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Making Democracy Legible: A Defiant Typeface

good_morning_ZXX Type Specimen Photograph

“We feel free because we lack the language to articulate our unfreedom.” —Slavoj Žižek

For me, Žižek’s words are even more potent in light of recent news about domestic surveillance programs. As a former contractor with the US National Security Agency (NSA), these issues hit especially close to home. During my service in the Korean military, I worked for two years as special intelligence personnel for the NSA, learning first-hand how to extract information from defense targets. Our ability to gather vital SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) information was absolutely easy. But, these skills were only applied outwards for national security and defense purposes — not for overseeing American citizens. It appears that this has changed. Now, as a designer, I am influenced by these experiences and I have become dedicated to researching ways to “articulate our unfreedom” and to continue the evolution of my own thinking about censorship, surveillance, and a free society.

“What does censorship reveal? It reveals fear.” —Julian Assange

poster_01ZXX Type Specimen Posters

Over the course of a year, I researched and created ZXX, a disruptive typeface which takes its name from the Library of Congress’ listing of three-letter codes denoting which language a book is written in. Code “ZXX” is used when there is: “No linguistic content; Not applicable.” The project started with a genuine question: How can we conceal our fundamental thoughts from artificial intelligences and those who deploy them? I decided to create a typeface that would be unreadable by text scanning software (whether used by a government agency or a lone hacker) — misdirecting information or sometimes not giving any at all. It can be applied to huge amounts of data, or to personal correspondence. I drew six different cuts (Sans, Bold, Camo, False, Noise and Xed) to generate endless permutations, each font designed to thwart machine intelligences in a different way. I offered the typeface as a free download in hopes that as many people as possible would use it.

ZXX_ABC

This short video shows how the typeface confuses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) artificial intelligence.

good_morning_zxx

ZXX Bold (readable by OCR software) & ZXX Combination (not-readable by OCR software)

zxx_processProcess sketches testing various OCR software’s readability
Screen shot 2012-04-28 at 9.42.27 PMScreenshot image of PDF OCR X software’s conversion of ZXX
design360mag_coverDesign 360° Magazine Issue No.41

ZXX is a call to action, both practically and symbolically, to raise questions about privacy. But it represents a broader urgency: How can design be used politically and socially for the codification and de-codification of people’s thoughts? What is a graphic design that is inherently secretive? How can graphic design reinforce privacy? And, really, how can the process of design engender a proactive attitude towards the future — and our present for that matter? After releasing the project in May 2012, I was pleased by the fruitful responses I got and shared with the public. I’ve seen the typeface circulate in publications, web environments, and banners, and it was prophetically featured on the cover of Chinese Design 360°Magazine — amusingly censoring Sagmeister & Walsh’s self-expressive nudity.

“I don’t have to write about the future. For most people, the present is enough like the future to be pretty scary.” —William Gibson

Our lives in cyberspace are overloaded with impalpable and extensive personal information that is gathered, intercepted, deciphered, analyzed, and stored. With this information government and corporations can easily create an informational architecture that traps us in the structures of the World Wide Web and social media. Restricting and repressing our communication tools under the name of “homeland security” is only a small step into a totalitarian society. This non-physical-yet-ideological violence is what allows us to lapse into lethargic silence. But really, we shouldn’t be afraid to question the authorities’ continual intrusions.

nsa_aerial

National Security Agency’s headquarter in Fort Meade, Maryland

PRISM-project-slideLeaked Prism presentation slide

Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and whistleblower of NSA’s Project Prism, wasn’t the first man to reveal the vulgarity of the world’s biggest intelligence agency. William Binney, an ex-NSA employee, already disclosed the secrecy of the agency’s perpetual inspections last year. The increasing activities of whistleblowers are a significant cue to the urgency of our diminishing privacy. When surveillance becomes a quotidian exercise, our lives in the network will be completely destroyed. This growing invasion of privacy and militarization of cyberspace dehumanizes us. Government and corporations’ physical, mental, and technological intrusions must stop in order to halt the surveillance state.

