The Americas in The Glass Room Ryan Adolf | Theater 25 AC

Title Page: Mimi Onuoha's collection of missing datasets highlights data that's not yet recorded but should be. I thought the presentation of files in a filing cabinet was very fitting. This is the sort of thing a government worker might have in their desk. Putting all the ideas in a box gives it a sort of gravity another medium might not possess.

Glass is meant to be broken. We have examples in the metaphorical glass ceiling as well as the ornaments my family inevitably breaks while hanging them on the tree. The Glass Room is a room like any other room. Inside, anything could be happening. There could be people. Those people could be talking about us. Maybe they have some data we don't know. The Glass Room is a room like any other room, but it's made of glass.

It's transparent, like a window, and it's meant to be broken.


Behind that glass is America. The exhibit's focus is on American technology companies, and those companies could not exist without America, nor could today's America exist without those companies, so of course America will be in the room. And throwing the metaphors out the window, this Glass Room is an exhibit in San Francisco named The Glass Room. The exhibit has artwork, and this artwork incorporates imagery of America. I ask:

What type of America is depicted by the imagery of the interactive artwork in The Glass Room, and do any of these artworks portray multiple Americas?

Naturally, research will be conducted at the exhibit and will incorporate analysis of the artwork, specifically looking for the visions of America the works draw upon as well as the visions they paint. As the artwork is interactive, the research will by necessity analyze the ways we are intended to interact with the art and how this interaction changes the America we, as ordinary people, are used to performing in. Likely there will be different pieces referring to past, present, and future Americas. Some might refer to past events that have seen little awareness from the public, while others may highlight flaws in our current beliefs about America and the rest may warn of a future, harmful America. Some pieces may present two Americas at once.

After developing the idea of this essay, I became aware of the coherence of the pieces in the room. They all tell a story of empowerment: One where we can choose between the fragments of America we want and do not want. Just as it takes strong will to punch a piece of glass, it takes strong will to trust the vision of America you wish for and work towards it with the support of all the technology of the modern age.


As I entered the exhibition, my initial preconceptions were initially blown away. I imagined a thin, long, narrow room with orderly exhibits side by side. Instead, I walked into this square two-story complex with the artwork carefully laid out into a sprawling pattern. A set of artwork on my left immediately caught my attention. A collection of art exploring the responsibility of companies and trust we have in them consisted of one lit-up piece inviting me to explore how tied I was to Google and other art. As I moved through the exhibition, other large and flashy objects caught my eye. One was a large infographic of everything that goes into producing, consuming, and disposing of an Amazon voice assistant. Next to it was a line of people waiting to get their picture taken by a machine that matched their face to public images scraped from social media. Hidden on one of the pillars was this almost retro-arcade-game-looking box that, to my surprise, gave your real social media fake followers in return for real cash.

Upstairs, the tone shifted from the more interactive exhibits to videos. I was first greeted by a set of tablets playing product videos. Although I recognized none, these are the types of videos I used to watch while I browsed through Kickstarter, except the text placed next to the video explaining why it was in the exhibit forced me to look at it in a different lens. I found myself, right as I put on my headphones to watch the video, immediately ready to criticize the video and seek elements contrary to my beliefs of what America should be like, rather than preparing to relax and watch the company's pitch. The overly-sanitary white headphones and their uncontrollably loud volume certainly did not help me relax.

On the other side of the hallway encircling the second floor were videos of workers assembling electronic devices. These were the least interactive of all the artworks. Clusters of people watched besides me, as we all waited for the video to play a complete loop. I head back down again, noticing work that I hadn't noticed before. I watched one mirror spit out random observations of people like "97% surprising!" in fun, bubbly text. I found out I was 10% surprising after I got a chance to stand in front of it. A man observing me from behind snickered.

