Interview with Ben Grosser

Interview with Ben Grosser

This is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Ben Grosser, an artist who works on the social and political impacts of software. Our conversation took place over the phone in February 2015 as part of a larger research project.

The talk delves into genesis and cultural implications of some of his recent pieces, works that could be categorized as artworks, utilities, activist messages or mere curios (or all of the above). Specific pieces addressed include Facebook Demetricator, a browser plugin that removes all numbers from Facebook, Reload The Love, a plugin that has the opposite effect — it artificially inflates the number of notifications on a Facebook page — and ScareMail, software that works with Gmail to add “scary” but ultimately nonsensical text at the bottom of an email. This nonsense text includes terms specifically chosen to capture the attention of authorities (such as”Al Quaeda,” “bomb” and “NSA”). Ben‘s website is here: www.bengrosser.com

Though his portfolio is expansive and includes music and more traditional visual art pieces, this focuses solely on his digital works.

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Can you talk about how you got into the work that you do, specifically the work with interfaces? What made you become interested in this subject?

It starts with a general fascination with software. An earlier piece of mine was called “Speed of Reality.” This is a piece about how reality TV works, how the editing styles of reality TV have become algorithmic and how this affects how we perceive them. I think some of that goes into software — just trying to understand how software interfaces affect us politically, socially and culturally. “Reload The Love” and “Facebook Demetricator” grew out of my own obsession with numbers on Facebook, such as having an emotional reaction when I get a notification or when I don’t: feeling that little blip of happiness when you see a number when you log in or feeling a little blip of sadness when you don’t.

I’m interested in this is as a function of my personal responses to Facebook as well, having the sense that there’s something eerie or a little off in the extent to which my own thought processes and feelings were being determined by these things that were arbitrary, really up to the designer. This wasn’t a research initiative for school or anything, it was a very personal thing, just me at home on my computer.

I think that’s the genesis for me, as well. First it starts with being unhappy when I’m not getting the metric reaction I hoped for. Then thinking: why am I caring about a metric reaction? Why do I think this is going to produce some particular quantitative response? “Reload The Love” was the first attempt I made to deal with this. Obfuscation is my strategy there: “let’s just attempt to make it look bigger than it is.” Then “Demetricator” is the much bigger and more extensive version of it. I came back to “Reload The Love” later and said, this isn’t really working for me because I know it’s false, but I’m noticing the effects of these numbers in more places on Facebook, so I wonder what would happen if I took them all off.

I was reading a writeup about “Reload The Love,” and at one point you’d discovered that over three hundred people had downloaded the browser extension, and ostensibly not all of them were relating to it as an art piece. It was a “real” tool for them. I’m curious to know if you make these things with the idea that some people will use them like that, to boost their happiness or self-esteem online.

Part of what I love about these pieces is that that they have these different lives. “Reload The Love” was at first just an artwork for me, but I went ahead and put it on a site where other people could grab it, and I started to see the way other people and the press regard it as  a way to not have to worry about how popular you are or a way to feel more popular. That was part of my interest in it, but also my interest was critical. That really intrigued me and influenced how I put “Demetricator” out into the world, which has had a larger response. There are a ton of people who use “Demetricator” who have no idea that I’m an artist or that this is supposed to be art; for them it’s just a utility. The attitude is, “oh, I could do that, too.” It’s a way to be more minimal, if they’re minimalists, or less addicted. It was in an article in the Washington Post on New Year’s Day called “Five Ways to Detox From Technology.” Some people use it just like it was AdBlock.

As far as I know there aren’t too many other instances where people use the phrase “interface hack,”as a conceptualization. How to explain “interface hacks” in terms of whether these things are artworks or political statements or utilities is something I’m still investigating, though. I’m interested to know if you see what you’re doing as part of a larger political project since it seems to illuminate a continuum that begins with coding and design choices and ends with people having labor extorted from them.

