Nick Briz wants you to misuse technology

Artist, organizer, educator and “tactical misuser” Nick Briz is only one of the speakers at Phi X IAM, which will explore the impact of technology in regards to the consumption and production of art and culture.

Nick Briz doing Nick Briz things. Photo by Daniel Rourke

Internet Age Media (IAM) is an alternative think-tank based in Barcelona devoted to the idea of internet culture and the internet as culture. In its own words, IAM is “collectively understanding, interconnecting and shaping post-technological futures: of everything, for everyone and everywhere.”

This is a big and important thing. Post-tech is where we live and the post-tech future is where we will live, yet mainstream culture is seemingly only just coming to understand how technology is changing the way we live, work and relate to each other and, moreover, how we can resist these changes and actively reimagine what our future vis-à-vis tech can look like.

Tomorrow (Nov. 8), Phi X IAM: Beyond the Echo of Reality will “explore how post-technological visual narratives can empower us to interrogate reality and imagine better futures.” It will confront and discuss some of the ideas, issues and concepts inherent to how we enter the world by way of technology.

Nick Briz will speak at Phi X IAM. A new-media artist, organizer and educator based in Chicago, Briz is perhaps best known for his video essays including but not limited to How To / Why Leave Facebook (and, amongst people I know, by how I won’t shut up about him). I was introduced to his work by new-media artist Shawné Michaelain Holloway, with whom Briz had dinner last week, or so he told me.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Dave Jaffer: You’re coming to Montreal to speak at PHI X IAM. What do you plan on talking about?

Nick Briz
: I’m going to be talking about what I’ve been calling “tactical misuse,” which is a term I’ve been using to describe a way of interfacing with software and specifically with social media and other Internet Tech Giant software: Facebook and Amazon and Google and YouTube and these sorts of things. The term “tactical misuse” is playing with the philosopher Michel de Certeau’s same use of that word, “tactical,” from a book he wrote called The Practice of Everyday Life. Are you familiar with it?

DJ: I am not. My involvement in the scene has been more passive, watching from afar. What I’m interested in is how all of these things — technology, culture, activism, artistry — are all synthesized or can be synthesized and how there aren’t enough people talking about this.

NB: He’s kind of obscure, but he’s really well-known within certain tiny circles. That’s how it goes with a lot of writers: nobody knows who they are but the people who do are obsessed with them. That’s Michel de Certeau. In particular to the new-media side or the media-arts side like the tactical media crowd — people doing media art that is somewhat political [and] not just about aesthetics, people trying to do almost activist-y media art — they borrow that term “tactical” from de Certeau. The way that he actually used it was meant to mean something a little bit different.

DJ: Okay, so, how did he mean it? And how have you altered it?

NB: The idea behind what de Certeau called “tactics” or “tactical use” is that you have the world, and the world’s been designed to be used in a particular way. So you have people who create a city, and the city’s been designed to be navigated in a particular way, and to navigate the city on your own terms or in your own way actually becomes harder than it might seem at first glance. You really have to break out of the path you’ve been forced into. That is a really good lens [through which] to think about social media.

People say things like, “Facebook is fucked up for reasons A, B and C and I am going to undermine them by doing something.” Maybe they’ll make their Facebook photo Mark Zuckerberg’s photo and call themselves “Mark Zuckerberg” as a way to try and undermine Facebook. Or maybe they’ll post a lot of articles criticizing Facebook on Facebook. But what is oftentimes overlooked in those situations is that at the end of the day, you’re still using Facebook the way it was meant to be used — you’re supposed to be able to change your profile photo; you’re supposed to be able to post articles, and whether they’re critiquing Facebook or not, Facebook ultimately benefits by your use of it.

DJ: I personally want to quit Facebook but I can’t seem to do it. The psychological trick, the addiction installation — it has worked. I think social media has destroyed how we use the internet because it became people’s entry point to the internet. You talk about the city, how it is meant to be navigated in a certain way. Is it an act of transgression to navigate the city, the web or Facebook in a different way?

NB: It’s less about an act of transgression. For me it’s about agency and I think for de Certeau it’s about agency, too, which is why I’m kind of borrowing his language. So, to talk about that Facebook project, it is an example of this but the part that makes it an example of this is not the leaving or staying on Facebook and more the way I chose to leave.

DJ: In the video you say it’s a “performative” way.

NB: It’s less a performance, though. When I mean to be specific, I’m really, really specific. In the Facebook situation, it’s the fact that if you look at that video, the last thing I wanted to do is download certain images and do certain things and there was no button on Facebook for me to do that. Right? So the interface that Facebook designed — the fields, the buttons, the menus — there’s no way to use that in a way that Facebook doesn’t want me to use it. It’s very, very difficult and close to impossible because they’re designing an interface that is meant to be used — so how do you misuse something that’s meant to be used?

One way, and the way that I do in the Facebook piece, is I use the web console. I open up the web console that is built into every browser and is really just a developer tool. You can actually use that developer tool to misuse the website that you’re on and that’s how I get around the Facebook interface. I end up downloading a bunch of images, deactivating a bunch of stuff and manipulating the page in a way that I can’t through Facebook’s interface but I can by going around the interface and getting into the web console. It’s that action of reclaiming agency in the space by manipulating the website in a way that it wasn’t designed to be used. That’s what I’m calling tactical misuse.

DJ: Everyone has the tools to learn how the internet works, to learn how computers work, how programming works, how languages work and, accordingly, how you can fuck with things by doing things like what you described. However I’m sure it has not escaped your notice that people still don’t fundamentally understand how the internet works or why the internet is designed the way it is. You explore agency that theoretically everybody has but nobody uses, correct?

NB: Yes, definitely.

DJ: Why don’t they use it?

NB: There is the possibility to have it but they don’t necessarily have it. One missing piece, as you mentioned, is the knowledge: knowing that it’s there and knowing how to use it. Those are two important pieces before agency is achieved; the possibility to learn it is there but until they learn it they don’t have it. Maybe more to the point of your question, I think there’s a few different answers. One might be not having the right motivation to, right? I’d like to think that privacy and having control over your data is enough of a motivation but I think the reality is that people don’t fundamentally understand the implications of not having control over our data, so there’s not the same kind of incentive. I think most people don’t really know what’s at stake.

DJ: If you had to briefly explain what you do and why you do it, what would you say?

NB: I try to give people a better understanding of the digital age that we’re living in both by praising the promise of technology but being really critical of the perils of technology, and specifically the idea of technology as an environment and not just as a tool. We’re living in technology, we’re not just using it, so getting people to really understand what that means so that we can take advantage of what it has to offer but also be aware of some of the dangers that come with an increasingly digital world. ■

Phi X IAM is at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Phi Centre (407 Saint-Pierre). The evening will end with a cocktail and a DJ set by Petra Glynt. Tickets — and an optional poke bowl add-on — can be purchased here.