Most of us don't really know (nor probably care to know) how "the network" functions, what its structure of communication cables and servers looks like or how, more concretely, our private data travel. Roel Roscam Abbing spent a month at Laboral in Gijón to work on Border Check, a software that lays out the physical and political realities behind the internet.
And i'm sorry to quote him but in this age of reckless online surveillance even Dick Cheney thinks that you never know how much knowledge you're going to need. So maybe a good place to start would be to visualize how our data are moving from place to place (and thus which government can potentially have a look through it) and Border Check enables just that:
As one surfs the net, data packets are sent from the user's computer to the target server. The data packets go on a journey hopping from server to server potentially crossing multiple countries until the packets reach the desired website. In each of the countries that are passed different laws and practices can apply to the data, influencing whether or not authorities can inspect, store or modify that data.
Hi Roel! Border Check (BC) is a browser extension that illustrates the physical and political realities of the internet's infrastructure using free software tools. Why did you think it would be interesting to investigate the travels of data packets?
I stumbled upon this topic when pursuing a personal interest I developed last year as I started with the Networked Media programme at the PZI. I joined this course because my practice has always been engaged with new technologies and the internet. At the same time however, I felt I lacked a lot of knowledge (technical, theoretical) to make statements with and about these media. For one, if someone would have asked me what the internet was, I would not really have had an answer. So one of the first things I started researching while at the PZI was exactly this. What is the internet? It was during the programming courses that I started working with software such as traceroute, which shows you how you connect to servers. Traceroute really fascinated me because suddenly it linked websites to specific machines that could be linked to a company and to a location on the world. This suddenly made the internet very tangible for me.
At the same time while reading up on the history of the internet I realised the difference between how I had previously perceived the internet as a 'cloud', 'wireless', non-physical (which is probably a more common understanding) and the internet as a bunch of physical cables that run through countries and the bottoms of oceans. Tracerouting then became a way to experience this normally invisible infrastructure.
Some of the demo you sent me show the data taking a straight line. In other cases, such as for dilma.com.br, the path is more tortuous. How do you explain this? And is every non-straight path accountable for?
The complexity of the paths has a lot to do with the degree of interconnectivity of the networks. Generally, the better the connection between you and the destination server, the smaller the amount of hops on your travel. So if you see a lot of hops and twisting paths, it is probably because there is no direct connection between you and the destination.
The complexity of the paths can also be the result of certain assumptions embedded in the databases used for the visualisation. One of these assumptions has to do with determining where a machine is located in the world. Sometimes the geographical data tied to a machine's IP address reflects where it's owning company is registered, rather than the actual physical location of the machine. So you might get visualisations where you'd see a line travel back and forth between Europe and the US. Rather than actually travelling back and forth the Atlantic, what happens, is that your travel stays in Europe, yet you get on and off networks owned by US and EU companies. Because of this when using BC it's important to click the hops to reveal the machine names, often they contain more hints of where the machines may be actually located.
In this sense BC's visualisations are sometimes a bit more abstract, showing ownership and jurisdiction rather than the physical location.
How does a particular country's laws and practices regarding data affect the path adopted? Do you have examples?
It is not necessarily the case that a state's laws and practices affect the route, rather that the route determines which states's laws and practices one is exposed to.
The internet is routed passively, that is to say, there is no way you can tell your data how it should reach its destination. The internet is designed in such a way that data will always try to find the fastest route available, and that may happen to take your data through countries like the UK that monitor all passing data.
In this sense the route is often more influenced by geography and money. Geography, because some places such as the the UK's West Coast act as a 'funnel' for submarine cables, since they are the first stop for many of those cables when they cross the Atlantic. Money, because richer countries will also have the faster infrastructures and those get a preference when it comes to routing.
Laws and policies can influence where companies set up their offices and data centres though. Facebook for example serves non-US users from Ireland, because of the low taxes it pays there. However, the fact that Facebook is registered in Ireland also means it has to comply with EU privacy laws. A funny example of what that means concretely is a 2011 'meme' that spawned on reddit where European users flooded Facebook with data requests, something that was not possible for American users of Facebook.
What were the most surprising discoveries you made while testing the data travels?
One of the more interesting things I've realised and which is something that I would like to follow up on is how 'historical' the networks actually are. If you compare maps of the submarine cables that make up contemporary intercontinental fibre optic networks with maps of telegraphy networks of the 19th century you will see a lot of similarities.
