Whether you're summoning the NSA by using one of their watch words or Google are reading your private gmails, you're never far from being snooped on these days. It's a depressing fact of life, but it's also something we all seem to be resigned to—maybe in 10 years we'll look back and laugh at the quaint concept of privacy we used to hold so dear.
As a nod to the way our online lives are monitored, either by government agencies, corporations, or your friends, electronic music duo Big Data—Alan Wilkis and Daniel Armbruster—have teamed up with artist Rajeev Basu to create an interactive music video for their track "Dangerous" which turns your Facebook profile into a hawk. "We're both pretty savvy gentlemen," says Armbruster, "but implications of certain technologies are pretty frightening when you stop and think about it. We actually wrote "Dangerous" and had Facehawk in development well before the NSA and PRISM stories leaked, but when it did we were just like, wow."
Facehawk pokes around in your profile grabbing photos and status updates and transforms them into thousands of shards which form the shape of a hawk. "I like the idea of messing and hijacking such a known format we all stare at every day" says Basu. "I hope it’s jarring, it’s meant to be. And I hope it makes people think about just how much data they put out there every single day." Which is exactly what the track "Dangerous" is all about, a satirical take on our electronically-monitored age and the perils that go with it. We have an exclusive remix of the song below and you can experience the interactive music video here.
"Dangerous" (Spacebrother Remix)
We spoke with Basu and Big Data over email to find out more about the project and how the tech behind it works.
Tell me about some of the technical aspects of the project. What software did you use to transform the code into an animated hawk? How does it work? What does it do? Should we be concerned?
Where did the idea stem from? And how did you go about the hawk's design and conception?
The idea came straight out of the song, and what Big Data are all about—voyeurism in the digital age, watching while being watched. And what better way to connect with everyone out there than with the very tool millions use for watching every day: Facebook.
In the early stage I was playing with the idea of just creating a hawk head. But as we experimented I liked the drama of the full hawk, and especially the action stance we have in the video. It seems very apt for our message.
What were some of the design and technical challenges you faced?
One of the challenges was finding a way to animate hundreds of status updates, live in your browser. After several rounds of prototyping and optimising we got there. But next up was how to get a good looking hawk. Early versions found the elements moving into place to create a hawk that seemed too abstract. But after dozens of sessions refining it, by aligning the elements in a somewhat more uniform direction, we got a more defined looking hawk shape. We still managed to keep an organic feel, as although we introduced some order to the how the hawk is made, exactly how and where photos and statuses are positioned is determined algorithmically—so you never know exactly what your final hawk will look like.
What elements and qualities were you looking to feature/highlight in the hawk (menacing, playful, etc)?
Definitely an action pose. Like it’s after something. And as we were prototyping, we decided to use the Facebook logo as the eye. That turned out to be a really nice detail that’s tight to our concept. The blue of the logo also stands out really nicely against the backdrop of the user’s photos.
And below Alan and Dan from Big Data talk about we they wanted to make the track and why an interactive music video was the perfect fit.
Is the track just about governments watching us? Or also about how people snoop on each other's Facebook accounts, etc?
Alan: It’s very much about both, but perhaps what felt most interesting about the concept to us was the multi-layered cycle of voyeurism. We can anonymously peer deeply into the lives of others from the comfort of our own homes, and it feels harmless—you could wind up on a complete stranger’s Facebook profile with minimal privacy restrictions, and suddenly you’re flipping through some of their most personal moments, photos, and thoughts. And yet, someone is simultaneously monitoring, recording, and tracking your every single click and search history—it’s terrifying. I think both musically and lyrically, we wanted to straddle that line of playfulness and paranoia.
Dan: Someone is watching you while you're Facebook-stalking. A server at Facebook headquarters is tracking every page you click on, how long you stay there, etc. You can view someone else's life in the privacy of your own home, but thinking you're alone or that no one will know is a mistake.
You could say we've always been watched, from spies in king's courts to software tracking our online activities. Why should we be concerned?
Dan: This question comes up a lot. "I don't have anything to hide, why should I care?". Future implications. If the infrastructure is set up, it's easy to abuse. And restrictions can change. Laws are constantly adjusted. What happens when something you love or even depend on becomes classified as a "suspicious activity"?
Alan: Exactly. This story came out recently, and mind-blowing and frightening as it was, it was also utterly unsurprising. Maybe what’s so concerning now is this sense that our government is permanently building a case against all of us, and since we all spend so much time plugged-in, every single detail of our lives is recorded in that case—it’s hyper-specific now. One slip-up or wrong move, or even merely a suspected wrong move (as in the case of the Long Island woman), and the authorities are at your door in minutes.
As musicians who write about the internet, why is it important to you to have a collaboration like this, one that features a creative coder, an artist and an interactive video?
Alan: Well, perhaps “natural” is the right word to use here. When Jeeves and I first met, and as I learned more about his body of work (Tumbly, the Drones Project, etc...), he so clearly had a vision for his art that was so clearly in line with our musical approach. There is something consistently playful and fun throughout his pieces, and yet there’s always this thread of rebellion and techno-paranoia to it as well. Those values are deeply ingrained in our approach to Big Data—we want to make music that is fun, danceable, and hooky on the surface, but we also always want there to be an element of discomfort, paranoia-bordering-on-overwhelming-terror as you begin to dig a little deeper.
We immediately saw in Jeeves a rare like-minded and wildly creative individual, and we knew we all had to work together somehow. We gave Jeeves a basic idea of our inspiration for the song, and he came back with a treatment for Facehawk a few days later. The rest was history.
An overview of the project