That’s certainly a piece of it. To respond to an earlier comment of yours, with these artworks, there are the people who see it as art and maybe don’t even use them, but they get the concept; there are the people who see it as art and also use them; and there are some people who only use it as a utility. Then there are people who just don’t get it at all, why it would exist, why they would use it, and why you would care to do that. The fact that it goes along all those extremes keeps it from being pure utility to me. A big category of reactions is: “but the purpose of Facebook is for the likes, so why would I ever use this?” and they’re very accepting of that paradigm, the gamification mechanism.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve realized that there’s a community of people emerging who are really working on these issues critically. I’ve tried to keep my finger on the pulse of that, but it seems like the more normal or the more mainstream response, is exactly what Facebook wants, and it’s not critical. Like, if you feel bad about something on Facebook, it says something bad about you, not about Facebook, which to me is very disturbing.

I think that is part of how Facebook is engineered and how it’s pitched: “we are the facilitators of your social lives” as opposed to “we are the ones determining how social connection happens.” In terms of politics, I feel like that’s certainly one of the places it fits. I wrote an article about this for Computational Culture, which is a software studies journal. I align myself with software studies; Matthew Fuller is one of the inspirational scholars and artists for my work. Software studies is a loose field focused on the critique of software and culture and how it affects culture, and certainly I’m there.

I’d say the more specific political interest for me with Facebook is the role of quantification in capitalist culture and the way in which quantification operates on us to engineer desire or to activate what I call ”desire for more.” The idea is that you see a number, you want it to be bigger: you don’t want less money, you want more money; you don’t want to lose fewer pounds, you want to lose more pounds. You tend to want to accumulate these metrics and the whole quantified selfhood operates on this paradigm. We’ll lose more weight if we track every step we take, that kind of thing. My interest in Facebook is that if you’re shown how many “likes” something gets, you’ll start to realize what kind of content gets more likes, and that will start to change what you write in the first place. There’s a deeply ingrained need to accumulate more likes when you’re shown how many you get.

For me, that’s yet another manifestation of capitalism’s endless need for growth, the fact that the system is built on constant accumulation. Of course, that plays into everything that Facebook wants to do with our data, which is to chop us into marketable pieces that are easily identifiable so they can sell us to advertisers. So as opposed to writing an opinion piece that says “numbers on Facebook are bad,” my approach is to make a subtle change to an interface that people use every day in a way that hopefully helps them understand how those numbers might have been operating in their own lives. By taking away something that you used all the time, all of a sudden you notice where it was if you didn’t notice it before.

That’s a really interesting thing about this: “Demetricator” and some of your other works could have been pieces of writing, like an opinion piece or a research paper. What to you is special about building software as opposed to going a more traditional route?

It’s because we now live in software. Our lives and our communications are mediated through software, our connections are managed through software, our jobs are all accomplished through software. Obviously I’m speaking more generally than how it truly is, but more and more of our lives are in software-based systems, and so as an artist I’m always trying to interact within the space we’re already in. I could make a film, I could make a piece of writing, but we’re all already on Facebook, so in this case I prefer to manipulate Facebook itself because it’s using the medium to talk about itself. I want to give people the opportunity to try it. That’s kind of my attitude: maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn’t, maybe you’re affected by the numbers. Why don’t you try it and see what happens?

Has Facebook contacted you at all or done anything to try to suppress it?

They haven’t tried to shut me down. I know they’re aware of it, because when I first launched it, I could see internal Facebook developer IP addresses showing up in its download logs. So I know they’re aware of it. I purposely made some decisions with the hope that they wouldn’t shut it down. For example, I didn’t put the project on a domain like “FacebookDemetricator.com” where they feel compelled to respond legally to anybody who uses Facebook in a domain name.  I also always pitch it as an art project, not as a utility, which has a modicum more protection.

That’s really interesting, that that categorization offers you some protection.

There are certainly artists who have been shut down by Facebook for their work, but I think they’re for things that are more in-your-face or overtly challenging Facebook. I also think that it’s possible that Facebook sees this as interesting, because if they had their own data that shows that taking away numbers would increase production, I’m sure they would take away the numbers. Now, I don’t think they would, which is why they keep adding more, but I think at this point that their goal is fairly easy to determine: it’s more labor, more work for the system because that’s where the money comes from. So that’s how they meet their obligations to the shareholders.

