About the 3rd Workshop on obfuscation
In the Spring of 2020, as we were in full force preparing the 3rd Workshop on Obfuscation, COVID-19 was recognized by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. In waves that hit all parts of the world with varying degrees of severity, the pandemic continues to rip across most of the globe. With lockdowns, people's and governments' dependency on digital technologies have been intensified. Platforms of all kinds have become the site of small pleasures of a socially distanced life as statistics (numbers of deaths, new infections, R-rates) have become an essential part of people’s daily orientation. Facemasks have entered the space of facial covers, a space that was contentious long before the trajectories of droplets became common knowledge. Governments, pressed by the urgency of the moment, turned to tech companies with their already rolled out global tracking infrastructures for scaling up public health services like contact tracing. In the process, false dichotomies were presented as the only real choices, options between lockdown or surveillance, economy or the social.
Obfuscation strategies represent creative ways to evade surveillance, protect privacy, improve security; as well as protest, contest, resist and sabotage technology. Obfuscation methods render data more ambiguous, difficult to exploit and interpret, less useful. They rely on the addition of gibberish, meaningless data; they pollute, add noise, randomize. Obfuscation invokes an intuitive form of protection: it distorts that which is visible to render it less (or in)visible. It hides the trees among the forest.
An online workshop on obfuscation
The aim of the 3rd Workshop on Obfuscation was to foster interaction among diverse communities of research, concern and practice interested in obfuscation. In previous editions, the Workshop on Obfuscation had focused on the art and science of privacy protection through obfuscation in contexts where actions are monitored and analyzed by humans, organizations or information technologies. Yet as the digital expands into the physical, to govern the human and the more-than-human, we found obfuscation also in decision-making, moral choices, coalition-making and novel forms of resistance to the increasing use of optimization in managing our everyday lives. Events at the time further entrenched and intensified our dependency on and vulnerability to technologies that still seem like inescapable technologies.
With these overwhelming yet intriguing developments in the back of our minds, we reconsidered whether to do a Workshop on Obfuscation, and, if so, how we would do it. The first of these questions was rapidly and decisively answered: yes, the need remained. Indeed, contemporary events at the time of our discussions amplified the need to understand how obfuscation strategies work, and how they can be put to work, taking into account subtle yet powerful changes in social, workplace, political and health spheres and the rise in centrality of technical systems for citizens, corporations, and governments. In a society thus transformed, we wanted to ask not only how the strategies could and might be put to work, but also whether they should; whether we needed to generate a new ethics of obfuscation.
Answering the second question of how to conduct the workshop took more time. Facilitating the emergence of a community, fostering interaction, thinking together, exchanging perspectives and encouraging discussion are goals that we had traditionally pursued through in-person workshops, symposiums and other types of formats in shared physical spaces. We were all keenly aware that ‘simply’ moving the originally planned face-to-face event online would not work, and could even create its very own obfuscation-related challenges. Moreover, we did not wish to succumb to the ease and convenience of dominant private platforms and solutions that had in the previous few months positioned themselves as inescapable intermediaries of our online everyday interactions. Aware of the challenges, but also opportunities, that these circumstances represent, we set ourselves to explore ways to create both a viable and exciting new workshop on obfuscation.
The workshop featured a full day of online talks and gatherings on May 7, 2021, preceded by a vernissage on May 4, 2021, where we exhibited artworks and media from invited speakers. We also invited participants to join a study group. Study group participants were mentored by leading researchers on obfuscation Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum as well as other invited scholars and artists.
Lastly, A Catalog of Formats for Digital Discomfort, compiled by researcher and cultural mediator Jara Rocha, provides insights into the vectors of thinking that went into organizing the 3rd Workshop on Obfuscation. It is based on years of practice from artists, activists and research communities who have been studying and experimenting with the use of experimental gathering methods, creative open and free software and critical transdisciplinarity for communities of practice, care and concern. It includes a collection of online events that we studied and inspired us.
The 3rd Workshop on obfuscation was organized by Ero Balsa (Cornell Tech), Seda Gürses (TU Delft), Helen Nissenbaum (Cornell Tech) and Jara Rocha (Independent researcher).
The workshop received generous funding and support from the following entities:
For a complete list of acknowledgements, we invite you to read the 3rd Workshop on Obfuscation Post-Script.
Ero Balsa (Cornell Tech)
Seda Gürses (TU Delft)
Helen Nissenbaum (Cornell Tech)
Jara Rocha (Independent researcher)