Disrupting surveillance: critical software design-led practice to obfuscate and reveal surveillance economies and knowledge monopolies

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Big data collection, behavioural economics and targeted advertisement are changing the dynamics and notions of our individuality and societies. By mobilising critical design methods, I made a series of critical design works to reveal and disrupt surveillance and knowledge monopolies. The aim of this practice-led investigation is to challenge surveillance and knowledge practices within internet search and advertising industries and through this contribute to surveillance debates and critical design practice.
The four critical design practices that I developed during the course of this investigation namely Zaytoun, Philodox, Maladox and Open Bubble all interrogate humans’ relations to technology and more specifically their transformations as objects and subjects of surveillance capitalism. Zaytoun challenges notions of data consumption, quantification and distancing. Philodox reveals and critiques some trust issues and algorithmic biases of internet search engines. Maladox, is an anatomical engine of fictional speculative cyborg dis-eases, creating a critical space to reconsider our relationship to technology. Finally, Open Bubble is a counter surveillance browser extension that obfuscates and challenges knowledge enclosures imposed by search engines.
Based on a review of philosophy of technology and especially as it relates to Science and Technology Studies (STS), I reflect on some of the underlying conditions that made possible the existence of modern technology in its current form. I analyse the contextual background of this body of work and its take on technology as a central lever for governance and for shaping of human subjects. This thesis investigates the taken for granted ways our interactions with surveillance capitalism infrastructures are transforming our individual and collective beings and in turn the new cyborg ontologies that we are being integrated into.
The four critical design works included in this investigation offer alternative possibilities for critical engagement with, and interpretation of, big data and the algorithmic manipulations we are subjected to.
This thesis attempts to take the below contributions to the theoretical developments around governmentality, surveillance capitalism, but also to critical design and design informatics. I develop ideas aiming at moving from humans and subjectivity as the nexus for governance towards attention to the cyborg as the emerging central site for both governance and resistance. Furthermore, through my practices I illustrate the importance of non-visual relations to audiences be it through touch or hearing in opening up spaces for questioning and resistance. I believe attention to the sensory dynamics of the experience and resistance have strong potentials for contributing to the debates around resistance within governance regimes.
Furthermore, this thesis brings attention to the micro processes & software codes and algorithms that enable surveillance capitalism and engages in exercises aiming at disrupting them. I believe such detailed work focused on the ways humans interact with internet-based regimes of surveillance is a much-needed complement to the already well-developed critiques of institutions and structures of surveillance capitalism. Concerning critical design, my works bring attention to the role of spatial configuration of the works in conditioning the users’ rhythm, intensity and span of engagement with the work. In addition, I believe my practices and my theoretical developments around them open possibilities for new reflections on different forms of satire and laughter and how they can be situated in users’ experiences with critical design work.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Speed, Chris, Supervisor, External person
  • Martin, Craig, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Award date24 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Surveillance capitalism
  • Critical design
  • Search engine art
  • critical software
  • filter bubble
  • Anti surveillance
  • Knowledge monopoly
  • Surveillance economy


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