artist’s latest, Sociality, is no less impressive–and no less eye-opening.

Cirio aggregates and sorts 20,000 social media and other tech patents into a searchable database that reveals just how invasive our digital devices have become. Patents with names like:

  • Method of advertising by user psychosocial profiling.
  • Mental state analysis of voters.
  • Predicting user posting behavior in social media applications.

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The Sociality website allows users to browse, search, and rate patents by criteria like titles, flowchart images, and the companies that invented them. There is also a “Ban” option that lets users, via automated email, alert politicians, power players, and anyone else to the patent’s existence and its onerous qualities.

[Photo: courtesy of Paolo Cirio]
“We [understand] the power of mass media, like television, advertising, etc.–they teach this even at school,” Cirio tells Fast Company. “However, it’s not common knowledge how the media of algorithms, user interfaces, and personal devices are much more powerful and sophisticated in manipulating people. This should be an educational issue but also a legislative one.”


[Image: courtesy of Paolo Cirio]
To illuminate these opaque technologies, Cirio turns patent techspeak into something more easily digestible to the average person. By making it searchable, people can understand the who and how of these tech patents. It’s the type of background that tech users rarely if ever encounter.

For instance, one of the patents detailed on Sociality, filed by R&D giant PARC’s Jianqiang Shen and Oliver Brdiczka, monitors user status by comparing public and private activities. A quick internet search reveals that Shen, a research scientist at Facebook, specializes in machine learning, data mining, speech recognition, and natural language processing. Brdiczka, meanwhile, works for Adobe and specializes in AI, but also has experience working on DARPA programs. Brdiczka’s background presents an interesting overlap of information technology R&D in the private and public sectors, another area given little attention.

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To create Sociality, Cirio downloaded patent data from Google Patents. Since the tool only lets users download 800 entries per search, Cirio’s assistant Andres Chang coded a scraper to download large volumes of patent data. The scraper automatically split the searches according to dates, then downloaded large chunks of data into individual files to bypass the Google Patents limits. Cirio coded the back-end to refine the data.

[Photo: courtesy of Paolo Cirio]
“Ultimately, another scripted scraper downloaded all the images from Google (over 20,000) and rendered them with the design of the project,” Cirio explains. “Also, the front-end interface is custom-made code to allow searches and the participation of the participants of the artwork. It’s all PHP, some Python, and MySql on around four servers.”


Regulating–and illuminating–manipulation

The 20,000 patents featured in Sociality deal with technologies firmly entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist. Tools related to things like social bubbles, bias in AI, corporate surveillance, invasions of privacy, and the behavior modification and tech addiction that virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier spoke earlier this year to Fast Company about.

Like Lanier and many other observers, Cirio worries about the effect new internet technologies visit on the human psyche and behavior. He thinks that the “attention economy, steered social validation, and habit-forming products” can cause psychological damage, negatively impacting personal relationships and the delicate social fabric, leading ultimately to the subversion–whether intentional or not–of democracy.

Cirio is calling on volunteers to help refine Sociality. Most immediately, he wants to improve its database through more research, with the end goal of ultimately helping to regulate information technologies.

“We regulate advertising and media when they are deceptive, discriminatory, or oppressive, and so we should regulate even more persuasive forms of manipulations, like the ones of today,” he adds. “For instance, all deep-targeted advertising used by social media platforms should be completely banned, no excuse, otherwise it is like allowing advertisers to reengineer brains and society to their advantage.”

About the author

DJ Pangburn is a writer and editor with bylines at Vice, Motherboard, Creators, Dazed & Confused and The Quietus. He's also a pataphysician, psychogeographer and filmmaker.