When Google Glass reared its cyborgian head on the scene earlier this year, concerns regarding the implications of wearing the equivalent of a smartphone on your face mounted quickly. Chief among the issues raised were those of privacy related to the headset's ability to surreptitiously photograph and record video of strangers in public places, and even more private ones, like restrooms. The media was in outrage. A flurry of bans were issued. And all this was before the massive can of worms that is the NSA surveillance leak was unleashed on the public to heighten the tension.
While Google Glass isn't the first device that allows us to photograph in public, a point explored eloquently by WIRED's Mat Honan, it's perhaps the device itself and what it signifies that makes us so uncomfortable. It makes it harder for us to ignore that fact that we're increasingly being watched, being tracked, being monitored -- most often by the very luxury devices that are supposed to bring convenience and ease of use into our overcomplicated lives.
Hoping to shed light on these issues, James George and Alexander Porter created the slyPhone, a small, lasercut device made out of mirrored plexi that attaches to your iPhones camera and allows you to take a photo of someone without raising your phone. The project was inspired by the idea of sousveillance, or inverse surveillance, that "typically involves community-based recording from a variety of perspectives."
Following in the footsteps of Glass, the device that both inspired the project and is the brunt of its critique, the artists are launching their own "Explorers" program and will be giving away slyPhone devices (just tweet them a description of what you'd capture with #isly to enter). They hope to chronicle all the photos taken with the device on their #slyphone hashtag and photo stream. So far, most of the pictures are blurry shots from the streets or the subway.
We spoke with them over email to learn more about the project.
The Creators Project: Can you tell us a bit about the origins of slyPhone? When and why did you decide to create it?
James George and Alexander Porter: The slyPhone is a very low tech device: an angled mirror that clips to your phone, redirecting the camera’s view straight out in front of you like a periscope. By removing the need to make the deliberate gesture of raising your hand to take a picture, we’re able to slyly capture candid portraits and street photography without drawing attention.
We were inspired by historical street photographers like Walker Evans' Many Are Called series, featuring candid shots taken in the New York subway system during the depression. Back then cameras were obviously much larger. Evans would hide his under his shirt with the lens peaking out and use a hand trigger up his sleeve.
Interested in pursuing a similar style for a series of our own with a contemporary edge, we devised the slyPhone with mirrored plexi and a laser cutter. The first prototypes were cut in May, but we kept them between us and a few close friends for several months, just sharing our shots on a dropbox. We needed time to explore our own feelings about these photos before we made anything public.
Do you think of slyPhone as a utilitarian device for hackers, activists, civilians or is it more of a conceptual art piece that's meant to encourage a dialogue around these issues?
The photographic possibilities that slyPhone unlocks are what we are most excited about. Our interest is in capturing the deep curiosity experienced when in the immediate company of strangers in public. Living in a city, we see hundreds of people every day for the first time and most we will never see again. In these fleeting moments, we are compelled to guess their stories and ponder how their lives differ from our own. Social norms stop most from engaging in spontaneous conversation, but we may experience a deep desire to capture the ephemerality of the encounter.
We’ve collected a series of images and will be publishing them through the slyPhone twitter account. The next step is releasing the device publicly to spark a conversation about the changing implications of public photography and technology.
Privacy and photography in public spaces is a topic that's starting to heat up right now with devices like Google Glass and Memoto about to enter into the consumer marketplace. How does a tool like SlyPhone fit into this landscape?
During the time we were experimenting with the slyPhone, Google launched the Glass Explorers program and began distributing Google Glass to a select few individuals. There was an uproar in response to the imminent surveillance society suggested by the device’s omnipresent camera. A new technology not well distributed will introduce a power imbalance between those who have it and those who don’t. Right now, having Glass turns you into some techno-elitist with the ability to monitor those around you for unknown purposes. This controversy casts the slyPhone in new light. The device hints that there are clever and low tech ways of shifting the balance back through simple hacks. A device’s intended use is often much less important than how it may be misused or modified. You don’t need a pair of fancy camera glasses to surreptitiously collect data or imagery of your surroundings.
What are some of the other potential uses--activist, benign, or otherwise--that you see slyPhone being applied to?
Public photography is about much more than spying and surveillance. For us the photographic history needs to be included. Photographers like Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank or more recently we discover, Vivian Maier; often take image without permission in public yet are regarded as artistic or historic treasures. Any capture device can of course be used for political oppression, surveillance or for the nefarious whims of an individual – we’re hoping to explore the insightful or beautiful images the public can make with these same tools.
Whenever we release a tool we give up control of how it will be used. The only way to guide it is to set the tone at the outset. The slyPhone video keeps the mood light and shows how it contributes in the oncoming future with devices like Glass. We hope to be surprised and shocked by the ideas it ignites and will be watching it closely.
Anyone who wants to contribute can post a tweet using the hashtag #slyphone and it will show up on our site. We’re hoping this becomes a forum for an image-based conversation.
How can someone get their hands on one?
The website has a link to the laser cutter paths to create your own slyPhone from mirrored acrylic, compatible with iPhone 4 & 5. We know that not everyone has an iPhone device, and even fewer people have access to laser cutters. We’ll be distributing them to people who get in touch with us through our #isly contest. Just send a tweet starting with #isly describing what you would use it for and we will mail the winners a slyPhone.
We recently discovered that F.A.T Lab artist Aram Bartholl made a similar hack back in 2009 with just tape and a glass mirror. There are also some products on the market that you can buy. Our intent is to draw the conversation out in light of everything that is happening now. We hope that others find a way to make their own and extend the designs and capture their surroundings in compelling ways.
You've done a couple of projects photographing people on the subway -- what is it about this environment that interests and appeals to you?
That’s right--our DepthEditorDebug series was all about the future of public surveillance in the subway, inspired by the WNYC story about a failed contract with a weapons contractor to create an “intelligent video” system in the NYC metro. We decided to use this setting for the slyPhone video because it’s a place where a lot of people can relate to feeling stared at and otherwise intruded on. It’s also a hat tip to Walker Evans.