It’s not the NSA or law enforcement carrying out the most insidious forms of mass electronic personal surveillance, it’s the smartphone in your pocket. Terms of Service: Understanding Our Role in The World of Big Data is an innovative online graphic novella produced by Al Jazeera America that provides a humorous and well-documented examination of what happens to the data we generate through our many devices and how this practice is transforming the nature of privacy.
Beginning today Terms of Service, a 46 page online graphic novella by Al Jazeera America staff writer Michael Keller and nonfiction comics artist Josh Neufeld, is available to the public for free. The novella can also be downloaded in PDF or ePub formats. Al Jazeera is also providing a limited number of print editions, which are being distributed through some comics shops and other venues to be named later. The project debuted last weekend at MozFest, an annual technology festival held in London, with the presentation of the online graphic novella by the coauthors accompanied by a limited print run.
The humorous narrative of Terms of Service features the two authors, who examine their own use of technology while asking pointed questions to experts and academics about technology, the law and the evolution of privacy. Their story begins in 2004 with Gmail, the email service launched by Google that is offered for free in exchange for the right to scan personal correspondence. The two examine similar services that offer financial benefits in exchange for giving up private information, focusing on the complex social implications of how that data may be used either for us or against us in the future. The novella looks at everything from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, to corporate data sharing programs like Snapshot, a device that digitally tracks a person’s driving habits in exchange for a discounted insurance premiums.
Rhyne Piggot, senior executive producer, multimedia & mobile at Al Jazeera America, said the project is the first comics project for Al Jazeera America. Terms of Service is a product of the network’s interactive team, a unit designed to “push the envelope and tap into new forms of storytelling. ”
Terms of Service, Piggot said, began about a year ago when he was approached by Keller, an experienced multimedia journalist and programmer, who not only pitched and wrote the story, but coded the open source comics web reader and website that hosts the novella. Keller brought in Neufeld, award winning nonfiction cartoonist and author of A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge, which tells the story of Katrina survivors, and, with NPR’s Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine, a history of journalism.
“Comics aren’t new but they’re ascendant right now and people want to use them as a tool,” Piggott said. The two coauthors are also hopeful that they can do more projects like this in the future. Keller said he wanted to create an illustrated, “day in the life narrative that walked people through the near future,” of digital technology and privacy. “Privacy and surveillance can be abstract and comics work well at making abstract concepts concrete,” he said.
The novella is the latest effort to use comics to create a detailed but accessible narrative about the rise of electronic surveillance in a number of forms. Recently both Seven Stories Press and Metropolitan Books signed authors to produce book length nonfiction comics that examine the rise of electronic surveillance.