This text was written for the exhibition Wifi, Connectivity and Digital Utopianism (2016) at the Nieuwe Vide in Haarlem, and was published in Nieuwe Vide's Journal of Humanities.
From the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Connectivity: the state of being connected. Connect: bind together, bring together or into contact so that a real or notional link is established. Notional: theoretical, hypothetical, conjectural.’
In 2007 the artist Gordan Savičić walked through the streets of Rotterdam wearing a self-made WiFi-straightjacket consisting of a chest strap with high torque servo motors and a wifi-enabled gaming console. When he approached an encrypted wireless network, the strap tightened immediately. The higher the strength of the wireless signals he encountered, the tighter the jacket became. Savičić calls this work Constraint City / The Pain of Everyday Life. Since 2007 he has performed it several times in cities like Vienna and Mexico City. He describes it as ‘a critical performance addressing public and private space (…) and the relation of abstract information layers to our everyday life’. He is interested as well in the maps that the walks with the straightjacket generate. ‘The map keeps not only tracks of all wireless networks along the route, but also the wearer’s détournement when entering a very dense network place, a so called pleasurable pain zone.’ (All quotes from http://www.yugo.at/equilibre/). Imagine that you are walking the streets, smartphone handy as usual, wearing a straightjacket like Savičić. The invisible signals that enable the connections that you need so much – so you can have the access to the Internet to find your way around and let your friends know instantly what you are doing – grip you physically, leaving an imprint on your body. (For the sake of this little thought experiment I’m supposing that the wireless networks are all open – which in reality they are not). Walking through a city becomes a physically painful experience. The stronger the signal, the better and faster the connection, the more painful. Places with a strong signal permit a fast and smooth connection to your online personality, but these place hurt. Quiet places which do not hurt only allow for an irritatingly slow and bumpy connection to the online world which you feel so close to.
From the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Connection: a relationship in which a person or thing is linked or associated with something else. Connection: link, relationship, attachment, contact.’
We need connections to live and survive. We are nothing without connections. But it is a very shallow philosophy that states: the greater the connectivity, the better. For two decennia it has been the mantra of almost everything related to technological communication. Isn’t it better to be virtually connected to more people, to more things, to more others? Isn’t sharing more of our things and thoughts with the world better than keeping it to ourselves? Isn’t the Internet, with all of its user-friendly platforms that facilitate sharing and sociality, a driving force of democracy? Only some dissident voices have raised criticisms. Commerce has lived, and is living, this mantra. Almost everyone prefers to have a strong WiFi-signal, so the messages from our online network – messages with which we relate intimately – can come through as quickly as possible and without hick-ups. Does it make sense to distinguish (still, or again) between online and offline? Are we not ensnared in too many connections?
Gordan Savičić is also one of the creators of the Web2.0 Suicide Machine (2010), a piece of software that enables the user to complete delete one’s own social media account. It’s an art project, the software really worked, and it was quickly banned by Facebook. ‘Liberate your newbie friends with a Web2.0 suicide! This machine lets you delete all your energy sucking social-networking profiles, kill your fake virtual friends, and completely do away with your Web2.0 alterego.’ (Info from http://www.suicidemachine.org/)
Connections are never neutral. Through connections we enter into relations (with things, thoughts, others). A connection is an enabler, it opens up a new perspective, providing a link to something which was formerly unknown (to you). Connections may provide a greater freedom to think and dream, present a possibility to speak freely, give freedom to act. Connections also may impose limits, and enforce a discipline that is not desired. Opening a connection implies the start of an adventure, but it may also ask you to behave in a certain way.
There’s giving and there’s leeching. There is honesty and there’s manipulation. Power is distributed unequal. There are lies too.
From the Oxford Dictionary of English.‘Utopia: an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. Ideal place, paradise, heaven, heaven on earth, Eden, Garden of Eden, Shangri-La, Elysium, the Elysian Fields, Happy Valley, seventh heaven, idyll, nirvana, bliss; Arcadia, Arcady, Erewhon.’
