“Looking at You” illustrates today’s privacy dilemma in the form of an opera

Daniel Tkacik

Dec 3, 2019

In a world full of people staring at screens, Rob Handel believes that theatre is one of our last sacred spaces.

“Theatre is basically like church: you go into a room with a bunch of other people to have an experience, to which, in theory, you give your time and all of your attention,” says Handel, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama

Handel is a librettist—a writer of operas. He’s also very concerned about today’s state of digital privacy. His most recent work, Looking at You, ran in New York City in September and explored issues of digital privacy in today’s screen-filled world. The opera featured six singers, four musicians, and a conductor, and it dubbed itself as a “story of high-tech espionage and romance fusing Edward Snowden and Casablanca.” 

The opera received rave reviews from outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Classical Review.

“On a basic storytelling level, if people are spending a lot of their life on the Internet—not just connected to people around them but connected to people who aren’t around them—how do you put that on a stage in a way that is not boring and not screen-y?” Handel says. “That’s a really interesting question that we tried to get at.”

As recent times have shown, you can’t put on a theatrical experience about digital privacy without bringing some experts from CyLab to the table. For Handel, that person was Alessandro Acquisti.

Handel first heard Acquisti’s name after he and Ralph Gross, a CMU School of Computer Science alumnus, published a study demonstrating that a person’s social security number could be guessed with high accuracy with a mere photo on the Internet of that person. That finding, Handel says, really makes a person think twice about their daily interactions with the Internet. 

“We wanted to find a way to bring these ideas to life on stage,” says Acquisti, a professor of information systems in Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College. “The show integrates personal information about audience members into the story itself.”

Acquisti’s and Gross’ main role with the production was creating the data mining infrastructure used to bring audience member’s data into the show. During the show, attendees interact with tablets at their table on which they can choose whether or not to give the production team access to certain online information, such as their social media feeds.

The use of patron data, Handel says, tends to make the patrons who originally shared that data cringe.

Imagine you’re sitting in an opera, and a picture of your kid, who’s at home with a babysitter, appears on a giant screen for the whole audience to see.

Rob Handel, Professor, Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama

“Imagine you’re sitting in an opera, and a picture of your kid, who’s at home with a babysitter, appears on a giant screen for the whole audience to see,” Handel says. “We haven’t stolen that picture from you—you put in on social media where anyone can see it. But now that picture is being shown to a room that you’re sharing with 90 other people. You’d freak out.”

Those 90 other opera attendees, Handel argues, probably have more in common with you than the people on the Internet as a whole. But you’re still left uncomfortable.

“The Internet has made us disconnected from our understanding of what it means to be part of a society,” Handel says.

After the show, attendees receive a privacy kit put together by Acquisti that offered tips for better protecting and thinking more about sharing information online.

One of my personal goals in participating in this work was to create awareness.

Alessandro Acquisti, Professor of information systems,, Carnegie Mellon's Heinz College

“One of my personal goals in participating in this work was to create awareness,” says Acquisti. 

Given Looking at You’s successful run in New York, Handel is hopeful that the show will go on tour sometime in the next year or two, as he says it was originally designed to do. As the show moves forward, one challenge that Handel and the rest of the production team will continue to face is the speed at which technology evolves.

“Theatre is a slow-moving artform. This took us years to develop, but technology changed a lot during that time,” Handel says. “Obviously technology is really important right now, but it’s hard to write anything about it because it moves faster than it plays.”