Cryptodesign Challenge: Deep Web Workshop

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Image of the ‘Breathing Web’ courtesy of the artists (see below)

As part of the 2016 Crypto Design Challenge, organised by MOTI (Museum of the Image, Breda) and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, I developed and facilitated a Deep Web workshop on October 6 and 7 in collaboration with Shirley Niemans. With a group of 16 artists, researchers and designers from various Dutch design and art schools, we worked on new visualisations of the Deep Web, exploring topics such as privacy (and therefore crypto) as a collective issue.

The Deep Web?

The Deep Web evokes images of an underworld that cannot bear the light of day. Yet this hidden realm contains an estimated 96% of all the content to be found circulating online. The first international Crypto Design Challenge is a shout out to artists, designers, researchers and visionaries to dive in and create new images of the Deep Web. The Deep Web’s iceberg has proven to be a powerful metaphor to visualise the distinction between the Surface Web, Deep Web and Dark Web. But it tells a story of the web from a very particular perspective: it defines the web in terms of what the great search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo) can or cannot do. Defining the web on the basis of a handful of tech giants seems limited and moreover prevents us from understanding other technologies that may provide fruitful alternatives in terms of freedom, privacy and democracy.

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Documentaries such as Deep Web (about black Market Silk Road) and popular reporting has spread the idea of the deep web as a hotspot for mainly criminal activity, whereas the deep web also consists of eg. password protected areas of the web such as subscription based journals, medical records, the backend of your blog and so on. Moreover, the ‘extra hidden’ deep web like onion pages and I2P are used extensively by journalists, human rights activists and whistleblowers to protect their identity and in many cases, their anonymity and safety, and those of others. Can we shine a different light on these webs by creating alternative imagery that helps to demystify the workings, opportunities and implications of the various interlinking technologies that make up the web(s)?

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Picture by Stef Arends

Outcomes

The four groups developed their own particular view and shed a light on some aspects of the deep web and related issues. Their ideas were executed using paper engineering techniques at Makers Lab, the makerspace of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Nicola Romagnoli, who participated and then wrote this eloquent reflection on the workshop summarised the results and process nicely: “a coherent theme that emerged throughout the paper assemblages was an emphasis towards diminishing the digital binary between Deep/Surface in which the Deep Web is reduced as a ‘technological other.’ Each project attempted to integrate the constitutive relations between the Deep and Surface Web by exploring the differing functionalities and privileges each network offers. This mutual functionality was reinforced by the playful interactivity of each project, which invited viewers to engage and manipulate the paper engineering.” I was very pleased to see that all groups returned in the weeks after the workshop to finalise their projects and make them picture-perfect for submission. Two of the projects – The Breathing Web and The Web Game were nominated for the award and shown at the Crypto Design Show in Paradiso.

The Breathing Web (nominated!)

By Julia Laporte, Jonas Althaus, Roos du Pree and Carlo Ter Woord, is an paper cryptographic work containing controversial quotes that represent 6 categories of resistance to established powers that can be identified on the deep web including: resistance to…

  • …social norms (aggressive stereotypes)
  • …hierarchies (geopolitical)
  • …big brother (political oppression)
  • …terrorism (spiral of violence)
  • …capitalism (economic injustice)
  • …mainstream culture (repetitive)

By using the orange ‘key cards’, the viewer will be able to decrypt the code and understand its full meaning, revealing complete quotes. “The Dark Net breathes. It is vast. And it can be as good and as evil as its users.

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The Flora and Fauna of the Internet

By Martina Huyng and Ingrid Woudwijk reveals the bots, viruses, algorithms and other non-human creatures, of the web, that go about their own tasks autonomously. Sometimes the internet feels like an entirely new ecosystem that is not inherently natural a habitat for humans to be in.  This project visualizes the main agents and characters of the internet as multiple living organisms. All these creatures are represented through icons of simple and humorous metaphors, i.e. cookies and trackers as little “stalkers”, or surveillance programs as vacuum cleaners (mindlessly sucking up all data) or bots (only able to perform exact functions and tasks given) as parrots (that can also only speak what it has been taught and nothing else). This visualization aims to break down and depict autonomous actors of the internet in a comprehensible way. Hence by turning the gears, the visitor can explore how these creatures behave on the three different levels of the internet starting with the Clear Web, then the Deep Web and eventually the Dark Web.

