Eduardo Navas: Track Me Not
Three years ago I had a long interview with Eduardo Navas about his editorial project, newmediaFIX, the online platform that republishes and redistributes texts and interviews from the most influential international magazines focused on art and media (between them Digicult) and which I collaborated with as editor for almost one year. Recently, I met Eduardo again by e-mail for another interview about his last online project, “Traceblog,” launched on October 2008.
The artist, theorist, curator and scholar from the United States works on software and web-resources for blogging. He reflects upon the dynamics of the Internet, the concept of Remix and distribution of concepts and information in culture, since the beginning of his artistic career. He is now one of the most influential voices on network cultures and use/abuse of its tools. As Eduardo asserts in this long chat, referring to “Traceblog” but it could be related with his art practice at large: “I aim to explore the implications of the growing pervasiveness of information flow and its manipulation. From this point of view, I see it in direct relation to my ongoing investment in blogging culture.”
In line with his early net art projects as Goobalization and Diary of a Star, while simultaneously following Eduardo’s theoretical researches on blogging and remix, “Traceblog” is an online artwork that appropriates the free Firefox plug-in (Track me not), created by NYU developers and researchers Daniel C. Howe and Helen Nissenbaum. The plug-in is designed to obfuscate the transparency of the online activities of Internet users. As result, “Traceblog” publishes the pseudo logs of Eduardo’s daily online searches and activities on a web site http://navasse.net/traceblog/. The same website contains links to the explanation of the project, links to the Firefox plug-in and some tools that make users aware on how to hide search trails.
“Traceblog” makes visible how our daily Internet activity is tracked by the browser we use and produces an archive of all our data and information that could be used for commercial and control purposes. A fact is that data mining is totally out of control if we consider all the web 2.0 platforms, that stimulate Internet users’ obsession to expose themselves and constantly be in touch: just consider common tools as Blogger, propriety of a big commercial corporation as Google, just to make an example. We could name a few others such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and also (although they are not related with browsing), Skype, Msn, the free services for email and so on and so on… We talked with Eduardo about all that and much more. Lucrezia Cippitelli
The following interview was originally published on Digicult in February 2009.
Lucrezia Cippitelli: Introduce in few words the essence of Traceblog. Not its “how to”, that Internet users can find in the presentation page, but specifically your conceptual focus.
Eduardo Navas: Part of my conceptual focus is explained in the About page, but I’m glad that you ask me this question because there are some things that I left unexplained, partly because I want the user to figure out some of the implications behind Traceblog. The explanation in the About page outlines the premise of surveillance and data-mining and their relation to loss of privacy. What I don’t explain, however, is that I use traceblog to reflect on the shifts that blogging as a practice has taken in the last couple of years: How expression of one’s opinion can begin to turn into noise, due to over-saturation and expectation that everyone should write on a blog. On the other hand, automation in access of information is really becoming the norm with RSS feeds, and for a while I had been thinking about the act of blogging becoming automated. I thought of how a diary is simply a labor that is hard to keep up with today, due to all the multi-tasking that is expected of people. I felt this to be the case with my reblogging of the Warhol Diaries( http://navasse.net/star ). So, aside from developing a project that would comment on the transparency of data-mining, I also wanted to create a project that would expose the possibility of having a software write something for the user. The appropriation of TrackMeNot enabled me to put all these interests into practice, thus creating a commentary on blogging as a pervasive act of boredom to some degree.
What I find most interesting about TrackMeNot ( http://mrl.nyu.edu/~dhowe/trackmenot/ ) is that the pseudo search results are somewhat a reflection of what I do online. According to the developers, TrackMeNot keeps track of the actual searches and with time begins to assimilate parallel results that somehow reference indirectly what the user would search for. I find this interesting, and can see how some of the results in my logs could be of my own interest, but I would never had thought to do such searches. It’s like having my own double, a clone about whom I’m learning more and more about. I like this about TrackMeNot, and it was actually the first thing that interested me about it.
