More selected projects


We Are Who We Are?

produced by:  Cheng Yang  (

Key words:  Data surveillance; Surveillance capitalism; Personal information; Personalized information; Informational privacy


Part 1

The relationship between data and surveillance capitalism

Speaking of capitalism, we tend to associate it with money and power. In the past, capitalism relied on abundant labor force to obtain profit. Today's technology has made great strides, but the most primitive human desires have not changed. Now the ultimate goal of capitalism is still to obtain money and power, but only the method of obtaining has changed. It is no longer the most primitive and simple labor force, but is transformed into the data generated by each person every day. To be more precise, it should be a model that can predict and control human behavior established through a series of algorithms using data. So, this is the birth of surveillance capitalism.

Producing these data is as ordinary as just like having three meals a day for us, as long as we are connected to the Internet, it is impossible not to generate data. For surveillance capitalists, to run a successful advertisement, they need to have good foresight, they need a more accurate portrait of their users. This ability is rooted in the user’s data.

We don't feel like we have to spend extra money when we generate this data, it's just a reflection of our personal behavior. To us these data is a part of our privacy, and privacy should be a natural right of individuals. On the surface, some Internet products also seem to be free for us. For example, when we download Google or Instagram in app store, we don't need to pay for it. The old capitalists really made money by selling products or tools, like Photoshop. Now, advertisers became the real customers of surveillance capitalists and they not only need to pay for advertising on the Internet products, but also pay for our data. As a result, which segment of the industry chain we should be as users? We are not only its users, but also a commodity to be sold?

“Once we searched Google, but now Google searched us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.” (Kavenna, 2019, interview)

“If you're not paying for the product, you're the product being sold.” (The Social Dilemma, 2020)



Part 2

The ownership of informational privacy  &  the discussion about personalization

Since our data is a commodity, do we have any ownership of the data that we produced?

This reminds me of a question about laptop permissions. When I was writing code in Processing, I wanted to turn on my camera, but in any case, my laptop did not give me the permission to turn on the camera, and the dialog box that popped out was always: Sorry, you do not have this permission.  Even if I went to Terminal to modify it, it still didn't work and I had to give it up. My laptop to me, it is my personal belongings and it also contains a lot of personal information. It is the product that I have exchanged with money, it should belong to me in a certain extent. However, the fact has told me that I do not have the highest access to my laptop, so who has higher access than me? Since the laptop is not entirely mine, how about the personal information in my labtop?

For the moment, we even don’t have a clear idea of how exactly is our data being used. “User rationality is constrained by the very condition under which it is set up to function, with the system logic of personal data collection and surveillance entirely unknown to users.” (Park,… 2018) Even if when we use Internet products, we are required to agree to privacy policies. For people who are not familiar with the law, it is difficult to understand the rules. It also reflects an asymmetry of power. If it is an app or a software that we have to use for work or study, can we refuse to use it? For example, we have to use Microsoft Teams to take part in online lecture during this special time, we need to finish the credits and we don’t have a choice. Well, Microsoft has also joined in data surveillance just following google and facebook, maybe it records every meeting and analyzes our conservation. In this case, we know it's “stealing” information, but what can we do about it?

What our data means to us is that it's my informational privacy, when we thought them as privacy, they belong to us exactly. While when it becomes an object that can be analyzed, exchanged or sold by others, it is no longer my personal property. “Privacy is not a value in itself – it is means toward other values.” (Mai, 2016) For surveillance capitalists, privacy means nothing when it's private, but for us it's like an indivisible piece of us, privacy combined with other things that make us unique individuals. But now it seems that we often have no choice to prevent it from becoming an indispensable material to achieve other value.

Some people might think that it has no harm to use personal information to exchange personalized information. Instead, we tend to get more personalized service, not only is it more convenient, but it also minimize time. However, what is called personalization is really developed in accordance with our individual consciousness? Or do the surveillance capitalists make you go the way they want you to go after the analysis your data and you still can’t notice? Engineers will constantly optimize the algorithm for the growth of users and the growth of product data. These Internet products use our mind against us and make us addicted to it. It is true that we always think that our self-control is strong enough, but on the other side of the screen are countless engineers who are studying us and trying to get profit from us. Finally, who will win?

“That's the only thing they make money from: changing what you do, how you think, and who you are.”  (The Social Dilemma, 2020)

“Surveillance capitalists realized that they could do anything they wanted and they did.” (Zuboff, 2019)



At the same time, capitalists just want to maximize their benefits, I think that the so-called personalized service is difficult to fully take care of unique individuals unless you are very important to them, otherwise you just belong to a certain group. Maybe that depends on the people’s buying capacity or social class. As a result, I don’t fully agree with the view that “whether the personalized recommendation systems can be more useful depends on whether users release enough information about their preference.” (Cremonesi, 2012). Personalization seems more closer to different grouplizations. I prefer this view: “surveillance is a means of sorting and classifying populations.” (Barch, 2017) If there is categorization, there will be some bias, the class divisions that exist in the real world also translate into the digital world, and we don't even know which group we're in.