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The Web Game (nominated!)

by Melani de Luca, Gianluca Monaco, Camilo Cezar and Arantxa Gonlag is about finding your way through the web while avoiding the negative sides to the specific area of the web you are standing in. Playing the game you will start seeing the difference within privacy and security between the different areas, whilst realising that the web is one big unity instead of three different layers.

The project is realised both in an analogue version and a digital version to play with the different ways of experiencing the web. The interactive project is inspired by the 90’s windows computer game ‘Minesweeper’. In their version of the game, the mines reflect the bad sides to the web by use of emojis. Traveling through the different versions of the web you will find different icons that can either keep you anonymous – in the dark web – or infect your privacy when looking through the surface web. By coming across these mines you will find not only the negative sides to the different areas of the web, but also what makes these places within the web positive.

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Pictures by Stef Arends

Your web home (in progress)

by Orla Canavan, Jennifer Veldman, Nicola Romagnoli and Pantea Razzaghi represents and demystifies anxieties around web technologies using the metaphor of property and feeling at home. You feel comfortable in your own home, in your neighbourhood, where you know your neighbours, the code of conduct, where and how to find things and how to build relationships. As you venture away from your familiar surroundings, inevitably you will feel a little out of place, not knowing how to act, how to find things, who to trust and how to make sure you stay safe. With time though, new places also start to feel familiar. From a different perspective: areas of regeneration often were once considered unsafe or unsavoury neighbourhoods, these perceptions change as people get more familiar, and as more people start hanging out in these places. Processes of ‘othering’ (technologies, people, places) have strong effects on our emotions and perceptions and thereby color how we view and evaluate parts of the world and parts of the web.

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Pictures by Stef Arends

 

The workshop process: 

During the two-day workshop, we produced tangible and visual metaphors that can help extend our understanding of the Deep Web beyond the image of the iceberg. We explored these web(s) from a variety of perspectives with the help of speakers Patricia de Vries, who discussed visual modalities of algorithmic anxiety, and how is algorithmic technology performed and contested by artists, designers and critics. Filmmaker/researcher/hacker Anthony van der Meer took us on a guided tour of the Deep Web, showing us how to find our way beyond the gardens of Google. The many alternatives in finding content, hardware and communities shattered any idea of the iceberg and started to reveal the multiplicities of web technologies that make up the web. A topic for discussion was when one knows enough to say anything about the Deep Web. The main conclusion was that we can still propose alternative imagery and metaphors to explain these concepts and put them up for discussion. Even if a work-in-progress, generating a multiplicity of views and understandings, and critically taking apart existing mythologies and mental images about what the web is worth doing.

Visual straightjackets 

We went on to try to get rid of the domineering iceberg image and open our minds to other possible imagery. To this end I used two formats to introduce noise into our existing visual associations with web issues. In the first round, we used the “Networks” exercise from the Conditional Design Workbook by Luna Maurer, Jonathan Puckey, Roel Wouters and Edo Paulus. Conditional design is a collaborative design method that foregrounds process over product, as design strategy it is defined by a set of rules to create drawings collaboratively. The Networks exercise lets groups of 4 create very unexpected diagrams about web related topics.

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It’s quite hard not to think of a blue elephant, or an iceberg for that matter. The brain just keeps coming back to that image no matter how hard you try to avoid thinking about it. To this end I tried to come up with a method to pull us out of a given visual track. What I call a visual straightjacket is basically a method that turns around our normal ways of visualising information: with this method the visual starting point is already there, and you have to use whatever information is already there in the image to explain your concept/topic/issue. The random elements that are there are really helpful in forging new visual imagery that has nothing to do with existing imagery. I developed a second exercise where I gave participants a random composed semi-abstract image (in this case photographic art works by Amsterdam-based artist Popel) and asked them to explain the deep web using this image, by drawing and writing on it to explain what elements represent what. This lead to very interesting results and very surprising new ways to explain elements, issues, technologies, relationships and dependencies between deep web technologies and their users.

