Would You Trade Your Data for a Chocolate Chip Cookie?

A new pop-up exhibition at Pratt’s WantedDesign show wants to put your personal data on display—for a price.

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May 18 2015, 6:00pm

Transacting data at DataCafe. All images courtesy of the artists (Henry Lam, Sophia Callahan, Chris Fussner, and Noah Emrich)

What would you trade your personal data for? A discounted insurance policy? Access to Facebook? A chocolate chip cookie? Since you can already get discounts, access to social networks and far more from existing tech companies, be sure to stop by DataCafe—an art installation at the Parsons Festival at WantedDesign/Industry City in Sunset Park—to pick up your cookie. At first glance, the DataCafe looks like it might be yet another clever startup’s ploy to get our data. The cute logo, soothing colors, and minimalist aesthetic are reminiscent of the user-friendly interfaces that tech companies employ to entice us into using their services. They offer shiny rewards and conveniences in exchange for our personal data, but we usually don’t really know what we’re giving away, what it will be used for, or where it will end up. DataCafe asks what the data dynamics in our online lives would look like if they were made explicit and visible.

When you sit down at DataCafe, you are prompted to input text about how you’re feeling today. Once your data is submitted, it is processed to extract the sentiment of your message, which updates the DataCafe display to reflect those sentiments and the revenue generated by your data. This is an uncomfortable interaction, but you feel better when at the end you get a code to unlock the cookie jar and claim your cookie. This whole process of data submission, processing, archiving, and profiting happens nearly every time we engage online. But the process is shrouded in secrecy, misinformation, and technicalities. And you don’t get a cookie—at least not one you can eat. Sophia Callahan, one of the artists behind the project, says DataCafe is “just trying to open a little door that a data economy exists. Just telling people that I think is shocking to a lot of people.”

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DataCafe is in a big room, and the page where you write your feelings is in a large font—clearly visible to anyone standing behind you. It’s hard to shake the feeling that someone’s looking over your shoulder. Noah Emrich, another collaborator, explains, “The same way we use our phones to email or to look stuff up, it makes that mechanic of typing something in to do something more public. Making it more obvious that it’s not as opaque as you’d like it to be.” The computers are connected via ethernet cables to a cloud floating above, mocking the over-simplified concept of the cloud and the misinformation that it produces.

Near the cloud is a visualization panel, hanging for all to see. It displays how many cookies have been given out, what sentiments are trending, and DataCafe’s revenue so far. When you submit your feelings you can watch DataCafe profit as their revenue creeps upward: “In the same way every time you log onto Facebook, or every time you make a Google search, you add to their value, when you enter your feelings and give them to us, our value as a company goes up.” Seeing your personal information correlated to a company’s revenue is disconcerting. DataCafe’s revenue isn’t real, but that dynamic is at the core of many tech companies’ business models.

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Visualization panel showing cookies and revenue rising

Callahan says that their project emerged from thinking about the question: “Why aren’t digital natives digitally literate, and how can that be solved?” Emrich explains one of the major issues: “Digital literacy has to become much more accessible, less technical, and not put people to sleep when you start talking about infrastructure and ownership and stuff. The idea that I can get a FitBit and get a discount on my health insurance is much more enticing and fun than having to read newspaper articles and understand what the implications of what letting Oscar know where I’m moving, how much I move, and the fact that they can charge me differently based off that.”

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Wind down after giving data with some casual data reading. The Data Times and Data Weekly are available at your browsing leisure.

It’s hard to gauge how much our personal data is worth, but it’s even harder when the companies that collect it make it impossible to know how it’s really being used. Emrich explains that DataCafe is an effort to make those invisible transactions visible without dealing with technical jargon: “You shouldn’t have to know how to fix a car and look under the hood to know how to drive. You should be able to drive a car and not worry about how the engine works, because that’s the nature of electronics and mechanisms we use day-to-day. It’s the same thing with network literacy or digital literacy. How can we know what are safe and secure practices, and not have to know what a domain name server is?”

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DataCafe is open at Industry City in Brooklyn until May 22, 11 AM to 6 PM as part of the Parsons Festival at WantedDesign/Industry City. Click here for more information. 

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