Listening Back is an add-on for the Chrome and Firefox browsers that sonifies Internet cookies in real time as one browses online. Utilising digital waveform synthesis, Listening Back provides an audible presence for hidden infrastructures that collect personal and identifying data. Addressing the proliferation of ubiquitous online surveillance and the methods by which our information flows are intercepted by mechanisms of automated data collection, Listening Back functions to expose real-time digital surveillance and consequently the ways in which our everyday relationships to being surveilled have become normalised. This project has been presented as live performances and performance lectures and can be downloaded for use through the Firefox and Chrome online stores.
Algorithmic surveillance driven by monumental collections of data is increasingly making consequential decisions in our lives. Online this equates to the extraction, aggregation, manipulation, collection and sale of personal data, which is in turn used by major tech platforms and the data broker industry to curate our newsfeeds, influence our cultural consumption, academic research, consumer purchases and behaviour. The cookie's invention in 1994 is historically situated at the origins of automated data collection and is a key device in the widespread commercialisation of the World Wide Web. By sonifying cookie data at the intersection of the browser and the world wide web a tangible experience of these data capture processes is produced within their socio-technical environments. Sounds ability to interrupt the visual surface of the browser interface as we go about our everyday browsing routines is crucial as a means to experience our data being captured in real time.
Our access to the World Wide Web is mediated by screen devices and Listening Back enables users to go beyond the event on the screen by providing a sonic tangible experience of surveillance infrastructures that underlie our Web experience. Built upon a distributed infrastructure of cables, servers, satellites and coded protocol that dates back to the invention of packet switching during the 1950’s cold war era, the Web browser is crucial as a site of engagement that conceals the algorithmic processes intrinsic to the functionality of the web. By directly intervening with the World Wide Web as a technological, social and political platform, the Listening Back browser add-on intervenes with our everyday use of technology by interrupting the visual surface of its control interface. Sonification is employed as a compositional tool to reveal asymmetrical relationships of power inherent to online surveillance cultures by providing a means to listen back to some of the imperceptible infrastructures that monitor our habitual online browsing. Sound here challenges what is apparent by providing access to infrastructures that remain otherwise hidden beneath the visual organisation of the World Wide Web and therefore do not take equal part in the production of knowledge and understanding. Listening in this context questions presumptions, re-examines comprehensions about reality, and encourages other kinds of thinking.
By sonifying an online tracking technology I ask what it means for the study of online surveillance to engage sound with processes of understanding, representation, meaning and knowledge production. Through the real-time sonification of cookie data, Listening Back as an unfolding sound composition provides experiential environments to feel, listen and reflect the ways in which online surveillance processes intersect with our daily browsing experience. Sound draws attention to the normalisation and mundanity of contemporary online surveillance and functions as a form of artistic output as well as platform for critical reflection. It is engaged as a means to mobilise thinking through affective transmissions, that is in experiential, embodied and sensing terms.
The unfolding of the sound for Listening Back is determined by the user’s web browsing and consequently, cookie activity. In this way the data broker industry is a co-composer, as is Google and Mozilla who determine what cookie data I have access to through their browser APIs. This reflects on the ways in which the data broker industry and major tech corporations are co-composing our web experience. By highlighting data with political consequences, I am hopeful that aesthetic strategies of awareness will affect a new attentiveness, understanding, knowledge and change. By offering another type of knowledge production, the poetic exposition of opaque processes calls into question the normalisation of everyday browsing and its implications, providing a space for artistic investigation into the complexity of the mundane power of online networked relations. Deeply entrenched and constitutively entangled in the technological protocol of our everyday mediation the opaqueness, ubiquitousness and mundanity of networked surveillance makes them easy to legitimise and normalise.
The development phase of this project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.