Arie Altena

We all need a place to hide, don’t we?

About the internet and Pynchon's Bleeding Edge

Arie Altena

This text was published in Nieuwe Vide's journal on humanity: In Search of Thomas Pynchon 2016, p.14-17, edited on occasion of an exhibition with the same title. | JPG1 JPG2 JPG3

Ode to the deep web
Nice try,
(Anonymous, Hypersphere, (2015), p. 733)

The Hypersphere is a big fucking place, kid. Imagine the biggest pile of dung you can take and then double-- no, triple that shit and you still haven’t come close to one octingentillionth of a Hypersphere cornerstone.
(Anonymous, Hypersphere, (2015), p. 3)

“We will be small scattered darknets on the fringes of the Internet after all is lost.” (m0rphet, quoted in Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (2014). 

It is a long time ago. The internet was different, very different. And yet, maybe it was not so different at all, and it’s only that we thought it was different.

Go back to 1994, or maybe it was 1993 – I don’t remember exactly. I had an e-mail account through the university and could login to the Internet. The scrunching and screeching of the modem: a sign that it was establishing contact between my computer and the network. It always sounded like the entrance to a new world.

I remember lesson one of a course in using the Internet: an e-mail is sent unprotected over the network, anyone who knows how to use the technology can ‘listen in’. When you want to write something private that no-one else may read: encrypt, use PGP. I never did. 

My fondest memories of those early times on the internet are of ‘clicking’ through gopher menu’s. It was not really clicking: you had to type the number of the menu on the command line: each choice giving access to another menu, finally reaching a destination: the text of an essay on virtual communities, research on combinatory literature, information on obscure movies, anarchist theory, a small zine of avant-garde poetry. It was amazing how much information was available in this text-only universe, previously unaccessible even in a city with alternative bookstores and a well-stocked university library. There was also a very active maillist on Thomas Pynchon. It still exists.

I had been keenly interested in the use of new technologies in literature, and this being the early 1990s, meant I was reading about the possibilities of hypertext, next to a lot of postmodern fiction and theory. There was a lot of talk about cyberspace and virtual reality. Some people thought that in a few years we’d all be doing VR. Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer (1984) with its description of ‘jacking into cyberspace’ had been around for a while. Hollywood was doing cyborg movies and movies about VR. Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community. Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier came out in 1993, and described daily life on computer networks in the 1980s and early 1990s. When I bought my first laptop second-hand, it came with a 2400 bauds modem, a list of hundreds of BBS’s, and, if I remember correctly, software that could trick the telephone company into ‘thinking’ you were calling from a local number, not internationally. I’d never dialed in to BBS’s. I was not an early adopter.

Developments went really fast at the time. Halfway into 1994 I’d been involved in making a CD-rom and I had learned HTML. The great thing about HTML was that it was simple. You’d write webpages, link them to build a website, and upload for others to see and link to. There was a feeling of empowerment: by marking-up texts with html-tags you were building part of a new world. 

I remember MOO’s as well. These role-playing games, forerunners of World of Warcraft, were still text-only. You could describe new spaces and define objects that others could access, thus building new worlds in hyperspace to wander through. For a short time there was a genuine excitement about these alternative spaces, connected to the idea that you could be a totally different person online: ‘On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.’

Shift to the second decennium of the 21st century. Smart phones routinely sending massive amounts of behavioral data through the internet to providers and third parties. Massive data capture and massive profiling. PRISM: Edward Snowden leaking documents that confirm massive data interception by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Shady companies with names that almost nobody knows trade in big data – your data. Facebook trying to force its hypercontrolled version of the ‘Internet’ on India. Dictatorial governments routinely monitoring internet users, and shutting down services when deemed necessary. On the Internet ‘they’ know more about you, than you do about yourself. Whoever believes in an Internet as a free space to find refuge in, must be dreaming. The internet is the wet dream of data-marketeers, secret services, data-spies, and governments who love total surveillance. Where do we hide?