A map of crime in San Francisco. Rather than murders or burglaries, the map highlights areas of large financial crime in red.
You can choose 25 different cameras of the US-Mexico border to watch via surveillance footage. Artist Joana Moll recreated the interface of a website that crowdsourced this surveillance and allowed users to report activity to the police. I felt a great sense of power interacting with the display. If I can change who gets to come to America, I can change America itself.
Normally, I'd think of the only people responsible for making Amazon run as Amazon employees or people who once worked for Amazon. Joana Moll's piece changed my mind. Everyone who uses Amazon runs Amazon's code in their browser, and the energy usage expended by our computers in this process is just as important as the energy used by Amazon's data centers.


We need some of both Americas: a peaceful America and a violent America, and we can choose how much of each we want
This piece imagines what an Amazon Echo purposed for military use may look like. Despite all our advances in hardware and our ability to pack gigahertz of processing power inside a tiny chip, artist Wesley Goatley instead opted for a bulkier machine that looks like it's from the past.

I'll first examine the Amazon Echo envisioned as military equipment, the most complex exhibit in my opinion. Amazon sells books, movies, music, shipping, cloud servers, and home assistants. The way these are services are broken up, we never often think of them being related. Sure Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Prime shipping both have "Amazon Prime" in their names, but I never think of video streaming when I'm receiving packages or packages when I'm streaming videos. Similarly, Amazon produces technology for the American military, but I'd never envision solders fighting as I say "Hey Alexa." This artwork was created to challenge this separation, and to force its audience to recognize that these two Americas: one in which soldiers wade through jungles and trenches, risking and taking lives, and another in which we can relax at home and order new clothing without having to move anywhere or even take out a phone, are linked together.

This idea that the peaceful and wartime America are connected is not a novel idea; America's creation story is that a war with Britain brought the country democracy, and with representative government, peace. And with the Cold War, the US took on fighting Communism so to protect the peaceful, non-Communist, American democracy. However, the common American desires peace but does not desire violence. If violence is needed to keep the peace, then it is necessary. This is why soldiers speak of duty to their country. However, there lies a dangerous region of the Venn diagram of peace versus violence where violence does not intersect peace. A region where we may be fighting a losing war in Vietnam because no President wants to admit the first American defeat. We need some of both Americas: a peaceful America and a violent America, and we can choose how much of each we want.

Violent America helped create peaceful America. However, peaceful America does not have to create violent America. The connection between what peaceful products we create and the violence performed with them can be greatly shrunken or expanded. The act of displaying these two Americas through a product we can readily buy from Amazon shows that our own purchasing decisions affect this connection. The artist made an interesting choice modeling the military case as technology from ten years ago. It's not futuristic in any regard. This choice has the effect of making more clear that the art is referring to the current military, not the unshaped one of the future. And if not our current military, it is referring to our older military, the one that participated in huge wars from Vietnam to WWII and drafted so many Americans that before were sitting in their living room, the other America.

The construction of an America where we can faster admit the poor and starving is linked with the America where we target and expel our immigrants.

Another exhibit which made me think even more deeply was the exhibit of company videos. Some of these videos would seem perfectly normal if I watched them as YouTube ads or on news sites, yet switching their context forces me to ask why the video was picked for the exhibit.

One video depicted a system that aggregated farming data to increase yield. It latches onto the mythos that more productivity is always better but glosses over the fact that a central system processing all this data accumulates power into a single entity that can become a monopoly, and that agriculture already has precedent for exploitative monopolies (e.g. Monsanto). The text next to the video asks the viewer to ponder whether this conglomeration of data is truly beneficial.

This is a normal video marketed by UHNCR. The message of helping refugees would normally resonate with me. However, the context of watching this video next to the other artworks made my feelings for the video conflicted.

A second depicted an identity system for refugees that gives them faster access to aid. This sounds great, and even after the exhibit I still debate whether or not this is good. The context of this video being in the exhibit shines a light on the fact that tracking refugees can make them just as easily denied service and targeted as they are helped. The construction of an America where we can faster admit the poor and starving is linked with the America where we target and expel our immigrants. The idea is contradictory, but no more than the connection between peaceful and violent America.

