Wednesday, December 9, 2020


Jonathan Hatley, Mason Mann, Ollie Hsieh (2020)


With the onset of GDPR and controversies like Cambridge Analytica and Palantir’s ties to the CIA, FBI, and NSA, data privacy has grown in importance and public awareness. Switchboard focuses on the omnipresent nature of uberveillance and the spectrum of existing responses to it, namely a resignation to the overbearing nature of institutional monitoring and, in contrast, sharp pushback and empowerment through taking control of one’s own data. We provide an alternate form of communication that exists in the remnants of our technological world and its societal collapse. In this society, inhabitants scavenge for parts to communicate in close proximity and attempt to evade surveillance to preserve their sense of self. 

Surveillance and sousveillance

Coined by Steve Mann, “sousveillance” implies existence of cameras on smaller entities whereas surveillance often refers to larger structures like buildings. Among other veillance semantics, Ali and Mann highlight that while surveillance and sousveillance are largely connotive of a visual nature, both extend to audio and general observational signals. In their work, they define all forms of veillance as purposeful social action and describe a recurrence relation in their definition of society as “two people, or one person plus a society.” [1] In defining veillance as such, Ali and Mann exclude inadvertent monitoring from their analysis and introduce an economical relationship to veillance, one of which trust and reputation lend to identity definition.

Michael and Michael speak to a broader attitude regarding privacy and identity, stating that loss of privacy is equivalent to “forfeiting a critical component of our personal identity.” That being said, they note the push for David Brin’s described transparent society leads to frequently ignored social implications and give the example of how the ethical obligation of advancements in biomedical engineering are often brushed under the rug. They offer the following strawman for lackadaisical responses to infringement of data privacy: “The argument most often heard in the public domain is ‘if you have nothing to hide, why worry?’” They cite a number of problems with this mentality, namely:
  1. Surveillance undermines freedom by introducing “undue constraint”
  2. Surveillance threatens trust and its affordance of thought and belief existing outside coercion
  3. Disruption of freedom affects personality development and blurs the lines between desired and supposed action
Michael and Michael expand on the third problem: “Disruption of any of these freedom or rights would affect our decision-making processes and contribute to unhealthy personality development where what we “want” to do … becomes what we think we must do (and theatrically engage in)” [2]. In other words, the mitigation of freedom that arises from surveillance yields an orchestrated personality.
A more pronounced effect is observed in that of chipification, or “embedding of a ‘technique’ inside the human body,” which Michael and Michael touch upon in one of their other papers. Their positions on privacy arguably extrapolate in an extremist fashion but speak to potential dystopian futures that mirror that of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. They argue that nanotechnology implies artificial building of one’s personality through the inevitable capability to download one’s identity and subsequently diminishes both one’s physical and internal workings [3].

Aesthetic nature and implications for societal structure

The inhabitants that exist in our speculative universe scavenge for electrical remains to create secure communication channels, leading to two implications:
  1. More components indicates a larger number of connection points and thus support of increased functionality as a receiver, dispatcher, or both
  2. Higher quality components lead to stabler connections and more accurate and intelligible sound
Both (1) and (2) open opportunities for collaboration and informational exchange, yielding a byproduct of elevated status and ontological security when one has a high number of quality components. Switchboard hones in on the two distinct roles (shown below) and the hodge podge, industrial aesthetic that results from scavenging.

Intended system architecture

Though our work includes only two masks, one can extrapolate the relation between entities to that of a network. With this, one can infer that an increased number of high quality connection points means more lines of communication and thus information.

Fig 1. Each unit can either receive, dispatch, or both

Technological components

The system functions on both ends through the use of piezoelectric transducers. These discs translate between physical deformations and voltage, allowing them to function as both a microphone and speaker element. On the transmitting side of the mask, the piezo is placed inside the mask in front of the mouth area. Piezos are typically used as contact microphones but with enough gain from an amplifier they function as regular microphones as well. The signal is then amplified and sent out the quarter inch cables attached to the front. The receiving mask has an array of quarter inch inputs that can be patched into. These inputs are all combined with a summing amplifier and are sent to another piezo element wired as a bone conduction speaker element. The piezo is connected to a metal bar that is placed in front of the listener’s mouth, which they are then able to bite on, sending the signal through the user’s teeth, into their skull and to their ears, forming a closed line of communication that can’t be heard without physical contact with the bar.
Using cheap, commonly available components is important to our piece. All components were salvaged and repurposed as they would be in a post-technological society and the simplicity of the system lends itself to a DIY approach. Audio cables are simple to use, hacked and built with no precise specifications and only a few required conductors. Piezo elements are perhaps even more common as they are used in most household appliances that beep (eg. microwaves, alarm clocks.) Additionally other common connectors could be used as shown in our dispatcher mask. The “tentacle” mass coming from the mouth contains XLR, RCA and RJ45 connectors as well. Audio can be sent over any cable that has at least two conductors so people would be able to fashion communication systems out of whatever they can find.


  1. Ali, M., Mann., S., “The inevitability of the transition from a surveillance-society to a veillance-society: Moral and economic grounding for sousveillance”
  2. Michael, M.G., Michael, K., “The Fallout from Emerging Technologies: Surveillance, Networks, and Suicide”
  3. Michael, M.G., Michael, K., “Uberveillance: Microchipping People and the Assault on Privacy”