LC: We already had a long interview, 3 years ago, about your project newmediaFIX (http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=239 ). Since then, your editorial project seems to go ahead. Meanwhile you developed an intense theoretical activity with your blog Remix Theory, and a curatorial activity for gallery@calit2, at UC San Diego, where you are a Ph.D. candidate. “Traceblog” seems to bring you back to your early net-based artworks. I especially refer to Diary of a Star (2004-07) and Goobalization (2005). How did you arrive to set up this project in the context of your wider artistic and theoretical research?
EN: I have relied on blogging technology for some time to develop most of my online projects, as well as online resources. I think my curatorial interests are also informed by the aesthetic of blogging, which in the end, I consider are about selecting and evaluating material for thematic presentations. The forms through which the material is presented, of course, is different, but in principle, to blog is to curate: to blog is to remix. Traceblog is really just an extension of what I explored in Diary of a Star; only I go about it in a different way, by taking a critical position on data-mining. I also consider Traceblog to be critically informed much like Goobalization. For me Traceblog is another project in which I aim to explore the implications of the growing pervasiveness of information flow and its manipulation. From this point of view, I see it in direct relation to my ongoing investment in blogging culture. So, I don’t know if I have gone back to my early net-based artworks, as you suggest. I would say that I’m doing what I have always done: to use blogs to comment on networked culture.
LC: I assisted your presentations on blogging technology, which you viewed as some kind of activity related with hackers. With Traceblog it looks like you are completely changing your point of view, relating blogs with web 2.0, along the lines of more popular and obvious social networks such as Facebook, Flickr, Myspace or Youtube. What happened in the meanwhile to the “hacker ethic”?
EN: I believe that the “hacker ethic” in online culture is still at play. But blogs have become assimilated, which is what happens with anything that is introduced and gains value in online communities. One of the reasons why blogs have thrived is because developers saw potential in them for data mining. I knew this from the very moment that Google bought blogger. I knew Search was entering a new stage of pervasiveness. When I discussed hackers in the past I related them to the concept of play. I believe that in the presentation that you refer to, which took place in Santiago De Chile, I discussed a reflection by Richard Stallman about his college experience. He explains that hackers are interested in playing with things, to see what could happen. Hackers like to figure out how to make things perform in unexpected ways. I do not reserve the term hacker only in direct relation to computers, but extend the term to all other areas in life, and believe that others who write about hacking as a constructive attitude think about it in the same way. I believe that this has been in large part the driving force in the development of blogs and other CMS platforms.
Today the hacker aesthetic (of playing to see what happens) is everywhere, and everyone even the most casual user is given options to optimize a tool, and is often pointed to forums that explain how to improve on particular tools. But if you mean by hacking a form of resistance, I think that this is another aspect of networked culture that is also still quite strong, and I do think that blogs play a contingent or at least complementary role in this area as well. If you imply that blogging had the potential to be a critical tool, in line with the origins of computer hacking practice, I do believe this is also still possible. It is up to people to do what they want.
LC: The esthetic of Traceblog shows, in my opinion, your interest in being absolutely under-stated. I guess you deliberately used a simple and common blog interface from the popular “Blogger”, a green background, a totally un-designed type and the pages are filled with long and unreadable ghosts of your web search activated by the Firefox plug-in TrackMeNot. Since April 2008, Traceblog published online pages and pages of links and characters. You’re not taking (and I think you avoid) any underground aesthetic. You’re not assuming any critical, radical political position. You’re not playing with the big classics as Orwell’s Big Brother, you’re not embracing the radical hacker community position about the necessity to guarantee privacy for the users against the control of contents. Is there a specific conceptual reason for that?
