In the Marvel Universe Ultron is an artificial intelligence robot fixated on world domination. Ultron may only be a work of fiction but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned with the data gathering robots that exist in our world today. As a graphic novella, Terms Of Service: Understanding Our Role in the World of Big Data, is a perfect example of how effective comics can be as a tool to inform, educate, and entertain. Terms of Service may not contain zombies, martial arts masters, or superheroes at all, but its story surprises and intrigues by increasing the reader’s awareness of their relationship with technology and how the data collected about us can create a detailed story of who we are.
Created by non-fiction cartoonist Josh Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge) and reporter Michael Keller (Al Jazeera America), Terms of Service takes us from 2004, when privacy advocates were concerned about the scanning of email content in Gmail, to the present as we freely give up our personal data in trade for the benefits of social media, mobile apps, and connected appliances, like Nest. Keller and Neufeld skillfully use themselves as characters in the graphic novella to make for an engaging read that takes on real world problems.
“The narrative [of comics] was fun. Using the visuals as an explanatory tool allowed for a juxtaposition of the narrative,” said Keller. This is especially true when the creators depict themselves traveling and discussing privacy concerns. In the background it’s apparent they are passing through airport security before a subsequent page turn that forces the reader to contemplate how pervasive our lack of privacy really is.
I was also struck by their clever visual depiction of the apps we use as invisible flying robots. It was a bit unsettling to imagine the number of app robots I have installed, surrounding me as my cell phone lay on the table. People’s concerns about the impact on privacy because of personal drones are not in the future, they are already here.
On their creative process, Neufeld says, “It was really collaborative. There was a real back and forth in writing the scenes.” That collaboration comes off the page as we follow the two as they interview senators, professors, and researchers in a Radiolab-like fashion wherein Neufeld learns as Keller depicts just how colossal Big Data is. “As you read you identify with Josh’s character or my character. You get to see both sides of the issue,” says Keller.
In comic book form, the central issue remains at the center. “We can take the jargon out and make it relatable.” This is expertly done when Neufeld and Keller literally connect the dots to form a skewed portrait that our data constructs of us. But what version of you does it show? And who gets to tell that story? “Protecting your data comes with frustrations. In reality it’s hard to be private,” explains Keller. “You really have to choose which and how to use that technology.” Neufeld and Keller’s appreciation for the comics form enables them to not talk down to the reader and to convey complex ideas effectively. Neufeld explains that Terms of Service was an opportunity to “try to use comics to talk about issues not normally seen in comics.”
Terms Of Service is an excellent piece of journalism that informs and provides awareness while remaining entertaining and I am very excited to see what comes next in non-fiction comics. Scott McCloud taught how to understand comic books. Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon made the 9/11 Report accessible with their compelling visual adaptation. Ed Piskor comes along with Hip Hop Family Tree to illustrate an essential cultural moment. Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld have created a story that illuminates personal privacy and digital rights. Comics creators have the ability to use the graphic novel format to influence readers and create change, perhaps as effectively as John Oliver does with his
Last Week Tonight show that has consistently spurred action from his viewers.
If there’s any action to take right now it’s to read Terms Of Service. While it can’t provide you all the information it does provide the essential information so you can join the conversation and start taking an active mindset when it comes to privacy and Big Data.
Terms Of Service is available to read for free via Al Jazeera America’s website, downloadable in multiple formats (Google Play, iBooks, ePub, PDF) and available in print in select comic book shops, currently exclusively at The Isotope in San Francisco.
Michael Keller is a multimedia journalist for Al Jazeera America.
Josh Neufeld is a non-fiction cartoonist living in Brooklyn.
On Free Comic Book Day, Saturday May 2nd, Josh Neufeld will be at The Comic Shop in Wilmington, Deleware.
On Tuesday May 19th, you can attend a presentation and discussion with both the creators at the UCLA library.
Admission is free at both events.