However, this historical element also became apparent to me using Border Check when for example I found out that much of Latin America is predominantly connected through the Telefonica network. Telefonica is a very large telecommunications company that resulted from the privatisation of Spain's state telecom company.
In this sense one could argue that a lot of Latin American countries are dependent on the telecommunications infrastructure of their former coloniser. This could lead to clashes of interest. In the case of Brazil this has recently become apparent when, in response to NSA spying, Brazillian president Dilma Rousseff announced plans to build a national Brazilian telecommunications infrastructure. There Rousseff wants to ensure that Brazil no longer needs to route via the United States (that is the Telefonica network) and as a consequence be subjected to American monitoring when it connects with the rest of the world.
How do you retrieve the information necessary to map these travels?
While you run Border Check it uses your browser history in order to detect whether you are loading a new website. It then relies on Layer Four Traceroute, which is a tracerouting software, to map the ip addresses of the machines that route your data on it's way to that destination website. Border Check then uses Maxmind's free GeoIP databases to link these adresses to cities, countries and companies. Maxmind to some extent gets this information from repositories of internet registries (organisations that keep track of who registers what website, who owns a certain ip-adress etc). For visualisation Border Check uses Openstreetmap with the leaflet visualisation library.
What's next for BC?
I am really interested in adding more information layers to Border Check that provide some more context on what it could mean when one surfs through a specific country. One of the initiatives I find exciting is www.diriwa.org. It tries to collaboratively map communications and informations rights in the world. I think adding this sort of information will make Border Check much richer. Other than that, releasing updates that would make the software more easy to install and run on different platforms.
Alan Turing was a mathematician, a logician, a cryptanalyst, and a computer scientist (as i'm sure you all know.) During World War 2 he cracked the Nazi Enigma code, and later came to be regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. In the 1952, Turing was convicted of having committed criminal acts of homosexuality. Given a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration, Turing chose to undergo a medical treatment that made him impotent and caused gynaecomastia. Suffering from the effects of the treatment and from being regarded as abnormal by a society, the scientist committed suicide in June 1954.
The Turing Normalizing Machine is an experimental research in machine-learning that identifies and analyzes the concept of social normalcy. Each participant is presented with a video line up of 4 previously recorded participants and is asked to point out the most normal-looking of the 4. The person selected is examined by the machine and is added to its algorithmically constructed image of normalcy. The kind participant's video is then added as a new entry on the database.
Conducted and presented as a scientific experiment TNM challenges the participants to consider the outrageous proposition of algorithmic prejudice. The responses range from fear and outrage to laughter and ridicule, and finally to the alarming realization that we are set on a path towards wide systemic prejudice ironically initiated by its victim, Turing.
I found out about the TNM the other day while reading the latest issue of the always excellent Neural magazine. I immediately contacted Mushon Zer-Aviv to get more information about the work:
Hi Mushon! What has the machine learnt so far? Are patterns emerging of what people find 'normal? such as an individual who smiles or one who is dressed in a conservative way? What is the model of normality at this stage?
TNM ran first as a pilot version in The Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem as a part of the 'Other Lives' exhibition curated by Maayan Sheleff. Jerusalem is a perfect environment for this experiment as it is a divided city with multiple ethnical, cultural and religious groups practically hating each other's guts. The external characteristics of these communities are quite distinguishable as well, from dress code to tone of skin and color of hair. While the Turing Normalizing Machine has not arrived at a single canonical model of normality yet (and possibly never will) some patterns have definitely emerged and are already worth discussing. For example, the bewilderment of a religious Jewish woman trying to choose the most normal out of 4 Palestinian children.
The machine does not construct a model of normality per-se. To better explain how the prejudice algorithm works, consider the Google Page-Rank algorithm. When a participant chooses one of the random 4 profiles presented before them as 'most normal', that profile moves up the normalcy rank while the others are moved down. At the same time, if a profile is considered especially normal, it would make the choice made by its owner more influential on the rank than others, and vice versa.
We are currently working on the second phase of the experiment that analyzes and visualizes the network graph generated by the data collected in the first installment. We're actually looking to collaborate with others on that part of the work.
Usually society doesn't get to decide what is good or even normal for society. The decision often comes from 'the top'. If ever such algorithm to determine normality was ever applied, could we trust people to help decide who looks normal or who isn't?
While I agree that top-down role models influence the image of what's considered normal or abnormal, it is the wider society who absorbs, approves and propagates these ideas. Whether we like it or not, such algorithms are already used and are integrated into our daily lives. It happens when Twitter's algorithms suggests who we should follow, when Amazon's algorithms offers what we should consume, when OkCupid's algorithms tells us who we should date, and when Facebook's algorithms feeds us what it believes we would 'like'.
