From the NSA revelations to the ‘Women Who Eat on Tubes’ Facebook page, we all know that technology has eroded our privacy - but the ways in which it does can still be surprising.
Tapping into this frequently unsettling part of life are a pair of artists from New York who have created a lamp that live-tweets overheard snippets of conversation and installed it in an unknown McDonald's in New York.
Kyle McDonald and Brian House have dubbed their creation the Conversnitch and although the device’s Twitter account hasn’t been active for a couple of days, you can scroll back through the timeline to see conversations it’s picked up.
So far they seem to cover the sorts of things we all talk about: money troubles, the weather and – somewhat predictably – the internet itself. Scroll back far enough to October and you see what was presumably the artists testing out their device – “so this is actually up and running, which is kind of cool ... not sure how long I have to talk”; “Is the mic in the bulb” and “Do you want me to say something stupid in passing?”
The technology of the Conversnitch itself is simple: it comprises just a Raspberry Pi (a cheap, miniature computer the size of a credit card), a microphone, a light source and a flower pot for a shade. The Pi draws power from the light socket, records the conversation and sends it via the McDonald’s Wi-Fi to the Mechanical Turk – an Amazon service that pairs up temp workers with simple online tasks. These workers then transcribe the audio and post lines to Twitter.
Speaking to Wired, McDonald and House say that they want their creation to raise questions about the nature of public and private spaces. “What does it mean to deploy one of these in a library, a public square, someone’s bedroom? What kind of power relationship does it set up?” says House. “And what does this stream of tweets mean if it’s not set up by an artist but by the U.S. government?”
This defence will sound familiar to anyone who followed the Women Who Eat on Tubes saga, with the page's creator (Tony Burke) claiming that the page was “observational art” and likening the images on it to wildlife photography.
McDonald and House’s project seems far more defensible: any identity markers (the names of those who have been recorded; the location of the lamp) have been obscured, and the gender-blind transcriptions have none of the misogynistic, gender policing overtone of Burke's 'art'.
However, McDonald has certainly indulged in more provocative projects in the past: in 2011 he was the subject of an investigation by the Secret Service after he installed a program on computers in a New York Apple Store that took pictures of unsuspecting customers and uploaded them to a site named “peoplestaringatcomputers”.
It's obvious that this part of modern life, where the fast pace of digital change rubs up against societal norms, is a rich one for artists, and creations like the Conversnitch do certainly provoke a response. However, do they really offer us anything in return? If you have any answers just speak into the nearest light source and someone (be they artist or NSA) will get right back to you.