continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 5.2 / 2016: 57-63

Mushon Zer-Aviv

a continent. inter-view


(image by Nina Jäger, continent.

Mushon Zer-Aviv works as a designer, an activist and father, in Tel Aviv. He works in politically oriented, activist media and Internet projects but also pragmatically designs solutions and technological systems for for organisations and partnerships in ways that energise and express critical thinking. As Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget, “technology criticism shouldn't be left to the Luddites”[1], and Zer-Aviv’s work is oriented toward the ways in which education, media activism, art and design can help more and more people abandon subscribed, imposed (self or otherwise) or ill-informed ludditism. Mushon works between Tel Aviv & New York, and he intervenes globally through writing and projects that explore how the design of the interfaces of techno-culture redraw politics, and networks. Mushon studied design at Bezalel University and interactive media at NYU’s ITP. He is an Honorary Resident at Eyebeam, a non-profit community and studio for artistic media, technology and science research, production, education, and inspiration in New York City. Many of Mushon’s conceptual interventions have become memetic, including the notion of “Disinformation Visualization” (“How to lie with data”), obfuscation as technique for avoiding online surveillance. His recent critique of networked epistemologies for the Responsible Data Forum on Visualization for Tactical Tech’s Decoding Data Guide, appeared in their Visualizing Advocacy blog, is entitled “If everything is a network, nothing is a network.” These writings and ideas are always inflected with the hopeful sense of potential of the engineer, urging action in a climate of spectatorship: “Networks are not evil, they’re just largely misunderstood,” Zer-Aviv tells us.

cc.cc: How did you get here?
MZA: So I think the reason that I got here is that I gave a talk about one of my recent collaborations with Helen Nissenbaum and Daniel Howe.[2] It is called AdNauseam, and it is a browser plugin developed as an intervention into advertising-network surveillance and related debates.[3] In general, we have quite a problem with the notion of data surveillance. The way the NSA sees data and the way Wikileaks see data are not so different. They have different political perspectives on it, but they share the belief that this [data] is who we are—so we either have to get allor we need to hide all. I don't think this [data] is who we are.

We demonstrate that through AdNauseam. This browser plugin works with your ad blocker, and every ad blocked by your ad blocker is clicked by AdNauseam. Every advertisement that your browser comes acrossrather than hide the data being collected—we generate more data. Because anyone who has ever worked with data knows, it's far from being this direct representation of who you are. I think culturally, a much more powerful response to data surveillance is to challenge our understanding of what it means.

The problem we have with privacy and surveillance[4] right now is this myth about the efficacy of big data going around. We are so overwhelmed with the amount of data, we are unable to process all of it.[5] There is no apparatus we think can do it. If you’ve ever tried to make machines process data, you understand how messy it really is, how far it is from that myth of Silicon Valley techno-determinists who would like a direct line between reality and data. They like that story because they can turn that data processing into money, or turn it into power and control. But if we have an interest in a much more emancipatory relationship between the digital documentation of our lives, I think we should reject the mythology of this ‘direct line.’

cc.cc: What technical systems are operating on us right now?
MZA: I think the kinds of systems and technologies that are working on us right now, or the ones that I would be addressing, are the algorithms processing our data, which are backed by a very specific ideology.

I am more interested in seeing technology as a vehicle for ideology. You can show me this scientific proof that we are blood cells in this amazing, big, senseless thing and I would not care, although it would be interesting and challenging for me. But I want to understand how this understanding leads me to make society better, to address inequality. To answer the big questions that I see, as a humanist.[6] I know it's not as popular as it used to be, but I still cling to that.

When I am looking at technology, my questions are about the ideology behind it, and not this extraterrestrial-type perspective that we are subjected to. Because if we take that extraterrestrial perspective, I dont see how it helps us to evolve our agency; our political agency, creative agency, and so on.[7]

 

 Mushon Zer Aviv’s Data Presentation at HKW Berlin, 02.10.2016

 

cc.cc: What pieces of the technosphere do you have on you?
MZA: I'm not naked, and everything on me fits within the definition of the technosphere.