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”               —Benjamin Franklin

pprism_cam_bw

ZXX ver.02 currently in development

Project ZXX is my humane contribution and homage to the activists, artists, and designers who have been actively fighting for our civil liberties. One such activist is Jacob Appelbaum, an independent computer security researcher and hacker, who co-developed Tor Project to keep our online activities anonymous. Tor Project’s system is structured to bounce around the distributed network of relays, which makes the accumulated metadata dysfunctional. Adam Harvey is an active New York–based artist who has a vast amount of peculiar counter-surveillance projects. Harvey’s works are vital in the way he incorporates privacy matters into provocative fashion aesthetics, such as anti-drone hoodies. Metahaven, an Amsterdam-based design and research studio, might be at the vanguard of critical and social design movements today — mapping the nexus of corporate branding, social media, and government with challenging contemporary graphic design strategies. Hito Steyerl’s How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Education. MOV File, a piece in the Venice Biennale, humorously depicts the dark side of our visual culture with silly DIY educational videos. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched awebsite to provide Netizens alternative ways to opt out of PRISM. People with creative conscience will be the ones to provoke these discussions.

What Snowden disclosed is nothing new. The stakes for our democracy have always been high. But now there needs to be robust action and discussion about the current state of affairs. Many suggest that we’ve already lost our privacy and are indifferent of the status quo. But I believe that stripping humanity of its freedoms can never be justified as a natural evolution. It’s our duty to call out crimes against democracy.

***I’ve been reading the comments and it seems everyone is concerned about my understanding of how digital text works — ASCII, binary codes, et cetera. As mentioned above, I spent 2 years as intelligence personnel and a year researching so I am fully aware of all that. This project/post is focused on raising awareness, which I should’ve articulated better. That said, it would be great if further conversations ruminated over the growing surveillance state and how we should act. I sincerely appreciate everyone’s time in reading, criticizing, and sharing these matters.

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The Broader Survey

 Reviewing the literature/practices

Academic dissertations typically include some kind of ‘literature review’. It is probably more useful for students to think of this, as examiners usually do, as a ‘critical review of the literature’, for reasons which will be made clear shortly. The literature review is normally an early section in the dissertation.

 The broader survey

Students are normally expected to begin working on a general survey of the related research literature at the earliest possible stage of their research. This in itself is not what is normally meant in formal references to the ‘review of the literature’, but is rather a preparatory stage. This survey stage ranges far wider in scope and quantity than the final review, typically including more general works. Your survey (which exists in writing only in your notes) should help you in several ways, such as:

to decide on the issues/topic you will choose for your research;

to become aware of appropriate research methodologies;

to see how research on your specific topic fits into a broader framework;

to help you not to ‘reinvent the wheel’;

to help you to avoid any well-known theoretical and methodological pitfalls;

to prepare you for approaching the critical review.

 The ‘critical’ review

Clearly, if you are new to research in the field you are not in a position to ‘criticise’ the work of experienced researchers on the basis of your own knowledge of the topic or of research methodology. Where you are reporting on well-known research studies closely related to your topic, however, some critical comments may well be available from other established researchers (often in textbooks on the topic). These criticisms of methodology, conclusions and so on can and should be reported in your review (together with any published reactions to these criticisms.).

However, the use of the term critical is not usually meant to suggest that you should focus on criticising the work of established researchers. It is primarily meant to indicate that:

the review should not be merely a descriptive list of a number of research projects related to the topic;

you are capable of thinking critically and with insight about the issues raised by previous research.

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literature-review1

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What is a literature review for?

The review can serve many functions, some of which are as follows:

to indicate what researchers in the field already know about the topic;

to indicate what those in the field do not yet know about the topic – the ‘gaps’;

to indicate major questions in the topic area;

to provide background information for the non-specialist reader seeking to gain an overview of the field;

to ensure that new research (including yours) avoids the errors of some earlier research;

to demonstrate your grasp of the topic.

What should I include in a literature review?

In the formal review of the literature you should refer only to research projects, which are interrelated to your own topic. The formal review is not just a record of ‘what I have read’. If your problem is how to choose what to leave out, one way might be to focus on the most recent papers. You should normally aim to include key studies, which are widely cited by others in the field, however old they may be. Where there are several similar studies with similar findings, you should review a representative study, which was well designed.

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