Interview: Leanne Wijnsma, Designer for the Instinct Who Uses Smell as Medium

Ruben Baart
September 24th 2016

Consider this, early humans had a more developed olfactory sense. As we are slowly evolving, our sense of smell is degrading because we need it less to survive. Dutch experience designer Leanne Wijnsma creates for the human instinct and puts the sense of smell back to where it belongs, as modern hazards have shifted to the digital realm.

In 2014 she was nominated for the Bio Art and Design Award and has been a Future Emerging Art and Technology associate since 2016. She received an e-culture grant from the Dutch Cultural Media Fund to research and develop her current project The Smell Of Data in collaboration with filmmaker Froukje Tan. We recently spoke to her about olfactory design, digital bodies, the relationship between freedom and technology, and more.

The ultimate dream is to create the universal smell of data

Can you tell us about the idea behind The Smell Of Data?

The idea was quite simple actually: we looked into the comparison between gas leaks and data leaks. This made it easy to communicate and people understood directly what the project was about. However, adding a smell to gas is more direct than adding a smell to data. Both gasses and scents are physical substances, which are effortlessly combined; the moment the gas leaks, the added scent leaks along. Data is more complicated than that. Unlike gas, data has no physical matter. This led us to the first part of the research, how to define data. We thought about what good data and bad data are. On top of that houses the question: how to recognize this data and most importantly, how to signal a data leak?

What is a data leak?

A good example of a data leak would be a phishing email, but our system is not able to recognize these emails as such, because this is what spam filter does already. Therefore we looked into data leaks that are recognizable and could potentially be harmful. Our device then picks up these leaks and warns the Internet user with the smell. So the vulnerable situation smells, not the data. Gas works in a similar manner, when smelling the substance there is no direct danger, but when you are incautious with fire an explosion can occur.

Perhaps in five years we will have air dispensers built into our devices

How did the smell come into being?

First I made an archive of “warning” smells. I started developing natural scents in my kitchen, followed by esters in a laboratory. I felt the smell should be a completely new scent, as this is the determining factor in telling the story. I thought it should also be a scent that doesn’t smell nice, otherwise it might become too much fun to leak data. I aimed for a scent that smells a bit unhealthy, one of which you don’t necessarily trust, but trust enough to undertake action. So it became a synthetic smell that is reproducible without difficulty, as I want to create the universal smell of data.

And you collaborated with ScentAir to reproduce the smell.

Yes, I sent them my archive and they made five replica samples, which were then sent back to me. After my feedback they developed three new samples, and Froukje and I went to the US. It was a long process, you have to keep into account that this company often creates scents for commercial spaces - shops, banks, restaurants. However, what immediately spoke to me was that ScentAir also develops smells for military purposes, think about the smell of burnt bodies for training purposes. They understand the scent needs a function. After we found our smell in the US, we went back to the Netherlands. ScentAir then send me two samples, which I eventually mixed together for the final product.

Images are easily forgotten as you get used to them, smell works on a more instinctive basis

Does this mean that ScentAir acknowledges the necessity of the project?

Definitely, what they liked was the innovative content of the project; the notion of a digital smell spoke to them. Think about it, perhaps in five years we will have air dispensers built into our personal devices. The way we imagine smell in digital culture today is often cute; for example watching a cooking show and having the ability to smell the dish, or receiving a text message from your lover that smells like roses. I went back to the basics of smell. The sense of smell originally functioned as a warning mechanism, we used it for hunting and collecting our food, but our lives moved online now, including the digital hazards - data leaks. This is what also spoke to ScentAir, they put a lot of effort into the project.

On your website, you introduce the project saying that “the sense of smell helped early humans to survive”. Do you imply that we are the early humans of the Internet age?

Yes, the Internet is a totally primitive place, even though we might think we are adapted to it, the truth is we don’t really get it just yet. Or at least, we don’t see the dangers of it. This is one of the key points for the project, data are finally given a smell to relate to. After the revelations of Snowden, a whole discussion started and this raised some awareness, but as with any leaks - think about celebrities’ nude pictures leaks - this was only for a short period of time. I hope The Smell Of Data can provide a warning signal that maintains. Images are easily forgotten as you get used to them, smell however works on a more instinctive basis. So the whole idea behind the project is to make the Internet a more instinctive place and make people better capable of making their own decisions.

Two artists created a device that communicates data leaks by means of smell

In this case it is a computerized device that enables us to instinctively make better choices on the Internet, what are your views about our relationship with technology?

The Internet has so much to offer and we can hardly say no. The same goes for any other technological developments, there is so much in it that we want to use. Simultaneously this is the message The Smell Of Data wants to convey, this notion of instinctively could be a directive for other technological developments. It is important we continue to feel and the sense of smell is a good medium for this.