This experiment is inspired by the life and work of British mathematician Alan Turing, a WW2 hero, the father of computer science and the pioneering thinker behind the quest for Artificial Intelligence. Specifically we were interested in Turing's tragic life story, with his open homosexuality leading to his prosecution, castration, depression and death. Some, studying Turing's legacy, see his attraction to AI and his attempts to challenge the concept of intelligence, awareness and humanness, as partly influenced by his frustration with the systematic prejudice that marked him 'abnormal'. Through the Turing Normalizing Machine we argue that the technologies Turing was hoping would one day free us from the darker and irrational parts of our humanity are today often used to amplify it.
The video of the work explains that "the results of the research can be applied to a wide range of fields and applications." Could you give some examples of that? In politics for example (i'm asking about politics because the video illustrated the idea with images of Silvio Berlusconi)?
Berlusconi is a symbol of the unholy union between media and politics and it embodies the disconnect between what people know about their leaders (corruption, scandals, lies...) and what people see in their leaders (identification, pride, nationalism, populism...). A machine could never decipher Berlusconi's success with the Italian voter, it needs to learn what Italians see in him to get a better picture of the political reality.
Another obvious example is security, and especially the controversial practice of racial profiling. My brother used to work for EL AL airport security and was instructed to screen passengers by external characteristics as cues for normalcy or abnormalcy. Here again we already see technology stepping in to amplify our prejudice based decision making processes. Simply Google 'Project Hostile Intent' And you'll see that scientific research into algorithmic prejudice is already underway and has been for quite some time.
How does the system work?
The participant is presented with 4 video portraits and is requested to point at the one who looks the most normal of the 4. Meanwhile, a camera identifies the pointing gesture, records the participant's portrait, and analyzes the video (using face recognition algorithms among other technologies). The video portrait is then added to the database and is presented to the next participant to be selected as normal or not. The database saves the videos, the selections and other analytical metadata to develop its algorithmic model of social normalcy.
Any upcoming show or presentation of the TNM?
There are some in the pipeline, but none that I can share at this point. We are definitely looking forward to more opportunities to install and present TNM, as in every community it brings up different discussions about physical appearance, social normalcy and otherness. Beyond that, we want the system to challenge its model of prejudice based on its encounter with different communities with different social values, biases and norms. Otherwise, it would be ignorant, and we wouldn't want that now, do we?
A few weeks ago, Sight and Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc in Montreal, ran a workshop titled Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization. Headed by someone who presents himself (or herself) as Arthur Heist, the description of the workshop suggested an internet driven by secrecy.
This workshop explored the use of natural language processing tools to analyze the goods, products and services available on online black markets, trying to reveal a faithful cartography of the dark web.
The workshop will begin with an introduction of the tools involved in accessing the Internet's black markets (Tor bundle, Bitcoins). Participants will then process these webpages to extract information from natural language to draw a map of hidden services. These tools allow the user to go from simple word frequency analysis (i.e. cloud tags) to more complex semantic comparison and statistical relationships between those networks. The goal is to be able to visualize this data in order to get a better understanding of the inner, deep feelings society keeps hidden.
I knew about the stateless, encrypted online Bitcoin currency of course, i had heard of the Tor software that enables online anonymity but other than that, i felt that there was precious little i knew about the Deep Web, the vast submersed side of the World Wide Web that countless people are using in perfect anonymity every day to buy goods that neither ebay nor amazon will ever sell you and to exchange services that won't appear when you do a google search.
The more i looked into Tor and the many activities it enabled, the more intrigued i was. I thought that the easiest and fastest way to get a better understanding of the issue would be to interview Arthur Heist:
HI Arthur! How much can one discover about this underground economy ?
It is quite easy to find out about any good or hidden service available on the dark web. One just needs to know the first entry point that keeps track of these peculiar services.
Do you have to be a seasoned hacker, a super smart programmer or can any web user make interesting enough discoveries ?
The first pit stop is to go to the Tor project website and install the Tor browser for your operating system. Once installed, you can launch Tor browser and access any website anonymously. So, no need to be either a hacker or programmer to begin browsing the hidden web. A popular place where a lot hidden services are listed is "The Hidden Wiki". From there, you can even find search engines that specifically target onion websites (those with an cabalistic URL).
And how did you find about it in the first place ?
