Imagine a parallel universe, where our data is valued and used as currency—it's not that hard is it? Now imagine that that fictional space has a different set of rules whereby everyone has an equal opportunity to make money from their personal data. Welcome to the world of Darknet—a new play opening this week at the Southwark Playhouse in London.
The play follows a whole host of characters; from techies living in Silicon Valley to a drug addict in London, from an ethical hacker to a Romanian webcam girl. Through their eyes, the script aims to look at the troubled space between transparency and privacy and dives deep into the deep web to ask thought-provoking questions about our current relationship with the internet and what it may come to be in the future. I met up with playwright Rose Lewenstein and director Russell Bender at the Southwark Playhouse to discuss how they brought a play about technology to life.
Can you explain what you mean by using data as currency?
Russell Bender: What we have now is a situation where we give away data for free and, in return for that, we get free services. What Rose has come up with is a twist on that: The characters in the play are sharing their data with a company called Octopus Inc.—the Google or Facebook of their day. That data gets valued and it's traded in a marketplace, so you get actual money back.
Technology and data is an unusual subject for a play—how did you make sure the subject was relatable and stimulating for an audience?
RB: One of the funny things about working on this play is that you start off with everyone in the room assuming that it's about technology, but the more that you work on it, you realize it's actually more about social inequality and class.
Rose Lewenstein: It's definitely a play about humans and not the Internet.
RB: The play gives the sense of a world, where the richer you are, the more powerful you are and the less information you need to give away. The companies and governments at the top have access to the most information and the people at the bottom have access to the least, and so it's sort of creating a power system in that society.
RL: I think, in some ways, the play mirrors our own inequalities—where the class gap is just getting wider and wider right now—but on a data level.
I realized that if I wrote something closer to reality, then it would go out of date in the next hour. I think that, sometimes, it's easier to evaluate a situation if it's pushed into a slightly heightened place. —Rose Lewenstein
How did you go about researching the play?
RB: I come from a very technical background. I have a degree in physics, and do quite a lot of freelance software development work. I read a lot of geek news websites, so I noticed a rise in stories about computer hacking and an imminent cyber Pearl Harbor. I was collecting these stories and thought we should do something on the subject.
RL: I'm not a techie at all. We met a lot of tech journalists, ethical hackers, people from Government Communications headquarters, security experts, and computer scientists at Cambridge. We started working on Darknet around the time of the Snowden leaks and Ross Ulbricht's arrest. So I was thinking about these opposing worlds of mass surveillance and total anonymity, and about where we, as a society, want to be on that spectrum.
Did you think about writing those specific events into the play?
RL: I realized that if I wrote something so close to reality, then it would go out of date in the next hour. I felt that I needed to set this in a slightly different sphere so we can look at it and compare to what's happening now. I think that, sometimes, it's easier to evaluate a situation if it's pushed into a slightly heightened place.
What was the journey from script to stage like?
RB: We wanted the experience to feel a little like going online—to create visuals and a stage that reflected the subject matter, rather than just a series of arbitrary pretty images. We started to play with ideas—what does an online conversation look like? Or, how could you stage a hacking attack?
RL: It's also about pushing the boundaries a little so that, visually, it's on the brink of something absurd. Because I'm trying to mimic the way that we view the internet. The internet, as a whole, has a kind of personality. Even memes and emoticons—they have a certain humor and an identity of their own. I wanted to bring all that in the play.
What are the more challenging aspects of taking a script from paper to the stage?
RB: To some extent, it's choosing which ideas to really push forward with. Rose has given us this brilliant, incredibly complicated script with about 40 characters and a dozen of locations. Some of them are very focal and some are just a voice on the Internet. We are not The National Theatre—we have seven actors to deliver this with. We have also only had four weeks to put Darknet together. These are all really good constraints but we needed to be careful with what we put our energy on.
RL: You can imagine what a mindfuck it was for me to write it.
Rose, why did you feel the need to create so many characters?
RL: I didn't want to censor myself, I wanted to do something that I hadn't seen or I hadn't read before. It was a scary process because it was like nothing I had done before so I couldn't follow what I had learnt about the craft of theater, which is about getting a group of characters, taking them on a journey and wrapping it all up at the end. I'm not interested in writing only that kind of play.
Right now, in Britain, there is a lot of talk regarding the new surveillance bill. Has that influenced the play?
RL: It has, because it's about mass surveillance. But the Snoopers' Charter is surveillance from the government's end, while the play is looking at it from a more corporate angle—it's about corporate data collection. It's not about people spying on your emails as such, but all your data being shared and amalgamated, and used for profit.
How do you feel about the Snoopers' Charter?
RL: I would veer towards valuing our privacy over so-called security and transparency—partly because the kinds of people who are plotting terrorist attacks at a very sophisticated level are not going to be chatting about it on Facebook Messenger.
RB: It's also about what kind of example we want to set as a country. We are one of the first countries in the world to legislate on this. As a democracy, do we want to be saying it's okay to mass surveillance?
Reading up on the play it kind of reminded me of George Orwell's '1984'.
RB: Yes, but in Darknet the government is almost conspicuously absent. There's a sense of the authorities in general being able to have a very high level of access, but it's never spelt out. More importantly, that's not really the focus of the play; it's more of a background theme.
RL: I think that governments are being increasingly corrupted by corporations—that everything is becoming privatized. It feels like corporations are in charge these days, anyway.
Finally, what are you hoping audiences will take away?
RL: I want to move people to evaluate their relationship with their data and think about the choices they're making—whether they're consenting to giving away personal information. I want to inspire people to inform and educate themselves on these things. But I also want them to have a good time; I think it should be fun.
Darknet is on at the Southwark Playhouse from April 18 until May 7, 2016. Previews start on April 14. A series of post show talks will also run. Details can be found here.