Please switch on your mobile phones

There's a new theatre show for young people where multi-screening is actively encouraged. Freddie Machin finds out about The Big Data Show

 Student audience members download a game which hacks their phones ahead of the performance date
Student audience members download a game which hacks their phones ahead of the performance date

In 1985, Rupert Goodwins became one of the world's first hackers. Together with a group of friends, he managed to expose the weakness in British Telecom's primitive online system, and get into HRH Prince Phillip's email account. Goodwins was 19 at the time, and in the court case that followed, he and his friends said that they were appalled with the fine that was handed down to them, suggesting they should be being employed by system operators to rebuild the one they hacked into, rather than being treated as criminals.

More than thirty years later, Goodwins continues to use his technological wizardry for good rather than evil, and now he and playwright and director Clare Duffy have coauthored The Big Data Show. The theatre show for young people tells the story of Goodwin's landmark hack in order to highlight how our data can be harvested without our knowledge, while reinforcing the importance of cyber safety for young people.

The centrepiece of the show is an online game called Swipe, which has been designed professionally, and then developed with the input of young people at Perth Academy. A few weeks prior to the show date, the audience is invited to download the game, and play away to their heart's content. During the show, the performers can then reveal to the audience how much data they have been able to harvest from their usage of the game.

The mobiles are central to the experience of the live performance, as the on-stage performers set challenges for the audience to hack the game or find out secrets using their devices during the show. One of the things that excites the creative team so much about this idea is the juxtaposition of ‘public spaces’ – once, ornate auditoria were a space to commune and converse, now the predominate public spaces exist online, in our pockets.

Young people who have taken part in the development phase of the project have been blown away by the experience, saying that for the duration of the show, if feels as if their phones have been completely highjacked. This is exactly the sensation that the show is designed to inspire, replicating the way that countless tech companies relate to their users in the real world.


Clare Duffy and Rupert Goodwins, writers of The Big Data Show

The value of data

Clare Duffy is the artistic director of Civic Digits, the theatre company behind producing the show. She says that more than 90% of people are blissfully unaware that in exchange for using free apps like Instagram and Snapchat, the companies that operate them are selling on our data at a profit. The details of the contracts we make with Facebook et al are available online but if the average user took the time to read all of the terms of service that relate to the apps on our phone, it would take us years.

In the course of developing the show, Duffy says that the majority of young people understood immediately why these documents are so impenetrable – the companies behind them don't want us to read them.

So in response to this, Duffy has published the terms of service for the show's game Swipe, as part of the online resources that accompany the show. In the development of the game and the show itself, Duffy worked with an ethics committee to ensure that the information that they are able to access through the participants’ phones will not be misused, and she has annotated the terms of service herself to shed light on some of these points. In her annotations, she highlights what to look out for as a user, and clarifies the precise meaning behind some of the oblique phrases she uses as the author of such an opaque document.

The aim of the show is not to deter young people from using technology, but rather to inspire resilience when it comes to making social, financial, or personal transactions online. Indeed, at times like these, it's hard to imagine how previous generations coped without the internet. Without Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, it would be hard to fathom how NHS advice and guidance could be disseminated quickly enough to keep up with the Coronavirus that has engulfed the world in a matter of months. Not to mention staying healthy in body and mind whilst keeping our physical distance from others.

We have seen social media become an incredible force for keeping people connected in these times of mandatory isolation, but for the first generation of digital natives it is also important to maintain a sense of objectivity towards social media. Younger people aged 12–18 are the first generation to have grown up with uninterrupted access to internet. For a generation that wouldn't recognise the sound of a dial up connection, or the whirr of a cassette on rewind, it is so important to instil a level of critical analysis.

Cyber resilience and digital citizenship

The show itself is the second part of a three-stage process, which rewards participants with an SQA level 3 qualification in cyber resilience and digital citizenship. First, young people engage in a workshop in their school, exploring how data works, then they are audience members at the performance, and finally they are assessed to see how their understanding and behaviour has changed as a result of the experience.

When asked at the start of the workshops whether participants felt that they were safe online, the majority of young people said they felt 100% safe. The show goes on to highlight how little any of us ever can know about how our data is being accumulated, analysed, and stored. When the show rolls out to schools across the UK and beyond, young people's understanding of the nature of data harvesting and online security will surely increase massively.

The pressure on young people to live their lives online is huge, and that pressure is only going to increase. The ‘internet of things’ is increasingly a way for companies to tap into our behaviour, better understand our taste, and even predict our desires. Home hubs like Alexa with permanently open microphones are just the beginning. Household appliances that are internet enabled are becoming more and more popular – smart toasters, smart kettles, smart mirrors, and even smart salt shakers. The list is seemingly endless.

In light of the current Covid-19 crisis, performances of The Big Data Show have been cancelled, but the company is looking for ways to adapt the experience to work as a series of short, live episodes online. At time of writing, the offer is not confirmed, but Duffy encourages schools to keep an eye on the website for further details.