As a user, I had been using Tor for a few years to enhance my anonymity online. I like the fact that it allows you to bypass some restrictions applied unfairly by companies who want to protects their assets. In a way, Tor gives us back the net neutrality some companies or governments want to put at risk. Concerning the dark web more specifically, this whole economy emerged more recently as a result of the emergence of bitcoin currency approximately 4 years ago. Even though I did not get interested in bitcoin specifically, I was more fascinated by the whole range of services and activities made available by these new technologies.
From a general point of view, I have never thought that the internet was much different or more dangerous than what we can experience in the real world. Let's say you are going to Toronto for the first time and you want to buy some crack cocaïne, where do you go? Who do you get in contact with? In the same manner, if you want to find illegal services on the web, it takes the same effort to know about them.
The general public has been fed what commercial companies want them to know. They have their minds locked in a narrow place for them to consume more easily, in the same way they'd go to Starbucks instead of the local coffee shop because it's not advertised on the same scale.
Were the participants like me, attracted by the description of the workshop but totally unaware of what it entailed? Or did they come prepared and knowing what they would be looking for ?
The nice thing about the participants was that they represented in their interests the whole range of topics discussed during the workshop. Some were more interested in the political issues involved, some more in the use of natural language tools. Most of them had already installed Tor on their computers.
How exactly does this online black market reflect the traditional offline black market ?
As stated above, there are no major differences between what you can find through online or offline black markets. And as a matter of fact, in the offline black market, anonymity is also the rule, going from changing your real name to wearing disguises so as not to be recognized. The main added value that the online black market allows for is the possibility to connect dealers and customers that would not have met otherwise in real life, which is also the main characteristic of online services in general too.
Does it allow for other types of transactions, activities, exchanges of goods and services?
Of course, anonymity brings a wide range of activities that you would not be able to find if it weren't anonymous. Among things you can find through hidden services are the scary contract killers who offer to kill someone, whose prices are set depending on the popularity of the person to kill. A funnier website called Tor University offers you to write any assignment or essay you need to get better grades. Another website offers to set up pranks to your friends; for example, by breaking into their house with a fully equipped SWAT team ...
I read that law enforcement agencies were struggling to deal with online black market. Why is it even more difficult to grasp and fight than, say, traditional drug traffic?
Because of the inner nature or how Tor works, by encrypting the communications being sent, all along the way through each relay (except for the last one), it is not easily possible to track down one specific user or website. Nevertheless, one famous hack was made possible on the Tor network by setting up a few Tor routers, which all relay a lot of information. Most of it is encrypted, but when the router is chosen (by the algorithm itself) to act as the last relay, then the data being transited is sent in the clear. So, if you set up your own relay, you are able to log all data transiting on your node, and thus retrieve information people have not encrypted before sending it through the Tor network. Tor network offers anonymity, not confidentiality! I read there also were some rumors that US governmental agencies may possibly run fake drug websites, so as to be able to get an alarm when some user was buying a too large amount of drugs for it to be his personal consumption.
Can the dark web (the way it operates, protects itself, etc.) teach innocent users of the internet (like me) anything ?
Blatantly, recent news about the US Prism program shows us again that giving up your personal data into the hands of big internet companies is like leaving your luggage in your hotel lobby: how trustworthy is it, you can never be sure it won't be stolen or searched by anyone. And what the Tor network (and as an extension, bitcoins) achieves is the possibility to give us back the power to build the internet as it should, free and open. Of course, mass media like to make us think the use of these tools is evil and unsafe, whereas it is indeed the safest thing to do.
What did the participants achieve during the workshop ?
The workshop was more about awareness, discussion and showing how these various tools work and how to use them in your own practice.
Also part of Sight and Sound, a Montreal festival which, this year, explored the rhizomatic and permeating structures of society's concealed systems: The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.
The title of the show is pretty self-explanatory. Because, yes! The drones are indeed getting closer. Nowadays UAVs aren't just shooting at terror suspects and innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, they also have civilians uses such as monitoring orangutans and other endangered species or helping farmers check the condition of their crops which is obviously valuable and exciting. But drones are also enrolled to increase control and surveillance over our heads: the German railway network is deploying them to combat graffiti-spraying 'gangs' and a European commission document suggests that, in the coming years, drones could be used in crisis management, law enforcement, border control and firefighting. Human right activists are calling for "greater clarity and transparency about when and how these tools are deployed." Eric King of Privacy International also told The Guardian that "the secretive way in which surveillance drones have been put into operation, and the failure of the police to recognise and address the human rights issues involved, has created a huge potential for abuse."
