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Ask Ethan: patrick
You can Ask Ethan absolutely anything, just don't ask if he's real (he is)Courtesy of textethan.com

Please don’t follow the instructions

Not getting enough from your everyday tech? Take a look at the developers and creatives repurposing the mundane into the must-have

D-I-Y. Three letters to strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting web user: in the context of a casual internet browse, it summons visions of Pinterest-board curating make-up Vloggers from the ninth circle of hell. But when it comes to taking control of our own technologies, not following the instructions might just be the new following them. Amidst tensions around the safeguarding of web freedoms, and fears of pervasive government surveillance, to “unlock” your own technological devices has come to mean more than a four-digit code.

Instead, as we approach the tail-end of an explosive year of revelations as to who controls our data, digital dissidence is forming an under-the-radar riposte to everyday device norms. That is, in an increasingly closed system of technological objects, a pervasive nostalgia for the early days of customisation and community has led to the straight-up repurposing of those objects. What’s more – leaving aside the Toaster VHS and Computer Monitor cat bed for now – the finished results are often more powerful than the original design aim. Here’s our rundown of the most notable app developers, artists and, ahem, enterprising “adult entertainment” purveyors that are recycling, repurposing and ultimately redefining our everyday technologies.

ASK ETHAN

Ethan’s a kind of IRl Siri – anybody who downloads the app can ask him any question, any time, and he’ll endeavour to answer (though we doubt he’s able to keep up with demand these days). It wasn’t originally for that purpose, though. Developer Ethan Gliechtenstein initially set up the app as a way of talking to his friends that meant he could own all the data. Dumb app or future Whats’app? Time will tell.

DRONE BONING

Drone Boning, brought to our attention a week or so ago, is the Drone Porno you’ve always (okay, never) dreamed of. The world’s first ever drone-shot porno, its stunning landscapes and small insect people might stretch the limits of the 'pornographic', but it also takes one of the world’s most contested technologies and totally reconfigures it. Still, NSFW nevertheless (maybe it’s best to sit back and enjoy that stirringly cinematic soundtrack instead).

BITCOIN ART

For all the serious business how-tos dishing out cryptocurrency advice for entrepeneurs, there’s an equal number of Bitcoin mash-ups destined to undermine them: dogecoinbranded ecstacy pills, and even a music festival. One re-appropriation of the technology proposes something more useful, at least within the digital art world. Monegraph, spearheaded by a NYU professor, uses the unique record-keeping abilities of Bitcoin to record digital art ownership. Bitcoin’s block-chain technology can be trusted to record public information whilst increasing overall transparency – it’s called “monetized graphics”, and it’s a pretty surefire way to stop digital devalutation of artworks in its tracks.

3D PRINTED GUNS

Having been told 3D printed goods are the future for a while now, it was only a matter of time before someone employed the technology for nefarious means. Responding to the question, “You can make ANYTHING?” with all the gusto of Sid from Toy Story (1995) was one Yoshitomo Imura, a Japanese man who 3D printed working pistols. YouTubing his exploits in a country with some of the strictest gun laws in the world (come on), he was subsequently arrested for two years.

LEARNING TO CODE WITH OCULUS RIFT

So you want to learn to code? That makes you, the world and their mother. Forget General Assembly-style classes – the future of engaging coding education might lie in Virtual Reality. Riftsketch, created by Toronto-hailing developer Brian Peiris, is an Oculus Rift app that live-codes objects as you write Javascript. In other words, using a modified webcam to see your keyboard in real life, you could type while wearing the Rift and see your creation change and move with every line of code you write. Confused? Well, until you meet the criteria – to own an Oculus Rift, and be familiar with Javascript and Three.js – the pretty videos of Riftsketch working its magic will probably suffice. Here’s “Hands, Leap Motions, birds, trees and tweets”. There’s a Haiku in there somewhere.

PROTEST APP-TIVISM

As the dust settles on debates around the role of online activism as a catalyst for the Arab Spring, governments have had to wise up to the role of social media tools in enhancing protest movements. Stopping security forces from hacking and blocking citizens requires phone apps where protestors can communicate freely without fear of being watched. Some of the open-source developed apps stepping up include Obscuracam: a camera app, for Android phones, that allows users to share images and video without it being tracked back to them through data embedded in the file. It also automatically detects faces and gives you the option to obscure them. More recently, protesters in Hong Kong downloaded FireChat in their hundreds of thousands during the pro-Democracy demonstrations. Based out of San Fran, it’s a Bluetooth-capable messaging app that allows users to communicate even if the authorities shut the internet down.

DIY GLASS

“OK Glass, tell me how to build my own.” The answer looks something like the DIY Wearable Pi: a 3D printed design that puts a Raspberry Pi next to your eyes. The Glass-like result displays any kind of device you connect to it and even clips straight onto your prescription glasses. All this, for a mere $100, as opposed to the cool $1500 those ‘glassholes’ over at Google would have you fork out.

RICK ROLLING WEAPONRY

When does a meme become art? Is it when the letters of its title are made to correspond to the nucleotide bases of a composite DNA sequence and are subsequently integrated into a working weapon? Perhaps. Artist Matthew Gardiner’s offshoot of the internet’s most enduring memetic beast was inspired by the way in which UK Police are deploying DNA sequences in their pistols to target suspicious individuals – a very different kind of bait and switch.

DARKWEB BOT-SHOPPING 

Always wanted to shop the dark web, except that you’re slightly terrified and don’t know where to start? A kind of Ocado for evil geniuses, the Random Darknet Shopper is a “live Mail Art piece” from art collective Bitnik. An automated online shopping bot with a deep web retail habit, it’s given $100 in Bitcoins each week to randomly spend on a single item. Purchases so far have included some Chinese Nike Air Yeezy 2s, a The Lord of The Rings e-book trilogy, and 10 ecstasy pills from Germany.

SINGING PRINTER

Retro-computing meets OK Computer, artist James Houston taught old printers new tricks with “Big Ideas: Don’t Get Any.” Using the combined sounds of a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an Epson LX-81 Dt Matrix printer, a HP Scanjet 3c and a Hard Drive array, the resulting video is an oddly haunting remix of Radiohead’s “Nude.” The clip wowed the web – including its inspiration, Thom Yorke – when Houston shared the video in 2008. As he told Creative Review at the time, “I grouped together a collection of old redundant hardware, and placed the equipment in a situation where they’re trying to do something they’re not exactly designed to do, and not quite getting there.”