The Smell of Data doesn't use what is in front of people - the screen, the device - but it use the sense of smell, something we notice instinctively. In this way I’m trying to integrate a more natural process in the technology. The Smell Of Data doesn’t ask for attention constantly, it alerts only when you need it, without being obtrusive. It is a design that should encalm. The goal with the Smell Of Data is to not smell it anymore. After the warning signal you fix the leak with the given suggestions, it empowers action.

Would you augment your body?

I would consider it as an experience, but not as one that lasts forever. To me it is important to maintain the option of escape. My other project Escape is the exact opposite of what you are asking me now. By digging tunnels and disappearing into the earth, I become aware of what I can do with my very own hands, to me this is more powerful than enhancing my body. I think it is of importance to know who we are and where we come from, but it would certainly be interesting to experiment with where we can go.

The Internet is a totally primitive place

There is a recurring theme throughout your work. It seems you are continuously trying to physically connect with your body in the digital age.

Both projects are closely related to human instinct. I am very much interested in choice architecture, meaning the way in which we are forwarded to do certain things, how products are developed, which ways to go. Basically the way a building is built, this is how society is build. We do things without knowing we are told to do them. Smell adds to this, sometimes you don’t even know that you smell something. Smell affects behavior. Take for example the partner you are dating. The level of attractiveness is based on opposite immune systems that are biologically determined. Knowing this is an enormous powerful product.

Coming back to the Snowden affair, it is known that Mark Zuckerberg tapes his own webcam. Knowing this creates public awareness but also paranoia. How do you relate to this?

What I would like to achieve with the project is the exact opposite. By making data tangible I hope we can move beyond the paranoia. By knowing what is going on with our data, it is important for the Internet user to gain the opportunity to make their own decisions. An example could be me receiving a warning signal for the terms & conditions to play Pokémon Go and then it is up to me to say: “Okay, I am aware of the risks, but I am choosing to play this game with my friends”.

It would be impossible to solve all data leaks. The only way to prevent all forms of data leakage would be to throw all of your personal devices into the water and you obviously don’t want to do that. The project website offers helpful tips to defend ourselves from digital dangers.

Kids are very much aware of what data leaks are

How did people respond to The Smell of Data?

We recently introduced the project at the Science Museum in London. To our surprise we noticed that especially kids perfectly understood what we were talking about, they reacted with enthusiasm. There was a kid who told me his YouTube account got hacked a week ago and he was disappointed he didn't heard about the project before. Kids are very much aware of what data leaks are.

Another beautiful comment came from Hans de Zwart (Bits of Freedom) who said going against data leaks is almost the same as being a vegetarian. So as a vegetarian you are unlikely to save the world, but at least you are taking a position that speaks out and can influence others. Being aware of privacy and preventing data leaks means making a stand as an opposing force.

Instead of using graffiti, you can use smell to spread information in public spaces

Can you tell us about the design of the device?

We used open sourced software to indicate the ongoing status of the project, allowing any professionals to work with the code for their own demands. Regarding the hardware, as the device is still quite big in size I would like to explore the possibilities to develop it into a more wearable item - think of a necklace or ring. For example, the device also warns when you are using an unprotected Wi-Fi signal, but due to its size you can't keep it in your purse at all times. So there are some practicalities to work.

I would like to focus more on the hardware of the device. After shaping the initial bottle, I started 3D printing and found the lesser sides the object has, the more workable it is. I actually like the shape as it is, but it would be good to design a modular structure so that you can take parts off and bring it along. While the shape might resemble a grenade, this does not mean I feel affiliated with that per se, it is not meant to be an odor bomb. Although I do think the smell of data could potentially be used in other ways: imagine warning others for unsafe companies with little odor bombs, so that instead of using graffiti, you can use smell to spread information in public spaces.

Spreading your data generates noise

How do you envision the future for The Smell of Data?

The project is still in its conceptual phase at the moment, but after launching it at the Science Museum I felt it could become a more realistic product than I expected at first. While I am not interested in turning it into a commercial product, I would be curious to hear whether there are future partners who want to develop this device. The ultimate dream would be to create the universal smell of data, that can - just like gas - gain governmental recognition so that when in the future scent dispensers are built into our devices, the smell of data is embedded in it.

Thank you so much, Leanne, for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!

More interviews: Liam YoungBruce SterlingJason SilvaArne HendriksRachel ArmstrongAlexandra Daisy GinsbergFloris KaaykChloé RutzerveldNadine BongaertsMike Thompson and Susana Cámara Leret, Pauline van Dongen.

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