The exhibition addressed these issues with projects that range from the chillingly premonitory Bit Plane by Bureau of Inverse Technology (1997) to Young's most recent research projects. One of them is TELEWAR, a book and video made in collaboration with The Force Of Freedom (the book is available for free in PDF and it makes for a very informative reading about the uses and impacts of new warfare technologies.)
As part of the TELEWAR project, the group of artists were also showing military patches used on drone programmes. You can get some for cheapo on ebay and if you really are into creepy military patches, i can't recommend enough Trevor Paglen's collection of Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World (more in I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me.)
But let's get back to business because the reason why i wanted to interview Dave Young is that a couple of weeks ago he headed the workshop Movable Borders - The Reposition Matrix at the Furtherfield gallery.
Participants were invited to contribute to Movable Borders, Young's ongoing research project that investigates shifts in the permeability of territorial and political boundaries and the role that technology plays in the 'reterritorialisation' of the borderline.
The workshop focused on the use of cybernetic military systems such as remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces protocological kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Together, participants were challenged to collaborate on developing a cartography of control: a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies.
Since i only had a brief chat with Dave Young at the opening of the Furtherfield show, i decided to ask him a few more questions via email:
Hi Dave! The Reposition Matrix aims to create an "open-access database that geopolitically situates the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies." First of all, i'm curious about the source of the information that you collect through this project. Where do you find it? I guess some of it must be hard to come by? Concealed? supposed to remain out of reach of the public?
The fascinating thing about this project, for me at least, is how one public thread of information begins an almost overwhelming process of unraveling. A mention of a drone crash in a very public news source leads to the military crash report subsequently released under an open government initiative, which then mentions an external non-military public company involved in the piloting of the drone that day, who publishes some information about their involvement in military operations in their annual reports, and so on. The information is perhaps not deliberately concealed as such, but is hidden in the mass of documentation, hyperlinks, and search terms provided on governmental and corporate websites. Past participants have often expressed their surprise at what is deliberately revealed by companies - on their social media profiles, for example. These companies are often proud of their contributions to national defense efforts, and occasionally can be perhaps a little over-generous in the information they volunteer online. In the context of a single Facebook post, a corporate image can seem innocuous, but when cross-referenced with the correct secondary source, you can begin to reveal something otherwise concealed.
And how is the open-access database going to be kept alive? How and who updates it? Where can we read it?
The database is being compiled and added to by me personally at the moment, but I am developing a collaborative framework for use in the workshops which I will test out over the next few weeks. The database will be made available over the Summer (date to be announced!), and will form the basis for future workshops.
Another thing i've been wondering about is the way that you handle the data you find. Most of it i guess is obviously genuine information but how about the data coming from conspiracy theorists, or from people who have an interest at spreading as much dis-information as possible, etc? Is this something you consider?
This is an interesting question, and often leads to a good discussion in the workshops about how to filter sources. Participants have to debate what is important, and what can be considered trustworthy - or indeed if a fabricated theory can indeed be an important part of the map.
Most of the information participants work with is released 'genuinely' - as I said above, through official channels by public companies or governmental open data programmes, although it is important to place these too within the context of an agenda. The trustworthiness of the information we work with is always up for debate, and can be divisive amongst the participants, but in general, what tends to happen is we treat each thread of information as part of a wider network. Curiosities discovered during the workshop will corroborate or conflict with each other. This is where the world map becomes a useful interface for physically aggregating the found information, as participants can immediately begin to see a formalisation of their research, and can ask questions of it as it develops.
The drones and the US kill list seem to be far away from the kind of culture and preoccupations we have in Europe... Or are they? How much impact does the Disposition Matrix (a database that United States officials describe as a "next-generation capture/kill list." ) and drone program have in Europe? Why should it matter to us?
I think for the participants of the workshop it quickly becomes apparent that the production and military use of drones is truly a global issue. Washington quickly has links to London, Berlin, The Hague, Seoul, UAE, Turkey - the list goes on (and on...) What we can see emerging at the moment are the formation of alliances, power blocs that collectively invest in drones and share them and the information they collect as a trans-national resource. It is interesting to attempt to unpack this and examine how such alliances function as a network of power and control.