The argument that Peter Haff advances, that I've noticed him make quite a few times, is that almost all of us cannot live outside of technology and therefore we are subjected to it. We cannot individually or single-handedly change the way technology advances. Foremost, this is not true. Second, so what? We are not only individual actors. We’ve gotten to this point where we can start speaking about the technosphere because we are not working as individuals. The question that needs to be addressed is about society and about political agency.

Just to say, "look we're all surrounded by so many things that we consider technology and it's such a huge part of our lives, and we cannot go back." We shouldn't go back. The question is not about going back, it's about where we are going forward. We can’t just leave it to the markets.

In my presentation, I discussed Kevin Kelly; he wrote a book asking "what technology wants.” You can't get more techno-determinist than that. But it's too easy to just think that this big, and impressive, and fast, and powerful thing, technology,is external to us, and it has its own destiny, and we are subjected to it, so just accept it. I don't accept it, and I don't think we should accept it. 

cc.cc: What is the technosphere?
MZA: The more I explore it, I have come to understand that for Peter Haff, the technosphere is humans and their technologies. It is not a matter of humans and the way they use their technologies, but rather humans and technologies as part of a system that has its own logic and mechanics. I am really interested to find a notion of the technosphere that is not techno-determinist.[8] 

cc.cc: Please pick one image that resonates with your idea of the technosphere.[9]
MZA: It's not a QWERTY/QUERTZ layout, but an AZERTY.[10] The interesting thing about keyboard layouts is that someone decided that this is the way we should type, and from that point on, this is how we have been typing.[11] I use the typewriter as a standard that made it from analogue to digital. Many have proven that this interface is not the best interface, but when you have a standard set, then it is really hard to take it back.[12]

I would argue that there is nothing ‘optimal in this design that technology wanted us to create, but that rather it was a decision made by a designer. One of the challenges facing us is to work with standards and to challenge them, but also to acknowledge culture and what we expect from technology—to explore the affordances that technology enables for us[13]. I think this term "affordance" is interesting, because it points us at economic questions. As a designer working with the politics of interfaces, this is interesting and relevant to me.


cc.cc Notes
[1] EDITORS’ NOTE: Jaron Lanier. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 14.

[2] EDITORS’ NOTE: Daniel Howe and Helen Nissenbaum had collaborated on a prior system called “TrackMeNot” that allowed for individual user-level obfuscation techniques online. Implemented as a Firefox extension, this software generated decoy search queries, burying what the user was actually doing within a deluge of junk data and distractions. See Helen Nissenbaum and Howe C Daniel. “Trackmenot: Resisting Surveillance in Web Search.” In Lessons from the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy, and Identity in a Networked Society. Edited by Ian Kerr, Carole Lucock, and Valerie Steeves. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 417–436.

A related detent in the lineage of these strategies within contemporary computational design circles, and something of a landmark paper in the field of human computer interaction and networked design, is: Richard Chow and Phillipe Golle. Faking Contextual Data for Fun, Profit, and Privacy.” In Proceedings of the 8th ACM Workshop on Privacy in the Electronic Society. New York: ACM, 2009): 105-108.

[3] EDITORS’ NOTE: AdNauseam (“clicking ads so you don’t have to”) is described there as follows: “AdNauseam works to complete the cycle by automating all ad-clicks universally and blindly on behalf of the target audience. Working in coordination with your ad blocker, AdNauseam quietly clicks every blocked advertisement, registering a visit on the ad networks databases. As the data gathered shows an omnivorous click-stream, user profiling, targeting and surveillance becomes futile. AdNauseam is a browser extension designed to obfuscate browsing data and protect users from surveillance and tracking by advertising networks. Simultaneously, AdNauseam serves as a means of amplifying users' discontent with advertising networks that disregard privacy and facilitate bulk surveillance agendas.” (http://adnauseam.io)

[4] EDITORS’ NOTE: Mark Hansen examines this complexity of information as it articulates digital (“prosthetic”) identity “intrinsic duality of technologies of containment and control like surveillance and cyberspace: while they are deployed to target certain minority bodies, they are, more generally, machinic assemblages that can potentially become vehicles for post-identitarian identification on the basis of the singularity or impropriety common to us all.” Mark B.N.Hansen. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 158.