Back to data’s ownership, I don't think it belongs to human beings, not to ourselves, not to the capitalists, not to the government, but to human desires. Privacy comes from our sense of shame originally, we can take possession of it and no one else knows about it, so I think privacy is more satisfying for us to be possessive and controlling. That’s why we are disgusted with surveillance capitalists, because they took away the things that made us satisfied and would put us in a sense of crisis. Making money, in fact, is a neutral thing essentially and is not right or wrong, we all have to make money to support ourselves, just in different ways. Surveillance capitalists are motivated by the desire for money, using a way that “is a direct intervention into free will, an assault on human autonomy” (Kavenna, 2019, interview) but is efficient to achieve their goal. Talking to free will, what is the feeling of free, it is very complicated to explain. I have seen a line in an animation (Attack on titan) that impressed me deeply: “Human beings can't live if they can't find something that makes them intoxicated, sometimes it is alcohol, women, gods or dreams, all people are slaves to certain things.” As a result, it can be said that we are all slaves to our desires, since we are slaves, there is no such thing as “freedom”, what we have is only will.


Part 3

The discussion about fake news

Since surveillance capitalism can affect or even change a person, society is made up of people, in other words, it is possible for surveillance capitalism to change society. AI has led to news farms, where fake news spreads faster, even the fake news may outshine the real news. We can see all kinds of hot searches on social networks all the time, it is hard for us to choose which news to believe. Therefore, surveillance capitalism has another power to control trends in public opinion. While, at the beginning, these surveillance capitalists want to create commercial success, their power can already incite people's emotions for now, not only let uses enamored with their products.



Part 4

The protection of privacy

I once thought of a hypothesis: if you're born into a society where there's no privacy, will you still feel that your privacy is not protected? A “society devoid of any informational privacy” (Floridi,2005) may be a society with no crime, fraud or missing people, but it will also be a society with no freedom(Orwell,1984). Orwell also mentioned: “Freedom is slavery, and slavery is freedom.” From the perspective of the ruler, the ruler’s freedom is the pursuit of absolute power, power is God, power is the power to control and enslave people, so freedom is slavery; conversely speaking, “enslaved is freedom”, and only willing to become a slave and give up resistance, you are allowed to be free, slaves and free. So if we think that privacy protection no longer makes sense, in fact, we have made a choice, which means we have chosen the freedom we think is free. Like I mentioned before, we are all the slaves to our desires, so unless we don’t have any desires, we are free, besides, what we think we are free is just voluntarily surrendering to human desires.

Back to privacy protection. What can let Internect companies do? Let them reflect on themselves? Internet, technology, algorithms, this industry chain is relatively dispersed. It is possible for the launch of an Internet product to affect hundreds of millions of users, people involved in this change are designers, engineers, product managers and so on. It is also hard for the designers of the algorithms to anticipate the negative effects, they are not only the creators but also the users of internet products, unless they never use network.

There are external restrictions can also be used, such as the government increasing relevant laws. But when personal data can be used to reduce crime or even to influence elections, when personal data is beneficial to the collective and the government, will the government continue to improve the privacy law? After all, we are in the digital world, the boundary between public and private has been blurred. Should we think more about collective value than individual value? Algorithms are just like an intermediate medium, a transmission medium for consumers, operators and investors. Sometimes government also plays the role of consumer or investor. To solve the problem of personal data, the research and efforts of all sectors of society are needed, the power of government alone is not enough.

Since this is a protracted battle, for us as ordinary people, we must have more powerful self-control ability, don’t spend too much time every day immersed in network products. Everyone is just one of the insignificant noises of this era, we can neither end this era nor change it. Compared with living in the cage of the Internet or social media, it is better to feel more substantial things and make more "real" friends. At the same time, we should not become a passive reader, a passive thought receiver, but an independent thinker who actively intervenes in public life with value judgments.(Bozeman, Entertainment to death).




Name: Under the cherry trees

Concept: Surveillance capitalism can change what you do, change the way you think, even change who you are. We're going to be a person that the capitalists want us to be. Although this is a cruel fact, I want to express it with a beautiful appearance – cherry trees, the visual inspiration comes from spring, and I think the changes and differences between trees are more distinct to be seen.

I use the genetic algorithm – DNA to create the effect. There are 12 trees, each tree has a number, when you want to choose a tree you like, just press its number on the keyboard, and the next generation will become more like your selection.


  • gallery-image
  • gallery-image
  • gallery-image
  • gallery-image


We are playing a role of capitalists and the trees playing the role of different users. At the same time, you can choose more than one tree at a time or you can choose just one. If you want the tree to inherit stronger genes in the next generation of trees, you can select it multiple times, just by pressing its number multiple times. After selecting the tree, press “g” then the trees will evolve to next generation.

Besides, there exists the possibility of mutation, that means maybe there are trees that don't evolve the way you want them to. And mutant species can represent people who do not want to follow the trend.




Baruh, Lemi, and Mihaela Popescu. "Big Data Analytics and the Limits of Privacy Self-management." New Media & Society 19.4 (2017): 579-96. Web.

Floridi, Luciano. "The Ontological Interpretation of Informational Privacy." Ethics and Information Technology 7.4 (2005): 185-200. Web.

Kavenna, Joanna. Shoshana Zuboff: "Surveillance capitalism is an assault on human autonomy" (Interview). 2019. Web

Karwatzki, Sabrina, Olga Dytynko, Manuel Trenz, and Daniel Veit. "Beyond the Personalization-Privacy Paradox: Privacy Valuation, Transparency Features, and Service Personalization." Journal of Management Information Systems 34.2 (2017): 369-400. Web.