As for the disposition matrix, the use of an algorithm or protocol to compile a capture/kill list is really something worth having an open and frank discussion about. To me it really speaks of a wider societal shift which I find problematic, specifically these processes of monitoring and individuating populations. Indeed a well-treaded debate with many unresolved fundamental issues, but despite this, it can only be said that it is becoming increasingly embedded in governmental thinking.
Also, it is important to explore how and where these technologies function - while it is unknown for now how much impact the disposition matrix has in Europe, similar protocols are becoming increasingly pervasive here, particularly in countries such as the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, France, to name but a few. They may not be applied to such direct efforts as targeted killing, but they do appear to operate in welfare systems, immigration control, predictive policing, among others.
You recently organized a workshop at Furtherfield in London. Participants were invited to investigate drones and the Disposition Matrix. Can you describe briefly what happened? What the participants managed to achieve?
The workshop opened with a discussion framed around a few specific questions I wanted to put to the participants, as I was keen to encourage a critique of some of the conventional ideas regarding the use of drones that appear regularly in news reports. The participants were very open, willing to engage and question each other which was fantastic. Their backgrounds were quite diverse too, with a mix of artists, academics, social scientists, etc, and the ensuing discussion really reflected this. Following that, the participants formed small groups and began to work together on the world map. Each group worked with their own base document, researching its contents and trying to visualise its geopolitics through this process of mapping.
So, one example is a group who began looking at Wikileaks cables detailing US fears that Iran was using 'proxies' to get components required to build their own drone and evade trade embargoes. They began to draw the trading networks Iran had allegedly built up onto the map, criss-crossing West Asia, North Africa, Europe, and Japan.
What is interesting is where different groups collided on the map - important nodes in the network predictably appear in Washington and the FATA regions of Pakistan. Often some surprising locations pop up too, usually reflective of the backgrounds of the workshop participants as they try to investigate any connections between the drone war and their own politics and places of origin.
I'm also fascinated by the description of Google Boundaries, "a series of images taken by the Google Streetview car as it encounters border checkpoints. The project is an investigation into the geopolitical systems that influence Google's streetview product, re-situating its task of mapping the streets of the world as being an invasive, territorial act." Could you explain what you meant by that? And how you came to investigate border checkpoints through the eyes of the Google Streetview car?
The Google Street View car has famously made the debates about privacy and digital rights visible - people who in the past felt perhaps unthreatened by Google's data-harvesting all of a sudden saw it as an invasive act. They could suddenly see their own houses - perhaps even themselves outside, in all their vulnerability. I became more interested in this idea of Street View as a colonialisation while researching The Reposition Matrix. When you zoom out as much as possible with Google Maps, you can see the territories that have Street View - a strange hierarchical geography revealed by a blue overlay on the map. Recently, Iran have announced they will release their own "Islamic" version of Google Earth as they see Google's services as a threat to their national security, so there are strong territorial politics at play here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/10/iran-plans-islamic-google-earth
I know this is still a work in progress but what have you discovered so far?
I started by trying to "road-trip" across the US-Mexico border control using Streetview. You can't pass through them like you often can in Europe - frequently the Street View car seems to get as close as possible to the border then turn back at the last moment. It is interesting to examine historically contested borders - the Israel 1949 Armistice Borderline shows a border control officer looking straight at the Street View car, gun hanging from his shoulder.
Examining the border crossings begins to illustrate the materiality of Google's task, and the beuraucratic issues operating in the background. Despite Google's omnipresence in the cloud, the Street View car is often caged in by boundary politics. They are regularly adding new Street View data to the map, so I'll be curious to investigate how this changes over time.
Any upcoming projects, areas of investigation or exhibition you want to share with us?
There are some more Reposition Matrix workshops coming up over the following months - Dublin as part of the Glitch Festival on the 15th June, another one at V2 on July 6th, Share conference in Croatia 18-20 July. People are of course very welcome to get in contact and come along to the workshops if they'll be in the right place at the right time! More information available on http://movableborders.com.
There are some more projects that are part of the Movable Borders series, following on with these investigations of alternative territorialisations and geographies. One of them requires some research into the history of cocktails and mixology, which I am particularly excited about...
More images of the workshop at Furtherfield.
I closed my report of the exhibition The Air Itself is One Vast Library on the promise that i'd come back to my last visit to Brighton with a few words about the crime scene-style outline of a drone that James Bridle painted on the city seafront.
Under the Shadow of the Drone, commissioned by The Lighthouse, is a one-to-one representation of one of the military drones piloted remotely to strike targets in distant areas of the world. The aerial attacks they conduct leave hundreds of people dead, many of them innocent civilians.