Hansen’s post-identitarian politics are aligned with the emphasis on de-identification proposed by K. Aarons and Calvin Warren, in contrast to the anarchist tradition of the autonomous self. “Beyond the simple destruction of power lies its deactivation,” writes Aarons. “We must call into question the entire framework of expropriation in the widest sense of the term: the expropriation of once-possessed land, of culture, of relational capacity and of labor from the hands of the State and the capitalist, patriarchal class. We must no longer envision the remedy for suffering as entailing the recovery of a lost wholeness, entitlement or plenitude of which one is presently deprived.” K. Aarons. "No Selves to Abolish: Afropessimism, Anti-Politics, and the End of the World" (Ill Will Editions, 2016), 15.

[5] EDITORS’ NOTE: Zer-Aviv has written of this over-reliance on data, in the form of network analyses, as accumulation and speculative analysis approach the illusory or pathological—as the fantasy of both conspiracy theorists and zealously methodological police detectives: “According to the networked investigation model, the information puzzle can be solved by collecting and connecting the missing links. Data becomes the currency and the network is the model that structures it. The larger the network we draw, the more possibility we have of navigating within it. And when it grows faster than we can comprehend, network analysis algorithms step in to replace the human investigator. Hence every bit that can be captured is captured, in the hope that it might help unravel the network structure beneath.” Mushon Zer-Aviv. “If Everything is a Network, Nothing is a NetworkVisualising Information for Advocacy January 8, 2016.)

[6] “Under the technological condition, sense becomes a dimension of assemblages of coexistence that cuts through established ontological hierarchies. Under the sign of these assemblages of coexistence a fundamental ‚rediscovery of human reality‘ could take place (to use Gilbert Simondon’s words). It is even possible that a new post-human humanism of the technological age is imminent, assuming that, every age creates a new humanism that corresponds in a certain way to its circumstances.” Erich Hörl. The Technological Condition.” Translated by Anthony Enns. Parrhesia 22 (2015): 3.

[7] EDTORS’ NOTE: In his thesis writings for the “ShiftSpace” project, Zer-Aviv attributes his affinity for Internet culture arising from its sense of borderlessness, but then to his dismay finds it to be in fact a place replete with edges and margins that are both policed and exploited. The Internet for Zer-Aviv was at one point “a world where I could explore freely, meet people who were not in my specific geographic or cultural communities, and express myself without being labeled in advance. It seemed to put into practice one of the greatest lessons of the Jewish diaspora… how to stay together culturally while separated physically. In some ways, I believe, the Jewish Diaspora was the first example of a post-national society. This model failed with both the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. I expected the web to provide a more successful model.” Mushon Zer-Aviv. “ShiftSpace.” MA thesis, Interactive Telecommunication Program, New York University, 2007.

[8] EDITORS’ NOTE: Networked spaces are not devoid of the geographic and political affects of physical infrastructures. A deceptively disembodied transference of data carries the trauma of apartheid into cyberspace, manifesting as a mediator of agency and environment. As examined by Miriyam Aouragh and Helga Tawil-Souri in the context of the Palestinian resistance and the role of digital activism, a technodeterminist position is deliberately ignorant of the complexity that underlies the function, accessibility and scope of technological interfaces. In the context of Gaza, the basic accessibility of the World Wide Web is dependent on the whims of a colonising state; the apparent boundlessness of cyberspace is limited by the monopolies of neoliberal actors whose militarised infrastructures control the extent of networked space.

Aouragh and Tawil-Souri compare the flawed conceptions of both the Israeli and Palestinian states, of the internet’s role in Palestinian resistance, where the contrasting views hold the internet as either integral to re-establishing Palestinian statehood, or as an “ideological and practical danger.” Aouragh and Tawil-Souri argue that “both views are a form of technological determinism. They remove the internet from human, historical, and geopolitical contexts, and posit it as agent of political, social, or economic change. We contend that neither position is valid. Besides overlooking power relations and on-the-ground dynamics, a technological determinist view is inherently ahistorical. It neither contextualizes technological change itself nor the rhetoric around it.” Helga Tawil-Souri and Miriyam Aouragh. “Intifada 3.0? Cyber colonialism and Palestinian ResistanceArab Studies Journal 22, no. 1 (2014): 102-133.

