Hasan Elahi: Using Social Media Before Anyone Else

I am very excited to tell you all that I was able to interview Hasan Elahi last week! He is a freelance artist who likes “art that barely passes as art.” In addition and more importantly, he has changed the concept of surveillance forever.

If you are more interested in watching a video than reading the following synopsis, please look at Hasan’s Ted Talk or if you are looking for the really short and funny version, watch his interview on the Colbert Report. Both are pretty awesome.



Hasan Elahi is primarily an artist with a unique interest in digital media. In 2002, he was picked up at an airport in Detroit as a suspected terrorist because of his ethnic background, extensive travel to art exhibits, and his “suspicious” storage unit. Although the FBI could not find any evidence to suggest that he was a terrorist, they kept pestering him for the next six months. Elahi, due to some wit and genuine kind nature decided to help the agents out by sending the FBI regular emails as well as calling them up on the phone with updates of his whereabouts and travel.

This was a lot of work, but Elahi came up with a much better solution for reporting to the FBI. He developed his own website which keeps track of his whereabouts. In addition, he decided to post up to a hundred pictures each day of the food he eats, the places he has been, and the toilets he uses, all with date and timestamp. The site even keeps track of his financial transactions. This can all be seen on his project’s website, TrackingTransience. This bank of information would be a surveyor’s dream, and Elahi has coined the term for his work “self-surveillance.”

His original site was extremely easy to navigate, but he realized that by organizing his information in a linear fashion, he was doing all of the work as an investigator himself. The current version is the opposite of user-friendly in that there are no identifiers of how to browse his website–frankly because you cannot. It was made to be extremely difficult for the user to navigate and randomly cycles through pictures, coordinates, or timestamps from any day or time that Elahi recorded. With this all of this unwanted “spam” of information, a surveyor would have to spend days–if not weeks or months—to collect and analyze data so that it would represent a fraction of his “linear” existence.

The current version (2.0), though containing the same information, is extremely random and out of order, thus protecting his privacy with a massive shield of unorganized extraneous data.

In explanation, I created this little diagram. Ignore the meaning of the event values for the data points (the y-axis); they are merely symbolic and represent what he was doing and where he was for that given time value recorded on his project website. The change in the y values with respect to the x values (time) just shows his change in location.


Note: If you found this diagram to be less than helpful, it merely elaborates upon how the arrangement of data, even thought it is all available, can be extremely difficult to interpret in a meaningful way.

His self-surveillance has even taken on new purpose as an art project. Elahi has already posted more than 60,000 pictures on his website and has done exhibitions all around the world for his project.

Some of you might think that there is nothing really special about posting many pictures of yourself on the internet. Do we not have Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram for that? But he started his project in 2002 when not a single telecom company would back his plan because it was “too creepy.” It is two year older than Facebook and Flickr and eight years older than Instragram. He is really a pioneer of social media and culture.

Oh and I almost forgot! I interviewed him! I would really appreciate it if you were to watch and comment on it!


One response

  1. Hasan’s story continues to fascinate me. I’m torn between whether or not his whole Tracking Transience idea truly affords him more privacy or not, but I’ll admit its an awesome concept for art, putting blips from your personal life in the public. I wonder if Hasan would have ever come up with something like this if he had never been through his whole ordeal? Also, I really like the use of the graph; I appreciate the application of life to charts. Great interview!
    And I still think Hasan looks like Slim Shady.

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