Everyone but the historians among you will likely be surprised to learn that the concept of personal privacy is actually fairly modern. Go back just a century or two and it was common for families to live in single-room homes where everyone slept within eyesight of each other. It was just a fact of life that you didn’t get any alone time at home. But that all changed in the 20th century, particularly with the rise of cheap housing in post-World War II America. Since then, we’ve become accustomed to privacy—something that internet snooping has destroyed. To shed light on just how far we’ve fallen, Chris Combs created this surreal art installation called Malestrom.
It is hardly a secret that virtually all of your internet activity is carefully tracked and parsed, mostly for the purpose of more effectively advertising to you. Your Amazon Echo and Google Home listen to your conversations, your social media posts are cataloged, and your smartphone is even monitoring where you go in real life. These are realities of modern life and are almost impossible to prevent completely, especially if you want the convenience that technology offers. That is exactly the reality that Combs’s Maelstrom art installation lampoons. This installation is actually comprised of 35 individual “art machines” that collect data about you in a variety of ways. Those machines then use that data to start spreading rumors about you. Giant tech corporations may not care about spreading rumors, but this provides a more visceral experience for visitors.
The various machines in this art installation are designed to feel like they are from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but they utilize modern technology. The machines gather information from visitors using a variety of sensors, questionnaires, cameras, WiFi sniffers, and more. They’re controlled by single-board computers like Raspberry Pis and Orange Pis, as well as microcontrollers like an ESP32. The machines share your information among each other through NRF24L01+ radio transceivers, which mimic data being shared between corporations and governments over the internet. Maelstrom then publicly displays your “private” information in many ways, such as through speakers, displays, LEDs, and so on. Combs isn’t actually trying to utilize your data for anything nefarious, of course. The goal of Maelstrom is to convince visitors how easily their information can be collected and shared, and to do that in the most emotionally effective way possible. If you’d like to see Maelstrom for yourself, the installation is viewable by appointment at RhizomeDC in Washington, DC.