By disintegrating the view of a technosphere that posits technologies, individuals, environments, and political interests as separate entities (or, “extraterrestrial”, as Mushon describes), this entanglement of tangible and intangible infrastructures and interfaces is brought closer to us. Digital interfaces contain depth, instead of a misidentified flatness that disregards the transference of material trauma into the perceived intangibility of data. [See also Zer-Aviv’s project, “You Are Not Here,” and Mark Hansen, regarding racialised identity in human-computer interfaces.]

[9] EDITORS’ NOTE: During the discussions, interviewees were asked to pick from a set of somewhat random images. This collection of different phenomena served as a prompt for thought on the forms of appearance and the visuality of the technosphere. You can view the set here www.flickr.com/photos/57221817@N07/25411316686/in/photostream. The discussion here refers to www.flickr.com/photos/57221817@N07/25141552890.

[10] EDITORS’ NOTE: See also Donald MacKenzie on “lock-in” in derivatives markets: “Lock-in results from the advantages that sometimes flow to an incumbent technology or derivatives exchange simply by virtue of being incumbent. QWERTY’s advantages are the familiarity of millions of users with that key layout and the difficulties they would face in the first few weeks of using a different one. The internal combustion engine’s advantages include the century of intensive research and development effort that has been devoted to it (and not to its rivals), and the huge infrastructure of fuel supply and maintenance that a rival would have to create afresh.

In the case of derivatives exchanges, business tends to flow to where existing volumes of trading are high, because high volumes mean liquidity (even large transactions can be conducted quickly, easily and without a large impact on price), low transaction costs and a robust market price. Conversely, low volumes mean illiquidity, high costs and unreliable prices. So an exchange that gains an established position in a particular derivative becomes, like QWERTY, hard to challenge.” Donald MacKenzie. “The Material Production of Virtuality: Innovation, Cultural Geography and Facticity in Derivatives MarketsEconomy and Society 36, no. 3 (2007): 362.

[11] Mushon Zer-Aviv’s talk “How Interfaces Demand Obedience” at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge addresses similar themes and is available here: https://vimeo.com/125904057 

[12] EDITORS’ NOTE: The process Zer-Aviv may be hinting at here is also what is called “lock in” by developer and technology commentator Jaron Lanier. Modern technological objects and systems are caught up in particular technological infrastructures or vectors, that manifest as a kind mythical 'momentum'. Technical systems are said to ‘snowball’ as more and more things get ‘locked in’, as they recursively dilate. When this happens, "development becomes slower and more conservative... like a clock approaching a black hole" (119). Lanier gives an account of a particularly ubiquitous computing artefact ‘locking in’ upon a visit to Xerox PARC in the early days of personal computing development:

“I first visited Xerox PARC when some of the original luminaries were still gathered there. I remember muttering about how weird it was that PARC machines supported the virtual copying of documents. After all, the same research lab had pioneered ways to connect computers together. For God's sake, I would say, this is the place that invented Ethernet not long before. We all know it's stupid to copy documents when you have a network. The original is still right there!”

Lanier's mutterings were not met with great favour in those now hallowed labs for of facsimile engineers. Their response? "Look, we know that and you know that, but consider our sponsor. All this work is funded by Xerox, the preeminent copying machine company" (229). In the reasoning of the corporation, we see how questions of technology or design are most often answered by the voice of the economist, a point that Zer-Aviv also highlights at the close of this discussion. (Jaron Lanier. Who Owns the Future? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).)

[13] EDITORS’ NOTE: In collaboration with journalist Laila El-Haddad, Mushon Zer-Aviv developed You Are Not Here, a map that contrasts views of Gaza alongside street-views of Tel Aviv. The experiment with ‘meta-tourism’ overlays the geopolitical interface of a city map with the corporeal, immediate experience of wandering. This visual trans-location of urban centres also dislocates the “emotional and political detachment” of the two cities, as Zer-Aviv writes, thereby questioning the contrasts that become visible within the physical city. Differences that are otherwise abstracted as data, become immediately tangible at the convergence of digital and material space. This visualisation of contrasts between Gaza and Tel Aviv politically engages with the affordances of interface technology, through a type of “forensics”. [See also Eyal Weizman. “Forensic Architecture: Notes from Fields and Forumscontinent. 4, no. 4 (2015): 81–87.]