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Cell Lets You See Your Own Digital Aura

Whether you like it or not, you have a digital aura that follows you everywhere you go. But it’s easy not to think about, because you usually can’t see it.

Cell Lets You See Your Own Digital Aura

In case you haven’t heard, there are a lot of companies tracking you online. In light of the March 1st privacy policy switchover, Google has been making headlines, but they are not alone. Alexis Madrigal found 104 others, all part of the ecosystem of advertising that works behind the scenes to track who we are, to better guess at what kinds of ads we are likely to click.

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It is in this context that I draw your attention to Cell, a Kinect-based video installation piece by collaborators James Alliban and Keiichi Matsuda.

Cell is a project about online identity, says Matsuda. It began as a conversation about how people represent themselves on the Internet. “The idea of the ‘digital aura’ became central to the project–a cloud of information that is associated with us, our virtual double,” he says. When visitors enter a room rigged up with Cell, keywords float out of the air and attach themselves to an individual. They follow you around as you move through the area, like a virtual mirror of your reputation.

Technically, the project expands the limits of what the Kinect can do. Matsuda says the decision to use multiple Kinects allowed for a bigger play area, but caused many late nights of setup and calibration. Microsoft supported the endeavor, putting the team in touch with Matchbox Mobile who built a custom openFrameworks add-on for the project. They intend to release the library and sourcecode for free. In the meantime, they are accepting opportunities to mount the installation in different venues.

“The installation is designed as a provocation,” says Matsuda, “a tool in which to think about the opportunities and pitfalls of ubiquitous personal data.” What’s especially interesting is that the words that are attached to you somewhat at random. The installation doesn’t have any particular access to your real online identity. But once the words are attached, you can’t easily shake them off. This feels very analogous to the way that whatever algorithms are trying to track me decided that what I needed to see were ads for home energy audits (I don’t own a home) and an MMA octagon that I can set up in my backyard (just … no).

I love Cell for the questions it asks about the extent to which our identities are constructed and the extent to which they are accrued. It’s common to talk about our online identities as being something which we create. We write bios, we share links, we post photos, we choose what we say, and we tell our stories. But, as Madrigal’s research shows, much of what companies know about us they learn through our digital wake–the unintended stories that we tell through our searches and browsing habits. Consider Tim Carmody’s trip down memory lane with memories evoked by keywords.

While we may want to imagine that our digital aura will be constructed and controlled and look something like this …

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… it’ll probably look like Cell.