When Kyle McDonald, a computer savvy starving artist, had his Apple-inspired bright idea, he never thought he’d end up on the wrong side of the law. So, instead of imagining the legal implications of his dream exhibition, he simply chose to live the dream.
It turned into a nightmare.
Here’s how it started, in McDonald’s own words:
In mid-May, 2011, I took a timelapse using my laptop’s webcam to get a feeling for how I looked at the computer. After a few days of recording, I watched the video.
I was completely stunned.
There was no expression on my face. Even though I spend most of my day talking to and collaborating with other people online, from my face you can see no trace of this. I thought about Paul Ekman developing his Facial Action Coding System in the 60s, and discovering that “expression alone is sufficient to create marked changes in the autonomic nervous system“. I felt like there was something important here that I needed to share. But it didn’t mean anything if it was just me, I had to get other people involved. People from all different backgrounds.
Unfortunately, McDonald chose to do so without those people’s consent.
Rather than taking the time to seek voluntary cooperation, the artist instead wrote a bit of software that — once secretly installed on computers inside a New York Apple Store — would snap away those expressionless portraits and send them McDonald’s way. Then, he published them online. Art!
But instead of receiving accolades for his achievement, he was visited by the Secret Service. They took his computers, his online exhibitions were shut down, Apple condemned his behavior and mulled legal action, and his integrity and intent were bashed and trashed all over the Internet.
The affair is now a year in the past, but McDonald’s tale of its entire unfolding is entertaining and illuminating. Sure, he went about it the wrong way, but the results of his efforts — the blank faces staring into electronic oblivion — speak volumes about the importance of preserving human expression in our ever more disconnected computer age.