I also think the scale helps. I don’t know how many people use it, but I get some metrics from Chrome, and the current installations from Chrome are tracked and the last time I looked it was in the five thousand range. If you figure that Chrome is half of the downloads, then there are maybe ten thousand people using it right now. I think there were many more than that over time, but ten thousand is nothing to Facebook. It’s like pennies to a person with a full-time job. So I think the scale, the very tiny scale, helps me not reach too much critical mass with Facebook legally.

Are you ever concerned that because you made something specifically for Facebook, and also a tool  specifically for Gmail called “Scaremail,” that you’ll run into legal trouble with this, and perhaps in the future if it becomes a more popular art form or form of resistance, that Google or Facebook would come out and say that you shouldn’t be proliferating software specifically to work on our products? I mean, it’s an independent plugin, but it also screws it up. I don’t know that much about the legal exigencies of that.

I’ve certainly been concerned over some of these questions. The design of “Demetricator” technically could have gone in multiple different directions, one of which would have been working with Facebook’s API, and I purposely chose not to do that because it’s against their terms of service. You’re not allowed to break the interface. So I’m breaking their terms of service, and I suppose under their terms of service agreement they could cancel my personal Facebook account. They haven’t, but my choice regarding this was to put it as a browser extension because at this point the browser still exists as a disguise. I’m manipulating software that’s not Facebook, which has made it possible for me to do what I’m doing. I’m not violating anything there.

Does it only work with Chrome?

No, it’s also Safari and Firefox. They all make it possible. I don’t use Internet Explorer, because they make it a bit more difficult. With “ScareMail,” I don’t worry about Google so much, I worry about the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI. The government is who I worry about with “ScareMail.” I mean, Google could care. For example, the range of reactions to “ScareMail” have been more intense.

It does feel a little threatening on some level.

To me the fact that it feels threatening is part of the point, because all “ScareMail” does is add nonsense text at the end of an email: text literally designed to mean nothing. That that is seen as threatening says a lot about what we are nd what we’ve been made to feel afraid of in terms of speech and computational surveillance. Some people look at ScareMail and they’re like, “Oh! That’s great! Fuck the NSA, I’ll use this to make their lives more difficult!” Other people look at it and go, “but you’re helping the terrorists. What are you doing? Are you a terrorist?”

The Sunday opinion page of The Chicago Tribune wrote about that. They equated ScareMail to outing secret agents, to taking plastic guns on airplanes. They put it in that category. And to me that’s remarkable, because it’s just gobbledigook text that’s not challenging anybody. In other words, for me it’s taking on Alexander Galloway’s work — he’s a theorist at NYU who talks about network theory, and he writes about this thing called “the exploit,” which is asymmetrical responses to state power. For example, Al Qaeda could not have taken on the United States military; nobody can, we’ve spent too much on it. We’re never going to fight another state power the way we did in World War Two. Instead it’s going to comprise asymmetrical responses where you find weaknesses and exploit them with smaller operations.

The idea of it being equated to taking a plastic gun onto an airplane is pretty absurd.

It’s completely out of character. What’s interesting is that it’s not just somebody on Twitter, but somebody with ink on a major metropolitan newspaper who would talk about it in that way.

I have a couple of curiosities about that. I’ve never used “ScareMail,” but for a while I was using a browser plugin called “AdNauseam.” It was just released in November and it’s a very small-scale kind of thing that works by throwing off the signal to noise ratio of data that marketers want. Is that the same kind of thing with “ScareMail,” where you’re just making it more difficult for the NSA to detect which is a threat and which isn’t?

I think there are some similarities with that, in fact I think Daniel Howe [one of the developers of “AdNauseam”] published a paper where he uses “ScareMail” as an example of obfuscation as a strategy. I think if everyone used “ScareMail,” it would work: any search for anything deemed “scary” on Gmail by the NSA would return all emails.

I got excited by AdNauseam because if everybody were to use it, in theory, it could break all of user-targeted Internet marketing.