The controversy surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles has been recently intensified in the UK with the news that pilots at Waddington (Lincolnshire) are now working in relay with the military in the US to remotely operate American Reaper drones in Afghanistan.
For Bridle, what matters is not so much the drone in itself but the 'black box' side of contemporary warfare technology. "I have a political interest in drones as well, but beyond that, they stand for all aspects of these invisible technologies that have a great effect on the world but are kind of largely hidden from view," he told the Creatorsproject.
We might read about drones, get horrified by the way they monitor, gather intelligence, destroy and kill but we still cannot fully understand them, simply because we don't see them properly, even people who are directly affected by them hardly ever get a chance to see UAVs. Under the Shadow of the Drone suddenly brings drones into our daily life.
I had intended to write down the notes i took during a talk that James Bridle gave last month in Brussels for The Digital Now series of events but The Lighthouse has recently uploaded on youtube a similar talk that the designer gave to the Brighton audience. I highly recommend it. It is both entertaining and chilling. Bridle explains in detail his research into drones and more generally his investigation into the way we perceive and understand technology. He analyzes how the most reproduced 'photo' of a Reaper drone is actually a photoshopped image that first emerged in a forum for 3D modeling hobbyists, he discusses the Disposition Matrix and the escalating assassination program which tracks and kills suspects militant terrorists in other part of the world, etc. He also illustrates his research by explaining briefly some of his own projects such as Dronestagram: A Drone's Eye View which collects images of locations of drone attacks along with a description of the carnage they incur and A Quiet Disposition, a software system that is constantly scanning the web for news reports on Disposition Matrix and drones and finding links between them.
This much shorter video brings the spotlight on Under the Shadow of the Drone:
Under the Shadow of the Drone remains on view on the Brighton seafront, five minutes' walk east from the Brighton Wheel (do stop by The Lighthouse, they'll hand you a map with the location of the shadow) until May 26, 2013. The work was produced by Lighthouse and Brighton Festival.
While looking through the programme of the ongoing Sight and Sound Festival, i found out about The Pirate Cinema, an installation that makes use of a data interception software of the same name to reveal in real time the hidden activity and the geography of peer-to-peer file sharing but also the aesthetic dimension of P2P architectures.
The video installation relies on an automated system that downloads continually the most popular torrents. The intercepted data is immediately projected onto a screen before being discarded.
The flows appearing on the screens constitute a sort of 'surveillance' of the peers as fragments of the files that they are exchanging can be visualized during the transmission or the reception. The remote users are, unknowingly, composing an endless collage determined by what they chose to download.
Nicolas Maigret, THE PIRATE CINEMA, 2013
Hi Nicolas! The description of the work says "In the context of omnipresent telecommunications surveillance, "The Pirate Cinema" makes visible the invisible activity and geography of the peer to peer sharing network." Could you explain with more details?
The geographical aspect of the project is key in activating the imagination, but also in developing a critical view of consumption areas by file. A text indicating both the geographical origin of the peer who issued this fragment, and the geographical destination of the peer who received it is overlaid on each video excerpt.
When the system focuses on a single file, we obtain a kind of portrait of the file through its geographic distribution. We could almost speak of following the geographical spreading of "cultural" products. Or in the case of a TV series like "Homeland", we could speak of following the diffusion of ideological propaganda.
For an exhibition like this one, which is based on the most traded torrents, the vision is voluntarily an ultra-reducing one, it is a form of "greatest common denominator" of media on a world scale. We can, in some ways, navigate through what is consumed at a particular moment.
Are images appearing randomly? How does the system work?
This version monitors exchanges of The Pirate Bay's top 100. Each computer selects a few torrents from this list and monitors them for a minute, before switching to new file.
To present the project clearly, I often talk about the context, the imaginary and the functioning of the P2P architecture.
In the '80s, VHS brought cinema into the living room. Today, P2P and Internet bring it into personal computers and mobile phones. Through these modes of distribution, a wide-ranging reflection opens up about the media, the medium and what it specifically vehicles.
The P2P sharing protocol is based on the fragmentation of the files in small samples, it is an exchange unit. This fragmentation loosens the exchanges to different recipients. A file can then be recomposed sample by sample until it is complete, from snippets emanating from separate users and in a disorderly manner.
From a cinematic perspective this preliminary fragmentation of the media is also a fragmentation of the film material and of the narration. These "broadcasting mechanics" come with specific formal opportunities: mashup cinema, random editing, weaving together different films frame by frame, glitches and merging of different fragments.
