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

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.

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