What I think is interesting about “ScareMail” that’s different from “AdNauseam” is that without a mass of people using “AdNauseam,” it still kind of has a personal effect because your usage and your data is obfuscated, whereas with “ScareMail,” since it doesn’t have a mass user base, it really has the potential of attracting the NSA to your email. It’s kind of the opposite of what you’d hope for. If the idea is to break the NSA, then the interim step is to attract them to you. As a result, “ScareMail” is used a lot less than the “Facebook Demetricator.” Even though it’s had very wide press coverage in outlets that talk about surveillance, like Der Spiegel and The Guardian, people will say “that’s very interesting, but I’m not going to use it; I’m not going to be the one who’s willing to attract that attention.” So I think that fear is part of the attraction for me. The fact that anybody would go, “it’s scary to add nonsense to the end of my email” draws attention to the fact that they’re collecting that email in the first place. It doesn’t do them any good to have it. It’s a pointless exercise.

I suppose a worst-case scenario with something like ScareMail could be that people who are not used to this sort of thinking or critical work would put you into the same category as a terrorist, so to speak, or somebody who’s just out there to raise hell in a threatening way, because it’s difficult to understand why someone would be doing this in the first place.

When I first released this I had quite a lot of fear that they would come knocking on the door. In fact, I had the idea for “ScareMail” within a day or two of Snowden’s first revelations in June of 2013, but I sat on it for months, not sure I wanted to create it because everybody was so freaked out. We didn’t know what the response was going to be.

I think the really interesting aspect here is that you think of the specific reaction that you yourself had, and that it seems quite a few other people had as part of the artwork itself. The fear of something that you and the people around you know is completely benign.

To return to an earlier question, what do you think is the specific power of using interface as a medium in and of itself? What potential do you think that holds for artists or activists in the future?

We are becoming more and more attuned to methods and paradigms of interaction with systems based on the design of these interfaces. In some cases, these designs grow out of experimentation and become codified as best practices. For example, the idea that navigation should end up in the top-left or the top-right or somewhere: enough people start doing a piece of interface design a certain way that we come to expect it, and other people start doing it. In other words, the more we use software, the more software design starts to become ubiquitous.

So, first of all, I believe that the way in which these systems are designed have intended and unintended effects on the users of that software. If we were to try to understand how some of those effects are happening, operating at the level of the interface is probably optimal for trying to understand what’s going on. Certainly there are other spaces that are important and can produce equally interesting results, such as writing. I use those too, but because the use of software is now this  personal interaction with systems via interfaces, it provides a really unusual opportunity to intervene in that connection. It creates a form of reciprocal action: it create an action that comes back at me with another action that requires a new action, that cycle of interaction. It’s like getting to operate where we live instead of observing where we live and then writing about it.

I’ve tried some other strategies and they haven’t had as much exhibition. I did a piece called “Protocols of Looking” that is a video installation, which is a way of abstracting interaction modes from social networks. Say you’re sitting in a coffee shop and you’re looking at somebody kind of voyeuristically watching somebody across the room, and then they somehow know they’re being watched and they look up at you, and then you instantly look away because you don’t want to look like you’re staring them down or something. I’m interested in that interaction and how that’s being changed in online space where we’re encouraged to watch, but the person being watched doesn’t know they’re being watched at any one specific moment. So I thought about abstracting these issues and bringing them into installation work. That’s interesting and it gets people talking, but getting to operate on an interface that has been used by a billion different people — that is a completely different kind of potential for me as an artist. The fact that many thousands of people can and do use these manipulations makes it a really ripe space for experimentation.

I had looked at the information on your website about “Protocols of Looking.” The issues it’s addressing are fascinating and something I’ve thought about a lot, but that’s a good point: it does something a little bit different to you if you’re going to a gallery or a museum and interacting with a piece there than if you’re installing something on your computer such as a browser plugin and interacting with it that way. It’s more comfortable and natural; you’re relating to this artwork in a much different way than if you’re looking at a video installation. So in some ways the impact of it becomes much more genuine.

Definitely. Certainly you’re not self-selecting your audience. If you put something in a gallery or a museum, you’re already narrowed the possible viewers to a very tiny subset who would be interested in the topic, because most people don’t go to galleries or museums, or most people wouldn’t be in that city. Getting to operate in that state of everyday interaction through interface means that “Demetricator” could catch you by surprise, and after a time, you’d start to forget where all the metrics were. I mean, you wouldn’t forget that it’s operating, but you’d forget how many metrics it was hiding. It’s a really different kind of feel, and that’s very exciting to me as an artist.