Articles

The Internet’s Supposed Invisibility and the Fantasies It Fuels

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Trevor Paglen, “Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1), NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable, Atlantic Ocean” (2015), c-print, 60 x 48 inches (image) (courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures)

BERLIN — If we could see the inner workings of the internet, the cabled intestines that run between our walls, under our cities, and across oceans, would we grasp what the internet really is? For those who spoke at the “Deep Cables: Uncovering the Wiring of the World” conference, organized by the Disruption Network Lab, at the Bethanien Arts Center on Saturday, understanding the online space involves sightings of physical cabling infrastructure; the smells, sounds, and textures of these spaces; and the lived realities shaped by internet distribution. The speakers’ presentations followed a recurring theme: Can I locate my personal internet connection, that ephemeral bodily extension that mediates my communication and presence, within the cable-and-mortar structures of the anachronistic World Wide Web? Looking at internet infrastructure — server farms, deep-sea cables, 3G cell towers — these artists, academics, journalists, and self-proclaimed “hacker-tourists” (self-appointed travelers who document fiber-optic networks) gain access to the IRL implications of our online reality. This summer in Berlin, amidst the slick surfaces of the DIS-curated Biennale and the eerie recognition that Trump exists offline, the conference’s approach seemed radical, emphasizing the importance of the rough, earth-bound structures that allow for virtual spaces in the first place.

The scope covered by these diverse speakers made the current topicality of internet infrastructure in the art world seem like merely the tip of the iceberg. On the whole, the artistic goal of making representative images of the internet was confronted, at this conference, by more compelling journalistic or even “hacktivist” methods.

Kunstquartier Bethanien. Deep Cables. Disruption Network Lab is an ongoing platform of events and research focused on art, hacktivism and disruption. The Laboratory takes shape through a series of conference events at Studio 1, Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.
“Deep Cables: Uncovering the Wiring of the World” conference organized by the Disruption Network Lab at the Bethanien Arts Center in Berlin

The speakers presented two diverging images of the internet. The first image most of us have is the cloud, a presence that is everywhere and nowhere, a trove of data we buy into with our Apple ID. This image is connected to deep-set human beliefs about the unseen and unknowable — call it God, Aura, or Voldemort; we tend to believe something more deeply when we cannot see the mechanism at work. Writer and journalist Andrew Blum diagnosed that instead of thinking of the internet as a complex system of many networks, we have sublimated this complexity into a totality: many lines have morphed into no lines, and wireless is inexplicably everywhere. The cables and headquarters our internet connections lead to remain out of sight. Blum stressed that this invisibility is not a technological reality, or even a security measure; it is part of a constructed and marketed fantasy of placelessness that informs our use of and belief in the internet. As opposed to the telecommunication infrastructures of the past, which were housed in monumental buildings in city centers, the internet infrastructure is often housed in neighboring nondescript buildings. Blum also analyzed the aesthetics of remote server farms, fenced off and windowless, erased from Google maps and designed to resemble heterotopias such as prisons or asylums. These locations, Blum said, only confirm our idea of the internet’s non-materiality: the blinking blue lights, cable colors, and architectural forms are designed equally to portray untouchable, high-tech security as they are to meet actual technical needs.

However, in places in the world where connection is anything but seamless, the wireless image is replaced by chewed and rusty cable-knots, and the fantasy of exterritorial online space crashes into realities of wealth and power structures. Gabriele “Asbesto” Zaverio, founder of a computer museum in Sicily, and Helga Tawil-Souri, a media studies scholar at New York University, each offered illuminating insights into this second face of the internet. They pointed to places where internet infrastructure is obscured, such as by corruption and incompetence in Sicily, and by occupation and surveillance in Palestine.

Kunstquartier Bethanien. Deep Cables. Disruption Network Lab is an ongoing platform of events and research focused on art, hacktivism and disruption. The Laboratory takes shape through a series of conference events at Studio 1, Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.
Andrew Blum speaking at “Deep Cables: Uncovering the Wiring of the World” conference

This second image of the internet, which roots it in marginal places, has fascinated artists lately. Trevor Paglen explained the motivation for his recent photographic series of deep-sea cables as wanting to visualize the NSA tapping scandal we find so ungraspable. As an artist, he explained, he could produce single, representative images but not be obligated to tell a coherent full story as a journalist or scientist would be. In fact, Paglen’s underwater seascapes attest to NSA tapping only when you read their titles, but the point is clear: governmental surveillance is not abstract, it is manifested at the level of physical cabling. In other words, if you knew what you were looking for and could dive to the bottom of the ocean, you could see the NSA tapping with your own eyes. The split between internet “mind and matter” is a produced fantasy, where in fact they are cause and effect. It is the material, infrastructural side that may reveal how the internet is shaped and controlled by market and government — and we could even see it ourselves, if we looked up from our phones.

Deep Cables: Uncovering the Wiring of the World,” organized by the Disruption Network Lab, took place at the Bethanien Arts Center (Studio 1, Mariannenplatz 2, 10997 Berlin) on Friday, June 17 and Saturday, June 18. 

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