‘Frontier: the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness, especially in reference to the western US before Pacific settlement.’
‘Cyberspace: the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs.’
Especially in the early years of the World Wide Web (1993–1995) a strong utopian element pervaded the Internet. The Internet would spread democracy, change the economy for the better, give power to the people. Cyberspace, as it was then called, was the new frontier. Beyond the sound of the modem connecting to the Internet people imagined an empty space, waiting to be inhabited and given form. In cyberspace new and better rules would apply. We would all built this world together, bottom-up, starting from grass-root initiatives. It would change the real world too. These ideas are not dead. Today this utopian thought has reached its farcical state in the ideology of ultra-capitalists like Uber and other start ups that aim to convert every bit of existence into a commodity to make profit from. It is very much alive in Bitcoin. Some of the utopian ideals survive in left-wing techno-anarchist niches.
In his book The Ends of the Internet (2016) Boris Beaude, a telecommuncations researcher, sketches the current predicament of the Internet. He starts on the positive note: ‘Freedom of speech was rarely so effective, offering unprecedented opportunities for communication. The ease of organizing small and responsive collectives spread over vast areas emphasized the Internet’s ability to mobilize expertise scattered around particular issues.’ But, he continues, ‘the Internet’s founding principles have been challenged in many ways, and the diversity and power of these threats are likely to put an end to what now increasingly appeared as a utopia.’ Beaude continues with a description which, since WikiLeaks and PRISM and the growing criticism towards the ‘business models’ of Facebook, Google and Amazon, sounds all too familiar: ‘Freedom of expression is now subject to surveillance and control on an unprecedented scale. Formerly a space of freedom, the Internet has developed into the world’s largest panopticon. The idealistic assumptions of a prospering collective intelligence have been shaken by the commercial exploitation of individual productions and their appropriation through increasingly sophisticated communication strategies.’
Do we need to remind again how millions and millions of people consciously or unconsciously fill the databases of Facebook and other corporations (like Strava for runners and cyclists) with minute details of their lives? The data are valuable, even when anonymised. An algorithmic regime is in the making. Big Data will allow insurance companies, the police, governments, retailers and others to make more informed, optimised, if not ‘perfect’ decisions. In the future we won’t need politics. The databases know us better than we know ourselves. Big Data coupled with artificial intelligence will provide optimal security in a perfected society. Do you really believe that?
From the Oxford Dictionary of English. ‘Antonym of utopia: hell on earth.’
How cumbersome that in order to be part of digital utopia, you had to connect your machine through a cable, using a modem over a landline. How much better if it would just work as if by magic, if all the technological infrastructure would be invisible, immaterial, hidden.
From Wikipedia: ‘Wi-Fi or WiFi is a technology that allows electronic devices to connect to a wireless LAN (WLAN) network, mainly using the 2.4 gigahertz (12 cm) UHF and 5 gigahertz (6 cm) SHF ISM radio bands. A WLAN is usually password protected, but may be open, which allows any device within its range to access the resources of the WLAN network.’
From Wikipedia: ‘ALOHAnet, also known as the ALOHA System, or simply ALOHA, was a pioneering computer networking system developed at the University of Hawaii. ALOHAnet became operational in June, 1971, providing the first public demonstration of a wireless packet data network. ALOHA originally stood for Additive Links On-line Hawaii Area.’
I like it that the first wireless internet network was called ALOHA. It just means ‘hello’, but carries the connotation of total relaxation. No worries.
Also from Wikipedia: ‘Wi-Fi is less secure than wired connections, such as Ethernet, precisely because an intruder does not need a physical connection.’
From the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Social contract: an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection. Theories of a social contract became popular in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries among theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of subjects.’