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Original art work courtesy of Popel 2015

Atlas vs. Map or: multitudes of perspectives vs. grand narratives

After this preparatory work we teamed everyone up and started working on incomplete and deliberately large glossaries of all the terms that might relate to the deep web and issues it may touch. Following that, we worked with the teams to help them form a very specific perspective on the Deep Web. We tried to stay away from the grand ‘universal’ narratives, but instead focused on telling very particular stories about humans, technology and power. The idea being that you can draw a world map and say this is the world and you would be correct, but not very explicit about the fact that that world map is a geographical representation of the borders of the earth and its opposition to the sea, for example. And that a choice for Greenwich as the center point of the map is a highly political one stemming from 1884. Alternatively, an atlas provides a multitude of perspectives (geographical, economical, religious, political, climatic) that together make up the image of what something is and how it could be represented. The outcomes of this workshop can be seen as contributions to an eventual atlas of the deep web.

 

First steps in metalworking

As part of my work in HvA’s Makerslab I’m also learning a number of conventional techniques. Recently I took my first steps working with thin brass and copper plates and pipes. Really nice material to work with obviously, and I was really enchanted with the accuracy of those gorgeous old hand operated machines. I made two bookstands and a tea light for now, to be continued.

Techniques: cutting, angle bending (zetten), roll forming (walsen), pipe cutting (pijpensnijden), riveting (klinken), pop rivets (popnagels klinken) and spot soldering (solderen).

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Playful Learning

Physical collaborative play for teenagers with cognitive disabilities

Bandjes is the result of the Playful Learning project I coached at MediaLAB in the spring semester of 2015. In collaboration with Orion (Amsterdam’s organisation for special needs education) we developed a game for teenagers with cognitive disabilities and varying levels of motor skills. The goal was to improve their communication skills, collaboration skills and the level of intensity of their exercise in the gym classroom. The game offers a playful way to increase the level of self-reliance, by practicing social skills.

The game consists of 4 bluetooth enabled head bands with an RGB LED that can change color. The basic elements of each game is that a player cannot see his own color, only those of the other players. The logic of the game changes with the different variation (eg. “tag” or tikkertje is one of them), but each game requires the players to communicate in order to navigate the playing field and reach the goals of each game variation. Bandjes comes with 7 documented game variations that can be initiated through a desktop application.

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Embodied design

One of the things that was key in the success of this design project was the very regular use of the method of bodystorming. It’s a technique within embodied design techniques that allow designers to bring their body into the mix. The tacit knowledge the body can bring to any complex problem or design question is often undervalued. Rather than paying attention to what the body knows, emphasis is placed on cognitive abilities such as brainstorming, mindmapping, verbal argumentation, and assessments of an idea based on dry design criteria. I’ve used the technique of bodystorming a lot with my teams, especially teams that were designing games or play. This method is often used on location, to really understand context and instill empathy for the user while ‘playing out’ ideas on the spot, ideally with users. But it is also more loosely described as a method to brainstorm with your body. This is one explanation of it, there’s many.

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Bodystorming for empathy

We used the technique of bodystorming a lot. The initial concepts that were created turned out to be too complex to play, hard to explain and eventually impossible to play with the teens. When bodystorming was introduced as primary method for the student team to generate ideas, the game concepts and play ideas became simpler, and more body-fit to play. The student team agreed to spend an hour bodystorming every morning, to generate ideas. They could bring a prop and start playing with that (chalk, a ball, a gun, a bell) and see where the play would lead. Doing this evokes a very immediate response about what the body enjoys to do, not what we imagine people would enjoy. Especially in combination with lots of observations in class, and occasional playtesting, the design team really started to embody their users in their own playtests, getting a really good grip as to what kind of play was appropriate (simple enough to grasp without a lot of explanation), and interesting for their users who all had very different levels of cognitive abilities and motor skills development.

Bandjes: a highly playable flexible game

The result was a game that was very exciting across the strongly varying levels in the classes we worked with at Orion. Because the concept was so simple at its core, it remained a lot of openness, and space to reinterpret the gameplay by adding rules, props or objectives. It turned out it was a game playable across ages and abilities: our partners, friends, parents and kids all played together at the final presentations at MediaLAB.