This installation suggests a way to perceive the digital filmic medium as a stream, or rather as streams distributed on a global scale. In other words, The Pirate Cinema intends to re-explore films through the logic of cables, which is unique to each connection and location.
Since you're French, i can't help asking you about the French legislation, they have the reputation of being pretty intolerant towards P2P culture...
In France since 2004, the year of the first conviction for illegal download, P2P has been systematically associated with piracy. Many legal devices were then invented (such as Hadopi and Loppsi), that led to a massive criminalization of internet users, a legitimation of the monitoring processes carried out by some states (DPI), and the setting up by providers of systems to filter and block access to Internet.
I've just opened a twitter account to aggregate the news related to this issue.
Is this something that you and Brendan Howell (who is from the U.S. if i'm correct) kept in mind while working on the project?
We saw it as a kind of game. Ever since the beginning of the project, we anticipated the operating modes of the system so that we could be presentable regardless of the different ongoing pieces of legislation. For example, an encrypted connection to Sweden (Ipredator / the Pirate Bay) is used to anonymize each machine used in the project. Fragments of the files are encoded and remain on our machine only temporarily.
Didn't you fear that you might get into trouble?
We thought about it, we were particularly concerned about the exhibition spaces, but the legal aspects are very schizophrenic. It is obvious that the peer-to-peer structures have positive cultural impacts and also often positive social ones. The same questions were asked with the arrival of photocopiers, audio cassettes, VHS, etc.. The main stumbling blocks remain the obsolete structures of film and music production.
Several studies have demonstrated that the biggest downloaders are also among those who spend the most on culture (cinema, concerts, dvd, etc.), the company that produces the torrent download software Vuze is also boasting similar survey conclusions.
Teachers will find on torrents content for their classes that their local libraries can't provide. Recently, a list of the files downloaded by employees FBI leaked online.
With the hyper connected generation, a change is taking place and this change is obviously not just a technological one. In this regard, Michel Bauwens and the P2P Foundation study and communicate the alternatives in this field. They also explore transformative potential of P2P on the social, political, economic, cultural, educational levels. This is a pretty serious ideological trend that could take a growing part in the current debates.
The relationship to property and copyright has long been null and void. The past 15 years however (from Napster to EMule, Limewire or Mega) have blown up this contradiction in the digital domain. The right to exchange, share, re-appropriate or pool have become a space for a real prospective research. Russian artist Dimitry Kleiner has recently worked on a license, the Copyfarleft, that attempts to circumvent some limitations of the creative commons licenses and other copyleft approaches.
Is the work also a comment on the way p2p exchanges are vilified by the cinema industry?
Yes, the legal aspect is obviously closely linked to the film industry and to blockbusters. The Pirate Bays' top 100 reflects the issue quite accurately.
These past few years, download has even influenced the film industry and the production choices of big studios. In addition to blockbusters in 3D, they now design films made specifically to be seen inside cinema theaters and during films events. And these lose some of their appeal when they are viewed on Laptop / Home theater.
The Pirate Cinema goes beyond copyright, though. It is at the crossroads of many territories (social, legal, political, aesthetic), it leaves room for many versions and sequels to come.
Did anything surprise you about the images displayed on the screen? For example, do the same faces of famous actors in blockbuster movies keep appearing on the screen?
When you look at the installation over a long period of time, you start to notice many things about many things about the mass media distributed on P2P:
- For example, one can clearly identify the formal leveling between all the TV series (framing, casting, expressions, etc.)
- The aesthetic similarity between porn and video clips (explicit content) is also quite striking.
- At times, you can also see multiple versions of the same films, screeners captured in cinema theatres using different material and framing.
Is Sight and Sound the first place where you're showing The Pirate Cinema?
I started toying with the idea in early 2012 without knowing whether or not it would be fully realizable. We developed a first proof of concept during the Summer of 2012 with Labomedia in Orléans by modifying an existing Torrent client software. Around the same period Julian Oliver introduced me to Brendan Howell and we started experimenting with the concept. Brendan has gradually developed a specific "python" program. It took us almost a year to finalize a functional and stable version. I presented the work in workshops and conferences in the meantime, but Sight and Sound is the first to exhibit the project as an installation. We are currently working on a second version of The Pirate Cinema which will take the form of a live performance.
You can see The Pirate CInema during the fifth edition of Sight & Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc. Sight & Sound has kicked off a few days ago, it remains open until 29 May in Montreal, Canada.