The end of the internet as a free space should not have come as a surprise. At least since 1998 the presumed existence of a sig-int operation called Echelon that captured and analyzed e-mail traffic was heavily discussed online. After a two year long inquiry the European Commission confirmed its existence in 2001. Echelon was capable of interception and content inspection of telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other data traffic. I don’t recall it was news at the time. In 2013 NSA-files leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the American government had been data-mining private e-mail communications of its citizens since 2001 in a program with the codename stellarwind. 

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge (2013) is set in 2001. In true Pynchonian fashion there are many hints of a convoluted plot. Maxine Tarnow, a private fraud investigator is the detective who tries to unravel the plot, only to discover that it’s either so complex and utterly crazy that almost everybody seems involved, or an utter mess that’s impossible to reduce to a straight account of events.

In Bleeding Edge Pynchon chooses 2001 as the moment in the history of the internet when the conception of the internet as a free space gives way to commerce and control. One of the narrative strands concerns the development of DeepArcher (pronounced as ‘departure’), a virtual reality environment in the ‘Deep Web’.

The term ‘Deep Web’ was coined in 2000 for the part of the Internet which is invisible to search engines. “Deep Web? No way for surface crawlers to get there, not to mention the encryption and the strange redirects—”. Only much later the term became conflated with the ‘darknet’ of freenets enabling censorship-resistant communication, and the underground internet enabled by TOR. This is the deep web that is a hub for illegal activity and a virtual refuge for people who have something to hide. It enables anonymous browsing, which is essential for true democracy.

In Bleeding Edge the unindexed Deep Web is still a free place, as an avatar in DeepArcher explains to Maxine Tarnow: “It’s still unmessed-with country. You like to think it goes on forever, but the colonizers are coming. The suits and tenderfeet. You can hear the blue-eyed-soul music over the ridgeline. There’s already a half dozen well-funded projects for designing software to crawl the Deep Web—”.  And he continues: “(O)nce they get down here, everything’ll be suburbanized faster than you can say ‘late capitalism.’ Then it’ll be just like up there in the shallows. Link by link, they’ll bring it all under control, safe and respectable. Churches on every corner. Licenses in all the saloons. Anybody still wants his freedom’ll have to saddle up and head somewhere else.”

The real change happens on 9/11. Justin, one of the developers of DeepArcher in the novel explains that DeepArcher needs random numbers to stay untraceable in the Deep Web. These are derived from the ‘Global Consciousness Project’ which maintains a global network of random-event generators. Justin: “All goes well till the night of September 10th, when suddenly these numbers coming out of Princeton began to depart from randomness, I mean really abruptly, drastically, no explanation.” DeepArcher is vulnerable, and becomes easy to access. The Twin Towers are attacked, afterwards the ghosts of 9/11 appear in the Deep Web, and it becomes a controlled space with advertising everywhere.

The events of 9/11 presented a perfect occassion for western governments to tighten security measures and intensify surveillance. In Bleeding Edge Pynchon is genuinely angry about this. Not because the increased surveillance meant the end of a sunny Californian utopia of a free cyberspace – that was fake anyway, a realization of free market capitalism at it worst. But because it constrains the freedom of humans, leaving nowhere to hide, and no mental space to form dissenting thoughts. Very disturbingly, as Pynchon suggests in Bleeding Edge, the CIA, venture capitalists, silicon valley entrepeneurs, terrorists and jihadi’s seem to be all in it together. But we might get paranoid here.

The theme of an uncharted space which is brought under control by the forces of capitalism, consumerism, and western science returns in some form in all Pynchon novels. He stresses the human need to believe in the existence a free space, where one can temporarily find refuge from these forces of control. It might be an illusion, it might depend on magick, and you may have to pay a price, but without it you can’t be truly human. In Mason and Dixon Pynchon focuses on the surveying of the border between Maryland, Pennsylviania and Delaware in colonial America between 1763 and 1767. The narrator wonders about the function of unmapped space: “Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? (…) serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true,— Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,— winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.”

In the novel Mason answers: “Yet must the Sensorium be nourish’d”. (Mason & Dixon, p. 345)

During a short time the Internet provided such nourishment. Bleeding Edge records one version of why that’s past.

All quotes in the text are from Thomas Pynchon: Bleeding Edge, New York: Penguin Press, 2013, unless indicated otherwise.

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Arie Altena