Cyber Space

As critical as it is elegant, Joana Moll’s work finds its place at the intersection of art, research and activism. In the recent years Moll conducted investigations on the accessibility of user data in the realm of dating sites, on the environmental impact of data traffic on large-scale platforms and implementing carbon budget to venues and organisms. We had the opportunity to chat with her during the 2021 edition of Elevate Festival in Graz.

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Author: David Bola

Photo Credit: Johanna Lamprecht

Hi Joana, glad to talk with you today. First, how would you describe the relationship between arts and research in your work? 

For me, it’s quite obvious: all the projects that I do have a strong research background, but their output is more artistic. Every time I start a new project, I think about the output, the aesthetics that the project will have.

These aesthetics also guide me through the things that I have to research. Art and research inform each other in every step of the process. They are very intertwined.

The Dating Brokers: investigating information traffic in the dating world 

How did you start working on the “Dating Brokers” project?

I’ve been dealing with the way data was being transacted, surveillance at large (corporative surveillance especially), and how the data was being sold, commercialized and exchanged between different actors.  But I never really bought data myself, never on the dark side. I thought it would be an interesting point to put yourself on, to try to acquire data and see how this works. 

I just Googled “buy dat-“, and somehow I made a mistake. Instead of “data, I put “dating”. Google filled in the rest to have “buy dating profiles”. Why not? Sure, let’s go for it. It was one of the greatest mistakes I did in my work lately. 

A bunch of different websites were selling dating profiles. I bought 1 million profiles for 136 euros. It was really easy. I could not tell if 136 euros for a million profiles is a lot or if it’s cheap. There’s no way I could tell because I don’t have any reference in other prices.

In what form do you receive the profiles? Is it a package full of files? 

It was a CSV file with very detailed information on each profile, plus five pictures for each profile. There’s a lot of very detailed information because of the fact that these people are seeking love, and we tend to give out much more intimate details when we are looking for a partner, or for friendship, or even for sex, than we would do generally in any other app. That’s why dating profiles are especially sensitive when it comes to protecting identities.

Joana Moll @ We are Europe
Screenshot from Joana Moll’s Project “The Dating Brokers”.

Did the sellers try to verify your identity? 

Not at all. You just need a PayPal account, and that’s it, you get the profiles. I was actually surprised that I could buy dating profiles at all. Once you pass this barrier year you can expect anything.

That’s really terrifying to say the least. What should we do to protect ourselves? Who should we go to to seek help on this matter?  

We should go to our politicians, the policymakers, because it doesn’t really matter what we do individually. Also, there’s a lot of great organizations that advocate for digital rights and privacy rights, and I think that’s the right places to go. I mean it is impossible to control what’s happening to our data. It’s not possible for a single user. I really believe it’s only possible to control it through laws, through regulation.

And well, that’s also hard, because all the layers that configure the digital economy are very hidden. Even policymakers often don’t understand what’s really happening. It’s something that is very hard to explain, when you manage to explain them, they’ve already changed. It’s a tricky process, but there’s a lot of rights advocates and they’re good at their job. I think we should trust them.

Unveiling the environmental impact of data trafficking 

In another project, you work on the impact of data on the environment, through the lens of a regular amazon user. Could you tell us more about that?  

I had been dealing a lot with the environmental impact of data because it’s really invisible for now, and it’s a thing that has to be urgently disclosed. With this project, I linked two things in corporative surveillance and energy consumption. What a regular user sees in a website is never everything that there is to see.

There’s a lot of scripts (editor’s note – a program that runs itself in the website once implemented to the source code) in charge of doing a lot of things. Some of them are just usability related, but a lot of them are about tracking identities or tracking every single movement that a user does on a website.

For “The hidden life of the Amazon user“, I just made a very simple purchase on Amazon and I checked everything that was going on behind the scenes while I was doing this purchase in my browser. The main motivation was to reveal that users have a lot of data extracted from them – which ultimately will generate revenues for these companies – but also that some of the energy consumption aspect of those processes is assumed by the user.

Everything that you do on a  website is downloaded in the user processor. It means, that’s it’s downloaded on your computer, in your home, with your electricity. You’re paying the bill. It’s important to a shade light on this because we don’t tend to see things like that.

Next Liberty during Elevate 2021 @ We are Europe
Next Liberty during Elevate 2021 © Johanna Lamprecht

Would it be possible to ask of websites to be transparent on the environnemental impact they have? Even for it to be visible on their platforms.

With the proper proper legislation It could. What I’m trying to do is many steps before that, it’s just to inform that this is happening. A lot of times we don’t even know where we need to look and what we need to ask for, because we don’t know what’s happening.

There an information box on your website that shows the amount of energy used. Could that become the norm for other websites, or even physical projects? 

Actually, I’m going to launch a new project in September. It’s a site-specific installation for a museum in Barcelona. We’re working with a carbon budget and we plant to reduce the carbon budget of the whole building by half, which means that we will need to limit a lot of things. 

There’s a bunch of laws in Catalonia that pushes governments to work with carbon budget. They’re not fulfilling it though because it’s just too complicated.

What is the first step of such a project? Do you have to make an audit of the building’s consumption? 

We did an audit with a company that specializes in that. First, we do an audit of the average consumption for the whole building, then we plan to reduce it by half and see what we have left. For exemple, we know that we can have 1 hour of air conditioner everyday plus three or 4 hours of light. But if we close the air conditioner for the entire day, then we can have 8 hours of light. 

It’s quite complex and also very funny because it’s in an artistic context. We can play a lot with it.

The complexity of these modulations also shows that even with technology and knowledge, there is no simple solution…  

I’m a huge opposer to techno-solutionism. Techno-solutionism is the idea that every single problem on Earth can have a tech-oriented solution, and that it has to be a really quick fix. While doing the carbon budget project, we realized that those implementations are not technical. They have nothing to do with the technical solution or with technical negotiation. It’s a social negotiation. You have to modify social interactions in order to do things differently. It’s not like every problem is the same problem. In general, we really fail to acknowledge the complexity of problems.

On the author

David Bola is the content editor of We are Europe.

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