Publications

Bandjes was presented at Media Art Futures Interactivos? 2015 conference in Murcia, where the first iteration of the prototype was developed as well in co-creation with conference participants and organisers.

Students: Nick Bijl, Dennis Reep, Anne de Bode, Jill de Rooij, Alexander Sommers. Frank Honkoop & Marjolein Duchateau (Orion). Menno Deen (Lectoraat Games & Play)

Franz – a toy for wunderkammers

Magic toys for grown-ups: a personal and emotional learning process in making

Franz is a wall mounted bumblebee and my first design of making toys for grown-ups who dream of having ‘wunderkammers’, and my final project for Fabacademy 2015. For my final project I had to include a number of techniques into one integrated project.  I decided to indulge in my private obsession with movement machines (they range from dancing bodies, to augmented reality performances, to mechanical choreographies like Franz).

Techniques and Materials:

3D printed ABS (Rhino), Lasercut acrylic (lllustrator, Inkscape), Lasercut wood and acrylic. Electronics from scratch: Attiny84, unipolar  stepper motor, microphone, bulbs (Eagle, Arduino, Fabmodules).

Made at: Fablab Amsterdam

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Digital Fabrication & other making: FabAcademy 2015

FabAcademy15 graduate!

In 2015 I graduated from the 5 month FabAcademy program at Fablab Amsterdam at de Waag. A large part of the course is about programming and electronics (PCB production from scratch!) which I absolutely love and am so happy to advance my understanding of. Especially learning about the infrastructures of open source software and hardware. Other things on the program were: Computer Controlled Cutting, Machining, 3D printing, 2D and 3D milling, molding & casting, composites, machine building. It’s been an intense learning journey that I have documented here. Fabacademy doesn’t really facilitate any conceptual development during the course. It’s very high-speed, high-learning curve of technical & modelling skills requiring a get-shit-done-before-the-week-is-over-and-we-move-on attitude. I think this is a big miss but I accepted it for the duration of the course as I also had work to do next to the this course.

Games4Amnesty: Mr. Powerful

Amnesty International: battling human rights violators

For Amnesty Netherlands, one of my student teams at MediaLAB Amsterdam developed Mr Powerful in fall 2014: a game that let students experience, in a playful way, how Amnesty International takes action against the violation of Freedom of Speech and persuade students to contribute to this cause. In the game you play the oppressor who violates Human Rights and is therefore criticised by different channels. As a player you experience the rising pressure. It is up to you to withstand the pressure and remain calm.

Play the game!

Getting out of your head

The biggest challenge in coaching this project was to overcome the problem of ‘getting stuck’ in ideas. The students with different backgrounds (IT, cultural studies, design) would initially be happy generating ideas regularly, but would get really stuck working them through. So eventually there were a lot of ideas with theoretical backing but none of them really developed or grew. After a few frustrating moments I encouraged them to really stop talking and writing about ideas altogether and to start creating and showing them so they could experience where the blank gaps and unclear moments and aspects were in the game.

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Why thinking is just not the same as doing

The result of these exercises was that we had these really rich ideas, layered with meaning in their aesthetic choices, storylines, content and gameplay. Whether this resulted in ‘great’ games isn’t really at stake here, but it was remarkable that instead of thinking and talking and imagining, the making sparked discussions about very concrete handles for next iterations, and at a really high speed! The brain is a pretty awesome thing but it just isn’t really made to keep enormous amounts of information and meaning inside, and simultaneously communicate about it with words in all that marvelous detail in a way that it comes across in all its layered richness. This workout of externalising the brain and literally ‘working them through’ like dough before you let it rest to rise, was so powerful.


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Working it out 

I think that each member of this particular team had to step very far out of their comfort zone to get to the point where they could tap into their creative resources in this way. This took a while longer than everybody expected, which of course is disappointing at times. Because by the time you get to the end, you can’t help but ask: ‘why weren’t we able to do it like this before?’. But the learning curve was a beauty. In terms of seeing students grow in 5 months time, and finding confidence in practices formerly unknown to them, I think this project is among the most inspiring and personally successful ones I’ve facilitated.