EN: There is a very specific position for the look of Traceblog. This actually goes back to your previous question. You asked about the “Hacker Aesthetic” before, and in this sense, Traceblog is a conceptual hack. By this I mean that I have taken two elements meant to function in a certain way and have brought them together for critical reflection. To achieve this I have done as little as possible to the appropriated elements. I chose blogger because this one is embedded in the system of search. It is one of the most popular blogging tools today. I find it of great importance that blogger is owned by Google, and Google is one of the search engines which TrackMeNot uses to perform automated searches. So in this sense the information comes full circle, and the purpose of using TrackMeNot could be considered futile to some degree.
You can think of Traceblog as a conceptual mashup; by this I mean that just like in a musical mashup one can notice two or more elements at play at once. Traceblog functions in similar fashion. It presents the logs as they are archived each time that I log on and launch Firefox and it deliberately looks like a blog from blogger with one of the most generic templates. Presenting the material as default deconstructs both the logs’ and the blog’s naturalized states. And hopefully the viewer can see the implications behind both elements. At the same time, the entries, as you explain are not welcoming to the reader, if anything they deny any possible coherent reading, and the most one can hope for is some random scanning of terms. This is actually a comment on people’s obsession to express themselves online. Expression online via blogs has become so co-opted that it can now be read as an empty form of entertainment. The log entries are reference to this.
LC: What I personally find interesting about TrackMeNot, the plug-in developed to obfuscate internet search that you use as the engine to develop Traceblog, is that the developers in 2006 say that the plug-in “protects users against search data profiling”, pointing out especially, the defense of Internet users from commercial data profiling. Quoting the presentation text “About Traceblog” <http://navasse.net/traceblog/about.html>, it also says that “Keeping track of people’s surfing activity has become an essential element for data-mining” often used “to better understand people’s trends”: here there is not a specific reference to something I think is the real scary effect of the “transparency” of every Internet-related activity (from emailng to browsing): the control with the focus on the “war on terror” legitimized since 9/11; in general a mechanism working for decades, just think about Echelon for instance. Do you think that the development of web 2.0 and the massification of social networks changed something in terms of critical use of networking media and control?
EN: One of the things that concerns critically minded individuals is how emerging technology can be misused for political purposes. I am rather diplomatic in my statement about data profiling as I believe that there is a positive side to the current development of data-mining. But the major problem for me is that there is little education about the implications of emerging technologies that thrive on data-mining.
Regarding Echelon, has it changed networking control in Media? Well, of course–since the endeavor is a collaboration between the United States and the United Kingdom and other well-developed countries. But in reality this is just an extension of the early days of the Internet. Nation-states monitoring information is not new by any means. As it is commonly known, we would not have the Internet were it not for the Cold War. So, having global powers invested in the next stage of data mining is not unexpected. One thing that I do think is crucial for a conscious global culture is to have a deliberate investment in understanding and utilizing technology constructively. This is quite possible. The most historically obvious example to date is the outcome of the United States 2008 presidential elections. I strongly believe that Barack Obama won because he understood how networked culture functions, and he made the most of the technologies available to him to reach as many people as possible. It is quickly becoming common knowledge through numerous articles that Obama learned from the mistakes of John Kerry, and also the strategies of Howard Dean.
Ultimately, I find that education is the real issue with all that is going on today. I think it has always been the case since humans developed the concept of culture. Education is the only investment that cannot crash like the market. It is the highest prized commodity, which is why it gets more and more expensive not only in the United States, but all over the world. The power of education is that once a person understands how to learn on her own, such knowledge cannot be taken away. It’s like learning a secret. It cannot be taken back. And that person has the power to do as she pleases with the information. Once a person understands how to research to keep learning on her own, that person’s position can only increase in value. So, the real issue in culture has always been about education. Traceblog is about educating oneself, in order to learn about the real implications of daily actions that appear innocent and incidental, but which are of great value to data-miners. Traceblog is about awareness–critical awareness to be more precise. Critical awareness cannot be bought or sold, it can only be developed through cultural exchanges that question reality. We should keep this in mind day in and day out.