2 adjacent decks of Bicycle playing cards. a black one marked
Privacy/security Product design Social good/activism Tool/Service

The Black Box

The impact of advancing technology is felt but not always seen. Privacy is no longer private, but a common commodity collected, traded, and bought by the companies that provide you with your online goods and services. In a way, that makes them similar to trading cards, or cards in general. Why do we have to give away personal data to use these services, but more importantly, why can't we use this information for ourselves? What I'm proposing is an alternate look at storing and sharing information. A deck of cards containing the data that defines you, made to be collected, traded, and shared at your own discretion. Your own physical card-drive.


Bruce Arthur Jr.


Adaora Udoji


"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Pick a card, any card. If you've ever heard that then you know what comes next. If you haven't, then you're usually in for a treat. Card magic is a form of magic that employs a standard deck of cards to create magical and performative experiences for the people who view them. They work on tenants of misdirection and obfuscation. The viewer can see the whole trick but never know what happened because of the magician's ability to hide the answer in plain sight. At the rate technology is advancing, digital interaction can start to feel magical, however, if you start to look closer you can see how the real trick works. Data is collected and stored and fed into an algorithm that returns results tailored to the specific user. You might just see an ad for the exact shirt you wanted, but the algorithm sees you. Your desire, your budget, your wardrobe, your likes, your dislikes, and more. It uses this information to bring this ad to you at the exact time it thought you needed to see it.  That's the magic behind the world's new data economy. The cards are an attempt to put the magic and the data back in the hands of the users. Imagine a future where access is given and taken from digital programs at a tap. A future where you can take back all the information that you have given by physically picking it up and putting it back in your pocket. A future where you could decide what attributes are categorized to your personal algorithm by just taking out the ones you don't want. What this project seeks to achieve is to propose an alternative to data privacy. The cards are my personal view of this concept, however, I think this could be applied to a lot of things. Actually, I think the more things that this is applied to, the better the effect would work. What if your laptop needed a physical digital key to unlock it? What if your wallet itself has the access key to all of your personal information? The idea is to hide this information in plain sight, and playing cards, to me, have felt like a great way to illustrate this concept.

2 adjacent decks of Bicycle playing cards. a black one marked


The quote in my header is from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark. Historically, science fiction has explored concepts from the future like space travel, life in the universe, and specifically this project, advanced technology. Holograms, artificial intelligence, and personal wireless devices used to be made of the dreams of the authors and directors that visualized them. But now it feels like all of these things are common. At ITP, they almost feel trivial because they're explored here daily. The reality of technology has caught up with fiction, and maybe a little more than we realize. Acknowledging the utopian impact of emerging technology should also come with recognizing the dystopian possibilities as well. Large Tech companies like Google, Meta, and Apple are using advancing technology to commodify the common user. They do this by siphoning off the information you provide for them and feeding it into their black box algorithms to improve their user experience. On the surface, this can feel harmless, however, it can become troubling when users don't know what data is being collected, when it's being collected, or what it's being used for. Many people don't know that this is happening, because it's often quiet and done behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this does affect a lot of people and can be very dangerous when gone unchecked. Data algorithms and AI are not always impartial. They too are subject to racial discrimination, gender bias, and human error, and the longer they are allowed to stay this way, the stronger their confirmation bias becomes. Not only that, but people have used these technologies to manipulate, disenfranchise, and deceive the populous time and time again. As algorithms become more prominent, data privacy becomes harder to enforce, sometimes leading the wrong people to the right data. This is all to say that blind trust shouldn't be put into the function of these algorithms. While their primary functions may be harmless they do require upkeep and monitoring to ensure that they are not harming the next generation of users. Check out my library here!

Technical Details

The box itself can be a lot of things, but I think the easy way to look at it is as a wallet. Contained within this wallet are cards. For me, it's playing cards, for others this might vary. Itt could be baseball cards, business cards, payment cards, etc... This works because I've noticed that most cards come in a few standard sizes. 3.5 in. tall by 2.1 in. wide is about the size of a bridge-sized playing card. This measurement is the same for my ID card, payment card, and insurance card. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this size fits in my wallet, and that if the information of those cards could be embedded onto a playing card, why not? To embed the information each card is given a near-field communication tag or an NFC tag.  NFC is a short-range wireless connectivity technology that lets NFC-enabled devices communicate over short distances. It works like an ID card, or like Apple Pay. There are a few methods of transferring this information. RFID is another communication protocol that would allow you to do the same thing. Originally, this concept started with QR codes which are also a great way of transferring digital information through camera inputs. Before, I said that NFC only interacts with other NFC devices. As it stands now, that could be very limited to smartphones as accessible readers. So the third step is to turn the box itself into the reader. I am using an Arduino Nano 33 IOT and a PN532 NFC reader running code from the DFRobot PN523 library. My cards do something very simple, the reader just reads the information placed on the card and prints it into the serial monitor. That is the extent of what my cards do now. The magic happens when I interface that serial monitor to programs on my computer. My computer can then interpret the input of the NFC reader, and create an interaction. For this presentation, I have them set to control a media player in TouchDesigner. Each card is given a number 1-10 (or more accurately 0-9) that corresponds with a video of the same number. This is just one way of using them, however, they could be set to control smart homes, state machines, stereos, etc... They are made to be a blank canvas for the user. Programming the cards can be very easy with a typical smartphone. I have an app, NFC tools, that lets me write directly to the card. From here I can write texts, store links, code, contacts, wifi networks, bitcoin, files, and more. It also allows you to password-lock your NFCs so that they can't be overwritten.

The box from the side, showing the how the wires connect from top to bottom.Schematic including the measurements for a card box, protoboard, bridge sized plating card, and PN532 Reader. This schematic details the specific cutout that need to be made to build the structure for the first and second models of this project.Six different version of the original body lined up side to side. 1 and 4 are cardboard drafts. 2,3, and 5 are acrylic drafts and 6 is just the box itselfMessy desk while testing the card readers connection to the arduino. The rea=der is contained within the updated cardboard prototype