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Students: Radoslav Gulekov, Fay Gramberg, Lisa Maier, Rob Boerman. Martijn Kors & Menno Deen (researchers Lectoraat Games & Play), Roland van Veen (Amnesty Nederland).

Interactive Cinema for Oculus Rift

Interactive Cinematic Storytelling

How can you create an interactive story with 360 degree footage for Oculus Rift? In fall 2014 I coached a team of students who worked on this project in collaboration with Lectorate Games&Play’s researcher Mirjam Vosmeer. AVROTROS and their cultural hub VondelCS, and VR pioneers from WeMakeVR.

Using live action 360 degree footage the team created an interactive narrative experience for the Oculus Rift to explore how stories can be told in virtual reality. During the experience, you are not just passively watching a story, but you are a character who can actively influence how the narrative unfolds.

About the film

In A Perfect Party you, as the main character are hosting a get-together for your best friend who wants to propose to his girlfriend. Everything depends on you to make the party a success: potential disaster is everywhere. By looking around and interacting with the environment you may try to prevent things from running out of control. It’s up to you to make this party perfect.

A perfect party was featured at LISFE Leiden International Short Film Experience 2015: http://www.lisfe.nl/lisfe-2015/

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What kind of a design process is this?

After hashing out all of the technical particularities of making VR with 360 degree live action footage, we quickly got to the question of how do you even design for this? Students identified links with storytelling, narrative techniques in film (although with heavy limitations because conventional editing is not possible in this case), theater, perhaps subtlemobs or audiowalks and interactive storytelling (basically hyperlinking?). All of these practices have something to bring to live-action 360 degree VR, but the comparisons are far from being one on one.

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Creative obstructions

I think that a few obstructions could be identified that needed to be dealt with creatively:

  • Your user is constantly surrounded by footage consisting of 4 quadrants. If you want to make a cut or change content to activate a storyline, you need to make sure the user isn’t watching the quadrant you want to change
  • Every quadrant has to fit with the next one in order to be ‘stitched’ together seamlessly to 360 degrees. So people and objects can’t leave their quadrant or you will clearly see the stitch, breaking the illusion.
  • Your user cannot bring the body into the experience (just the eyes). How do you deal with the fact that it feels like you are there, but you can’t for example use your hands?
  • How do design the action so it doesn’t get boring but the user also has time to explore on his/her own account?
  • The user is free to look wherever they want, how do you tell a story if you can’t use conventional camera techniques to direct user’s attention (enter theater techniques and sound design)?
  • Keeping track of the storyflow: how does a user go from one storyline to a new branch? Do you allow them to go back? What considerations are involved? How does that influence continuity and intelligibility of the story?
  • Etc.

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Some tricks

Nour, one of the students wrote a how-to book on live-action VR dealing with many of these issues, and suggestions for useful approaches. Here’s another few tricks that worked quite well for the team. One was to play out scripts in small handmade miniature sets, to simulate hotspots (areas in the film that are activated when the user is looking at it, the helmet senses head movements), and changes in clips. Movements across the scene, timing of those movements etcetera.

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Secondly, we developed a different kind of shotlist. Rather than storyboarding the shots and cameramovements. The team developed a set map, marking the position of the 360 degree camera, the quadrantlines, and room for some notes on the action and movement of actors and vehicles in the scene.

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Lastly, flowcharts turned out to be the best way to keep track of keypoints in the storyline and identifying problems with continuity and points-of-no-return.

Students: Nour Tanak, Sammie de Vries, Leon van Oord, Nick Valk, Shenyu Zhang. Researcher: Mirjam Vosmeer, Lectorate Games & Play HvA

 

Tinkering vs. Prototyping workshop

Where tinkering meets prototyping

My HvA colleague Tamara Pinos and I tried out a different format to get the students to think about tinkering and prototyping. Usually we would run tinkering and prototyping workshops separately, but now we decided to put them in the same room and timeframe so that the processes could talk to one another. In prototyping you basically work from an idea that you’ve defined, and give it shape, make it work, so you can test it out to confirm it. Tinkering comes before that somehow, it is what you do before you have an idea, in order to come up with the ideas.

