Items ordered by the Random Darknet Shopper, courtesy of the artists.

Items ordered by the Random Darknet Shopper (all images courtesy of the artists)

This fall, an automated “shopper bot” called the “Random Darknet Shopper” purchased ten pills of MDMA from the dark web. The bot was the brainchild of the innovative !Mediengruppe Bitnik art collective, a group that uses “hacking as an artistic strategy” to “recontextualise the familiar,” according to their website.

The MDMA pills ordered by the bot.

The “snapback 120mg MDMA” pills ordered by the art bot.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik favors elaborate, interactive projects that probe our relationship to digital communication or surveillance technologies — previously, they’ve hacked CCTV cameras and replaced their footage with an invitation to play chess — and they told Marina Galperina of FastCoLabs that the shopper bot experiment was designed to explore alternatives to regulated, mainstream channels of online communication. What becomes of identity and interpersonal communication on the dark web, where anonymity is paramount? If we must choose between monitored interactions on the one hand and impersonal exchanges on the other, how can we forge meaningful relationships on the internet? Caught between the web and the dark web, we are left to choose between performance of the self and radical depersonalization.

Random Darknet Shopper was part of The Darknet — From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration, an exhibition that approached these urgent questions from multiple perspectives. The show, which appeared in Kunst Halle St. Gallen in Switzerland and closed last week, also featured a YouTube history of Anonymous and Eva and Franco Mattes’s “Emily’s Video” (2012), which depicts footage of volunteers reacting to a mysterious video. All the pieces in the exhibition hinged on questions of identity and anonymity.

"The Darknet—From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration” at the Kunst Halle St. Gallen.

“The Darknet—From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration” at the Kunst Halle St. Gallen.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik’s bot explored these issues at the level of economic exchange, taking depersonalization to its limits. Though Random Darknet Shopper was stripped of anything resembling human identity, it was able to participate without difficulty in the electronic marketplace on the dark web. The bot used its weekly budget of $100 bitcoin to make random purchases. In addition to the MDMA, it also ordered Lord of the Rings e-books, sneakers, and a Platinum Visa card.

In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hanagan wrote about a similar experiment, in which he created a virtual life for a man who had died. Like the virtually resurrected subject of O’Hanagan’s article, Random Darknet Shopper is non-living proof that digital artifacts can take on the roles we typically reserve for humans. Our Twitter followers or Amazon accounts won’t notice the absence of a feeling, phenomenological self as long as our avatars continue performing their functions.

Philosopher David Chalmers is famed for a thought experiment that tests the boundaries of consciousness: he originated the notion of the philosophical zombie, a monster who resembles us in every way but lacks phenomenological experience. Although philosophical zombies are externally indistinguishable from humans with conscious experience, performing all of the same sorts of actions, they are not “conscious” in the way we typically use the word. As !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s bot demonstrates, the philosophical zombie apocalypse is upon us as digital identities proliferate.

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and Slate, among other publications....

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