Similar to the border patrol interface, this artwork allows you to report jaywalkers seen on the display by pressing the button. However, there is no indication this is make-believe. If I pressed the button, I might actually have notified the police. Nobody pressed that button as far as I could see.

A more interactive exhibit invited users to press a button when they saw people jaywalking on a video feed to send a screenshot to the police department. The exhibit-goers next to me questioned if the system in fact did as it said or was a fake. I am not sure myself; however, the possibility the machine may report users is enough to be scary. The button presents a choice. I can ignore the instructions and not press the button, changing nothing in my life. I've never reported jaywalking. Or, I could press the button, putting myself in the position of a police officer. Assuming the role of police puts upon me all responsibilities of charging someone with a crime. If I were the only one to press the button that day and I only pressed the button once, is it fair I charged only one jaywalker with a crime while the rest were not caught? And what if there were no cars on the road at that time? Does this jaywalker really deserve to be punished by me? What if the light was broken but we can't tell? While someone with the occupation of a police officer can answer these questions with teachings from their rules and trainings, I'm just a normal human who pressed a button at an exhibit. Combining my personal life with that of policing is uncomfortable for me.

I initially saw this box while browsing through the list of artworks online before vising The Glass Room, but I didn't realize the machine operates in real money and real likes. The audaciousness of the offer stunned me.

The peculiar machine that allows you to buy likes on Instagram from fake followers exposes the depth of the connection between our social lives and money. We already spend plenty on signals such as nice clothes and expensive dinners. Being able to physically express our inner tastes helps us identify and bond with others who have similar tastes, which gives us more friends. However, what if we could skip these paying signals and instead directly pay for friends? The piece asks this question. The interactivity of the piece, especially given that the money and friends are real and ready to be used, is audacious. I found myself briefly considering this deal, until I realized the machine only worked with Instagram accounts, which I don't yet have. Despite that the machine is modeled to look like an arcade machine, a simple game, which makes its proposition appear lighthearted, the terms are very serious.

While these exhibits show the connection between two Americas, a large infographic that detailed every part in the process of creating, using, and discarding an Amazon Echo device. The graphic combines many different images of America we may hold in our head. We might not think of, such as cranes offloading crates of raw earth materials shipped from China at the sea port and workers repairing Comcast internet lines at the center of America. The creation of this single device almost involves every part of America.

The first group of exhibits I happened upon, labeled "Trust in us," closely examines the mythos of technology companies. Google, for instance, supports the mythos throughout its products that good search, fueled by increasing relevant information and personalization, has improved our lives. Facebook's mythos is that by closer connecting people, the product has brought us all closer together. Their messages are powerful, a product of their advertising and the fact most of us use their products every day. However, the exhibits raise the question of whether all that power is in fact safe, and if our image of a technologically advanced America should be set by these companies. A Rolodex of Facebook pledges and apologies presents Zuckerberg's vague and noncommittal replies, my favorite which I took a photo of, "You have my commitment that we'll do all these things, but in order to do them right it will take a little bit of time."

Although not part of the Trust group, other exhibits demonstrate this same questioning of mythos. A smart mirror predicts how surprising and fractured and other random adjectives people are, using artificial intelligence to make its judgments. The artificial intelligence, from an engineering perspective, worked amazing. I came back multiple times to try to improve my dismal prediction of 10% surprising, but the number the mirror assigned me was always similar. However, I am upset with the mirror for judging my surprising-ness based only on the single interaction of me standing in front of that mirror. This under-informed prediction using artificial intelligence is the subject of the art's critique.


The Glass Room. 16 Oct.-3 Nov. 2019, 838 Market St., San Francisco.

"Exhibits at The Glass Room San Francisco." The Glass Room, Tactical Tech, theglassroom.org/san-francisco/exhibits.