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The red button connected to the internet is always an answer to your problem

It’s really a matter of where you start: do you start from the material and let the material inform your ideas. Or do you start with a blank page and wreck your brain to pour out some thoughts onto your white canvas. Both are perfectly fine and viable but it’s good to know that there’s always at least two options to get from nothing to a tangible thing that you can then talk about and reflect on. It sure isn’t always easy to ideate for the big problem statements and wicked problems we work on at MediaLAB. There’s a great risk of generating ‘solutions’ that are as vague and abstract as the problem at that early stage. However, if you just start with whatever you’re given, and try to forge connections between your design problem and whatever it is you have in front of you, ideas start flowing as you work onto the material with your hands and brain in tandem. What we find in this workshop that the best prompt is to give people a big red button that is connected to the internet, and to ask students to make the thing work, understand it and then ask them: how can this connected button solve your problem?

Finding 100 ways that don’t work

Both have in common that they celebrate early failure as a way to learn quickly and deeply about your ideas and prototypes. We asked the students to create paper prototypes – always a big hit and a huge surprise – and to tinker for an hour with a prototyping tool they were unfamiliar with and report back what they learned and how this tool could be an answer to their design problem. The tools we use are for example (IFTT, BTTN, LittleBits, MakeyMakey and Vine kits (Internet of Things sensors). We wrap this workshop by discussing how the processes of tinkering and prototyping might relate to one another and what the similarities and differences are.

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Visual communication workshop

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Visual communication: listen, summarize, visualize

Every semester I facilitate a short workshop in the basics of visual communication. The goal of the workshop is to get some practice in visualizing ideas and discussions in real-time. This has proven to be a very useful skill in interdisciplinary team work because it forces at least one person in the team to listen, synthesize and visualize the research and design process in a meaningful way.

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Visualizing as embodied understanding: a making practice

This post is under making because I consider visual facilitating a form of understanding that is not merely text-based, it’s the kind of shared understanding that emerges through the making of artefacts that are visible, tangible. What happens in these workshops is that understanding of concepts and interpretations of ideas are ‘kneaded’ through by transforming them into drawings, rather than developing them through -only- verbal expression or text.

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What this workshop is all about

What I cover in this workshop is which basic elements can help you organize the information visually, and to get in some practice on how to translate concepts to images quickly, to build a personal visual vocabulary. From there the participants can pick it up in their day to day work, and refine their drawing skills as well as their speed in visualizing ideas and concepts in real-time, but also as reflection afterwards. I often have only 2 hours to do this, barely enough to scratch the surface, but the bit of extra confidence it generates in the participants’ is enough to explore and practice it further on their own account. I am recently also developed a workbook and workshop format to extend the reach of the workshop beyond the 2 hours, to 4, 8 or 16 hours.

Sources and resources

The work of Bigger Picture has been really helpful. Their video describing the 7 elements of graphic facilitation has helped to structure the topics covered in the workshop. I followed a masterclass with Martine Vanremoortele from Visual Harvesting and what I try to bring to the workshops I teach is her philosophy of listening, and being ‘neutral’ and aware of interpretations. And secondly her exercises in building visual vocabularies have been a great influence.

Tinkering at the minor Intelligent Environments

Tinkering with techies

I made an excursion to another HvA location to give a workshop tinkering to students of the minor Intelligent Environments. These students, mostly from rather techy backgrounds like Software Engineering, Game Development etc are quite a different target group from the design & humanities students I’m normally used to at the MediaLAB.

Objects as interface

For this workshop we took the better part of a whole day, and worked in multiple iterations to let students think about alternative interfaces, playful interactions and how you can work with objects as interface. To understand the important role the design of an interface plays in an any interaction. The students were asked to find an interesting – or boring – object and take it as a starting point to come up with a playful installation. To let the meanings, connotations and affordances the object embodies be leading in the kind of installation you will build. I found it very useful to have a number of show and tell rounds – with a gaming expert even! – to help the students improve their ideas and ways of executing them. Although the creative process was somewhat out of the comfort zone of some students, they all made tremendous efforts and progress in the course of the day.

My absolute favourite is this weirrrrd granny interface for a classic racing game using a walker (NL:rollator) :D