Context and Description
The internet has grown into a pervasive and automated system dedicated to capturing and selling the attention of humans to the highest bidder. In this system, everything you post, watch, or click, is recorded and monetized in order to influence your personal, economic, and political actions. Shoshana Zuboff describes the emergence of the new economy that profits from data acquired through tracking users as “Surveillance Capitalism.”
Our project explores and subverts this issue through a web-based game that empowers users, enabling them to play with the data advertisers collect and use against them. Tally is:
• the name of the project,
• the central character in this interventionist tool about the attention economy, digital surveillance, and startup culture; and
• what the character does; specifically, it counts and scores your potential for being tracked.
Tally’s gameplay is both fun and thought-provoking. After installing the browser extension (available for Chrome, Firefox, or Opera), the Tally character appears in the lower left corner of the user’s (“player’s”) screen and begins to watch and comment on the their actions. Tally can sense trackers and other algorithmic behavior influences and alerts the player to their presence. If you ignore her warnings, the game will trigger “product monsters”—animated creatures that correspond to the 698 categories in the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s product classification system. These appear as a reminder that you are being watched and matched to advertisements underneath the slick interface of the web. The more monsters you collect, the higher your rank will be in the game’s anonymous global marketing segment leaderboards, where your history of being tracked is compared against others in this multiplayer game.
This issue is important to the individual freedoms for all of society, but what questions does this pose from a humanities perspective? Our goal is to explore the following questions through this expressive work:
• How do the hidden structures of the web economy influence culture, history, and human philosophy?
• How does surveillance capitalism define and guide the definition of innovation and success in our society?
• What will happen to human storytelling and other cultural records when every online interaction is mediated, tracked, and monetized in an attention economy?
• What is the future of human communication with so many profit-driven and computer-automated forms of information vying for our attention?
• How will power dynamics change or be reinforced with such a massive and influential yet nearly invisible propaganda apparatus operating across the world?
This project combines the artistic/illustration experience of Joelle Dietrick, Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies, and the web development background of Owen Mundy, Visiting Associate Professor of Digital Studies. We are currently building a test version of this game with students in a class called Humanities Startup. The class combines 1) methodologies from the startup world which are dynamic, innovative, and fast moving, 2) yet eschews a profit-based motive for one centered on creating and launching a “product” based in history, art, philosophy, etc. for humans to experience, enjoy, and contemplate without concern for feeling constantly monetized. We started off the semester with a series of readings and then began the first of several sprints to work towards completion.
At the end of spring semester, we’ll have a complete, playable “beta” product which will include the browser extension that runs the game, in-game animations and sounds, and narrative from the main character. This summer, we would like to continue working with students, and librarian (who we have not yet selected), in order to complete all of the in-game effects (animations, sounds, logic) and build the API for the project. We hope to launch the full game at the end of summer or fall 2018 by the latest.
There are many learning experiences for those who collaborate on the project. We are looking for librarians and students to work with us this summer who have (or hope to improve skills in) game design, coding, animation, sound, databases or any combination of these experiences. All code for the project will be open source so that future researchers and technologists can build on its developments. Player data will be strictly anonymous.
To recap, Tally will be an open source, free browser extension with the following features:
• Cross-browser (Firefox, Chrome, Opera) extension (HTML, CSS, JS, etc.) with in-browser game elements that operate on a visual layer over players’ web activity;
• A server side API, database, and algorithms that track anonymized player statistics (node/Express/MySQL/Passport, etc.);
• Leaderboards showing players how they rank within the marketing segments;
• In-game achievements matching players’ web activity to actual marketing segments;
• Anticipated widespread appeal similar to Owen’s I Know Where Your Cat Lives;
• A project that does not use players’ personal information;
• A website that playfully encourages critical thinking about behavioral data tracking.