A filing cabinet is following people around the Royal College of
Art to remind us our data is everywhere — and it will follow us
I Know What You Did Last Summer is Jaap de Maat’s final
year project, the finale to a two-year-long MA in Information
Experience Design. And anyone visiting the RCA this weekend will
certainly get a dose of that design experience, as the clunky metal
cabinet trundles towards them, stalking their every move.
“We hit some people, but that’s just bruises,” de Maat tells us.
“Because it’s funny, people just accept it.” There’s probably a
whole other dissertation in this statement — our acceptance of
pain in the face of hilarity. But for now de Maat’s focus has been
on themes of loss and the void. In the last chapter of his
dissertation on these themes, Additive Subtraction, he
debates online data storage. For so long, de Maat was fixated on
the appearance of the digital world, as a graphic designer. But
throughout his career he has grown preoccupied with what we can’t
see: “the spaces between the letters”.
“Around the period I wrote it Snowden came out with his
bombshell and I was quite shocked people mainly worried about the
surveillance,” de Maat tells us. “After more research I kind of
wanted to make the point not so much people surveying us, but the
fact it gets stored forever.”
“I thought of the example of a lady that wanted to be teacher,
but at the end of her course she didn’t get a certificate because
they’d Googled her and saw pictures of her drunk on the internet.
They said that was inappropriate for a teacher. People need to be
aware of online storage.”
Enter, a trundly old pile of metal. Rescued from the confines of
the office, it is now roaming around the RCA’s halls, much to the
delight of passersby. Inside the cabinet is an electric wheelchair
that’s had its wheels sawn off and replaced with superior
alternatives. Then a motor and Arduino board were integrated, and
distance sensors dotted around the cabinet ensure (most of the
time) it doesn’t bump into anyone, thanks to some programming using
Max/MSP. A webcam watches the public’s every move, and that data is
sent wirelessly to the cabinet via a Bluetooth chip.
From the video embedded in this article, it seems the
overarching response is that of sheer joy, with the public excited
to be interacting with the seemingly ordinary object. “People are
having a lot of fun playing with it,” says de Maat. “They actually
often treat it like a little dog — they stroke it and put food in
front of it. They are quite happy and find it funny.”
de Maat has already been invited to showcase it in Dubai, and
has been awarded studio space by the Barbican, so he can tweak the
friendly inanimate piece of furniture. He plans on continuing to
teach, largely at Central St Martin’s, and from his dissertation
it’s clear de Maat’s curious mind is not done interrogating the
vast issues he’s touched upon here.
In it, he points to a history of knowledge inadvertently being
repurposed as a disastrous weapon. He gives the example of his
homeland of Holland’s 1930 census, constructed with good intentions
to help run the country more efficiently. Instead, come 1940 it was
used by the Nazis to more efficiently locate and remove the Jewish
population and other unwanted minority groups.
We must not be complacent, he warns, pointing rather
depressingly to the fact that in September 2013, when he penned the
dissertation some three months after Edward Snowden made his
revelations in a YouTube video, it had just two million views.
Depressing, because Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball video — as
artistically relevant as it is… — spawned 100 million hits in
five days. “The public is clearly not all that worried,” writes de
He concludes the dissertation by warning that is neither
practical nor possible to prevent the world from leaving its trace
online. The internet is not about to be switched off.
Instead, he has an interesting proposal, that he intends on
“It might be possible to disguise one’s tracks by bombarding
your online history with a mass of random data, which would dilute
your personal information and subvert the possibility of the
automatic creation of a profile.”
If that could somehow be facilitated by an autonomous piece of
80s furniture, all the better.
If you want to check out I Know What You Did Last Summer it will be showing
at the RCA’s Stevens building until 29 June.