Theater-Goers’ Online Identities On Stage for “Quantified Self”



Each time we sign up for something online, we give someone, somewhere, information that can be leveraged; data is currency, bought and sold. Do you know where your info goes?

That’s what Michael Skirpan explores in Quantified Self, which piloted in the ATLAS Black Box, April 28 to May 1.

Skirpan describes Quantified Self as “an art project with civic responsibilities.” The goal is to create a personalized experience through performance and interactive art that shows audience members the extent of the information they’ve shared online. “Personally, I don’t think the regular user realizes what they’re consenting to,” says Skirpan.

A mix of interactive narratives, exhibits and experiences, Quantified Self is an immersive theatrical exploration of data and online privacy. To gain admission to the show, attendees complete an online form, granting the organizers access to their social media streams. When they arrive, they receive a digital bracelet that is used to check into the various installations and exhibits.

In addition to presenting guests with sometimes edgy mashups of their social media streams through the various interactive installations, attendees rub shoulders with actors and become part of the theatrical performance that plays out over a 90-minute period.

The story features Amelia Bloom, an employee at tech giant DesignCraft, who becomes suspicious that her company is misusing the information they have about her. By joining forces with audience members, she attempts to bring the massive corporation down. Skirpan says, “We’re doing it in the sci-fi realm because we think it’s a neutral space.” At the end of the show, participants are invited to discuss the event and ask questions before seeing their personal data removed from the system.

Skirpan says the project is not just a discussion of privacy. “We aim to show people the possibilities around product development, research, artificial intelligence and human inference given the amounts of data owned by third-parties.” It is an open source work, so that others can build on the idea, and bring data transparency and understanding to everyone. The hope is not to scare people away from the World Wide Web, but instead “to close the gap between technologists and users to improve dialogue around ethics… to help move toward a more moral and transparent society.”

As a  computer science PhD student at CU-Boulder, and a graduate intern at New York’s Fast Forward Labs, Skirpan is focused on the ethics of information and human-centered design.

William Lewis, the show’s director, is a PhD student with the Department of Theatre and Dance, where many of the 30-member cast and crew were recruited. In addition, a significant contingent of ATLAS students were involved, including PhD candidate Jackie Cameron, one of the show’s three producers, and set designer Danny Rankin, a graduate student enrolled in Creative Technologies and Design.

Jill Dupré, associate director of ATLAS, says “ATLAS explores technology policy and online privacy in a variety of ways, so we were thrilled to support this novel and innovative production. It was by far the most ambitious student-led project we’ve seen this year in the Black Box, and they pulled it off in style: technically complex, nuanced and the set was beautiful. I had a blast!”

In addition to support from ATLAS and the University of Colorado’s Engineering Excellence Fund, the show received $35,000 from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge, which “accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information.” Stay tuned for more: If Quantified Self is granted ongoing support from the Knight Foundation, a national tour will begin in the fall.  

By Grace Wilson

More info:  The Knight News Challenge Brief