In Le contrat naturel (1990) the French philosopher Michel Serres argues that we must sign a ‘natural contract’ with the earth which takes the place of the ‘social contract’ that Rousseau conceived of in the 18th century. The possibility that we are in the middle of a human-induced global climate change implies that the destinies of human history and Earth history are intertwined cannot be conceptualised as being separate. Halfway The Natural Contract (I will quote from the 1995 English translation) in the chapter ‘Science and Law’ there are three passionate pages (68-70) about the social contract and freedom that I find particularly fascinating. Serres describes how the social contract concerns everyone, without exception. The social contract implies, he writes, that ‘the virtuous citizen’s knowledge and his constant occupation consist of knowing in real time what the other citizens are doing, and of making it his own business. Everybody knows everything about everyone, and everybody is busy with everything that everyone is thinking, saying, and doing.’ This is a state of absolute knowledge, absolute information, total commitment, total transparency.
According to Serres total transparency – ‘‘When everyone knows everything right now about everybody and lives by this knowledge’ – characterises the notion of freedom and the ideal state of antiquity. It is the ideal of modern philosophers since Rousseau, the ideal of the media and of the social sciences and of the police and bureaucracy: ‘poll, clarify, inform, make known, expose, report.’ It is also the ideal of WikiLeaks, and in a twisted sense, of Big Data. Twisted, because in the case of Big Data – nothing else but social science on a large scale – data are considered to be everyone’s business, but are usually owned by corporations and sometimes governments. Total transparency is possible when everyone shares everything with everyone in one’s life. Social media and a range of apps on smartphones have trained people to consciously or unconsciously report their lifes real-time. In Dutch the tagline of Facebook is: ‘Met Facebook ben je verbonden en deel je alles met iedereen in je leven’: ‘With Facebook you are connected and you share everything with everyone in your life’. (The tagline used by Facebook for UK English and US English is more neutral.)
Serres writes: ‘(W)e can immediately understand how each of these once virtuous citizens, (…) might find it monstrous that a single one of them could abandon such knowledge and such activity, for he would be destroying, by this very act and on his own, that universality. If somebody stops knowing and saying everything about everyone else, not only does he leave the general will, he destroys it. I elided two words from this sentence. In 1990 Serres wrote: ‘unlike us’. I am not sure this ‘unlike’ still applies to a general ‘us’ in 2016.
For Serres total transparency is a ‘terrifying nightmare, one that, if you’ve lived in small villages or large tribes, you’ll want to avoid all your life, for it is the height of enslavement.’ (68) Serres, by the way, is an optimist and has more recently written a short book in which he praises the social-media-generation, and envisions a positive democratic future for them: Petite Poucette (2012). But in The Natural Contract, the use made of the excess of connectivity, produces a state in which everybody is spying on everybody else. ‘That citizen whose virtue was celebrated throughout history, from Plutarch to the French Revolution’, Serres writes, ‘would appear to us (…) to be nothing less than a full-time tattletale or snitch, an insufferable character, an informer or reporter, always running around telling everybody whatever can be found out about everyone’. Therefore the city-states of ancient times, like Athens and Sparta, had no need for a police, ‘since everybody’s information sufficed to monitor everyone’s conduct in real time.’
Freedom begins with ignorance Serres writes: ‘the ignorance I have and wish to preserve of the activities and thoughts of my neighbors, and with the relative indifference that I hope they harbor for mine, for want of information.’ He suggests that the better system is not a static one in which every element occupies its own perfect place, but a system which is fragile and vulnerable, prone to change and endowed with the potential to adapt. This vulnerability, which is also ignorance (not-knowing) towards what will happen, leaves space. This is the freedom that is needed for unpredictable encounters, and for new inventions. Constantly shifting between writing about science, law and social life Serres suggests that ‘our modern contract of freedom thus demands some ignorance: I don’t know what my neighbor says and does, and I don’t report any of it if I do happen to find out, unless I claim to be a social scientist or I sign up as a police informant.’ I’m afraid the Internet has made too many of us into social scientists.
In order to open a connection you have to be vulnerable. It’s a precarious position. In her book The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) the anthropologist Anna Tsing defines precarity in a positive way, as a way live in the ruins of neoliberalism and capitalism. She writes: ‘Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others.’
From the Oxford Dictionary of English. ‘Precarious: not securely held or in position; dangerously likely to fall or collapse; dependent on chance; uncertain.’
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