DoxBox, the hot pink artificial intelligence who loves to interrogate your phone, is at CPT on 22nd March. DoxBox’s operator Alistair Gentry explains why the black glass rectangle in your pocket isn’t really your friend.
I think we – I mean people, humans – always think things can’t get any weirder. In 2019 I started working on DoxBox Trustbot, my show about the unhealthy, asymmetrical strangeness of the deals we do with technology companies. DoxBox is an animated artificial intelligence who lives in a pink and gold box and loves J-Pop. It will ask you questions about your phone and the apps you use, then give you advice about how you could be safer and happier. Rarely, DoxBox congratulates and affirms you if your relationship with your phone even verges on healthy. It also encourages you to examine your own privilege by telling stories of people around the world who have had phone data impact their lives in ways that range from daft (social media algorithm wrongly extrapolates that you’re pregnant because you left browser tabs open on pickled onions, expensive cheese, and baby wipes at Tesco’s online store at 3am) to deadly (like the state-sanctioned tortures and murders of gay men in Chechnya, which are baited via gay hookup apps like Grindr, and then the cycle begins again because of the networks of contacts on each man’s phone.) People who took part in the DoxBox experience were often shocked at how much it exposed the irrationality of their relationships with social media, digital services, and their smartphones themselves as physical objects.
I actually thought I’d finished it. Then the pandemic happened, and along with all the terrors and tragedies of that failure to cope on the part of our elected leaders, one of the good changes was that suddenly it became “possible” for live shows to be on video, remotely. It had been possible for many years, obviously, but “possible” here means that non-disabled people in senior positions in the arts finally had skin in the game, they were scared of losing their audiences and their funding, and they had a really good (selfish) motivation not to leave the house so much. But that’s a whole other blog.
Long story short, one of the non-harrowing things about the pandemic was that things got weirder and I got to play DoxBox online far more over those two years than I’d been able to live. It played via Zoom meetings, and all over the world, as a literal video call where DoxBox’s face would ring you, appear and talk on your phone screen. It was even part of a pilot study on the effects of digital art on people’s knowledge and opinions at KCL… not your standard audience research, but actually more useful because now I know it’s actually a scientific fact that DoxBox changes people’s attitudes for the better when it comes to living digitally.
Now DoxBox is back in a new incarnation for a show at Camden People’s Theatre, but I hate still being so horribly right about the downsides of being very online. Through the pandemic it seems many people’s relationships with those they come into contact with through social media have become even more unhealthily parasocial. Even if you don’t know already, you’ll probably immediately get what I mean by a parasocial relationship when I tell you that it’s the illusory feeling of really knowing a performer or character through mass media. Don’t be too hard on yourself though; we all do it because mass media platforms and individual apps like Tiktok are meticulously designed to make us fall in love (or hate) with people we’ll never meet, to build your loyalty to brands that aren’t alive and can never love you. Their employees and bosses certainly don’t care about your love.
Some have even developed parasocial relationships with themselves on social media, becoming the main character of their own drama and the star of every photoshoot even though nobody is watching. Online debates increasingly end up with the rest of us wishing both sides would just STFU, even if we initially agreed with one of them. This is in part because social media, YouTube, and the like get better almost every day at curating exactly the mix of content that will enrage, arouse, upset or otherwise hit us in our emotions before our logic. Calm people with other worthwhile things going on in their lives don’t drive engagement and profit like angry people do.
This in turn drives the chronically online reaction video-gatekeeping-manbaby-influencer nexus, and the mainstream journalist’s pathological thirst to make everything an outrage. Even more recently, the rapid rise of AI technologies like ChatGPT and Stability have basically scraped the whole internet– in particular the work of professional writers and artists, and countless amateurs who just shared for the joy of sharing, plus probably your face, my face, everybody’s face– to again enclose, extract and monetise public goods for private profit.
But of course we still live in capitalist society and I have to make a living, so I guess what I’m really saying here is that you might think a man in a pink wig and googly eyes and his cartoon pal don’t have anything to say to you… But you’re wrong. You’re on the internet right now, my friend. You probably have a smartphone. I’m fairly sure you don’t know as much as you should about what Meta or Tiktok (or the police, or your government) are doing with the cloud of data that grows around you every day, because I’ve found that sometimes even people who work in data, cybersecurity or AI don’t. That means you need to come and see DoxBox.
DoxBox was commissioned by Open Data Institute’s Data as Culture programme and produced as part of an ODI R&D project exploring data trust and sharing, funded by Innovate UK.
Wed 22 March at 7.15pm